Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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Jeffrey Masson and Freud's seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths

by  Allen Esterson

See History of the Human Sciences, volume 11, no. 1, February 1998, pp. 1-21.


Jeffrey Masson supports his version of the seduction theory episode recounted in The Assault on Truth with an account of the prehistory of the theory, followed by a discussion of some related historical events which lend credence to his central thesis. These sections of his book are critically examined below.

Masson's Account of the Prehistory of the Seduction Theory

Masson account of the three-year period leading up to the public presentation of the seduction theory (1984[1985]: 79-87) follows a description of the appalling medical consequences of a botched operation Freud's Berlin-based friend Wilhelm Fliess performed in February 1895 on the nose of Emma Eckstein, one of Freud's patients.1 He opens the section in question with a paragraph whose relevance is not immediately apparent in which he purports to find evidence that Freud had reservations about Fliess's belief that he could treat certain sexual problems by surgical procedures involving the patient's nose. He starts by quoting a paragraph from a letter written in April 1893 (precise date unknown) which, he suggests, indicates Freud's communicating to Fliess his belief that 'a nose operation was not the best way to treat a problem connected with masturbation' (ibid.: 79; Masson, 1985: 46). Although elsewhere he acknowledges that the implications of the paragraph 'are uncertain' (Masson, 1985: 47), Masson writes that Freud 'seems to be telling Fliess something he would not risk telling him during their later and more intense friendship - namely that the efficacy of "nasal treatment" was a fantasy of Fliess's'. He then asserts that this supposed 'challenge' to Fliess 'undoubtedly [sic] explains why, as we know from a passage in a letter of 10 July 1893, Fliess evidently declined Freud's earlier offer of collaboration on a book or article'. However, an examination of the letter in question reveals nothing to justify the latter assertion. Moreover, the contention that Freud had resisted Fliess's nasal theories is contradicted by the fact that in the very letter from which Masson quotes Freud expressed the hope that 'the nasal reflex neurosis will soon be generally known as Fliess's disease' (ibid.: 45), and also by an enthusiastic reference to the nose theory in another letter around that time (30 May 1893 [ibid.: 49]);2 not to mention the fact that Freud later arranged for Eckstein to have her nose operated on by Fliess.3

This is merely the prelude to a stream of misleading speculations and assertions. Masson writes that on 30 May 1893 Freud suggested to Fliess the possibility of sexual seductions in infancy, and quotes the passage in question. He then reproduces a short passage from 'the letter which follows, dated August 20, 1893', in which Freud reported he was pursued everywhere by the aetiology of the neuroses and went on to say he was that day consulted by the daughter of the innkeeper on the Rax (Masson, 1984[1985]: 81).4 In this, and subsequent passages, Masson seeks to portray Freud as now embracing the notion of childhood sexual abuse as the cause of neuroses. Is this an accurate picture of what was happening with Freud at that time? The first thing to note is that the reference to childhood sexual abuse in the earlier letter is one of three 'unproven surmises' relating to cases of 'juvenile neurasthenia without masturbation' (Freud's emphasis) on which Freud is seeking Fliess's opinion (Masson, 1985: 50). In other words, it is nothing more than a passing conjecture pertaining to very specific situation, unrelated to the later seduction theory. Secondly, the letter from which Masson quotes is not the one which follows this surmise, but is the fourth one afterwards, so his attempt to make a direct link between the two items in the letters is illegitimate.

Citing the fact that the girl referred to in the second letter is the 'Katharina' in Studies on Hysteria, Masson writes that Freud 'is on the trail of...childhood seductions', and asserts that Freud had 'now applied his new aetiological formula beyond neurasthenia to the psychoneuroses' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 82). This assertion is false. Freud had no 'new aetiological formula' at that time. His writings, both published and unpublished, show that what he believed then was that psychoneuroses were caused by repressed memories of sexual disturbances (of any kind), not necessarily in childhood (e.g., letter, 21 May 1894 [Masson 1985, 74-5]).

Masson next relates the Katharina case to 'Breuer's known reluctance' (as later reported by Freud) to collaborate on Studies, arguing that the reason is now 'clearly revealed' in a passage in a letter (21 May 1894) to Fliess in which Freud says that 'the sexual factor is not supposed to be disclosed there' [in Studies]. This 'sexual factor', Masson asserts, was the 'frightening thesis that hysteria was caused by sexual seductions in childhood', a notion 'repugnant to Breuer'. He continues: 'So when Freud says [in the 21 May letter] that he is afraid he might not be able to prove the "sexual thesis" he means he might be prevented from proclaiming his new discovery that sexual violence against a child is the source of hysteria and obsessional neurosis' (Masson, 1984[1985]): 84).

One scarcely knows where to begin to refute this farrago of speculation and misinformation. Breuer's view was that 'the sexual factor is by far the most important and most productive of pathogenic results' (S.E.: II, 246-7). Where he differed from Freud was that he could not accept Freud's fanatical insistence that sexual factors were the exclusive cause of neuroses (Sulloway, 1979: 85, 89), and this rankled with Freud, who was as intolerant of dissent then as he was in his later career. The assertion that what Freud meant by the 'sexual factor' was his 'new discovery' that the cause of the psychoneuroses was sexual violence in childhood is erroneous: Freud's speculative seduction theory was not arrived at until the autumn of the following year (Masson, 1985: 141, 144; Sulloway, 1979: 128),5 and the claim that it was repugnant to Breuer in 1894 is thus without foundation.

Masson's interpretation of Freud's words in the 21 May letter as indicating that they mean he might be prevented from proclaiming his new discovery is again erroneous, not only because the 'new discovery' lay in the future (a progress report in this very same letter shows he had not gone beyond postulating that psychoneuroses result from 'sexual disturbances' [Masson, 1985: 74]), but also because an examination of the earlier part of the letter indicates that the words cited by Masson, that he 'shall no longer be able to prove the sexual thesis', were 'gloomy thoughts' which relate to a passage in which Freud was bemoaning the fact that his theoretical work on the neuroses had come to a halt (ibid.: 73-4)! Masson's conclusion that 'we may presume that Freud first wrote [the Studies case histories] with such sexual seductions in mind, then removed any mention of them at Breuer's insistence' is pure fantasy (1984[1985]: 84).

But Masson is not yet finished! He finally suggests that the replacing of 'father' by 'uncle' in the case of the teenage Katharina (in Studies) may have been at Breuer's request (ibid.: 84-5). This again is sheer speculation, without a scrap of evidence to support it.

Masson purports to support his allegations by citing Breuer's biographer, Hirschmüller, as the source for our knowledge of 'how reluctant' Breuer was to publish Studies. But Hirschmhller by no means accepts Freud's version of the episode, namely, that Breuer's 'distaste' for the notion of sexual aetiologies obstructed his understanding the case of 'Anna O.' (S.E.: XIV, 12; XX, 26).6 He suggests other reasons why there may have been difficulties between the collaborators, reasons which reflect well on Breuer's scholarly integrity, and lend no credence whatsoever to Masson's account (Hirschmüller, 1989: 151-4).

Masson follows up this barrage of speculations with a section headed 'The Seduction of Emma Eckstein'. In it he quotes a passage from the unpublished 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' in which Freud states that his investigation revealed that 'Emma' (presumably Eckstein) had two memories from the age of eight that a shopkeeper had 'grabbed at her genitals through her clothes'. Masson adds: 'No doubt he had reason to believe that Emma Eckstein had been abused in early childhood as well' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 88-9). This is no more than another speculation, based only on the fact that she was a patient during the period Freud maintained the infantile seduction theory (ibid.: 87).7

The Wolf Man, Sándor Ferenczi and Robert Fliess

In The Assault on Truth Masson ventures beyond the seduction theory period to discuss three episodes which, he believes, bear upon his central theme. One of these relates to Serge Pankejeff (the 'Wolf Man'), who was in analysis with Freud from 1910 to 1914. In his capacity as Director of the Freud Archives, Masson came across some notes by the analyst Ruth Mack Brunswick, who treated the Wolf Man for a period in the 1920s. He reports that Brunswick had learnt that 'as a child [the Wolf Man] had been anally seduced by a member of his family' (1984[1985]: xxv). In an article rebutting this and other related assertions, Kurt Eissler, formerly secretary of the Freud Archives, has published the relevant passage from Brunswick's notes. She writes of a 'fragment' of a memory 'which suddenly appeared', in which the infant Wolf Man goes with his Nanya [nurse] to the toilet. He is constipated, and to help him defecate the nurse 'inserts her finger into his anus, and teaches him that by pressing with the finger in a certain way, defecation will be made easier' (Eissler, 1993: 575-6). Brunswick refers to this as 'anal masturbation', though there seems little justification for such a description, and even less for Masson's assertion that the little boy had been 'anally seduced by a member of his family'. We have, in any case, no idea of precisely what the 'fragment' of memory consisted, or how much the clinical material was augmented by analytic inference - not to mention the unreliability of memories supposedly emerging from infancy.

A more protracted episode which engages Masson is the conflict between Freud and one of his most loyal disciples, Sándor Ferenczi. By the early 1930s Ferenczi had come to believe that the traditional psychoanalytic relationship between patient and therapist was too distant to allow the expression of deeply repressed feelings, and that psychoanalytic theory placed insufficient stress on traumatic (as against dispositional or constitutional) factors in the pathogenesis of the neuroses (Ferenczi, 1955: 156). He developed a method which, among other things, encouraged the patient to enter trance-like states in which supposedly repressed emotions and memories from childhood would surface. On the basis of material emerging from his patients in such states Ferenczi claimed, in a paper written in 1933 ('Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child'), that he had 'corroborative evidence for my supposition that the trauma, especially the sexual trauma, as the pathogenic factor cannot be valued highly enough' (ibid.: 161). He did not publish this clinical material (he died in 1933), but for a period in 1932 he kept a diary of his analyses. Masson writes of this diary that '[i]n every case discussed in these pages, Ferenczi traces the neurosis to sexual abuse suffered in childhood'. He goes on to allude to a patient who asks Ferenczi 'why she cannot remember having been raped, but dreams of it incessantly' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 147). In doing so he inadvertently acknowledges that the evidence here consisted of the contents of dreams, and that the patient did not actually recall the supposed childhood sexual abuse. But, more importantly, Masson has misrepresented the report of what the patient said. In the relevant entry in the diary Ferenczi writes that the patient reported a dream about a cousin who is raped by a bull, and then another 'scene' in which she sees the same cousin floating lifelessly in water. On waking up she 'racks her brain about why she cannot remember these things, why she only dreams of them, and why in such distorted form' (Ferenczi, 1988: 179). Masson's assertion that the patient dreams incessantly of being raped can scarcely be described as accurate.

Ferenczi's diary and his 1933 paper reveal, as Masson writes, that he 'used twilight states and dreams to reconstruct early traumas' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 163; Ferenczi, 1955: 156, 160, 164). The distressing dreams occurred during periods of extreme anxiety, the latter seemingly a result of the therapeutic procedure itself (Ferenczi, 1955: 157). Not infrequently the patient remained unconvinced that such material was authentic (ibid.: 156-7). Nevertheless, in Masson's view the 1933 paper 'is one of those rare publications that show unmistakable signs of having been written by someone in a state of emotional turmoil which opens access to truths that are otherwise unavailable' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 148). Others may feel that emotional turmoil may not be a state conducive to the calm appraisal of clinical evidence. Rycroft (1991: 78), for instance, considers one passage quoted by Masson to be 'a textbook example of sloppy, crooked thinking'.

Masson also draws attention to the work of the psychoanalyst Robert Fliess, and, more specifically, to what he calls his 'seduction' by his father. Fliess wrote that he believed Freud had gone too far in 'favouring fantasy at the cost of memory' (Fliess, 1956: xvii). From his own experience with patients he claimed that 'the amnesia removal uncovers much more frequently than Freud's writings lead one to expect, memories [of physical and sexual abuse] of which there can be no doubt as to their authenticity.' Characteristically, Masson quotes this assertion as if it constituted evidence (1984[1985]: 139). However, in a footnote in a later book Fliess makes clear that his technique of 'amnesia removal' involved none other than the application of standard analytic principles: free-floating attention, interpretation, translation of symbols, questioning, and reconstruction (Fliess, 1973: 366 n).8 He believed he had discovered, from the analysis of his patients, 'the unbelievable frequency' of undiagnosed ambulatory psychosis in their parents (1956: xvii). Ambulatory psychotics are individuals who habitually engage in terrifyingly brutal physical and sexual abuse of their children, though to others and themselves they appear normal. Only the psychoanalysis of one of their children can reveal their true brutal nature - though it seems the analyst has to be Robert Fliess (1973: 204-5)! Oddly enough (and in contrast to Masson's central theme) Fliess's analyses revealed 'the inhuman, psychotic parent who in analysis emerges with such tragic frequency from repression most often [is] the patient's mother' (ibid.: 222, emphasis added).

Robert Fliess has an explanation why other analysts (including himself earlier in his career) have not made these discoveries. Because they have been inadequately analyzed, they remain ignorant of their own psychotic parent, should they have one, and hence are 'not equipped for patients who confront [them] with fragments that are replicas of [their] own history' (ibid.: 204). In other words, other analysts had not discovered this 'unbelievable' frequency of childhood physical and sexual abuse of their patients because of their own 'powerful resistances' (ibid.: 204-5).

Fliess had come to believe he himself was the victim of physical and sexual abuse in early childhood at the hands of his father, Wilhelm. In support of this belief he reports that he had 'clarified the picture of my father in two expert and thorough analyses, the last in middle age with Ruth Mack Brunswick', and that he had had 'an extended conversation with Freud himself about his onetime friend' (Fliess, 1956: xviii, n 6; Masson, 1984[1985]: 139-40). However, clarification obtained by the kinds of inferences made by orthodox psychoanalysts hardly constitutes conclusive evidence.9 As for the views of Freud, nowhere in the literature has it been reported that in his private conversations and correspondence he so much as hinted that Wilhelm Fliess was a psychotic child abuser. We have no idea what Freud said to Robert Fliess, but if he failed to rebut Robert's suspicion this may owe more to the bitterness he felt towards Wilhelm following the break-up of their close friendship than to any evidence he could provide.

Masson writes that if the allegation were true, Freud was 'communicating his newly gained [seduction theory] insights' to his best friend, 'who may have been in fact [a] criminal', and therefore 'the one person least prepared to hear them' (ibid.: 142). A little earlier, having supposedly provided several reasons why [Wilhelm] Fliess would not have been receptive to Freud's theory of seduction, he writes: 'We have no way of investigating Fliess's response' (ibid.: 138). This is an odd assertion from the person who translated Freud's letters to Fliess, for among them are some which indicate that Fliess responded favourably to the seduction theory (Masson, 1985: 146, 224, 226). For instance, on 20 October 1895 Freud wrote: 'I was terribly pleased with your opinion about the hysteria-obsessional neurosis solution.' Moreover, Fliess cited Freud's seduction theory claims in his monograph on the relationship between the nose and the female sexual organs which he published in 1897 (Sulloway, 1979: 192). Masson's speculation that one reason for Freud's giving up the seduction theory may have been a fear of losing his friendship with Fliess has little to commend it.


1 Fliess believed that he had discovered a 'nasal reflex neurosis' associated with a wide variety of somatic symptoms, including pains in various parts of the body and disturbances in the functioning of the sexual organs, such as dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation). He related the latter symptoms to a 'genital spot' within the nose, and claimed to remove them temporarily by the application of cocaine. Longer-lasting remission of symptoms was supposedly achieved by cauterization of the genital spot, and in a few cases, such as that of Emma Eckstein, Fliess performed a surgical procedure involving the removal of a bone within the nose (Masson, 1984[1985]: 77). The operation had almost fatal consequences for Eckstein (ibid.: 55-72).

2 In the 'Dora' case history (written in 1901) Freud was still singing the praises of Fliess's theory, writing that gastric pains induced by masturbation can be relieved by 'an application of cocaine to the "gastric spot" discovered by [Fliess] in the nose, and...can be cured by the cauterization of the same spot' (S.E.: VII, 78).

3 Though, as already noted, the relevance of this paragraph of Masson's is obscure, the reason for its presence may be surmised from its position, sandwiched between a discussion of the Eckstein case and Fliess's nasal reflex theories and an account of concurrent events leading up to Freud's announcement of the seduction theory. It seems possible that Masson is playing down Freud's enthusiastic espousal of Fliess's nose theories because it may appear to be incompatible with his contention in the succeeding passage that Freud was beginning to focus on the notion of childhood sexual abuse as the cause of neurotic symptoms as early as 1893. Some support for this suggestion comes from Masson's statement, following his claim that in May 1893 Freud was starting to explore the possibility of childhood sexual abuse, that 'if the cause of illness lay in something hitherto ignored, a real trauma from the external world, there would be little reason for Fliess's medical intervention' (Masson, 1984[1985]: 80). His contention that Freud had resisted the latter, were it true, would thus reduce any perceived incompatibility with his claim that Freud was following a very different trail at that time. (It would also, at least partially, counteract doubts about Freud's clinical judgement at the very time that Masson is seeking to present him as arriving at a profound truth about the cause of psychoneuroses.)

4 The 'daughter of the innkeeper' is 'Katharina', whose father attempted to sexually molest her (see Esterson, 1998: 10).

5 In the index of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess the entry under 'Hysteria' references the letter of 8 October 1895 for the first mention of 'childhood sexual scenes as cause' (Masson, 1985: 498).

6 Borch-Jacobsen (1996) has exposed the many misconceptions propagated by Freud about the case of 'Anna O.'.

7 Masson's misconceptions also adversely influenced his editorship of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess. In a letter of 4 December 1896 in which he first mentions the arrival of Miss G. de B (the cousin of Fliess's wife) for treatment, Freud asks Fliess if he would enquire from his wife Ida who 'in the family or the surroundings has a speech defect such as stuttering' (Masson, 1985: 205). Masson appends a footnote at this point: 'Since Freud is asking Fliess to be discreet in his inquiries, it may be assumed that Freud is on the trail of this woman's seducer, and that all he knows about him/her is that the person suffers from a speech defect, which is probably the only thing about the person that the patient can remember.' But from his next report on the patient (3 January 1897) it is apparent that the reason that Freud was seeking someone with a speech defect was that the patient had such a defect (ibid.: 220; Esterson, 1998: 6)

8 In a section on the technique of 'amnesia removal' Fliess wrote that he had uncovered 'incredible' things from 'the patient's associations' (1973: 219). He also found incredible things by his symbolic translations, judging by the long list of examples which he gives (ibid.: 68-116). For instance, a knee may be translated as 'a procreative female genital', and 'telephoning' as 'masturbation' (ibid.: 80, 95).

9 Brunswick, for instance, was 'inclined to compare the outbreak of anger [in an infant] after an enema to the orgasm following genital excitation' (S.E.: XXI, 237-8).


Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1996) Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification, New York and London: Routledge.

Eissler, K.R. (1993) 'Comments on Erroneous Interpretations of Freud's Seduction Theory', Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41(2): 571-83.

Esterson, A. (1998) 'Jeffrey Masson and Freud's Seduction Theory: A New Fable Based on Old Myths', History of the Human Sciences, 11 (1): 1-21.

Ferenczi, S. (1955) 'Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child', in Contribution to the Problems and Methods of Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 156-67.

-----. (1988) The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi, ed. J. Dupont. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fliess, R. (1956) Erogeneity and Libido. New York: International Universities Press.

-----. (1973) Symbol, Dream and Psychosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, S. (1953-74) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by J. Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

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

Masson, J. M. (1984) The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; new edn (1985) Harmondsworth, Mx: Penguin Books; new edn (1992) New York: HarperCollins.

-----. (editor) (1985) The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, ed. and trans. J. M. Masson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rycroft, C. (1991[1984]) 'Masson's Assault on Freud', in Viewpoints. London: Hogarth Press: 71-81.

Sulloway, F. J. (1979) Freud: Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books; new edn (1992) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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