by Allen Esterson
See History of the Human Sciences, volume 11, no. 1, February 1998, pp.1-21
Please note that this is a synopsis of the above article and cannot cover
every detail. For the the full argument readers should consult the original
article in History of the Human Sciences
One of the most enduring myths of psychoanalytic history is that Freud proposed his seduction theory as a result of hearing frequent reports from his female patients that they had been sexually abused in childhood. A second myth is that in the early days of psychoanalysis, Freud’s medical colleagues took such exception to his theories of infantile sexuality that they subjected him to professional ostracism. Jeffrey Masson combined these two myths to produce a compelling and influential account of the seduction theory episode. However, an examination of the contemporary documents indicates that Freud’s clinical findings reported in the seduction theory papers were spurious, that he was right to abandon the seduction theory, and that Masson’s version of events is erroneous.
In 1896 Freud published three papers in which he claimed that obsessional neurosis and hysteria (a condition in which patients exhibit somatic symptoms having no apparent organic origin) were caused exclusively by repressed memories of sexual molestations in early childhood. According to the traditional story, he abandoned this theory when he realized that many of the ‘seductions’ reported by his female patients were fantasies, and this discovery opened the way to his revolutionary psychoanalytic theories of infantile sexuality. In the late 1970s, some feminists concerned about the sexual abuse of female children re-examined the received account and concluded that Freud was wrong to abandon the theory, and that he did so in response to the concerted opposition of his medical colleagues. Masson’s best-selling The Assault on Truth (1984) made this view known to a wider public, while at the same time purportedly providing it with a more scholarly foundation.
The Pressure Technique
To appreciate what actually happened with Freud’s patients in the mid-1890s it is essential to have knowledge of his clinical technique at that time. Freud believed that somatic symptoms he regarded as hysterical were caused by repressed memories of traumatic experiences, and that the therapeutic task was to induce the patient to bring these memories to conscious awareness. At times when relevant thoughts were not forthcoming he placed his hand on the patient’s forehead and encouraged him or her to report any images or ideas that came to mind. In the event that nothing occurred to the patient, Freud took this as a sign of resistance and repeated the pressure on the forehead while insisting that a picture or an idea would emerge. In this manner he endeavoured to set in motion a chain of associations which he believed would lead eventually to the pathogenic idea (S.E.: II, 270-2). The ideas and images obtained from the patient by this procedure generally emerged in a piecemeal fashion, with the essential elements missing (281-2). The task of the physician was ‘to put these [fragments] together once more into the organization which he presumes to have existed’; ie, to piece together the fragments to produce a coherent event or narrative, rather like the process of solving a picture puzzle (291).
The Infantile Seduction Theory
Freud first announced his thesis that the symptoms of hysteria and obsessional neurosis resulted exclusively from repressed memories of sexual experiences in early childhood in two letters he wrote to his friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess in October 1895. He conjectured – on theoretical grounds – that hysteria was the consequence of presexual sexual shock, and obsessional neurosis the consequence of presexual sexual pleasure (Masson, 1985: 141, 144). In early February he completed ‘Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses’ (published in a French journal) and ‘Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’, in each of which he claimed that for all his thirteen cases diagnosed as hysteria he had uncovered repressed memories of sexual traumas in early childhood. The assailants were nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, teachers, and brothers slightly older than the victim (S.E: III, 152, 164). In his six cases of obsessional neurosis (three of whom were among the thirteen ‘hysterics’), the patients had engaged in anactive pleasurable sexual experience around the age of eight or ten, and all of them had also been subjected to sexual molestation in infancy (155, 168-69).
The third seduction theory paper (‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’), delivered to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology on 21 April 1896, contained a more detailed presentation of Freud’s thesis. The number of cases of hysteria had increased to eighteen (six men and twelve women), and the culprits now included adult strangers and close relatives in addition to the categories listed in the previous papers (S.E.: III, 207-8).
Freud’s words in these papers indicate that the patients did not come to him with reports of sexual abuse in early childhood: ‘Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [sexual] scenes. 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.’ Not only have they ‘no feeling of remembering the scenes’ they are induced to reproduce, he continued, they ‘assure me…emphatically of their unbelief’ (204). Similarly, he reported: ‘[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. 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…’ (153).
In the ‘Aetiology’ paper Freud wrote that certain somatic symptoms ‘correspond to the sensory content of the infantile scenes, reproduced in a hallucinatory fashion’ (214), but elsewhere there are passages which imply that the ‘memories’ generally consisted of fragmentary ideas or images from which Freud reconstructed the fully-fledged sexual scenes. In the words of Schimek: ‘[T]he knowledge of [the] original trauma, whether an unconscious memory or fantasy, was based on Freud’s interpretation and reconstruction; it was not directly revealed by the patient’ (1987: 960), a conclusion also reached by Cioffi (1974) in the early 1970s. Borch-Jacobsen (1996) views Freud’s pressure technique as essentially a form of hypnosis, and he cites evidence which indicates that, in some cases at least, patients were induced to conjure up hypnagogic images of requisite infantile ‘scenes’.
Freud’s Retrospective Reports
To appreciate how most commentators, including Masson, have been misled by Freud’s later reports of the seduction theory episode, the several accounts he published over the years must be examined. Originally, in the seduction theory papers, Freud reported a variety of assailants (S.E.: III, 164, 208). However, his story later changed to accord with his current theory. The seduction theory did not require specific culprits – hence the wide range of culprits in his 1895-6 reconstructions. By 1897 his cogitations had led to the conjecture that the culprits in the case of ‘hysterics’ were generally fathers, and this is reflected in an 1897 abstract of the ‘Aetiology’ paper: the several categories specified in that paper were condensed to the claim that ‘as a rule’ the abusers were ‘to be looked for among the patient’s nearest relatives’ (ibid.: 254). Following his abandonment of the seduction theory, in his accounts published in 1906 and 1914 he paid scant attention to the identities of the supposed culprits; his primary concern was to report that he had discovered that most of the ‘infantile sexual traumas’ which ‘analysis had led back to’ had been unconscious phantasies created during the years of puberty to ‘cover up’ memories of infantile masturbation (S.E.: VII, 274: XIV, 17-18).1 (This relates to notions to be found in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905, S.E.: VII, 189]). 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’. (At the time he had just begun applying his Oedipal theory to female development [S.E.: XIX, 177-9]). In 1933 he reiterated that during the seduction theory period ‘almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father’, and it is this final version of the story which acquired the status of historical fact for most of this century (S.E.: XXII, 120).
Jeffrey Masson has produced an erroneous account of the seduction theory episode which results from his failure to grasp the nature of the clinical procedure Freud was using, his uncritical presumption that the latter’s clinical claims were valid, and his acceptance of Freud’s historical accounts in spite of the scholarly research which has shown them to be unreliable. The traditional story that most of Freud’s female patients in the seduction theory period reported that they had been sexually abused by their fathers in early childhood, the cornerstone of Masson’s account of the episode, is false. This will bring little comfort to his psychoanalytic critics, since it is evident that the theory of infantile seduction phantasies which superseded the seduction theory was based on the same unsound clinical claims.2
1 The word Phantasie was almost invariably used by Freud to denote an inferred unconscious idea or image which he had analytically reconstructed. Its frequent translation as ‘fantasy’ (rather than ‘phantasy’ as in the Standard Edition) has exacerbated the tendency to misconstrue the ideas or images in question as conscious experiences of Freud’s patients (Esterson, 1993: 166-8).
2 Freud’s later accounts of the episode served to conceal that his clinical findings reported in 1896 were an artefact of his coercive application of the analytic technique of reconstruction. In the words of Cioffi (1974: 173-4): ‘Freud could not bring himself to recognize the reasoning by which he had persuaded himself of the authenticity of the seductions, because it was the same sort of reasoning which, for the rest of his career, he was to employ in his reconstruction of infantile fantasy life and of the content of the unconscious in general.’
Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1996) “Neurotica: Freud and the Seduction Theory”, October 76 October Magazine Ltd. and MIT, Spring 1996: 15-43.
Cioffi, F. (1974). ‘Was Freud a Liar?’, The Listener, 91: 172-4; reprinted (1975) Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, 5: 275-80.
Esterson, A. (1993) Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Freud, S. (1953-74) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by J. Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
IsraŽls, H. and Schatzman, M. (1993) ‘The Seduction Theory’, History of Psychiatry, iv: 23- 59.
Masson, J. M. (1984) The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; new edn (1985) Harmondsworth, Mx: Penguin Books.
—–. (editor) (1985) The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, ed. and trans. J. M. Masson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schimek, J. G. (1987) ‘Fact and Fantasy in the Seduction Theory: a Historical Review’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, xxxv: 937-65.