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by Jeffrey M. Masson (Harper Collins, 1991. 15)

reviewed by Bob Young

I am always suspicious of people who say they don't like gossip, partly because I'm persuaded that gossip is the collective unconscious of any group and partly because a lack of curiosity about the primal scene is a lack of curiosity altogether. So I was delighted to read Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archive, which purported to tell the inside story of the ins and outs of the keepers of the collective memory of psychoanalysis. I say 'purported', because the accuracy of her quotations of the central figure in the story, Jeffrey Masson, became the object of a court case about journalistic accuracy that has been disputed all the way to the American Supreme Court. He spilled his guts to her, and alleges that she culpably misquoted him. [He eventually won the court case.]

This story — even his own version of it — provides an utterly compelling lingering look into the world of those who guard the precious relics of Freud and the early analysts. For me the holy of holies of keyholes was a wooden chest on the staircase landing in Anna Freud's house in Maresfield Gardens (now the Freud Museum) where all sorts of old letters were kept. And Masson was to be the keeper of the archives and could read any of them. What oedipal bliss...

But he blew it — and did so in the most hopelessly self-destructive way — twice. First, he concluded that Freud was a liar and said so in such a way that it reached the front page of the New York Times. Then he shot himself in the other foot by being utterly indiscreet to Janet Malcolm, knowing perfectly well that she was a New Yorker reporter and the author of another gossipy book called Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. Some guys never learn. He's done it twice more — first in Against Therapy (1989) and now again in Final Analysis, which purports to be his side of the whole story.

In Against Therapy he set out to show that it wasn't only Freud who was corrupt; so were Jung, Ferenczi, John Rosen (the founder of 'direct psychoanalysis'), Carl Rogers (a pioneer of humanistic psychotherapy) and the rest of us as well. He found some heinous act in the life of each of these people, judged all of their lives and works by this and pronounced them and all their works corrupt. The book's subtitle is Warning: Psychotherapy May be Dangerous to Your Mental Health. Here is a sample: 'Is Rosen an exception, or is there something about psychotherapy, something in the very nature of psychotherapy, that tends toward such abuses?... A Prison warden, a slaveholder, and a psychotherapist have in common the desire to control another person' (p.189). 'Maybe it is in the very nature of therapy to encourage abuse. Maybe therapy is the very opposite of what it appears to be... I am convinced that Rosen was no exception, no aberration. This is therapy' (p.192).

I am not interested in detailing the charges against these people; they included sleeping with patients, violence, even being responsible for patients' deaths. It is the argument I am criticising. It's as if The Inquisition or even particular inquisitors was Catholicism or the IRA is Republicanism or corrupt policemen mean that all law enforcement officers and the very idea of law are sullied. This is very primitive thinking — the inability to tolerate mixtures, the urgent need for utter purity. All that is not pure is diabolical. The split is perfect, the persecutions unbearable. Hence the moral crusade. It is the well-worn argument that it is legitimate to judge the priesthood (and even the whole religion) by the priest.

Every abuse he describes, if true, is dreadful, but Masson argues that it is a sure sign of total corruption. He said in public recently that he is often accused of throwing the baby out with the bath water and that he has 'reluctantly’ concluded that there is no baby. In the conclusion of Against Therapy, he says, 'It is the world of therapy, it is therapy itself that is the core of the corruption I have described in this book. Every therapist, no matter how kindly and benign in appearance and behaviour, is sooner or later drawn into that corruption, because the profession is corrupt’ (p. 296)

Going further, he said at a recent Institute of Contemporary Arts seminar in London that he’d thought of calling the book Against Everything, and I've begun to see his point. He is making a career out of apostasy. A reviewer of Final Analysis, the distinguished medical historian, Roy Porter, referred to Masson as 'the analyst as dick-head'. I think that's wrong, but his negativism has become pervasive; he says he is accustomed to being reviled and enjoys it. I feel this rather strongly, since I was asked to debate with him when Against Therapy was published. Having read it, I was left with the strong feeling that I had to be very careful, indeed, not to go over the top and allow him to represent himself as a victim of some unfairness coming from me. It was hard work, but I was told that the strategy succeeded.

Even so, all of these books are interesting. Every issue raised by him eliminates an important problem, even though his arguments and conclusions strike me as grossly oversimplified and even perverse. The first one, The Assault on Truth, is a meticulously researched account of Freud's allegedly disingenuous abandonment of the theory of infantile seduction in favour of the theory of infantile sexuality — from seeing child sexual abuse as the universal explanation to seeing the fantasies of the inner world as central to psychoanalysis. This strikes me as relatively simple and clear. I've also always found Masson's accusation of cowardice on Freud's part unconvincing. If he wanted to avoid rejection at the hands of nineteenth-century prigs, it wasn't very smart to move from seeing adults as abusers to seeing children as preoccupied with sexual fantasises, was it?

As Juliet Mitchell unsuccessfully tried to convey to him on a recent television programme, Freud's abandonment of the universal explanation of child sexual abuse — the 'seduction theory' — was not a denial of the widespread existence of that phenomenon but a sharpening of focus on the domain of psychoanalysis, which should thenceforward centre on the inner world, where it has rightly remained. What the recent debate on these matters has dubbed the 'real event' (much controverted, but roughly phenomenal occurrences in the external world) is important, but it is not what psychoanalysis is about. It is probably true that the publicity surrounding Masson's philosophically and historically mistaken thesis has played a part in drawing attention to psychoanalysts' and psychotherapists' having under-emphasized the occurrence of child sexual abuse (along with practically everyone else but less forgivably), but he has been helpful while marching under the wrong banner and has thereby done real harm, since what is needed is more, many more child psychotherapists, more attentiveness within the profession and a treatment programme for offenders.

Instead, he went on to pronounce all analysts and therapists abusers. He alleges that 'abuse of one form or another is built into the very fabric of psychotherapy' (Against Therapy, p.210) and goes on to say on the next page that he was told in his first seminar in psychoanalytic training that 'a major part' of the teacher's practice 'consisted of analysts who have had sexual involvements with patients' (p.211). Once again, this is a serious allegation about a serious problem, but I say from my knowledge of quite a lot of gossip networks that although it happens, it does not happen on a scale — among psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists — that warrants the pillorying of the profession or its framework of ideas and practices. Once again, he has judged the priesthood by the priest.


Final Analysis is his self-defence over the whole set of events from getting involved with analysis up to his being sacked as Director-designate of the Freud Museum and Archive. Given my very dim view of what he thinks and how he conveys it, I decided not to read it, but a colleague pressed it into my hand. Strangely enough, it evoked my sympathy. Here was an account of a suffering person, told autobiographically, who has been through a (self-inflicted to a significant degree, but he doesn't see that) hell. We learn about his problems, his rampant promiscuity, his boredom as a Sanskrit scholar, his need for analysis. In the light of what we already know about how he sifts and evaluates evidence, it is important to remain sceptical about his account.

Accuracy is not his forte. In the course of two pages he manages to call Fairbairn 'Donald' and Bion 'Ralph’ and to serve up an ignorant caricature of Klein (pp. 117-18), in the midst of an account of how he won the trust of a senior colleague by indulging his prejudices.

I was appalled by his stories of the behaviour of his analyst (no boundaries, no frame, no abstinence) and the ways people behave in the Canadian (especially the Toronto) psychoanalytic scene and in the higher echelons of the International Psychoanalytic Association. If a tiny fraction of what he alleges is true, he has once again done a service, even allowing for the hyperbole. I won't reveal the plot, but I do think it is well worth a sceptical read. What struck me most forcibly was the various forms of self-importance, backbiting and spite, especially of his analyst and of the self-appointed guardian of Freudian orthodoxy and the relics, Kurt Eissler, whose friendship with Masson has its touching and comical moments.

Here was Eissler, the most meticulous rabbinical caretaker, falling for this young enthusiast, whose charm was compelling. He then hands the keys to the Ark of the Covenant to a promiscuous yenta-babbler and vouches for him to the high priestess, Anna Freud. In some ways it's tragic, in some ways hilarious. It reminded me of a King Arthur joke. He left the key to his queen's chastity belt with Lancelot as he left for a crusade. He'd got no farther than a few hundred yards before his trusted knight came running after him, saying that it was the wrong key.

But, as I've said, real harm has been done. First, psychoanalysis does not seem to have helped Jeffrey Masson much (but we didn't know him before). He is still a man of deeply misguided ways and thoughts. Second, his public performances and writings give psychoanalysis a very bad press. It makes it seem that we are all a dreadful, corrupt lot. (One of the reasons Roy Porter was dismissive of him was for not seeing through psychoanalysis earlier. The untrustworthy reporter muddles up the issues. We shouldn't judge the priesthood by this priest, either.) In this way he is vengeful and destructive. We can interpret his behaviour and that of the small band of spiteful scholars who take comfort from him, but the damage is real. Finally, and rather more locally, I have the impression that the cloud he put over the Freud Museum and the question of access to archives on the part of legitimate scholars will hang there for a long time to come: 'Look what happened the last time we trusted someone...’

Having said all this, who else but a cracked apostate does spill beans? Sensible people think of their careers and their need for referrals and keep their heads down. In spite of everything, I say again, he has pointed, however strikingly, to real issues in the culture of psychoanalysis. I'm not exactly grateful to him, because I think he has done far more harm than good, but I do have some compassion for him and believe that there are things to think about and standards to be erected and maintained as a result of what he has maliciously revealed. As always, it's the problem of separating the wheat from the chaff and bearing mixtures.

 2018 words

Copyright: The Author

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

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