Sigmund Freud Believed his Patients at First

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Sigmund Freud Believed his Patients at First

My two main sources for the information in this post are:
“Freud and the Seduction Theory: A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis:” Jeffrey M, Masson, The Atlantic Magazine, February 1984. 
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/02/freud-and-the-seduction-theory/376313/
and
“Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory.” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, 1984.
https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Jeffrey_Moussaieff_Masson_The_Assault_on_Truth?id=jDkkSLkjdJ8C

I have wanted to write this post for a long time but I postponed it for the day when I could research it properly, with all the footnotes in place. Finally, I have admitted that day is unlikely to come, so decided to write a less-than-perfect post and get it off my mind.

It’s the sad story of Sigmund Freud and his best friend and colleague, Wilhelm Fliess. It’s also the sad story of the difficulty in breaking through denial about child sexual abuse, both individually and societally.

Freud’s wrote to Fleiss for over ten years. His letters have been preserved, but all of Fleiss’s letters to Freud have been destroyed. These letters show Freud’s thinking during the 1890’s when he was developing the “seduction theory” and how he later came to disbelieve his hypothesis and decided that his patients had been fantasizing sexual abuse by their fathers because they really wished to displace their mothers and have their fathers all to themselves sexually.

Wilhelm Fleiss was a medical doctor and a nose and throat specialist. He held the controversial theory that masturbation caused neurotic symptoms and that there was a link between the nose and the genitals. Thus if the nose was cauterized or operated on, the urge to masturbate would subside and the symptoms would disappear.

Freud, a neuropsychologist, held the equally if not more controversial belief that the stories his patients were telling him were true and that they had been sexually abused in childhood, usually by their fathers. He called this the “seduction theory,” meaning that the adult had seduced (or assaulted) the child, not that the child had seduced the adult. He stated that he believed them because of the emotions they showed while recounting the assaults and by the fact that their symptoms got better after they talked about their childhoods.

Freud also believed Fleiss’s theory. How he could believe both at once is beyond me, but he did.

Many of those letters were about a patient they shared, Emma Eckstein. I’m going to skip over that, except to say the Fliess persuaded Freud to let him operate on her nose, and he botched the operation and she almost bled to death. He never admitted his mistake, and Freud came to believe that Emma’s hemorrhage was a symptom of her neurosis, not an error on Fleiss’s part, thus remaining loyal to his friend.

Not long after this, Freud repudiated his original belief that his patients had been sexually abused in childhood. Here is part of the letter he wrote Fleiss describing his change of heart:

“And now I want to confide in you immediately the great secret of something that in the past few months has gradually dawned on me. I no longer believe in my neurotica [theory of the neuroses]. This is probably not intelligible without an explanation; after all, you yourself found what I was able to tell you credible. So I will begin historically [and tell you] from where the reasons for disbelief came. The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring any analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial successes in other ways, in the usual fashion – this was the first group. Then the surprise that, in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse – the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, with precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable.”

This sounds to me much like the arguments of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation proponents. The patients’ accounts are too similar, the accusations too bizarre, it must be fantasies and lies. These women come from good families and incest is exceedingly rare, perhaps one in a million families.

What really grips my attention, though, is Freud’s stating, “… in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse…” How many people have said, “not me – I had a happy childhood.” “Not my family.” “Not my father.” And later, “Oh shit, it did happen to me.”

Freud went on to say,

“What would you say, by the way, if I told you that my brand-new theory of the early etiology of hysteria was already well known and had been published a hundred times over, though several centuries ago?. . . But 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?”

He is talking about the Inquisition. My guess is that he believed that the women accused of being witches stated they were sexually assaulted by the devil, not by their fathers. And yet, he says that their accounts are very similar to what he heard from his patients.

He continues:

“Imagine, I obtained a scene about the circumcision of a girl. The cutting off 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.

“I dream, therefore, of a primeval devil religion whose rites are carried on secretly, and I understand the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges.”

And here I say to myself, “Aha! Others have said that this is the first time that ritual abuse survivors have broken through their denial and spoken publicly. And yet I have long thought that the first wave of public acknowledgment of Satanic ritual abuse was during the Inquisition.” Here is Freud disagreeing with me, yet agreeing in almost the same breath. For he says that his patients were fantasizing, and yet one had a deformed labia, evidence that the abuse she described was true, and this makes him fantasize about a primitive devil religion.

There is more to this story, though.

Fleiss had children, and one of them, Robert, became an analyst. He, like Freud, believed his patients. Unlike Freud, he did not recant. In 1959 he published “Erogeneity and Libido: Addenda to the theory of Psychosexual Development of the Human.” In a footnote he wrote:

“In the first volume of his [Freud’s] biography Jones gives a description of my father that enables the psychiatric reader to make his own diagnosis. Some of these readers, perhaps defending themselves against acknowledging the above mentioned incidence [incest] in their own families, may therefore be tempted to dismiss what I have observed as a form of projection. For their benefit: following Freud’s advise to the analyst to re-enter analysis, I have clarified the picture of my father in two expert and thorough analyses, the last in middle age with Ruth Mack Brunswick: and I have had an extended conversation with Freud himself about his onetime friend.”

The description Jones gave of Wilheim Fleiss suggested he was a child molester, and Robert Freud hints in this passage that he was abused by his father. This would have happened about the time that Freud stopped believing his patients. If what I surmise is true, we have two close friends, one who is incesting his son and one who was incested by his father, but is still amnesic for that part of his childhood. Very interesting.

I’ll end with something that does not call for interpretation or conjecture. When Freud was talking about incest, he was rejected by his colleagues and others who read his papers. Sixty years later, Robert Fleiss was also rejected for believing his clients. In the 1980’s, when Jeffrey Masson edited Freud’s letters and included material on Freud’s belief in child sexual abuse, he too was rejected. (Believing that he had been pushed out of the field, he wrote books about animals and became an animal activist.) And to this time, many therapists who work with survivors of extreme child abuse are rejected.

We have come a long way, but the road to acceptance is still long and lonely.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Sigmund Freud Believed his Patients at First

  1. Thank you for this. I read Massons book in the beginning of 1985. It was a very reinforcing confirmation of what I already have suspected, and it was based on a very thorough research.

    It is sad that the findings in this book these days are generally ignored, and commonly are replaced by the revisionist theory hat Freud himself invented the patients stories, and in some extreme versions, that the patients didn’t even exist…

    1. Of course Freud would have made up his patient’s stories. He had read too much Marquis de Sade and he was courting rejection and failure because secretly he was ashamed at having sadistic fantasies and wished to be punished.

      Rejectionists have to made explanations very complicated.

  2. This was a fantastic post! I have been a researcher of the same subject for a while myself; however, I have never come across the part about the inquisition or the nasal surgery, which was fascinating to read. I will have to look into that a little more at some point.

    Judith Herman was the first to introduce the subject to me a while back when I was reading her book “Trauma and Recovery.” She does an excellent job of going through the history of Freud’s sudden change of opinion.

    From my own further study of the subject, I have found that the diagnosis of hysteria was a popular study at the time. I have a book called “Hysteria, Hypnosis and Healing the work of J-M Charcot.” He was was a 19th-century neurologist Sigmund Freud had studied with.

    Things that characterize the discussion of mind control like drugs, hypnosis, and electroshock were the methods they were using to study the diagnosis of hysteria.

    It has been an unconfirmed theory of mine that this contributed to the pressure Freud experienced that caused him to recant his original observation, which may have saved his career and position in history books as well. There still aren’t many well known advocates for victims gracing history books yet, but hopefully this will change.

    I also find your connection to the false memory syndrome narrative interesting because I believe it could be said that the Kinsey studies exhibit the same message as well. Inevitably, it all does start to appear like this is all very well organized or that people behave somewhat predictably in the position of opposition towards victims or a perpetrator themselves.

    1. I should have asked you to write this!!!!!

      Charcot was very well known. He could “implant memories” – but Freud knew he didn’t, so who would have conned his patients into thinking they were abused as children? The FMS pple blame therapists, books such as Courage to Heal, and movies and TV. None of which existed in 1870.

      I read Kinsey when I was 13, 14. I believed what the great doctor wrote. I later found that he got much of his information from prisoners, including child molesters. I bet he cherry picked his data. I think I got my incest occurs in one in a million families from him, too.

      That was the time I was reading Freud. I remember being pissed off at the idea of penis envy “I don’t want a penis – I want the money and prestige that men have!” And looking at my father with a jaundiced eye and saying to myself that I surely didn’t have an Electra complex because I found him quite unattractive. I was a lot more critical of Freud than Kinsey.

      1. Oh no, I still don’t feel sufficiently prepared to write about it either because I will hit a wall at a certain point when I become triggered. I literally have had the book about Charcot for years, but I hit a wall around the time I got it and this is as far as I have been able to get.

        Although, I do feel like it is good to discuss it in the meantime. I have some hope that by sharing some part of it, I will be able to break through and continue researching.

        I remember hearing Freud’s Electra complex for the first time too. I was taking psych 101 and it was a miracle that I even passed that class because that triggered me to no end and I knew nothing about what was happening to me either.

        I was only 21 years old at the time, and it upset me so much, I couldn’t even concentrate and all I could think was that the school was crazy for thinking this was valuable information to teach at the college level. I didn’t think I would ever have anything positive to say about Freud until I heard about his original seduction theory, which was somewhat redeeming.

        I remember feeling shamed by Kinsey’s study when I first heard about how he concluded that incest happens 1% of the time. In the book “The Secret Trauma” there is a lot of discussion about how Kinsey disclosed he had gotten his results in comparison to the survey style adopted by a new team trying to determine how frequently sexual assault took place.

        He claimed that he did random phone interviews if I remember correctly. The survey team chose to do in-person interviews instead where the surveyors were trained beforehand to demonstrate an empathy that would make the respondents more likely to disclose an accurate response if they felt they wouldn’t be judged for it.

        This led to a dramatic increase in the number of people who disclosed having a history of sexual assault.

        However, it would be years later that the facade of innocent, abrupt phone interviews was smashed when I watched a documentary on YouTube called
        “Kinsey’s Pedophiles.” When I saw this, it just made so much more sense that this was how the conclusion was formed.

        1. “Hello, this is Dr Kinsey calling. I am doing scientific research on child sexuality. Your phone number was chosen at random. Did your child seduce you?”

          I’m glad we have moved along and Freud is being taught as history, not something useful to help us help people. At least that’s how I hope it is being taught.

          Jean

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