Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience - Arthur Janov, Ph.D., pp. 309, New York: Coward, McCann, 1983

Reviewed by Arnold Buchheimer, Ph.D

Imprints by Arthur Janov (1983) is another landmark book in the primal series begun by Arthur Janov in the last fifteen years. Its subtitle is "The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience." It is just that, a description of these birth effects on the life of many people who had both the courage and stamina to pursue and explore their own births in primal therapy, and who possessed the lyricism to report their therapeutic experiences in their journals so that Arthur Janov could use these writings as amplification of his own text.

Imprints is a well written and well conceived (pardon the pun) book which should be required reading for anyone who is interested in the birth process.

His basic thesis is the following:

The imprinting of early Pains into the infant's developing nervous system accomplishes two things: first it sets up a lifelong pool of residual tensions, and second, it directs and shapes behavior in particular ways. (p. 48)

He then goes on to illustrate these assumptions from a neurophysiological frame of reference by inventing (linguistically speaking) two prototypes-a sympath and parasympath. He then proposes the thesis that "the healthy person maintains the proper balance between the two states" (p. 51): the sympathetic and parasympa- thetic nervous systems. Neat, but simplistic, and very conservative adherence to the law of homeostasis. This formulation nearly eliminates any consideration of psychodynamic factors. He asserts a "biologic basis" for personality formation throughout the book, but he also amply illustrates throughout the psychodynamic factors with his case illustrations.

The initial theoretical chapters are followed by discussions of the "Birth Trauma." The reader will remember that that concept was originally given to the field by Otto Rank. Janov gives short shrift to Rank by pointing out that Rank spoke largely of the trauma that the neonate experiences in the passage between the world inside the womb and the world outside the womb. Actually the clinical experiences cited by the author throughout the book illustrate the originality and soundness of Rank's theoretical formulation. This is not to de-emphasize the prenatal conditions in utero. Janov and certainly these present pages of Aesthema document the prenatal as well as the perinatal aspects of the birth trauma.

After elaborating the theory of the birth trauma,. Janov goes on to talk of catastropic elements and implications of the birth trauma. He exemplifies and illuminates his concept with case illustrations and makes a strong case for the gains that can be made through the type of therapy that gives a person the opportunity to explore aspects of his/her birth.

The book is full of case histories, protocols of therapeutic sessions, clinical illustrations; all of them are interesting; and provide a rich and colorful canvas as background to illustrate Janov's point of view. For example, protocols of therapeutic sessions are parsed carefully, such as this male homosexual's self-report accompanied by this running commentary:

         Early discovery of a difference
         Discovery of deviation
         Death of father
         Acting it out
         First long term homosexual relationship
         The hopeless paradox
         Childhood trauma
         First birth feelings
         Overwhelming birth need to suck
         Recreating the birth pressure
         Family dynamics
         Childhood reinforcements
         Relationship with parents
         Father's suicide initiates homosexual acting out
         Resolution [the beginning of heterosexuality]
         Homosexuality as a way to survive (pp. 102-106)

He then proceeds with a discussion of the relationship of adult sexuality to birth trauma and other intense trauma such as incest and the death of a loved one.

There is a chart of page 176 which contains idiomatic expressions which may give an indication to the therapist that the patient may be describing birth events, i.e.: "I'm stuck," "You are pushing me too far," "I'm always sucking up to people." Janov correctly emphasizes here the tendency of patients to describe pathological events in physical terms and goes on to suggest that the patients may be talking about their births when they use idiomatic expressions or metaphors like the above.

This is reminiscent of Stanislav Grof's (1975) perinatal matrices though the author does not refer to Grof's work.

Throughout the book Janov asserts his point of view that neurosis is primarily biological rather than cognitive - even though the extensive commentary in the margins of patients' reports belie this narrow point of view. One of the more eloquent passages which illustrates his recurrent thesis follows:

Ideas are anchored in an obscured primordial past. They bob to the surface like buoys, each painted differently, each with its own characteristics - yet each attached firmly to the same formulations. Our ideas don't vary much in content or drift easily into new areas because they are held fast by chemical bonds every bit as strong as the chain links of an anchor. (p. 179)

What a metaphor!

The books ends with an appendix on fetal stress. This reader is reminded here of another piece of work recently published, Thomas Verny's and John Kelly's The Secret Life ofthe Unborn Child (1981). No citation of this work is given by Janov. These two volumes are quite complementary; Janov dealing with the later life effects of what occurred within the womb or at birth while Verny and Kelly explore pre- and perinatal conditions as they seem to occur in their own time. Incidentally, Verny and his co-author are exceptionally cautious in using the term primal, presumably at the cautious publisher's instructions. They do not cite any of Janov's previous works. Although, much of Verny's work is deeply rooted in primal thinking.

Another interesting note: On page 97 in The Secret Life ... birth is described "as an event that imprints [italics mine] itself on his personality." Two years later a book entitled Imprints appears by another author. Neither Janov nor Verny acknowledge each other. Could the primal world be so isolated that these two authors have no knowledge of each other and each other's work? Can the primal world afford such singularity?

In the context of recent developments in the field of perinatal studies Janov gives Leboyer hardly any notice, although he grudgingly recognizes that his own conclusions and findings are similar to Leboyer's. And he further acknowledges that Leboyer came to his conclusions from his extensive clinical practice, while Janov and Verny came to their conclusions from observing patients extensively while they are abreacting and re-living their traumatic birth experiences.

The unanimity of conclusions of these three authors should be hailed as a landmark in developmental and clinical psychology, not to speak of gynecology and obstetrics.

Comparing Janov and Verny further, Verny documents thoroughly and extensively. Janov documents selectively. Both books are "trade books," meant for the general reader.

Any reviewer who reviews a book so long after its original publication date is naturally curious what other reviewers have said. An extensive search reveals that there has been almost no critical notice in the general press and none in the professional-scientific press of Imprints. Verny and Kelly have fared only slightly better in the Canadian press.

I am, however, happy to report that both books are still in print and have found their way into the paperback market, indicating that they have been selling well. Individuals interested in these books should be able to find them on shelves in public libraries and college libraries since both The Library Journal and Choice, a journal serving college and professional libraries, have reviewed them favorably. In Science Books and Films [ja/F 1984 cf. Book Review Digest (1984)] the following sentence written by Eric Seidnam appears about Imprints: "It is recommended for a select audience - Janovites." I couldn't disagree more! The label "Janovite" is new to me, certainly regrettable and isolating.

To return to Imprints itself: I enjoy reading and studying it. I believe it is a significant book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to familiarize him/herself with the therapeutic concepts around the birth trauma and its effects on personality and life style.

Biographical Note
Arnold Buchheimer is presently retired. He was a privately practicing psychotherapist and professor emeritus at City University of New York, Baruch College, and the Graduate Center. He received his doctorate from the Ohio State University in 1953; and had a parallel career in psychotherapy and education for over thirty-five years.


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