Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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I read Allen Esterson's material about Masson and Freud's seduction theory, on the web site, with great interest.  I agree with his assessment of both Masson and Freud.  If you would like, please post my section on Freud from my book, VICTIMS OF MEMORY, in a chapter called "A Brief History."  It summarizes Freud's developing belief and subsequent abandonment of his seduction theory, and it explains in some detail (using some of the same quotes Esterson did) why it is absolutely clear that Freud was FORCING these "memories" onto his clients.

I do have a few remarks on the Allen Esterson article.

1) I believe that Esterson underestimates the force of Freud's "pressure procedure."  He did not merely place his hand on clients' heads.  He had them lie down while he applied pressure to their foreheads.  He reported being exhausted after a day of employing such techniques.

2) It is amazing to me that Jeffrey Masson could have so distorted the history of Freud's seduction theory, since he himself quoted Freud's statement that "'[T]hese patients never repeat these stories spontaneously, nor do they ever in the course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection of a scene of this kind."  Moreover, in Masson's book, THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH, he documents at great length that Freud's best friend Fliess was a quack, and that Freud himself was a fellow quack.  Yet somehow, at this same time (the mid-1890s), Freud was RIGHT about this one outrageous theory, according to Masson.   Very strange, especially coming from a man who has indicated in his other writings that he is exquisitely aware of the hazards of suggestive psychotherapy.  (see Masson's AGAINST THERAPY, MY FATHER'S GURU, and A DARK SCIENCE.)

3) Esterson states: "It was not until 1925 that he first stated publicly that in the case of the female patients 'the part of seducer was almost always assigned to their father'. " To those who have not read Esterson's entire article (this is apparently only a synopsis for the web site), some readers might gather that Freud didn't latch onto father-seducers as his primary culprits until nearly three decades after he first held his seduction theory. That is not what Esterson intends, which I know from personal correspondence. He is emphasizing that this is Freud's first PUBLIC statement on the matter, and that the part of the seducer was NOT in fact "almost always" assigned to the father in his original clinical cases. There is no question that Freud rewrote his own history, but he began the switch to incestuous fathers late in 1896. On Dec. 6, 1896, Freud wrote to Fliess that "more and more...seduction by the father" seemed to him to be the source of his clients' hysteria. Later, on Sept. 21, 1897, in a famous letter expressing doubts about his theory, Freud asserted that "in all cases, the FATHER, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse." Esterson takes this phrase to mean simply that Freud's new theoretical twist called for the father to be accused, not that all of his clients had actually reported it. That is probably true, unless Freud managed somehow to bludgeon all of his clients into changing their memories again, switching from older siblings, aunts, and governesses to good old Dad, which is unlikely. But it seems clear that, to use Esterson's wording, Freud was already ASSIGNING the part of the seducer to the father. And there is no question that for Herr Freud, to theorize was to create case histories soon to match his theories, rather than the other way around.


Mark Pendergrast

Read Allen Esterson's Reply

The following is an excerpt from VICTIMS OF MEMORY by Mark Pendergrast (London: HarperCollins, 1997), pages 459-472.  For full citations and bibliographic information, see the book. 

Freud's Mental Extractions

Until recently, Freud's pronouncements have been treated almost as holy psychological writ. Now critics are realizing that Freud was just another human being, very much a man of his time. His contributions to the understanding of psychology have been immense. He popularized many ideas which seem self-evident to us now: People often act irrationally, for reasons they don't admit to themselves. Our childhood experiences shape our self-concepts and methods of dealing with the world. Our dreams reveal many personal concerns, fears, and desires, sometimes in symbolic ways reminiscent of myth. Much goes on in our minds below the conscious level. If we become infuriated at one person, we often deflect that anger illogically onto someone else. We can also be grateful to subsequent Freudians for helping to fight the eugenics movement (and Nazism); for promoting a healthier attitude toward human sexuality; for more humane treatment of children, mental patients, and prisoners; and for many other beneficial modern attitudes.

But Freud has bequeathed us a mixed heritage. Much that we have simply accepted as revealed truth has never been proved. Essentially, Freud has provided a convincing mythology for our times, one which has permeated every aspect of our culture. Some of our most fundamental modern assumptions are based on Freud's pronouncements, and those assumptions may not necessarily be correct. Too often, as psychologist Garth Wood has written, Freud "dreamed up what was for him a plausible entity [i.e., the id, ego, superego, death wish, Oedipus complex], and then set about finding mental phenomena which for him, but not for others, tended to support it."

Freud followed in the grand tradition of physicians who identified the precise symptoms they expected to find, then proceeded to induce them. Freud believed in much of the quackery that had preceded him, including the notion that excessive masturbation caused neurosis, that there was such a thing as neurasthenia, that there was a nasal reflex arc, and that hysteria could be provoked by pressing on the ovaries, which he termed "stimulation of the hysterogenic zone."

[FOOTNOTE:  "Neurasthenia," a catch-all diagnosis coined by American psychologist George Beard in 1881, is discussed in some detail in Chapter 13.]

Freud believed in a variety of hands-on therapies, one of which played a significant role in early recovered memory cases, as we will shortly see.

Writing to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1895, Freud said, "I have invented a strange therapy of my own: I search for sensitive areas, press on them, and thus provoke fits of shaking which free her [the patient]." That same year, Freud treated a 27-year-old named Emma Eckstein, who came from a prominent socialist family and was active in the Viennese women's movement. Like many "hysterical" or "neurasthenic" patients of the era, she came to Freud with vague complaints, including stomach aches and menstrual problems. He deduced that she suffered from excessive masturbation that could be cured by operating on her nose. He prevailed on his best friend, Wilhelm Fliess, to perform the operation.

Fliess was a well-respected Berlin ear-nose-and-throat specialist who complained of the "immense multitude" of women who rushed from spa to spa without success, "falling into the hands of quacks." He, on the other hand, knew the scientific truth that their troubles often stemmed from the nasal reflex. At first, he used cocaine on his patients' noses, which provided temporary relief (and a pleasant buzz, no doubt).

[FOOTNOTE:   It is quite possible that Freud suggested the cocaine treatment to Fliess. Ten years before, Freud had proclaimed cocaine a miracle drug, took it himself, and saw it as his road to fame. He introduced his friend Fleischl to the drug as an alternative to his morphine habit. Unfortunately, his friend died a few years later in a cocaine agony, crying that ants were crawling under his skin. In FREUDIAN FALLACY (1984), E. M. Thornton argued that ALL of Freud's theories stemmed from his paranoia and hallucinations as a cocaine addict, though her conclusion seems doubtful. Nonetheless, Freud's letters to Fliess are filled with obsessive concern over his nose and its secretions, and Freud frequently applied cocaine as a curative.] 

Then he cauterized the noses, but that too didn't do the trick. Finally, he decided that removal of a portion of the left middle turbinate bone would permanently cure female sexual afflictions. Freud concurred, and the unfortunate Emma Eckstein believed them. Fliess bungled the operation, sewing a large piece of gauze into Eckstein's nose. Before anyone realized that, Freud described her worsening condition in a letter to Fliess: "Eckstein's condition is still unsatisfactory; persistent swelling, going up and down  like an avalanche ; pain, so that morphine cannot be dispensed with; bad nights." She emitted an awful odor. Then another doctor opened her nose and, as Freud wrote, "suddenly he pulled at something like a thread, kept on pulling and before either one of us had time to think, at least half a meter of gauze had been removed from the cavity. The next moment came a flood of blood. The patient turned white, her eyes bulged, and she had no pulse."

Eckstein survived, though she continued to hemorrhage for some time. Freud managed to rationalize the entire affair, assuring Fliess that it was "one of those accidents that happen to the most fortunate and circumspect of surgeons." In the end, Freud even managed to blame Emma Eckstein. Her bleeding was all caused by hysteria! Incredibly, Eckstein remained true to Freud, even becoming a therapist herself. In 1904, using books from Freud's library as her sources, she wrote a short monograph on the dangers of childhood masturbation,recommending special bandages and restrictive clothing to prevent such mishaps. Soon afterward, she took permanently to her couch, convinced that her legs were paralyzed. She died in 1924.

[FOOTNOTE:   In fact, Freud's vanity probably condemned Eckstein to her fate, through his authority and her suggestibility. Dr. Dora Teleky, a well-known Viennese physician, "discovered" an ulcer in Eckstein's abdomen and either operated on it or pretended to do so. Immediately, the invalid miraculously recovered. Freud, indignant at this interference, broke off his analysis, declaring, "Well, that's the end of Emma. That dooms her from now on. Nobody can cure her neurosis." Taking her cue from Freud, Eckstein relapsed, never again to leave her couch.]

Emma Eckstein was one of the first patients upon whom Freud practiced another form of questionable therapy that became the cornerstone for his psychological theories. He concluded that her problems stemmed not only from masturbation (known as "self-abuse" in those days) but from a repressed memory of sexual abuse when she was eight. He prompted her to recall a visit to a confectioners during which the shopkeeper had grabbed her genitals through her clothing. This memory was mild, however, compared to those he eventually elicited from Eckstein in 1897: "I obtained a scene [i.e., a "memory"] about the circumcision of a girl. The cutting of a piece of the labia minora (which is still shorter today), sucking up the blood, following which the child was given a piece of the skin to eat." Like many modern physicians who are "experts" in child sexual abuse, Freud had found physical "evidence" to corroborate this memory.

Taking his lead from Charcot and Bernheim, Freud had begun hypnotizing patients late in 1887, primarily using direct suggestion in an attempt to ameliorate their symptoms.Until then, he had relied primarily on various forms of ablutions ("hydrotherapy"), mild electrical stimulation, massage, and the "rest cure" popularized by American physician Weir Mitchell (see Chapter 11).

Soon, Freud also started to use hypnosis to access what he suspected were repressed memories. In 1895, in uneasy collaboration with Joseph Breuer, Freud published STUDIES IN HYSTERIA, in which he elaborated his theory that unconscious repressed memories caused hysteria, obsession, and other neurotic symptoms. "The patient only gets free from the hysterical symptom by reproducing the pathogenic impressions that caused it and by giving utterance to them with an expression of affect, and thus the therapeutic task CONSISTS SOLELY IN INDUCING HIM TO DO SO," Freud wrote. The following year, he elaborated on this theory in three essays, making it clear that he considered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse to be the root cause of all hysterical symptoms. Because Freud's theories and methods provided the template for the modern hunt for repressed memories, and because many modern scholars have argued recently over this crucial aspect of his early work, I will examine his practice during this period in some detail.

Freud based his theory on a small number of cases. He referred to 12 in STUDIES IN HYSTERIA, admitting that most of them were unsuccessful. "But it is my opinion that the obstacles have lain in the personal circumstances of the patients and have not been due to any question on theory," he asserted. "I am justified in leaving these unsuccessful cases out of account." By February 5, 1896, when Freud sent off his first two papers openly proclaiming sex abuse as hysteria's long-sought "source of the Nile," he had added only one new case, bringing the total to 13. Surprisingly, by April 21, less than three months later, when he gave a lecture on the subject (published as his third paper, THE AETIOLOGY OF HYSTERIA), Freud claimed to have treated 18 hysterical patients with his revolutionary method. This is particularly confusing, because Freud wrote to his friend Fliess on May 4, 1896, complaining that "my consulting room is empty" and that "for weeks on end I see no new faces."

Until the end of 1895, Freud relied at least partially on hypnosis to delve into his patients' unconscious. Frustrated by his inability to hypnotize some subjects -- and by the outright unwillingness of others -- Freud had already invented a new "pressure procedure" in which his patients lay down, closed their eyes, and allowed Freud to press on their foreheads or squeeze their heads between his hands. They were then to report whatever images or words popped into their heads. In his 1892 treatment of Elisabeth von R., he first "made use of the technique of bringing out pictures and ideas by means of pressing on the patient's head." Sometimes this pressure prompted detailed scenarios, "as though she were reading a lengthy book of pictures," but when Elisabeth was in a cheerful mood, she often failed to recall anything while Freud pressed on her cranium. Undeterred, the psychologist "resolved, therefore, to adopt the hypothesis that the procedure never failed; that on every occasion under the pressure of my hand some idea occurred to Elisabeth or some picture came before her eyes," but she was simply unwilling to report it. When he insisted that she report these thoughts, she finally obliged him, though it often took two or three head squeezes. "I derived from this analysis a literally unqualified reliance on my technique," Freud wrote with satisfaction.

To his credit, Freud realized that he was not LITERALLY pressing memories out of his patients' unconscious. It simply seemed to be an appropriate metaphor, "the most convenient way of applying suggestion." Without apparent irony, he asserted that he could as easily have made his patients stare into a crystal ball. "As a rule," Freud wrote, "the pressure procedure fails on the first or second occasion." Then, however, the flood gates opened, and the patient cooperated, engaged in a fascinating intellectual pursuit. "By explaining things to him," Freud said, "by giving him information about the marvelous world of psychical processes . , we make him himself into a collaborator, induce him to regard himself with the objective interest of an investigator."

Freud emphasized that this method worked only if the physician assumed an extraordinary importance to the patient akin to a "father confessor who gives absolution." He described one female patient's "quite special relation to the figure of the physician.," and another who wanted to kiss him.

[FOOTNOTE: Thirty-five years later, Freud still vividly recalled this incident involving "one of my most acquiescent patients" who, upon awakening from hypnosis, "threw her arms around my neck." Freud was saved from any temptation to respond when a servant unexpectedly entered the room.] 

Because this personal relationship was so important, Freud observed that he had to work with attractive, intelligent patients. "I cannot imagine bringing myself to delve into the psychical mechanism of a hysteria in anyone who struck me as low-minded and repellent." It also helped if they manifested complete confidence and dependence upon him, the physician, because "a good number of the patients who would be suitable for this form of treatment abandon the doctor as soon as the suspicion begins to dawn on them of the direction in which the investigation is leading."

Before arriving at the crucial traumatic scene, Freud believed that he had to go slowly, establishing rapport and gaining patients' confidence. Then, through "repeated, indeed continuous, use of this procedure of pressure on the forehead," he delved for memories like an archeologist digging ever deeper. "We force our way into the internal strata, overcoming resistances all the time; we get to know the themes accumulated in one of these strata and the threads running through it." Finally, after pursuing numerous side paths, he could "penetrate by a main path straight to the nucleus of the pathogenic organization . . . . Now the patient helps us energetically. His resistance is for the most part broken."

In 1895, though he had been using this method for some time, Freud had not yet concluded that all hysteria stemmed from sexual abuse. Perhaps, however, he was merely remaining circumspect, as he later asserted Breuer wished him to be. Even in 1895, he described two sisters who "shared a secret; they slept in one room and on a particular night they had both been subjected to sexual assaults by a certain man." By February of 1896, Freud explicitly blamed hysteria on "precocious experience of sexual relations with actual excitement of the genitals, resulting from sexual abuse." These 13 cases were "without exception of a severe kind" that could be classed as "grave sexual injuries; some of them were positively revolting." Seven of the perpetrators were other children, usually older brothers, while the others were nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, or teachers. In late April, Freud provided a similar list, then added that the abuser was "all too often, a close relative." He asserted that disgust at food or habitual choking was caused by repressed memories of oral sex, just as indigestion and intestinal disturbances could be explained by forgotten sodomy. In one case, he believed, a child had been forced to masturbate an adult woman with his foot.

During the rest of 1896, Freud appears to have zeroed in on fathers as the culprits. "It seems to me more and more that the essential point of hysteria is that it results from perversion on the part of the seducer," Freud wrote to Fliess on December 6, 1896, "and more and more that heredity is seduction by the father." In the same letter, he discussed a patient with a "highly perverse father." On January 4, 1897, he wrote in detail about a patient who balked at his seduction theory. "When I thrust the explanation at her [that her father had sexually abused her], she was at first won over; then she committed the folly of questioning the old man himself." When her father indignantly declared himself innocent, Freud's patient believed him, much to her therapist's disgust. "In order to facilitate the work," he concluded, "I am hoping she will feel miserable again."

Soon afterward, Freud was finding more and more disgusting memories (presumably in other clients), going back to earliest childhood. "The early period before the age of one-and-a- half years is becoming ever more significant," he wrote to Fliess on January 24, 1897. "Thus I was able to trace back, with certainty, a hysteria that developed . . . for the first time at eleven months and [I could] hear again the words that were exchanged between two adults at that time! It is as though it comes from a phonograph." By September 21, 1897, in a famous letter expressing doubts about his theory, Freud asserted that "in all cases, the FATHER, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse."

Did Freud Lead His Patients?

What are we to make of Freud's briefly held "seduction theory?" Did he indeed uncover horrifying repressed memories of paternal incest, or did he provide a template for the modern brand of memory seekers? We can get a clue from Freud's arrogance. "We must not believe what they say [when they deny having memories], we must always assume, and tell them, too, that they have kept something back . . . . We must insist on this, we must repeat the pressure and represent ourselves as infallible, till at last we are really told something." Or again: "It is of course of great importance for the progress of the analysis that one should always turn out to be in the right vis-…-vis the patient, otherwise one would always be dependent on what he chose to tell one." Freud refused to accept no for an answer. "We must not be led astray by initial denials," he wrote during this period, sounding just like the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM or THE COURAGE TO HEAL.  "If we keep firmly to what we have inferred, we shall in the end conquer every resistance by emphasizing the unshakable nature of our convictions." No wonder he could write that "the pressure technique in fact never fails."  It is instructive to read Freud's 1896 description of how he unearthed repressed memories:   "The fact is that these patients never repeat these stories spontaneously, nor do they ever in the course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection of a scene of this kind. One only succeeds in awakening the psychical trace of a precocious sexual event under the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure, and against an enormous resistance.

Moreover, the memory must be extracted from them piece by piece, and while it is being awakened in their consciousness they become the prey to an emotion which it would be hard to counterfeit. Conviction will follow in the end, if one is not influenced by the patients' behavior."    It is clear that Freud's expectations contributed heavily to what he found in his patients' unconscious. "If the memory which we have uncovered does not answer our expectations," he wrote, "it may be that we ought to pursue the same path a little further; perhaps behind the first traumatic scene there may be concealed the memory of a second, which satisfies our requirements better." It required the "most energetic pressure" to "extract" such memories; they never surfaced spontaneously or as whole, coherent events. "Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these scenes," Freud proudly noted. "They are indignant as a rule if we warn them that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them."

[FOOTNOTE:   Freud critics Jean Schimek, Malcolm Macmillan, and Allen Esterson believe that Freud's patients never actually produced any memories at all, but that Freud only inferred incest. It seems quite clear from several quoted passages, however, that many of his patients did indeed "relive" highly emotional traumas in which they eventually came to believe. "The behavior of patients while they are reproducing these infantile experiences is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything else than a reality which is being felt with distress," Freud wrote. There is no question, though, that Freud cajoled and bullied them unmercifully, exhorting them to remember. In 1896, he wrote to Fliess that he was "almost hoarse" from pressuring patients ten to eleven hours a day.]

Once they finally produced a suitable memory, they often tried to deny it. "Something has occurred to me now, but you obviously put it into my head," they would say, or "I know what you expect me to answer," or "Something has occurred to me now, it's true, but it seems to me as if I'd put it up deliberately." To these protestations, Freud turned a deaf ear. "In all such cases, I remain unshakably firm." Often, the doctor was even more blunt. "The principal point is that I should guess the secret and tell it to the patient straight out."  Even 35 years later, when Freud supposedly realized that he had been mistaken, he wrote, "It was necessary to make efforts on one's own part so as to urge and compel him [the patient] to remember. The amount of effort required . . .increased in direct proportion to the difficulty of what had to be remembered." These passages, as revealing as they are, hardly convey the extent to which Freud encouraged his patients' "memories" and enthusiastically validated them. His disciple Sandor Ferenczi later described how the early Freud "involved himself passionately and selflessly in the therapy of neurotics, lying on the floor for hours, if necessary, next to a patient in the throes of a hysterical crisis."

When the patients finally brought forth the fantasies their therapist sought, they displayed profound emotions which Freud (and many therapists after him) took to be proof that the memories were real. "While they are recalling these infantile experiences to consciousness, they suffer under the most violent sensations, of which they are ashamed and which they try to conceal." Sounding precisely like Ellen Bass or Renee Fredrickson, Freud dismissed their subsequent denials: "Even after they have gone through them . . . in such a convincing manner, they still attempt to withhold belief from them, by emphasizing the fact that, unlike what happens in the case of other forgotten material, they have no feeling of remembering the scenes." Compare this statement to therapist Renee Fredrickson's observation that "repressed memories rarely seem real when they first emerge."

Incredibly, Freud dismissed the notion that he might have planted any of the memories. "We are not in a position to force anything on the patient about the things of which he is ostensibly ignorant or to influence the products of the analysis by arousing an expectation." How did Freud know this? "I have never once succeeded, by foretelling something, in altering or falsifying the reproduction of memories . . . for if I had, it would inevitably have been betrayed in the end by some contradiction in the material."

[FOOTNOTE:  Later, Freud reiterated that "I have never yet succeeded in forcing on a patient a scene I was expecting to find, in such a way that he seemed to be living through it with all the appropriate feelings."]

Because the stories appeared self-consistent, he believed them. Later, when the memories floated up from as early as one-and-a-half years old, Freud explained why he believed them. "I should not lend credence to these extraordinary findings myself if their complete reliability were not proved by the development of the subsequent neurosis." In other words, Freud, like Lenore Terr today, insisted that the symptoms of the adult proved the validity of the memories.

Freud also believed that the remarkable similarity of the stories proved that they were true, just as those who hear about ritual abuse nowadays are positive that similar tales constitute validation. Freud wrote about the "uniformity that they exhibit in certain details, which is a necessary consequence if the preconditions of these experiences are always of the same kind, but which would otherwise lead us to believe that there were secret understandings between the various patients." Of course, it was not necessary for the patients to confer with one another for them to confabulate similar stories. Freud cued them without knowing it.

Finally, Freud asserted that he had found external corroboration for two cases. Like Judith Herman, however, he appears to have been eager to accept circumstantial evidence as "proof." One patient's older brother admitted having sexual contacts with her in late childhood, so Freud assumed that he had also done so when she was an infant. In another instance, two patients recalled having been abused by the same man. This fact could indicate nothing more than Freud's success at suggesting abuse to his patients, who probably conferred with one another as well. Similarly, many sisters nowadays recover similar abuse memories at the hands of their father and take that to be corroboration.

Freud himself saw a parallel to the confessions of "witches," but he apparently concluded that the unfortunate witches had really all been victims of incest: "Why did the devil who took possession of the poor things invariably abuse them sexually and in a loathsome manner? Why are their confessions under torture so like the communications made by my patients in psychological treatment?" It did not occur to Freud, at the time, that the reason for the similarity was probably quite simple. In both cases, determined interrogators induced the confession/memory of horrors, whether they ever really happened or not. Freud went even further, foreshadowing the current rage to find memories of satanic cults. "I dream," he wrote, "of a primeval devil religion whose rites are carried on secretly, and I understand the harsh therapy of the witches' judges."

In 1896, Freud summarized his real reason for believing the "scenes" of abuse which his patients revealed. They explained everything. They were necessary for his theory. "It is exactly like putting together a child's picture-puzzle: after many attempts, we become absolutely certain in the end which piece belongs in the empty gap; for only that one piece fills out the picture." As we have seen, this same analogy -- finding the missing piece which explains the puzzle of one's life -- has cropped up repeatedly nearly 100 years later, during the great repressed-memory hunt of the late 20th century.

By 1897, Freud had become less certain of the validity of such memories. He realized that he may have applied too much pressure. Still, in December, he was encouraged by a report from Emma Eckstein, now acting as a therapist, as he wrote to Fliess: "My confidence in the father-etiology has risen greatly. Eckstein treated her patient deliberately in such a manner as not to give her the slightest hint of what will emerge from the unconscious, and in the process obtained . . . the identical scenes with the father."

This passage is somewhat confusing, as it appears that Freud may have already treated the same patient and elicited the identical memory, which surfaced again. Even assuming that Eckstein was dealing with a new patient, however, we have only Freud's second-hand assurance that the therapist didn't give the "slightest hint" of the sort of incest memories she sought. In my own interviews with therapists, I repeatedly heard this same assertion: "I never ask leading questions or make suggestions." Yet in virtually every case, the therapist had informed the patient that memories of abuse are often repressed and may resurface during therapy. They did not consider this to be a strong cue. I suspect that Emma Eckstein -- - obviously a rather troubled and emotional woman who had just recovered her own "memories" -- was not quite so circumspect as she thought.

Later that month, Freud again wrote to Fliess, describing another dreadful repressed memory session in which the patient supposedly recalled a scene from when she was six months old, during which her mother nearly bled to death as a result of an injury inflicted by her father. When she was two, she continued to remember, her father "brutally deflowered her and infected her with gonorrhea, so that her life was in danger as a result of the loss of blood and vaginitis." Finally, she vividly described a scene (complete with dialogue) between her father and mother which Freud interpreted as anal intercourse.Clearly, Freud was both repelled and intrigued by these "filthy stories," as he called them, and he apparently believed them, as implausible as such early recollections might have been.

Hypothesizing that the patient's mind had blotted out many details, Freud drew an analogy to "Russian censorship" in which "words, entire phrases and sentences [are] obliterated in black, so that the rest becomes unintelligible." Then, quoting Goethe, Freud suggested a new motto, which the "incest survivor" advocates have now inscribed on their hearts: "What have they done to you, poor child?"

Eventually, Freud changed his mind, concluding that most of these incestuous events never occurred, that the "memories" were actually a form of fantasy, even wish fulfillment. He couldn't admit, however, that he had actually planted these memories.

[FOOTNOTE: In 1925, Freud wrote that "these scenes of seduction had never taken place," adding that "they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced on them." He still couldn't really bring himself to admit his own role, though. Later in the same paragraph, he asserted: "I do not believe even now that I forced the seduction-phantasies on my patients, that I  suggested' them. I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex."]

Instead, he concluded that they were innate fantasies. As a result, he concocted the Oedipus and Electra complexes, asserting that young children yearned to displace the parent of the same gender and have sex with the other. Freud's entire elaborate edifice was based on his obsession with childhood sexuality.Indeed, children are sensual beings, but whether an "Oedipus complex" accounts for our psychological problems or whether the way we were toilet trained determines our personality is subject to dispute. Controlled scientific studies have repeatedly failed to corroborate such notions.

Much to his credit, Freud emphasized the reality of incest in a 1916 lecture. "Phantasies of being seduced are of particular interest," he said, "because so often they are not phantasies but real memories," reiterating that "you must not suppose . . . that sexual abuse of a child by its nearest male relatives belongs entirely to the realm of phantasy." On the other hand, he confused the issue by asserting that "in the case of girls [for whom] their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer, there can be no doubt .. . of the imaginary nature of the accusation." Finally, Freud muddied the waters by saying that it didn't really matter whether the incest was real or imagined. "The outcome [i.e., neurotic symptoms] is the same, and up to the present, we have not succeeded in pointing to any difference in the consequences, whether fantasy or reality has had the greater share in these childhood events." Such relativistic sophism has become a standard line for modern therapists, particularly those hunting for repressed memories. "It doesn't matter whether your memories are literally true or not," they tell their patients. "The emotional truth is valid." Of course, it does matter very much to parents as well as to accusing children whether these events actually took place or not.

Despite his retraction of the "seduction theory," Freud continued to promulgate the notion that patients could banish certain traumatic events from their consciousness, and that only by recalling and reliving these crucial moments could they be whole and healed. In fact, Freud never really repudiated his early work. He did not publicly distance himself from the seduction theory until 1906, and in his 1925 autobiography, he still maintained that sexual experience lay behind all neuroses. Writing of his work on repressed sexual abuse memories, he asserted: "I was not prepared for this conclusion and my expectations played no part in it." He still believed that uncompleted sex acts, sexual abstinence, or excessive masturbation caused anxiety and neurasthenia. And he most certainly still believed in repression, which, in 1914, he called "the foundation stone on which the structure of psychoanalysis rests." In 1925, he repeated that "the theory of repression became the corner-stone of our understanding of the neuroses . . . . It is possible to take repression as a centre and to bring all the elements of psycho-analytic theory into relation with it."

[FOOTNOTE: The "pressure method" also provided the prototype for classical psychoanalysis. Although Freud later concluded that he should never touch his patients, he continued to have them lie down and use "free association," as he described in a 1913 essay, "On Beginning the Treatment." He remained out of sight, since "I cannot put up with being stared at by other people for eight hours a day (or more)." Freud still preferred well-educated, wealthy clients with mild neuroses. He insisted on hour-long sessions six days a week (along with prompt payment of a substantial fee). He continued to break through his patients' "resistance" to inform them of their true problems. "It remains the first aim of the treatment to attach [the patient] to it and to the person of the doctor." Freud believed that "the patient's first symptoms or chance actions" often betrayed their problems. Thus, he concluded that a young philosopher who straightened the creases of his trousers must have been "a former coprophilic of the highest refinement," or that a young girl who pulled the hem of her skirt over exposed ankles revealed "her narcissistic pride in her physical beauty and her inclinations to exhibitionism."]

By enshrining the concept of repression, Freud planted the seeds for the current epidemic of incest accusations. At the same time, as Jeffrey Masson  has pointed out, Freud's flip-flop also had a disastrous effect on real incest victims.

[FOOTNOTE:  In his 1984 book, THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH: FREUD'S SUPPRESSION OF THE SEDUCTION THEORY, Jeffrey Masson complained about the effect of Freud's flip-flop, as well as documenting other Freudian flaws, including the horrendous nose operation on Emma Eckstein in 1895. But Masson miraculously swallowed the 1896 repressed memory scenario without a qualm, asserting that the incest horrors Freud extracted from his patients were all true. Masson's book, with its illogical conclusion, has unfortunately served as one of the cornerstones of the Incest Survivor movement.]

Even though Freud himself never denied the reality of some incest memories, until recently many psychoanalysts routinely dismissed their patients' all-too- well-remembered stories of sexual abuse. "Ah, yes," they would nod knowingly. "Those are just fantasies. Your father didn't really do that to you! Your unconscious wishes that he had."

Send your contribution

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

About Mark Pendergrast

amazon.comMark Pendergrast is the author of Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (Upper Access Book Publishers, 2nd. ed., 1996). If you would like to order a copy of his book at the current discounted price of $19.96 please click on the logo. This title usually ships to any location in the world within 2-3 days (delivery charges being dependent on the method of shipping chosen).
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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