The mythologizing of psychoanalytic history: deception and self-deception in Freud’s accounts of the seduction theory episode

Allen Esterson


(Note: This is a pre-publication version. The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in History of Psychiatry, xii, 2001, pp. 329-352, by SAGE Publications Ltd. © 2001 Sage Publications Ltd.)


Following in the footsteps of the pioneering articles by Frank Cioffi in the early 1970s, several scholars in recent years have scrutinized Freud’s writings pertaining to the seduction theory and to his clinical procedures in the mid­-1890s and concluded that he had no adequate grounds for his contention that he had uncovered ‘sexual scenes’ from infancy. They have also shown that even a cursory examination of Freud’s original papers reveals that they are not consistent with his later accounts of the episode. This article goes beyond indicating the manifest discrepancies between the later reports and the original papers, and analyses the retrospective accounts in considerable detail, with the aim of illuminating the means by which Freud succeeded in obscuring what actually happened with his patients in the period in question, and the reasons for his doing so.


Several scholars have now highlighted the more obvious discrepancies between Freud’s later reports of the seduction theory episode and the clinical claims made in the original papers, but none of these analyses has elucidated the precise means by which he succeeded in providing so persuasive an account of the events in question that it attained the status of historical fact for much of the twentieth century. As Schimek has written, ‘There is a wide gap between the seduction theory of 1896 and Freud’s account of it in 1933’, and in relation to the intermediate steps he observes: ‘The revisions were only gradual; the reasons given for them and the references to the original theory are changing, incomplete, and far from consistent’ (Schimek 1987: 955). The intricacies of the path traversed from Freud’s first public intimation that he had abandoned the seduction theory to the final accounts which determined the official history of the episode will be examined in detail below, following a brief account of the original events.[1]

The seduction theory

The abandonment of the seduction theory is widely regarded as a seminal event in the history of psychoanalysis. The traditional story of the episode is that in the 1890s most of Freud’s patients, in the course of their analyses, reported having been sexually abused in early childhood.[2] At first, according to this account, he believed what his patients told him, but then came to realize that most of these reports were untrue, thereby discovering the pre-eminent role of infantile phantasies in our psychosexual development.[3] In the last two decades a revised version popularized by Jeffrey Masson has received considerable attention: when Freud retreated from his original claims and asserted that most of the women who reported childhood sexual abuse were actually recalling phantasies rather than real incidents, he was betraying his abused female patients (Masson 1984). Less well known are the several publications which have challenged the received story at a more fundamental level: these maintain that the evidence adduced for the supposed infantile sexual molestations was spurious, and that Freud’s retrospective accounts of the episode are misleading.[4]

The salient information about the seduction theory episode is as follows. At that time Freud’s clinical methodology was based on his belief that hysterical symptoms resulted from the activation of forgotten traumatic events of a sexual nature. He encouraged patients to bring forward any ideas that entered their minds, and when nothing was forthcoming he interpreted this as resistance and made use of his pressure technique (Druckprozedur) to try to induce them to provide repressed material. This was, as described in Studies on Hysteria (1895), a quasi-hypnotic procedure by means of which he sought to induce patients to produce ideas or images which would eventually lead (as he thought) to the uncovering of unconscious memories (Freud 1895: 153-54, 268-72, 278-82, 291-96, 299-301). He placed his hand on the forehead of his patients, asked them to close their eyes (p. 268), and encouraged them to report anything that came to mind. In the event that nothing occurred to the patient, he took this as a sign of resistance and repeated the pressure on the forehead while insisting that a picture or an idea would emerge. The ideas and images obtained by this ‘technique of insistence and pressure’ (p. 283) generally emerged in a piecemeal fashion, with the essential elements missing (pp. 281-82). The task of the physician was ‘to put these [fragments] together once more into the organization which he presumes to have existed’, rather like solving a jigsaw puzzle (p. 291), and Freud reported that to accomplish this ‘it is of use if we can guess the way in which things are connected up and tell the patient before we have uncovered it’ (p. 295).[5]

In early October 1895 Freud announced to his confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, his new theory that hysteria and obsessional neurosis resulted exclusively from the activation of unconscious memories of sexual traumas which had occurred in early childhood.[6] Then in papers completed in early February 1896,[7] and again in ‘The aetiology of hysteria’ (delivered as a lecture on 21 April 1896),[8] he claimed that he had uncovered such experiences, mostly occurring below the age of five, for all of his patients diagnosed as hysterical (12 women and 6 men in the latter paper) (1896a: 152; 1896b: 165; 1896c: 207-08). In the case of six obsessional patients he claimed that they had engaged in pleasurable sexual acts of aggression before the age of ten, and also experienced passive sexual traumas in infancy (1896a: 155-56; 1896b: 167-69). The principle on which he based his claims is that the symptoms of hysteria are symbolic representations of early sexual traumas,[9] and he described the means by which he arrived at his analytic findings as 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 injured person’ (1896c: 192). The patients were said to have ‘reproduced’ the requisite ‘sexual scenes’ under the pressure of his clinical procedure: ‘Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these scenes. They are indignant as a rule if we warn them [man ihnen ... ankündigt] that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment [den stärksten Zwang der Behandlung] can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them’ (1896c: 204; G.S. 1: 419). However, he reported that ‘they have no feeling of remembering the scenes’ he claimed he had induced them to ‘reproduce’ [reproduzieren], and that they ‘assure me... emphatically of their unbelief’[10] (1896c: 204). These indications that the evidence adduced by Freud did not consist of memories (authentic or not) reported by the patients, as he was later to maintain (1933: 120), are complemented by his description of the ‘scenes’ as traumas ‘which analysis uncovered [aufdeckte]’, and by his alluding to the patients’ ‘reproduction’ [Reproduktion] of such scenes rather than their recollection of them (1896b: 164; 1896c: 202, 204; G.S. 1: 365, 417, 419).[11]

It is significant that in none of the cases in Studies on Hysteria had Freud reported that his clinical procedure had led to the uncovering of a repressed memory of sexual abuse in infancy. Yet within four months of announcing his new theory to Fliess, he claimed to have found such occurrences for every one of sixteen patients (1896a: 152, 155).[12] Makari observes that ‘in his earliest seduction theories’ [more accurately, in his clinical claims in the earlier 1896 papers] Freud ‘followed Richard von Krafft‑Ebing and others by suggesting that the perpetrators ... were generally nursemaids, older children, and strangers’ (Makari 1998: 642).[13] It was only after theoretical consid­erations led to his conjecturing that fathers were likely to be the culprits[14] that one finds, in his letters to Fliess, Freud’s implicating fathers in some of his current cases (Letters: 220, 224, 238).[15] In contrast to what he had asserted in the ‘Further remarks’ paper, in his 1897 abstract of ‘The aetiology of hysteria’ he wrote that those responsible for ‘the infantile sexual experiences which have been shown to constitute the aetiology of the psychoneuroses... are as a rule to be looked for among the patient’s nearest relatives’ (1897: 254), thereby excluding all but prepubertal brothers from the categories of assailants listed in the earlier paper. All this suggests that Freud’s clinical claims tended to be shaped by his theoretical requirements.

After listing the several categories of supposed assailants in the ‘Aetiology’ paper, Freud wrote: ‘In most cases I found that two or more of these aetiologies were in operation together; in a few instances the accumulation of sexual experiences coming from different quarters was truly amazing’ (1896c: 208). The multiplicity of infantile sexual experiences suggested by these words is another indication that his claims were based essentially on the analytic interpretation of symptoms. Otherwise it is difficult to explain the sheer number of traumatic infantile experiences supposedly uncovered following his alighting on the seduction theory, when not a single such experience had been reported in the several cases discussed in Studies on Hysteria, although he was using the same procedures to induce the patients to produce material from their unconscious.

Again, in the ‘Further remarks’ paper he had reported: ‘My thirteen cases [of hysteria] were without exception [durchwegs] of a severe kind... The childhood traumas which analysis uncovered in these severe cases had all to be classed as grave sexual injuries [Schädigungen[16]]; some of them were positively revolting’ (1896b: 164, emphasis added; G.S. 1: 365). Elsewhere he wrote that some of the infantile ‘scenes’ were represented by ‘a brutal assault’ [un attentat brutal] (1896a: 152; G.S. 1: 398), and that they included ‘all the abuses known to debauched and impotent persons, among whom the buccal cavity and the rectum are misused for sexual purposes’ (1896c: 214). But in the ‘Heredity’ paper, he wrote that ‘At the basis of the aetiology of hysteria we found an event of passive sexuality, an experience submitted to with indifference or with a small degree of annoyance or fright’ (1896a: 155). It is difficult to reconcile these statements, and the inconsistency is a further indication that the ‘sexual scenes’ supposedly uncovered were analytical reconstructions and not patients’ recollections.[17]

Freud wrote of the six obsessional patients that their engaging in an act of sexual aggression prior to puberty suggested ‘the influence of a previous seduction’ to account for the precocious sexual activity, and in the ‘Heredity’ paper he claimed that ‘In the cases analysed by me analysis confirms this suspicion (1896a: 155-56, emphasis added). In the ‘Further remarks’ paper he reiterated that ‘In all my cases of obsessional neurosis... I have found a substratum of hysterical symptoms which could be traced back to a scene of sexual passivity that preceded the pleasurable action’ (1896b: 168-69, Freud’s emphasis). Again, in the ‘Aetiology’ paper he asserted that ‘every one of my cases of obsessions revealed a substratum of hysterical symptoms, mostly sensations and pains, which went back precisely to the earliest childhood experiences’ (1896c: 219, emphasis added). However, in a reference to his theoretical notions distinguishing the infantile experiences of obsessionals from those of hysterics, reported as corroborated in 1896, he later wrote that he ‘was obliged to abandon this view entirely’ (1906: 275; see also Freud 1913: 319). This is another indication that the 1896 ‘findings’ were essentially analytic reconstructions inferred by Freud to accord with his theoretical expectations.[18]

In the seduction theory papers Freud provided specific details of his analytic procedure for only one of his hysterical or obsessional cases. Writing that obsessional actions ‘can always be fully explained by being traced back to the obsessional memories which they are fighting against’, he describes how he traced a male patient’s bedtime ritual, which started at the age of eleven, back to an infantile ‘scene’ in which a servant girl ‘had taken the opportunity of lying down on him and abusing him sexually’: ‘The meaning of the ceremonial was easy to guess [erraten] and was established point by point by psychoanalysis [emphases added]. The chairs were placed in front of the bed and the bed pushed against the wall in order that nobody else should be able to get at the bed; the pillows were arranged in a particular way so that they should be diffierently arranged from how they were on that evening; the movements with his legs were to kick away the person who was lying on him; sleeping on his side was because in the scene he had been lying on his back...’ (1896b: 172, 172 n.l; G.S. 1: 374, 374 n.1). There is no mention of the patient’s reproducing the ‘scene’ Freud has reconstructed; he regards the ritual of the eleven-year-old boy as tantamount to a ‘circumstantial confession’ to his mother.[19] To find another direct indication of Freud’s method of ‘uncovering’ an infantile ‘sexual scene’ in a specific case we have to turn to the letters he wrote to Fliess in this period. It was not until December 1896 that he reported to Fliess any specific details of his supposed findings;[20] in the most detailed of these brief reports he recounts how he ‘thrust’ his analytic reconstruction based on symbolic interpretation of somatic symptoms at a patient (Miss G. de B.), who was ‘at first won over’, but then offered ‘the most vehement resistance’ (Letters: 220-21).[21] It seems likely that many of the findings claimed in the 1896 seduction theory papers were solely of this nature (i.e., analytic reconstructions), without their being supposedly corroborated by induced images (whether whole or fragmentary) or explicit ‘reproductions’ of ‘sexual scenes’. It is perhaps significant that in the first two seduction theory papers Freud makes no mention of the hysterical and obsessional patients’ ‘reproducing’ the infantile ‘sexual scenes’ which ‘analysis uncovered’ (1896b: 164).

In short, as Schimek writes, such evidence as we have indicates that ‘the knowledge of [the] original trauma, whether considered as unconscious memory or fantasy, was based on Freud’s interpretation and reconstruction; it was not directly revealed by the patient’ (Schimek 1987: 960). This conclusion has been arrived at by the authors cited in Note 4 on the basis of close readings of the documentary evidence. Borch-Jacobsen, while agreeing that Freud’s claims that his patients had recovered memories of infantile sexual abuse were spurious, argues that many of the patients must have produced images or re-enactments of ‘sexual scenes’ under the influence of Freud’s suggestive pressure (Borch-Jacobsen 1996: 31-33).[22] In letters written to Fliess in 1897 Freud reported patients’ supposedly reproducing or re-enacting an infantile ‘sexual scene’ (Letters: 226, 288-89).[23] Other reported infantile scenes, albeit in one or two cases explicitly described, remain ambiguous as to the means by which he obtained his purported findings (Letters: 213, 223-24).

In view of the absence of claims of his having uncovered infantile traumas prior to October 1895, and the short period between his announcing his theory in that month and the claims of one hundred per cent successful corroborations made by the beginning of February 1896,[24] the question of the trustworthiness of Freud’s published reports must also be considered. An occurrence which bears on this issue relates to the question of the therapeutic efficacy of his treatment. Although in the ‘Aetiology’ paper he had given the impression that he had achieved considerable therapeutic success (1896c: 199, 211), in his letter to Fliess dated 21 September 1897 he wrote that one of the reasons for his losing faith in the seduction theory was that his analyses were not as therapeutically efficacious as he had anticipated (Letters: 264). Then on 9 February 1898 he reported to Fliess: ‘The cases of hysteria are proceeding especially poorly. I shall not finish a single one this year either’ (Letters: 299; see also letter of 29 March 1897, Letters: 233). But in a paper published in January/February 1898 he made claims entirely at variance with his reports to Fliess, asserting that he owed ‘a great number of successes’ [zahlreiche Erfolge] to his new psychoanalytic therapeutic procedure (1898: 282; G.S. 1: 460); and not content with this, he went on to state: ‘I ought also to say that up to the present I have tried my treatment exclusively on severe cases of hysteria and obsessional neurosis... Thus it happened that I was obliged to tackle the hardest tasks straightaway... The test has proved all the more convincing [beweiskräftiger]’ (1898: 283, Freud’s emphasis; G.S. 1: 462). The discrepancy between his private and public pronouncements here is stark.[25]

That the findings he obtained by his clinical procedure may frequently have been a reflection of Freud’s own expectations rather than of his patients’ experiences was a view held by many of his colleagues,[26] and the claims made in the seduction theory papers were almost universally rejected.[27] Although he was scornful about the adverse reaction to his ‘Aetiology’ lecture (Letters: 184), some eighteen months after delivering it Freud himself privately confessed to Fliess that he no longer believed in his theory of the origins of the psychoneuroses (Letters: 184).[28] In the letter in question (21 September 1897) Freud confided that he had no intention of telling anyone else of his loss of faith in the theory that he had announced so emphatically only the previous year, and he made no public allusion to his change of view for some seven years after he finally abandoned it.[29] In spite of the doubts he expressed to Fliess about the authenticity of the ‘sexual scenes’, he was to continue maintaining that his analytic findings were determined solely by internal processes and were uncontaminated by his expectations.[30] How he reconciled this with the 1896 clinical claims that he had now concluded were unsustainable will be recounted in the next section.

Extrication from potential disaster

In his later accounts of the seduction theory episode Freud was to describe his error as potentially ‘fatal’ for his analytic technique and the whole of his work (1914: 17; 1925: 33). However, his loss of faith in the validity of his recent clinical findings did not, it seems, cause him to question the central features of his interpretative and reconstructive technique.[31] In his letter to Fliess of 21 September 1897 he emphasized that ‘The dream [book] stands entirely secure’, and in subsequent letters he used interpretations of his own dreams to reconstruct supposed incidents in his early life (Letters: 266, 268-70). During the next two years he focused on writing The Interpretation of Dreams, the most comprehensive of his expositions of the interpretive technique. But he had still to extricate himself from the debacle of the collapse of his premature claim of having solved the problem of the origins of psychoneuroses. He had already started developing conjectural notions about the role of unconscious phantasies relating to infancy (Letters: 239, 240-42, 246-48, 250-52, 338), and his solution was to maintain that the infantile sexual ideation he had presumed to underlie his patients’ symptoms was not in question, but only their source in real ‘seductions’. During this period infantile masturbation began to replace ‘seductions’ in his aetiological conjectures, and he needed to find a way of explaining the supposed corrob­orations of his earlier theory in terms of his new ideas.[32]

That Freud had some difficulty in reconciling his 1896 claim that all his patients had experienced infantile sexual molestation with his new position is evident from the prevarications in the short passage in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) in which he first alludes publicly to his change of view. Though acknowledging that in 1896 he had ‘overrated the importance of seduction [in early childhood] in comparison with the factors of sexual constitution and development’, he defends his earlier clinical claims: ‘I cannot admit that in my paper on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ I exaggerated the frequency or importance of that influence’ (1905: 190). He seeks to excuse his previous overemphasizing of childhood ‘seduction’ as the cause of neurotic illness by invoking a supposedly new discovery which an examination of the ‘Aetiology’ paper reveals him to have been perfectly aware of at the time: ‘... I did not then know that persons who remain normal may have had the same experiences in their childhood’ (1905: 190). This assertion is contradicted by his statement in ‘Aetiology’: ‘We have heard and have acknowledged that there are numerous people who have a very clear recollection of infantile sexual experiences and who nevertheless do not suffer from hysteria.’ (At that time he had emphasized that ‘This objection has no weight’ because, according to his theory, only unconscious memories could be pathogenic.) (1896c: 211) In the passage in Three Essays he disingenuously goes on to say that it was as a consequence of his false assertion noted above that he had ‘overrated the importance of seduction [in early childhood] in comparison with the factors of constitution and development’, but that this was an intimation of the retraction of his claims to have clinically validated the seduction theory, unmentioned in his publications since 1896, would not have been apparent to the great majority of readers.

He was to put a rather different slant on his previous position in the first detailed account of his revised view, presented in his paper ‘My views on the part played by sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses’ (1906), written in 1905. The following passage contains both his explanation of how he came to make his error and his first attempt to incorporate his previous clinical claims into his newly developed theoretical schema:

At that time my material was still scanty, and it happened by chance [Zufall] to include a disproportionately large number of cases in which sexual seduction [Verführung] by an adult or by older children played the chief part in the history of the patient’s childhood. I thus over-estimated the frequency of such events (though in other respects they were not open to doubt [dieser (sonst nicht anzuzweifelnden) Vorkommnisse)]. Moreover, I was at that period unable to distinguish with certainty between falsifications made by hysterics in their memories of childhood [die Erinnerungs­täuschungen der Hysterischen über ihre Kindheit][33] and traces of real events. Since then I have learned to explain [auflösen] a number of phantasies of seduction as attempts at fending off memories of the subject’s own sexual activity (infantile masturbation). When this point had been clarified, the ‘traumatic’ element in the sexual experiences of childhood lost its importance and what was left was the realization that infantile sexual activity (whether spontaneous or provoked) prescribes the direction that will be taken by later sexual life after maturity. The same, clarification (which corrected the most important of my early mistakes) also made it necessary to modify my view of the mechanism of hysterical symptoms. They were now no longer to be regarded as direct derivatives of the repressed memories of childhood experiences; but between the symptoms and the childish impressions there were inserted the patient’s phantasies (or imaginary memories [Errinnerungsdichtungen: ‘fictionalized memories’]), mostly produced during the years of puberty, which on the one side were built up out of and over the childhood memories and on the other side were transformed directly into the symptoms. It was only after the introduction of this element of hysterical phantasies that the texture of the neurosis and its relation to the patient’s life became intelligible; a surprising analogy came to light, too, between these unconscious phantasies of hysterics and the imaginary creations of paranoics which become conscious as delusions. (1906: 274, Freud’s emphasis; G.S. 5: 127-28)

The first point to note in this passage is Freud’s unequivocal assertion that a large proportion of his patients had been sexually abused in childhood, as if this remained an incontrovertible finding needing no justification.[34] His letter to Fliess of 21 September 1897 shows that his doubts about the seduction theory did not stem from his having discovered that the supposed infantile sexual molestations had not occurred in any specific cases, but arose from more general considerations (Letters: 264-65). Looking at the situation from his perspective, he was therefore not in a position to estimate how many of his claimed corroborations were erroneous. He evidently felt that it would not be judicious to acknowledge this unsatisfactory state of affairs, electing instead to adopt the stratagem of affirming his 1896 claims for a large proportion of the cases, while being unforthcoming about actual numbers.[35] The seemingly innocuous intimation that it was ‘by chance’ that his cases had included ‘a disproportionately large number’ of authentic cases of childhood abuse serves both to conceal that his claims originated from his actively seeking to corroborate a preconceived idea and to excuse his having purportedly confirmed a theory he now acknowledged to have been erroneous.

There are other deficiencies in this revised account of his earlier clinical material, even taken at its face value. How could he be in a position to affirm that in a large proportion of his cases there had undoubtedly been sexual abuse in early childhood, given that he goes on to claim that some patients produce pseudo-memories of such events? He implies that he can now distinguish genuine cases from false ones but does not explain how he accomplished this; moreover, it is evident that as far as the bulk of the cases from 1895-96 are concerned, any such discovery would have had to have been made retrospectively.[36] Regarding patients for whom he has now learned to explain their alleged phantasies of seduction as a defence against memories of infantile masturbation, he does not actually state explicitly that he had discovered in any specific case that the supposed event was not authentic, though the natural inference from his account is that he had done so in some instances.

In explaining how he had come to ‘over-estimate’ the frequency of early childhood ‘seductions’, Freud writes that he had been misled by some patients’ false memories from childhood. One would not guess from this passage that in 1896 he had reported applying ‘the strongest compulsion’ to induce supposed ‘reproductions’ of preconceived ‘sexual scenes’. Nor would the reader be in a position to appreciate that the patients’ ‘false memories’ – the ‘phantasies of seduction’ – were  essentially analytic reconstructions, not recollections recounted by the patients in the course of their analyses.

Later in the same section he reiterates the claim in Three Essays that his new position was in part a consequence of the fact that ‘Further information now became available relating to people who had remained normal’, leading to ‘the unexpected (unerwartete) finding that the sexual history of their childhood did not necessarily differ in essentials from that of neurotics, and, in particular, that the part played by seduction was the same in both cases’ (1906: 276, Freud’s emphasis; G.S. 5: 129). But, as we have already noted, the information in question cannot have been ‘unexpected’ since he had drawn attention to it in the ‘Aetiology’ paper.

The lapse of ten years since he had written publicly about the seduction theory enabled Freud to contrive a means of acknowledging his change of view without indicating to his readers that he is here retracting a theory that he had proclaimed as a clinically corroborated ‘source of the Nile’ discovery in neuropathology (1896c: 203). He makes no mention of the seduction theory itself, only alluding to ‘the form taken by the theory in some of my shorter preliminary communications during the years 1895 and 1896 (Freud 1896b, 1896c)’ (1906: 273). By bringing in a reference to 1895 (before he had published on the seduction theory), he is able to write that the theory to which he had just alluded ‘culminated in this thesis: if the vita sexualis is normal, there can be no neurosis’ (1906: 274). Having in this way evaded specific mention of the seduction theory, he continues: ‘Though even today I do not consider these assertions incorrect, it is not to be wondered at that, in the course of ten years of continuous effort at reaching an understanding of these phenomena, I have made a considerable step forward from the view I then held, and now believe that I am in a position, on the basis of deeper experience, to correct the insufficiencies, the displacements and the misunderstandings under which my theory then laboured.’ He then goes on to explain, disingenuously, that it was an unfortunate happenstance that he had been misled by his untypical cases of 1895-96 (see above).[37] Clearly his decision to keep a seven‑year silence on his potentially damaging abandonment of the seduction theory so soon after unequivocally announcing its clinical corroboration had paid off, enabling him, with the aid of some mis­information, to emerge from the episode virtually unscathed.

At this stage, the situation may be summarized as follows. As a result of his disillusionment with the seduction theory, Freud’s ideas developed in a different direction, culminating in the views expounded in Three Essays, in which he contends that infantile masturbation plays a central role in an individual’s psychosexual development (1905: 187-90).[38] It is within this general schema that he has to provide an explanation for the clinical claims announced with such certitude in 1896, and the best he can do is arbitrarily claim that many of the patients were abused in childhood while being imprecise about actual numbers,[39] and at the same time allude to other patients for whom he has decided that what he had uncovered were phantasies of seduction produced to fend off memories of infantile masturbation. The misleading account in the 1906 paper, though persuasive to readers unaware of the true background to the events in question, gives a spurious plausibility to his notion of unconscious phantasies of seduction,[40] while obscuring the means by which he arrived at the 1896 ‘findings’ on which this notion depends.

An historical account

The persuasive power of Freud’s writings is very much in evidence in the next account, in On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914), not least in the way he introduces the seduction theory episode: ‘But enquirers often find more than they bargain for. One was drawn further and further back into the past; one hoped at last to be able to stop at puberty... But in vain; the tracks led still further back into childhood and into its earlier years’ (1914: 17). These words subtly create the impression of a physician ineluctably led by material provided by his patients to discoveries about their early childhoods: readers could have no idea from this account that he himself had told the patients that he expected infantile ‘sexual scenes’ to be uncovered. He continues with his account of the ‘mistaken idea [which] had to be overcome’ at this stage of his researches:

Influenced by Charcot’s view of the traumatic origin of hysteria, one was readily inclined to accept as true and aetiologically significant the statements made by patients in which they ascribed their symptoms to passive sexual experiences in the first years of childhood – to put it bluntly, to seduction.[41] When this aetiology broke down under the weight of its own improbability and contradiction in definitely ascertainable circumstances, the result at first was helpless bewilderment. Analysis had led back to these infantile sexual traumas by the right path [Die Analyse hatte auf  korrektem Wege bis zu solchen infantilen Sexualtraumen gefürht], and yet they were not true. The firm ground of reality was gone. At that time I would gladly have given up the whole work ... Perhaps I persevered only because I no longer had any choice and could not then begin again at anything else.[42] At last came the reflection that, after all, one has no right to despair because one has been deceived in one’s expectations [Erwartungen]; one must revise those expectations.[43] If hysterical subjects trace back their symptoms to traumas that are fictitious [Wenn die Hysteriker ihre Symptome auf erfundene Traumen zurückführen] then the new fact which emerges is precisely that they create such scenes in phantasy, and this psychical reality requires to be taken into account alongside practical reality. This reflection was soon followed by the discovery (Einsicht: ‘insight’) that these phantasies were intended to cover up the auto-erotic activity of the first years of childhood, to embellish it and raise it to a higher plane. (1914: 17-18, Freud’s emphasis; G.S. 4: 422-23)

This account represents a half-way house between the earlier and later accounts; notably absent is any indication that any of the ‘seductions’ were genuine, or of the identities of the supposed abusers. Freud presents himself as having used a perfectly valid clinical procedure which had led to findings that had turned out to be erroneous. The infantile ‘scenes’ are, once again, reported as indisputable clinical findings, an impression in no way diminished by his writing that ‘analysis’ had led back to them. His reference to the patients’ reports (Berichte), and his description of the traumas as ‘fictitious’ creates the impression that the patients themselves had misconstrued fantasies of seduction (i.e., pseudo-memories of which they became conscious) as authentic memories.

As before, Freud’s account conceals the nature of his clinical procedure at that time, and, above all, the central role he played in determining the content of the infantile ‘scenes’ he purportedly uncovered. One new item is the claim that the seduction aetiology had been contradicted in ‘definitely ascertainable circumstances’ [sicher festzustellende Verhältnisse], but Freud makes no attempt to state what those circumstances were. Since he could hardly have failed to mention them in his explanation for his change of view in the ‘My views’ paper, and since he did not report anything of this nature to Willielm Fliess, this claim has the hallmarks of an expedient invention. It is difficult to see how he could have definitely ascertained that any patients had not been sexually molested in infancy, especially as he had indicated in 1896 that the repressed memory of an experience of sexual molestation ‘submitted to with indiflerence or with a small degree of annoyance or fright’ sufficed to satisfy the infantile trauma theory (1896a: 155).

The final versions

The next account of the episode occurs in An Autobiographical Study (1925):

Under the influence [Drängen: ‘pressure’] of the technical procedure which I used at that time, the majority of my patients reproduced [reproduzierten] from their childhood scenes in which they were sexually seduced by some grown‑up person. With female patients the part of the seducer was almost always assigned to their father. I believed these stories [Ich schenkte diesen Mitteilungen Glauben],[44] and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent neurosis in these experiences of sexual seduction in childhood. My confidence was strengthened by a few cases in which relations of this kind with a father, uncle, or elder brother had continued up to an age at which memory was to be trusted. If the reader feels inclined to shake his head at my credulity [Leichtgläubigkeit], I cannot altogether blame him; though I may plead that this was at a time when I was intentionally keeping my critical faculty in abeyance so as to preserve an unprejudiced and receptive attitude towards the many novelties which were coming to my notice every day. When, however, I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced on them [die meine Patienten erdichtet, die ich ihnen vielleicht selbst aufgedrängt hatte],[45] I was for some time completely at a loss. My confidence alike in my technique and in its results suffered a severe blow; it could not be disputed that I had arrived at these scenes by a technical method which I considered correct,[46] and their subject‑matter was unquestionably related to the symptoms from which my investigation had started. When I had pulled myself together, I was able to draw the right conclusions from my discovery [Erfahrung: ‘experience’]: namely, that the neurotic symptoms were not related directly to actual events but to wishful phantasies [Wunschphantasien], and that as far as the neurosis was concerned psychical reality was of more importance than material reality. I do not believe even now that I forced the seduction phantasies on my patients, that I  ‘suggested’ them. I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex, which was later to assume such an overwhelming importance, but which I did not recognize as yet in its disguise of phantasy. Moreover, seduction during childhood retained a certain share, though a humbler one, in the aetiology of neuroses. But the seducers turned out as a rule to have been older children. (1925: 33-34; G.S. 11: 145-46)

Freud for the first time alludes to the fact that he was using a clinical procedure which involved some coercion.[47] Yet though he writes that it was under the pressure of a ‘technical procedure’ (of which he gives no details) that the majority of his patients had reproduced ‘seduction’ scenes from childhood (and, by implication, only at that time), he proceeds to maintain his post-1900 version of events as if this were of no consequence. True, in passing he posits the possibility that he had forced the ‘scenes of seduction’ onto the patients, that he himself had suggested them, but he immediately dismisses it. It is remarkable that, in spite of his acknowledging a coercive role, he gives no reason why he rejects this possibility out of hand; apparently it suffices that he does not believe it to have been the case.

As before, the infantile seduction ‘scenes’ supposedly ‘reproduced’ by the patients are reported as indisputable clinical findings. Notice also that Freud would have his readers believe that it was the supposed uncovering of these scenes in treatment that had led to his aetiological theory of infantile molestations, when the reverse was actually the case. One should also note his self-deprecating presentation of his earlier self as a credulous physician who was deceived by the unexpected material his patients were producing, a portrait at odds with his accounts at the time.[48] It is, of course, true that his ‘findings’ had (as he says) unquestionably been related to the symptoms from which his investigations started – but only because this was pre-ordained by his using the analytic principle that hysterical symptoms were symbolic representations of the supposed underlying traumas.[49] The identities of the ‘seducers’ have been reintroduced, though for the first time, and contrary to what he had written in 1896, fathers are implicated in the case of his women patients. This discrepancy with the original claims cannot have been the result of a failure of memory, since Freud had reread the 1896 papers in 1924 in preparation for their reprinting. Nor is it the case, as some commentators have contended, that in those papers Freud had been concealing the fact that fathers were generally the (supposed) culprits.[50] Evidently he could not resist the temptation to bring the 1896 clinical claims into line with his Oedipal explanation of girls’ supposed phantasies of seduction in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17), namely, that they are ‘retrospectively phantasying a desired object’ into their early childhood to spare themselves shame about infantile masturbation (1916-17: 370).

On the question of the supposed genuine cases of ‘seduction’, Freud writes that the culprits turned out generally to have been older children. This reference to child culprits reiterates his claim in the first retrospective account published in 1906. Where does it originate? In one of the first seduction theory papers Freud had claimed that in seven of the thirteen cases of hysteria, boys slightly older than the abused infant girls were the assailants. This assertion was, of course, based on his analytic ‘findings’, and it was no more reliable than his other claims in regard to the supposed culprits, ‘foremost among’ which were ‘nursemaids, governesses and domestic servants’, while teachers figured ‘with regrettable frequency’ (1896b: 164).[51] Alone among these groups of assailants reported in 1896, child culprits persisted unchanged through Freud’s later accounts.[52]

Strachey’s translation of Mitteilungen as ‘stories’ at the beginning of the passage is rather free, but it is compatible with the sense conveyed by the section as a whole. Freud suggests the possibility that the patients’ ‘seduction phantasies’ had been invented [erdichtet] by the patients, implying that they were fictional scenarios. Since he also refers to his supposed credulity at the time, it is a natural inference that the patients gave accounts of the supposed phantasies to Freud which he credulously believed. This sense is reinforced by his going on to compare his mistake to that of someone who naively believed the historical legends [Sagengeschichte] about the Roman kings told by Livy (1925: 35).

Freud’s final report on these events occurs in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), in a passage where he harks back to ‘an interesting episode in the history of analytic research’:

In the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile traumas, almost all my women patients told [erzählten] me that they had been seduced by their father. I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports [Berichte] were untrue and so came to understand that hysterical symptoms are derived from phantasies and not from real occurrences. It was only later that I was able to recognize in this phantasy of being seduced by the father the expression of the typical Oedipus complex in women. (1933: 120; G.S. 12: 276)

With this version we reach the final stage in the evolution of Freud’s accounts, the one that encapsulates the received story. But even in terms of his own account there is a clue that all is not what it seems. If the seduction phantasies were an expression of the typical Oedipus complex in women, why would most of his female patients tell him they had been seduced by their father only ‘in the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile traumas’? The explanation lies in Freud’s propensity to conflate ‘phantasies’ (and supposed unconscious memories) which he analytically reconstructs with material actually reported to him by his patients, and it suits his rhetorical purposes in the passage in question to present the early ‘findings’ in the latter mode. This conflation is nowhere more in evidence than in his discussion of unconscious phantasies in Chapter 23 of Introductory Lectures, where he refers to ‘all the things that are told (erzählt) to us today in analysis as phantasy’ (1916-17: 371, emphasis added; G.S. 7: 386). Earlier in the chapter he describes phantasies, ‘brought to light by analysis’ as patients’ ‘invented stories’ [erfundenen Geschichten] (1916-17: 367, 368; G.S. 7: 382). (These include ‘a phantasy of observing parental intercourse while one is still an unborn baby in the womb’ (1916-17: 369-70).) Similarly, in an implicit reference to his own reconstruction of the ‘primal scene’ of parental sexual intercourse in the Wolf Man case history, he writes of its having been ‘described [beschrieben wird] with the most minute details’ (1916-17: 369, emphasis added; G.S. 7: 384; see 1918: 57-59).[53] In the same section he writes: ‘Phantasies of being seduced are of particular interest, because so often they are not phantasies but real memories’ (1916-17: 370). Had he been discussing only patients’ fantasies (i.e., conscious ideas reported to him) he would surely have written that memories of being seduced are often not real memories but phantasies, rather than the other way round. The conflation of reconstructions and reported material accounts for an apparent contradiction in the same paragraph: he asserts that ‘if in the case of girls who produce such an event in the story of their childhood [Kindergeschichte: ‘childhood history’] their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer, there can be no doubt... of the imaginary nature of the accusation [Beschuldigung]’, but also writes that ‘You must not suppose, however, that sexual abuse of a child by its nearest male relatives belongs entirely to the realm of phantasy. Most analysts will have treated cases in which such events were real and could be unimpeachably established.’ (1916-17: 370; G.S. 7: 385).[54] The contradiction is resolved if one appreciates that in the first case he has in mind, for the most part, analytically reconstructed ‘events’, and in the second, authentic reports of sexual abuse.

In this section of Introductory Lectures (1916-17: 367-71), in which he clearly has in mind the seduction theory episode, he discusses ‘seduction’ and other ‘primal phantasies’, of which he wrote in the Wolf Man paper that in his experience ‘these scenes from infancy are not reproduced during the treatment as recollections, they are the products of construction’ (1918: 50-51, emphases added). In Introductory Lectures, in relation to infantile ‘scenes’ such as seduction, the observation of parental intercourse, and the threat of castration’ he considers ‘why the same phantasies with the same content are created on every occasion’ although in some cases the supposed events have been ‘withheld by reality’. He postulates that this is because these primal phantasies ‘are a phylogenetic endowment’, that they ‘were once real occurrences in the primaeval times of the human family, and that children in their phantasies are simply filling in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth’ (1916-17: 370-71). No doubt there is a rather more plausible reason why he always finds the same unconscious phantasies with the same content.[55]

There is one final chapter to this story. In an editorial note appended to the account of the seduction theory episode in An Autobiographical Study, Strachey reports that ‘it was not until nearly the end of his life that Freud... explained that these phantasies of his patients had in fact originally been connected not with their father but with their mother’ (1925: 34 n.1). Strachey references the paper ‘Female sexuality’ (1931), in which Freud gives his first full explication of his latest findings in relation to the recently discovered female infant’s pre-Oedipal libidinal attachment to her mother. In confirmation that Freud’s analytic ‘findings’ tend to conform to his current theories, he reports for the first time that ‘girls [das Mädchen] regularly accuse [beschuldigt] their mother of seducing them’ (1931: 238, emphasis added; G.S. 12: 135). According to Freud, the genital sensations experienced by female infants when their mother is attending to their bodily hygiene initiates the child into the phallic phase, and this is the reason why ‘in phantasies of later years, the father so regularly appears as the sexual seducer. When the girl turns away from her mother, she also makes over to her father her introduction into sexual life’ (1931: 238). Earlier in that section Freud had reported that the motives (‘which analysis brings to light’) for an infant girl’s supposed turning away from her mother include that ‘she failed to provide the little girl with the only proper genital, that she did not feed her sufficiently,... and that she first aroused her sexual activity and then forbad it’ (1931: 234). That Freud has a propensity to present analytic ‘inferences as well­ grounded clinical data is confirmed by the words with which he introduces these same ‘findings’ (and many more of like kind) in New Introductory Lectures. In the chapter in question he assures the reader that it ‘brings forward nothing but observed facts, almost without any speculative additions’ (1933: 113).

Concluding remarks

We have seen that Freud’s retrospective accounts of the seduction theory episode are discrepant with the original 1896 papers and that, in Schimek’s words. they ‘always reflect Freud’s dominant interests at the time each was written’.[56] However, there remains to be considered one important aspect of the episode that is generally overlooked. In An Autobiographical Study Freud stated that his insight arising from this episode, that neurotic symptoms were related to wishful infantile phantasies and that these were a manifestation of the Oedipus complex, was of ‘overwhelming importance’ [überragende Bedeutung] (1925: 34; G.S. 11: 146). Now in the 1896 ‘Aetiology’ paper he had indicated that he would be presenting ‘the actual material’ [mein... tatsächliches Material] from his analyses (1896c: 203; G.S. 1: 418; see also 1896b: 162), but he never in fact did so. This means that he never published the clinical evidence pertaining to an episode which he later described as opening the way to the uncovering of ‘the whole range of a child’s sexual life’ (1914: 18), an event that has been widely acclaimed as a watershed in our understanding of human psychosexual development.

How does one account for the fact that, in spite of their inconsistencies and their being at variance with the original papers, Freud’s accounts of one of the seminal events in psychoanalytic history have been almost universally accepted as historical fact; that it is widely believed, in the words of Kurt Eissler, that ‘Freud was a victim of his credulity’ in taking seriously ‘the patients’ tales about seduction’?[57] A crucial part of the answer is surely what Mahony describes as ‘the blinding power of Freud’s rhetorical genius’, which exerts ‘a directive rhetorical force that overwhelms the reader’.[58] In the case of those scholars who had read the 1896 papers, information which contradicted the familiar story so vividly and persuasively recounted in Freud’s retrospective reports either failed to impress itself, or seemingly was discounted as of peripheral significance.’[59] The fact that Freud’s accounts formed the basis of a compelling tale of the emergence of truth from error (1925: 34-35) may also have made the questioning of the traditional story almost literally inconceivable for many people. That the received story remained largely unchallenged for so long a period no doubt owes much to Freud’s reputation for absolute integrity, subtly disseminated in his writings, and reinforced by Ernest jones’s biography. Until quite recently this view of Freud was almost universal: Walter Kaufmann’s eulogy, ‘Freud had extraordinarily high standards of honesty’, had long been the received view at the time it was published in 1980.[60] This perception has, however, begun to undergo change in recent decades. In particular, the documentary evidence adduced in this article demonstrates that Freud’s accounts of how his discovery of unconscious incestuous phantasies emerged from the seduction theory episode do not accurately portray the events that they purport to describe.[61]


1. Quotations are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by J. Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74). Original quotations are from Gesammelte Schriften von Sigm. Freud (Leipzig/Wien/Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924-1934), hereafter cited as G.S.

2. The most common version of the story has it that most of Freud’s female patients at that time told him that they had been ‘seduced’ by their father in early childhood.

3. As Ernest Jones writes (1955: 272), Freud generally used the word Phantasie (translated as ‘phantasy’ in the Standard Edition) to refer to unconscious ideas, inferred by analytic interpretation.


4. See, e.g., Cioffi (1998 [1972]: 171-176; 1998 [1974]: 143-160; 1998 [1988]: 61-70), Schimek (1987), Smith (1991: 4-20), Esterson (1993: 11-31; 1998), Israëls and Schatzman (1993), Scharnberg (1993).

5. It is evident that Freud was using the pressure technique in the months immediately prior to his completing the first two seduction theory papers. In one of these papers he has a final section in which he reports on a patient diagnosed as suffering from paranoia whom he treated in the winter of 1895. He refers to ‘her attention on the pressure of my hand’ as she produced thoughts (1895: 177), and appends a footnote at this point citing Studies on Hysteria. In the second half of October 1895 he had presented a series of three lectures in the course of which he described the pressure procedure in some detail (Schusdek 1966: 161; Andersson 1962: 187). That in the seduction theory papers he wrote of ‘the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure’, and ‘the strongest compulsion of the treatment’ (1896a: 153; 1896c: 204), is a further indication that he used this technique with the patients in question.

6. Letters of 8 and 15 October, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, ed. and trans. J. M. Masson (hereafter cited as Letters): 141, 144.

7. The first seduction theory papers, sent off on 5 February 1896 (Letters: 170), were ‘Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses’ (1896a), published in the French journal Rev. neur., 4 (6), 161-169, on 30 March 1896, and ‘Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence’ (1896b), published in Neurol. Zbl., 15 (10), 434-448, on 15 May 1896).

8. 1896c, published in Wien. klin. Rdsch., 10 (22), 379-381, (23), 395-397, (24), 413-415, (25), 432-433, and (26), 450-452, on 31 May and 7, 14, 21, 28 June 1896.

9. ‘The symptoms of hysteria...are determined by certain experiences of the patient’s which have operated in a traumatic fashion and which are being reproduced in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols’ (1896c: 192-193, Freud’s emphasis).

10. Original: ‘...die Kranken mich...entschieden ihres Unglaubens versichern’ (G.S. 1: 420).

11. It should be noted that when Freud writes of the ‘awakening’ of an unconscious memory, he means no more than that it manifested itself in some form, e.g., as symptoms (1896b: 169, 172 n.1). Likewise, at one point he refers to unconscious memories being ‘reproduced’ in the form of symptoms (1896c: 192-193), indicating that, for Freud, the word ‘reproduction’ is open to wide interpretation.

12. Thirteen cases diagnosed as hysteria, plus three ‘pure’ obsessionals. (Of the six obsessional patients, Freud included the three cases he described as ‘combinations of hysteria and obsessional neurosis’ among the thirteen hysterics.)

13. With respect to the thirteen patients diagnosed as hysterical in the ‘Further remarks’ paper Freud stated that ‘Foremost among those guilty of abuses...are nursemaids, governesses and domestic servants...; teachers, moreover, figure with regrettable frequency. In seven out of these thirteen cases, however, it turned out that blameless children [mostly boys only slightly older than their infant sisters] were the assailants’ (1896b: 164). In the ‘Aetiology’ paper, in which the number of ‘hysterical’ patients had increased to eighteen, he added adult strangers and close relatives to the list (1896c: 208).

14. Letter dated 6 December 1896 (Letters: 212). With reference to Freud’s explanation of his new conjecture in this letter, Makari writes that his shift towards a theory of ‘paternal seduction’ at the end of 1896 can be seen as a ‘logical outgrowth of Freud’s attempts to undercut degenerative hereditarian ideologies. For he realized that if the seducer was not a stranger, but rather uniformly the father, then the family would falsely seem to be degenerative’ (1998: 642, Makari’s emphasis).

15. Following his suggesting a paternal aetiology in the December 1896 letter, Freud remained for a time unsure of his new idea (Letters: 237), and in his letters to Fliess in 1897 he implicated fathers in only a minority of the cases that he mentions (Letters: 213, 219, 220, 222, 223-4, 224, 226, 238, 254). For a refutation of the notion that in the 1896 papers Freud concealed that he had from the start implicated fathers as the putative culprits, see Esterson 1998: 9-10.

16. Can also mean harm or hurt.

17. In an allusion to the period following his abandonment of direct hypnosis (around 1892 [1895: 109-111, 153-154]) and the introduction of his free association procedure, in a third hand historical account published in 1924 Freud observed that the material produced ‘did not bring up what had actually been forgotten, but it brought up such plain and numerous hints at it that, with the help of a certain amount of supplementing and interpreting, the doctor was able to guess (to reconstruct) the forgotten material from it’ (1924: 196, emphasis added). In the case of the seduction theory patients it is likely that, under the influence of the quasi-hypnotic pressure technique and Freud’s ‘insistence and pressure’ (1895: 283; cf. 1896a: 153; 1896c: 204), some of them provided fragmentary images and ideas from which he reconstructed infantile ‘sexual scenes’ (‘…the memory must be extracted from them piece by piece …’ [1896a: 153].)

18. As we shall see, following his abandonment of the seduction theory Freud was able, with the aid of retrospective modifications of his 1896 claims, to provide an explanation for his ‘error’ in the case of the hysterical patients. However, he made no attempt to account for the claims he had made in relation to the six obsessional patients that he had uncovered repressed memories of both passive ‘sexual scenes’ in infancy and ‘acts of aggression carried out with pleasure’ prior to puberty (1896b: 168). It seems that this was beyond even Freud’s ingenuity, and these clinical findings reported in 1896 were never mentioned again.

19. Note that where the ritual does not conform to the ‘scene’ he has reconstructed, he implicitly uses the principle that the patient’s Unconscious is disguising the origins of the ritual, and that such deviations can be adduced as evidence for his reconstruction.

20. In relation to the single case that Freud reported to Fliess in the period prior to the publication of the seduction theory papers no details were given: ‘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 that at the same time a working through of the disputed material strengthened my confidence in the validity of my psychological constructions’ (2 November 1895, Letters: 149).

21. Freud reports that he ‘threatened to send her away’ in order to induce her compliance.

22. In a postscript in the Danish edition of his 1996 paper, Borch-Jacobsen writes that he accepts that ‘in many instances, Freud simply foisted his analytic reconstructions on his in the exemplary case of G. de B. in the letters to Fliess...’, and that in cases where the patients, under his pressure, provided the requisite material, ‘the “confirmations” that Freud extracted from them were in fact much more ambiguous than he would have it’ (personal communication).

23. On 24 January 1897 he claimed he had been able ‘to trace back, with certainty [sic], a a seduction, which occurred for the first time at eleven months’, and he recounts the patient’s ‘reproduction’ purportedly pertaining to the event (Letters: 226). There is an indication in Studies of how he might have arrived at such a precise dating. He recounts that, using the pressure technique, ‘it was bring back numbers and dates which, on the face of it, had long since been forgotten’: ‘Thus, if a patient is unable to remember the year or month or day when a particular event occurred, we can repeat to him the dates of the possibly relevant years, the names of the twelve months and the thirty-one numbers of the days of the month, assuring him that when we come to the right number or the right name his eyes will open of their own accord or that he will feel which is the right one. In the great majority of cases the patient will in fact decide on a particular date.’ (1895: 111-112).

24. As early as 1 January 1896 Freud had completed a draft of the ‘Further remarks’ paper, in regard to which he wrote to Fliess on 6 February: ‘I have spared you the manuscript of the German article because it is identical with part of what I put before you as the Christmas fairy tale.’ (Letters: 170, 162-169 [Draft K].)

25. As Israëls and Schatzman point out (1993: 54), Freud’s premature announcing and later misrepresentation of his therapeutic results in the cause of promoting his psychoanalytic procedures had a precedent. More than a decade earlier, when evangelizing on behalf of the benefits of cocaine, he had falsely claimed a case of successful treatment of morphine addiction by the administration of cocaine (Thornton 1983: 40, 43-45; Israëls 1999: 89-119). That this untrustworthiness extended to his later writings is evident from Mahony’s documenting ‘Freud’s intentional confabulation’ in the Rat Man case history and the ‘serious discrepancies’ between the day-to-day case notes and the published account (Mahony 1990: 1110; see also Mahony 1986: 72-79, 81-85).

26. For such criticisms of the clinical claims in Studies on Hysteria, see Kiell 1988: 68, 74, 82.

27. Freud reported that Krafft-Ebing’s verdict on ‘The aetiology of hysteria’ was that ‘It sounds like a scientific fairy tale’ (Letters: 184). In 1899 the German psychiatrist L. Löwenfeld noted in relation to the claims in the ‘Aetiology’ paper that ‘partly there has just remained silence about [Freud’s] ideas, and partly they have just simply been rejected’ (quoted in Israëls and Schatzman 1993: 43). An American reviewer, C. H. Hughes, described Freud’s conclusions as ‘wildly conjectured, unproved and unprovable’ (Kiell 1988: 36).

28. Analyses of the motives given by Freud for his loss of faith in his theory are provided by Israëls and Schatzman (1993: 47-58), Borch-Jacobsen (1996: 39-41), and Cioffi (1998 [1988]: 240-248).

29. That he had completely renounced the theory by late 1898 is evident from remarks in letters to Fliess dated 23 October 1898 and 3 January 1899 (Letters: 331, 338). In view of a certain confusion about this question in some of the literature, it should be noted that the theory that he abandoned was that an unconscious memory of sexual molestation in early childhood was a necessary precondition for the later occurrence of hysterical and obsessional symptoms. He continued to believe, of course, that sexual abuse in childhood was likely to have pathogenic consequences.

30. See the discussions of Freud’s notion of psychical determinism in Macmillan 1997: 109-111, and Borch-Jacobsen 1996: 27-29.

31. He was dismayed in 1901 when his friend Fliess wrote disparagingly about the analytic technique, describing Freud as ‘the reader of thoughts [who] merely reads his own thoughts into other people’ (Letters, p. 447).


32. The move from sexual abuse by others to infantile masturbation in Freud’s aetiological theories in the period following the abandonment of the seduction theory is discussed in detail by Makari (1998). That the evidence for his newly developed ideas on psychosexual development, expounded in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), was as tenuous as that for the seduction theory is indicated by the words of Alan A. Stone in his Keynote Address to the American Academy of Psychoanalysis on 9 December 1995: ‘The work [Three Essays] is in some sense empirical, and yet Freud provides almost no evidence and no direct observational data for his sweeping conclusions’ (Stone 1997: 34-39).


33. Literally: ‘the memory delusions of hysterics concerning their childhood’.


34. He even states that these ‘findings’ were ‘not open to doubt’. A characteristic feature of Freud’s writings is his presentation of analytic inferences as established facts in terms which apparently brook no argument. (See Esterson 1993: 205-207, 212-215.) This highly effective persuasive technique is remarked upon by Scruton in a perceptive analysis of Freud’s expositions: ‘Readers of Freud’s papers are constantly reminded that “science has shown” [Scruton should have written ‘psychoanalysis’, not ‘science’], that “the evidence has conclusively established”, that “there can no longer be a shadow of doubt”;...the observations are reported as though they concerned matters as publicly observable and as incontrovertible as changes in the weather or the migrations of birds...’ (Scruton 1986: 208). As Scruton observes, the assurance with which Freud makes these pronouncements is such that many people ‘have been disposed to accept him at his word’.


35. That Freud’s claim is disingenuous even in terms of his own beliefs about his clinical findings is evident from a letter he wrote to Karl Abraham on 5 July 1907, in which he wrote: ‘According to my impressions, the age of from three to five is that to which the determination of symptoms dates back. Later traumas are mostly genuine, while earlier ones or those falling within this period are prima facie doubtful’ (Abraham and Freud 1965: 2, emphasis added). In a letter to Fliess dated 6 December 1896 Freud had written that ‘clinical experience...teaches us that the repressed memories relate to what was current—in the case of hysteria, between the ages of one-and-a-half and four...’ (Letters: 209; see also 1896a: 152-153). In other words, the infantile traumas supposedly analytically uncovered in Freud’s hysterics occurred in the period within which he came to believe that their authenticity was doubtful, yet in the ‘My views’ paper he asserts unequivocally that in the case of a ‘disproportionately large number’ of these patients the occurrence of the ‘seductions’ was ‘not open to doubt’.


36. This claim, reiterated in a 1924 footnote to the ‘Further remarks’ paper (1896b: 168, n.1), is even more remarkable than appears at first sight, since he is actually referring to unconscious memories which were reconstructed by analysis. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud writes that ‘an analysis only gives us the content of a thought and leaves it to us to determine its reality’ [1900: 288, Freud’s emphasis]. At this point Strachey appends a footnote in which he observes that ‘Freud is probably referring here to the discovery recently made that the infantile traumas apparently revealed in his analyses of neurotic patients were in fact very often phantasies’.


37. This is the only occasion on which he states that his seduction theory patients were untypical.


38. He never ceased to maintain this view of the crucial importance of infantile masturbation, writing in New Introductory Lectures (1933) that he wished he ‘might have an opportunity some time of explaining¼at length how important all the factual details of early masturbation become for the individual’s subsequent neurosis or character’ (1933: 127).


39. As we shall see, in his next account the ‘disproportionately large’ number of genuine cases is downgraded to such a degree that he doesn’t even mention them.


40. Though Freud’s contention (reiterated in Introductory Lectures [1916-17: 370]) that the idea that one has been sexually abused in infancy is less distressing than the shameful memory of having masturbated appears rather counter-intuitive, it seems to have been acceptable to his followers.


41. Original: ‘Unter dem Einfluss der an Charcot anknüpfenden traumatischen Theorie der Hysterie war man leicht geneigt, Berichte der Kranken für real und ätiologisch bedeutsam zu halten, welche ihre Symptome auf passive sexuelle Erlebnisse in den ersten Kinderjahren, also grob ausgedrückt: auf Verführung zurückleiteten’ (G.S. 4: 422). This is more accurately translated as: ‘Under the influence of the traumatic theory of hysteria associated with Charcot, one was readily inclined to accept as true and aetiologically significant the reports of the patients who traced back their symptoms to passive sexual experiences in the first years of childhood, crudely put, to seduction.’


42. That at the age of around forty he had felt he could no longer begin again goes some way to explain the psychological state in which he clung to his analytic technique and sought a way of explaining away the erroneous claims to which it had led him. In a reference to his predicament at this time, in 1907 he wrote to Jung of ‘the terrifying moments when I myself thought I had gone astray and was wondering how I might still make my misled life useful to my family’, and of his ‘slowly growing conviction, which fastened itself to the interpretation of dreams as to a rock in a stormy sea...’ (McGuire 1974: 82). In such a state of mind no doubt self-deception played a considerable role in his retrospective refashioning of his clinical experiences in 1895-7 so that they would conform to the theory which superseded the seduction theory.


43. At the beginning of this passage Freud had portrayed himself as drawn into unexpected clinical findings in spite of himself. Now the truth slips out and he contradicts this by referring to his having been deceived in his clinical expectations.


44. More accurately: ‘I believed what they told me.’


45. Strachey replaces the comma by ‘or’ in his translation.


46. More accurately: ‘I had, after all, arrived at these scenes by a technical path which I considered correct.’


47. This admission is almost certainly related to the fact that Freud had recently read the 1896 seduction theory papers prior to their reprinting in a collection of his writings. In a footnote added to the ‘Further remarks’ paper in 1924 he wrote that the section on hysteria ‘was dominated by an error...At that time I was not yet able to distinguish between my patients’ phantasies about their childhood years and their real recollections’ (1896b: 168 n.1). The impression Freud clearly wishes to convey here is that the patients reported childhood experiences which he mistakenly took to be authentic recollections.


48. Contrast this account in 1925 with his statement in the 1896 ‘Heredity’ paper that he would accuse himself of ‘blameworthy credulity’ if he had based his claims on the reports of hysterical subjects (1896a: 153).


49. In the ‘Aetiology’ paper, after referring to the procedure by means of which inscriptions on archaeological remains may be deciphered and translated, he wrote: ‘If we try, in an approximately similar way, to induce the symptoms of a hysteria to make themselves heard as witnesses to the history of the origin of the illness, we must take our start from Josef Breuer’s momentous discovery: the symptoms of hysteria...are determined by certain experiences of the patient’s which have operated in a traumatic fashion and which are being reproduced in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols.’ (1896c: 192-193, Freud’s emphasis) Since he reconstructed the ‘sexual scenes’ on the basis of this principle, he cannot do other than ‘find’ that the traumas conform to it. (See, for example, the analytic tracing back of an obsessional ritual to an infantile ‘sexual scene’, above p. xx (1896b: 172 n.1).)


50. That this notion is misconceived should be apparent from the above discussion of the episode, but see also Esterson 1998: 9-10.


51. It is possible that the somewhat improbable preponderance of very young boys as putative abusers of their infant sisters in the 1896 ‘Further remarks’ paper is a consequence of the fact that Freud’s theory of obsessional neurosis required such occurrences prior to age ten for some boys if they were to experience obsessional symptoms in adulthood (1896a: 155).


52. It even found its way into a general discussion of ‘seduction phantasies’ in Introductory Lectures (1916-17) where Freud writes that ‘seduction by an older child or by one of the same age is even more frequent than by an adult’ (1916-17: 370), and has no doubt been taken by readers as a fact of Freud’s clinical experience.


53. Freud’s citing of an infant’s observing the sexual act between his parents and the observation of intercourse between dogs in the same sentence in this passage leaves no doubt that he had the Wolf Man case history in mind. (Cf. 1918: 57-60.) It is worth noting, as a characteristic example of Freud’s rhetoric and also of the idiosyncratic meaning of ‘observation’ in his writings, that a little earlier in the chapter in question in Introductory Lectures he asserts that ‘observation shows, in a manner that excludes all doubt’ (1916-17: 363) the importance of the infantile experiences he goes on to discuss, virtually all of which are his own analytic reconstructions (1916-17: 367-371).


54. Freud adds: “even so [these events] related to the later years of childhood and had been transposed into earlier times”. One wonders how he could have managed to establish that such ‘seductions’ had not in fact occurred in ‘earlier times’. The notion of transposition appears to have its origins in the similar idea he proposed in 1906 that phantasies of seduction in infancy were produced during the years of puberty to fend off memories of infantile masturbation and were projected back into early childhood (1906: 274).


55. It is significant, in the light of the above discussion, that in the 1896 ‘Aetiology’ paper he had cited ‘the uniformity which [the infantile sexual scenes] exhibit in certain details’ as vouching for validity of his clinical findings (1896c: 205).


56. Schimek 1987: 955. Schimek contends that the revisions to which he has drawn attention provide ‘a good example of the constant reworking of the past in the light of the present’, whereas it is evident that what is actually at issue is Freud’s rewriting of the past.


57. Eissler 1971: 239.


58. Mahony 1992: 27-28.


59. Israëls and Schatzman attribute their earlier ‘blindness’ to the deficiencies of the received story mainly to ‘the fact that it is difficult to detach oneself from a dominant view’ (1993: 57). A few commentators and scholars prior to Cioffi in the early 1970s did, nevertheless, manage to so detach themselves. In the mid-fifties Manès Sperber argued that Freud himself suggested the seduction stories to his patients (1956: 72). A decade later similar views were published by Schusdek (1966) and Chodoff (1966).


60. Kaufman 1999 [1980]: 102. Not surprisingly, Kaufmann duly records that in his early career ‘Freud was led by case after case to assume that many of his female patients had been seduced in childhood by their own fathers’ (1999 [1980]: 39).


61. Concerning the assertion made by Skues that critical accounts of Freud’s reporting of the seduction theory episode are ‘blighted’ by their reliance on the Standard Edition translations (Skues 1998: 173 n.64), it is apparent from the passages quoted above that Strachey’s deviations from the literal translations very adequately convey the sense of Freud’s original German texts. In only two instances can it be plausibly claimed that there are (arguably) significant mistranslations, and in neither case is the general sense of the relevant passage distorted. (See notes 41 and 44.) One might dispute the precise meaning of a word or nuance of a sentence, but since there is a considerable element of obfuscation in Freud’s retrospective accounts, there are, as we have seen, inevitably ambiguities and inconsistencies within them. Thus it is that individual sentences, extracted from their context, are consistent with how he had described his procedure in 1896 (e.g., ‘analysis had led back to these infantile sexual traumas’), while the passages as a whole convey the misleading impression that patients had recollected early childhood ‘seductions’ which turned out to be pseudo-memories. The fact that scholars and analysts who are familiar with Freud’s original German texts have not differed materially in their understanding of the passages in question (i.e., the retrospective accounts) from those who know the accounts from the Standard Edition shows that the sense conveyed by each of the texts is essentially the same. (It should be noted that the account of the seduction theory episode by Israëls and Schatzman (1993) follows closely that in Israëls’s book Het Geval Freud (1993), in which he provided his own Dutch translations from the original publications. Borch-Jacobsen (1996), who similarly maintains that Freud’s later accounts of the seduction theory episode concealed the means by which he obtained the clinical findings reported in 1896, is also conversant with Freud’s original texts.)



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