Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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It is curious that Herb Peyser should open his contribution by repeating erroneous statements made by Jean Schimek when his second paragraph shows he is aware that I have rebutted them. Since it difficult not to interpret this as an indication that Peyser still thinks there may be some substance to Schimek's remarks (why else would he recirculate them?), I shall repeat my rebuttal for the benefit of those who have not read The Memory Wars (Frederick Crews et al., NYRB (1995) and Granta (1997)), where the relevant exchange can found (pp. 77, 147-8).

Schimek's perceptive article on the seduction theory (referenced in my HHS article) was published in 1987. I wrote the first draft of my seduction theory material early in 1984, though it only reached the public domain when Seductive Mirage was published in 1993. Schimek's assertion that I took his findings out of context and misused them to put a false 'spin' on them is erroneous. (Incidentally, pace Peyser, I did not accuse Freud of cowardice, and, on the question of his dishonesty, in Seductive Mirage [p. x] I wrote that I regarded his lapses of probity as peripheral to the main issue and less significant than his propensity for self-deception.) The idea that I (or anyone else) should have had to rely on Schimek's 1987 article to discover that 'Freud's later accounts' of his seduction theory 'does [sic] not fit with the way he presented his theory and data originally in 1896' (Crews, 1995, 1997: 77) is absurd. As Cioffi has written, anyone who spends an hour in a library comparing the 1896 seduction theory papers with Freud's late accounts (1925 and 1933) can see that immediately. Cioffi (1972, 1974) directed attention to the incompatibility between these two versions of the episode in the early 1970s, but his work was either derided or ignored. Steele (1982: 78-82) independently reported these same discrepancies. Also independently, I recognised that the retrospective reports were incompatible with the 1896 papers when I examined the latter as a result of reading Thornton's (1983) sceptical account of Freud's 1896 clinical claims. But in any case, Freud left plenty of clues that there was something amiss with the received story. (Before anyone comes up with an analytic explanation for this, I should add that since Freud adapted his story so as to conceal the real source of the 'sexual scenes', it is hardly surprising that he couldn't maintain consistency. Michael Frayn once remarked that one reason he tended to stick to the truth was that he didn't have to try to remember what he had said last time.)

When I first read Freud's 1925 and 1933 accounts I immediately felt there was something fishy about them. In his 1933 account he writes: 'In the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father.' (He refers to this as an 'interesting episode in the history of analytic research' [emphasis added]). But why should 'almost all' his female patients report paternal 'seductions' only during the period that he maintained the seduction theory? And this anomaly appeared even odder when I read Freud's assertion that in most cases the reported 'seductions' were infantile unconscious phantasies, 'an expression of the typical Oedipus complex in women' (S.E.: XXII, 120). It seems that, mysteriously, most of his women patients ceased to report these manifestations of their Oedipal yearnings as soon as he abandoned the seduction theory. Then in his 1925 account he writes that it was 'under the influence of the technical procedure which I used at that time' (1895-7) that the majority of his patients 'reproduced' the 'scenes of seduction' (S.E.: XX, 33-4, emphasis added). So it seems the patients didn't simply tell him about the 'scenes', as he claimed in 1933; the application of a specific technique was apparently required. Clearly, it is not necessary to have read Schimek to discover the manifest anomalies and inconsistencies in Freud's writings about this episode: the interesting question is why it has taken the best part of the century for the issue to be brought out in the open. It is as if Freud's reputation for probity (subtly fostered by himself in his writings) made it almost literally inconceivable that his retrospective accounts of the seduction theory episode were untrustworthy, in spite of the fact that this is immediately apparent if the relevant passages are read with a modicum of care.

Peyser quotes my writing that Freud 'inferred most of [the sexual] material on grossly inadequate grounds and misleadingly presented it as his "findings of analytic research",' and suggests that since I am (as he believes) a mathematician, I have a more stringent view of proof than is possible in the 'organismic and social sciences'. In fact my academic qualification is in physics, but it should be apparent from Seductive Mirage that my objection to Freud's clinical claims and theories does not rest on an appeal to the standards of the physical sciences. My argument is threefold. First, Freud's mode of presentation obscures the extent that the material of his analyses emanates from himself (in the form of interpretations and reconstructions), and not from his patients. (See Esterson, 1993: 166-8.) Second, even employing the most liberal criteria for judging the validity of Freud's work, most of the interpretations and reconstructions which he claims to have corroborated his theories do not deserve to be taken seriously. Third, he presented his own conjectures as if they constituted 'findings of analysis', e.g., virtually all the infantile psychosexual developmental material in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and in his later writings in which he applied his Oedipal notions to early childhood. (See Esterson, 1993: 33-5; 133-51.) To this may be added that the case histories (the only material we have for assessing how Freud supposedly confirmed his theses) are apparently untrustworthy. The only case for which we have Freud's original case notes (he destroyed the others) is that of the Rat Man. Here is what Patrick Mahony (who is a lay analyst and sympathetic towards Freud) has to say as a result of his close examination of the two texts (original record and case history): 'My book pointed out Freud's intentional confabulation and documented the serious discrepancies between Freud's day-to-day process notes of the treatment and his published case history of it' (Amer. J. Psychiatry, 147:8, August 1990, p. 1110). And while on the subject of Mahony's studies of the case histories, here is his assessment of the central reconstruction in the Wolf Man case history: 'I showed with ample documentation that Freud's reconstruction of a real primal scene is ludicrous' (ibid.: 1110). This case history, one should note, has always been regarded as a classic of psychoanalytic literature. (When Mahony expressed in trenchant terms his doubts about this absurd reconstruction he wrote that he was 'resigned to expect hostile criticism' [Cries of the Wolfman, 1984: 158].)

To make the points stated above more concrete, I shall return to the seduction theory episode; but first I shall examine Schimek's and Peyser's responses to the conclusions reached by the (relatively) recent critiques on the lines of my History of the Human Sciences article. In The Memory Wars Schimek writes that an examination of Freud's texts of 1896 suggests that 'the early sexual trauma was not based directly on the patients' recovered memories but was reconstructed by Freud, by interpreting a variety of data in the light of his theoretical assumptions,' and adds: 'This is not a startling or damning conclusion, since a few years later Freud readily admitted that many of the crucial experiences of childhood were never directly remembered but only inferred and reconstructed by the analysts, through the interpretation of dreams, fantasies, transference, etc.' (Crews, 1995, 1997: 77). What certainly is startling is that Schimek should think that his conclusion is not damning, when in the previous paragraph he had stated that 'Freud's later accounts of his seduction theory ("[almost] all my female patients told me they had been seduced by their father") does not fit with the way he presented his theory and data in 1896'. It is extraordinary that a professor of clinical psychology should believe it to be of no great importance that in his accounts of a seminal event in psychoanalytic history, credited by its founder with opening the way to all his later 'insights', Freud grossly misrepresented what had actually occurred. And how does Peyser deal with this awkward fact? He writes: 'Mistaken, Freud might well have been in his interpretation of the data, strongly biased, perhaps incorrect, perhaps even dishonest, but not necessarily so.' (This is apparently Peyser's paraphrasing of Schimek's conclusions from his 1987 article, but since it hardly tallies with Schimek's extenuation of Freud quoted above, I shall assume it is the view of Peyser himself.) He goes on to write that Freud was 'so directed towards his ideas, and in particular to the idea of the Oedipus Complex, was so oriented toward finding it everywhere and so central to everything, that it directed his whole thought and outlook...and findings and their interpretation.' At first sight this is not so very far from my own view which he quotes, that Freud inferred most of his childhood psychosexual developmental material on grossly inadequate grounds and misleadingly presented it as his 'findings of analytic research'. But one should not be distracted by his mildly critical stance towards Freud from realising that he has completely evaded the issue at the heart of the discussion - that the received psychoanalytic account of the seduction theory episode is false; in other words, that Freud's account of how he 'discovered' unconscious infantile phantasies is a story he invented retrospectively. In a scientific endeavour the dubiousness of a researcher's account of how they arrived at putative findings is not necessarily fatal to the theory arising from the findings; acceptance or rejection depends on corroborations by fellow scientists. But in this case we only have Freud's word that he made the discovery.

Now of course psychoanalysts will assert that, in the course of their analyses, they have confirmed over and over again the existence of unconscious phantasies of the kind postulated by Freud. The problem is, however, that there is no consistency among psychoanalysts on the question of the content of these phantasies! The findings of, for instance, orthodox Freudians, Kleinians and followers of Kohut are widely disparate - though they are fortunate that these different findings almost invariably confirm their own respective theories. And there are no criteria by which the conflicting claims can be judged. Robert Fliess (see my Addendum) asserted that other analysts did not arrive at his clinical findings because of their own resistances. By what criteria can this assertion be judged inadmissible and Fliess's clinical claims be disregarded? The proliferation of differing accounts of the contents of the Unconscious is clear evidence that the psychoanalytic technique for determining the unconscious ideas of patients is fundamentally unsound.

I shall now briefly examine what Peyser chose to evade, the significance of what actually happened in 1895-7. Freud later claimed that it was his experience at that time which led directly to his discovery of unconscious infantile phantasies: 'And now, from behind the [seduction] phantasies, the whole range of a child's sexual life came to light' (S.E.: XIV, 18). And again in the same context: 'In the beginning, my statements about infantile sexuality were founded almost exclusively on the findings of analysis in adults which led back into the past' (ibid.: XIV, 18). So his psychosexual theories of infancy, published a few years later (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905), developed directly out of his self-proclaimed 'discovery' (S.E.: 20, 34) of infantile phantasies following his abandonment of the seduction theory. But what, in reality, were the phantasies in question? As is evident from my HHS article, the unconscious phantasies he had supposedly uncovered were preconceived 'sexual scenes' which he foisted on his patients. In other words, what he retrospectively claimed to have been his patients' unconscious phantasies were nothing more his own preconceived reconstructions! (And this remains the case even if some of the patients, under the influence of Freud's coercive quasi-hypnotic pressure technique, were induced to conjure up hypnagogic images of 'sexual scenes', whether fragmentary or complete.) Little wonder that in his retrospective accounts he concealed the true facts of how he had supposedly uncovered the 'sexual scenes' at that time,1 because they would have called into question the basis for the psychosexual developmental 'findings' extensively described in Three Essays - not to mention his later 'findings' arising from the application of his Oedipal notions to early childhood. (This material is presumably what Scruton had in mind when he referred to Freud's 'ability to proclaim speculative nonsense in the tone of voice appropriate to meticulous science' [Sexual Desire, The Free Press, 1986: 208].)

Finally, there is one feature of the episode which I have not yet examined. In his 1906 report Freud explains that his seduction theory error arose from the fact that he 'was at that period unable to distinguish with certainty between falsifications made by hysterics in their memories of childhood and traces of real events' (S.E.: VII, 274, emphasis added). And in a footnote added to one of the seduction theory papers in 1924 he reiterates that 'at that time I was not yet able to distinguish between my patients' phantasies and their real recollections' (S.E.: III, 168n, emphasis added). It is difficult to interpret these statements as other than his saying that he has now discovered how to distinguish between authentic memories and phantasies - but nowhere does he explain how he actually accomplished this! He is also reticent about when he acquired this remarkable (not to say unique) diagnostic skill (made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the putative memories were unconscious). He certainly did not report having done so in his letters to Fliess, and, given that the bulk of his seduction theory patients were treated in 1895-6, it seems he performed this trick retrospectively, which makes his achievement even more astonishing.2 Almost as remarkable is that generations of readers have apparently taken on trust Freud's retrospective story that his abandonment of the seduction theory was (in part) a consequence of his being able to distinguish between genuine memories and phantasies. We are again faced with the enigma as to why Freud should have been granted exemption from the normal demands of corroboration. Fortunately that state of affairs is now firmly in the past.


1. Consider this passage from his account of the seduction theory episode in On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement: 'Inquirers often find more than they bargain hoped [sic] at last to be able to stop at puberty...But in vain; the tracks led still further back into childhood and into its earlier years' (S.E.: XIV, 17). A greater contrast with the truth of what happened in 1895-7, when, as he frankly stated in the seduction theory papers, it was he who insisted to the patients that they had had traumatic experiences in infancy, could hardly be imagined.

2. That Freud was being disingenous when he made the statements in question is evident from the fact that in his discussion of 'primal phantasies' in the Wolf Man case history he makes clear that he has no way of distinguishing between genuine (unconscious) memories and phantasies. (Whether supposedly authentic or phantasy, the 'scenes' in question have been uncovered 'by means of analysis', i.e., they are analytic reconstructions.) The 1906 statement illustrates Freud's propensity to make claims in response to the polemical needs of the moment, which is one reason why one finds contradictory statements in Freud's writings. Another example is his claim in his History that there had been a 'contradiction [of the seduction theory] in definitely ascertainable circumstances' (S.E.: XIV: 17). As Cioffi has pointed out (1984: 743), a scenario for such an occurrence is virtually impossible to envisage; moreover, since Freud did not allude to such circumstances in his earlier (1906) explanation for his abandonment of his theory, nor report it to Fliess at the time, it can safely be assumed that the claim was a spur-of-the-moment invention. As we have seen, it was desperately important for Freud to find a way of concealing what actually happened with his patients in 1895-7, and in that state of mind it is not surprising that he occasionally resorted to invention. (I should add here that I am unable to come to any definite conclusions about the extent to which Freud was consciously practising deception. Although he seems to have had an immense capacity for self-deception, there are times when he must surely have been aware that he was misrepresenting the facts.)

The bibliographical citations above can be found in the Bibliography of my History of the Human Sciences article (February 1998). It would be helpful if intending contributors to the Web site read the article first so that they are conversant with the relevant documentary evidence.

Acknowledgement of Error

As I have cited Seductive Mirage several times in the above contribution, this is an appropriate place to acknowledge an error in that book. On the basis of perceived inconsistencies and improbabilities in Freud's paper 'A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Disease' (1915, S.E.: XIX, 261-272), I questioned the authenticity of the brief case history he recounts therein. However, Richard Skues and Anthony Stadlen have directed my attention to a letter from Karl Abraham to Freud in November 1915 in which there is a reference to a 'short communication' to which the editors append a footnote identifying this as the paper in question. In the letter Abraham writes that he was 'familiar with the case', which Freud had told him about 'in the winter before the war' (A Psycho-Analytic Dialogue, eds. H. Abraham and E. Freud, Hogarth Press, 1965: 231). In addition, one of the perceived inconsistencies (Esterson, 1998: 102) was the result of mistranslation by James Strachey. It was a serious error of judgement on my part that I failed to check the translation in the given circumstances. Though I think there is much which is dubious about the case history, it is evident that my surmise that it was fabricated is erroneous. I should add that I immediately informed my editor at Open Court that I wanted the errors to be noted in future printings.

My grounds for suspicion were twofold. It is known that Freud fabricated an individual in his 1900 'Screen Memories' paper (Esterson, 1993: 95-6). (Jones reports that to prevent the subterfuge from being exposed, Freud omitted a passage in The Interpretation of Dreams when it was reprinted in 1925 for the complete edition of his works. The 'Screen Memories' paper was reprinted in the same edition, and the dream book contained material which revealed that the supposed acquaintance in the former was Freud himself [Jones, E., Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, Hogarth, 1953: 28].) In addition, Swales has adduced compelling circumstantial evidence that Freud also fabricated an alleged acquaintance (who, as Swales demonstrates, bears an uncanny resemblance to Freud himself) in his account of the 'aliquis' episode in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Esterson, 1993: 97-9; Swales, P., 'Freud, Minna Bernays, and the Conquest of Rome', New American Review, Spring/Summer, 1982: 1-23). I have also adduced what I believe is considerable circumstantial evidence that indicates that Freud may have invented a crucial event (and possibly an individual) supposedly recalled by the Wolf Man from infancy (Esterson, 1993: 77-93). (This supposed recollection of an infantile 'sexual scene' was [Freud claimed] recovered after four years of treatment and its belated arrival provided him with the 'solution' to the patient's childhood neurosis, thereby enabling him to complete the case history as a polemical contribution to his dispute with Jung and Adler [ibid.: 86-9].) Again, as I noted above, Mahony has demonstrated that the Rat Man case history contains 'intentional confabulation' and 'serious discrepancies' (see also Esterson, 1993: 62-7). And, as I have shown in the above contribution (and also in Esterson, 1998), there is a considerable amount of invention in Freud's retrospective accounts of the seduction theory episode.

Then the 1915 'Paranoia' case history itself contains some dubious material. Completely independently, Wilcocks has drawn attention to an inconsistency which leads him to write that at one point 'Freud is lying' (Wilcocks, 1994: 38). He also describes the paper as 'this gem of deception', a 'Victorian mystery novelette', in which is revealed 'a whole bag of rhetorical tricks' (ibid.: 38, 36, 55 n 16). While this is not evidence of fabrication, it nevertheless indicates that there are grounds for believing that Freud was by no means straightforward in his presentation of the case. It was this feature of the case history, together with the other known or suspected instances of invention, that tempted me to surmise (incorrectly) that Freud may have resorted to fabrication here. Nevertheless, none of this is extenuation for my failure to take sufficient steps to ascertain in regard to the two items referred to above that the evidence I adduced was authentic, or for my consequent surmising so far beyond the actual evidence.

I would like to emphasise again that the essential foundations of my critique of Freud, as presented in Seductive Mirage, are the three points enumerated in the above contribution and are in no degree dependent on the issue of Freud's probity.

For the record, there is an error in my discussion of the Dora case history in Seductive Mirage. Dora's attacks of coughing started when she was twelve, not in her eighth year as I write on page 38. (I confused Dora's coughing fits with her dyspnoea [shortness of breath].)

Allen Esterson
12th February, 1998
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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