The Fictive Personality Revisited

A couple of posts ago I mentioned a paper about grief reactions in response to the death of Princess Diana. The online archive of this journal (Psychiatric Bulletin) only goes back to 2000, so here’s a summary from my paper copy:

[Update: the full paper is now online here].

The fictive personality revisited
Psychiatric admission as a consequence of Princess Diana’s death
Jill Chaloner

Chaloner presents the case of a 45 year old woman with no previous
psychiatric history, who presented with symptoms of suicidal ideation and
depression which she attributed solely to the effect on her of Princess
Diana’s death. It became clear during her stay that she had significant
marital, financial and childcare problems, but she remained preoccupied with
the subject of Princess Diana, and was unwilling to discuss her own life.
Over the course of three admissions the ward team offered specific pieces of
support with her practical problems, and her symptoms changed to chest pain,
then resolved.

Chaloner notes that the patient expressed herself in the language of
bereavement, even though she knew the lost person only through the mass
media. It was evident that she was failing to influence or deal with the
behaviour of those closest to her.

Chaloner suggests that, instead of reflecting on her own life, the patient
was projecting aspects of herself into external phenomena – in Kleinian
terms projectively identifying with Diana’s situation, splitting good
(Diana) and bad (the Queen) – thus denying the adverse events in her own
life. After Diana’s death she strove for complete identification with the
good object in death rather than taking back the projected good and bad
parts into herself. The practical help provided reduced the badness of the
bad things, allowing the patient to abandon her projection, taking the
problem back inside herself (initially by somatising).

Chaloner cites Martin (1984) who described the “fictive personality” in
which “the self strives towards total identification with characters in
literary, historical or mass media fiction”, and described clinical
examples of people whose “own ego appears impoverished or absent”, to the
extent that they can only keep going by identifying with “available fictions
that fill up their empty selves and allow them to seem real”. Also mentioned
is Winicott’s concept of the transitional object, Chaloner suggesting that
images from the mass media may become transitional objects for adults.

Chaloner quotes James (1998) who points out that in modern life, the balance
between real and represented people in our lives is weighted very much in
favour of the latter. Media representations are often idealised, putting
people in a position of enforced subordination, generating depression. This
process generates low self esteem, increasing the pressure towards
projective identification with fictionalised, idealised, personalities.

Chaloner’s finishes by wondering if, “since projective processes are
continuously and actively encouraged by the nature and content of the mass
media, it may be that fictive personality disturbance has now become a
social norm which goes largely unremarked”.

Chaloner, J. (1999) The fictive personality revisited. Psychiatric Bulletin,
23, 559-561.

Martin, J. (1984) Clinical contributions to the theory of the fictive
personality. Annals of Psychoanalysis 1984-85, vols 12-13, 267-300. Beverly
Hills CA: South California Psychoanalytic Institute.

James, O. (1998) Britain on the Couch, 42-127. London: Arrow Books.

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