A Seductive Story
There are some historical stories that are so compelling that no amount of scholarly refutation seems to undermine them. One such is the familiar tale that early in Freud’s career as a psychotherapist most of his female patients told him they had been sexually abused in childhood, generally by their father. On 7 May 2006 New Zealand National Radio broadcast a programme devoted to Freud in which this story was taken as historical fact. Most of the programme was devoted to two interviews, one with Jeffrey Masson, the other with Eric Kandel, a professor of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University. As one would anticipate, Masson was asked about the events that made his name familiar to a wide public, and he poured forth his thesis that Freud was wrong to renounce those early clinical claims, for all the world as if fundamental elements of it had not been shown to be erroneous. Let’s look at just a few of these. 
It should first be noted that Masson never spells out the so-called “seduction theory” that Freud claimed to have clinically validated in 1896, as this in itself suffices to puncture some of his contentions: An essential precondition for hysterical and obsessional symptoms in adulthood is an unconscious memory of sexual abuse in infancy. Readers of Masson’s accounts would have no idea that Freud’s clinical ‘findings’ reported in 1896 were that he had uncovered memories of sexual abuse in every single one of his current patients, and that the abuse was in infancy, mostly below the age of four. Nor would they know that it was essential that the memories be repressed, i.e., they were unconscious, and inaccessible to the individual concerned. These points in themselves undercut the notion that Freud found himself the recipient of accounts of childhood sexual abuse from his female patients at that time. Moreover, contrary to the implication of Masson’s inveighing against the brutal fathers abusing their daughters, one third of the patients on whom Freud reported in his 1896 papers were men, and fathers were not mentioned among the wide variety of categories of putative abusers.
Given that Masson has obviously read the 1896 papers, it is pertinent to ask why he never mentions the six obsessional patients cited therein. Perhaps it’s because their story would give too much away about Freud’s clinical methodology, and undermine his (and Masson’s) claims about what he had uncovered among the rest of his patients. According to Freud, in the case of his six (male) obsessionals he had not only uncovered unconscious memories of “passive” sexual abuse in infancy, but also an “active” experience of sexual abuse around the age of eight perpetrated on a younger girl, usually his sister. Now this is particularly odd, because only a year before he wrote the first of the seduction theory papers, he had published an article in which had reported on some eleven cases of obsessional neurosis which he had subjected to “psychological analysis”, and in not one of them did he report sexual abuse at the root of the patients’ symptoms. So what intervened between these reports and the remarkable clinical findings he was to announce in 1896?
The answer is that in October 1895 he reported to his friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess that he had arrived at a theoretical explanation of the psychoneuroses: “Hysteria is the consequence of a presexual sexual shock. Obsessional neurosis is the consequence of a presexual sexual pleasure, which is later transformed into [self-] reproach.”
Now if the obsessional patients had repressed memories of an active sexual abuse experience providing sexual pleasure, Freud needed to explain why young boys (around the age of eight) would perpetrate such an act on their infant sisters. The answer he came up with was that the young boy himself must have experienced sexual abuse in infancy, and that he repeats on the infant girl “exactly the same activities that the adult had performed on him”. Within a mere four months of reporting his theory to Fliess he wrote papers in which he claimed to have uncovered repressed memories of precisely these two kinds of experiences for all his cases of obsessional neurosis.
This would seem to be a remarkable achievement in such a short time, so it is of more than passing interest to enquire how Freud could have accomplished this feat. He gives a clear indication in the only example of a specific case for which he presents some detailed information of his analytic methodology in the three papers of 1896. He provides “a psychical analysis” of the bedtime obsessive rituals that a patient had developed as a boy, which included obsessive tidying up his room, the bed being pushed against the wall, chairs placed just so, pillows arranged in a particular way, and the patient’s kicking his legs out a certain number of times before lying on his side in the bed. Freud tells us that the meaning of the ceremonial “was established point by point by psycho-analysis”. Years earlier, according to Freud, a servant-girl had taken the opportunity, while putting the little boy to bed, to lie down on him and abuse him sexually. This could be seen by analyzing each of the elements in the ritual: The placing of the bed and chairs was so that “nobody else should be able to get at the bed; the pillows were arranged in a particular way so that they should be differently arranged from how they were on the evening; the movements of the legs were to kick away the person who was lying on him; sleeping on his side was because in the [abuse] scene he had been lying on his back”, and so on.
In his introductory words to the 1896 “Aetiology of Hysteria” paper Freud explains that he has found a method of arriving at the aetiology of psychoneuroses which is analogous to that of “a forensic physician who can arrive at the cause of an injury, even if he has to do without any information from the injured person”. Thus he tries “to induce the symptoms of hysteria to make themselves heard as witnesses to the history of the origin of the illness”, making his start from the principle that the symptoms of the patient’s “are being reproduced in his psychical life in the form of mnemic symbols”. In other words, Freud believes that there is an originating traumatic event, the memory of which is repressed, but which sooner or later expresses itself in neurotic symptoms. And the memory must be unconscious: “Only so long as, and in so far as, they [the memories of the infantile sexual experiences] are unconscious are they able to create, and maintain hysterical symptoms.”
Part of Freud’s task is therefore to treat patients’ symptoms as symbolical representations of the original event, to infer what that event must have been, and to endeavour to induce the patient to “reproduce” the experience the memory of which has been repressed. Thus he claims that a male patient’s paralysis of the legs was caused by his being forced as a small child to “stimulate the genitals of a grown up woman with his foot”. How he could possibly know that such an event, even presuming it to have happened, was the cause of paralysis of the legs some two decades or more later Freud makes no attempt to explain. But to return to the obsessional patients.
Freud was convinced that with his seduction theory he had arrived at what he called a “source of the Nile” explanation for the psychoneuroses. Having also absolute confidence in his analytic interpretative technique, including the symbolic interpretation of symptoms, he takes the obsessional bedtime rituals outlined above and constructs a scene of infantile sexual abuse out of them. This is the essence of what he describes as analytically “tracing back” to the unconscious memories at the root of the symptoms, and his confidence in his procedures is manifested by his saying that “the meaning of the ceremonial was easy to guess”. Given such a clinical methodology one can begin to understand how it was that, although prior to October 1895 he had reported not a single finding of infantile sexual abuse, some four months later he was claiming to have uncovered unconscious memories of such abuse for every one of his current patients.
Now although Freud twice intimated he would provide his colleagues with the details of his analyses of the cases on which he reported in 1896, he never did so. In other words, the clinical evidence for Freud’s remarkable claims in his 1896 papers has never been provided for inspection. Despite this extraordinary state of affairs, so compelling were his later reports of the episode that for much of the twentieth century they were taken as historical fact, and recycled by all and sundry. Even now, as was heard in the New Zealand radio programme, Professor Eric Kandel of Columbia University believes in the story implicitly – but more of that later.
Incidentally, when Freud came to explain (away) his “source of the Nile” clinical claims in terms of supposed unconscious fantasies (produced to “fend off” memories of infantile masturbation, in his first accounts, and of Oedipal impulses in his later ones), he never mentioned the remarkable ‘findings’ for his obsessional patients. And this is hardly surprising. Even Freud, with his extraordinary imaginative powers, would have been hard put to explain those in terms of his unconscious fantasy theory. Better to say nothing, and hope no one will notice. And, astonishingly, no one did!
Now on to peripheral matters. Masson strongly suggests that Freud abandoned the seduction theory (“consciously or subsconsciously”) because of the outraged reactions of his colleagues to his 1896 clinical claims. But his story of Freud’s ostracism by his colleagues is as erroneous as his central thesis, as is demonstrated (among other evidence) by the fact that soon after Freud gave his supposedly notorious “Aetiology of Hysteria” lecture in 1896 he was unanimously nominated by a committee of six senior professors for a position of Professor Extraordinarius at the University of Vienna, having been earlier proposed by professors Nothnagel and Krafft-Ebing. At a subsequent meeting of the Medical Faculty of the University the nomination was approved by a two to one majority, with Freud getting more votes than all but one of the ten approved candidates. Furthermore, between the years 1898 and 1905 the eminent psychiatrist Theodore Ziehen published four of Freud’s papers in the influential journal he edited, and the equally eminent Leopold Löwenfeld maintained an amicable correspondence with Freud in this period, and was instrumental in the publication of a shorter version of Freud’s celebrated volume on dreams in 1901. (A comprehensive refutation of Masson’s “ostracism” story is provided in my 2002 History of Psychology article listed in the bibliographical references below.)
Masson’s contention that Freud abandoned the seduction theory to placate his colleagues (who actually were not outraged, merely – with good reason – highly sceptical of his claims) is refuted by the fact that he had given up the theory several years before his first public intimation that he had done so in a paper published in 1906. Here is what Freud wrote to Fliess in January 1899: “To the question ‘what happened in earliest childhood?’ the answer is, ‘Nothing, but the germ of a sexual impulse existed’.” In other words, he is saying he has finally concluded that there were no actual infantile sexual abuse experiences, and that his analytic ‘findings’ can be explained by the occurrence of manifestations of infantile sexuality. A couple of weeks later he alluded to two cases for which he had concluded that there was no infantile sexual abuse. Masson himself writes in his editorial notes to the letter in question that at this time Freud’s belief was “that he had discovered that the key to neurosis lay not in real events (such as seductions) but in fantasies (for instance of seduction by the father)” – though for the two patients mentioned in this letter Freud does not say that they had sexual abuse fantasies. Thereafter Freud made not a single mention of early childhood sexual abuse in his letters to Fliess, nor in his publications in that period – he had abandoned the theory completely.
But if he had given up the theory to ingratiate himself to his colleagues, as Masson suggests, why on earth would he wait another six years before telling them?
How does Masson get round these awkward facts? What he does is to stretch the period for the abandonment of the theory, conveniently inventing a “critical period” for its renunciation between 1900 and 1903 (in The Assault on Truth), or between 1897 and 1903 (on the New Zealand radio programme). This doesn’t quite close the gap, but who’s going to notice a discrepancy of a couple of years or so? But the truth is that Masson doesn’t provide a scrap of evidence to indicate that Freud entertained the theory beyond 1899, and is endeavouring to maintain credence for his suggested motive for Freud’s abandoning his theory by what is effectively a sleight of hand. That Freud maintained public silence (other than telling Fliess) for some six years after finally abandoning the seduction theory blows Masson’s explanation for Freud’s renouncing it out of the water. 
What about Eric Kandel, the other interviewee on the new Zealand radio programme? He is offended on Freud’s behalf that Masson should suggest that Freud lacked the courage to continue to maintain his seduction theory. (It must be said at this point that neither Kandel nor Masson shows any sign that they understand what the theory actually was – their words imply only that it was in some way about many of Freud’s female patients supposedly telling him they had been sexually abused in childhood by their father.) Kandel accepts that “some of those women may very well have been sexually abused”, but essentially comes down on the psychoanalytic side of the fence. He thinks that Freud was right to eventually come to recognise that many of the (supposed) stories the patients told him were untrue, and expresses understanding of Freud’s having been misled: “These women had convinced themselves that it was so”; “If you come into my office and you say you were sexually abused the first thing I do is believe you.” He excuses Freud’s having first believed their stories on the grounds of his therapeutic inexperience (though he was forty years old by then, and had been in private practice for some ten years).
From his statements just quoted it is evident that Kandel doesn’t have a clue about what happened with Freud in this period. He is simply repeating ‘facts’ that he picked up from the time early in his
career when he developed a strong interest in psychoanalysis, and which he,
along with all psychoanalysts at that time, accepted credulously despite
the blatant anomalies in Freud’s several inconsistent accounts of the
events in question. When Kandel read in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933) Freud’s stating that “In the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile traumas, almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father”, did he not wonder why it should have been only during the short period when Freud was actively seeking infantile sexual traumas that almost all his female patients (allegedly) told him they had been subjected to paternal sexual abuse? Had he done so, he might have started comparing the differing retrospective reports Freud published (in 1906, 1914, 1925, and 1933), and, above all, also checked them against the original 1896 papers. There he would have found that, far from his patients having “told” Freud about sexual abuse experiences, he reported that “they have no feeling of remembering” the infantile “sexual scenes” he tried to foist on them, and that they “assure[d] him emphatically of their unbelief” that they had actually experienced them.
So how did Freud pull the wool over people’s eyes? I have attempted to explain how he did so in a comprehensive article published in History of Psychiatry in 2001 (see reference below). In the end it boils down to his exceptional gifts as a story-teller and (especially in his first retrospective report of the episode) to his canniness. In his first retrospective report (1906), contrary to general belief, he didn’t acknowledge he had erred in his 1896 findings. He claimed that “by chance” (!) his patients at that time happened to include a “disproportionately large number of cases” in which there had been “sexual seduction by an adult or by older children”. The unconscious fantasy theory he was also postulating was applicable, he implied, mostly to individuals he had dealt with “since then”. Aside from a couple of extenuating falsehoods, he simply omitted to mention previous clinical claims that conflicted with the theory that was to displace the one he was now publicly abandoning. Then in his next report (1914) he makes no mention of any authentic cases of childhood sexual abuse, and writes that “analysis had led back to these infantile traumas, and yet they were not true”. At this stage his two published accounts had not singled out fathers as the putative assailants, either in the supposedly “large number” of genuine cases (1906) or in patients’ supposed “seduction phantasies” (1914). That came in 1925, by which time he had at last begun to psychoanalytically explore the sexual lives of infant girls. So now fathers appear as the “seducers” in repressed “wishful phantasies” arising from the Oedipal impulses of the infant girl, leading to his final report (1933), the one that for so long has been taken as historical fact.
Sketching out the story like this cannot convey the extraordinary persuasiveness of Freud’s accounts. For example, in 1914 he tells how he had been reluctantly drawn into exploring the seduction theory patients’ early life: “one hoped at last to be able to stop at puberty… But in vain; the tracks led still further back into childhood and into its earlier years.” Who would ever have thought from this that he first alighted on the theory of unconscious memories of infantile sexual abuse and then strenuously sought ‘evidence’ for it in the face of protestations from his patients?  By such means he deceived generations of readers, and initiated the dissemination of a false account of a seminal episode in the history of psychoanalysis that became universally accepted throughout much of the twentieth century. Only in the wake of the mounting evidence from long overdue historical research that much of the received history of psychoanalysis, and of Freud’s accounts of his clinical experiences, was grossly misleading has the recognition that this is also the case with the seduction theory episode been consolidated. But for the most part academics and others who have easy access to the media, such as Eric Kandel, have failed to acquaint themselves with the Freud scholarship of recent decades, and are still telling the general public the same old stories they learned long ago.
1. For comprehensive refutations of Masson’s account of events, see the bibliographical references below. He shows no evidence of having actually read any of the scholarly articles rebutting his thesis, though he purports to know what they say, presumably on the basis of secondhand reports.
2. By mentioning fathers here Masson is imposing his own notions onto the situation. The seduction theory did not require the abusers to be fathers, and they were not mentioned in the categories of assailants listed in the 1896 papers. Even after Freud came up with a paternal version of the theory in December 1896, in only a minority of the cases for which Freud claimed to Fliess in 1897 that he had uncovered infantile sexual abuse were the supposed culprits fathers.
3. Some psychoanalysts have argued that since Freud still occasionally mentioned the occurrence of traumatic childhood sexual abuse in his later writings he never completely abandoned the seduction theory, thereby demonstrating that they fail to understand it.
4. In 1896 Freud wrote: “They are indignant as a rule if we warn them that such [infantile sexual abuse] scenes are going to emerge.”
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Eissler, K. R. (2001). Freud and the seduction theory: A brief love affair. International Universities Press.
Esterson, A. (1993). Seductive mirage: An exploration of the work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.
Esterson, A. (1998). Jeffrey Masson and Freud’s seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths. History of the Human Sciences, 11 (1): 1-21.
Esterson, A. (2001). The mythologizing of psychoanalytic history: deception and self-deception in Freud’s accounts of the seduction theory episode. History of Psychiatry, xii: 329-352.
Esterson, A. (2002). The myth of Freud’s ostracism by the medical community in 1896-1905: Jeffrey Masson’s assault on truth. History of Psychology, 5 (2): 115-134.
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.
Israëls, 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.
Masson, J.M. (ed. and trans.) (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Scharnberg, M. (1993). The non-authentic nature of Freud’s observations. Vol. I: The seduction theory. Uppsala Studies in Education 47. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.
Schimek, J. G. (1987). Fact and fantasy in the seduction theory: a historical review. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 35: 937-965.