Assault on Freud

Arnold Davidson

A great deal of publicity has surrounded Jeffrey Masson and his book, some good, some bad, but all of it enveloped by an atmosphere which has helped to obscure the important historical issues about the origins of psychoanalysis that his book raises. Yet Masson himself is partially responsible for submerging these issues. The rhetorical structure of his book is an extended ad hominem argument: Freud and later psychoanalysts were liars and hypocrites, lacking in courage, and therefore psychoanalytic theory is useless. It is as if Masson had rehabilitated and adapted the old argument that since Luther had notorious difficulties with his toilet habits, his Commentary on Romans is worthless.

However, with some effort of will, one can disentangle an argumentative core from Masson’s rhetoric. The plot of The Assault on Truth is as follows. In April 1896 Freud gave a paper to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology entitled ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’. In this paper, and in the others published in 1896, Freud argued that infantile sexual trauma was always at the basis of the development of hysteria. As Freud put it, ‘at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades’ (Standard Edition, III, 203: Freud’s italics). Freud divided his cases into three groups, according to the origin of the premature sexual experience. The first consisted of assaults by strangers; in the second an adult, while looking after the child, initiated sexual intercourse with her or him and maintained a regular love relationship, often lasting for years; the third group consisted of sexual relations between two children of different sexes, although Freud believed that children would not commit sexually aggressive acts unless they had been previously seduced. The theory that hysteria always led back to infantile sexual seduction, know as the seduction theory, was one that Freud would publicly give up less than ten years after he first elaborated it. He would come to believe that fantasy could play an important role in the genesis of hysteria and other neuroses, and that, from both a theoretical and a clinical point of view, he had over-estimated the importance of infantile seduction.

Masson’s book is the story of how Freud ‘suppressed’ the seduction theory, how, to use Masson’s description, ‘by shifting the emphasis from an actual world of sadness, misery and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors performed invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own invention, Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, is at the root of the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis and psychiatry throughout the world.’ Central to Masson’s story is the case of Emma Eckstein, a patient of Freud and Wilhelm Fliess. Masson concludes that in order to protect himself and, especially, Fliess from any guilt for their mishandling of the Eckstein case, Freud suppressed the seduction theory and replaced it with his new views on the importance of fantasy. A contributing cause to his abandonment and suppression of the seduction theory was Freud’s isolation by the medical community when he propounded the theory. But even without going into any details, the form of Masson’s argument is that Freud abandoned his most ‘brilliant insight’ for personal reasons, because of a failure of courage.

The first, and most obvious, remark that should be made is that Freud never abandoned, much less suppressed, the view that infantile seduction was both real and significant. He returned to the reality of infantile sexual trauma throughout his writings. As late as 1940 in one of his last writings, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly singles out certain influences on children which, although they do not apply to all children, are ‘common enough’, and he includes in this category ‘the sexual abuse of children by adults’ and ‘their seduction by other children (brothers or sisters)’ (S.E., XXIII, 187). Freud goes on to discuss the Oedipus complex in this context, but the role of the Oedipus complex in his conception of childhood development did not require the abandonment of the reality of infantile sexual seduction. Moreover, in none of the works that Masson quotes does Freud ever deny the reality of seduction in the 18 cases that he originally put forward in 1896. In 1905 Freud discussed the problems with the seduction theory in at least two places, the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and ‘My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses’, the latter actually published in 1906. In one of his few textually specific accusations, Masson claims to expose Freud’s insincerity. After discussing what he takes to be some problems with the latter essay, he writes:

Is Freud’s essay, apart from these difficulties, entirely sincere? I quote again: ‘I thus overestimated the frequency of such events [seductions]’ (p.274). Yet in the same year (1905), Freud wrote in Three Essays: ‘I cannot admit that in my paper “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896) I exaggerated the frequency or importance of that influence [seduction]’ (p. 190). These statements cannot both be true.

It is useful to look at this apparent insincerity very closely, since the passage exemplifies Masson’s inability to read a text, and may serve as an emblem for his interpretative inadequacies. So here are the passges to which Masson refers. First, from the Three Essays, in the section on ‘The Return of Early Infantile Masturbation’:

I shall have to speak presently of the internal causes; great and lasting importance attaches at this period to the accidental external contingencies. In the foreground we find the effects of seduction, which treats a child as a sexual object prematurely and teaches him, in highly emotional circumstances, how to obtain satisfaction from his genital zones, a satisfaction which he is then usually obliged to repeat again and again by masturbation. An influence of this kind may originate either from adults or from other children. I cannot admit that in my paper on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ (1896) I exaggerated the equency or importance of that influence, though I did not then know that persons who remain normal may have had the same experiences in their childhood, and though I consequently overrated the importance of seduction in comparison with the factors of sexual constitution and development. Obviously seduction is not required in order to arouse a child’s sexual life; that can also come about spontaneously from internal causes.

Here is the relevant passage from ‘My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses’:

At that time [1896] 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 overestimated 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.

There is no problem whatsoever with both of these statements being true. In the Three Essays, Freud is saying that in ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ he did not exaggerate the frequency or importance of seduction: that is, in the 18 cases he reported there, seduction played an important role. But, Freud says, sexual constitution and development, so-called internal causes, can also arouse a child’s sex life. In ‘My Views’ Freud is claiming that precisely because in 1896 he had seen so many cases of seduction, he overestimated the frequency of such events. He gives us an additional problem (‘moreover’) with his theory at that time – his inability to distinguish fantasy from real memory, a topic to which I shall return. (But it should be noted here that Freud did not believe that there was a clean bifurcation between fantasy and memory, since the patient’s fantasies ‘were built up out of and over the childhood memories’: S.E., VII, 274.) In this latter paper, Freud restricts his qualifications to overestimating the frequency of seduction, not its reality. And part of the reason for this overestimation was the evidence presented in the 1896 paper. Thus the only contradiction between these two statements is the one produced by misreading. Freud did abandon the seduction theory, the theory that infantile sexual trauma was always a cause of hysteria: but he did not suppress the reality of this trauma or redescribe his case material from 1896.

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[1] ‘Some Additional “Day Residues” of “The Specimen Dream of Psychoanalysis” ’ in Psychoanalysis – A General Psychology, edited by R. Loewen stein.

[2] International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1968.

[3] I discuss homosexuality, and perversion more generally, as a disease category in 19th-century medicine in ‘Closing up the Corpses’. I&C. No 10/11.

[4] ‘Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers’: Humanities in Society, Vol. 5, No 3/4. Also see Hacking’s ‘How should we do the history of statistics?’ I&C, No 8.