Misconceptions about Freud's Seduction Theory: Comment on Gleaves and Hernandez (1999)


Allen Esterson


(Note: This is a pre-publication version of the article published in History of Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002, pp. 85-91. Copyright: American Psychological Association. This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.)


D. H. Gleaves and E. Hernandez (1999) write in relation to the seduction theory that "recent writers now argue that ... Freud never made discoveries of sexual abuse" (p. 332) and that "the assertion that Freud did not make discoveries of abuse is unwarranted" (p. 324). In this article an outline of the case that Freud had no adequate grounds for his 1896 claims of having uncovered infantile "sexual scenes" is given. Some of the more important misconceptions and erroneous arguments in Gleaves and Hernandez's article are then examined.


Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) acknowledge that at the time in question Freud was using "a very forceful approach" to obtain his objectives (p. 343). In his description of his current "pressure technique" in Studies on Hysteria, Freud (1895/1955b) several times emphasized that it was he himself who generally told the patient the unconscious idea that he had inferred to be at the root of the patient's symptoms (pp. 281, 282-283, 291, 295).[1] In "The Aetiology of Hysteria" (Freud, 1896/1962a) he stated that his analytic method was analogous to that of a forensic physician who "can arrive at the cause of an injury, even if he has to do without any information from the patient (p. 192). Starting from Breuer's  "momentous discovery" that hysterical symptoms are determined by certain experiences "which are being reproduced in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols," Freud endeavored to compel the symptoms of hysteria "to make themselves heard as witnesses" to the origin of the illness (Freud, 1896/1962a, pp. 192-193).[2]  (For Freud's description of his reconstruction of an infantile "sexual scene," analytically inferred from the patient's symptoms, see Freud, 1896/1962b. p. 172, n.1) It should also be noted that Freud reported that the patients "assure me ... emphatically of their unbelief" in the preconceived "sexual scenes" that he claimed he had induced them to "reproduce" (1896/1962a, p. 204).[3]


Before he alighted on the seduction theory in early October 1895,[4] Freud had not reported any instance of his having uncovered infantile sexual abuse among his patients, yet within 4 months (Masson. 1985, p. 170) he had completed two articles in which he claimed that for every one of his 16 patients[5] he had analytically "traced back"' from their symptoms to such experiences (Freud, 1896/1962c, p. 151). Gleaves and Hernandez (1999, p. 338) note that Freud (1896/1962a) wrote: "In most of my cases I found that two or more of these aetiologies [by different categories of assailants] were in operation together; in a few instances the accumulation of sexual experiences was truly amazing" (p. 208). However, they fail to appreciate that this actually militates against their contention that Freud made genuine discoveries of infantile sexual abuse. The sheer number of infantile "sexual scenes" supposedly uncovered in such a short time, from an age never previously reported by Freud,[6] is a further indication that his 1896 claims were essentially based on the analytic interpretation of symptoms (of which most patients would have had several).[7]


The Case Argued by Gleaves and Hernandez (1999)


It is possible here to mention only some the more important examples of erroneous or deficient arguments in Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) article. For instance, while noting that Freuds theory was "based on the supposition that the original pathognomic [pathogenic?] memory had to be unconscious," they write that "close examination of Freud's writing suggests that, in many instances, his patients may have had conscious memory for many of the events but were simply unwilling to talk about them" (p. 343). However. Freud (1896/1962a) himself reported that "Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [infantile sexual] scenes" (p. 204). Furthermore. he stated explicitly that "With our patients, those memories [of the infantile scenes] are never conscious" (p. 211).


Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) note that "Freud ... pointed to the therapeutic effectiveness of memory retrieval and processing as evidence that the memories were genuine" and argue that "this type of evidence is ... inconsistent with the hypothesis that they were false" (pp. 329-330, 346). Now, as Breuer acknowledged (Freud, 1895/1955b, p. 43), the remission of symptoms cannot be used as evidence in this way. In any case, Freud's letters to Fliess tell a different story from his public claims of therapeutic success. For instance, Freud's (1898/1962d) assertion, in an article published in February 1898, that he owed "a great number of [therapeutic] successes" (p. 282, see also p. 283) to his recently developed psychoanalytic technique contrasts with his report to Fliess in the same month: "The cases of hysteria are proceeding especially poorly. I shall not finish a single one this year either" (Masson, 1985, p. 299 and pp. 218, 232, 264).


Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) acknowledge that "in 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' Freud presented very little specific information about what his patients actually said and how he went about eliciting the information" (p. 339). Elsewhere in the article they write that "rather than presenting the actual data on which he based his conclusions ... [Freud] addressed only the evidence that the data he reportedly acquired were accurate" (p. 328). However, the absence of the "actual data" does not inhibit the authors from accepting uncritically Freud's (hardly disinterested) interpretation of the patients' agitated behavior as their "reliving" of the infantile sexual experiences he had postulated (pp. 329-330, 345).


To support their contention that "in other writings [Freud] included enough direct quotes from his patients to demonstrate clearly that they were telling him about what they remembered," Gleaves and Hernandez (1999, p. 339) provide an example from Studies on Hysteria (Freud, 1895/1955b). However, Freud's reports of patients telling him about incidents that occurred after infancy have no relevance to the point at issue. Moreover, contrary to what the authors assert, in the example they give the crucial incident is not reported in direct quotes but is recounted in Freud's own words (Freud, 1895/1955b, pp. 275-276; Gleaves & Hernandez, 1999, p. 340). They go on to say that in the "Aetiology" article and in letters to Fliess, Freud included "numerous specifics of the abuse reports that could not have been inferred [italics added]" (Gleaves & Hernandez, 1999, p. 340). Gleaves and Hernandez must have little familiarity with Freud's writings if they are unaware of the extraordinary analytic inferences he can arrive at on the basis of the most slender material. One example of many is his analytic interpretation of the Wolf Man's early childhood dream of looking at some wolves in a tree as a repressed memory of the infant's witnessing his parents engaging in "coitus a tergo [from behind], three times repeated" (Freud, 1918/1955a, pp. 29-37; see also Esterson, 1993, pp. 68‑70). An instance from the seduction theory period is his analytic reconstruction of an infantile "sexual scene" involving fellatio in the case of Miss G. de B. (Masson, 1985, p. 220), critically examined in some detail by Webster (1995, pp. 207-208).[8]


Contrary to Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) contention that "most of the corroboration reported by Freud ... has simply not been addressed by recent critics" (p. 347), both Smith and I have called into question the evidential value of the information provided by Freud in these cases (Esterson, 1998, pp. 7‑8; Smith, 1991, pp. 13-14). The only case they allude to (p. 330) that was not dealt with by Smith or me is not relevant to the 1896 claims, because it involves events when the girl in question was "approaching maturity" and Freud did not uncover the information in his treatment. (The girl's physician told Freud that her governess had been discovered visiting her at night; Freud, 1895/1955b, pp. 274-275.)[9] That Gleaves and Hernandez describe the questionable "corroborations" claimed by Freud as representing "strong evidence" (p. 347) that at least some of the discoveries reported by Freud were genuine is a further illustration of their propensity to take his assertions at face value.


Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) discussion of the issue of fathers as the supposed abusers contains errors and misconceptions (p. 338). They state that "in [his] September 21, 1897, letter to Fliess, Freud wrote that fathers were the perpetrators of the alleged abuse 'in all cases' (Masson, 1985, p. 264)." However, Freud could not have been meaning what the authors assert ("in all cases"), since he had implicated fathers as the supposed abuser of the patient in only three out of some eight cases reported to Fliess (see Masson, 1985). What he actually wrote was that in all cases, the father "had to be accused of being perverse [italics added]," not that fathers had been accused.[10] The authors also write that "in Freud's later articles he explicitly stated that he had suppressed the fact that the alleged perpetrators in some of his early cases were the fathers" (see Freud, 1895/1955b, pp. 134, n.2; 170, n.1). However, the two instances cited (from Studies on Hysteria) are not germane to the seduction theory (Esterson, 1998, p. 10).[11] Again, Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) claim that in the "Aetiology" paper Freud "stated that [a love relationship involving adult close relatives] was 'by far' the most common type of pattern" of abuse, and that "he did state that adult 'close relatives' were most commonly the perpetrators" (p. 338). Leaving aside that he nowhere uses the words "by far," this does not accurately describe Freud's claims in the 1896 papers. In "Aetiology" he lists three groups of alleged abusers, and of the second group he writes that it

consists of the much more numerous [compared with the first group] cases in which some adult looking after the child Ė a nursery maid or governess or tutor, or, unhappily all too often, a close relative Ė has initiated the child into sexual intercourse ... (Freud, 1896/1962a, p. 208)

In reporting Freud's list of alleged culprits the authors omit members of this second group other than close relatives, and by taking the "all too often" remark out of its context and rewording it they extend its meaning beyond that given by Freud. Moreover, in "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (Freud, 1896/1962b) the category cited as all-important by the authors (adult close relatives) was not even mentioned,[12] and in that paper Freud wrote that teachers "figure with regrettable frequency" (p. 164). If one were selective among these lists one could, with as little justification as Gleaves and Hernandez (1999), assert that Freud stated that teachers were especially prominent among the abusers of the seduction theory patients. All of this undercuts their claim that Freud "was consistent with his story (at least across time) that fathers were frequently the perpetrators of the alleged abuse" (p. 338).[13]


Concluding Remarks


These comments deal with only a small part of Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) lengthy article but should give some idea of its inadequacies.[14] The authors' central contention in relation to the seduction theory that "there is a fair amount of evidence that some, if not all, of [Freud's] discoveries [of childhood sexual abuse] were genuine" (p. 351) is undermined by misconceptions and omissions of the kind indicated in this article and by their tendency to take Freud's assertions on trust in spite of the inconsistencies in his reports of the episode (see Cioffl, 1974/1998, pp. 199-204; Esterson, 1993, pp. 21-25, 1998, pp. 13‑15, 2001; IsraŽls & Schatzman, 1993, pp. 40-47) and evidence that his accounts of his clinical experiences are unreliable.[15]




1. Freud alluded to his use of the pressure technique in one of the earlier seduction theory articles (Freud, 1896/1962b, p. 177).


2. Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) argue that Freud most likely discovered a "connection between certain symptoms and types of childhood abuse (or fantasies ... )" and only then developed the theory that "allowed him ... to reason backward from symptoms to etiology" (p. 340). However, as the above quotations indicate, the decoding of symptoms to uncover their etiological origins was already central to his practice. Freud actually derived the seduction theory on the basis of his speculative notion of "deferred effect" (Esterson, 1998, p. 7).


3. The word reproduction seems to cover a wide range of phenomena; in "The Aetiology of Hysteria," for instance, Freud (1896/1962a) referred to patients' symptoms as reproductions of supposed forgotten trauma (pp. 192-193). Patients' "reproductions" included "violent sensations" and fragmentary images induced under the influence of the quasi-hypnotic pressure technique (Freud, 1896/1962a, p. 204, 1896/1962c, p. 153; see Schimek, 1987, pp. 943-944).


4. Freud postulated that an essential precondition for hysteria and obsessional neurosis was an unconscious memory of sexual excitation in early childhood (Masson, 1985, pp. 141, 144).


5. The 16 included 13 cases that were diagnosed as hysteria plus three "pure" obsessionals (Freud, 1896/1962c, pp. 152, 155). [I have excluded two "mixed" cases on the assumption that these were already included among the "hysterics". If this is incorrect, the total is 18 cases, an improbable increase of 5 cases (cf. 1896a, 1896b) for which Freud claimed to have succeeded in uncovering deeply repressed memories of sexual abuse in infancy in less than three months.]


6. Freud reported that the "commonest age" at which the alleged events occurred was 3 or 4 years, with two instances occurring in the infant's second year (1896/1962b, p. 165; 1896/1962c, p. 152).


7. In a historical account of his experiences in the period when he discontinued the use of direct hypnosis Freud (1924/1961) reported that the patients' material "did not bring up what had actually been forgotten," but "with the help of a certain amount of supplementing and interpreting, the doctor was able to guess (or reconstruct) the forgotten material from it [italics added]" (p. 196).


8. In his report to Fliess on Miss G. de B. Freud wrote: "Once before I traced back entirely analogous observations to sucking on the penis" (Masson, 1985, p. 220). Gleaves and Hernandez (1999, p. 341) criticize me for having left out [this] sentence about Freud having made an earlier discovery" in my brief account of the report (Esterson, 1998, p. 6), and they write that I had "ignored the critical piece of information" that "invalidated" my argument. This indicates that for Gleaves and Hemandez a mere assertion by Freud suffices as "critical" evidence of a "discovery." On what grounds do they presume that the earlier "discovery" had any sounder basis than that in the present case? In another letter Freud reported that he had "confirmed" that "agoraphobia in women .. is the repression of the intention to take the first man one meets in the street: envy of prostitution and identification" (Masson, 1985, pp. 217-218). If Freud were to trace his next female agoraphobic's symptoms to this "intention," would the fact of his having made his earlier "discovery" make a second such diagnosis in the slightest degree more valid?


9. Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) rebuttal (p. 347) of my criticism of a corroboration claimed in a letter to Fliess (Masson, 1985, p. 219) is invalidated by the fact that the words they quote against me relate not to the patient in question but to the governess in the case alluded to earlier.


10. I discuss the common misinterpretation of this sentence in a previous article (Esterson, 1998, pp. 9-10). The implication of the sentence is that, on theoretical grounds, fathers had to be accused if Freud were to be able to maintain his theory. As Makari (1998, p. 642) has pointed out, Freud's list of categories of putative abusers in the 1896 articles was in general accord with those cited in the literature by Krafft-Ebing and others (and made no mention of fathers). In fact prior to December 1896 Freud had nowhere mentioned fathers as abusers of the seduction theory patients, but in that month he reported to Fliess his idea that abuse by fathers would explain a pattern of "pseudo-heredity" (Masson, 1985, p. 212; see Makari, 1998, p. 642).


11. As Swales (1988, pp. 94-96) has shown, there is no reason to doubt Freud's statement in footnotes appended in 1924 that he had represented the fathers as "uncles" in these cases (which did not involve forgotten abuse in early childhood) for reasons of "discretion." It was normal practice to alter some of the factual details in published case histories in order to conceal the identities of the individuals involved.


12. "Foremost among those guilty of abuses," Freud wrote, were nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, and teachers (1896/1962b, p. 164).


13. In his first two retrospective accounts of the seduction theory episode Freud made no mention of fathers (Freud, 1906/1953, p. 274, 1914/1957, pp. 17‑18). It was not until 1925 that he produced an account of the episode in which he implicated fathers, relating them to an Oedipal explanation of his supposed clinical findings (Freud, 1925/1959, pp. 33-34, 1933/1964, p. 120). The notion that his detailed lists in the 1896 articles disguised his belief that fathers were predominantly the abusers has been rebutted by Schimek (1987, pp. 950-951), by me (Esterson, 1998, pp. 9-10), and by McCullough (2001, p. 6).


14. Readers interested in seeing a full reply to Gleaves and Hernandez's (1999) article are invited to contact the author.


15. Mahony, for example, has documented Freud's "intentional confabulation" in the case of the Rat Man and demonstrated "the serious discrepancies between Freud's day-to-day process notes of the treatment and his published case history of it" (Mahony, 1986, pp. 72-79, 81-85, 1990).




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