In 1896, Sigmund Freud presented his revolutionary “seduction theory,” arguing that acts of sexual abuse and violence inflicted on children are the direct cause of adult mental illness. Nine years later, Freud completely reversed his position, insisting that these sexual memories were actually fantasies that never happened. Why did Freud retract the seduction theory? And why has the psychoanalytic community gone to such lengths to conceal that retraction? In this landmark book, drawing on his unique access to formerly sealed and hidden papers, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson dares to uncover the truth about this critical turning point in Freud’s career and its enduring impact on the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.
The Assault on Truth reveals a reality that neither Freud nor his followers could bear to face. Bracing in its honesty, gripping in its revelations, this is the book that prompted Masson’s break with the psychoanalytic community—and launched his subsequent brilliant career as an independent thinker and writer.
Probably nobody would admit to indifference to human suffering. When we see another person in pain most of us want to do something to relieve that pain. So when I was teaching Sanskrit at the University of Toronto, I was struck by how useless such historical scholarship seemed to me in a world full of sorrow. Surely I could find some profession that was more able to reduce human misery.
Freudian psychoanalysis seemed just the thing. And so I entered an 8-year training program. It is no secret that after I finished my training and became a fully-fledged analyst, I was not happy with my new chosen profession (the profession was not very happy with me either as it turned out).
The stated goal of analysis was, it is true, to remove suffering. But the idea of doing that by merely talking, always struck me as somewhat strange and unlikely to achieve its stated goal. I was always impressed with Marx’s epitaph for philosophy: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
In response, psychologists argued that insight was the key. But whose insight? The analyst’s insight or understanding of a psychological dilemma might not match that of the patient. Sometimes they can be so discordant as to inhabit entirely different universes.
Case in point, as part of our training, we were taught that if a female patient described a memory of incest, we were to regard this as anything but a true memory: It could be a deliberate lie. It could be a self-deception. It could mask a wish for incest. It could be a delusion. It could be a false memory. It could be, in all its various forms, a mere fantasy. It could, in fact, be just about anything. The one thing it could not be, however, was a genuine memory.
We were taught, in our seminars, that sexual abuse memories, particularly if they involve father/daughter incest, are almost always a wish, an impulse, a fantasy. I found this odd, even unbelievable. But what did I know, compared to the wisdom of thousands of Freudian analysts over the last 100 years of clinical practice? So I was told to bide my time until I had the necessary experience behind me.
Instead, I decided to research the matter, since it was hardly a trivial one, involving as it did, the very deepest betrayal that any human can experience short of murder and torture that in fact it resembles.
The results of my research are to be found in this book. When I first published it in 1984 the book generated an enormous amount of controversy, some in favor (mainly feminists) but most against (mainly the “healing” profession of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists). I have told the story of my own psychoanalytic education and subsequent downfall in Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst. I continued my research and my skepticism about the very possibility of therapy deepened, in A Dark Science, and Against Therapy.
A year after the book came out, I published with Harvard University Press The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, including all the letters that had been omitted by Anna Freud in her original 1950 edition. Since now for the first time the entire correspondence was available, I hoped interested parties would be able to make up their own mind on the basis of these new documents. That was, alas, not to be. For reasons that remain mysterious to me, these letters in their only complete form, surely the single most important document in the history of psychoanalysis, was sparsely reviewed. I hate to believe it is because my name is attached to the volume, but this may well be the cause. In France it took from 1985 when the volume appeared in the United States, until 2008 for the letters to appear in France, and I am assured this was only because a way was sought, in vain, to detach my name from the book. My notes, however, were omitted.
I fail to understand why I am regarded practically as the Anti-Christ in the Church of Psychoanalysis. Surely it is not because analysts believe I regard Freud as any kind of charlatan. I do not. I still, then, and now, all these years later, regard Freud with intellectual awe, as a great writer (indeed, in my view, the single greatest in the history of psychology), and an enormously intelligent, gifted, and even brilliant thinker. In a book published recently by Sterling Press, I say this in greater detail with regard to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. There are many other areas in which Freud is unsurpassed, for example, his writings about the mechanisms by which we defend ourselves, psychologically, from that which we would rather not acknowledge (denial, etc.).
But when it comes to one major human experience, sexual trauma, Freud was right only briefly, and then, forevermore, wrong. Dead wrong. But let me hasten to add that I cannot claim to understand Freud’s state of mind when he changed his view, from one of believing sexual abuse to be true (say from around 1895–1903), to one of believing it to be false. Unless new documents come to light (unlikely), we will probably never know the true reasons Freud altered his opinion.
Perhaps he simply believed it was true (this is what most analysts believe was his motivation). Perhaps he simply could not tolerate the heat he took for being so far in advance of his time (my view). Perhaps he was a typical male and could not stand up to his colleagues, many of whom by his early theory, had to be perpetrators of abuse themselves (feminists believe this and I do as well in part). Perhaps he felt he could no longer rely on recovered memories, or memories he believed he had suggested to his patients (this is the view of several researchers who are skeptical of the recovered memories of Freud’s patients). Perhaps he was a moral coward. Some who read my book thought I believed this; I did not and do not. Instead, I believe Freud lost his moral courage, which is slightly different. After all, at that time nobody had that courage except some women who were not listened to. Times have changed.
What still baffles me is why analysts have showed so little interest in what has to be considered the single most important controversy in the history of psychology, ever.
It puzzles me that a theoretical issue of such enormous practical significance can be so lightly dismissed or ignored by many within a profession where this issue always has and always will loom large.
Strangely, nobody from within the profession has yet sought to come to terms with documents contained in this book. They are as fresh in 2012 as they were when I first made them pubic in 1984. The heart-breaking story of Sándor Ferenczi, Freud’s most beloved disciple, who had come to believe, at the end of his life, that patients were telling the truth about sexual abuse, and was shunned by Freud and others for this belief, is still awaiting a full exposure, a book of its own.
The early French discoveries of child sexual abuse and murder that I write about here have not been properly acknowledged or further researched, in spite of their historical and present significance.
And Emma Eckstein, poor Emma Eckstein, the first victim of medical psychoanalysis, who paid with a facial disfigurement, the heroine of my book, has still not claimed her rightful place in the pantheon of psychoanalysis. She was the first and most prominent victim of false beliefs, but she was also, as has not been acknowledged, the first person to practice psychoanalysis after Freud, and she was the person who instilled in Freud the courage, alas only temporary, to acknowledge the reality of child sexual abuse. She deserves a place of honor in the history of great and important ideas that helped to relieve human suffering.
I have come full circle; that is what I wished to achieve with my life, and in writing about its history, I have made a contribution, however small, to a world with less misery.