Jeffrey Masson and Freud's seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths
(Note: This is a pre-publication version of the article published in History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1998, pp. 1-21. © 1998 SAGE Publications Ltd.)
Jeffrey Masson's version of the seduction theory episode in Freud's early career, as presented in The Assault on Truth (1984), is very plausible as a revised account of the traditional story. However, close examination of the seduction theory papers and of other contemporary documents reveals that Freud's later reports of the episode, the foundation on which Masson builds his case, are false. Some purported historical events that Masson uses to buttress his case are also shown to be without foundation. The several accounts of the episode Freud gave in his writings are dissected to demonstrate that they are tendentiously misleading and serve to conceal what actually occurred with his patients during the period in question. Some consequences of the widespread acceptance of the traditional account are briefly discussed.
The re-evaluation of the seduction theory episode
According to the traditional story, Freud abandoned the seduction theory when he realized that many of the 'seductions' reported by his female patients were fantasies, and this discovery opened the way to his revolutionary psychoanalytic theories of infantile sexuality. In the late 1970s, some feminists concerned about the sexual abuse of female children re-examined the received account and concluded that Freud was wrong to abandon the theory, and that he did so in response to the concerted opposition of his medical colleagues (Rush, 1977, 1980; Herman, 1981). Masson's best-selling The Assault on Truth (1984) made this view known to a wider public, while at the same time purportedly providing it with a more scholarly foundation. Although most commentators expressed reservations about Masson's view that Freud's reinterpreting his patients' reports of childhood sexual molestation as fantasies indicated a failure of nerve on his part (Masson, 1984: xxviii, 190), the book has become highly influential, especially among some sections of the psychotherapeutic community. And, in terms of the information provided by Masson and the authors referred to above, it is not difficult to explain the success of the revised account of the seduction theory episode. Indeed, seen in those terms, what needs to be explained is why it took so long to re-evaluate Freud's claims. (Feminist writers have found no difficulty in supplying such an explanation.)
The traditional version derives essentially from Freud's account in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933):
In the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father. I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports were untrue and so came to understand that hysterical symptoms are derived from phantasies and not from real occurrences. (Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud [hereafter cited as S.E.]: XXII, 120) 
Now although Freud implied he had learnt to distinguish between the patients' phantasies and their authentic memories (S.E.: VII: 274), he never explained how he had done this, and, remarkably, until recently few people seem to have asked how he could have done so. Given this unexplained gap at the heart of Freud's account, Masson's revisionist view of the episode looks like nothing more than common sense, and the rejection of his thesis by most psychoanalytic commentators like a case of special pleading. But appearances can be deceptive, and nowhere more so than in the field of received psychoanalytic history.
The pressure technique
Salyard (1994: 659) writes that Freud's reasons for abandoning the seduction theory have not been satisfactorily explained because little attention has been given to the circumstances under which he claimed its discovery. She observes that this reflects the fact that Freud's published writings were the source of the traditional account and the reason for its announcement appears self-evident: Freud arrived at the theory because most of his female patients reported sexual abuse in early childhood, usually by their fathers. But, as Salyard notes, a close scrutiny of Freud's seduction theory papers of 1896 reveals a very different state of affairs.
To appreciate what actually happened with Freud's patients in the mid-1890s it is essential to have knowledge of his clinical technique at that time. Details of Freud's methodology in this period are given in Studies on Hysteria (Freud and Breuer, 1895: S.E., II). Central to his procedure was the 'pressure technique', developed from a therapeutic device he had seen used by Bernheim (S.E.: II, 109-10, 268-7). Freud believed that somatic symptoms he regarded as hysterical were caused by repressed memories of traumatic experiences, and that the therapeutic task was to induce the patient to bring these memories to conscious awareness. At times when relevant thoughts were not forthcoming he placed his hand on the patient's forehead and encouraged him or her to report any images or ideas that came to mind. In the event that nothing occurred to the patient, Freud took this as a sign of resistance and repeated the pressure on the forehead while insisting that a picture or an idea would emerge. In this manner he endeavoured to set in motion a chain of associations which he believed would lead eventually to the pathogenic idea (270-2). The ideas and images obtained from the patient by this procedure generally emerged in a piecemeal fashion, with the essential elements missing (281-2). The task of the physician was 'to put these [fragments] together once more into the organization which he presumes to have existed'; ie, to piece together the fragments to produce a coherent event or narrative, rather like the process of solving a picture puzzle (291).
Even when a patient had been convinced of the logical coherence of the proposed solution, he or she often failed to recognize the ideas which formed 'the nucleus of the pathogenic organization' (300). Freud described as 'the climax of [the procedure's] achievement in the way of reproductive thinking' that 'it causes thoughts to emerge which the patient never recognizes as his own, which he never remembers, although he admits the context calls for them inexorably...' (272).
Arriving at the solution, however, was not an automatic process, and required guidance from the physician. In order to facilitate the emergence of appropriate associations, Freud wrote, it was 'of use if we can guess the way things are connected up and tell the patient before we have uncovered it' (295). And even more explicitly, in regard to 'the things that we have to insist upon to the patient' he stated: 'The principal point is that I should guess the secret and tell it to the patient straight out' (281). Just how directive was Freud's procedure is indicated by his reporting that at times he 'laboriously forced some piece of knowledge on a patient' (299).
The therapeutic solution therefore consisted of both acknowledged and unacknowledged material. The logical consistency, and the interconnection between its various parts, served to justify Freud's confidence in the solution at which he arrived (300-1). At each stage he looked to the occurrence of 'tension and signs of emotion' in the patient's face as indicators of the authenticity of the emerging recollections (281). He also claimed that when the patient gave utterance to the supposed pathogenic memory the symptom diminished, or even temporarily vanished, and that the 'working-over' of the pathogenic material resulted in its complete disappearance (296-7). (This was not always borne out in the cases reported in Studies on Hysteria.)
What emerges from Studies on Hysteria is that the 'solution' which Freud uncovered was frequently a reconstruction based on fragmentary ideas and images, not (generally) a memory as such. This was the basis of the procedure which Freud was soon to describe as 'psychoanalysis' (S.E.: III, 151), and which he was to use to reveal the infantile experiences of his patients.
The infantile seduction theory
Nowhere in Studies on Hysteria, or in any prior publications, did Freud report that any of his patients had been sexually molested in infancy. His announcement of his thesis that the symptoms of hysteria and obsessional neurosis resulted exclusively from repressed memories of sexual experiences in early childhood was first made in two letters he wrote to his friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess in October 1895. Specifically, he conjectured - on theoretical grounds - that hysteria was the consequence of presexual sexual shock, and obsessional neurosis the consequence of presexual sexual pleasure (Masson, 1985: 141, 144). On 2 November he triumphantly reported to Fliess: 'Today I am able to add that one of the cases gave me what I expected (sexual shock - that is infantile abuse in male hysteria!) and at the same time a working through of the disputed material strengthened my confidence in the validity of my psychological constructions' (ibid.: 149).
There were no more such reports to Fliess at that time, but on 1 January 1896, only three months after conceiving the theory, he sent him a draft of one of the forthcoming seduction theory papers (ibid.: 162-9). Then in early February he dispatched 'Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses' (published in a French journal on 30 March 1896 [1896a]) and 'Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence' (published on 15 May 1896 [1896b]), in each of which he claimed that for all his thirteen cases diagnosed as hysteria (two men and eleven women) he had uncovered repressed memories of sexual traumas in early childhood. These mostly had occurred below the age of five, and in two cases 'at one and a half or two years' (S.E.: III, 152, 155, 163, 165). The assailants were nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, teachers, and, in seven of the cases, a boy (generally a brother) only slightly older than the victim (152, 164). In his six cases of obsessional neurosis (three of whom were among the thirteen 'hysterics'), the patients had engaged in an active pleasurable sexual experience around the age of eight or ten, and all of them had also been subjected to sexual molestation in infancy (155, 168-69).
The third seduction theory paper ('The Aetiology of Hysteria'), delivered to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology on 21 April 1896 (1896c), contained a more detailed presentation of Freud's thesis. The number of cases of hysteria had increased to eighteen (six men and twelve women), and the culprits now included adult strangers and close relatives in addition to the categories listed in the previous papers (S.E.:III, 207-8).
Freud alluded to his 'pressure technique' in the 'Further Remarks' paper (177-8), and elsewhere his words indicate that he was still using the clinical procedure described in Studies on Hysteria. In the course of responding to the rhetorical objection that he may been deceived by hysterical confabulations, he emphasised that '[b]efore they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [sexual] scenes. They are indignant as a rule if we warn them that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them.' Not only have they 'no feeling of remembering the scenes' they are induced to reproduce, he continued, they 'assure me...emphatically of their unbelief' (204). Similarly, in the 'Heredity' paper he reported:
[T]hese patients never repeat these stories spontaneously, nor do they ever in the course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection of a scene of this kind. One only succeeds in awakening the psychical trace of a precocious sexual event under the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure, and against an enormous resistance. Moreover, the memory must be extracted from them piece by piece... (153).
Although Freud's words elsewhere imply that specific 'scenes' were 'reproduced' by his patients, or even 'recall[ed]...to consciousness' (204), the passage quoted immediately above suggests that material obtained from the patients was generally in the form of fragments of ideas or images from which Freud reconstructed the supposed event. In the introductory section of 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' Freud compared his procedure 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 injured person' (191-2). He explained that this procedure ('psychoanalysis' ) utilized Breuer's discovery that 'the symptoms of hysteria...are determined by certain experiences of the patient's which...are being reproduced in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols' (192-3, Freud's emphasis).
The single example of a specific case of hysteria or obsessional neurosis described in the seduction theory papers illustrates how Freud used this principle to reconstruct infantile 'scenes' (172-7 n). By analysing the elements of a male obsessional's sleep-ceremonial Freud inferred that a servant-girl had sexually abused him in infancy. For instance, the patient's compulsion 'to kick both legs out a certain number of times' was, in Freud's words, 'explained' as representing his 'kick[ing] away the person who was lying on him'. (Nowhere in this account of how Freud psychoanalytically 'traced back' the symptoms to the inferred sexual scene is there any indication that the patient reported any recollection of the event.)
Some indication of Freud's approach is also given in a letter to Fliess, dated 3 January 1897, reporting on a Miss G. de B. who had started treatment a month before. Freud wrote that his patient had a vaginal discharge at age 8-10, and some other apparently related symptoms. He also reported: 'A conspicuous tic; she forms [her lips into] a snout (from sucking). She is suffering from eczema around her mouth and from lesions that do not heal in the corners of her mouth. During the night her saliva periodically accumulates, after which the lesions appear.' From this Freud inferred she had in infancy been forced to suck on someone's penis. In addition he writes that at age twelve her speech inhibition first appeared when, 'with a full mouth, she was fleeing from a woman teacher' (Freud's emphasis). From the fact that 'her father has a similarly explosive speech, as though his mouth were full', Freud apparently divined that the abuser of the infant Miss G. de B. was her father. Having arrived at his reconstruction of a sexual scene, he 'thrust the explanation at her', and reported that 'she was at first won over'. However, after confronting her father she changed her mind, and Freud responded by threatening 'to send her away' in order to achieve her compliance (Masson, 1985: 220).
It is of interest to note that Freud's divinations from symptoms had put him on the trail of another 'sexual scene' in this case, involving G. de B's mother: 'The pain in her leg appears to have come from her mother' (ibid.: 221). Elsewhere he reported to Fliess other examples of how he inferred sexual scenes from somatic symptoms:
Hysterical cold shivers = being taken out of a warm bed. Hysterical headache with sensations of pressure on the top of the head, temples, and so forth, is characteristic of scenes where the head is held still for the purpose of actions in the mouth (ibid.: 230). ...[P]atients who have had something sexual done to them in sleep have attacks of sleep. (ibid.: 212)
In letters to Fliess after the publication of the seduction theory papers, Freud reported instances of patients apparently furnishing images or re-enactments of specific 'sexual scenes' (ibid.: 213, 218, 288), but it is impossible to ascertain how many patients were induced to provide 'reproductions' of this nature. Borch-Jacobsen (1996) views Freud's pressure technique as essentially a form of hypnosis, and he cites evidence which indicates that, in some cases at least, patients were induced to conjure up hypnagogic images of requisite infantile 'scenes'. In the 'Aetiology' paper Freud wrote that certain somatic symptoms 'correspond to the sensory content of the infantile scenes, reproduced in a hallucinatory fashion' (ibid.: 214), but, as we have seen, elsewhere there are passages which imply that the 'memories' generally consisted of fragmentary ideas or images from which Freud reconstructed the fully-fledged sexual scenes; as Toews puts it: 'The seduction scenes were laboriously constructed from indirect and fragmentary evidence' (1991: 511 n 12). Similarly, Schimek concludes that 'the knowledge of [the] original trauma, whether an unconscious memory or fantasy, was based on Freud's interpretation and reconstruction; it was not directly revealed by the patient' (1987: 960). (Cioffi [1972, 1974] had long before reached the same conclusion.)
While the precise nature of Freud's clinical material remains a matter of conjecture, it is evident that much of it was elicited by means of a highly directive and coercive technique applied by a physician who had preconceived ideas of what he would uncover. Given the elastic nature of his analytic technique of interpretation and reconstruction, one can begin to understand how it was that Freud was able to claim a remarkable one hundred percent success in corroborating his theory.
There is still one point remaining to be cleared up. In the traditional story it had always been self-evident why Freud had posited the seduction theory: many of his patients were coming to him with reports of childhood molestations. Since the latter is untrue, an alternative explanation must be sought. It can be found in the seduction theory papers themselves (S.E.: III, 153-4, 166-7 n), where Freud outlines his idea that when a sexual experience occurs in early childhood, the precocious excitement produces little or no effect at the time, but its psychical trace is preserved. When this unconscious psychical trace is in some way awakened after puberty, the traumatic memory, though still remaining unconscious, will display a power commensurate with the patient's now fully developed sexual faculties which manifests itself in the form of hysterical symptoms. This theory of 'deferred effect' was first mentioned in the final section of an unpublished manuscript known as 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' which Freud sent to Fliess on 8 October 1895 along with the letter in which he first announced the seduction theory (S.E.: I, 356). The 'deferred effect' notion implies an early childhood sexual trauma theory.
Freud's seduction theory 'confirmations'
During the seduction theory period Freud claimed three cases for which there was independent confirmation that his patients had experienced sexual abuse in early childhood. Smith (1991: 13-14) has examined these claims and has shown they are not substantiated by the evidence adduced by Freud. In the 'Aetiology' paper Freud asserted he had been able to obtain 'an objective confirmation', ie, 'confirmed by someone else', in two of his cases. However, in one of these an older brother 'confirmed - not, it is true his earliest sexual experiences with his sister - but at least scenes of that kind from later childhood...' (S.E.: III, 206). So in fact the crucial infantile 'scene' was not confirmed in this instance. The other case involved mutual confirmation from two of his female patients, who supposedly had had sexual relations with the same man, 'in the course of which certain scenes took place ŗ trois'. But two patients on whom Freud was using his questionable reconstructive technique can scarcely be said to have provided mutual confirmation of supposed infantile sexual experiences. (Freud points to a similar symptom 'as evidence of what they had experienced in common'.)
There is also a claimed external confirmation in the letter to Fliess of 3 January 1897. Freud writes of an ex-patient that the latter received confirmation 'of the reality of the things he remembered' from his 'seducer' (his nurse, now an old woman). Freud says he learned of this 'from Mrs F. (who heard it from Professor Sulz [Petz?])' (Masson, 1985: 219). That the news reached Freud by this circuitous route raises questions about the reliability of the information. Even if we give credence to this (fourthhand!) claim, we have no idea what the nurse supposedly confirmed - it might have been no more than innocent caresses, or that she had given the child an enema. Stronger evidence than this is required before one can take Freud's 'confirmations' at their face value.
In a paper addressed to analysts in 1913 Freud referred to 'the earliest days of analytic technique', and in an allusion to cases in which knowledge of a forgotten childhood trauma was obtained 'from parents or nurses or the seducer himself' he reported that his 'telling and describing [the patient's] repressed trauma to him did not even result in any recollection of it coming into his mind' (S.E.: XII, 141). However, the only instance he gives relates to an event experienced by a girl when she was 'approaching puberty'; in other words, it was not an infantile trauma as required by the seduction theory. As we have seen, the claims of external confirmations Freud made at the time are doubtful; however, his words in the 1913 report provide further evidence that it was he himself who told the patients they had experienced infantile molestations and that the patients did not recall the supposed traumas.
This 1913 report is instructive in another way. Freud writes that when he 'repeated her mother's story [of a homosexual experience] to the girl she reacted with an hysterical attack, and after this she forgot the story once more. There is no doubt that the patient was expressing a violent resistance against the knowledge that was being forced upon her.' Freud's words suggest he is convinced that in such a situation the forgotten scene is on the point of breaking through to consciousness, and that he takes the girl's 'hysterical attack' as evidence of this. This may be an indication of what Freud sometimes had in mind in the seduction theory papers when he wrote of the patients' 'reproducing' sexual scenes or 'recalling [them] to consciousness'. ('While they are recalling these infantile experiences to consciousness, they suffer under the most violent sensations...' [S.E.: III, 204].)
Fathers as the culprits
Although it is evident from the above analysis that the traditional story is erroneous, it is nevertheless necessary to look further into this issue because there is one document which is invariably cited as evidence that Freud frequently heard accounts of paternal sexual abuse from his female patients in the 1890s.
Freud informed Fliess of his loss of faith in the seduction theory in a letter dated 21 September 1897. There he wrote (among several reasons why he could no longer maintain his theory): 'Then the surprise that in all cases the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse' (Masson, 1985: 264; in the original German: 'Dann die ‹berraschung, dass in sšmtlichen Fšllen der Vater als pervers beschuldigt werden musste, mein eigener nicht ausgeschlossen' [Masson, 1986: 283]). This has customarily been taken as Freud's reporting his clinical findings, but there are several grounds for rejecting such an interpretation of his words.
1. Freud did not write 'had been accused', but 'had to be accused'. It seems that he was referring to a consequence of his recent speculative notions, reported in letters to Fliess (Masson, 1985: 212, 228), which had led him now to conclude that generally fathers had to be the abusers. That in letters of 11 January and 12 January 1897 he had implicated an uncle (while explicitly excluding the father) and a nurse in the case of two patients diagnosed as hysterics contradicts the construal of the sentence in question as Freud's saying that 'in all cases' fathers had been accused (ibid: 222, 223-4). In fact, in only three of the seven cases reported to Fliess prior to September 1897 were fathers the supposed culprits (ibid: 213 [correction, 224], 220, 238).
2. That he included his own father in the sentence at issue is a further indication of its conjectural nature. This suggestion was first made in a letter of 8 February 1897 on the basis of Freud's belief that several of his siblings suffered from hysterical symptoms (ibid: 230-31). He exonerated his father in a letter of 3/4 October 1897 (ibid: 268).
3 He could not have only just experienced 'surprise' in regard to clinical findings that mostly dated back more than eighteen months (reported in the 'Aetiology' paper).
4 In May 1897 he reported to Fliess his interpretation of one of his own dreams as the fulfilment of his 'wish to catch a father as the originator of neurosis' (ibid.: 249), which is inconsistent with the notion that he had frequently been doing so previously.
Frequently cited in the context of Freud's alleged concealing that the putative abusers of his seduction theory patients were generally fathers are two cases in Studies on Hysteria (1895) involving attempted sexual assaults on girls (Katharina and Rosalia) where Freud later (1924) added footnotes acknowledging that he had substituted uncles for fathers for reasons of 'discretion' (S.E.: II, 134 n, 170 n). However, it should be noted that these cases are not directly relevant to the infantile seduction theory. Katharina was not a patient of Freud's but someone with whom he chatted for a few hours one afternoon while on holiday. The incidents she reported had not been repressed (ibid.: 129-30, 132), and Katharina was fourteen or older when the attempted assaults took place. In the case of Rosalia, the incident described involved her 'uncle' (father) attempting a sexual assault while she was massaging his back to relieve his rheumatism, a situation which indicates that the girl was well beyond infancy (ibid.: 172).
Freud's motive for the substitutions may, as he implies, have been less reprehensible than present-day commentators are prepared to allow, namely to alter what he regarded as inessential facts to render more difficult any identification of the victims and culprits. Feminist critics such as Rush (1980: 85) and Herman (1981: 9-10) have cited these cases as evidence that Freud was anxious to conceal patriarchal abuses, but it is not clear why obnoxious acts perpetrated by uncles should be regarded as any less a reflection of the abuse of male power in society than similar acts by fathers.
Myths and misconceptions
Masson's view that 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' was 'the greatest [paper] Freud ever wrote' (1990: 87 n) is not shared by other commentators who have looked at it rather more carefully and found it wanting in almost every respect, save that of persuasive rhetoric (Thornton, 1983: 233-39; Smith, 1991: 7-15; IsraŽls and Schatzman, 1993: 23-39; Scharnberg, 1993: 137-219; Wilcocks, 1994: 113-57; Salyard, 1994: 659-66). Salyard, for instance, found 'it contained errors and inconsistencies, and was sometimes ambiguous, confusing, and lacking in clarity'. Thornton suggests that 'the many discrepancies, non-sequiturs and circular arguments in the paper point to a considerable diminution in Freud's critical faculties at this time'. In Smith's view, 'the evidence marshalled in "The Aetiology of Hysteria" is very weak'. For Wilcocks, 'construction, confabulation, and the absence of "hard" evidence are the hallmarks of this paper'.
A close reading of the paper without preconceptions is thus likely to result in a very different appraisal from Masson's. In addition to the factors alluded to above, Freud hardly helped his case by recounting clinical illustrations - only to then confess that they were 'inventions'! (He was obliged 'to make up fictitious examples', he said, because 'giving an account of the resolution of a single symptom would...amount to the task of relating an entire case history' [S.E. III, 196-7]). Several reviewers of Studies on Hysteria (published the previous year) had already expressed the view that there was a danger that the technique there described would evoke material of doubtful authenticity (Kiell, 1988: 68, 74, 82), so it is hardly surprising that the audience was unimpressed by Freud's lecture.
In a reference to 'the 1896 paper on hysteria' in Against Therapy Masson writes that 'at this point Freud said the answer had to be seduction, and by "seduction" he meant something very serious, what we would today call sexual assault. It corresponded pretty much to incest' (1993: 107). This passage exemplifies Masson's misconceptions about the seduction theory. Freud described the supposed premature incidents as 'sexual experiences affecting the subject's own body', and though he wrote that some of these were 'brutal assaults', elsewhere he stated that 'At the basis of the aetiology of hysteria we found an event of passive sexuality, an experience submitted to with a small degree of annoyance or fright' (ibid: 203, 152, 155). His 'deferred effect' theory merely required some degree of sexual excitation; incest was only an extreme example of the kind of wide-ranging experience encompassed by the seduction theory. Moreover, readers of Masson's accounts would not be aware that Freud insisted the patients had experienced the 'sexual scenes' in the face of their denials, that he stated that people who remembered sexual molestation (however serious) in early childhood would not suffer from hysteria on that account, and that he made the unlikely claim that he had uncovered sexual molestation in infancy in the case of every single one of his current patients (including six men) (ibid.: 204, 211, 207-8).
Masson supports his account of the seduction theory episode by recirculating the myth that Freud was ostracized by his medical colleagues in the early days of psychoanalysis (1984: 12). This story, propagated by Freud and his biographer Ernest Jones, has been shown to be without foundation (Ellenberger, 1970: 448; Sulloway, 1979: 462-4). There is not the least evidence that the views of Freud's colleagues played any role in his abandonment of the seduction theory, nor indeed of the widespread outrage that Masson claims. In 1897 an assembly of medical professors supported Freud's nomination for the position of Associate Professor at the University of Vienna by a majority of more than two to one (Ellenberger, 1970: 453; Masson, 1985: 232 n). Masson quotes Freud's unlikely and somewhat paranoid words to Fliess that 'word was given out to abandon me', while failing to record that Freud had previously written that he had decided (on Fliess's advice) to isolate himself from his colleagues before he presented his 'Aetiology' lecture (Masson, 1985: 185, 181, 183).
That the 'Aetiology' lecture was received coolly is without doubt true, but Masson's only other evidence for the supposed fierce antagonism of the medical profession towards Freud over this issue is the absence of a customary summary of the lecture and report of any discussion in the minutes of the meeting at which it was presented, one fiercely critical review of the 'Further Remarks' paper, and the fact that the seduction theory claims were challenged in an article published by LŲwenfeld in 1899 (Masson, 1984: 6, 135; : xxii). (For LŲwenfeld's perceptive criticisms, see IsraŽls and Schatzman [1993: 43-4]). The notion that Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory was in deference to his colleagues (Masson 1984: xxviii) is contradicted by the fact that it was not until 1905 that he so much as intimated publicly his change of mind, and even then he sought to minimize it: 'I cannot admit that in my paper on "The Aetiology of Hysteria" I exaggerated the frequency or importance of that influence [early childhood seduction]...' (S.E.: VII: 190).
While undoubtedly some physicians were inclined to dismiss female patients' reports of sexual assaults as hysterical confabulations, there was also public acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of children. Krafft-Ebing wrote, in his widely-read Psychopathia Sexualis (1894 edition): 'Today rape on children is remarkably frequent. Hofman (Ger. Med., i, p.155) and Tardieu [Attentats] report horrible cases. The latter establishes the fact that, from 1851 to 1875 inclusive, 22,017 cases of rape came before the courts in France, and of these, 17,675 were committed on children' (Borch-Jacobsen, 1996: 23 n). In 1897 Moll reported on the considerable number of adults in Germany convicted of child molestation (Kupfersmid, 1993: 285). In his 'Aetiology' lecture Freud himself suggested that some of his medical colleagues 'will perhaps argue that such experiences are very frequent - much too frequent for us to be able to attribute an aetiological significance to the fact of their occurrence' (S.E.: III, 207). This indicates that Freud believed it was not reports of the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse among his middle-class patients that would be controversial; rather it was the claim that such occurrences were the exclusive cause of the psychoneuroses which was likely to be received with scepticism. Some confirmation of this comes from Freud's words in the 'Aetiology' paper, where he says of his claim that a disturbance in the field of sexual experience is the precondition for hysterical symptoms that he anticipates 'it is precisely against this assertion' of 'universal validity' that criticism would be directed (ibid.: 199).
In The Assault on Truth Masson portrays Freud in 1896 as a man eager to expose the brutal treatment of female children in Viennese society, and to this end he provides a tendentious account of the period leading up to the public announcement of the seduction theory (ibid: 79-87). In this section, a farrago of misconceptions, errors, and speculation masquerading as fact, he purports to show that Freud started entertaining the seduction theory in 1893, and thereafter embraced the notion of childhood sexual abuse as a major cause of psychoneuroses. The truth is that prior to October 1895 it was Freud's view, expressed both publicly and in letters to Fliess, that psychoneuroses were caused by repressed memories of sexual experiences of any kind, including incidents occurring in adulthood. That he only alighted on the seduction theory in late 1895 is indicated by his words written on 8 October of that year: 'Just think: among other things I am on the scent of the following strict precondition for hysteria, namely, that a primary sexual experience (before puberty), accompanied by revulsion and fright, must have taken place' (Masson, 1985: 141). Masson highlights a reference to childhood sexual abuse in a letter written in 1893, but this is merely one of three 'unproven surmises' relating to cases of 'juvenile neurasthenia without masturbation' on which Freud is seeking Fliess's opinion (ibid.: 50, Freud's emphasis). In other words, it is nothing more than a passing conjecture pertaining to a very specific situation, unrelated to the later seduction theory. Masson's portrait of Freud as courageously defying his colleagues out of concern for abused female children (1984: xxiv-xxv) is belied by a passage at the end of the 'Aetiology' paper in which Freud wrote: 'What is more important to me than the value you put on my results is the attention you give to the procedure I have employed' (S.E.: III, 220). What really mattered to Freud was his discovery (as he thought) of the analytic technique which enabled him to divine the contents of his patients' unconscious minds and reconstruct their infantile past.
Freud's retrospective reports
To appreciate how most commentators, including Masson, have been misled by Freud's later reports of the seduction theory episode, the several accounts he published over the years must be examined. Originally, in the 'Further Remarks' paper, Freud reported that 'foremost among those guilty' were nursemaids, governesses, servants and teachers ('with regrettable frequency'); and in seven cases, slightly older boys, mostly brothers (S.E.: III, 164). In the 'Aetiology' paper Freud added close relatives ('all too often') to the first group, and also implicated 'adult strangers' (ibid.: 208). However, his story later changed to accord with his current theory. The seduction theory did not require specific culprits - hence the wide range of assailants in his 1895-6 reconstructions. By 1897 his cogitations had led to the conjecture that the culprits in the case of 'hysterics' were generally fathers, and this is reflected in an abstract of the 'Aetiology' paper: the several categories specified in that paper were condensed to the claim that 'as a rule' the abusers were 'to be looked for among the patient's nearest relatives' (ibid.: 254).
Following his abandonment of the seduction theory, in his accounts published in 1906 and 1914 he paid scant attention to the identities of the supposed culprits. His primary concern was to report that he had discovered that most of the 'infantile sexual traumas' which 'analysis had led back to' had been unconscious phantasies created during the years of puberty to 'cover up' memories of infantile masturbation (S.E.: VII, 274: XIV, 17-18). (In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905b] he had written of infantile masturbation that it leaves behind the deepest unconscious impressions in the memory, determining the development of a healthy person's character and the symptomatology of those who develop neuroses [S.E.: VII, 189]). It was not until 1925 that he first stated publicly that in the case of the female patients 'the part of seducer was almost always assigned to their father'. He had 'believed these stories' but was 'at last obliged to recognize' that the scenes of seduction were 'wishful phantasies' which were, as he was later to realize, a consequence of the Oedipus complex (S.E.: XX, 33-4). (At the time he had just begun applying his Oedipal theory to female development [S.E.: XIX, 177-9]). In 1933 he reiterated that during the seduction theory period 'almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father', and it is this final version of the story which acquired the status of historical fact for most of this century (S.E.: XXII, 120). (A little earlier he had reported for the first time that 'girls regularly [sic] accuse their mother of seducing them', in accord with his belated "discovery" that infant girls' first libidinal attachment is to their mother [S.E.: XXI, 238]).
Freud's 1906 account marks the first stage in his self-serving misrepresentation of the seduction theory episode. He wrote that he 'was at that period [1895-96] unable to distinguish with certainty between falsifications made by hysterics in their memories of childhood and traces of real events' (ibid.: 274). His choice of words serves both to obscure the fact that the putative memories were unconscious and had been reconstructed by means of his psychoanalytic technique, and to extenuate his error by implying that the patients were responsible for the supposed false 'memories'.
Freud implicitly revealed that there was something amiss with the received story when his 1925 account he wrote that the childhood seduction scenes (which 'I had arrived at...by a technical method which I considered correct') were reproduced 'under the influence of the technical procedure which I used at that time' (emphasis added). This acknowledgement no doubt reflects the fact that he had recently edited the seduction theory papers in preparation for their reprinting in 1924. Equally noteworthy is that according to both his 1925 and his 1933 accounts, he was the recipient of reports of paternal seductions from almost all his female patients only during the period when he maintained the seduction theory.
Perhaps because he had recently reread the seduction theory papers, Freud's 1925 account is particularly revealing. He wrote that he was obliged to recognize that the 'scenes of seduction' were 'only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I had perhaps forced on them' (S.E.: XX, 34, emphasis added). He went on to say: 'I do not believe even now that I forced the seduction phantasies on my patients, that I "suggested" them', but remarkably, given the 'overwhelming importance' he accords his discovery of the supposed infantile phantasies (ibid.: 34), he gives no reason why he rejects this possibility. One is left wondering about the significance of 'even now' in this sentence. Could this be an inadvertent intimation that even now that he had been reminded of what he wrote at the time, which contains indications that he had indeed forced the 'scenes' on his patients, he would not (one might say could not) allow himself to entertain the possibility?
It is evident from the above that the account taken as historical fact by Masson was but the final stage of a story whose ever-changing nature served to obscure the truth about what happened between Freud and his patients in 1895-7.
Jeffrey Masson has produced an erroneous account of the seduction theory episode which, as Rycroft writes, demonstrates his 'incapacity to distinguish between facts, inferences, and speculations' (1991: 75). His errors result from his failure to grasp the nature of the clinical procedure Freud was using, his uncritical presumption that the latter's clinical claims were valid, and his acceptance of Freud's historical accounts in spite of the scholarly research which has shown them to be unreliable. This will, of course, bring little comfort to his psychoanalytic critics, since it is evident that the theory of infantile seduction phantasies which superseded the seduction theory was based on the same unsound clinical claims. Masson (along with feminists such as Rush and Herman) are absolutely right to censure the psychoanalytic community for encouraging analytically-oriented therapists to construe female patients' reports of childhood sexual abuse as fantasies. This unfortunate tendency was actually based on a misconception. In Freud's theory the fantasies (phantasies) in question are unconscious (S.E. VII, 274-75) and thus have to be analytically uncovered by the therapist; reports of childhood sexual abuse that had always been remembered do not fall into this category. Psychoanalysts, like almost everyone else, were deceived by Freud's misleading retrospective accounts of the episode.
The dawning realization that he could not continue to maintain the thesis of an exclusive sexual molestation aetiology should have caused Freud to reflect on whether his newly developed psychoanalytic technique for accessing unconscious memories was flawed. Instead he insisted his findings were essentially correct but that what he had supposedly uncovered (the preconceived infantile 'sexual scenes' he had foisted on his patients) were generally unconscious phantasies of seduction. His later accounts of the episode served to conceal that his clinical findings reported in 1896 were an artefact of his coercive application of the analytic technique of reconstruction. In the words of Cioffi: 'Freud could not bring himself to recognize the reasoning by which he had persuaded himself of the authenticity of the seductions, because it was the same sort of reasoning which, for the rest of his career, he was to employ in his reconstruction of infantile fantasy life and of the content of the unconscious in general' (1974: 173-4).
One final point: it must be emphasized that it is not being argued that none of Freud's patients in the relevant period had been sexually abused in childhood. Apart from the two cases of attempted sexual assault reported in Studies on Hysteria, there are unambiguous indications that a female patient who began treatment in 1897 was the victim of repeated post-infantile sexual abuse by her father - though it should be noted that she told Freud at the very start of the treatment, and there was no suggestion that she had repressed the memory of her experiences (Masson, 1985: 238). But the story that most of Freud's female patients in the seduction theory period told him they had been sexually abused in early childhood, the cornerstone of Masson's account of the episode, is contradicted by the contemporary documentary evidence.
1 The word Phantasie was almost invariably used by Freud to denote an inferred unconscious idea or image which he had analytically reconstructed. Its frequent translation as 'fantasy' (rather than 'phantasy' as in the Standard Edition) has exacerbated the tendency to misconstrue the ideas or images in question as conscious experiences of Freud's patients (Esterson, 1993: 166-8). The significance of this will become apparent in the course of this article.
2 Salyard was apparently unaware that this had already ceased to be true when she published her article. See Cioffi (1972, 1974), Macmillan (1977, 1991), Steele (1982), Thornton (1983), Schimek (1987), Smith (1991), Esterson (1993), IsraŽls and Schatzman (1993), Scharnberg (1993), and Powell and Boer (1994), all of whom have disputed Freud's retrospective accounts of the episode.
3 Several examples of the analytic technique of reconstruction, ie, the inferring of supposedly repressed traumatic 'scenes' or unconscious phantasies from patients' symptoms and associations, can be found in the 'Dora' case history, written in 1901 (S.E.: VII, 46-8, 79-80, 83). In his introductory remarks Freud explicitly relates his methodology to that employed in 1895-6 (ibid.: 7).
4 Lest anyone should doubt that Freud's coercive treatment of Miss G. de B. typified his approach at that time, here is what he wrote in a paper published in 1898: 'Having diagnosed a case of neurasthenic neurosis with certainty...we are in a position to translate the symptomatology into aetiology; and we may then boldly demand confirmation of our suspicions from the patient. We must not be led astray by initial denials. If we keep firmly to what we have inferred we shall in the end conquer every resistance by emphasising the unshakeable nature of our convictions' (S.E.: III, 269).
5 In the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, completed in 1899, Freud wrote in relation to a dream from 1895: 'It was my view at that time...that my task was fulfilled when I had informed a patient of the hidden meaning of his symptoms' (S.E.: IV, 108, emphasis added). Again, in 1908 Freud wrote in relation to 'the hysteric's unconscious phantasies': 'The technique of psychoanalysis enables us in the first place to infer from the symptoms what those unconscious phantasies are and then to make them conscious to the patient' (S.E., IX: 162).
6 Freud claimed that in the case of his six obsessional patients he had uncovered an active (pleasurable) sexual experience at age eight or ten, in line with the speculative differential aetiology theory he had announced to Fliess in October 1895 (see above). This necessitated the occurrence of a corresponding passive experience in infancy (to account for the perverse activities of prepubertal boys [S.E.: III, 155]) and, sure enough, he reported that 'analysis confirms this suspicion' - these patients had all experienced the two types of sexual experiences at the appropriate ages (ibid.: 155-6, 168-9)). However, following his abandonment of the seduction theory he never again referred to these claimed corroborations of his differential aetiology theory, and in 1906 he reported that after relinquishing the seduction theory he had been 'obliged to abandon this [differential aetiology] view entirely' (S.E.: VII, 275). It seems that, with the aid of his analytic technique, Freud had little problem in corroborating his current theory - and in jettisoning the corroborations when the theory changed.
7 Scharnberg (1993: 156) has directed attention to an odd inconsistency. Freud reported that 'out of eighteen cases, I have been able to obtain an objective confirmation of this sort in two'. Since in one of the two instances Freud claimed mutual confirmation by two of his patients, he should have stated he had confirmed three out of eighteen cases.
8 His assertion in the same letter that in his case 'the prime originator' (ibid: 268) was his nursemaid was derived from dream analysis (Masson, 1985: 269).
9 The explanation for Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory is a matter of much debate (see IsraŽls and Schatzman, 1993: 47-58; Kupfersmid, 1993; Macmillan, 1997: 636-40). In the 21 September 1897 letter to Fliess, he gave several motives for his loss of faith; however, in his published accounts (1906, 1914, 1925b) he provided rather different reasons which are neither consistent nor convincing (S.E.: VII, 274, 276; XIV, 17; XX, 34; Cioffi, 1988: 62-4; IsraŽls and Schatzman, 1993: 39-47). For instance, in his 1914 account he claimed its 'contradiction in definitely ascertainable circumstances'. As Cioffi has pointed out (1984: 743), a plausible scenario for such a contradiction is difficult to envisage: how could Freud have ascertained that a patient had not been sexually molested in infancy? Moreover, had there been any substance to this claim, Freud could scarcely have failed to mention it in his 1906 account (and in his letters to Fliess at the time).
10 In 1901 Fliess disparaged Freud's analytic technique as that of 'the reader of thoughts [who] merely reads his own thoughts into other people' (Masson, 1985: 447).
11 To take this explanation seriously one would have to accept that for a girl, the memory of having masturbated in infancy was more distressing than the belief that she had been sexually abused. In 1905-6 Freud was grappling with the problem of how he could explain away the discarded claims which he had announced so confidently in 1896, and his story was at a transitional stage. While claiming that in 1895-6 his material 'happened by chance to include a disproportionately large number of cases in which sexual seduction by an adult or by older children played the chief part in the history of the patient's childhood', he also asserted unspecifically that he had 'learnt to explain a number of phantasies of seduction as attempts at fending off memories of the subject's own sexual activity (infantile masturbation)'. By the time he gave his next account, the 'large number of cases' had dwindled considerably, and what he had 'learnt to explain' had become a 'discovery' (S.E.: XIV, 17-18), paving the way for his final version.
12 The plausibility of the belated Oedipal phantasies explanation of the seduction theory episode is undermined by the fact that Freud never once mentioned corresponding reports of maternal seduction phantasies by male patients arising from their infantile incestuous desires. Though his female patients were more numerous and supposedly more forthcoming in providing evidence of Oedipal phantasies, Freud stated in 1935 that 'The information about infantile sexuality was obtained from the study of men and the theory deduced from it was concerned with male children' (S.E.: XX, 36 n). It is not immediately apparent why the analytic technique for accessing the unconscious should have been less successful in the case of women patients, but it seems that once he put his mind to it (starting in 1925 [S.E.: XIX, 241-258]) he was able to plumb the depths of the female unconscious, and by 1931 he had provided a full description of their psychosexual development (S.E.: XXI, 221-43). (An account of how 'analysis' enabled him to accomplish this can be found in [Esterson, 1993: 140-9].)
13 The 1906 account contains another example of how Freud's story was in the process of transmuting. Whereas in Three Essays (1905b) he had stated that he 'cannot admit' that he had exaggerated the frequency of 'seduction' in early childhood (S.E.: VII, 190), he now wrote that he had 'over-estimated the frequency of such events' (ibid.: 274). As a further illustration of the unreliability of Freud's retrospective reports, in 1905 he wrote in the context of his explaining his abandonment of the seduction theory that he 'did not then [in 1896] know that persons who remain normal may have had the same [seduction] experiences in their childhood' (S.E.: VII, 190). Though he claimed that 'further information' which had 'now become available' had led to this 'unexpected finding' (ibid.: 276), in the 'Aetiology' paper he had explicitly acknowledged 'the observed fact that many people who remember such [seduction] scenes...have not become hysterics' (S.E.: III, 209, Freud's emphasis). In fact he is being doubly disingenuous here, because he fails to allude to the important point that these memories of 'normal' people were conscious, and that in 1896 he had discounted such cases because their memories were not repressed (ibid.: 211).
14 In this same passage Freud disingenuously portrays his earlier self as a naive physician who had been deceived by his patients' reports: 'If the reader feels inclined to shake his head at my credulity, I cannot altogether blame him.' One would not have guessed from this that in 1896 he had defended his claims against the potential objection that he had been deceived by hysterical confabulations as follows: 'I should accuse myself of blameworthy credulity if I did not possess more conclusive evidence [than statements of patients]' (S.E.: III, 153).
15 Space considerations have necessitated the omission of an examination of Masson's misleading account of the prehistory of the seduction theory, his claim that the Wolf Man was sexually abused in infancy by a member of his family, and his uncritical presentations of the clinical claims of SŠndor Ferenczi and Robert Fliess. Readers interested in a critique of these sections of The Assault on Truth should visit the following website: http://human-nature.com/esterson/addendum.html
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