The Prenatal Person: Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome

Reviewed Publisher: 
Lanham, MD and Oxford, UK: University Press of America. 218 pages. Hard cover, extensive bibliography. ISBN: 0761807683.
Reviewed Title: 
The Prenatal Person: Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome (1997)
Reviewed Author: 

This book examines Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome (M-FDS), as a new and far-reaching paradigm in counseling. The main thesis is that a prenatal environment exists at conception, followed by a week of blissful "union" and non-attachment (the blastocystic stage), then implantation takes place, and a mother-baby bond evolves during pregnancy. The first trimester of intrauterine life is the source of profound imprints affecting one through adult life. Being a physician and an Anglican theologian, Lake's paradigm integrates major sources of knowledge about prenatal development, including physiology, psychology, and theology.

According to Lake, the bi-directional flow of "umbilical affect" between the mother and her unborn baby can result in three relationship patterns based on the mother's positive, negative, or strongly negative emotions. The mother's emotions inspire four variations of fetal response which range from the most "ideal" state of warm and connected happiness, to good enough "coping," "opposition," (aggressively active to passively non-cooperative), and "transmarginal stress" (a catastrophic state in which "the self turns against itself). Here lie the roots of maternal-fetal distress syndrome, creating a psycho-physiological predisposition toward personality disorders or psychosomatic symptoms. These forces may also complicate pregnancy and giving birth. For Lake, there is also an ontology of the normal mother-child relationship, based on two input phases (being/well-being) and two output phases (status/achievement) at each developmental stage. These, in turn, effect the subsequent exchanges.

Lake's method focuses on two areas, (1) the mother's distress during pregnancy which is transferred to the fetus and is accessible via history-taking with the adult, and (2) adult symptoms which can be traced back in "primal integration work." Since prenatal and birth memories are largely unconscious, Lake thought they must be retrieved through methods inducing an altered state comparable to the original state; e.g., via psychedelic drugs, deep breathing, and trance/hypnosis.

Whatever methods are utilized, awareness of the intricate emotional exchanges between mother and fetus facilitates our understanding of adjustment and personality organization in adulthood. Umbilical affect, mediated by the placenta through the umbilical cord, conveys "physical feelings" of aggression or submission, emptiness or fullness, giving and taking, which precede "psychological feelings."

The evidence for M-FDS in Lake's work came in two phases: LSD research (1954-1970), and the primal integration workshops held at Lingdale, England (1975-1982). LSD-25, used in the presence of a trusted therapist, helped patients retrieve disturbing prenatal episodes and birth traumata. Use of LSD-25 was stopped when Lake found out that deep breathing alone (and Reich-inspired bioenergetics) could elicit primal recall.

Lake's primal integration workshops included primal therapy, personal growth, prayer and healing. Over 500 persons attended these workshops at Lingdale (1975-1982), which sometimes lasted a whole week. Once attendees felt "safe" with one another and the instructors, they explored their life history. They also learned about the anatomy and physiology of conception and fetal life. In small groups and in dimly lit rooms, the participants relaxed and were instructed in deep breathing. They then curled up, and "re-created" the sequence of experiences from conception to the first six weeks, and to the first, second, and third trimesters of fetal life. This process included a reenactment of birth. Some participants returned to Lingdale for "re-entry" into their own experiences-with significant therapeutic benefits. The tapes and transcripts from the lengthy Lingdale sessions and a followup postal survey of attendees supported Lake's theory of MaternalFetal Distress Syndrome.

Lake's insights were shared by other authors, who have produced clinical evidence of birth and prenatal memories in the course of psychoanalysis (O. Rank, S. Fodor, P. Greenacre, D. Fairbanks, M. Klein), "holotropic breathwork" (S. Grof), and hypnosis (D. Cheek, D. Chamberlain). In many instances, primal memories were confirmed by hospital records, parents, and other observers who were present.

Maret shows how Lake created a psychotherapeutic model grounded in theology, drawing upon traditions from Catholicism to Classical Buddhism. Lake made an analogy between the "womb" and "womb of the spirit," postulating derivatives of M-FDS in the psychosomatic complaints of St. John of the Cross, or in Soren Kierkegaard's existential despair, among others. Lake's therapy utilized "communication of God's love, and identification through Christ on the Cross to those suffering pain through no fault of their own." Lake believed that this spiritual dimension lends the ego "supernatural fortitude" to endure the conflicts uncovered through treatment.

Maret comprehensively discusses Lake's theory and practice by reviewing the scientific evidence (anecdotal, clinical, and empirical research) for maternal-fetal distress syndrome. Next, he quotes from Lake's writings on the links between M-FDS and biblical/theological sources, and finally, he presents a contemporary update of empirical research substantiating a psycho-socio-biological view of fetal behavior from the earliest phases of intrauterine life until birth. This impressive section notes recent empirical studies of fetal behavior, including sensations, perceptions, basic emotions, cognitions, and psychophysiological reactions. Maret extols Lake's contribution to pastoral counseling and prenatal psychology with his paradigm integrating science and theology. Not only is M-FDS affirmed in this way, but also the continuity of prenatal, perinatal, and post-natal development.

This book is provocative and intriguing. It presents a thesis which is familiar to students of prenatal development, and to many a psychotherapist who has unexpectedly found primal memories at the core of a patient's pattern of conflicts in the here and now. Maret's approach to looking at the prenatal person is valuable for health professionals, pastoral counselors, and educators and can be a guide to therapists utilizing hypnosis and other techniques for working in an altered state. Maret optimistically predicts that as research technology improves, there will be increasing access to the study of unborn babies, which in turn will shed light on all of psychology.

Publication Date: 
03/1999