Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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Masson's writings on Freud's seduction theory are important, not for their scholarly merits, but for the light they shed on the avoidance of discussion in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis contains many wonderful things, and I don't believe I am guilty of "Freud bashing" by calling attention to this problem. My interest in the problem is "self-serving" in the sense that it seems to me possible that two of my ideas are useful contributions to psychoanalytic theory: 1) a revision of Freud's signal anxiety theory (1990 Psa & Contemp Thought, 1994 JAPA, 1996 IJPA) and 2) a revision of the Sandler-Joffe 1969 distinction between the experiential and nonexperiential as it relates to the unconscious (1987 IJPA). I say "possible" because analysts have been unwilling to debate these ideas as well as many other new ideas proposed by eminent analysts.

Prior to Masson, the discussion of Freud's seduction theory was taboo. Of the many papers since then, Bennett Simon's 1992 JAPA paper is the best in its willingness to openly acknowledge that the treatment of this issue has been an "error" and pointing to "certain features in our field" that make likely the repetition of such errors. Although psychoanalysis has made enormous progress toward free discussion, an unwillingness to admit errors explains why certain controversial topics are not openly debated. In response to many messages I have posted on email forums and the many letters I have written to analysts, not one has provided an explanation for why certain topics are avoided other than "political risk."

Although many excellent papers other than Simon's have been published on this topic, most of them tend to minimize the extent of the error. For example, Person & Klar (1994 JAPA) focus on "why until recently there have been so few case reports of actual abuse and its sequelae in the psychoanalytic literature." They make no mention of "political risk" which is the most plausible explanation for this avoidance. Moreover, they seriously misrepresent Freud's concept of the complemental series in a way that tends to mask the seriousness of the error. They say, "Although in most neuroses pathogenesis is the result of a complemental series with varying degrees of trauma and fantasy (Freud 1940, Shengold, 1991), cases of extreme trauma often display such distinctive symptomatology that they coulbe be expected to have made their way into the psychoanalytic literature had there not been some impediment to our "seeing" (p. 1056).

The concept of the complemental series can be grasped from Fenichel's The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1945) by looking in the index. He says, "Freud has pointed out that in the etiology of neuroses the precipitating cause and the neurotic disposition (that is, constitution plus infantile experiences) are complementary" (p. 121). It is significant that among the kinds of traumatic experiences which Fenichel lists as pathogenic, sexual abuse is nowhere to be found though much attention is lavished on the role of primary scenes.

By defining Freud's complementary series as between trauma and fantasy, Person and Klar obscure the theoretically important point that fantasy cannot play the role of an independent etiological factor since it, too, must be explained in terms of Freud's complementary series which is between environment and genetically determined constitution. A panel discussion is reported in JAPA 1985 presenting cases that vividly document the pathogenic importance of sexual abuse. It was noted that "the scholarship in Masson's book has been devastatingly faulted by nearly every reviewer," but no mention was made of the avoidance of this issue in the psychoanalytic literature for so many years.

In her book, Janet Malcolm presents a very unflattering portait of Masson but she also presents a very graphic description of the stone wall of resistance encountered by Masson in his efforts to get analysts to discuss the topic prior to his going to the New York Times, thereby arousing a storm of publicity which analysts could no longer ignore. The New York Times article also mentioned Milton Klein whose "Freud's Seduction Theory" (1981 Bull of Menninger Clinic) is a very scholarly treatment of the subject. It seems to me more than a coincidence that Klein's pathbreaking paper is not cited by either of the papers mentioned above or by Garcia (1987 Psa Study of the Child) or Schimek (1987 JAPA), which lends support to my hypothesis of the political risks of discussing taboo issues.

Eric Gillett, M.D.

Send your contribution

If you wish to submit your contribution to this WWW site for the Seduction Theory Debate please write to Allen Esterson


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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