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
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
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
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 ..."
"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
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
...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
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
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