Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience
by Arthur Janov
Reviewed by Arnold Buchheimer, Ph.D
New York: Coward, McCann, 1983
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
First birth feelings
Overwhelming birth need to suck
Recreating the birth pressure
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
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
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
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.
This article is from the January 1987 issue of Aesthema, "Birth: Etiological, Developmental, Therapeutic Perspectives" published by The International Primal Association.
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