De Clerambault Syndrome

Erotomania means the infliction of unwanted sexual attention on an innocent victim, usually of high social status. The perpetrators have sexual problems, where there is a love so all consuming that violence becomes a result in the event of rejection, which is invariably the case. Usually, the case history starts with stalking. In the most psychotic cases, the de Clerambault syndrome evolves, named after its discoverer C. Gaeteau de Clerambault.

There are paranoid delusions in which the patient believes he has established a mystical communion with his victim, usually a female suffers from the affliction, with the victim falsely accused of having instigated an imaginary relationship—usually through signals that are not verifiable. This paranoia (heterosexual or homosexual hallucinations) leads to fixation on her object to fill a lifelong void in her impoverished psyche. She lives through the other.

The more vicious (=evil) and often lethal instances that climax in suicide and homicide are latent homosexual males. When he realizes he cannot have the other, he will kill his love object so as not to be denied complete defeat of achieving control over his victim. The perpetrator invokes God to sanctify the harassment, saying that he is trying to save his victim from damnation through the love of God. That love is only a projection of the homosexual fantasies of the pervert. The psychotic has had a history of poor relations with male authority figures and lives in a social vacuum filled with delusions. He will stalk his victim relentlessly because of his compulsive obsessions. The more he is rejected, the more he feels challenged to establish a relationship that can never be. The homosexual aspect of the relationship is Platonic because of the quasireligious dimensions of the perpetrator. He believes he would pollute his love object if he ever attempted to establish an overt sexual liaison. The same holds for the female. Nonetheless, the love is manic with the aim of the complete domination of the victim. The unwanted attentions and harassment can include a whole range of evil deeds, with violence often the final outcome to achieve a resolution of the inevitable intersubjective tensions.

This person is usually functional in other aspects of life.  So, initially he appears to be leading a normal life. Because he is borderline narcissistic, he cannot establish workable relationships in his social and sexual contacts, the work world, and school life. Because he has impulse control problems, he cannot establish a work record and exploits others to maintain a relatively decent standard of living, though some are fortunate to be born into wealth.

The patient imparts to his fixation a quasireligious rationalization. He creates an imaginary relationship in which he believes his love object is toying with him. He will become aggressive, suicidal, and at times homicidal. What he cannot control, he will often feel impelled to kill, either his beloved object or himself. There is no known treatment of this disorder, and it culminates in death, often after decades of torment for all parties privy to this self-destructive pattern of bizarre, lifetime behaviors that magnifies over time. He “forgives” his victim for his recurrent rejections and might very well kill him to redeem the relationship in the eyes of God as he fantasized this fetish father figure (males have grown up without fathers to role model appropriate adult behaviors), whom he incorporates intrapsychically totally and must thus sacrifice to God to appease Him. Notions of God are invariably vague and the religious aspect is shallow, if not fraudulent, without any doctrinal basis.

The Id (the Pleasure Principle) runs the mental life of the de Clerambault individual. A savage superego (the introjected conscience of parents and society) absorbs tremendous libidinous strength from the unconscious. The result is that the ego instincts (the Reality Principle) cannot direct the patient to more socially appropriate actions. However, Freud is not a psychic determinist. There is always free will in each individual, since there is always a residue of libido in the service of the ego to attempt to sublimate what otherwise are unacceptable thoughts and conduct.

In psychoanalytic terms, the Id (the instinctual life) and the Superego (a punishing “conscience”) fuse. The Ego deteriorates because there is a lack of reality testing. In philosophical terms, we can call this alienation at the individual level the Unhappy Consciousness, in which pure contingency overcomes the other, since the victimized other cannot rationally dialogue with a madman. The perpetrator is really slave to a passion or totally inclusive passion. He can never know the other. His negative freedom comes with death, often violently induced. So, the penal authorities must be called upon for intervention, with limited success. Psychotherapy is not effective. So, if the outcome is not lethal, then the patient must be institutionalized for life, since he never improves but continues to free fall into a fantasy world detached from everyday life and empirical reality. No matter what evidence is presented to him he will refute it through denial, repression, rationalization, and projection. He blames the other for his problems, since he imputes to the other intentions of love that the victim simply does not entertain and had never even imagined, much less caused.

There are “signals” given off by the victim, unbeknownst to him, that trigger a psychotic, delusional response of the de Clerambault diagnosed patient. The person is shallow and hence does not have the trust to establish a therapeutic relationship to get the depth insight into basic conflicts to resolve them through psychoanalytical education. He simply cannot effect transference. The gaze of the Other is a Medusa-like concern of the patient who is petrified by the casual everyday observation of normal people. Hence, the de Clerambault patient misconstrues events in the environment in a paranoid style that results in his feeling rejected and persecuted because of his “special” qualities. The constitutional factor is often decisive in this syndrome. Yet, you are not simply the aggregate of your symptoms and complexes. There is always an intrapsychic space within any individual to say no to socially condemned behaviors. Saying no is the first step in seeking help so as to find a therapist who might reeducate the primitive instincts of the patient to realize outlets that are socially constructive.

Nonetheless, the erotomaniac does do evil against his victim, even though he is driven by instinctual compulsions. The perpetrator destroys lives, including himself. Although he does not have a clear access to his own motivations, he still has an understanding of his devastating impact on others through his evil deeds. Hence, he is morally responsible, even though there are mitigating circumstances of mental illness involved. Nonetheless, he can surrender himself to the authorities so as to preempt urges, however powerful. There is always reason as a codeterminant to the most vicious of perverted feelings and criminal actions, which are facts that in their overt manifestations are known to the de Clerambault patient. Even the total psychotic, however resistant he is to therapy because of negative transference, is not an automaton acting out a prewritten script to his life. If he were, he would be an automaton, and not human. Evil and mental illness do covary. No one would willingly commit evil unless there is this psychic alienation from self and others. But even in the world of madness, choices lie within grasp that allow a certain degree of voluntarism in how intentionalities will be expressed. Not guilty by virtue of insanity; yes in the legal sense, no in the ontological domain because if all your life strategies result in harm to others and yourself, you must seek counseling simply by a process of elimination in that everything tried has failed in your life at every point in the most extreme cases.

In the final analysis, the erotomaniac is obsessionally and compulsively pursuing power to reify the object, whose attentions are not wanted and very toxically intrusive in destroying the integrity of the privacy and rights of the victim. It is not about sex, which is only latently present in each instance. The striking characteristic of the erotomaniac is almost an aversion to sexuality, with a Puritan-like attitude of disdain. In popular portrayal, there is Ian McEwan’s wonderful semi-biographical and vividly descriptive clinically enframed novel, Enduring Love. The book was made into a movie of the same title. Because of commercial considerations, the compelling quality of the book was not found in viewing a corrupted film version. Art only faintly imitates reality. 

Certainly, there are public policy issues involving mental health legislation. The courts are tilted toward the rights of the mental patient to the detriment of the victims of what are essentially crimes. Stalking and harassment do not concern police forces because they are not trained to investigate pathologies that only experts can detect. That is why cases can drag on indefinitely to the detriment of all parties and the closure that comes with justice rendered.

Psychoanalysis has severe limits, in particular in treating the psychoses. Freud did not take on psychotics, in general. His great rival, Carl Jung, did, but even this syndrome would be beyond his capabilities to treat.