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#MeToo! Believing Women and Freud's Assault on the Truth

by jenny miller
Over 100 years ago, Freud became aware that many patients had been sexually abused as children, but was forced to abandon this belief due to rejection by his professional peers. I interview author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson about this still-taboo subject.
Q. With all the attention now being given to sexual assault as a result of the MeToo/TimesUp movements, there is also a growing awareness that the problem is not simply with the perpetrators of these crimes, but also with the people who enable, deny, or cover up the crimes. Based on your investigation into Sigmund Freud's private letters, do you think that Freud's body of work needs to be re-considered in terms of these new perspectives?

JMM: Of course it does. We have to ask how is it possible that psychoanalysts for almost a hundred years denied the reality of incest simply because Freud did. Many of them knew both from their own experiences, and from clinical work, that it was real. Even women analysts went along, though some were themselves victims. Freud had doubts he was right to deny the reality of childhood sexual abuse, but kept his doubts to himself. When I was Project Director of the Freud Archives, and worked at his desk in London, I found a series of letters having to do with child sexual abuse in the top right hand drawer of his desk. This leads me to believe he was preoccupied with the matter right up to his death in 1939.

Q. In your position as Project Director, you thoroughly read all of Freud's private papers. Could you elaborate more on what these papers indicate about his views on the existence of childhood sexual abuse, and when his views on the subject changed?

JMM: In the beginning he believed that children were sexually abused in large numbers. Around 1897 he had some 18 patients in analysis, 6 men and 12 women, and he believed that almost all of them had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. It is difficult to know what terms to use in English, since Freud was writing to his best friend at the time, Wilhelm Fliess, and using German terms, mostly "attentat" which translates as rape or abuse, but it is not entirely clear what he had in mind. He was convinced that once he presented his findings to the psychiatric community in Vienna, he would be hailed as a pioneer. Instead he was vilified and ostracized. He was profoundly shocked at the response he received from his peers and mentors.

Q. I'm curious about who these patients were. Can you talk about any patients in particular that you feel were abandoned by Freud, because he refused to validate or acknowledge the reality of their experience of abuse? I'm not just asking about sexual abuse, but in regard to any way his women patients may have had their experiences of having been harmed or abused discounted by him?

JMM: Of course there is a whole literature about patients who were hurt by Freud because he did not accept their reality. Dora comes to mind immediately. Basically she was approached sexually by her father's boss, a much older man, in fact, her father's age. Freud admonished her for not accepting the offer, insisting against her objections, that she was sexually attracted to him and hinting it would have been a good thing for her to accede. Like any therapist, and it is as true today as it was then, Freud was the victim of his own prejudices and his own areas of ignorance.

He insisted on imposing these deficits on his patients, because he believed he was "well" and they were "sick," so they had to accept his interpretations. This has not changed in one hundred years, and that is why I wrote my book Against Therapy. The most egregious case, in my opinion, is the woman who told Freud she had been savagely raped by her father at age three, and nearly bled to death. Anna Freud refused to publish the letter in which Freud recounts this terrible tale to his friend Fliess. I put it back into the public record.

At the time, it was clear that Freud believed her. In fact he said he knew the father and also knew he was capable of doing such a thing. He then told Fliess, I have a new motto for my new science: Poor Child, what have they done to you? Beautiful words, and Anna Freud crossed them out with a red pencil as not being fit to be seen!

Q. That's interesting, in some cases, he did appear to believe the women's stories of having been abused, yet you indicated that he later completely rejected that interpretation. Can you think of another example where it seemed that Freud let his need for peer acceptance overcome his natural inclination to believe his patients?

JMM: Sure. Emma Eckstein may have been Freud’s first patient in analysis. She was from a prominent socialist family and was active in the movement for women’s rights. Emma Eckstein is a fascinating case for many reasons. For one, she may well have been Freud's first patient to tell him about her own sexual abuse as a child. He certainly believed her, and was influenced by her, as he admitted in a letter that Anna Freud omitted from her first edited version of Freud’s letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess. Evidently Eckstein knew of other cases like her own--and, this is fascinating--Freud actually asked her to start seeing some of these women in analysis. So she was really the second analyst in the world after Freud, and the first woman. This honor has never been acknowledged by the analytic community to this day, whether it is because she believed in the reality of the sexual abuse of children, or because she was a woman, or because she actually became a victim of Freud's overwrought affection for his friend Fliess, it’s hard to say.

For reasons that remain unclear, when Fliess was visiting Vienna, Freud asked him to examine Emma. Fliess had many bizarre theories about the connection between women’s noses and their genitals, and also believed that those who had painful or difficult menstruation exhibited these symptoms due to their habit of masturbation. Emma did have both stomach ailments and menstrual problems.

When he met Emma Fliess announced that her nose was "suspect"--she had an ordinary "Jewish" nose--and that this indicated excessive masturbation. Incredible as it seems now, Freud was impressed at Fliess' clinical acuity, and asked Fliess what could be done. Fliess said he could cure her by removing the middle turbinate bone in her nose. Despite having virtually no experience as a surgeon, Fliess offered then and there to operate on poor Emma, and shortly thereafter performed the surgery. Fliess then returned home to Berlin, even though Emma was bleeding profusely and experiencing extreme pain.

Freud at first thought this was "hysterical bleeding," but when it persisted, he called in a proper surgeon who discovered that Fliess had left three feet of surgical gauze in the wound. When the surgeon removed it, two weeks after the initial surgery, Emma hemorrhaged, and nearly bled to death. Freud wrote to Fliess about what happened, and Fliess, instead of profusely apologizing, blamed Freud for blaming him. Freud, desperate to keep his only "scientific" friend--for whom he later admitted he may have had homosexual feelings--eventually agreed with Fliess, and said that the complications and bleeding, that Emma continued to experience for many weeks, were a way of manipulating Freud to come to her bedside. Freud's doctor, Max Shur, was allowed to see the unpublished letters revealing this sorry tale, and he wrote about it.

Anna Freud was deeply upset, and when it was decided that I would publish the full correspondence between Freud and Fliess, she wanted me to omit this story. Of course I said it was part of the public record, and could not be left out. She claimed it was a personal matter and had no scientific interest. I begged to disagree. To her honor, she did allow me to publish the full and unexpurgated version of the letters, and the whole story can be found there.

We still don't know much about Emma Eckstein, beyond the fact that she seems to have been traumatized by this incident, understandably. How long she continued to see patients in analysis is unknown. Freud's relationship with her is also obscure once this episode was over. Evidently the operation disfigured her, leaving part of her nose caved in, and one source said she was confined to a couch for the rest of her rather short life.

Q. It's pretty hard to wrap my mind around the idea that Freud would abandon his patient and colleague, to cover up his friend’s staggering malpractice. It seems noteworthy that the patient he abandoned in this way was the woman who first brought to his attention the long-lasting emotional suffering caused by childhood sexual abuse. Can you go back and talk more about how Freud came to abandon his theory about childhood sexual abuse?

JMM: The reaction of his peers was evident when Freud gave a presentation to the psychiatric association at the University of Vienna in 1896, a talk he called the Etiology of Hysteria. Now remember, by hysteria, Freud meant simply human misery, or what he later called neurosis. So he gave this talk without notes, and it is, even by today's standards, a remarkable piece of rhetoric. He really saw the problem of child sexual abuse, and he knew that what he was telling his entirely male audience was groundbreaking. He told Fliess, I gave them a Caput Nili, that is, a source of the Nile--a MAJOR discovery.

And how did they react? Badly, to say the least. Frostily. Silence. They asked no questions. They shook their heads in disbelief and sadness that a young researcher had just ruined his career by saying silly things about an impossible subject. How could fathers ever abuse their own child, or how could anyone for that matter, ever abuse a child? Or as Krafft-Ebing, the chair, himself said at the conclusion of Freud's speech: “This is a scientific fairy tale.” This much we know from the public record. BUT and this is essential, Anna Freud took out of his letters Freud's response which was pure indignation and defiance: “They can all go to hell,” he told Fliess. Then a few days later he wrote Fliess that he was being shunned! This too Anna Freud took out, as, she told me, it made her father sound paranoid. But he was not. He was making an accurate observation.

Q. Did Freud persist in believing this theory even though his colleagues were so strongly opposed to it?

JMM: Later that year, he wrote to Fliess that he was more convinced than ever that patients are abused because of the work that Emma Eckstein was doing! But obviously Fliess did not approve, any more than did any of his male colleagues. He had no female colleagues who could balance this patriarchal system--it was complete and all-encompassing--there were no women professionals then, other than Eckstein herself. But slowly, as he realized that he would not have a place in the male society he had grown up in, nor at the university, and that he might even not be able to support his family, he began to change his mind on this important topic.

Eventually, by 1900, he gave up, and in 1903 he publicly announced that he had been mistaken. There was no such thing as incest. Yes, sexual abuse, once in a great while happened, but it was of no consequence, and generally women made it up. He completely gave in to the powers that be. Well, that is my interpretation. Nobody knows for certain what was going on in Freud's mind, so everything is just a hypothesis. And then none of his disciples dared to contradict him. And when they did, well, woe unto them, as we see in the Sandor Ferenczi case.

Once Freud no longer believed--or behaved as if he no longer believed--in the reality of abuse, he had to come up with explanations for why children or adults remembered such abuse. He said these were "screen memories," screening off their own sexual desires for their parents as children, hence the Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex. Nobody has ever shown than children actually do desire their parents; but much research shows that parents, especially males of the species, are sexually interested in children.

Q. So there were actually some psychoanalysts who agreed with Freud’s early theory of childhood sexual abuse, which is sometimes referred to as the seduction theory? Ferenczi, and who else?

JMM: Oddly enough, one of the most passionate and articulate defenders of Freud’s early views on this topic was the son of his close friend, Wilhelm Fliess. As an adult, Robert moved to New York, and became a prominent psychoanalyst, one of the most revered teachers in the Institute there. In his volume Symbol, Dream, and Psychosis, Robert delves deeply into the subject of why he thinks Freud was mistaken in abandoning his early beliefs on this topic. Based on hints in Robert's writing about his father, I think there is strong reason to believe that he himself was sexually abused by him as a child--possibly one reason the elder Fliess was so extremely unreceptive to Freud’s theories.

The other person I referred to, Sandor Ferenczi, was Freud's favorite student, and became a close colleague and a friend. Freud even hoped he would marry Anna. Ferenczi, a Hungarian, was brilliant and somewhat eccentric. He was loved by everyone, his patients, his colleagues, his friends, the general public. He had a warm charm that affected everyone.

He slowly began to believe his patients, that they had been abused, and when he told Freud about this, Freud was not pleased. He told him this was his own first and biggest mistake. “No,” said Ferenczi, “It is not a mistake, I can assure you.” “How can you possibly know?” Freud asked him. “Easy,” said Ferenczi, “I have male patients who have confessed to me that they have abused children.”

Freud was aghast, and did everything possible (behind Ferenczi's back) to bring him into disrepute within the psychoanalytic world. It is a sad tale, and Ferenczi eventually succumbed. He died prematurely, of a broken heart. His last essay was called "The Confusion of Tongues between Children and Adults" and is the single most brilliant article ever written about child sexual abuse. Freud did his best to see to it that it was not published, against all the rules and practice of the psychoanalytic society. Eventually it was published, but many years later, long after Ferenczi was dead. You can read the whole story of this terrible episode, along with a more detailed discussion of the events concerning Emma Eckstein, in my book "Assault on Truth."

Q. So historically, every analyst who tried to present this topic was completely ostracized by his peers. Fast forward to the summer of 1981, when you began discussing your findings about Freud’s early beliefs with a reporter from “The NY Times.” How did other analysts react to your revelations when this series, which quoted a variety of Freud critics, appeared in “The New York Times”?

JMM: I was treated exactly as Freud was (hostility, silence, ridicule), and like Robert Fliess and Sandor Ferenzi were. I was thrown out of all psychoanalytic societies to which I had previously belonged. Basically the message was: you can no longer call yourself an analyst, because you believe women have been abused rather than having fantasies of having been abused. You no longer believe in the Oedipal Complex (true, I did not) nor in the power of fantasy to make a woman ill (true I did not).

In short, they were not happy. It was considered heresy. “Have you learned nothing from reading Freud?” I was often asked. I tried to explain that I was not just reading the published Freud, but the unpublished Freud as well, and the question was far more complex than we had been taught. But nobody in the analytic world at the time would listen to me or even give me a hearing. I was the Antichrist, period. I would read them letters from Freud they had not seen and they were the equivalent of children covering their ears and chanting “La,la,la, la, I can’t hear you.” It upset their very identity as analysts: fantasy was paramount. Reality was secondary or simply not interesting from an analytic point of view. Even female analysts whom one would expect to give me a more sympathetic ear were opposed. I was alone in the analytic world.

Sometimes they made fun of me, sometimes they actually accused me of paranoia for believing women's accounts. After I presented a paper on Ferenczi’s views at a professional gathering in Munich, a psychiatrist who was present asked his colleagues to support him in having me locked up in a psychiatric institution!

Q. Wait! He wanted to have you committed because you presented a paper that said that childhood sexual abuse really existed and caused misery later in life for the women who had been abused?

JMM: Yes, it was as bizarre as it sounds. I had a friendly relationship with this psychiatrist and had actually gone on a skiing trip with him and his wife. After my talk, he said the fact that I could support Ferenczi’s views, after all these years of “clinical wisdom” demonstrated that there is no truth in them, showed that I was, in his words “dangerously mentally ill.” He said I needed to spend time in a psychiatric hospital and he was prepared to have me committed right then, if he could get a second affirmative opinion from any of the gathered psychiatrists.

I laughed appreciatively. It was a good performance--he had made his point very dramatically. When I finished laughing I noticed he was not smiling. He said “Jeff, I am serious.”

Q. What happened then? Did anyone take him up on his request?

JMM. There was silence in the room. No one said anything, and I walked out.

Was I prepared for this? No, I thought there would be disagreement or even different interpretations of the material I was presenting--perhaps I had understood it wrong, or got the German off, or did not realize the historical context. But no, it all had to do with how impossible the very idea of child sexual abuse was to psychoanalysis, and indeed, to psychiatry or even psychology in general at the time (the 1970s). One in a million cases was the consensus then. Not the 38% we acknowledge today. So it was a lonely time for me. And I was relieved of my directorship of the Freud Archives, the Freud Copyright, and even membership in the International Psychoanalytic Association. In short, I was thrown out of this world, with a good riddance!

Some feminists came to my defence, Catherine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, Diana Russell, Judith Herman and some others who had suffered a similar fate, if not so public. Did I have my doubts? Not really, because I was dealing with new historical material that was very clear. I was not talking from my own clinical experience, limited as that was. I was speaking as an historian.

Q. And then there was that saga about your lawsuit against Janet Malcolm and “The New Yorker Magazine.” She spent a year interviewing you, in person and over the phone, and ended up writing a series of articles that could only be viewed as a hit piece. She invented some outlandish quotes that you supposedly said and, initially, she didn’t attempt to hide the fact that they were inventions…?

JMM. Yes, Janet Malcolm came from a family of psychoanalysts, so definitely had an agenda in writing the articles. Initially she claimed that she was entitled to invent quotes, since, in her words, “a journalist is not a stenographer.” She had a whole article in “The New York Review of Books” where she elaborated on that claim. She felt she was free to portray me however the artistic impulse led her, or as she explained “Jeffrey Masson, c’est moi.”

Q. So you sued for libel?

JMM. Yes. A few years into the case, she realized maybe she’d made a mistake by insisting that she was free to make up quotes. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that was the issue they were considering. Could a journalist portray a subject’s words as if they were writing a novel? Or did they have to present factual quotes? The Supreme Court ruled in my favor, and sent it back to the lower court to decide the case.

Since Malcolm realized she couldn’t win by saying she was entitled to make things up, she suddenly announced that her nephew, a toddler, was crawling around and found some notes written by her behind a bookcase, that coincidentally had all the quotes in them that were in dispute. None of them appeared in the 40 hours of tapes she had made in preparation for writing the articles.

Q. Lucky for her the dog didn’t eat them! What did the lower court decide?

JMM. It was a long process, going through two court cases. In the end they said since I was a public figure, the rules for libel were different. I would have to show her articles had hurt my career, which was difficult since I had since become a bestselling author, and also that she had acted with malice. The jury realized that some of the quotes had been altered significantly but it’s impossible to prove that someone didn’t say something. The court ruled that I couldn’t prove all the elements necessary for libel, and I lost the case.

Q. So like the other non-conforming analysts you’ve been discussing, you yourelf were attacked and marginalized for daring to bring up this topic, which is so alarming to people. You mentioned Freud's seeming-paranoia when his theory was rejected. But i'm beginning to feel that it is Emma Eckstein who would have been right to feel paranoid. She provided the inspiration and research for Freud's brilliant theory about the origin of neurosis in many of his patients, and then he conspired with a male colleague to have her given a bizarre operation which had profoundly detrimental effects on her life, and presumably her work. It almost seems symbolic of how the theory of childhood sexual abuse as a major contributing factor in women's emotional pain was mutilated and silenced before it could even emerge. Would you agree?

JMM. Yes, absolutely. Freud was guilty of negligence--Fliess had no business performing an unnecessary and dangerous operation in a foreign city with no back-up--as well as foolishness. Why would Freud ever agree to something as pointless and even ridiculous? I don't think he consciously conspired with Fliess at the beginning. However, once the horrendous damage to Emma was done, he sided with the perpetrator, and said it was due to her emotional state that she had such long-lasting symptoms as a result of the botched surgery. I imagine Freud felt guilty for the rest of his life, since he owed Emma a great deal.

Q. Over a century has passed since Freud presented his views on this topic. Do you think the public is now ready to give validation to the existence of childhood sexual assault?

JMM. Of course. But how deep that change goes is not entirely clear. It amazes me how many otherwise progressive people are willing to look the other way when it comes to charges by Woody Allen’s daughter Dylan that he molested her when she was seven. Some even vehemently defend him and insist the only possible reason she would make that claim was because her mother coerced her into it. It’s true that a young child could be strongly influenced by her mother, but Dylan is still angrily making the same accusation about having been molested by Woody now, as a grown woman, and talking about the devastating effect the incident had on her life in the following years--and the betrayal it represented of her trust in her father. She has refused to have any contact with him for years.

There are other indications that to me would seem to support her story—the judge in the ruling about child custody said that Dylan should never be left alone with Woody, and the fact that he was already receiving treatment for his “inappropriate” obsession with the little girl when the alleged incident occurred. Yet because of his status as an intellectual and artistic icon, many people refuse to even consider the possibility that her allegations are true.

Q. It’s fascinating that Dylan’s brother Ronan, who believes his sister’s story and supports her 100%, grew up to be the writer who broke the story of sex abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein--the story that initiated the tsunami of sexual abuse testimony by women.

JMM. The MeToo and TimeUp movements are certainly creating a sea change in public attitudes towards sexual abuse directed against adults. Whether that new perception will also apply to believing the words of children remains to be seen.

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