Sigmund Freud and the Cover-Up of "The Aetiology of Hysteria"
by Jonathan Eisen

In 1896, the young psychiatrist Sigmund Freud presented the first major paper he had ever written to his colleagues at Vienna's Society for Psychiatry and Neurology. Freud considered that his paper, entitled "The Aetiology of Hysteria," was of the utmost importance, since it proposed what he believed to be an irrefutable cause for the neuroses suffered by many of his patients. Quite simply, when listening sympathetically to his women patients, Freud had heard that as children they had suffered sexual assaults, and he believed that it was these acts of violence which had led to the victims' mental illness later in life.

The point of the paper was that sexually abused children, many of whom had come from "respectable" middle class homes, displayed significant "hysterias" later on in life—an observation that today would pass as obvious to the point of banality, but something that in 1896 provoked a backlash among Freud's older colleagues.

All the strange conditions under which the incongruous pair continue their love relations—on the one hand the adult, who cannot escape his share in the mutual dependence necessarily entailed by a sexual relationship, and who is at the same time armed with complete authority and the right to punish, and can exchange the one role for the other to the uninhibited satisfaction of his whims, and on the other hand the child, who in his helplessness is at the mercy of this arbitrary use of power, who is prematurely aroused to every kind of sensibility and exposed to every sort of disappointment, and whose exercise of the sexual performances assigned to him is often interrupted by his imperfect control of his natural needs—all these grotesque and yet tragic disparities distinctly mark the later development of the individual and of his neurosis, with countless permanent effects which deserve to be traced in the greatest detail.

In fact, as author and former Freud Archives Director Jeffrey Masson discussed at some length in his controversial bestseller The Assault On Truth: Freud's Suppression Of The Seduction Theory (1984), the pressure that was brought to bear on Freud was strong enough to make him change his mind completely about the validity of the sexual assault theory. In a dramatic about-face, he formulated his "seduction theory," in which children themselves became the seducers rather than the victims.

Freud's inaugural paper, "The Aetiology of Hysteria" was singled out from all the other papers presented in Vienna in 1896 as the one paper that was not published in the "Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift," the peer journal for the newly forming school of psychoanalysis. Unlike all the other papers delivered, there was no summary and no discussion of Freud's work.

According to Masson, Freud wrote a letter to his close friend Wilhelm Fliess that,

"A lecture on the etiology of hysteria at the Psychiatric Society met with an icy reception... and from Krafft-Ebing the strange comment: It sounds like a scientific fairy tale. And this after one has demonstrated to them a solution to a more than thousand year old problem, a 'source of the Nile.'"

According to Masson,

"The prospect of being ostracized by medical society was negligible in the face of his knowledge that he had discovered an important truth."

At this point Freud believed what his patients were telling them, namely that they had been sexually assaulted, usually by their fathers, but sometimes by their mothers, and were living in shame and pain and self-loathing.

... The behavior of patients while they are reproducing these infantile experiences is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything less than a reality which is being felt with distress and reproduced with the greatest reluctance.

Masson states that Freud went to some pains to assert his own objectivity and admitted that "he too had to overcome resistances before accepting the unpalatable truth," and was therefore somewhat prepared for his colleagues' negative reaction to his paper.

When the reaction did come it was swift and severe, and conveyed the impression that unless Freud recanted, his future as a psychotherapist would be in jeopardy.

"I am as isolated as you could wish me to be: the word has been given out to abandon me, and a void is forming around me," Freud wrote to Fleiss.

And slowly began the transformation that would result in his repudiation of the earlier theory of sexual trauma, to be replaced by the convoluted theory of the infants' fantasy of sexually seducing the parent.

Freud's recantation reads like something out of Stalin's trials of the 1930s when Freud writes of his patients .. .

I believed (their) stories, and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent neuroses in these experiences of sexual seduction in childhood ... If the reader feels inclined to shake his head at my credulity, I cannot altogether blame him.

In fact Freud went so far as to say that

"... I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up." In other words, his patients had lied to him, and he had been naive to believe them. Rather than having been victims of sexual advances from their parents, they had made up stories "to cover up the recollection of infantile sexual activity ..."

He continues:

"The grain of truth contained in this fantasy lies in the fact that the father, by way of his innocent caresses in earliest childhood, has actually awakened the little girl's sexuality (the same thing applies to the little boy and his mother)."

According to Masson,

"giving up his 'erroneous' view allowed Freud to participate again in a medical society that had earlier ostracized him. In 1905 Freud publicly retracted the seduction theory. By 1908, respected physicians had joined Freud: Paul Federn, Isidor Sadger, Sandor Ferenczi, Max Eitingon, Karl Jung... The psychoanalytic movement had been born but an important truth had been left behind."

When Masson went on to publish his beliefs about why Freud had abandoned the seduction theory, the psychoanalytic community did not at all take kindly to his indictment of the foundations of Freudian psycho-analysis. The Assault On Truth became itself the object of derision and pressure from the psychoanalytic community which refused to believe the evidence that Masson was publishing.

The first indication of trouble ahead came from Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, who voiced her displeasure when Masson began pressing her for the reasons why the letters quoted above had never been published. But the full fury of the psychoanalytic establishment was to come after the publication of preliminary papers divulging the author's discoveries, particularly those surrounding Freud's studies at the Paris Morgue in the 1880s. There he was likely to have witnessed autopsies performed on children who had been sexually mutilated and murdered by adults.

What Masson was doing in his research for The Assault On Truth was nothing less than uncovering evidence so damning that it called into question the whole foundation of psychoanalysis itself. Anna Freud virtually admitted that she had deleted her father's crucial letters dealing with the seduction theory and childhood rape. Masson wrote:

I began to notice what appeared to be a pattern in the omissions made by Anna Freud in the original, unabridged edition. In the letters written after September 1897 (when Freud was supposed to have "given up" his "seduction" theory), all the case histories dealing with sexual seduction of children were excised.

When Masson's book was finally published, he was already cast out, and the reason is obvious: He was accusing Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, of having sold out. Moreover,

I believe that Freud is largely responsible for... having given intellectual sophistication to a wrong view (that women invent rape) [and] for the perpetuation of a view that is comforting to male society.

He was also saying that the doctrines of modern psychoanalysis rest on a very shaky foundation indeed:

The psychoanalytic movement that grew out of Freud's accommodation to the views of his peers holds to the present position that Freud's ear-lier position was simply an aberration.

Masson was attacked, as he says, with more vitriol and personal "ad hominem" arguments than he was with anything substantive, and he wound up taking to court one reviewer, Jill Malcolm and her magazine, The New Yorker, in a famous libel suit—which he won.


Robert Goldman, writing in The California Monthly, would probably have agreed with the decision when he wrote:

...Malcolm's account of Jeffrey Masson is a tendentious, dishonest, and malicious piece of character assassination, all the more pernicious because of its studied tone of mildly amused detachment. Had her articles (and now book) never appeared, the arguments of Masson's book surely would have been given a fairer and more dispassionate hearing than is now seemingly possible.

With Masson's study of Freud we find a very clear indication that the so-called intellectual community is as much a part of the suppression syndrome as any other, despite pretensions to considered rationality or intellectual stewardship. The roughing up that people like Masson receive only serves to indicate how fundamentally insecure is our existential human condition. Our hold on honesty is tenuous; we seem ready to sell out when push comes to shove.

This goes far to explain why we have come so little way from the witch burnings of Salem. Masson is a classic whistle-blower; the child who brings our attention to the nakedness of the emperor; the fire stealer who has his liver pecked out every day while chained to the proverbial rock.

Masson's arguments and evidence are certainly convincing, coming as they do from primary sources either suppressed or ignored. If he is right, we begin to see psychoanalysis itself as politically determined and fundamentally flawed. If he is wrong, a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to defame him. To this day there have been no refutations that we have been able to locate.

The academics must open their minds and accept the truths presented. Histories of countless individuals have gone unheard because classic Freudian psychoanalysis has turned a deaf ear to them.


Perhaps it is time to turn the tables, and disempower psychoanalysis.


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