Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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'Reproduction' of Sexual Scenes

by Allen Esterson

There is an erroneous interpretation of a sentence of Freud's in my History of the Human Sciences article in the paragraph extending from the bottom of page 6 to the top of page 7 (Esterson, 1998: 6-7). The sentence in question, part of which is quoted on lines 3-5, is as follows:

Among these symptoms [those which go back to the earliest experiences] are above all to be found the numerous and diverse sensations and paraesthesias of the genital organs and other parts of the body, these sensations and paraesthesias being phenomena which simply correspond to the sensory content of the infantile scenes, reproduced in a hallucinatory fashion, often painfully intensified (1896, S.E..: III, 214).

Freud's use of the word 'hallucinatory' led me, mistakenly, to treat this statement as if he were referring to hallucinatory experiences induced by the pressure technique, but on closer inspection I see that it actually refers to patients' somatic symptoms. What this reveals is the elastic way that Freud employs terms like 'hallucinatory' and, especially, 'reproduce', and it is his use of the latter word that I want to examine now.

As the above sentence illustrates, the fact that the patients' symptoms supposedly derived from the postulated infantile 'sexual scenes' meant that, in Freud's terms, they were 'reproductions' of the 'scenes'. This indicates that when, in the seduction theory papers, he uses the word 'reproduce' it should be treated with considerable caution (not to say scepticism). It seems that for Freud, any symptom or behaviour which he can interpret in terms of an inferred 'sexual scene' is termed a 'reproduction'. Thus in the case of the obsessional patient referred to in one of the seduction theory papers (ibid.: 172, 172-3n; Esterson, 1998: 6), the elements of his obsessional sleep ceremonial were reproductions of the inferred unconscious memory of the 'sexual scene' which supposedly was the cause of the symptoms. Again, in the case alluded to in a 1913 paper (S.E.: XII, 141-2; Esterson, 1998: 8-9), the patient's so-called 'hysterical attacks' when Freud tells her she had had a homosexual experience just prior to puberty are, in his terms, a reproduction of that experience.

The obsessional case referred to in the 'Further Remarks' seduction theory paper is particularly revealing. His providing analytic interpretations for the obsessional behaviour is described by Freud as his having 'fully explained' the symptoms by 'trac[ing] back' from the obsessional behaviour to the 'memory' (S.E.: III, 172). To take two examples: 'the [obsessional] movements with his legs were to kick away the person who was lying on him; sleeping on his side was because in the scene he had been lying on his back [sic].' Here we see that right from the beginning of his psychoanalytic career Freud was using his analytic principles that every element in a patient's symptoms has a meaning and that parallels, differences and opposites (i.e., virtually anything!) can be used to 'corroborate' his postulates. (In the Wolf Man case history, where in his 'wolf dream' interpretation he appeals to similarities, differences and opposites with indiscriminate abandon [S.E.: XVII, 29-37; Esterson, 1993: 68-9], he writes that the latter two are 'welcomed by the resistance as a means of distortion'.) Then (in the 1896 report of the obsessional case), his use of the term 'circumstantial confession' (emphasis added; cf. 'analytic confessions' below) for the obsessional symptoms shows once more that Freud's words should not be interpreted too literally. Again, he writes of this patient: 'When, later on, this memory [the postulated 'sexual scene' of a servant girl lying down on and sexually abusing the infant boy] was aroused in him by a recent experience, it manifested itself in his consciousness in a compulsion to perform the [obsessional sleep] ceremonial...' Evidently a memory being 'aroused' does not mean, as one might expect, its becoming conscious; in Freud's terms, it means it manifests itself in some way - in this case, in the form of obsessional behaviour. So, more generally, when he writes of the patients' 'recalling these infantile experiences to consciousness' (S.E.: III, 205) his words don't necessarily mean what the reader takes them to mean. He may, for instance, be referring to patients' agitated behaviour when he is 'applying the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure' (ibid.: 153; cf. 204) to induce them to 'reproduce' (or at least acknowledge) his reconstructed 'sexual scenes'. Again, it is the patients' somatic or behavioural productions (not verbal utterances), to which he is referring when he uses the ambiguous term 'analytic confessions' (ibid.: 153, emphasis added), ie they are 'confessions' when heard (or seen) by a physician (namely, Freud) who is able to decode the language. (In the 'Aetiology' paper Freud compares his analytic technique to that of an archaeologist who deciphers and translates inscriptions on ancient ruins [ibid.: 192].)

In his introductory remarks in the 'Aetiology' paper Freud writes that the symptoms of hysteria are determined by the '[traumatic] experiences of the patient's' which are 'being reproduced [sic] in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols'. As we have seen, it is Freud's task to decode these symbols, and it seems that during this period (perhaps because he was so anxious to proclaim his 'great clinical secret' which he anticipated would bring him 'eternal fame' [Masson, 1985: 144, 266]), he may have in some cases laid aside his previous idea of the patients' (in at least some minimal way, such as their talking about it) abreacting the inferred trauma. In The Interpretation of Dreams (completed in 1899), in an allusion to a dream from 1895, he stated that it was his view at that time that his 'task was fulfilled when [he] had informed a patient of the hidden meaning of his symptoms' (S.E.: VII, 108, emphases added). (Cf. S.E.: IX, 162, where he writes that the task of the analyst is 'to infer from the symptoms what [the] unconscious phantasies are and then to make them conscious to the patient'.) So when he writes about 'succeed[ing] in making that connection [between the symptoms and the repressed memory] conscious', and asserts that 'we cure [our patients] of their hysteria by transforming their unconscious memories of the infantile scenes into conscious ones' (S.E.: III, 174, 211), it does not mean (as the reader is likely to understand his words) that the patient is brought to recall the trauma, only that Freud has told him or her what the trauma was.

Freud's reports to Fliess some months after the publication of the seduction theory papers give the impression that a few of his patients provided images or re-enactments of 'sexual scenes' (Masson, 1985 213, 218, 288), but his statements that the patients '[never] in the course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection' of such a scene, and that 'the memory must be extracted from them piece by piece' (S.E.: III, 153), suggest that, insofar as there were pseudo-memories, they are likely for the most part to have been fragmentary ideas or images from which Freud reconstructed the 'sexual scene'. Nor was it necessary for Freud that there should have been complete pseudo-memories, since, as we have seen, there were other ways the patients could 'reproduce' the scenes to his satisfaction, such as showing emotional distress when he reconstructed an appropriate 'scene' and insisted the patient had been subjected to sexual abuse in infancy (Masson, 1985: 220; cf. S.E.: II, 281).

To the reasons given above for doubting that many of the seduction theory patients produced images of the 'sexual scenes' may be added the following. If most of the patients had had pseudo-memories of sexual molestations, why would Freud have resorted to the ambiguities (and inconsistencies) of his retrospective reports (see below)? It would have been ideal for his 'phantasies' explanation of his 'error' for him to have been able to simply state that most of the patients had produced pseudo-memories of the infantile 'seductions'.

In summary, there are four ways that the word 'reproduce' might be understood (keeping in mind that the 'reproductions' occurred under the influence of Freud's coercive quasi-hypnotic pressure technique): (i) some somatic manifestation of the patient's was interpreted by Freud as reproducing an infantile 'scene', (ii) the patient expressed considerable emotional agitation when Freud insisted he or she had experienced the 'sexual scene' of infantile molestation he had reconstructed, (iii) the patient conjured up fragmentary words, ideas or images from which Freud 'reconstructed' a requisite 'scene' (iv) the patient conjured up an image of a 'scene' in his or her mind.

The above analysis may explain the following cryptic sentence: 'Conviction will follow in the end, if one is not influenced by the patients' behaviour, provided that one can follow in detail the report of a psychoanalysis of a case of hysteria' (S.E.: III, 153). Insofar as one can make sense of this, it would seem he is saying that it is his analytic interpretation of the behaviour in question which will lead to conviction, not what the patient explicitly says or does. It would also explain how he could claim to have uncovered infantile 'sexual scenes' in every single one of sixteen patients by early February 1896 (S.E.: III, 152, 155; Esterson, 1998: 4-5), only some four months after alighting on the theory in early October 1895 (Masson, 1985: 141), and in the face of the patients' 'enormous resistance' (ibid.: 153). Again, it would explain the otherwise unlikely claim in the 'Aetiology' paper that 'in some eighteen cases' of hysteria he had 'been able to discover this connection [with the patient's sexual life] in every single symptom' (ibid.: 199, emphasis added). Note that he is here referring to all the patient's symptoms, including those several which derive from adverse sexual experiences other than the infantile trauma (ibid.: 198, 214). (Nevertheless, since later in the paper he writes that 'giving an account of the resolution of a single symptom would...amount to the task of relating an entire case history' [ibid.: 197], it is difficult to take this claim seriously - even allowing that Freud was easily satisfied by his own interpretations of symptoms.)

In the light of the above analysis it is instructive to observe Freud's choice of words in the seduction theory papers as he endeavours to convince the reader that he has corroborated his thesis. Consider his coercive rhetoric in the following example: '...the behaviour of patients while they are reproducing these infantile sexual scenes is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything else but a reality which is being felt with distress and reproduced with the greatest reluctance' (ibid.: 204). What he is really saying is no more than that, in his view, the behaviour of the patients is consistent with the assumption that they are 'reproducing' authentic 'sexual scenes', but his convoluted wording has the effect of making it seem that the behaviour could not be interpreted other than as he asserts, almost compelling the reader to accept his claim. Similarly, he writes: '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' (ibid.: 205). Under the guise of an apparently authoritative statement he is actually begging the question of how he knows that the behaviour of the patients guarantees the authenticity of the 'scenes'. And one more example: in the 'Aetiology' paper he writes: 'Where there had been a relation between two children I was sometimes able to prove that the boy...had previously been seduced by an adult of the female sex.' He does not attempt to explain how he could possibly prove such an occurrence (note that he does not say he discovered this from an outside source), and leaves the more credulous reader with the impression he has asserted a clinically validated fact. An apt comment on this is that of Wilcocks, who notes 'the peculiarly personal meanings Freud attached to the verb "to prove"' (1994: 137).

Inconsistency and ambiguity in Freud's retrospective reports

The ambiguity in Freud's 1896 reports of the way his patients had corroborated the seduction theory is also found in his retrospective reports; in fact, it is even more evident there, as a consequence of Freud's need to obscure the fact that the 'sexual scenes' originated with him, not with the patients. Consider the situation from Freud's point of view. In the 1896 papers he claimed unequivocally that he had solved the problem of the aetiology of the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), and in the 'Aetiology' lecture which he delivered to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in April 1896 he confidently announced his 'discovery of a caput Nili [source of the Nile] in neuropathology' (S.E.: III, 203), an achievement which, as he later told Fliess, he anticipated would bring him 'eternal fame' and 'certain wealth' (Masson, 1985: 266). Although, as letters to Fliess show, there was a short revival of his belief in his theory for a short period after the 'renunciation letter' of 21 September 1897, he seems to have finally abandoned the seduction theory by 1898. At any rate, the last reference to infantile molestation occurs in a letter of 22 December 1897 (ibid.: 288). The only other report after that referring to infantile experiences relates to a twenty-five-year-old man suffering from leg cramps and tremors (27 September 1898) in regard to whom Freud writes that, since he wet his bed until his seventh year, he 'must [sic] have experienced sexual excitation in his earlier childhood'; but he follows this assertion with the question: 'Spontaneous or by seduction?' (ibid.: 329), indicating he was in the process of transition to the spontaneous infantile sexuality theories of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality paper of 1905. In fact in a paper completed in February 1898 he had already expressed the view that 'children are capable of every psychical sexual activity' (S.E.: III, 280).

In his introductory words in this 1898 paper Freud evades mentioning his epoch-making claims of two years earlier by alluding to all the papers he had written since 1894 on the neuroses, both what he termed the 'actual' neuroses (neurasthenia and anxiety neurosis, for which he believed the cause lay in current sexual problems) and the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis, for the cause of which he had postulated repressed memories of infantile molestations). He adopts a similar tactic in his 1906 paper 'My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses' (manuscript dated June 1905), where he refers, without distinguishing between them, to his papers published in 1895 (on the 'actual' neuroses) and 1896 (on the psychoneuroses). By this means he is able to conceal his abandoned great 'discovery' behind the relatively innocuous statement that his 'theory [of neuroses] had culminated in this thesis: if the vita sexualis is normal, there can be no neurosis' (S.E.: VII, 274): no mention here of the 1896 'caput Nili' claims for which he anticipated 'eternal fame'. He can now go on to say: 'Though even today I do not consider these assertions incorrect, it is not to be wondered at that, in the course of ten years of continuous effort at reaching an understanding of these phenomena, I have made a considerable step forward from the views I then held, and now believe that I am in a position, on the basis of deeper experience, to correct the insufficiencies, the displacements and the misunderstandings under which my theory then laboured.' Who, reading this masterly presentation of his change of view, would realise that he had been forced to discard a theory (not actually mentioned!) of such potential moment? And the obfuscation when he goes on to deal with the seduction theory in the sentences which follow (again without spelling out what it actually was) is such that the following passage deserves to be quoted in full:

At that time my material was still scanty, and it 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. I thus over-estimated the frequency of such events (though in other respects they were not open to doubt). Moreover, I was at that period unable to distinguish with certainty between falsifications made by hysterics in their memories of childhood and traces of real events. Since then I have learned to explain a number of phantasies of seduction as attempts at fending off memories of the subject's own sexual activity (infantile masturbation). (ibid.: 274)

It is easy to pass over this passage without fully appreciating just how disingenuous it is. In his 'Aetiology' paper he reported on eighteen 'hysterics' - hardly a 'scanty' number. And, of course, the claim that it happened [sic] to contain a disproportionately large number of victims of childhood molestation effectively conceals the fact that he had foisted the 'sexual scenes' on his resisting patients on the basis of a dogmatically-held preconceived theory. Again, the informed reader might well ask, can those occurrences Freud had described as 'brutal assaults', some of which were 'positively revolting' and included 'all the abuses known to debauched and impotent persons', really be included under the rather cosy term 'seductions' (S.E.: III, 152, 164, 214)? And how can these events (the childhood 'seductions') be 'not open to doubt' when in the next breath he writes that some of them were actually phantasies of seduction?

In this section of the 1906 paper Freud is engaged in no less than four stratagems. He is (i) obscuring the fact that he is retracting a theory that he had, in 1896, proclaimed as epoch-making, (ii) exonerating himself by implying he was misled by his patients, (iii) confusing the issue by making it seem the patients had conscious memories of infantile 'seductions', (iv) concealing the means by which he had arrived at his findings of infantile sexual molestations. If he were pressed on (iii), Freud might respond by saying that the 'memories' were unconscious, as were the 'falsifications' made by the patients; but who, reading his words (whether in the original German or in the English - or other - translation), has ever taken them to mean this?

Note that at this stage (1906) Freud's story is that in a 'large number of cases' the 'seductions' were authentic. What does he say in his 1914 History, when he gives his next account (S.E.: XIX, 17-18)? Apart from the disingenuous charade that he had ' be able to stop at puberty', but his investigations led him reluctantly but inexorably into the infancies of his patients, there are the usual ambiguities, obfuscations and inconsistencies. This time the reader is told, as a generality, that the 'infantile sexual traumas' were 'not true', and there is no mention at all of any authentic cases. He first refers to patients' reports which traced symptoms back to passive sexual experiences (ie, 'seductions') in the first years of childhood, and a little later he writes of the patients having 'traced back their symptoms to traumas that are fictitious...'. He also says that 'analysis had led back to these infantile traumas by the right path, and yet they were not true.' What does he mean by 'analysis' in this context? In 1904 he had explained that by 'analysis' he means the technique by which 'the unconscious material may be reconstructed from the associations' by the physician (S.E.: VII, 252). Again, in 1908: 'The technique of psychoanalysis enables us in the first place to infer from the symptoms what [the] unconscious phantasies are and then to make them conscious to the patient' (S.E.: IX, 162). So, considering the three statements above from the 1914 account, on the one hand he is reporting that the apparent infantile traumas were inferred by himself, while at the same time suggesting that the patients had 'traced back' the symptoms to the apparent infantile traumas. This kind of ambiguity is to be found throughout Freud's writings on unconscious phantasies, enabling him to blur the issue of how he arrived at his psychoanalytic 'discoveries' about infantile psychosexual behaviour.

The 1925 Autobiographical Study account of the seduction theory episode is more candid (and revealing) than the others (S.E.: XX, 33-4; Esterson, 1998: 14-15). Nevertheless, it is not lacking in ambiguity. He writes that the majority of the patients in question 'reproduced from their childhood scenes in which they were seduced by some grown-up person', and that 'with female patients the part of the seducer was almost always assigned to their father. I believed these stories [communications]...' If one uses the literal translation 'communications', then Freud could be taken to mean that he was deceived by what he was hearing from his patients into making the wrong inferences that he had uncovered sexual traumas, rather than that he was deceived by direct reports. (It is also not clear who, in the case of female patients, 'assigned' the seducers to their fathers.) However, he goes on to say (disingenuously, as we know from the seduction theory papers): 'If the reader feels inclined to shake his head at my credulity, I cannot altogether blame him', which carries the clear implication that it was the patients' reports of infantile traumas that he believed. To my knowledge, nowhere in the literature has this 1925 account been taken to mean other than the latter, regardless of whether the text is read in the original German or in English - or other - translation. But whichever way we interpret Freud's remarks, they are not credible. Either he is saying he naively believed seduction reports from his patients, which we know is untrue because in the original papers he explicitly says he himself warned them what to expect (S.E.: III, 204); or he is saying he credulously interpreted productions (of some undefined kind) from the patients to represent childhood sexual molestations. The latter is equally disingenuous, because he adds that he 'was intentionally keeping his critical faculty in obeyance so as to preserve an unprejudiced and receptive attitude' towards his clinical experiences - which again doesn't tally with his original report of his warning the patients what to expect combined with his application of the 'strongest compulsion of the treatment' (ibid.: 204). Perhaps he has simply forgotten what happened; after all, it was thirty years before. But no, he had re-read the seduction theory papers only the previous year in the course of editing them for reprinting in a Complete Edition of his works, so he could hardly plead ignorance of their contents. There is only one explanation: Freud is concealing from his readers (and perhaps, in some extraordinary way, from himself) the truth about the seduction theory episode, because that truth completely undermines the heroic account of his 'discovery' of unconscious infantile phantasies with which he is at the very same time regaling his readers (S.E.: XX, 34). And what he has to conceal from the reader (for it is now too late to retreat) is that it was his own preconceived 'reconstructions' which he foisted on the disbelieving seduction theory patients (S.E.: III 204). Little wonder that when he next mentions the episode he evades the whole uncomfortable issue and simply pronounces that 'almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father' (S.E. XXII, 120).

It is extraordinary that the traditional story (essentially as just quoted) has been repeated by commentators time and time again, in spite of the fact that it is manifestly questionable to anyone who examines Freud's inconsistent accounts with a modicum of care. It is a tribute to Freud's successful propagation of his image as a man of absolute integrity that readers have passed over the manifold obscurities, inconsistencies and impossibilities in these accounts. One can only presume that the legend of his absolute probity was such that it was almost literally inconceivable that Freud's story was suspect. Even when, in the early 1970s, Cioffi (1972, 1974) began the long overdue exposure of the truth about the seduction theory episode he was ignored or derided for his pains.

The bibliographical citations above can be found in the Bibliography of my History of the Human Sciences article (February 1998).

Allen Esterson
25th February, 1998.

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