The Myth of Freud’s Ostracism by the Medical Community in 1896-1905: Jeffrey Masson’s Assault on Truth


Allen Esterson


(Note: This is a pre-publication version of the article published in History of Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2002, pp. 115-134. Copyright: American Psychological Association. This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.)


The story recounted by Jeffrey M. Masson of the medical community's outraged response to the seduction theory is treated as historical fact in some of the recent literature on Freud's early psychoanalytic experiences. In this article the evidence adduced by Masson in The Assault on Truth (1984) to buttress his account of Freud's supposed ostracism is critically examined. It is concluded that this evidence fails to substantiate Masson's version of events, that there is abundant evidence that refutes it, and that he has ignored the historical research that demonstrates that the notion that Freud's early psychoanalytic writings received an irrationally hostile reception is a myth.


In an article published in History of Psychology in 1999, Gleaves and Hernandez cite (among other viewpoints) Jeffrey Masson’s claim that Freud abandoned his seduction theory largely as a result of the strong opposition it aroused, and endorse Masson’s case that Freud’s colleagues were so outraged by the claims made in his lecture “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896/1962a) that they ostracized him (Gleaves and Hernandez, 1999, pp. 332, 347-348, 351). Masson’s contention in The Assault on Truth (1984) that Freud was wrong to abandon the seduction theory received considerable attention when it was published, in part because the issue of child sexual abuse had become prominent at that time. The central arguments in The Assault on Truth have been extensively examined in the literature, generally unfavorably.[1] However, the detailed case made by Masson to support his contention that Freud was subjected to professional ostracism as a result of his claiming to have uncovered extensive childhood sexual abuse among his patients has been largely neglected.


The suggestion that Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory was a consequence of his colleagues’ hostility to the notion of extensive childhood sexual abuse is a relatively recent development. During the late 1970s some feminist writers argued that the seduction theory claims (as they understood them)[2] were essentially true, but they cited personal considerations, rather than professional pressures, as an explanation for its abandonment. Rush (1980), for instance, wrote that it was not adverse opinion but “Freud’s own faltering conviction”, arising from the fact that he “was extremely unhappy with the idea of father as seducer,” that led to his asserting that the infantile “sexual scenes” he claimed to have uncovered were mostly fantasies (pp. 88-89). In similar vein, Herman (1981) asserted that the change of view “was based...on Freud’s own growing unwillingness to believe that licentious behaviour on the part of fathers could be so widespread” (p. 10). According to Alice Miller (1983), Freud retreated from “his surprising discovery of adults’ sexual abuse of their children” by proposing a theory which “nullified this inadmissible knowledge” (p. 60). In accordance with the central theme of her books, it is Miller’s contention that Freud’s “betrayal of the truth in 1897” occurred “because [he] could not bring himself to confront the truth about his own childhood” (1991, p. 45).


With the publication of The Assault on Truth in 1984, both critics of Freud’s renunciation of the seduction theory and non-partisan commentators were influenced by Masson’s assertion that, “faced with his colleagues’ hostility to his discoveries, Freud sacrificed his major insight [the seduction theory],” and that “giving up his ‘erroneous’ view allowed Freud to participate again in a medical society which had earlier ostracized him” (Masson, 1984, pp. 12, 192). The extent of this influence is apparent in the following examples taken from a wide variety of sources in the last decade.


Citing several passages in The Assault on Truth, Pety E. de Vries (1993), of the Inspectorate for Mental Health Care, The Netherlands, states that when Freud published his seduction theory claims “nobody who counted scientifically believed him, and he was ridiculed by his colleagues.” In consequence, he “renounced the theory entirely,” because he had “become a scientific and professional failure” (p. 527).


In their essay “Psychoanalytic theories of personality” in Advanced Personality, Quintar, Lane and Goeltz (1998) note that “Jeffrey Masson (1984) suggested that Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory was based primarily on Freud’s needs to protect his professional reputation and to enhance his practice...” (p. 35).


Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) take as given that Freud was subjected to “professional ostracism” as a result of the publication of his seduction theory claims, and contend that the most plausible explanation for Freud’s renunciation of the theory was that it was in response to “political pressures, those written about by Masson (1984)” (pp. 345, 351).


Citing Masson (1984) as their source, in their book Abnormal Psychology Davison and Neale (2001) write that Freud’s seduction theory claims “elicited outrage from his colleagues, yet he persisted until 1897, when in a letter to his colleague Wilhelm Fliess he indicated that he had come to believe that many of his patients’ accounts were fantasies” (p. 29).[3]


In the Open University text The Psychology of Gender and Sexuality, W.R. and R.S. Rogers (2001) write that Freud’s “reports of [childhood ‘seductions] scandalized Victorian society, especially his medical colleagues...Under this pressure Freud recanted...” (p. 72).


It is unsurprising to find Bass and Davis (1994), proponents of the view that a wide variety of somatic and behavioral symptoms have their origins in repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, writing that after Freud “was criticized and ridiculed by his colleagues” for presenting his seduction theory claims he ultimately “recanted” (p. 480). However, as the above quotations indicate, the view that Freud was shunned by his colleagues and that this was a major factor in his abandoning the seduction theory is by no means confined to such circles.


The seduction theory and its repercussions


Both the circumstances concerning the origins of, and the contemporary reactions to, Freud’s seduction theory claims have frequently been ill understood. Contrary to the received story (based on his retrospective reports, e.g., Freud, 1925/1959, pp. 33-34), Freud alighted on his theory that a necessary precondition for hysteria and obsessional neurosis was a repressed memory of early childhood sexual excitation prior to his claiming to have uncovered such memories (Esterson, 1998, p. 4; Masson, 1985, pp. 141, 144).[4] Then in papers completed in early February 1896,[5] only four months after announcing his theory to his confidant Wilhelm Fliess, he claimed that by means of his psychoanalytic procedure he had analytically “traced back” his patients’ hysterical symptoms to unconscious memories of appropriate infantile “sexual scenes” for all of his patients (Freud, 1896/1962c, p. 151; also 1896/1962b, p. 164). He reiterated these clinical claims in more detail in his lecture “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896/1962a), delivered in April 1896. No one disputes that this lecture received a cool response from Freud’s colleagues. However, contrary to some of the views cited above, it was not outrage at Freud’s raising the issue of childhood sexual abuse that was the source of their scepticism. Such documented information as we have indicates that opposition to the seduction theory claims was based either on a belief in the predominantly constitutional basis of nervous disorders, or, more often, on the grounds that findings obtained by means of Freud’s clinical procedures were unreliable.[6] Doubts concerning these procedures were voiced by Bleuler, Strümpell and Michell Clark in their reviews of Studies on Hysteria (1895a) (reprinted in Kiell, 1988, pp. 68, 74, 82). Exemplifying this criticism, Michell Clark wrote (p. 82) that “the weak point in the method of investigation” lies in the fact that hysterical patients are “liable to make statements in accordance with the slightest suggestion given to them, it might be quite unconsciously given to them, by the investigator.” In relation to the seduction theory itself, Hughes (1896) rejected what he called Freud’s “wildly conjectural” conclusions primarily on the grounds that “hysteria, whatever its exciting causes, usually bad neuropathic endowment...” (Kiell, 1988, p. 36). In a discussion of the claims made by Freud in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896/1962a), Löwenfeld (1899) concluded that “if we see what this proof [of infantile sexual scenes] actually looks like according to Freud’s own report, we cannot attribute any value to it,” since “the patients were subjected to a suggestive influence coming from the person who analysed them” (Israëls and Schatzman, 1993, p. 43).[7] However, in his later reports of the episode Freud simply asserted, as if it were an incontrovertible fact, that he had uncovered infantile “sexual scenes” in the case of most of his patients in the period in question (1906/1953b, p. 274; 1914/1957, pp. 33-34), and it was his testimony which prevailed, while the concerns of his critics in relation to his clinical procedures at that time have been neglected.[8]


Of the authors cited above who endorse Masson’s account of the hostile reaction to the seduction theory, only Gleaves and Hernandez (1999) address the arguments against Masson’s interpretation of the views of Freud’s critics. They challenge the case presented by Borch-Jacobsen (1996) that the opposition to the seduction theory claims stemmed primarily from concern that Freud had failed to allow for the effects of suggestion. They argue that Borch-Jacobsen “failed to consider the subtle specifics of the seduction theory and the reaction Freud’s colleagues might [sic] have had to these specifics,” which, “if accurate,...would have implicated many adults (including members of the scientific community)...” They also state that “According to Freud’s theory, women with hysteria no longer should be denigrated and their symptoms interpreted as a sign of their constitutional weaknesses...,” and write that “Accepting Freud’s theory and evidence as valid meant...a complete paradigm shift in how psychopathology, especially that of women, was conceptualized,” with the implication that this was unacceptable to Freud’s colleagues. Finally, they argue that “the final piece of evidence that challenges Borch-Jacobsen’s interpretation is that the professional ostracism disappeared when Freud altered his theory” (Gleaves and Hernandez, 1999, pp. 347-348).


Now Gleaves and Hernandez’s argument presupposes that Freud’s 1896 papers represented a complete break with the view held by many of his colleagues that hysterical symptoms were predominantly a consequence of constitutional weakness, but they fail to appreciate that Freud himself stated explicitly in one of the seduction theory papers that he held the view that “heredity fulfils the role of a precondition, powerful in every case and even indispensable in most cases [Freud’s emphasis]” (1896/1962c, p. 147). More importantly, whereas they put forward undocumented hypothetical notions about how Freud’s colleagues might have interpreted his seduction theory claims, Borch-Jacobsen (1996, pp. 21-29) provides detailed documentation of the actual concerns expressed in the contemporary literature about Freud’s clinical procedures at that time; as Borch-Jacobsen writes, Masson’s (1984) account of events “completely ignores the discussion that was going on about suggestion in particular and about Freud’s theory of hysteria in particular” (p. 21).[9] Further, Gleaves and Hernandez’s “final piece of evidence” challenging Borch-Jacobsen collapses in the face of the documentation that their statement concerning Freud’s ostracism is wholly without substance, not least because (as will be shown below) Freud was not shunned by his colleagues.


Largely due to publications which have presented Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory as resulting from either his own, or his colleagues’, repulsion at the idea of widespread sexual abuse of children, it is widely believed that the sexual abuse of children was a taboo subject in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That this was by no means the case is indicated by the fact that in his celebrated volume Psychopathia Sexualis (1894) Krafft-Ebing not only documented several instances of such abuse (including incest), he cited contemporary German and French publications which reported details of actual cases and provided statistics of child sexual abuse cases which came before the courts (Borch-Jacobsen, 1996, p. 23, n.28).[10] In her meticulously documented Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England, Louise Jackson (2000) writes that the sexual abuse of young girls was a “burning social issue” (p. 17) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Moreover, a passage in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” indicates that Freud himself took for granted some awareness among his colleagues of child sexual abuse. He anticipated that one reason why they might not accept his seduction theory was that “Some people...will perhaps argue that...such [childhood sexual abuse] experiences are very frequent -- much too frequent for us to be able to attribute an aetiological significance to the fact of their occurrence” (1896/1962a, p. 207).


As indicated above, it is only since the publication of The Assault on Truth that the notion that a major factor in Freud’s renunciation of the seduction theory was the hostile reaction of his colleagues has come to the fore. The only detailed attempt to document this view, along with the more specific claim that Freud was ostracized following his lecture “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in which he advanced the seduction theory, is that provided by Masson (1984). I shall examine these sections of Masson’s book below. But before doing so it is of interest to note statements of Masson’s that indicate that he has a poor understanding of both the facts about Freud’s original clinical claims, and the nature of Freud’s revised explanation of his clinical findings following his abandonment of the seduction theory. Although Freud claimed, without providing details of the actual clinical material, that under “the strongest compulsion of the treatment” he induced all of his patients to “reproduce” infantile “sexual scenes,” he also reported that “they have no feeling of remembering the scenes” and “assure me...emphatically of their unbelief” (1896/1962a, p. 204). Contrast this with Masson’s statement that “It had never seemed right to me, even as a student, that Freud would not believe his [women] patients” (1984, p. xxv). Evidently Masson failed to grasp the significance of Freud’s words quoted above, namely, that it was Freud who insisted to the patients that they had experienced sexual abuse in early childhood, and the patients who expressed their “unbelief.” As Cioffi notes, Masson’s mistaken view that Freud based his seduction theory on the reality of stories recalled and recounted by his patients in the course of analysis indicates that he is a victim of Freud’s misleading retrospective accounts of the episode (Cioffi, 1998a, p. 206; see also Schimek, 1987, Israëls and Schatzman, 1993, and Esterson, 1998, 2001). Again, Masson’s account of how Freud “listened and understood and gave [his female patients] permission to remember and speak of these terrible events” (1984, p. 9) is not consistent with Freud’s reporting that his patients were generally “indignant” when he told them that he expected to uncover infantile “sexual scenes,” of which they knew nothing prior to their treatment (1896/1962a, p. 204).[11] Masson also writes that “The early traumas his patients had had the courage to face and report to him he was later to dismiss as the fantasies of hysterical women who invented stories and told lies” (p. 11). But Freud never accused the patients in question of having “told lies,” for had he done so, as Cioffi points out (1998a), “he would simultaneously have undermined the claim that in ‘remembering’ infantile seductions his patients were reproducing in distorted form their infantile experience of incestuous fantasizing” (p. 207).


Reactions to “The Aetiology of Hysteria”


Freud’s first two seduction theory papers were published in March (one in a French journal) and May 1896. A much fuller presentation of the theory and its supposed corroboration was made in his lecture “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896/1962a), delivered to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology on April 21, 1896. It is this lecture which, according to Masson, initially provoked the intense hostility of Freud’s medical colleagues towards him. The first evidence for this hostility, Masson writes, can be found in the report of the meeting at which Freud had presented his lecture in the medical journal Wiener klinische Wochenschrift. From his examination of the files of the journal, he tells us that “Generally -- in, fact, invariably -- the practice was to give the title of a paper, a brief summary of its contents, and an account of the ensuing discussion” (1984, p. 6). However, Masson reports that he was “startled” to discover that in the case of “The Aetiology of Hysteria” the journal gave only the title and author of the lecture. (A facsimile of the relevant page confirms this.)


Though Masson does not spell it out explicitly, the implication is clear: the editors of Wiener klinische Wochenschrift had suppressed information about the lecture because they took exception to its contents. But is this the only plausible explanation? We know that Freud had not written out the lecture when he delivered it, since on May 30, 1896, he reported to Fliess: “I wrote down in full for Paschkis my lecture on the aetiology of hysteria” (Masson, 1985, p. 190). (Paschkis was the editor of Wiener klinische Rundschau, the journal in which the “Aetiology” paper was published.)[12] By all accounts Freud was a highly accomplished lecturer: in a passage relating to the earlier part of his career, Clark (1980) reports that “Freud always spoke extemporaneously,” requiring only a short time before the lecture for organizing the material in his mind (p. 211). Similar information concerning Freud’s exceptional abilities as a lecturer, and his custom of writing down lectures in full for publication only after he had delivered them, is given by Strachey (Freud, 1916-17/1963, p. 5), Jones (1953, p. 375), and by Freud himself (1933/1964, p. 5). (It should be noted that Freud was just short of 40 years old in April 1896, and already a very experienced lecturer.) It is feasible that copies of papers delivered at meetings of the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology were normally submitted to the secretary, and that, in the absence of such a copy, Wiener klinische Wochenschrift was unable to provide a summary of the contents of the lecture.[13] (The date on which Freud wrote to Fliess that he had written out the lecture in full for Paschkis was more than two weeks after the publication of the report of the meeting in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift.)


There may be, therefore, a more mundane explanation for the lack of a summary of the “Aetiology” lecture than that suggested by Masson. Further, had this indeed been the situation, the journal may have decided to omit an account of any discussion which followed. But we can’t even be sure that there was any discussion of substance following Freud’s lecture. As is well known, he reported to Fliess that the lecture had been given “an icy reception” (Masson, 1985, p. 184). It is possible that the audience was so unimpressed by his claim of one hundred percent confirmation of the uncovering of unconscious memories of sexual abuse in infancy, and by his acknowledged failing to provide “the actual material” of his analyses (1896/1962a, p. 203), that they felt that there was little to discuss until he did so.


The fact is that we do not know why Wiener klinische Wochenshcrift published no summary of Freud’s lecture; whether or not the above suggestion was the case, there may be perfectly innocent explanation. We do know that Freud, ever on the alert for signs of any hostility towards his writings, never made any complaint about the journal’s treatment of his lecture in letters to Fliess. We also know that Freud had no trouble publishing “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in the journal of his choice, Wiener klinische Rundschau, in May/June 1896, and that his two earlier seduction theory papers were published in other journals a short time after they had been completed.


Masson supports his contention concerning Wiener klinische Wochenschrift by claiming that Freud suspected the journal of anti-Semitic leanings, and he quotes a paragraph from a letter written to Fliess in February 1888 in which Freud asserts that the journal, which was commencing publication at that time, was “intended to represent the purified, exact, and Christian views of a few Hofräte [high civil servants] who have long forgotten what work is like” (1984, pp. 11, 202 n.7). However, Masson omits to mention that the first senior editor, Bamberger, and several members of the editorial board, including Freud’s friend Ernst von Fleischl, were Jews, which rather undermines the impression he is seeking to create (Masson, 1985, p. 20 n.3).


Reactions of Freud’s Medical Colleagues


What of Masson’s other, presumably more substantial, grounds for contending that Freud’s colleagues were outraged by his claims in the “Aetiology” lecture (rather than that they simply rejected an improbable and uncorroborated thesis)? In the course of his superficially plausible account, he actually adduces very little substantive evidence. For the most part he seems to have taken as given the received story that Freud had been ostracized by his colleagues during the period from the mid-1890s up to about 1905, and simply designated the seduction theory as the source of the hostility in place of the traditional explanation that it was due to the strong emphasis on sexuality. In relation to Freud’s immediate colleagues Masson relies almost entirely on Freud’s own subjective reports, both at the time and in his later writings. He quotes Freud’s writing at the end of his brief report to Fliess on the “Aetiology” lecture, “They can go to hell” (1984, p. 9). This tells us something about Freud’s response to rejection, but, in itself, nothing about his critics other than that they failed to be impressed by his claims. As we have seen, several critics argued that the clinical procedure described by Freud in Studies on Hysteria could well produce findings in accord with the preconceptions of the physician (Kiell, 1988, pp. 68, 74, 82). Moreover, Freud was now claiming to have uncovered for every one of 18 patients unconscious memories of infantile sexual traumas (perpetrated, in most of the cases, by two or more assailants [1896/1962a, p. 208]), whereas in Studies, published only the previous year, he had not reported such a finding in the case of a single patient. As Paul Robinson (1993) observes, a more plausible reading of the opposition to the seduction theory would suggest that it “rested not, as Masson would have it, on some visceral inability to accept the reality of childhood sexual abuse but on a rational skepticism about the sweeping etiological generalization Freud had proposed, namely that such abuse was the necessary and invariable cause of hysteria” (pp. 114-115).[14]


Masson quotes from a letter to Fliess dated May 4, 1896: “I am as isolated as you could wish me to be; the word has been given out to abandon me, and a void is forming around me” (1984, p. 10). The first reaction to Freud’s saying that “the word has been given out to abandon me” is surely (if one thinks about it seriously for one moment) that this sounds distinctly unlikely. Note also that he writes that the isolation is “as you [i.e., Fliess] could wish me to be,” which provides another clue to what is actually going on here. In letters written a few weeks earlier we find Freud’s having written, on April 16: “In accordance with your request, I have started to isolate myself in every respect and find it easy to bear. I have one prior commitment, though -- a lecture to be given at the psychiatric society on Tuesday”; and on April 26: “Of all the advice you gave me, I followed the one concerning my isolation most completely” (Masson, 1985, pp. 181, 183). These earlier letters show that it was Freud himself who decided to distance himself from his colleagues.[15] Further, note that Masson’s own translation in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess has a slightly different (and more accurate) wording: “Word was given out to abandon me, for a void is forming all around me [emphasis added]” (Masson, 1985, p. 185).[16] This subtly changes the emphasis, for now it reads as if Freud was inferring that “word was given out” because he sensed a void around him. We are now in a position to understand his unlikely assertion as the reflection of a mild tendency towards paranoia at that time, rather than as an accurate statement about his colleagues. The fact that he had for some time been relieving various ailments by the use of cocaine, one of the common effects of which is to induce feelings of paranoia, lends some support for this suggestion.[17]


In a letter written on March 16, 1896, i.e., before the two earlier seduction theory papers had been published, Freud wrote: “I am...contending with hostility and live in such isolation that one might imagine I had discovered the greatest truths” (Masson, 1985, p. 179). This was towards the end of a period when, as Jones (1953) tells us, “there are records of nine or ten papers, written between 1892 and 1896...which Freud himself read [to various medical societies]” (pp. 376-377). Further, Freud’s letters to Fliess indicate, in Ellenberger’s words (1970), “a strong intolerance of any kind of criticism” (p. 448); his attitude towards colleagues whose only offence was that they did not endorse his views is exemplified by his describing the eminent neurologist Löwenfeld as “stupid” (Masson, 1985, p. 412). In this same context, Gay writes (1988) of Freud’s “tenderness to criticism that was threatening to become a habit” (p. 77). In short, Masson’s quoting Freud’s words in letters to Fliess around the time of the “Aetiology” lecture tells us something of Freud’s subjective feelings, but fails to substantiate the contention that his medical colleagues were so outraged by his seduction theory claims that they ostracized him.


In pursuit of his theme that Freud was shunned by colleagues, Masson makes the astounding claim that “Breuer now abandoned him” following the “Aetiology” lecture (1984, p. 136). All informed commentators are agreed that it was Freud who forced the break in relations, for the characteristic reason that Breuer did not concur with his more extreme formulations (Hirschmüller, 1989, pp. 188-193; Jones, 1953, pp. 182, 184, 280-281, 338; Roazen, 1975, p. 78). Masson’s claim is refuted in the letters he himself translated; for example, in 1901 Freud wrote to Fliess that it was “again a good deed of Breuer” that led to his being invited to give a lecture at the Philosophical Society (Masson, 1985, 437; see also p. 392). In 1898 Freud had told Fliess “Again and again I am glad to be rid of [Breuer]” (Masson, 1985, p. 305; see also p. 365).        


In his Introduction to The Assault on Truth, Masson writes that after the “Aetiology” lecture Freud “was urged never to publish it, lest his reputation be damaged beyond repair” (p. xxiv). Somewhat oddly for such a significant statement, he provides no reference for this assertion. Possibly it is based on Freud’s telling Fliess that he had written out his lecture for publication “in defiance of my colleagues” (Masson, 1985, 190). However, this actually tell us nothing more than that Freud was aware that his colleagues were unimpressed by his paper, and that he was going to publish it in spite of their views.


Other supposed evidence for the alleged isolation imposed on Freud by his immediate colleagues is provided in a footnote appended by Masson to the first letter in the section headed “Isolation from the Scientific Community” in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (Masson, 1985, p. 184 n.1). He writes that Freud “remembered the meeting [at which the “Aetiology” lecture was delivered] with bitterness,” and quotes a passage from “On the history of the psychoanalytic movement” (1914) in which Freud complains of “the silence which my communications met with [and] the void which formed itself about me” following the meeting (Freud, 1914, p. 21). However, Freud’s later accounts of his experiences at this time, including his supposed ostracism, have been shown to be unreliable (Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 448, 450, 452-455; Cioffi, 1998b, pp. 161-181; Sulloway, 1979, pp. 452-453, 463-464, 478-479; Esterson, 1993, pp. 123-131). As Gay (1988) notes concerning Freud’s “habit of dramatizing his intellectual isolation”: “Nor was he really shunned in Viennese medical circles. Eminent specialists were prepared to recommend a maverick whose theories they found extravagant at best...” (p. 140). In short, examination of this part of the case argued by Masson shows that it depends almost entirely on Freud’s own distorted perceptions, not on direct quotations from his immediate colleagues.


It is clear that Masson’s contention that Freud’s professional colleagues were so outraged by “The Aetiology of Hysteria” lecture that they proceeded to ostracize him is not substantiated by the evidence that he adduces. Moreover, there is abundant evidence that refutes his contention. In February 1897 Freud was proposed for the position of Professor Extraordinarius by Professors Nothnagel and Krafft-Ebing, and unanimously nominated by a committee of six senior professors in May. At a subsequent meeting of the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna in June 1897 the nomination was approved by 22 votes to 10 (Masson, 1985, pp. 231-32 n.3; Ellenberger, 1970, p. 453; Sulloway, 1979, pp. 464-465). At an early stage in this process, Freud had reported to Fliess (letter, February 8, 1897) that Nothnagel had told him in confidence that if the board did not go along with his nomination, Nothnagel and Krafft-Ebing would, on their own initiative, submit the proposal directly to the Education Minister (Masson, 1985, p. 229). The ministry eventually turned down the proposal made by the Medical Faculty,[18] and on March 11, 1902, Freud reported that Nothnagel and Krafft-Ebing “responded wonderfully” when he wrote asking them to renew their proposal (Masson, 1985, p. 456). Sulloway  (1979) writes that “Freud’s scientific sponsors, as well as two-thirds of the Medical Faculty, unswervingly supported Freud’s candidacy throughout the whole affair” of his nomination for the professorship (p. 466). Further, as Masson reports (1984, p. 119), Freud maintained “a lively correspondence” with Löwenfeld between 1900 and 1903. All these amicable contacts with colleagues took place before Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory was public knowledge: Löwenfeld, for example, stated in 1903 that he did not know “to what extent [Freud] still holds to his views published in 1896” (Masson, 1984, p. 121).[19]


The evidence contradicting the story that Freud was ostracized by his medical colleagues also suffices to refute Masson’s complementary assertion that “Giving up his ‘erroneous’ view allowed Freud to participate again in a medical society that had earlier ostracized him. In 1905 Freud publicly retracted the seduction theory...” (1984, p. 12). But there is other evidence that is inconsistent with this assertion of Masson’s. Although in articles published in 1905 and 1906 Freud indicated that he had abandoned the theory that an unconscious memory of sexual excitation in early childhood was a necessary precondition for hysteria, he did not at that time retract the clinical claims he had made in 1896 (Esterson, 2001, pp. 335-339). In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” he stated: “I cannot admit that in my paper on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ (1896) I exaggerated the frequency or importance of this influence [the sexual seduction of children]...” (1905/1953a, p. 190).[20] In the same context, in his next publication (written the same year) he stated that 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,” and that though he had thus over-estimated the frequency of such events, his 1896 clinical claims “were not open to doubt” (1906/1953b, p. 274). If there had been hostility towards Freud as a result of his clinical claims of 1896, his reiteration of those claims in 1905 would not have mollified his antagonists.


In his concluding chapter of The Assault on Truth Masson writes: “Faced with his colleagues’ hostility to his discoveries, Freud sacrificed his major insight” (1984, p. 192). However, none of the several motives Freud gave for his loss of faith in the seduction theory in his letter to Fliess of September 21, 1897, relate to criticisms by his colleagues (Masson, 1985, pp. 164-166). There is, in fact, no evidence that the views of his critics played any role in his abandonment of the seduction theory; Freud was a man who positively revelled in standing against the stream. (See, e.g., Roazen, 1975, p. 29; Sulloway, 1979, pp. 86, 476-480; Freud, 1914/1957, pp. 21-22). He even acknowledged to Fliess an “enjoyment” of what he perceived as his “martyrdom” (Masson, 1985, p. 456).


The Response of the Wider Medical Profession


Masson writes in relation to the “Aetiology” lecture that “Condemnation was not confined to Breuer and Freud’s colleagues” (1984, p, 135). We have seen that he fails to substantiate that there was any condemnation by Freud’s colleagues in the sense that his argument requires, but what is the evidence for his contention that the medical profession in general was outraged by the seduction theory claims? As he acknowledges, the first example he gives is not in fact in relation to the seduction theory claims, but is from a review of Studies on Hysteria, in which book sexual abuse plays little role although virtually all the patients mentioned are women. The review is by the German psychiatrist Adolf von Strümpell, and Masson writes that Strümpell “claims that what Freud and Breuer discovered were only the ‘fantasies and invented tales’ typical of hysterics” (1984, p. 135). Now Strümpell actually wrote the following: “I wonder about the quality of materials mined from a woman under hypnotic influence. I am afraid that many hysterical women will be encouraged to give free rein to their fantasies and inventiveness” (Kiell, 1988, p. 68). In other words, he is expressing the not unreasonable view that clinical material (of any kind) obtained while hysterical patients are under hypnosis is unreliable. Nor is Masson’s assertion that Strümpell “complains bitterly” of Freud’s invasion of the private sexual life of the patient entirely accurate; what Strümpell actually wrote was somewhat milder: “This procedure [used by Breuer and Freud] exploration of the private circumstances and experiences of the patient, an exploration which frequently touches on minute details. I do not know if such a penetration into his most intimate affairs is warranted even for the most honourable physician. I am particularly doubtful about such exploration when it concerns sexual experiences...” As Sulloway (1979) writes, aside from such reservations, Strümpell’s review is “a balanced mixture of appreciative praise and reasoned criticism” (p. 511).


The other article cited by Masson is by the psychiatrist Konrad Rieger, whose comments on one of the earlier seduction theory papers (Freud, 1896/1962b) are quoted as follows: “I cannot believe that an experienced psychiatrist can read this paper without experiencing genuine outrage. The reason for this outrage is to be found in the fact that Freud takes very seriously what is nothing but paranoid drivel with a sexual content – purely chance events – which are entirely insignificant or entirely invented. All of this can lead to nothing other than simply deplorable ‘old wives’ psychiatry’.” (Masson, 1984, p. 135).[21] Although he doesn’t spell it out explicitly, the context in which Masson provides this quotation can only lead the reader to understand that Rieger was expressing outrage at Freud’s seduction theory claims. However, further investigation indicates that this is grossly misleading. Bry and Rifkin (1962, p. 13-14) report that Rieger’s criticisms of Freud’s paper “Further Remarks on the Neuro-psychoses of Defence” (1896/1962b), which amounted to some 150 words in an 8,000 word article, were in relation to Freud’s extending his theory of the sexual aetiology of neuroses to paranoia. Freud’s paper discusses a case of paranoia in addition to his seduction theory claims (1896/1962b, pp. 174-185), and Rieger’s expression of horror was directed at Freud’s obliteration of “the decisive difference between hysteric and paranoid,” which Rieger held to be “one of the most important ones in all psychiatry and neuropathology” (quoted in Bry and Rifkin, 1962, p. 14).


Both Decker (1971, p. 479-480) and Sulloway (1979, p. 454-455) emphasize that Rieger’s remarks should be understood in the historical context described by Bry and Rifkin (1962) as follows: “The trend of the time was to try to establish a scientific, somatically oriented psychiatry in place of the older theory, which related mental and nervous disorders to disturbances of the affects and emotions, often to sexual disturbances. A theory of the sexual etiology of neuroses could appear to be, as Möbius put it, ‘a regrettable backsliding into the popular superstition.’...The phrase ‘old wives’ psychiatry’ implied that Freud was opposed by some of his contemporaries not as a revolutionary, but as a reactionary, who threatened to undermine a hard-won and precarious discipline in the still young fields of psychiatry and psychology” (p. 14). As Michell Clark observed in his review of Studies of Hysteria: “It is interesting to note a return, in part at least, to the old theory of the origin of hysteria in sexual disorders, especially as the tendency of late years has been to attach very much less importance to them” (Kiell, 1988, p. 82). It is evident that the context in which Masson introduces Rieger’s comments gives the reader a misleading impression of what Rieger was writing about. One should also note that Bry and Rifkin emphasize (p. 14) that “The tenor of this attack on Freud’s theory is not typical of Freud’s reception in 1896” by the German psychiatric world, “but only of Rieger himself.”


Masson contends that Freud’s claims in the “Aetiology” lecture “met with no reasoned refutation or scientific discussion, only disgust and disavowal” (1984, p. 192), so let us examine the published responses to see if they bear out Masson’s strictures. In Freud Without Hindsight, Kiell (1988, pp. 33-34, 35-36) reprints two reviews of seduction theory papers. Neither expresses disgust, though one of them is highly critical of Freud’s conclusions, describing them as “wildly conjectural, unproved and unprovable” (p. 36). The other merely gives a precis of “Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses” (1896/1962c), without comment.  Another discussion of the seduction theory is to be found in the 1899 edition of Löwenfeld’s Sexualleben und Nervenleiden. The author’s conclusions about Freud’s claims in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896/1962a) are quoted in full in Israëls and Schatzman’s article “The Seduction Theory” (1993, pp. 43-44). As readers can see if they examine this passage, Löwenfeld’s view is expressed in terms which are both reasoned and scientific. He argues that findings obtained using a clinical procedure which, according to Freud’s own report, involved a considerable degree of pressure and suggestion were not acceptable.


Decker mentions two other criticisms of the seduction theory in her survey of the German literature on Freud in the period 1893-1907. She reports (1977) that Oppenheim argued that “even if sexual factors were important, Freud had gone ‘too far’ in considering sexual trauma of early childhood, arising in genital stimulation, to be the specific cause of hysteria” (p. 101). She also records that Helpach, while considering that for the understanding of hysteria “Freud’s scientific the latest of significance,” wrote in 1904 that he rejected “limiting to infancy the existence of hysteria-producing repression, for there is no proof of the fact that every hysteria goes back beyond puberty, and, in any case, [the fact of] traumatic neurosis contradicts such a theory” (pp. 125-126). It is evident from these measured comments, and from the quotations above, that Masson’s description of the published reactions to the seduction theory papers bears little relation to the facts.


The “Hostile Reception” Myth


The most comprehensive research on the reception of Freud’s early psychoanalytic writings in the German-speaking world is that undertaken by Decker (1971, 1977). Her survey of the relevant literature leads her to conclude that the story of his “splendid isolation” is a myth: “The main source of this description of Freud’s early reception was Freud himself. But Freud’s intellectual biases, emotional reactions, and unrealistic expectations often affected his judgment of the initial response to psychoanalysis” (1977, p. 321). She also discounts the legend that much of the opposition to Freud stemmed from outrage at his  ideas on sexuality: “By far the majority of those who rejected the sexual views were dispassionate and matter-of-fact in their expression” (1977, p. 98).[22] In her essay discussing the close attention paid to Freud’s early psychoanalytic publications by three prominent German physicians, Decker (1971, p. 466) notes that the eminent psychiatrist Theodor Ziehen, editor of the influential journal Monatschrift für Psychiatrie und Neurologie, published four of Freud’s papers in the period 1898-1905. Similarly, from 1893 onwards Löwenfeld “took a strong, serious, and continual interest in the development of Freud’s theories and methods of treatment, publicizing them in almost everything he wrote (1971, p. 467).”[23] In short, “Freud was not ignored by physicians or psychologists. Freud himself began this myth and it has been raised to a truism by many historians of psychoanalysis” (1977, p. 253).


Sulloway describes the story of “the ‘hostile’ and even ‘outraged’ manner in which the publication of [Freud’s] psychoanalytic ideas was supposedly received” as “one of the most well-entrenched legends associated with the traditional account of Freud’s life.” He documents (1979) the “blatant contradictions between the actual historical facts and the traditional account of Freud’s reception” (pp. 448-453), and locates the origins of the “traditional scenario of isolation and rejection” in Freud’s own historical accounts, which have “served as a congenial model for most subsequent Freud biographers.” In his book The Discovery of the Unconscious, Ellenberger (1970) similarly concluded that “There is no evidence that Freud was really isolated, and still less that he was ill-treated by his colleagues during these [early years of psychoanalysis]” (p. 448), though, as all commentators agree, Freud certainly experienced his situation subjectively as one of professional isolation.


There remains to be considered the views of a dissenter from the above conclusions. The former Secretary of the Sigmund Freud Archives, Kurt Eissler (1971), took issue with Ellenberger’s case that Freud was not subjected to enforced isolation in the early part of his career, but his arguments are unconvincing (pp. 351-364). To take one instance, in regard to Freud’s professorship Eissler writes: “We know...that one of the most powerful professors at the [Medical] College (Nothnagel)...promised to submit [Freud’s] name for a professorship, but was not certain whether despite his great influence he would get the majority to vote for Freud and that he was highly skeptical about the willingness of the Minister of Education to confirm Freud’s professorship (see Freud 1950, p. 191)” (1971, p. 358). However, in the letter (February 8, 1897) in question, in which Freud recorded Nothnagel’s skepticism about the minister’s response, Nothnagel was merely reported as saying that “if the board did not go along, the two of them [Nothnagel and Krafft-Ebing] on their own would submit the proposal to the ministry” (Masson, 1985, p. 229). There is no mention of Nothnagel’s using his authority to influence the vote of the Medical Faculty (Masson, 1985, p. 358), so this notion is nothing but Eissler’s own surmise. Moreover, as Sulloway (1979, p. 466 n.16) points out, Freud actually obtained a greater majority than was the case with six of the other nine candidates in his group, so Eissler’s suggestion that the Medical Faculty bowed to Nothnagel’s influence is difficult to sustain. Overall, Eissler’s case is almost entirely based on Freud’s own perceptions and the fact that there was criticism of Freud’s views, and it scarcely begins to challenge the bulk of the material adduced by Ellenberger, Sulloway, and  Decker.[24]




I have examined all the major items of evidence adduced by Masson in support of his thesis that Freud was ostracized by the medical community following his delivery of the lecture “The Aetiology of Hysteria.” The evidence Masson provides about the omission of details and discussion of Freud’s paper in the medical journal which reported the Viennese Society for Psychiatry and Neurology meeting on 21 April, 1896, is inconclusive, since we have no information about the circumstances. However, we know that Freud had no difficulty in publishing his three seduction theory papers in that year. In the case of the other items of evidence Masson adduces, I have shown that they do not bear the construction that Masson puts upon them. Further, there is abundant documentary evidence which demonstrates that Masson’s account of Freud’s being shunned by his colleagues is contradicted by the historical facts. Finally, historical research has demonstrated that the traditional story on which Masson’s account ultimately rests, that Freud’s early psychoanalytic writings encountered an irrationally hostile reception, is largely mythological. In The Assault on Truth Masson uncritically endorsed this story, embellished it, and associated it with Freud’s seduction theory claims in order to buttress his own version of the seduction theory episode. It is regrettable that this version of events, based largely on presupposition and the tendentious interpretation of the documents that Masson cites, should continue to be influential in some of the scholarly writings which survey Freud’s early clinical experiences.[25]




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Bry, I. and Rifkin. A. H. (1962). Freud and the history of ideas: primary sources, 1896-1910. In Science and Psychoanalysis (pp. 6-36), ed. J. H. Masserman. Vol. 5. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Cioffi, F. (1998a). From Freud’s ‘scientific fairy tale’ to Masson’s politically correct one. In Freud and the question of pseudoscience (pp. 205-209). Chicago: Open Court. (Original work published 1984 under the title “The cradle of neurosis” in the Times Literary Supplement, 6 July)

Cioffi, F. (1998b). The myth of Freud’s hostile reception. In Freud and the question of pseudoscience (pp.161-181). Chicago: Open Court. (Original work published 1973 as the introduction to F. Cioffi, ed, Freud: Modern judgements (pp. 1-24), London: Macmillan)

Davison, G. C. and Neale, J. M. (2001). Abnormal psychology. 8th ed. New York: Wiley.

Decker, H. S. (1971). The medical reception of psychoanalysis in Germany, 1894-1907: three brief studies. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 45, pp. 461-481.

Decker, H. S. (1977). Freud in Germany: Revolution and reaction in science, 1893-1907. Psychological Issues (Monograph 41). New York: International Universities Press.

de Vries, P. E. (1993). A draft of Lethe: a neglected statement from the works of Sigmund Freud.  Psychotherapy, 30 (3), pp. 524-530.

Eissler, K. R. (1971). Talent and genius: The fictitious case of Tausk contra Freud. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Eissler, K. R. (1993). Comments on erroneous interpretations of Freud’s seduction theory. Journal  of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41 (2), pp. 571-583.

Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Esterson, A. (1993).  Seductive mirage: An exploration of the work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.

Esterson, A. (1998). Jeffrey Masson and Freud’s seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths. History of the Human Sciences, 11 (1), pp. 1-21.

Esterson, A. (2001). The mythologizing of psychoanalytic history: deception and self‑deception in Freud’s accounts of the seduction theory episode. History of Psychiatry, 12 (3), pp. 329-352.

Freud, S. (1950). Sigmund Freud, Aus den Anfängen der Psychoanalyse. Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, Abhandlungen und Notizen aus den Jahren 1887-1902. Eds. M. Bonaparte, A. Freud and E. Kris. London: Imago.

Freud, S. (1953a). The interpretation of dreams. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vols. 4-5, pp. 1-621). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1900)

Freud, S. (1953b). My views on the part played by sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 7, pp. 271‑279). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1906)

Freud, S. (1953c). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 7, pp. 130-243). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1905)

Freud, S. (with Breuer, J.) (1955). Studies on hysteria. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 2, pp. 19-305). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1895)

Freud, S. (1957). On the history of the psychoanalytic movement. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, pp. 7‑66). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1914)

Freud, S. (1959). An autobiographical study. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 20, pp. 7‑74). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1925)

Freud, S. (1961). A short account of psychoanalysis. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 191‑209). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924)

Freud, S. (1962a). The aetiology of hysteria. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 191‑221). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth.  (Original work published 1897)

Freud, S. (1962b). Further remarks on the neuro‑psychoses of defence. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, 162‑185). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1897)

Freud, S. (1962c). Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 143‑ 156) Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth.  (Original work published 1897)

Freud, S. (1962d). The neuro-psychoses of defence. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, 45-61). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1894)

Freud, S. (1962e). Obsesssions and phobias. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 74-82). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1895)

Freud, S. (1963). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vols. 15-16, pp. 9-496). Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1916-1917)

Freud, S. (1964). New introductory lectures on psycho‑analysis. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 22, pp. 5-185).  Ed. and trans. by J. Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by A. Strachey and A. Tyson. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1933)

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. London: Dent.

Gleaves, D. H. and Hernandez, E. (1999). Recent reformulations of Freud’s development and abandonment of his seduction theory: historical/scientific clarifications or a continued assault on truth? History of Psychology, 2 (4), pp. 324-354.

Herman, J. (with Lisa Hirschman) (1981). Father-daughter incest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ ersity Press.

Hirschmüller, A. (1989). The life and work of Josef Breuer. New York and London: New York University Press.

Israëls, H. and Schatzman, M. (1993). The seduction theory. History of Psychiatry, 4, pp. 23-59.

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Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1894). Psychopathia sexualis, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der conträren Sexualempfindung. Eine klinisch-forensische Studie. 9th ed. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.

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Masson, J.M. (ed.) (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Trans. by Masson, J. M. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Masson, J. M. (ed.) (1986). Sigmund Freud: Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess 1887--1904, Ungekürzte Ausgabe. Frankfurt am Maine: S. Fischer.

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Miller, A. (1983). For your own good. Trans. from the German (1980) by H. and H. Hannum. London: Faber and Faber.

Miller, A. (1984). Thou shalt not be aware. Trans. from the German (1981) by H. and H. Hannum. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Miller, A. (1991). Breaking down the wall of silence. Trans. from the German (1990) by S. Worrrall. London: Virago.

Möbius, P. J. (1898). Review of Über die sexuellen Ursachen der Neurasthenie und Angst-neurose, by F. Gattel (1898). Schmidt’s Jahrbücher der in- und ausländischen gesammten Medicin, 269, 271.

Oosterhuis, H. (2000). Stepchildren of nature: Krafft-Ebing, psychiatry, and the making of sexual identity. University of Chicago.

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Schimek, J.G. (1987). Fact and fantasy in the seduction theory: a historical review. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 35, 937-965.

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[1]. See, for example, Cioffi, 1998b, pp. 204-209; Eissler, 1993; Esterson, 1998; Paul, 1985; Robinson, 1993; Rycroft, 1991, pp. 71-81.

[2]. The failure of many critics of Freud’s change of view about the seduction theory to appreciate its precise nature is discussed by McCullough (2001, pp. 17-20).

[3]. Reflecting the misconceptions of many commentators, Davison and Neale write that “In his earlier writings and lectures Freud postulated that the environmental cause of his patients’ hysterical symptoms was sexual abuse in childhood, typically rape by the father.” It is this notion of the involvement of fathers which is supposed to have provoked the particularly intense hostility of his colleagues. However, the theory as postulated by Freud in 1895-1896 required no specific culprits, and in his papers published in 1896 fathers were not mentioned. In one of these papers he wrote: “Foremost among those guilty of abuses...are nursemaids, governesses and domestic servants...; teachers, moreover, figure with regrettable frequency” (1896/1962b).

[4]. It is characteristic of the mythology attaching to the seduction theory episode that Miller (1984) writes in relation to Freud’s supposed uncovering of unconscious memories of infantile sexual abuse: “He is describing facts whose emergence came as a surprise even to him” (p. 109). In the passage in which these words appear Miller references “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which Freud stated explicitly that he indicated to his patients what he was expecting to uncover: “They are indignant as a rule when we warn them that such [infantile sexual] scenes are going to emerge” (1896/1962a, p. 204). (It was Freud’s customary procedure at that time to tell his patients the unconscious idea that  he had analytically inferred to be at the root of their symptoms (Freud, 1895/1955, pp. 281, 295).) The erroneous notion that Freud’s seduction theory findings came as a surprise to him derives from his misleading account of the episode in 1914 in “On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement” (1914/1957, p. 17).

[5]. Masson, 1985, p. 170.

[6]. At that time Freud was using his quasi-hypnotic “pressure technique” (Freud, 1895/1955, pp. 109-111, 270-272). He described the technique as “the most convenient way of applying suggestion for the purpose I have in view” (p. 271).

[7]. Though he was later to maintain that his seduction theory patients told him that they had been sexually abused in early childhood (1933/1964, p. 120), in one of his general historical accounts Freud reported that his aetiological findings in the years following his discontinuing the direct use of hypnosis (around 1892-1893 [Freud, 1895/1955, pp. 106, 109-110, 135, 145]) were based on his own inferences rather than on patients’ direct statements. In relation to his clinical procedure at that time he noted: “...the course of free association produced a plentiful store of ideas which could put one on the track of what the patient had forgotten. To be sure, this material 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 (or reconstruct) the forgotten material from it” (1924/1961, p. 196). This is consistent with his statement in The Interpretation of Dreams in relation to a dream which occurred in 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 [emphasis added]” (1900/1953a, p. 108).

[8]. In contrast to Freud’s colleagues, scholars and commentators throughout much of the twentieth century almost universally accepted his claim that he had uncovered “sexual scenes” from the early childhood of his patients in the period 1895-1896, although, as he himself acknowledged, he had not provided details of the specific clinical material “needful to support my assertions” (1896/1962c, p. 162; see also 1896/1962a, p. 203). Sheleff (1981) is one of the few commentators who have drawn attention to the fact that Freud’s seduction theory claims “present certain problems because of the lack of a full published account of [the] cases” (p. 74).

[9]. Borch-Jacobsen is referring to Freud’s general theory, which he espoused in the early 1890s, that unconscious memories were the cause of hysterical symptoms, not specifically to the seduction theory.

[10]. Psychopathia Sexualis went through no less than 17 editions between 1886 and 1924 (Oosterhuis, 2000, pp. 290-295).

[11]. Masson’s emphasis on Freud’s female patients obscures the fact that of the eighteen patients reported on in “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” one third were men (Freud, 1896/1962a, pp. 207-208).

[12]. The paper was published in five instalments on May 31 and June 7, 14, 21 and 28.

[13]. I thank Russell Powell for this suggestion.

[14]. Robinson (1993) is mistaken when, following Masson (1984, pp. 79-80), he writes that “Freud first mentioned the seduction hypothesis in a letter to Fliess of May 30, 1893, and one can trace Freud’s rising confidence in the theory through the correspondence of the following years” (p. 105). The reference to early childhood sexual abuse in the cited letter is nothing more than a passing conjecture, one of three “unproven surmises” relating to cases of “juvenile neurasthenia without masturbation, but not without...over-abundant pollutions” on which Freud is seeking Fliess's opinion (Masson, 1985, p. 50, Freud’s emphases). At no time in the following two years (prior to October 1895) did Freud ever propose, or claim to have uncovered, repressed memories of sexual abuse in infancy as the cause of hysteria; nor, contrary to the impression given by Masson, did post-pubertal sexual abuse figure prominently in Freud’s aetiological claims in this period (Freud, 1894/1962d; 1895/1962e; 1895/1955; Masson, 1985).

[15].  Masson has chosen to ignore these remarks from the earlier letters, though of course he knew about them since he had translated them himself. The fact that one of them was written before Freud delivered his lecture would have undercut the implication Masson clearly intends to convey when he  points out that the quotation from the May 4 letter was written “less than two weeks after [Freud] gave the paper” (1984, p. 10), namely, that the isolation Freud sensed was the direct result of hostility experienced from his colleagues in response to his lecture.

[16]. “Es sind irgendwelche Parolen ausgegeben worden, mich zu verlassen, denn alles fällt ringsum von mir ab” (Masson, 1986, p. 195). Gay (1988) translates this as some “password has been given out to abandon me, for everything round about me is falling away from me” (p. 93).

[17].  Freud used cocaine for the relief of migraines, inflammation of his nasal passages, and depression (Masson, 1985, pp. 49, 106, 126, 127, 132, 201). It is interesting to note that in a letter to Jung in 1908 Freud wrote in relation to the paranoid behaviour of a psychoanalytic colleague that he attributed it “to the medication, especially cocaine, which, as I well know, produces a toxic paranoia” (McGuire, 1974, p. 158). (This is probably an allusion to the experiences of Freud’s friend Ernst von Fleischl, who became addicted to cocaine in 1884-1885 after following Freud’s advice that he should take it to cure his morphine addiction.)

[18]. See Sulloway 1979 (pp. 464-467) for a discussion of the possible reasons, which remain obscure.

[19]. Masson claims (p. 119) that “the critical period for Freud’s change of heart about the seduction theory” was during the years 1900-1903. This is erroneous. The major change of heart had occurred by September 21, 1897, when he told Fliess “the great secret that has been slowly dawning on me in the last few months: I no longer believe in my neurotica [theory of the neuroses]” (Masson, 1985, p. 264). Though the letters to Fliess indicate a brief revival of belief in the theory in the following months, by late 1898 he had definitely abandoned it (Masson, 1985, pp. 331, 338, 383); e.g., “Last year’s gains, phantasies, have stood the test of time” (7 November, 1899). (Freud, of course, never relinquished the view that sexual abuse in childhood could have pathogenic consequences, though in 1896 he held that sexual abuse that was clearly recollected did not [1896/1962a, p. 211].)

[20]. It is in the remainder of this sentence in “Three Essays” that Freud gave his first public intimation that he had abandoned the seduction theory: “...though I did not then know that persons who remain normal may have had the same experiences in their childhood, and though I consequently overrated the importance of seduction in comparison with the factors of constitution and development” (1905/1953, p. 190). This is, implicitly, a renunciation of the theory he claimed to have corroborated in 1896, whereas the first part of the sentence is a reiteration of his 1896 clinical claims.

[21]. In Masson’s translation of this same passage in a footnote in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess he writes “indignation” instead of “outrage” (Masson, 1985, p. 203 n.3).

[22]. The traditional story has it that Victorian attitudes to sexuality dominated the medical profession in Vienna at that time, but that this was not the case is indicated by the words of the German psychiatrist Paul Möbius in 1898: “I suppose it has something to do with the peculiarities of life in Vienna that lots of doctors of the city so repeatedly emphasize sexual matters” (Möbius, 1898).

[23]. Recall that this is the man that Freud referred to in 1900 as “the stupid Löwenfeld” because his appraisals of Freud’s theories and clinical claims were not uncritical.

[24]. In any case, Eissler (1971, pp. 351ff) dates the start of Freud’s supposed isolation from 1886, a decade before the seduction theory, so his view lends no support to Masson’s thesis.

[25] . Readers interested in a critical examination of Masson’s 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 Sándor Ferenczi and Robert Fliess, are invited to read the Addendum on the website: