Duke University Press

The maid is the repressed of the mistress of the house.

—Hélène Cixous

February 1933. In the course of a dispute over housework in a small town in France, the maids Christine and Léa Papin brutally murdered Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin, their employer and her daughter. The sisters tore out their victims’ eyes with their bare hands, methodically sliced the Lancelins’ thighs with kitchen knives, and then returned to their attic bedroom to undress and await the police. An air of mystery hung over the scene of the crime in what has come to be called “the Papin affair”: with the victims its only witnesses and the sisters reticent at their trial, the court officials and medical experts whose testimony convicted them were hard-pressed to construct a plausible account of the murders.

The trial of the “maids of Le Mans” established little about the reasons for the Papin sisters’ wrath or about the nature of their presumed psychosis; instead, as Christopher Lane argues, the trial and the resulting flurry of literary, journalistic, and psychoanalytic discussion signaled a “crisis of meaning” that “stymied accepted definitions of sanity, femininity, rebellion, and delirium.” 1 The Papin affair thus becomes important as a discursive event that can be interrogated in the service of understanding the impasses faced by the social, juridical, and intellectual institutions through which it is represented. I would like to focus on the way in which it played out, and continues to play out, as a “crisis of meaning” about sexuality and the bourgeois family.

My interest in the “murderers of Le Mans” dates from my initial encounter with a recent representation of the Papin affair, Nancy Meckler’s 1994 film, Sister My Sister. Openly figuring the maids’ relationship as lesbian and contrasting it with the repressed ties between the mother-daughter pair who employ them, the film thematizes both lesbian incest and class relations. Its strategy of juxtaposition [End Page 331] suggests the extent to which the sisters’ crime may have been not only that of murdering their employers but also that of violating taboos on lesbianism and incest. Indeed, the “crisis of meaning” brought about in the first half of this century by the murders more often than not articulated itself through a frantic discourse speculating on the sisters’ sexuality and positions as maids in the Lancelin household: two of the most sensational journalistic themes concerned the possibility of a lesbian relationship between them and of class rebellion as a motive for their crime. 2 Sister My Sister provides one perspective from which to view these early responses: its reading of the structuration of the incest taboo in bourgeois domestic life offers us both a lens through which to view and a tool with which to critique earlier representations of the murders.

Yet because my reading of the case—like previous readings of it—can only be what Jacques Derrida calls an “anachronistic projection” of contemporary obsessions, my purpose is neither to adjudicate the truth of the sisters’ sexual orientation nor to speculate on their actual motives. 3 Instead, I use Meckler’s film to read the way in which several attempts to understand the Papin affair may have been structured through the blind spots produced by cultural prohibitions on lesbianism and incest. While the film can no more claim to reveal the Papins’ motives than could earlier representations of the murders, it nonetheless enables a consideration of the class assumptions with which early assessments of the sisters were fraught. The film suggests not so much a previously inaccessible truth as a fresh understanding of the discursive, and therefore the social, conditions that obtained in the sisters’ milieu.

In using Sister My Sister to discuss the double taboo on lesbianism and incest, as well as its imbrication in class assumptions, I focus on two early discursive constructions of the Papin affair: the trial and “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” Jacques Lacan’s attempt to explain the logic of the murders. 4 Whereas the court’s interrogation of the sisters was driven by the possibility of an incest it could not bring them to speak, Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations presupposed their incestuous desire, rendering it pathological. Moreover, both the trial and Lacan’s article, published within a few months of the crime, gave scant consideration to the possibility of abusive dynamics in the Lancelin household. Sister My Sister, on the other hand, provides a reading both of the sisters’ psychological ties to one another and of their bond with their employers. It thus encourages a reexamination of the Papin affair that simultaneously accounts for the psychological and the social. Furthermore, reading Lacan’s article through Sister My Sister brings to the surface a discourse, embedded in “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” that conjures up class oppression only to ignore it by giving exclusive play to an abstract and unsituated notion of the psychic. [End Page 332]

There was nothing else between us.

—Christine Papin

The trial of Christine and Léa Papin, in whom a psychiatric examination had uncovered “no mental or physical anomalies of a nature that would attenuate the degree of their responsibility” for the murders, is noteworthy for its obsession with their sexuality. 5 Presumably, a confession of lesbianism would have been the equivalent of testimony to the sisters’ insanity and consequently to their lack of responsibility for the crime: their interrogator, the président, prefaced his questions on the subject with the explanation that his task was to find not only evidence of their culpability but also information “that could work in [their] favor.” Characterizing lesbianism as a factor that could only exonerate them, he encouraged Christine and Léa to give the response “that [they] judge[d] useful”—and thus presented them with the opportunity to lie with impunity. This bizarre suspension of the necessity of telling the truth—by an agent of the court whose professed duty was to elicit “the entire truth” concerning the crime—was a symptom of the massive anxiety about sister-sister incest that structured discourse surrounding the “murderers of Le Mans.”

The miscarriage of justice that would have resulted if the sisters had falsely avowed an incestuous relationship, either to gain their freedom or to win clemency by way of an insanity defense, does not seem to have bothered the président. His presentation of the question of truth as a matter of “utility” further signaled unspoken laws about confessing to the act of incest. The accused were at an impasse, forced to decide which punishment would be worse: the imprisonment that would result from an admission of responsibility for the murders, or the social and juridical condemnation—and very likely the psychiatric internment—that would follow the disclosure of “abnormal” sexual relations. 6

Because Christine and Léa were given carte blanche to lie to the court, the very format of the interrogation provided them with a discursive context in which to avoid the question of their sexuality. They were presented with a lengthy description of the court’s suspicions of their lesbianism but then were asked whether their ties to one another were solely those proper to sisters. The président began his questioning of Christine as to her relationship with Léa by citing evidence of their apparent closeness and then asserting that “it is my obligation . . . to ask you if this affection is based uniquely on family sentiment or, perchance, on reasons of a sexual nature.” Yet he quickly changed the terms of the question, asking whether Christine was fond of Léa “simply because she was [her] sister.” The président’s statement can be taken as a negation, in the psychoanalytic sense: it [End Page 333] raises and then denies the possibility of lesbianism. Christine echoed this negation by replying that “there was nothing else between us.” Likewise, when Léa affirmed that her attachment to Christine was based “uniquely on family sentiment,” the président nonetheless asked her if there had been ties between them “of a sexual order, abnormal relations”; his question, however, was met with silence, which proved nothing.

Equivocated through this discursive structure is the possibility that the sexual and the sisterly are not separate entities: despite the pains the court took to present the question as one concerning lesbian ties between Christine and Léa, the sisters’ insistence that their affection was “familial” says nothing about whether the sisterly might have incorporated the sexual (884–89). One might conclude from the interrogation that the incest taboo, while playing a structuring role by rendering the sisters’ intimacy and shared bed suspicious, paradoxically prevented the court from reading their replies as anything but denials of lesbianism. One must not see this opportunity for equivocation as conclusive evidence that the sisters had a sexual relationship and covered it up with a sanctioned lie, for their equivocation resulted in their conviction. What should be noted, however, is that the interrogation left the issue of their sexuality indeterminate—and therefore could not link lesbianism and insanity.

Who knows what else they have been doing.

—Isabelle Danzard

Sister My Sister constructs a narrative of the domestic situation that may have provoked the murders in Le Mans. 7 The film represents the sisters’ sexuality as “conscious and passionately acted out” by showing seduction and lovemaking between them, as Teresa de Lauretis argues. It thus makes a self-conscious attempt to represent the lesbianism disavowed at the trial. 8 Quoting from transcripts of the trial, the film ends with an ominous voice-over of the président, who demands of an unnamed sister that she “speak” in response to the court’s hypotheses about her motives for committing the murders: any feelings of hatred or resentment for Madame; any “abnormal” happenings with her sibling. Asking whether “it” was “simply sisterly love” without naming a referent, the voice repeats the trial’s refusal to name the sisters’ lesbianism at the same time that the rest of the film makes it evident. During the voice-over, the film dwells on an image of the sisters in bed after the crime, silently and fearfully clinging to one another in the nude. 9 [End Page 334] Sister My Sister thus claims to speak for the silent sisters, presenting them as lesbian against the backdrop of their silent image.

Though it presupposes the sisters’ lesbianism, the film does not claim that it caused the murders. Instead, it suggests a more complex account of psychic causality by mapping out the Papins’ interactions with their strict and prudish employers, renamed the Danzards. Indeed, Sister My Sister recalls Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément’s work on the position of the household servant in Freud’s case studies. 10 Using as their example the infidelities that take place between Dora’s father and the family maid in the “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” Cixous and Clément argue that the figure of the domestic servant in Freud’s case studies “is the repressed of the mistress of the house”; she “is always on the side of eroticism,” “the hole in the social cell,” the disavowed working-class body through which the exchanges of the bourgeois family romance inevitably pass. Furthermore, she is always “eliminated” from the narrative for having transgressed class boundaries in her sexual role. 11 Similarly, the murder scene in Sister My Sister turns on Madame’s threat to dismiss the sexually transgressive Christine and Léa.

Meckler’s film interrogates the link between desire, class, and the “ego-ideal”: a “model,” derived from parental ideals, to which a person “attempts to conform.” 12 Sister My Sister diverges from the facts of the case by figuring the master of the house as already dead before the crime has been committed; it thus stages the Papin affair in a claustrophobic, almost gothic female universe. Flashbacks of Christine’s childhood memories perform quasi-psychoanalytic readings of the sisters’ dynamic. By juxtaposing the maids’ sexualized, implicitly mother-daughter relationship with their employers’ repressed interactions with each other, the film maps out a logic of doubling between mother and daughter, sister and sister, employer and employee. Moreover, by presenting the psyches of the Papins and the Danzards as inextricable one from the other, Meckler’s film raises questions about the links between sexuality, class, and the family. In contrast to the maids in Freud’s case studies, those in Sister My Sister often figure as the repressed of their employers by analogy instead of by substitution.

Unlike the real Christine and Léa Papin, who were employed as cook and chambermaid, respectively, the sisters in the film perform the same tasks. On Léa’s arrival in the household, Madame Danzard explicitly casts the sisters as doubles of each other by praising her own economy in hiring “two for only the price of one!” While they double each other in their duties, however, Christine often serves as ideal for the less experienced, less competent Léa. Isabelle Danzard is similarly [End Page 335] positioned with regard to her mother. When an impeccably mannered, identically dressed pair of women visit the Danzards, Isabelle’s clumsiness is thrown into relief: her griping and slouching offer a sharp contrast between herself and her well-postured mother and also between their asymmetry and their guests’ sameness. Later, as a birthday gift, Madame presents Isabelle with a family portrait that fixes an ideal of their image: in the photograph, clothing and grooming have been so arranged as to suggest that the two well-heeled women are identical. Far from being pleased with the image, Isabelle furiously repudiates it; nonetheless, by the night of the crime, mother and daughter will mirror each other in style and demeanor as they present a unified front to the sisters.

Looking on as Isabelle receives the photograph, Christine learns the value of the image for consolidating an idealized relationship; she notes the name of the photographer and schedules a sitting for herself and Léa. It is a pivotal moment in Christine’s ongoing attempt to assume the role of mother to her sister, a desire that the flashbacks suggest is the result of their own mother’s abandonment of Christine in favor of the younger Léa. Christine’s behavior toward the photographer is telling. When he suggests that she and Léa might be twins, she insists that she is five years older, reinforcing her position as mother figure as their image is captured. When he praises their appearance by remarking that “no one would ever know the two of you were servants” and offers them a cut rate, Christine insists on paying the full price, as a bourgeois mother would. Indeed, she has long tried to present herself as a classy alternative to their real mother by providing her sister with finely knit wool sweaters and lacy garments in lieu of “Maman’s” coarse sewing, which she scorns as “vulgar.”

As Christine appropriates bourgeois fashion, she eroticizes it: the delicate garments she gives to Léa often figure as fetishes in the sisters’ lovemaking, intensifying their desire for each other. Clothing thus serves as a vehicle for desire in the film’s sexual and class economies. Additionally, the film suggests comparisons between the sisters’ explicitly sexual relationship and the repressed, tortured one of their employers. In contrast to the tempting garments with which Christine adorns Léa, Madame’s frumpy selections for Isabelle are seemingly designed to discourage erotic posturing. Similarly, by holding out and then withdrawing the possibility of an excursion to Parisian boutiques, Madame disavows those fashions that would eroticize her daughter. Indeed, that her sartorial manipulation of Isabelle is initially less successful than Christine’s of Léa is perhaps an index of the bourgeois women’s repression of homoerotics.

Madame also suppresses overt manifestations of eroticism in herself and in Isabelle. Intruded on by her daughter while dancing, she replaces the dance record [End Page 336] with organ music and poses herself sternly in a chair. Later, catching Isabelle elatedly allowing Léa to brush her hair, Madame shames her daughter with a scowl and punishes the servant. Léa’s punishment suggests the displacement of the question of desire from the bourgeois woman onto the domestic servant: like the servants in Freud’s case studies, a maid is the seductress who opens the floodgates of bourgeois desire. 13

Indeed, the sisters and their mysterious bedroom figure in Meckler’s film much as the maids and their chambres de bonne [maids’ rooms] do in Cixous and Clément’s reading of Dora: tucked away from the rest of the household yet the locus of its sexual drives. That the Papins’ bedroom serves as an overdetermined site of the Danzards’ fascination and disavowal is especially clear during a sequence that moves back and forth between shots of the sisters making love in the chambre de bonne and shots of the Danzard women engaged in an energetic game of cards that Madame finally wins with quasi-orgasmic glee. Throughout the game, Madame alternates between aggression toward her daughter and condemnatory suspicion of her maids’ leisure activities upstairs. The sequence’s rapid, insistent juxtaposition of the Danzards and the Papins suggests that incestuous, lesbian love is a structurally inherent yet intolerable possibility within the bourgeois family—a repressed element that can emerge only through its anxious repudiation.

Ultimately, the Papin sisters are the locus of Madame’s violent disavowal in the altercation that precipitates the murders. One evening, Madame and Isabelle return home to find that there has been a power outage and that the servants have removed to their room. In the following, pivotal exchange, Madame implies that the scathing reference she would give the sisters would reveal their incestuous, lesbian relationship; however, she can or will not name what she claims to have seen:

ISABELLE. Who knows what else they have been doing.

CHRISTINE. If Madame doesn’t trust us, if she thinks . . . (Pause.) (Declarative.) We’ll leave this house.

MADAME DANZARD. Leave? And just where do you think you’ll go?

CHRISTINE. We’ll find another house.

MADAME DANZARD. Will you? Not after what I’ve seen tonight.

CHRISTINE. (Breaking in.) Madame has seen nothing.

MADAME DANZARD. Nothing? Nothing?! (Snorting.) That hair, that face. You smell of it, my dear.

CHRISTINE. Oh Madame, don’t, please.

MADAME DANZARD. Not another word out of your mouth. Breaking my iron. My house in darkness. [End Page 337]

CHRISTINE. I already told Madame it wasn’t our fault.

MADAME DANZARD. (Starting to yell.) Going to church every Sunday. Thinking you were a child of God . . .

(Léa appears, behind Christine.)

MADAME DANZARD. Just look at that sister of yours. You’ll never work with her again. (Crossing herself.) God forgive me for what I have harbored here.

This exchange exemplifies Christine and the Danzards’ paranoid dialogue with one another immediately prior to the murders. Christine has just denied Madame’s accusation that she is lying, yet Isabelle insists that “she is lying, I can tell.” Isabelle’s claim to be able to “tell,” to read dishonesty through bodily signs, is a paranoid gesture that anticipates Madame’s claim to have “seen” proof of the sisters’ guilt in Christine’s hair and odors. However, Madame refuses to name what she claims to have seen, figuring it only within the space of absence delineated by Isabelle’s “Who knows what else they have been doing.” This crossfire of unfounded suspicion and defensive response is structured by a double taboo on lesbianism and incest. The Danzards’ refusal to openly accuse the Papins of lesbianism signals the extent to which the former must disavow the homoerotic possibilities inherent in the bonds between the latter—possibilities all too pressing within the film’s logic because of the Papins’ function as the Danzards’ doubles. Yet to repudiate incestuous possibilities, the Danzards must be able to imagine them—and the horror of these imaginings drives the fatal altercation.

But Isabelle’s exclamation, “Who knows what else they have been doing,” also must be read in light of the issues raised by the Papins’ comportment in the Danzard home—a chain of meanings as slippery as Isabelle’s statement is undecidable. The sisters’ sartorial transgression of class boundaries, as much as their close ties to each other, feeds the Danzards’ suspicion of their criminality. In an earlier, telling scene, Madame emerges from her quarters in the middle of the night to count the family silver; she suspects her maids of theft as much as of sexual impropriety. Later, the Danzards’ suspicion on returning to their “house in darkness” is deepened by the mystery of the sisters’ finances, even though Madame’s unnamed accusations seem to pertain to their sexuality. It is thus the combination of the maids’ class mobility and their incestuous, lesbian love for each other that is intolerable and unnamable for Madame. Just as Dora’s family expels its servant for her sexual willingness and transgression of class boundaries, so too does Madame wish to expel the Papins for their illicit relationship. The bourgeois women’s disavowal of the homoerotic component of their own family structure animates the gesture of abjection through which they attempt to expel their servants [End Page 338] to society’s horrific outside. The Papins’ chambre de bonne, site of mystery and fascination for their employers, conceals precisely that sexual possibility that is imagined and repudiated by the Danzards. 14

In presenting a psychology of social class, Sister My Sister provides a lens through which to examine the many discourses surrounding the Papin affair. It suggests that the affair signals an important shift in bourgeois discourse about domestic help: that the chambre de bonne to which the sisters calmly returned after their frenzy suddenly became center stage in a panicked attempt to understand the murders, its very mysteriousness shrouding the reasons for the sisters’ rage. Discourse surrounding the Papin affair was haunted with the possibility that the chambre de bonne might be not only a homosexual closet but also the site of revolt against the bourgeoisie. Further haunting the seemingly separate issues of sexuality and class is an unstated element of the family itself: the structural possibility of lesbian incest. The example of Christine and Léa Papin brings that possibility into discourse in the form of an attempt to fathom the seemingly unruly psyche of an abjected, working-class other.

What significance cannot be found?


Lacan’s famous psychoanalytic interpretation of the Papin affair is an early attempt to understand the sisters’ attack on their employers. While his “Motives of Paranoid Crime” is primarily concerned with explicating the structure of the psychic disturbances he believes to have driven the sisters, it also enacts, and even extends, the class-based abjection that Sister My Sister suggests was at work in the Papin affair. Lacan’s thesis is that the maids’ actions resulted from a disturbance in family dynamics, which he problematically construes according to psychoanalysis’s bourgeois model of the Oedipus complex. 15 “Motives of Paranoid Crime” thus can be seen as an attempt to make transparent the seemingly enigmatic and threatening psyches of bourgeois society’s working-class others, whom it embodies in Christine and Léa Papin and casts as failed bourgeoises. Yet before I elaborate on the way in which Lacan’s discourse on class renders the sisters abject, I would like to provide a detailed exposition and critique of the presumptions about gender and sexuality that “Motives of Paranoid Crime” so intertwines with class.

While the trial of Christine and Léa figured lesbian desire as unspeakable, leaving the nature of their relationship an unanswerable question, Lacan builds his argument around its very possibility. Taking up certain facts released in early [End Page 339] journalistic reports—the silence between masters and servants that characterized everyday life at the Lancelins’, the mutilation of Madame and her daughter, and the detectives’ discovery of the maids clinging to each other in bed—Lacan speculates on the Papins’ motives in a 1933 issue of the surrealist journal Minotaure. Like the police, psychiatrists, and court officials who questioned the sisters, Lacan is interested in their return to bed together after the crime. And as I do, he reads their statements at the trial as neither rebutting nor affirming the suggestions of desire between them but instead as raising its possibility. Lacan uses Freud’s work on paranoia and disavowed homosexuality, along with his own doctoral thesis on a female paranoiac named Aimée, both to form a hypothesis about the sisters’ sexuality and to articulate a theory of the links between paranoid homophobic projection and violent aggression, links tacitly presupposed during the sisters’ interrogation. In contrast to the insistent divorcing of the sisterly from the sexual at the trial, Lacan asserts not only that mutual desire was present between the sisters but also that it served as the engine of their crime.

It is important to note the vagueness of Lacan’s first reference, late in his article, to the speculations that had been circulating concerning the sisters’ possible lesbianism. Having outlined a theory that links paranoid aggression to disavowed homosexuality, Lacan asks, “What significance cannot be found in the exclusive affection of the two sisters, the mystery of their life, the eccentricities of their cohabitation, and their fearful reconciliation in the same bed after the crime?” 16 Indeed, what significance could the “mystery” of the sisters’ relationship not take in the sphere of public opinion, or in that of psychoanalytic speculation? Lacan’s question recalls for us the literary theorist Paul de Man’s argument that in rhetorical questions, “the literal meaning asks for the concept . . . whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning,” resulting in “indetermination . . . a suspended uncertainty that [is] unable to choose between two modes of reading.” 17 Likewise, Lacan’s question asks to be read doubly. Literally, it demands that the reader provide evidence for his account of the Papins’ paranoia by deciphering the mysterious details of their lives as signs of their lesbianism. But figuratively, it demands that one interrogate the very tenability of their behavior as a transparent sign: the question holds out the possibility of an infinite number of interpretations that would render the sisters’ “mystery” all the more enigmatic. Lacan’s rhetorical strategy therefore figures the sisters’ sexuality as an issue just as diffuse and hence undecidable as did the trial—as a question that no one, perhaps not even the sisters themselves, could answer. [End Page 340]

“Because [s]he persecutes me!”


The bulk of Lacan’s article is devoted to an attempt to provide one such “significance,” although he hesitates to confirm journalistic speculation of “sexual relations” between the sisters. Instead, drawing on Freud’s work and his own dissertation, he suggests that the Papins’ is an “unconscious, ‘larval’” homosexuality, disavowed and disguised in their paranoid delusions. He writes that their “homosexual tendency is expressed only through a desperate negation of itself, which would ground the conviction of being persecuted and designate the loved one in the persecutor.” 18 Lacan’s thesis of the Papins’ “larval” homosexuality is presumably derived from a formula Freud uses to account for Schreber’s psychosis: “‘I do not love him—I hate him, because he persecutes me.’” Freud presents this formula as a permutation of a more general statement to which, arguably, all paranoid psychoses can be reduced: “‘I (a man) love him (a man).’” Freud thus understands paranoid delusions as displacements of an originary “homosexual wishful phantasy of loving a man.” 19

How does Freud justify the apparent privileging of homosexual desire over the other contents of paranoid delusions? Presuming that human psychosexual development proceeds from autoeroticism through narcissism to object-love, Freud contends that homosexuals stay “unusually long” in the narcissistic phase and therefore transition into object-love only when the object possesses genitals similar to their own. Thus homosexual object-choice represents a transition from primary narcissism, in which the subject takes himself as love object, to the narcissistic choice of a same-sex object. Those who eventually take persons of the opposite sex as sexual objects, freeing themselves of narcissism altogether, do so only by sublimating their “homosexual tendencies” into “social instincts, thus contributing an erotic factor to friendship and comradeship, to esprit de corps and to love of mankind in general.” Freud then claims that among apparent heterosexuals (including the married Senatspräsident) there are some who retain a “fixation” at the stage of narcissism, which threatens to erupt under the stress of “some unusually intense wave of libido” that finds “no other outlet.” In such individuals, any sociosexual frustration can provoke “regression” to the stage of narcissism, characterized by the “sexualization of their social instincts.” Because Freud finds that paranoiacs frantically defend themselves against such a (homosexual) resexualization of the “social instincts,” he locates “the weak spot in their development” somewhere “between the stages of auto-eroticism, narcissism, and homosexuality”—a relatively long stretch of time in the subject’s psychosexual narrative (61–62). [End Page 341]

Throughout the remainder of the Schreber study, Freud remains equally unclear as to the exact point of the paranoiac’s fixation. The problem becomes particularly vexed when he discusses the paranoiac’s megalomania. After he has elaborated the three formulas through which the paranoiac can negate one grammatical element of the proposition “‘I (a man) love him (a man),’” Freud proposes a formula for another kind of contradiction that “rejects the proposition as a whole”: “I do not love at all—I do not love anyone,” which serves as a screen for “I love only myself.” This formula for self-love epitomizes the paranoiac’s regression into primary narcissism, in which he takes himself as sexual object; on this trajectory, “the length of the step back from sublimated homosexuality to narcissism is a measure of the amount of regression characteristic of paranoia.” The paranoiac, then, regresses to primary narcissism from the state of sublimated homosexuality that characterizes heterosexual “normalcy.”

Interestingly enough, Freud asserts in his concluding remarks that “the majority of cases of paranoia” are marked by megalomania. He thus creates a contradiction by positing two mutually exclusive origins of paranoia: “I love him” and “I love only myself” (via “I do not love at all—I do not love anyone”). The example of Schreber illustrates the complexity of the problem: while his megalomania suggests a regression to primary narcissism (the recathexis of the self as sexual object), his delusions suggest a regression to homosexual object-choice (the return to a selfsame sexual object). Thus paranoia simultaneously signals both the subject’s defense against the libidinal recathexis of his (homo)social bonds (i.e., his fundamental refusal of the proposition “I love him”) and his regression into primary narcissism. In that Freud argues that paranoid delusions constitute a defense against homosexuality, he suggests a fixation at the point of narcissistic (qua homosexual) object-choice; in that he emphasizes the paranoiac’s megalomania, however, he suggests a fixation at the point of primary narcissism (63–72).

Always a mere prisoner of [her] narcissism.


The unresolved contradiction in Freud’s account of paranoia is glossed over by Lacan, whose early work further muddles the role of narcissism in object relations. In his discussion of the Aimée study, Lacan conflates narcissistic (homosexual) object-choice and primary narcissism. His summary of Freud’s work on Schreber equivocates on the kind of homosexuality in question: “The evolutional distance . . . [End Page 342] that separates the homosexual drive, cause of traumatic repression, from the point of narcissistic fixation, which reveals the accomplished regression, shows the measure of the gravity of the psychosis in any given case.” While Freud understands the paranoiac to have regressed from heterosexual object-choice to a resexualization of homosocial bonds, Lacan’s vague reference to “homosexual drive” threatens to efface the distinctions between manifest homosexuals and those who disavow their regression to homosexuality. Lacan’s use of the term fixation equivocates Freud’s distinction between the arrest of development at homosexual object-choice and psychotic regression to homosexual object-choice. According to Freud, a subject might be unconsciously fixated at a certain point yet still progress to the later stages of development; paranoia would result when a seemingly normal subject regressed to the point of fixation, returning to a stage he appeared to have overcome. In his discussion of Aimée, however, Lacan uses fixation to denote an arrest in development, a complete halt in the subject’s progress toward heterosexuality. 20

Such an argument plays out in exemplary fashion in Lacan’s account of the Papin sisters’ psychosexual development. He argues that an “abnormal inversion” can occur during social integration, producing “a special type of homosexual in whom social instincts and activities predominate.” However, “this integration occurs . . . according to the law of least resistance through an emotional fixation quite close to the solipsistic self, a fixation meriting the term narcissistic, wherein the object-choice is most similar to the subject: such is the reason for its homosexual character.” 21 One can see here that fixation designates an arrest at the homosexual stage of development, an inability to pass into heterosexuality. In fact, Lacan falls into the trap of claiming that paranoia results not from regression but from the arrest of development at homosexual object-choice. While his deployment of fixation is in line with common psychoanalytic usage—LaPlanche and Pontalis note that “fixation” can “be manifest and immediate or else it can be latent”—it is not consonant with Freud’s discussion of the role of specifically “latent” fixation in the paranoiac’s delusions. 22 Lacan’s argument thus conflates Freud’s two types of homosexuality by subsuming them to the fixation’s supposedly narcissistic nature, even though the interplay between narcissism and homosexuality is much more vexed for Freud.

Lacan’s explanation for the murderous drive of “paranoid criminals” depends in part on this conflation of manifest homosexuality, latent homosexuality, and narcissism. He argues that the forced renunciation of aggression demanded by psychosocial development leaves a residue, which emerges as a sadistic component of the narcissistic dialectic between the self and the self-identical love [End Page 343] object. 23 However, for Lacan, residual sadism is not specific to the homosexual; it is merely an exaggeration of a universal socialization process. 24 He holds that under certain conditions sadism engenders paranoid aggression as the subject projects onto a persecutor his or her aggression toward a sibling with whom he or she shares an uncomfortably narcissistic closeness. He claims that Aimée exhibited fraternal (sic) rivalry toward her sister when the latter became the principal caregiver of the former’s child, and that this jealousy provoked Aimée’s homosexualized regression and the resultant psychosis:

As for the historical genesis of the psychosis, our analysis . . . betrayed the core in the moral conflict of Aimée with her sister. Does not this fact take all its value in the light of the theory that determines the affective fixation of such subjects on the fraternal complex?

Thus, we are able to find typical libidinal regression in the structure itself of Aimée’s delirium. 25

Displacing her closeness to the desired sister onto an actress whose success and independence she took as her ideal, Aimée both narcissistically desired to be the ego-ideal and wished to destroy her: “Aimée struck the bright creature whom she hated just because that being represented the ideal she had of herself.” The homosexual component is subsumed to the narcissistic aggression of the psychotic through the dialectic of her “self-punishment.” In this account, paranoid projection, homosexuality, and the narcissistic dialectic are regulated by a single engine. While these phantasies constituted the subject’s attempt to break away from her narcissistic fixation, Lacan insists that she was bound to fail: “Each of the persecutors was really nothing other than a new image, always a mere prisoner of Aimée’s narcissism, of this sister whom the patient had made her ideal.” 26 Basing his discussion of the Papin sisters on his conclusions about Aimée, Lacan argues that their attack on the Lancelins proceeded from the disavowal of their desire for each other. Projecting this intolerable desire onto their employers, the Papins attempted to annihilate an unwanted representation of themselves by murdering its screen, the Lancelin “couple.”

Lacan shares with Freud a teleological view of human psychosexual development, in which the child progresses from narcissism to homosexuality to heterosexual normalcy. But if Freud attributes homosexuality to arrested development, he does not view it as inherently sociopathic. 27 Latent homosexuality, disavowed à la Schreber, is a sign of underdevelopment for Freud; however, it becomes pathological not because of its homosexual component but because of the misrecognition [End Page 344] it entails. For Lacan, on the other hand, the refusal to submit to heterosexuality always carries the risk of criminal psychosis, which threatens the subject and his or her social environment. Applying Freud’s account of homosexual “brotherly love” to Schreber’s illness, he declares that “homosexuality, sado-masochistic perversion and such” are not only symptomatic of arrested development but also “contemporaneous in their genesis” in the perniciously sadonarcissistic, paranoid personality. 28

Attempting to differentiate paranoiacs from average subjects, Lacan claims that the Papins “did not evolve beyond the first stage [the homosexual]” and suggests that “the causes of such an arrest can be of very different origins, some organic (hereditary traits), others psychological.” This seems to explain why certain subjects remain homosexual but not how others are able to leave the homosexual stage without becoming paranoid: if sadonarcissistic homosexuality and paranoid projection are “contemporaneous in their genesis,” then any such homosexuality should be inherently pathological. Inasmuch as Lacan suggests not only that most subjects pass through a homosexual phase but also that they are able to overcome it, however, that phase cannot be contemporaneous with paranoia. Otherwise the average subject, like Aimée, would be unable to cross the threshold to heterosexual normalcy, trapped in an ultimately murderous series of narcissistic projections (10–11). Lacan cannot clarify this point because the claim of contemporaneity places the subject in a Kafkaesque dilemma: if the adult is paranoid, it is because he or she has been unable to cross the threshold to heterosexuality and thus is a prisoner of narcissistic homosexuality; crossing the threshold ensures that the subject will not be paranoid, but the threshold exists only after it has been crossed. That is, if the Papin sisters had not been paranoid, they would not have been “larval” homosexuals—but if they had not remained homosexuals, they would never have been paranoid. 29

That the effect of this tautology is to associate lesbianism with sadism and psychosis is not entirely surprising, considering the assumptions of the heterosexual teleology in which Lacan argues. In his transposition of Freud’s discussion of Schreberian disavowal to Aimée, he presumes that the developmental narrative of women’s subjectivity parallels that of men’s subjectivity. Furthermore, as Elizabeth Grosz argues, psychoanalysis’s patriarchal assumptions are tautological: the foundational myth of the murder of the father “does not in fact explain patriarchy, for it already presupposes it.” 30 Because psychoanalysis figures heterosexuality in advance via its tautological, patriarchal assumptions, it is not altogether surprising that it can only theorize lesbianism as underdevelopment. [End Page 345]

Unconscious sense of guilt.


Just as Lacan’s account of the genesis of paranoid delusions is articulated within a tradition limited by phallogocentric assumptions, so too is his construing of those delusions’ violent end. Noting the apparent dissipation of paranoid criminals’ delusions of persecution at their arrest, Lacan uses Freud’s 1924 article, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” to understand the female paranoiac’s seeming satisfaction after being arrested for her murderous passage à l’acte. 31 Positing an “unconscious sense of guilt” as the source of the need of moral masochists (such as Aimée and the Papins) to receive “punishment at the hands of a parental power,” Freud insists that their illness involves a “regression from morality to the Oedipus complex” and a consequent resexualization of morality. Freud understands this regression to originate in the child’s wish for a “passive (feminine) sexual relation” to the father, disguised through the phantasy of being beaten by him. 32 Thus Freud’s argument slides from the general assertion that the moral masochist wishes to be punished by his or her parents to the specific assertion of the wish to be beaten by his or her father.

Freud’s discussion of the masochist’s wish for a feminized sexual relation to the father recalls the concept of “feminine masochism,” introduced earlier in “The Economic Problem of Masochism.” Supposedly distinct from each other, moral masochism and feminine masochism are nonetheless both drawn through a rhetoric dependent on “femininity.” Ironically, in this text Freud explicitly limits his discussion of “feminine masochism” to its manifestation in biological men: he asserts that

if one has an opportunity of studying cases in which the masochistic phantasies have been especially richly elaborated, one quickly discovers that they place the subject in a characteristically female situation; they signify, that is, being castrated, or copulated with, or giving birth to a baby. For this reason I have called this form of masochism . . . the feminine form.


However, Freud’s concept of feminine masochism is puzzling if one attempts to imagine it in a biologically female subject. The same phantasies that serve as evidence of masochism in a man would be privileged signs of normalcy in a woman; their presence in her consciousness would prove her feminine, though not necessarily masochistic, whereas their presence in a man would prove him both. The [End Page 346] distinguishing mark of feminine masochism is not so much femininity as a displacement of masculinity.

Similarly, guilt-producing moral masochism involves for Freud “a regressive distortion” of the originary wish for a “passive (feminine) sexual relation” to the father (emphasis mine). His discussion of beating phantasies invokes the conclusions of a 1919 article, “‘A Child Is Being Beaten,’” according to which such phantasies are always distortions of the wish for a (passive) sexual relation with the father, regardless of the sex of the phantasizing child and of the characters in the phantasy. Phantasies that figure the mother as the beater, for example, are understood as displacements of a more originary wish for paternal love. The mother, always representative of the father in her articulations of authority, has no role of her own; parental authority is effectively paternal authority. Thus the ideology Freud betrays in his elaboration of feminine masochism holds for his understanding of sexual and familial relations more generally. 33

That neither Aimée nor the Papins seem to have been concerned with fathers or their representatives, either in real life or in their phantasies, underlines the problems that arise when Lacan uses “The Economic Problem of Masochism” to theorize their crimes. Indeed, the known facts of both cases show a predominant concern with maternal representatives, with little or no paternal influence. “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” however, would have us see these female figures as filters through which passes a fundamental preoccupation with the phallus. In Lacan’s logic, female homosexuality is representable only through a logic of “hom(m)osexuality”: the phallogocentric specularization of desire between men. 34 Nonetheless, it remains a principal concern of his analysis of Aimée and the Papins, the nodal point of his fusion of the paranoid criminal’s sense of guilt with her delusional projections.

The human enigma of sex.


Foreshadowing his later theory that psychosis is effected through the psychotic’s foreclosure of the name of the father and refusal to concede to the signification of the phallus, Lacan represents the Papins as sexually ignorant and therefore prone to psychotic delusion. 35 In a pathos-laden passage at the end of the article, he attempts to evoke pity for the sisters’ supposed ignorance of phallic sexuality by declaring that “one must have lent an attentive ear to the strange declarations of such patients to know the follies that their shackled conscience can build upon the [End Page 347] enigma of the phallus and of female castration.” However, this claim is evidence not so much of the sisters’ sexual ignorance as of Lacan’s equivocation throughout the article on the subject of sexuality. His outline of the sisters’ personal history places their behavior within a frame of paternal authority. For example, he notes the governmental authority figures—a mayor, a “general secretary,” a “central commissioner”—who, well before the murders, had judged the sisters “cracked” and “persecuted.” 36 He then notes that “we omit still an alcoholic father, brutal, who, they say, raped one of his daughters.” But he draws the father into the picture only by effacing him, by figuring him as something that “we omit still” [on omet encore]. 37 Lacan does not name the sister raped by the father; however, the record indicates that it was the eldest sister, Emilia, not Christine or Léa. 38 Later bringing up the Papins’ abusive father as evidence of their “fixation” at the homosexual stage, Lacan claims that “infantile incest,” often a cause of arrested development, “seems not to have been absent from the sisters’ life.” 39 Here again, the possibility that the Papins were raped by their father is rendered not in positive but in negative form: incest was “not . . . absent” from their lives. Lacan’s suggestion that the sisters’ rape engendered their homosexuality, and therefore their paranoia, is further contradicted by the language he uses to assert their ignorance of sexual difference (of “the enigma of the phallus and of female castration”). Even if Christine and Léa had been molested, one might ask whether it was a justifiable avoidance of the opposite sex, rather than the ignorance of sexual difference, that determined their lack of “attachments to men” or “hope for marriage.” 40 Indeed, if the sisters were already aware of the “enigma” of heterosexuality, then Lacan’s claim that they were stuck in an infantile phase of sexual development makes little sense. 41 More significantly, his invocation of the (false) possibility that the sisters had been raped performs a characteristic sleight of hand: the simultaneous conjuring and effacing of the phallus.

It is not surprising that Lacan invokes the phallus as a site of undecidability in his drive to understand the “mysterious” events in Le Mans. But what does the sisters’ supposed ignorance of the “enigma” of heterosexuality signify as a conclusion to Lacan’s analysis? I have already noted that his text reproduces the aporias evident in Freud’s arguments about female sexuality. The insufficiency of this strain of early psychoanalysis’s theorization of sexual difference is evident at the end of “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” when, as a phantasmic passage à l’acte, Lacan stages a lesbian “primal scene” by describing the Papins’ attack on the Lancelins. 42 Using Christine’s postcrime theatrics as evidence, Lacan suggests that through the paranoid projection entailed in the passage à l’acte of murder, the [End Page 348] sisters also effected a phantasmic sexual passage à l’acte through which the repressed possibility of incestuous, lesbian sex surfaced in their consciousness. Accordingly, the hallucinations that accompanied the act of murder allowed Christine to pass from her ignorance of “the enigma of the phallus and of female castration” to the phantasy of being her sister’s husband.

While a prisoner, Christine began not only to engage in various erotic displays but also to articulate her first openly passionate cry for her sister, in the form of a demand for sexual consent: “Yes, say yes.” Lacan artfully arranges Christine’s multiple delusions into one phantasy-narrative, presenting her courtroom cry of “Yes, say yes” as the culmination of a morbid phantasy that had begun with her vision, at the beginning of her imprisonment, of Léa’s death: “dead doubtless from that blow [of Christine’s breaking off from the narcissistic ideal into which she had fashioned her sister].” Similarly, Elisabeth Roudinesco underlines Lacan’s claim that the sisters “bared Geneviève Lancelin’s sex in order, as Christine put it, to ‘possess’ something that did not exist but that would bear the trace of a phallic omnipotence.” 43 Thus Lacan inscribes lesbian desire and paranoid delirium in one and the same phallic narrative, ending with a passage à l’acte that is both sexual consummation and murder. Working within an interpretive framework that can only render Christine’s words as “strange declarations,” Lacan manipulates her disparate delusions into a narrative that constructs lesbian desire as an inherently morbid pretense to having the phallus. 44

Yet the question of the sisters’ sexuality—and the nature of their delirium—remains undecided, even at the article’s end. The conclusion of “Motives of Paranoid Crime” recalls once again the indeterminacy of the rhetorical questions with which Lacan has invited his readers to consider the “significance” of the sisters’ “exclusive affection”—for it is the undecidable meaning of their close attachment to each other that has puzzled Lacan into writing the article (10). His investment in the Freudian tradition finally leads to his own arguments’ undoing: his quest for the primal cause of the sisters’ psychosis can be undertaken only in a labyrinth of overlapping etiologies whose multiple valences point up the arbitrariness of his conclusions. In the end, Lacan can make his case only through a set of negations that invoke and pathologize the sisters’ “larval” lesbianism through a specularization of the phallus, finally presenting not so much a solution to the Papin enigma as a vertiginous mise-en-abîme of psychoanalytic phallogocentrism. 45 Because the phallus and the murderous hallucinations it is said to have engendered in Christine are the phantasmic productions of Lacan’s own narrative, his article, like the interrogation of the sisters at the trial, provides little clarification of the Papins’ [End Page 349] supposed sexual motives for murdering the Lancelins. However, it is stymied not by the refusal to consider incestuous desire but by its insistence on reading it through a theory that renders femininity itself enigmatic. 46

Though unconvincing as an assessment of Christine and Léa, “Motives of Paranoid Crime” is interesting because it enables one to untangle several important threads of early-twentieth-century discourse about psychosis, female sexuality, and the family. Lacan’s analysis of the Papins’ “paranoia” is not so much a conclusive diagnosis as evidence of psychoanalysis’s obsession with the phallus, which drives his solution to the enigma of the two women’s murderous motives. One can discern in “Motives of Paranoid Crime” a movement from the figuring of an analyst’s inability to read the sisters’ sexuality to the claim that the sisters themselves cannot comprehend “the human enigma of sex” in terms of the phallus. 47 Lacan’s text projects onto the sisters the inability to understand that more accurately characterizes its own theorizing. Thus its representation of the Papin affair takes the form of a paranoid event, an attempt at suture after the devastating “crisis of meaning” brought about by the affair. 48

“One doesn’t speak to the other.”


As I have noted, discourse surrounding the Papin affair figures the sisters’ transgression as not only a sexual but also a class enigma: journalistic speculation about whether or not Christine and Léa were satisfied with their tasks in the Lancelin home raises the possibility that the murders were retribution for harsh treatment under their employers. 49 Yet Lacan forecloses the questions about class rebellion that are suggested by the social context of the crime. Indeed, even if early respondents such as René Crevel are correct to praise Lacan’s thesis on Aimée as the first psychoanalytic study to implicitly analyze class oppression, I contend that his article on the Papins fails to go far enough in critiquing the bourgeois hegemony of the oedipal narrative. 50

Roudinesco defends “Motives of Paranoid Crime” against dissections of its class politics by arguing that it inflects the question of sociality through what Lacan later would call the “symbolic order.” She argues that the essay marks the beginning not only of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage but also of a theory that “derealized” paranoid crime by “restor[ing] to it its imaginary, then symbolic dimension” through an analysis of delirium. “If madness is to man what language is to humanity,” she writes, then “there is no ‘nature’ or ‘instinct,’ nothing ‘sub-human’ [End Page 350] or ‘super-human’ which is not already in man himself.” 51 That is to say, the psychotic is positioned neither as prior to the symbolic order, innocent of its laws, nor as extrahuman, beastly and contemptible; instead, having refused to enter into the symbolic order, and therefore social law, he or she is still under its sway to the extent to which its foreclosed elements return in psychotic delusion. 52

If the Papins were driven to murder by a delirious interpretation of reality in which they “mingled the mirage of their illness with the image of their mistresses,” the motive of their attack was more than a simple act of revenge; it was a mad expression of “the alienated reality of man,” governed by “the psychotic structure through which the murderer strikes the ideal of the master he bears within himself. 53 The Papins, then, revolted against the phantasm produced through their internalization of the Lancelins’ mastery. But it is difficult to understand how this theoretical complication allows one to dispense with the question of the sisters’ status as maids: within the terms of Lacan’s (and Roudinesco’s) argument, one could argue that the sisters’ violent idealization of their mistresses may have been conditioned by their subordination within the Lancelin household. Yet even if Lacan presents psychosis as a question of “social tensions” and understands “the aggressive drive” as “itself stamped with social relativity,” he never explicitly considers the implications of the maids’ domestic servitude. 54 Instead, by the end of “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” he has entirely passed over the question of the sisters’ imprisonment by external circumstance, displacing it into the interior realm of their “shackled conscience” in his reconstruction of their murderous motives (11). In considering the “social relativity” of “the aggressive drive” as a matter of “criminal intentionality,” he ignores the way in which paranoid crime is what Kristin Ross calls “a disease of social position,” a malady often suffered by socially marginalized women such as maids. 55 In Lacan’s final analysis, Christine and Léa are imprisoned not in the sparse attic of the Lancelins’ bourgeois home but in the virtual world of narcissistic projections generated solely through their own developmental difficulties.

Despite his elision of the sisters’ social circumstances, Lacan stages the Papin affair as a matter of specular doubling between employers and employees. Even in his opening remarks he notes the two parties’ silent but mutual animosity: “If one observes that the masters seem strangely to have lacked human sympathy, we can only reply that the haughty indifference of the domestics was but a response to this attitude; ‘one doesn’t speak to the other.’” Interestingly, while Lacan concludes with an analysis of the projective mechanisms through which the Papins’ disavowal of their homosexual desire figured the Lancelins as threatening, he does not follow up on his characterization of the situation as silently but mutually antagonistic from the start. Yet he is finally unable to distinguish the sisters’ [End Page 351] psychology from that of their employers, whose relationship he sexualizes in his conclusion. He writes that on the night of the murders, “under anxiety of an imminent punishment, the sisters mingled the mirage of their [homosexual] illness with the image of their mistresses. They detested the distress of the couple whom they carried away in an atrocious quadrille” (7, 11). In this passage, Lacan exploits double entendre by playing on the sexual connotations of both couple and mistresses, figuring the Lancelins as a pair with whom the Papins engage in a dance seemingly as atrocious for its homosexual undertones as for its murderous results. 56 That the Lancelin “couple” might be subject to the same perilously narcissistic dialectic as their maids is ignored, however, as Lacan displaces the question of lesbianism and incest onto the Papins.

Thus Lacan constructs the relationship between the Papins and the Lancelins as mutual in its specular doubling and then projectively diagnoses this structure as illness only in the maids. As I have argued, Sister My Sister likewise presents an extended analysis of doubling, suggesting that the employers may have repeatedly conjured and repudiated the possibility of sexual ties between the sisters in a dialectic that came to a point of crisis on the night of the murders. While I do not believe Meckler’s film any “truer” than “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” I find its reading of the Danzards’ disavowal striking when set against Lacan’s projection of lesbianism onto the Papins. Both texts trace out what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call “a one-directional process of double displacement,” whereby working-class women embody bourgeois anxieties about sexuality and the family structure, but not vice versa: in the film, the Danzards displace onto their maids an incestuous potential they can express only through disavowal; in “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” the psychoanalyst shifts the scandalous implications of the bourgeois family romance onto the Papins in a failed attempt to decipher their enigmatic actions. 57

The fact that psychoanalysis first gained widespread currency in the European bourgeoisie of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century is especially pertinent to the class displacement at work in Lacan’s discussion of the sisters’ “larval” homosexuality. Michel Foucault’s work on psychoanalytic discourse as a fin de siècle “technology of sex” helps contextualize the work of Freud and Lacan within the history of sexuality. According to Foucault, a “heterogeneous” set of discourses, both medical and juridical, crystallized in the late-nineteenth-century Western family and eroticized the human body in the service of capitalist social imperatives. Yet eroticizing discourses were not “homogeneous at all levels of society and in all social classes.” Instead, the medical surveillance of sexuality first arose in bourgeois and aristocratic milieus to preserve their health and purity. 58 [End Page 352]

The surveillance of sexuality extended to the lower classes only later, yet even then a different “strategy” was devised to control the working-class body. While many bourgeoises were urged to “alleviate the effects of repression” of their oedipal conflicts by expressing “their incestuous desire in discourse” on their psychoanalyst’s couch, the working class was subjected to juridical surveillance because their smaller quarters were said to encourage a dangerously incestuous proximity between family members. Thus the proliferation of anxieties about incest, rooted in the eugenic impulse to preserve the qualities of the bourgeois body, branched out to the working class not through a medical discourse but through juridical condemnation. The difference in strategy was important to maintain: while the incestuous desires of bourgeois subjects were produced and constrained in the privacy of the analyst’s office, those of the working class were ferreted out—precisely because of the hyperawareness cultivated by psychoanalysisf—and placed on trial for all to see and condemn. In the public realm of jurisprudence, the incestuous desire with which bourgeois analysands were privately preoccupied was made to seem a specifically working-class vice (121, 129–30).

The asymmetry of this configuration recalls the trial of the “maids of Le Mans,” specifically the anxieties attached to the possibility of their incestuous relationship. Yet Lacan’s reading of their crime confounds Foucault’s distinction between the psychoanalytic regulation of the bourgeoisie and the juridical regulation of the working class: “Motives of Paranoid Crime” calls on psychoanalysis to account for the sisters’ motives, yet it insists that “to understand . . . is to condemn.” 59 With their psyches on trial in the pages of Minotaure and their murderous blows illustrating the perils of incest, the Papin sisters become the working-class embodiment of bourgeois anxieties surrounding sexuality in the family. Thus it is significant that their chambre de bonne was located literally under their bourgeois victims’ roof, where the Freudian family romance was uncomfortably at home. For bourgeois spectators, the sisters’ mysterious chamber serves as the site of otherness that provokes both fascination and anxiety—as the place, both comfortably distant and disturbingly close, at which to pose and evade the unsettling question of their own desires.

Christine E. Coffman

Christine E. Coffman is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. She is working on a dissertation titled “Passionate Narcissisms: Psychosis and Female Same-Sex Desire in Psychoanalysis and Modernism.”


* I would like to thank Tania Modleski, Christopher Peterson, Karen Pinkus, and Peter Starr for their insightful critiques of earlier versions of this essay.

1. Christopher Lane, “‘The Delirium of Interpretation’: Writing the Papin Affair,” differences 5, no. 2 (1993): 25.

2. For an overview of the trial and of the journalistic coverage of the affair see Dr. le Guillant, “L’Affaire des sœurs Papin,” Les Temps modernes, November 1963, 868–913. For extensive excerpts of the trial transcripts and early articles on the Papin affair see Francis Dupré, La “Solution” du passage à l’acte: Le Double Crime des sœurs Papin (Toulouse: Erès, 1984). See also Michel Coddens, “La Colère rouge: Le Procès des sœurs Papin,” Revue interdisciplinaire d’études juridiques 9 (1982): 95–171; Simone de Beauvoir, La Force de l’âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1960); Gérard Bonnot, “La Soirée en enfer,” Les Temps modernes 203 (1963): 1911–20; Victor Burgin, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 100–107, 126–31; Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday, 1925–1939, ed. Irving Drutman (New York: Viking, 1972); Lynda Hart, Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 145–50; Nicole Ward Jouve, “An Eye for an Eye: The Case of the Papin Sisters,” in Moving Targets: Women, Murder, and Representation, ed. Helen Birch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 7–31; and Frédéric Pottecher, Les Grands Procès de l’histoire (Paris: Fayard, 1981), 69–79. The affair has also inspired several fictionalizations I do not discuss here: Paulette Houdyer, L’Affaire des sœurs Papin (Le Diable dans la peau) (Paris: Julliard, 1966); Jean Genet’s stage play Les Bonnes (Paris: Gallimard, 1947); and Nico Papatakis’s film Les Abysses (1962). All selections rendered in English yet cited with foreign title are my own translations; all selections cited with English title are drawn from the said translations.

3. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 221. For the original text see Derrida, Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972).

4. Jacques Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime: The Crime of the Papin Sisters,” trans. Jon Anderson, Critical Texts 5, no. 3 (1988): 7–11. For the original text see “Motifs du crime paranoïaque: Le Crime des sœurs Papin,” Minotaure: Revue artistique et littéraire, December 1933, 25–28.

5. Technically, the event I discuss is the sisters’ retrial. Because Christine and Léa had confessed to the murders immediately on their arrest, they were sentenced, respectively, to death (subsequently commuted) and to life imprisonment after three state psychiatric experts had deemed them sane and legally responsible. After Christine had begun to exhibit symptoms of self-punishment while separated from her sister, however, their sanity and culpability were reconsidered in a second trial, which is my subject here. For accounts of the two trials see Coddens, “Colère rouge”; Dupré, “Solution” du passage à l’acte; Guillant, “Affaire des sœurs Papin”; and Lane, “‘Delirium of Interpretation.’”

6. Quoted in Guillant, “Affaire des sœurs Papin,” 884–89.

7. The screenplay for Sister My Sister was written by Wendy Kesselman, who seems to have taken much of its content from her stage play, My Sister in This House (New York: French, 1982). For this essay I have transcribed directly from the film.

8. Teresa de Lauretis, “The Stubborn Drive,” Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 869. De Lauretis specifically contrasts the open lesbianism of Meckler’s Papin sisters with the disavowed lesbianism attributed to them by Lacan.

9. After the voice-over of the président, the close-up of the sisters’ faces gradually fades to black and white during a voice-over of the imprisoned Christine’s desperate cries for Léa. It does not mark the source of either voice-over, causing the police investigation to blur with the trial and with the sisters’ imprisonment. Furthermore, it suggests that Christine is the sister to whom the interrogation is addressed, thus replicating the claims of those who have claimed that she was the stronger, more controlling sister in their délire à deux. See Guillant, “Affaire des sœurs Papin”; and Dupré, “Solution” du passage à l’acte.

10. Sigmund Freud, “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” in Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963), 21–144.

11. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 150. For the original text see Cixous and Clément, La Jeune née (Paris: Union générale, 1975). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White similarly argue that in Freud’s case studies “the topography of desire . . . is traced out on the body of a paid servant” (The Politics and Poetics of Transgression [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986], 153).

12. Jean LaPlanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Norton, 1973), 144. LaPlanche and Pontalis further define the ego-ideal as “an agency of the personality resulting from the coming-together of narcissism . . . and identification with the parents, with their substitutes or with collective ideals” (144).

13. Cixous and Clément, Newly Born Woman, 150.

14. Lynda Hart’s reading of My Sister in This House, like mine of the film, lays out a logic of parallelism between the Papin and Danzard “couples,” emphasizing the contrast between the maids’ overt sexuality and their employers’ repression. Hart elaborates this doubling by exploring the way in which the Danzards remain patriarchy’s “dutiful daughters” while their maids transgress the bounds of sexual propriety; she argues that the maids’ room is a space of maternal love that evades patriarchal strictures. Yet although Hart claims that Madame “transfers her hostility to the maids” by reprimanding Léa because of an inability to express “sexual rivalry between mother and daughter,” she avoids the possibility that Madame’s act of projection arises from disavowed homosexuality—in other words, that there is an unconscious motive for Madame’s fatal “homophobia” (“‘Don’t Even Look Like Maids Anymore’: Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House,” in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre, ed. Lynda Hart [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989], 144, 138).

15. For discussion of the relevance of “Motives of Paranoid Crime” to Lacan’s later writings see Catherine Clément, Vies et légendes de Jacques Lacan (Paris: Grasset, 1981); Carolyn J. Dean, The Self and Its Pleasures: Bataille, Lacan, and the History of the Decentered Subject (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992); and Marcelle Marini, Jacques Lacan: The French Context, trans. Anne Tomiche (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992). Many accounts of Lacanian psychoanalysis reference “Motives of Paranoid Crime” as an important anticipation of the theory of specularity Lacan later would delineate in his famous article “The Mirror Stage,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1–7. While “The Mirror Stage” announces Lacan’s move away from Freud’s diachronous oedipal narrative, the assumption of my argument in the following pages is that the interest of his early work on the Papin sisters is not reducible to its relevance to his later, arguably more mature work. That said, it is important to note that my critique of the theory Lacan puts forth in “Motives of Paranoid Crime” may or may not apply as well to his later texts, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay.

16. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 10.

17. Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 9–16.

18. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 10.

19. Sigmund Freud, “Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of Paranoia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1953–74), 12:62–63. For the original text see “Psychoanalytische Bemerkungen über einen autobiographisch beschrieben Fall von Paranoia (Dementia paranoides)” (1911), in Zwang, Paranoia und Perversion, vol. 7 of Sigmund Freud: Studienausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1973), 133–203.

20. Jacques Lacan, De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 259–62.

21. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

22. LaPlanche and Pontalis, Language of Psycho-analysis, 162.

23. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

24. Sigmund Freud, “Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality,” trans. Joan Riviere, in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963), 160–70. For the original text see “Über einige neurotische Mechanismen bei Eifersucht, Paranoia und Homosexualität,” in Zwang, Paranoia und Perversion, 217–28.

25. Lacan, Psychose paranoïaque, 261.

26. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

27. Freud notes that the openly homosexual man differs from the heterosexual only because for the former “the detachment of social feeling from object-choice has not been fully carried through.” He thus suggests a teleology of heterosexual development without presenting so-called homosexual underdevelopment as inherently harmful. By mentioning homosexuals’ “devotion to the interests of the community,” Freud suggests that their orientation is evidence of psychosexual underdevelopment, but not necessarily of social pathology (“Neurotic Mechanisms,” 169–70).

28. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 10.

29. Similarly criticizing the “circularity” of Freud’s account of paranoia, Judith Butler argues that by theorizing social integration and the formation of conscience as marked by the outward renunciation of a homosexuality on which the social bond nevertheless depends, Freud offers an etiology that “is already within the normative and regulatory domain of the social for which he seeks to give an account” (Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative [New York: Routledge, 1997], 120).

30. Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990), 69.

31. Lacan, Psychose paranoïaque, 251.

32. Sigmund Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” in Standard Edition, 14:169. For the original text see “Das ökonomische Problem des Masochismus,” in Psychologie des Unbewußten, vol. 3 of Sigmund Freud: Studienausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1975), 341–54.

33. Sigmund Freud, “A Child Is Being Beaten,” trans. Alix Strachey and James Strachey, in Rieff, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, 107–32. For the original text see “‘Kind wird geschlagen’ (Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Entstehung sexueller Perversionen)” (1919), in Zwang, Paranoia und Perversion, 230–54.

34. See Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974), 120–29. One might recall the rhetoric Freud uses to account for Schreber’s paranoia. As their nodal point, the mad Senatspräsident’s delusions featured his bodily transformation into a woman: he sensed his chest developing the feeling he imagined to characterize women’s breasts; he looked forward with pleasure to assuming the place of the woman in coitus. This evidence led Freud to assert that “the exciting cause of the illness was the appearance in him of a feminine (that is, passive homosexual) wishful phantasy” (“Autobiographical Account of Paranoia,” 47). As in Freud’s text on masochism, femininity is here understood only in the context of a relation between men.

35. Lacan develops his theory of “foreclosure” in The Psychoses, 1955–1956, bk. 3 of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 1993); and in “On a Question Preliminary to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis,” in Ecrits: A Selection, 179–225. Using a revised framework derived from Saussurean linguistics, Lacan’s later work on psychosis figures the pathology of sexual variance somewhat differently from “Motives of Paranoid Crime.” It is beyond the scope of this essay to reflect on the success, or lack thereof, of this later stage of Lacan’s work.

36. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 7, 11.

37. Lacan, “Motifs du crime paranoïaque,” 26. In “Motives of Paranoid Crime” Anderson’s translation reads, “Yet we omit,” which clarifies the sentence structure but elides the “still” [encore] that suggests the negation through which Lacan figures the rapes (7).

38. Dupré, “Solution” du passage à l’acte, 116, 127.

39. Lacan, “Motifs du crime paranoïaque,” 28; Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

40. Guillant, “Affaire des sœurs Papin,” 887. I do not wish to suggest that antipathy toward or fear of men caused the sisters to become lesbian; indeed, I would like to maintain the indeterminacy evidenced (sometimes unwittingly) in earlier representations of their enigmatic sexuality. I make no attempt to further epistemological arguments in which proof of their sexuality is at stake; what interests me is the way in which constructions of their lesbianism testify to phantasies and anxieties about gender, sexuality, and the bourgeois family.

41. Lacan, “Motifs du crime paranoïaque,” 28.

42. My thanks to Christopher Peterson for suggesting that Lacan creates a lesbian version of the primal scene in his article.

43. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan and Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925–1985, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 126.

44. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

45. Freud’s one case study of a female paranoiac similarly entails a contorted, insistent hunt for a homosexual kernel of her delusions (“A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psychoanalytical Theory of the Disease,” trans. Edward Glover, in Rieff, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, 97–106). Here too the phallus plays a significant role: the analyst insists that the paranoiac fears an older coworker, a mother figure displeased over the younger woman’s illicit heterosexual affair.

46. My formulation echoes Sarah Kofman’s discussion of the way in which psychoanalysis figures woman as enigmatic (L’Enigme de la femme: La Femme dans les textes de Freud [Paris: Galilée, 1980]).

47. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11.

48. Lane, “‘Delirium of Interpretation,’” 25. I agree with Lane that the Papin affair presented a “crisis of meaning” in several discursive arenas in the early 1930s; however, given his indictment of the way in which male phantasy colors an account of the Papin sisters by Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret, I find it odd that his discussion and revision of Lacan’s “Motives of Paranoid Crime” do not include an examination of that article’s sexual politics.

49. Prior studies that have questioned inconsistencies in the sisters’ testimony are undecided both about whether they had any complaints against the Lancelins and about whether their rage was an expression of class rebellion. See Guillant, “Affaire des sœurs Papin”; Dupré, “Solution” du passage à l’acte; and Coddens, “Colère rouge.” I do not intend to affirm that the murders were acts of revenge; instead, I would like to demonstrate that Lacan dismisses this possibility without a solid rationale.

50. Along with Paul Nizan and Jean Bernier, Crevel gives Lacan’s Psychose paranoïaque a largely positive appraisal by underscoring its incipient analysis of class oppression. Elisabeth Roudinesco, who cites Crevel, points out that “Motives of Paranoid Crime” deploys an even more explicitly Marxist vocabulary than Lacan’s thesis, supposedly demonstrating that Lacan had “listened to the message transmitted” by his communist fans (Jacques Lacan, trans. Barbara Bray [New York: Columbia University Press, 1997], 62).

51. Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan and Co., 127.

52. During the trial, the prosecution characterized the Papin sisters as beastly and animalistic in an attempt to persuade the jury of their inhumanity (Dupré, “Solution” du passage à l’acte).

53. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 11; Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan and Co., 127.

54. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 8.

55. Ibid., 11, 8. Ross situates Lacan’s article on the Papins within the larger context of twentieth-century French literature and cinema, underlining the way in which the marginalization of both maids and schoolmistresses often leads to paranoia. In her discussion of Lacan’s early work on “social tensions” in paranoid crime, Ross helpfully underlines the way in which Lacan opens up questions of gender and class in his other early writings. Oddly, though, she begins by citing “Motives of Paranoid Crime” as an example of unqualified success in theorizing paranoia’s relation to social position and then shifts to an acknowledgment of the way in which “the specific class dimension of . . . rage . . . is kept at bay in Lacan’s rhetorical interpretation” of the Papin affair (“Schoolteachers, Maids, and Other Paranoid Histories,” Yale French Studies 91 [1997]: 18–25).

56. This double entendre obtains both in the English translation and in the French original, which refers to the Lancelins as “le couple” and “leurs maîtresses” (Lacan, “Motifs du crime paranoïaque,” 28).

57. Stallybrass and White, Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 164.

58. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 47, 92–114, 120.

59. Lacan, “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” 9.

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