Beating Fantasies and Daydreams
Anna Freud

In his paper 'A Child Is Being Beaten' Freud (1919) deals with a fantasy which, according to him, is met with in a surprising number of persons who seek analytic treatment on account of a hysteria or an obsessional neurosis. He thinks it very probable that it occurs even more often in other persons who have not been forced by a manifest illness to come to this decision. This "beating fantasy" is invariably invested with a high degree of pleasure and is discharged in an act of pleasurable autoerotic gratification. I shall take for granted that you are familiar with the content of Freud's paper -- the description of the fantasy, the reconstruction of the phases which preceded it, and its derivation from the oedipus complex. In the course of my paper I shall frequently return to it.

In this paper Freud says: "In two of my four female cases an elaborate superstructure of daydreams, which was of great significance for the life of the person concerned, had grown up over the masochistic beating fantasy. The function of this superstructure was to make possible a feeling of satisfied excitation, even though the masturbatory act was abstained from"(p. 190). I have been able to find one daydream, among a large variety of them, which seemed especially well suited to illustrate this brief remark. This daydream was formed by a girl of about fifteen, whose fantasy life, in spite of its abundance, had never come into conflict with reality. The origin, evolution, and termination of this daydream could be established with certainty, and its derivation from dependence on a beating fantasy of long standing were proved in a rather thoroughgoing analysis.


I shall now trace the development of the fantasy life of this daydreamer. In her fifth or sixth year -- the exact date could not be established, but it was certainly before she entered school -- this girl formed a beating fantasy of the type described by Freud. In the beginning its content was quite monotonous: "A boy is being beaten by a grownup. "Somewhat later it changed to: "Many boys are being beaten by many grownups." The identity of the boys as well as that of the grownups, however, remained unknown, as did in almost all instances the misdeed for which the castigation was administered. We can assume that the various scenes were quite vivid in the child's imagination, but her references to them during the analysis were quite scanty and vague. Each one of the scenes she fantasied, frequently only very briefly, was accompanied by strong sexual excitement and terminated in a masturbatory act.

The sense of guilt which in the case of this girl, too, immediately became attached to this fantasy is explained by Freud in the following way. He says that this version of the beating fantasy is not the original one, but is the substitute in consciousness for an earlier unconscious phase in which the persons who have now become unrecognizable and indifferent were very well known and important: the boy who is being beaten is the child who produced the fantasy; the adult who beats, the child's own father. Yet even this phase is, according to Freud, not the primary one; it was preceded by an earlier phase which belongs to the period of the greatest activity of the oedipus complex and which by means of regression and repression was transformed into the version appearing in the second phase. In the first phase the person who beats also was the father; however, the child who was being beaten was not the fantasying child but other children, brothers or sisters, i.e., rivals for the father's love. In this first phase, therefore, the child claimed all the love for himself and left all the punishment and castigation to the others. With the repression of the oedipal strivings and the dawning sense of guilt, the punishment is subsequently turned back on the child himself. At the same time, however, as a consequence of regression from the genital to the pregenital anal-sadistic organization, the beating situation could still be used as an expression of a love situation. This is the reason for the formation of a second version which because of its all-too-significant content must remain unconscious and be replaced in consciousness by a third version that is more appropriate to the requirements of repression. This is how the third version or phase becomes the carrier of excitement and guilt; for the hidden meaning of this strange fantasy can still be expressed with the words: "Father loves only me."

In the case of our daydreamer the sense of guilt that arose in the wake of her repressed strivings for her father was at first attached less to the content of the fantasy itself -- though the latter too was disapproved of from the beginning -- than to the autoerotic gratification which regularly occurred at its termination. For a number of years, therefore, the little girl made ever-renewed but ever-failing attempts to separate the one from the other, i.e., to retain the fantasy as a source of pleasure and, at the same time, to give up the sexual gratification which could not be reconciled with the demands of her ego. During this period the fantasy itself was subjected to a great variety of alterations and elaborations. In the attempt to enjoy the permissible pleasure as long as possible and to put off the forbidden conclusion indefinitely, she added all sorts of accessory details that in themselves were quite indifferent but copiously described. The child invented complicated organizations and complete institutions, schools, and reformatories in which the beating scenes were to take place, and established definite rules and regulations which determined the conditions of gaining pleasure. At that time the persons administering the beatings were invariably teachers; only later and in exceptional cases the fathers of the boys were added -- as spectators mostly. But even in these detailed elaborations of the fantasy, the acting figures remained schematic, all determining characteristics such as names, individual faces, and personal history being denied to them.

I certainly do not want to imply that such a postponement of the pleasurable scene, the prolongation and continuation of the entire fantasy, is always the expression of guilt feelings, a result of the attempt to separate the fantasy from the masturbatory activity. The same mechanism is used in fantasies which are not shaped by feelings of guilt. In such fantasies this mechanism simply serves the function of heightening the tension and thereby also the anticipated end pleasure.

Let us look at the further vicissitudes of the little girl's beating fantasy. With increasing age there occurred a strengthening of all the tendencies subserving the ego, in which the moral demands of the environment were now incorporated. As a result it became increasingly difficult for the fantasy in which the child's entire sexual life was concentrated to assert itself. She gave up her invariably unsuccessful attempts to separate the beating fantasy from the autoerotic gratification; the prohibition spread and now extended also to the content of the fantasy. Each break-through which now could occur only after a prolonged struggle in which strong forces opposed the temptation was followed by violent self-reproaches, pangs of conscience, and temporary depressed moods. The pleasure derived from the fantasy was more and more confined to a single pleasurable moment which seemed to be embedded in unpleasure that occurred before and after it. As the beating fantasy no longer served its function of providing pleasure, it occurred less and less frequently in the course of time.


At about the same time-probably between her eighth and tenth year (the exact age again could not be ascertained)-the girl initiated a new kind of fantasy activity which she herself called "nice stories" in contrast to the ugly beating fantasy. These "nice stories" seemed at first sight at least to depict nothing but pleasant, cheery scenes that all exemplify instances of kind, considerate, arid affectionate behavior. All the figures in these nice stories had names, individual faces, external appearances that were detailed with great exactness, and personal histories which frequently reached far back into their fantasied past. The family circumstances of these figures, their friendships and acquaintances, and their relationship to each other were precisely specified and all incidents in their daily life were fashioned as true to reality as possible. The setting of the story readily changed with every change in the life of the daydreamer, just as she frequently incorporated bits and pieces of events she had read about. The conclusion of each rounded out episode was regularly accompanied by a strong feeling of happiness unclouded by any trace of guilt; certainly, there no longer was any autoerotic activity connected with it. This type of fantasy activity could therefore take over an ever-increasing part of the child's life. Here we encounter what Freud stressed in his paper: the artistic superstructure of daydreams which are of great significance for the person who forms them. In what follows I shall attempt to demonstrate the extent to which we are justified in regarding these daydreams as a superstructure built on a masochistic beating fantasy.

The daydreamer herself was quite unaware of any connection between the nice stories and the beating fantasy, and at that time would most certainly and without any hesitation have denied it. To her the beating fantasy represented everything that was ugly, reprehensible, and forbidden, while the nice stories were the expression of everything that brought beauty and happiness. A connection between the two simply could not exist; in fact, it was inconceivable that a figure playing a part in a nice story could even appear in the beating scene.

The two were kept apart so carefully that each occurrence of the beating fantasy-which on occasion did break through -- had to be punished by a temporary renunciation of the nice stories.

I mentioned earlier that during the analysis the girl gave only the most cursory account of the beating fantasy -- usually made with every indication of shame and resistance and in the form of brief, obscure allusions on the basis of which the analyst laboriously had to reconstruct the true picture. In contrast to this reticence, she was only too eager, once the initial difficulties had been overcome, to talk vividly and at length about the various fantasied episodes of her nice stories. In fact, one gained the impression that she never tired of talking and that in doing so she experienced a similar or even greater pleasure than in the daydreaming. In those circumstances it was not difficult to obtain a very clear picture of all the figures and the range of situation. It turned out that the girl had formed not one but a whole series of stories which deserve to be called "continued stories" in view of the constancy of the acting figures and the entire general setting. Among these continued stories one stood out as the most important: it contained the largest number of figures, persisted through the longest period of years, and underwent various transformations. Moreover, from it other stories branched off, which -- as in legends and mythology -- were elaborated into innumerable almost independent tales. Alongside the main story there existed various minor, more or less important stories which were used in turn but all of which were fashioned according to the same pattern. To gain insight into the structure of such a daydream I have selected as an example the briefest of the nice stories winch because of its clarity and completeness is best suited to the purposes of this communication.

In her fourteenth or fifteenth year, after having formed a number of continued daydreams which she maintained side by side, the girl accidentally came upon a boy’s storybook; it contained among others a short story set in the Middle Ages. She read through it once or twice with lively interest; when she had finished, she returned the book to its owner and did not see it again. Her imagination, however, was immediately captured by the various figures arid their external circumstances which were described in the book. Taking possession of them, she further spun out the tale, just as if it had been her own spontaneous fantasy product, and henceforth accorded this daydream a not insignificant place in the series of her nice stories.

In spite of several attempts that were made during the analysis, it was not possible to establish even approximately the content of the story she had read. The original story had been so cut up into separate pieces, drained of their content, and overlaid by new fantasy material that it was impossible to distinguish between the borrowed and the spontaneously produced elements. All we can do therefore -- and that was also what the analyst had to do -- is to drop this distinction, which in any event has no practical significance, and deal with the entire content of the fantasied episodes regardless of their sources.

The material she used in this story was as follows: A medieval knight has been engaged in a long feud with a number of nobles who are in league against him. In the course of a battle a fifteen-year-old noble youth (i.e., the age of the daydreamer) is captured by the knight's henchmen. He is taken to the knight's castle where he is held prisoner for a longtime. Finally, he is released.

Instead of spinning out and continuing the tale (as in a novel published in installments), the girl made use of the plot as a sort of outer frame for her daydream. Into this frame she inserted a variety of minor and major episodes, each a completed tale that was entirely independent of the others, and formed exactly like a real novel, containing an introduction, the development of a plot which leads to heightened tension and ultimately to a climax. In this she did not feel bound to workout a logical sequence of events. Depending on her mood she could revert to an earlier or later-occurring phase of the tale, or interpose a new situation between two already completed and contemporaneous scenes-until finally the frame of her stories was in danger of being shattered by the abundance of scenes and situations accommodated within it.

In this daydream, which was the simplest of them all, there were only two figures that were really important; all the others can be disregarded as incidental and subordinate by-players. One of these main figures is the noble youth whom the daydreamer has endowed with all possible good and attractive characteristics; the other one is the knight of the castle who is depicted as sinister and violent. The opposition between the two is further intensified by the addition of several incidents from their past family histories-so that the whole setting is one of apparently irreconcilable antagonism between one who is strong and mighty and another who is weak and in the power of the former.

A great introductory scene describes their first meeting during which the knight threatens to put the prisoner on the rack to force him to betray his secrets. The youth’s conviction of his helplessness is thereby confirmed and his dread of the knight awakened. These two elements are the basis of all subsequent situations. For example, the knight in fact threatens the youth and makes ready to torture him, but at the last moment the knight desists. He nearly kills the youth through the long imprisonment, but just before it is too late the knight has him nursed back to health. As soon as the prisoner has recovered the knight threatens him again, but faced by the youth's fortitude the knight spares him again. And every time the knight is just about to inflict great harm, he grants the youth one favor after another.

Or let us take another example from a later phase of the story. The prisoner has strayed beyond the limits of his confine and meets the knight, but the latter does not as expected punish the youth with renewed imprisonment. Another time the knight surprises the youth in the very act of transgressing a specific prohibition, but lie himself spares the youth the public humiliation which was to be the punishment for this crime. The knight imposes all sorts of deprivations and the prisoner then doubly savors the delights of what is granted again.

All this takes place in vividly animated and dramatically moving scenes. In each the daydreamer experiences the full excitement of the threatened youth's anxiety and fortitude. At the moment when the wrath and rage of the torturer are transformed into pity and benevolence-that is to say, at the climax of each scene-the excitement resolves itself into a feeling of happiness.

The enactment of these scenes in her imagination and the formation of ever new, but very similar scenes usually required a few days, at most some two weeks. The systematic elaboration and development of the single daydream elements usually succeed best at the beginning of each such phase of fantasying. At that time she already made extensive use of the possibility of disregarding the implications and consequences of each situation. As was previously mentioned, she could completely ignore what had happened before or after an incident. As a consequence she was each time fully convinced of the dangers threatening the prisoner and truly believed in the eventual unhappy ending of the scene. We thus see that the events leading to the climax --the preparation for it -- were given ample scope. But if the fantasying persisted over a prolonged period of time, memory fragments of happy endings apparently were dragged along from scene to scene, contrary to the daydreamer's intentions. Then the anxiety and concern for the prisoner were described without real conviction, and the forgiving-loving mood of the climax, instead of being confined to a single brief moment of pleasure, began to spread until it finally also took over all that had previously served the purposes of introduction and development of the plot. But when this happened, the story no longer served its function and had now to be replaced (at least for several weeks) by another which after some time met with the same fate. The only exception was the main great daydream which by far outlasted all the minor insignificant stories. This was probably due to the great wealth of characters appearing in it as well as to its manifold ramifications. Nor is it unlikely that its broad design was carried through for the very purpose of ensuring it a longer life every time it emerged.

If we look at the various separate knight-youth daydreams as a continuous and connected series, we are surprised by their monotony, though the daydreamer herself never noticed it either in the course of fantasying or in talking about them in her analysis. Yet she was otherwise by no means an unintelligent girl and was in fact quite critical and exacting in the choice of her reading material. But the various scenes of the knight tale, divested of their accessory details which at first glance seemed to give them a vivid and individualized appearance, are in each case constructed on the same scaffold: antagonism between a strong and a weak person; a misdeed -- mostly unintentional -- on the part of the weak one which puts him at the other's mercy; the latter's menacing attitude which justifies the gravest apprehensions; a slowly mounting anxiety, often depicted by exquisitely appropriate means, until the tension becomes almost unendurable; and finally, as the pleasurable climax, the solution of the conflict, the pardoning of the sinner, reconciliation, and, for a moment, complete harmony between the former antagonists. Every one of the individual scenes of the other so-called "nice stories" had, with only a few variations, the same structure.

But this structure also contains the important analogy between the nice stories and the beating fantasy which our daydreamer did not suspect. In the beating fantasy, too, the protagonists are strong and weak persons who in their clearest delineation oppose each other as adults and children. There, too, it is regularly a matter of a misdeed, even though the latter is left as indefinite as the acting figures. There, too, we find a period of mounting fear and tension. The decisive difference between the two rests in their solution, which in the fantasy is brought about by beating, and in the daydream by forgiveness and reconciliation.

When in the analysis the girl's attention was drawn to these surprising similarities in structure, she could no longer reject the dawning awareness of a connection between these two, externally so different fantasy products. Once she had accepted the probability of their relatedness she immediately was struck by a series of other connections between them.

But despite the acknowledgment of their similar structure, the content of the beating fantasy seemed to have nothing in common with the nice stories. The assertion that their content differed, however, could not really be maintained. Closer observation showed that at various places the nice stories contained more or less clear traces of the old beating theme attempting to break through. The best example of this can be found in the knight daydream with which we already are familiar: the torture that is threatened, though not carried out, constitutes the background of a great number of scenes lending them a distinct coloring of anxiety. This threatened torture, however, is reminiscent of her old beating scene, the execution of which remains forbidden in her nice stories Other forms of beating breaking through into her daydream can be found. not in this particular tale of the knight, but in other daydreams of this girl.

The following example is taken from the great main story, as far as it was revealed in the analysis. In many scenes the role of the passive, weak person (the youth in the tale of the knight) is enacted by two figures. Though both have the same antecedents, one is punished and the other pardoned. In this instance the punishment scene was neither pleasurably nor unpleasurably accentuated; it simply formed a backdrop to the love scene, their contrast serving to heighten the pleasure.

In another variation of the daydream, the passive person is made to recall all the past punishments he suffered while he is actually being treated affectionately. Here, too, the contrast serves to heighten the pleasurable accent.

In a third version, the active, strongperson recalls, just as lie is overcome by the conciliatory mood associated with the climax, a past act of punishment or beating which he, having committed the same crime, endured.

The four versions just described illustrate ways in which the beating theme can encroach upon the main theme of a daydream. But it also may be worked out in such a way that it constitutes the most essential theme of a daydream. One of the prerequisites for this is the omission of an element that is indispensable in the beating fantasy, namely, the humiliation in being beaten. Thus the great main story of this girl contained several particularly impressive scenes which culminated in the descriptions of an act of beating or punishment, the former being described unintentional, the latter as self-punishment.

Each of these examples of the beating theme erupting into the nice stories was furnished by the daydreamer herself, and each could be used as a further proof for the assertion that the two were related. But the most convincing evidence for their relatedness came later in the analysis in the form of a confession. The girl admitted that on some rare occasions a direct reversal of the nice stories into the beating fantasy had taken place. During difficult periods, i.e., at times of increased external demands or diminished internal capabilities, the nice stories no longer succeeded in fulfilling their task. And then it had frequently happened that at the conclusion and climax of a fantasied beautiful scene the pleasurable and pleasing love scene was suddenly replaced by the old beating situation together with the sexual gratification associated with it, which then led to a full discharge of the accumulated excitement. But such incidents were quickly forgotten, excluded from memory, and consequently treated as though they had never happened.

Our investigation of the relationship between beating fantasy and nice stories has so far established three important links: (1) a striking similarity in the construction of the individual stories; (2) a certain parallelism in their content; and (3) the possibility of a direct reversal of one into the other. The essential difference between the two lies in the fact that the nice stories admit the occurrence of unexpected affectionate scenes precisely at the point where the beating fantasy depicts the act of chastisement.

With these points in mind, I return to Freud's reconstruction of the history of the beating fantasy. As already mentioned, Freud says that the form in which we know the beating fantasy is not the original one, but is a substitute for an incestuous love scene that distorted by repression and regression to the anal-sadistic phase finds expression as a beating scene. This point of view suggests an explanation of the difference between beating fantasy and daydream: what appears to be an advance from beating fantasy to nice story is nothing but a return to an earlier phase. Being manifestly removed from the beating scene, the nice stories regain the latent meaning of the beating fantasy: the love situation hidden in it.

But this assertion still lacks an important link. We have learned that the climax of her beating fantasy is inseparably associated with the urge to obtain sexual gratification and her subsequently appearing feelings of guilt. In contrast, the climax of the nice stories is free of both. At first glance this seems to be inexplicable since we know that both sexual gratification and sense of guilt derive from the repressed love fantasy which is disguised in the beating fantasy but represented in the nice stories.

The problem resolves itself when we take into consideration that the nice stories also do not give expression to the repressed love fantasy without changing it. In this incestuous wish fantasy stemming from early childhood all the sexual drives were concentrated on a first love object, the father. The repression of the oedipus complex forced the child to reconcile most of his infantile sexual aims. The early "sensual” aims were relegated to the unconscious. That they reemerge in the beating fantasy indicates a partial failure of the attempted repression.

While the beating fantasy thus represents a return of the repressed, the nice stories on the other hand represent its sublimation. In the beating fantasy the direct sexual drives are satisfied, whereas in the nice stories the aim-inhibited drives, as Freud calls them, find gratification. Just as in the development of a child's relations to his parents, the originally undivided current of love becomes separated into repressed sensual strivings (here expressed in the beating fantasy) and into a sublimated affectionate tie (represented by the nice stories).

The two fantasy products can now be compared in terms of the following scheme: the function of the beating fantasy is the disguised representation of a never-changing sensual love situation which it expresses in the language of the anal-sadistic organization as an act of beating. The function of the nice stories, on the other hand, is the representation of the various tender and affectionate stirrings. Its theme, however, is as monotonous as that of the beating fantasy. It consists in bringing about a friendship between a strong and a weak person, an adult and a boy, or, as many daydreams express it, between a superior and an inferior being.

The sublimation of sensual love into tender friendship is of course greatly facilitated by the fact that already in the early stages of the beating fantasy the girl abandoned the difference of the sexes and is invariably represented as a boy.


It was the object of this paper to examine the nature of the relationship between beating fantasies and daydreams which coexisted side by side. As far as possible their mutual dependence could be established. In what follows I shall use the opportunity provided by this case to follow the further development and fate of one of these continued daydreams.

Several years after the story of the knight first emerged, the girl put it in writing. She produced an absorbing short story which covers the period of the youth’s imprisonment. It began with the prisoner's torture and ended with his refusal to escape. One suspects that his voluntary choice to remain at the castle is motivated by positive feelings for the knight. All events are depicted as having occurred in the past, the story being presented in the frame of a conversation between the knight and the prisoner's father.

While the written story thus retained the theme of the daydream, the method of its elaboration was changed. In the daydream the friendship between the strong and the weak characters had to be established over and over again in every single scene, while in the written story its development extends over the entire period of the action. In the course of this transformation the individual scenes of the daydream were lost; while some of the situational material that they contained returned in the written story, the individual climaxes were not replaced by a single great climax at the end of the written tale. Its aim -- harmonious union between the former antagonists --is only anticipated but not really described. As a result, the interest, which in the daydream was concentrated on specific highpoints, is in the written version divided equally among all situations and protagonists.

This change of structure corresponds to a change in the mechanism of obtaining pleasure. In the daydream each new addition or repetition of a separate scene afforded anew opportunity for pleasurable instinctual gratification. In the written story, however, the direct pleasure gain is abandoned. While the actual writing was done in a state of happy excitement, similar to the state of daydreaming, her finished story itself does not elicit any such excitement. A reading of it does not lend itself to obtaining daydreamlike pleasures. In this respect it had no more effect on its author than the reading of any comparable story written by another person would have had.

These findings suggest a close connection between the two important differences between the daydream and the written story -- the abandonment of the individual scenes and the renunciation of the daydreamlike pleasure gain at specific climaxes. The written story must have been motivated by different factors and serve other functions than the daydream. Otherwise the story of the knight would simply have become something unusable in its transformation from fantasy to written story.

When the girl was asked what had induced her to write down the story, she herself could give only one reason of which she was aware. She believed that she had turned to writing at a time when the daydream of the knight was especially obtrusive -- that is to say, as a defense against excessive preoccupation with it. She had sought to create a kind of independent existence for the protagonists that had become all too vivid, in her hope that they then would no longer dominate her fantasy life. The daydream of the knight was in fact finished, as far as she was concerned, after it had been written down.

But this account of her motivation still leaves many things unexplained: the very situations that owing to their over vividness are supposed to have impelled her to write down the story are not included in it, whereas others that were not part of the daydream (e.g., the actual torturing)are dwelt on extensively. The same is true with regard to the protagonists: the written story omits several figures whose individual characterization was fully executed in the daydream and instead introduces entirely new ones, such as the prisoner's father.

A second motivation for writing the story can be derived from Bernfeld's observations (1924) of the creative attempts of adolescents. He remarks that the motive of writing down daydreams is not to be found in the daydream itself, but is extrinsic to it. He maintains that such creative endeavors are prompted by certain ambitious tendencies originating in the ego; for example, the adolescent's wish to influence others by poetry, or to gain the respect and love of others by these means. If we apply this theory to the girl's story of the knight, the development from the daydream to the written story may have been as follows:

In the service of such ambitious strivings as have just been mentioned, the private fantasy is turned into a communication addressed to others. In the course of this transformation regard for the personal needs of the daydreamer is replaced by regard for the prospective reader. The pleasure derived directly from the content of the story can be dispensed with, because the process of writing by satisfying the ambitious strivings indirectly produces pleasure in the author. This renunciation of the direct pleasure gain, however, also obviates the need to accord special treatment to certain parts of the story -- the climax of the daydreams -- which were especially suited to the purpose of obtaining pleasure. Likewise, the written story (as the inclusion of the torture scene demonstrates) can discard the restrictions imposed on the daydream in which the realization of situations stemming from the beating fantasy had been proscribed.

The written story treats all parts of the content of the daydream as equally objective material, the selection being guided solely by regard for their suitability for representation. For the better she succeeds in the presentation of her material, the greater will be the effect on others and therefore also her own indirect pleasure gain. By renouncing her private pleasure in favor of making an impression on others, the author has accomplished an important developmental step: the transformation of an autistic into a social activity. We could say: she has found the road that leads from her fantasy life back to reality.