All the Appropriate Emotions

I read something this morning in Frank Cioffi’s essay* ‘Was Freud a Liar?’ that grabbed my attention. It reminded me of something. I knew what, too.

Freud did not fall into the seduction error through believing his patients’ stories; he did not fall into it through ignorance of the fact that persons sexually molested in infancy may, nevertheless, not succumb to neurosis; he did not fall into it through underestimating the frequency of seduction in the general population. Freud fell into the seduction error through the use of a procedure which to this day remains the basis of the psychoanalytic reconstruction of infantile life: the attribution to patients of certain infantile experiences because they appear to the analyst to be living “through them with all the appropriate emotions.”

What did that remind me of? John Mack. You know John Mack? I’ve talked about him a little, but not enough, not yet. I’ve had it in mind to talk about him more though. He’s the Harvard psychologist who thought there was something to the whole alien abduction thing – not ‘something to’ it in the sense of as cultural phenomenon or symptom of mass lunacy, but in the sense of maybe real aliens really abducting real people and taking them onto real alienships and really impregnating them and doing medical exams on them. For real. And why did he think this? His main reason was that they had such strong emotions when they talked about it. They seemed (they appeared to the analyst) really really really frightened, upset, disturbed, traumatized.

And what is so interesting about that – or one thing, at least, that is so interesting about it – is that it seems so obvious that people having very strong emotions about something isn’t necessarily a reason to think that something refers to a real event. It seems so obvious 1) that there are other possible explanations and 2) that the other possible explanations are a great deal less unlikely than the alien abduction [of just a few people who can produce no physical evidence] scenario is. It’s interesting that such a bizarrely faulty bit of reasoning could be perpetrated by a Harvard psychologist. (Harvard thought so too. Harvard blushed. Harvard was not altogether pleased.) Credulity on that scale is surprising in an academic. Well, maybe it’s not. I know several people who would immediately tell me that that’s just the kind of person it’s not surprising in. They could have a point.

*Originally a radio talk for BBC 3 in 1973, published in The Listener, and in 1998 in the Frederick Crews edited collection Unauthorized Freud.

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