Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome: An Analysis by Stephen M. Maret, Ph.D. - Dissertation - Clinical Theology Association, St Mary's House, Church Westcote, Oxon, England, OX77SF, pp. 337

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"While this dissertation has not concerned itself with the
primal therapy that Lake prescribed as the 'cure' for the
M-FDS, [Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome] it is certainly
a significant component of his overall project."
- Dr. Stephen M. Maret

Two years ago University Press of America published a much smaller (224 pages) version of Dr. Maret's dissertation. It is entitled The Prenatal Person : Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome

The author has not undergone primal therapy. In response to my queries he replied: "What was intriguing about Lake initially to me was his integration of psychology and theology, which in turn led me to the Maternal-Fetal Distress syndrome. My interests in Psychology are perhaps somewhat obvious and include, prenatal psychology, religion and psychology, philosophy and psychology, and cross-cultural psychology."

Dr. Maret is working on two additional books on Frank Lake. One is tentatively titled The Schizoid Self which will attempt to summarize and clarify Lake's ideas regarding the consequences of prenatal stress vis-a-vis the M-FDS. The second book, (perhaps to be entitled, The Fetal God; Pregnant Mary and Prenatal Christ) returns to the theology/psychology mix and will take Lake's Mary/Jesus paradigm re: the prenatal relationship and again elaborate on it).

Stephen Maret was born in Somalia, the child of missionaries, and has lived and worked in Japan and on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He is presently Chairperson and Associate Professor of Psychology at Caldwell College in Caldwell, New Jersey.
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmaster, The Primal Psychotherapy Page

Although the subject of the author's dissertation is a detailed analysis of psychiatrist and theologian Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome (M-FDS), my emphasis in this review is on Lake's pre- and peri-natal theories of the origins of psychopathology and how he practiced his form of regression therapy.

Frank Lake was born in 1914 and had an untimely death from pancreatic cancer in the early eighties. Interested in religion since his youth, after obtaining his medical degree, he volunteered for work in India as a medical missionary in 1939. Upon returning to England eleven years later, he retrained as a psychiatrist.

LSD was discovered by a Swiss pharmaceutical company in 1943. In the early fifties samples were sent to various psychiatric research units. Lake enthusiastically embraced its use because he noticed that the impact of the drug helped spill the contents of the unconscious mind. He noted that the drug specifically helped to lift repressed memories of infancy. But, it was the frequent abreaction of birth trauma which he witnessed in his patients which was to guide his research for the rest of his life.

He explained:
I was assured by neurologists that the nervous system of the baby was such that it was out of the question that any memory to do with birth could be reliably recorded as fact. I relayed my incredulity to my patients, and, as always happens in such cases, they tended thereafter to suppress what I was evidently unprepared, for so-called scientific reasons, to believe. But then a number of cases emerged in which the reliving of specific birth injuries, of forceps delivery, of the cord round the neck, of the stretched brachial plexus, and various other dramatic episodes were so vivid, so unmistakable in their origin, and afterwards confirmed by the mother or other reliable informants, that my suspicion was shaken. Lake. Clinical Theology, xx, quoted in Maret, op. cit.

Soon he became convinced that the roots of neurosis was laid down at birth and during the critical first year.

Contemporarily with Frank Lake, Stanislav Grof, a Czechoslavakian psychiatrist, was researching the abreactive qualities of LSD. Both began their research in 1953 and believed that the agent opened up the patient to unconscious material which had never been available to the traditional psychoanalytic techniques.

The inauguration of group work in LSD therapy was an important advance.

Lake wrote,

Only at the very end of the period in which I was using LSD 25 in the therapy of neuroses and personality disorders, that is, at the end of the sixties, did I invite those who wanted to work at primal depth, using LSD, to come to residential conferences with spouse and friends. I soon found how greatly this group work helped the process, and wished that I had realized that earlier."

He continued,

"At the same time the value of Reichian and bio-energetic techniques broke upon us, and we discovered that deeper breathing alone was a sufficient catalyst for primal recapitulation and assimilation. Nothing more 'chemical' than that was necessary, so we stopped using LSD.

He wrote, ". . .we had no idea how this worked, as it certainly does." He soon preferred the use of deep-breathing because it did not produce material that the patient was not ready to deal with. Stopping the deep breathing usually diminished the intensity of the feeling.

His LSD research was conducted from 1954 to 1970. In the later decade he evaluated many new techniques including transactional analysis, gestalt therapy, and re-evaluation counseling. But it was Arthur Janov's primal therapy which made the most profound impact on him. Dr Lake's primal integration workshops period was from 1975 to 1982.

As more experience and understanding was gained, he concluded that the basis for all neurosis lay in the first year of life and in pre- and peri-natal events with the pre-natal period being the most important. Later he would decide that the first trimester of one's life was more important than any other period and served as the basis for his Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome theorizing. He became convinced that this period was the "real" period for the inception of psychopathology. Lake believed that examining and re-living later periods of life would not uncover the "true" and crucial origin of the "fixated pain."

He wrote: "The focus for psychopathology is now, for us, the first trimester of intrauterine life. These first three months after conception hold more ups and downs, more ecstasies and devastations that we had ever imagined."

The setting he used for his workshops had thick carpeting, dim lighting and cushions all around as well as tissues for whiping away tears and bowls in case a patient would vomit. Clothing was loose and comfortable. "Each subject working has, squatting on mats round them, a facilitator from our experienced house team, a workshop member (whose turn would come later) who had volunteered to write down all their utterances as an accurate record, and a third member tending a tape-recorder." Maret, (p. 59).

His group workshops or seminars consisted of teaching the biological and physiological facts of embryology. After getting to know one another, primal integration work would begin. The therapy was very directive and stressed a peri-natal approach.

The procedure would begin with relaxation work, sometimes by use of guided fantasy, but always with deep breathing. The "conception-to-womb" talkdown would explain sexual intercourse, conception, zygotic, then blastocystic stages of development, and then, implantation.

And breathing deeply, get an image of your mother, so much younger than when you last saw her: your mother as she is (pause) What is it to be her? Go back in her life, because in her womb, in the tubes leading into the womb, already there is an egg there, and that egg has come from her ovaries, and they've been part of her ever since before she was born, so that cell has, as it were, been part of her life with its ups and downs: her love of life and her fear of it; her trusting and her mistrusting . . .

Just be, if you can, be your mother. what's it like to be her? Are you very happy on this night with this man who's alongside you? Is he bringing you great joy in your life? Is he strong? . . . Is he going to bring you the gift of joy, of rich power to give love? Breathe deeply, and as you breathe out, be your mother expressing what you feel are her joys and sorrows at this moment." (Lake, Conception-to-Womb Talkdown, 1-2).

Become aware of your father as he is on this night in which you will be conceived. just think of him in his strength and in his weakness; in his loving and in his selfishness. What is it like to be him? What's in your mind and heart now as father, as you come towards this woman, your wife (or whoever she is), this woman you love? (ibid., 2). "Take your time, and just be aware in your own space of what it was like for you to be in the womb. . . . Breathe strongly and give yourself plenty of air to get into contact with this child at the end of the cord." Lake would then move to the middle and third trimester of pregnancy.

Roger Moss (an early co-worker) wrote:

"The responses from each subject are quite different from one another, astonishingly and beautifully unique. Frank Lake argued that It was extremely difficult to believe that suggestion by the leader was the main factor [in causing the regressions]. If that were the case, there would be far more uniformity. One person finds the experience deeply satisfying, and expresses primitive joy. Another is not so satisfied, and gives voice to a sense of longing for what should have been, yet did not happen. A third subject feels anger, and thumps and storms as it overwhelms him. And another one is terrified and shivering, then crying inconsolably.

And so the different stages of pregnancy are re-lived. Conception and implantation are not infrequently crisis times. So is the end of the first trimester, when for not a few the mother entertained the possibility of finishing the pregnancy, and even made an attempt to procure an abortion. The sense of rejection that this realization evokes can be horrific. Then, as the pregnancy proceeds, its individual accidents, illneses and traumas are transmitted to the unborn child. For many, there is relief, somes quite unexpected, in the form of ecstasy and pleasure, as the mother exults in her baby, her marriage, and the wonder of her body, her sexuality and motherhood." (ibid., 3:8-9)

Moss writes:

"As labour approaches, there is, if anything, a surge of even greater realism. Typically, the head is engaged in the pelvis; it begins to feel pressure as the powerful muscles of the womb contract against the as yet closed door of the cervix- the so-called 'no-exit' phase. Then follows the struggle to got out; and at last it is possible to take a breath and to relax. When there are complications, these may well be faithfully re-enacted. The significant first moments of contact with the mother are experienced again, though for some this event is tinged with bitter disappointment. (Moss, In the Beginning, 3:9).

Lake writes:

If the birth had been prolonged and difficult, there probably would not be sufficient energy on this occasion to go deeply into it. If comparatively easy, it would be relived and the sensations and emotions on arrival, and,the cutting of the cord, experienced and 'given a voice'. On each occasion we plan to stay with the subject until bonding with the mother has taken place. If this was badly delayed and became a dread-fill, trust-shattering experience, the session could be extended by an hour or more to permit its exploration. Or it could form the focus of a second session. (Lake, Mutual Caring, 66)

After the session, the patients were encouraged to discuss their experiences and to probe any resultant insights and also to the here-and-now. Follow-up surveys by mail were made.

"The symptomology reported included a total of 969 'problems' listed." "Of those mentioning a part of the body the most frequent were: the abdomen (29), the head (25), the limbs (20 and the back (14). Specific psychological complaints grouped as follows: the commonest was depression (113), followed by withdrawal (87). tension (82), anger and rage (82), anxiety (75), fears and phobias (38), panic feelings (33), and hypersensitivity (27). Other groupings of comparable size were problems relating to exhaustion (29), appetite (24), sex (22), and workaholism (18). . . . As far as the more serious forms of psychiatric disorder were concerned, only one actually mentioned psychosis, one other referred to hallucinations, four to suicidal ideas, but 17 stated that they experienced paranoid ideas." (Moss, In the Beginning, 6:3).

Lake believed that the fetus would be severely damaged if the mother ingested alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. Even rejection by the mother of the pregnancy would imprint on the growing fetus. This "affect flow" was the result of the mother's emotional state and influenced her child within. The fetus reacts to each invading maternal emotion. Such "umbilical affects" of joy and acceptance of the pregnancy, of her yearning, anxieties, fears and angers, are projected and taken in by the fetus and affected either positively or negatively.

Lake noticed that, in some cases, when pain became intolerable to the fetus, it no longer wished to live and began wishing for its own annihilation. This was Lake's theory of transmarginal stress as applied to peri-natal psychology. The writings and experiments of the Russian neurologist, Ivan Pavlov regarding stress, had a significant influence in the thinking of Lake as regards to birth trauma.

The discovery of the concept by Pavlov was a serendipitous event. When caged dogs in a flooded laboratory basement were rescued right before they drowned, Pavlov noticed that the animals retained overstimulated (nervous) reactions over time as well as having lost their prior conditioned behaviors.

Pavlov's concept of transmarginal stress was soon embraced by Lake as he noticed that Pavlov's theory was also applicable to some of his patients -- those patients with the most severe peri-natal traumas.

Frank Lake believed that an ideal intrauterine history is rare. Most are "normal" or "abnormal" (neurotic or psychotic). Repression in the womb causes the fetus to deny its truth. Thus, "(t)he "normal" person often hides a cryptic "wounded" person who emerges only due to some present life stressor." Maret (p. 76).

Lake writes that later in life such a "womb-distressed" person

  • "complains AS IF it remembered the bad times it had been through.
  • reacts to the world around it AS IF it were still in the bad place, still having to 'feel its keenest woe.'
  • reacts defensively AS IF the attack were still going on."
The techniques to keep the reality from consciousness are continued into adulthood. These "fixated patterns of perception" or "world views" are imposed on events which bear the same emotional content as the original intra-uterine trauma. "The only cure is to help them become aware of the cauldron within and to attempt to get in touch with its primary and early causes. This is where Lake's use of primal therapy comes in." Maret, (p. 80).

Dr. Maret lists and explains the adverse reactions which Lake believed could be evoked by an early negative intrauterine environment. They included:
  • The anxiety-depression reaction,
  • The hysterical reaction,
  • The schzoid reaction,
  • The paranoid reaction,
  • The depressive reaction, and
  • The psychosomatic reaction
In Chapter III, The Evidence For a Scientific Paradigm, the author discusses historical precedents to Lake's theories. A detailed presentation is made of embryonic, morphological as well as neurological development of the fetus.

In Chapter V, Conclusions, Lake is quoted as having written that he did not expect that memories from the first trimester stage would extend any earlier than 4 to 10 days after implantation. He was astonished, when in primal integration, participants were encouraged to become a sperm or an ovum many felt an immediate identification with such a memory.

What Dr. Lake had to say about the scientificity or replicability of peri-natal experiences should be mentioned. He believed that "(t)hese are not theories, these are facts."

In Mutual Caring he writes:

The immediate "scientific" question is, "is it replicable elsewhere?" The answer is, "Yes, so long as you don't try to cut any corners." It would be fatal to replication to omit, for instance, the deep togetherness that happens in the group, as a result of the two days of leisured introductions, in which each person has had opportunity to speak of the life-problem that brought them here, with total freedom to be emotionally honest, and then to recollect and speak of the bodily sensation patterns and specific feelings which take hold of them when the ancient affliction strikes. . . .

To say to a group of scientific workers, totally unused to having that quality of intimacy and mutual openness with the subjects of their highly "controlled" experiments, "you cannot cut this corner or you are failing to replicate the ground rules of the workshop", is to state firmly a limitation they probably would find difficult to overcome. . .

If there are serious investigators, honestly concerned to know whether these things are as we have reported, I would advise against trying to replicate this in a "scientific establishment." It simply would not be a replication of the experiment, but something totally lacking In too many respects, But there is nothing to prevent their joining, as an unpretentious member of a workshop, open to the same constraints on loose criticism, and fully ready to share themselves and grow through the basis of this, coming to a scientifically reliable validation or refutation. To be scientific in these fields requires a stringency which the "scientific method", as practiced in laboratories, has always strenuously evaded. I would guess that 'unconscious' roots to do with foetal experiences that have made *knowing-by-emotional commitment" too painful and hazardous, and "knowing-at-a-emotlonally-neutralized-distance" the only tolerable stance, have a decisive part in determining that deliberate subjective Impoverishment that calls Itself scientific but is not. (Lake, Mutual Caring, 7 - 75.)

Perhaps such evidence may never be established since the set and setting which Lake has correctly insisted upon may not be followed. A normal 'scientific' atmosphere automatically dooms the test to failure. The author recognizes that Dr Lake was very reluctant to accept the reliability of his client's experiences and at first only did so after correlating the observations with medical birth records.

As far as "primal experiences' go, almost three-fourths (71.2%; N=200) were judged to have had a valid primal experience of some sort. Further, 12.8% recounted being in touch with some deep feelings which they couldn't clearly identify as definitively "primal" in nature. Of the 200 who did report a "primal" experience of some sort, almost half (47%; N=94) stated that in subsequent sessions of primal work they uncovered further information regarding their early life. Some 89 (31.6%) participants discovered confirmation of components of their primal experience when checking with their parents or relatives regarding the facts of their prenatal and antenatal life.-- Maret (p. 232)

Stephen Maret believes, that based on evidence which he examines in his dissertation, one may give a qualified 'yes' to the possibility of the development of a fetal distress syndrome in the subsequent two trimesters of gestation. But in regard to its development during the first trimester (which is an essential part of Lake's theory) he believes that the ground on which Lake trod is less plausible.

For example, Lake believed that homosexual patterns begin during the first trimester of gestation. In Tight Corners in Pastoral Counseling, he wrote:

Insofar as we are now looking confidently at the first trimester for the origins of schizoid affliction, it is the same first trimester that we will look to discover the origins of homosexuality in men and possibly also in women . . .

The question arises, why, in association with feelings of intense distress and revulsion at being invaded and surrounded by so much female misery, there should also be this heartache for the intimate love of a man. The answer, given at this moment of the reliving of experience early in the womb, by a sufficient number of homosexual men. . . is that this yearning is a result of the transfusion of exactly that state of mind and emotional longing in the mother, from her to the foetus, through the feto-placental circulation. . . . It is this combination of the mother's emotional distress at their life situation plus her yearning for the intimate love of her man that are transferred into and impressed upon the foetus, early in intra-uterine life.

Dr. Maret concludes that recent evidence has confirmed some of Dr. Lake's theories regarding intra-uterine life, especially in the two later trimesters. He believes that because of the unreliability of present day more traditional theories to explain abnormal ideation and behavior there is sufficient reason to continue the search for pre-natal influences.

Highly recommended reading.

In 1986 I attended in Detroit, one of Dr. Graham Farrant's experiential workshops on "cellular consciousness" which was very similar to the ones described in Dr. Maret's dissertation.

Australian psychiatrist Farrant stressed that the fertilized zygote is aware and remembers conception. He said that we tend to be born the way we were conceived, and die the way we were born, unless we get therapy in between. His own primal regressions led him to discover that he had survived an attempted abortion. He checked with his mother and found that she indeed had attempted to abort him. She was quite surprised that he knew, since she had told no one.

Graham believed that if a child is conceived in love it will have a mother who is motivated to breast-feed, which will aid bonding and make for a happier, healthier child. As did Lake, he also emphasized that one should not smoke when pregnant. Neither alcohol nor drugs should be used. He suggests that couples resolve birth and conception conflicts before they decide to have a child. Listen to baroque classical music and talk to your child in utero, he suggested.

It is common, Dr. Farrant noted, that people initially come to regression therapy for physical and mental problems but who end up concerned more about spiritual matters. Those concerns develop, he said, at the deepest levels of regression, when transpersonal feelings of cosmic bliss and of a oneness with the universe are often felt. Such experiences often happen in the journey of the newly fertilized egg down the tube.

He believed that the only true source of genuine resilient healing is unconditional love. But people can't give what they did not get, and when such love is lacking in the environment of the uterus, Farrant believed that they cannot give love to their children. He always challenged parents and health professionals to resolve their own pre-conception, conception and birth issues so as not to inflict the same traumas on their own children being born.

*    *    *    *

I never did re-live my own conception or implantation at the workshop, but some primal therapists who attended did so and went on to incorporate Graham's theories and techniques into their own primal practices. -
John A. Speyrer, Editor, The Primal Psychotherapy Page.

For more information about Dr. Farrant read: