Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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The issue of fathers as culprits in the context of the seduction theory, alluded to in the contribution from Mark Pendergrast, is of central importance (in very different ways) to both Masson's and the psychoanalytic accounts of the episode. But before dealing with this subject in some detail I wish to take up two other points raised by Pendergrast, whom I thank for drawing them to my attention.

(i) In the course of preparing the Synopsis from the original (and much longer) History of the Human Sciences article I omitted all mention of the period from December 1896 through 1897 during which Freud came to the view that fathers were likely to be the supposed abusers of his 'hysterical' patients. I have now remedied this omission by the insertion of two sentences early in the section headed 'Freud's Retrospective Reports'.

(ii) The original format of the first page of the Synopsis failed to make clear that it is only a synopsis of the much more detailed article in History of the Human Sciences. This has now been remedied.

I should also mention here an error in a page reference which has been drawn to my attention by Norman Rosenblood. This occurs on page 14 of my History of the Human Sciences article (vol. 11, no. 1, February 1998, pp.1-21), hereafter cited as (Esterson, 1998). The page numbers in the reference to S.E.: XIX half way down the page should have been 177-9. There is also a typo on page 6, four lines from the bottom of the page: 'of' should have been 'or', so it reads 'images or re-enactments'. Finally, two corrections on page 9, in the last sentence of the paragraph numbered 1. By my estimation (see below) there were eight (not seven) cases reported by Freud in the period from the April 1896 'Aetiology' paper to the 21 September 1897 'renunciation' letter; and the page reference 213 at the end of the sentence should have been 224. I should add that Bernheim used his 'pressure' procedure (from which Freud derived his 'pressure technique') in experiments in hypnosis, not therapeutically as I write on page 3.

The myth of fathers as the 'seducers' (real or phantasised) in 1895-7

Though Freud's first public implicating of fathers as the 'seducers' of most of his female seduction theory patients occurred in 1925, he had privately inclined to a 'paternal aetiology' theory for a brief period from December 1896 to September 1897 (with a short-lived revival in the following months). The issue of fathers as the supposed abusers of the seduction theory patients is fraught with such deeply entrenched misconceptions that it is of vital importance to disentangle genuine (documented) evidence from the pervasive myths about the episode. The background to this tortuous story is given in some detail in (Esterson, 1998: 1-7), where I examine the unsound clinical procedure by means of which Freud achieved his 'findings' in 1895-6. The salient points are as follows. Prior to October 1895 Freud had not reported any specific case of infantile sexual abuse. In that month he announced to Wilhelm Fliess his theory that the symptoms of hysterical and obsessional neuroses were caused by repressed memories of one or more incidents of sexual molestation in early childhood. The identity of the molester was immaterial, as can be seen from his exposition of the theoretical idea behind his thesis (S.E.: III, 153-4, 166-7 n; Esterson, 1998: 7). In papers completed in February and April the following year he reported that he had induced every one of his patients (eighteen 'hysterics' according to the April 'Aetiology of Hysteria' paper) to 'reproduce' such incidents, ranging from slight stimulation of the genitals to brutal assaults. The assailants were reported to be nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, teachers, slightly older brothers, adult strangers and close relatives.

The first mention of fathers in this context occurs in a letter Freud wrote to Fliess on 6 December 1896: 'It seems to me more and more that the essential point of hysteria is that it results from perversion on the part of the seducer, and more and more that heredity is seduction by the father' (Freud's emphases). Now this sentence comes near the end of several pages of conjectural theorising (Masson, 1985: 207-13); in other words (and as the sentence itself indicates), Freud is reporting the latest stage of his theoretical cogitations, not his clinical findings. In this same letter there occurs the first reported identification of a father as perverse in the Fliess correspondence, but in the 'scene' supposedly 'recovered from [the patient's] unconscious' at the age of four the father is 'licking the feet of a wet nurse', not abusing the infant (ibid.: 213). It is not until 3 January 1897 that a father is reported as the culprit in relation to a patient. This is the G. de B. case, in which, incidentally, the patient denies the occurrence of the reconstructed scene Freud thrusts at her (ibid.: 220-1; Esterson, 1998: 6). The next allusion to fathers as abusers occurs on 24 January 1897, in which the personality characteristics of hysterics are interpreted to indicate why Freud is inclining to the view that their (presumed) abusers are likely to be their fathers (ibid.: 228). Superficial reading of the relevant passages in this letter and in the 6 December letter has led some commentators to assume Freud is reporting his findings there, but it is evident from his words that he is not. The important point to appreciate is that Freud's theoretical conjectures concerning fathers as culprits preceded his reporting finding that fathers were implicated in actual cases. (The failure to specify fathers before this time can hardly be because he was reticent to do so to Fliess, since from now on he shows no such reticence.)

It will be useful to provide a breakdown of the cases reported to Fliess in the period from April 1896 (when Freud delivered his 'Aetiology of Hysteria' lecture) to September 1897 (when he announced to Fliess that he had lost faith in the seduction theory). There are nine reports (ibid.: 213, 219, 220, 222, 223-4, 224, 226, 238, 254); as two of these (223-4, 226) probably refer to the same patient, I shall assume there are reports on eight patients. Freud diagnoses six as hysterics and two as obsessional. In only three of these cases is the father implicated as the abuser of the patient in infancy. The first of the latter is the G. de B. case, that of the patient on whom Freud reports he tried (unsuccessfully) to foist his reconstructed infantile 'scene' (220). On the second the report is very limited; Freud refers to the 'damaging effects of [the father's] caresses' (224), but there is no way of knowing if this is information given by the patient, or his own surmise (based on his expectations in relation to hysterics). The third is mentioned on 28 April 1897, and in this case the sexual abuse reported by the patient was not in infancy, but from the age of eight to twelve years (ibid.: 238). (These experiences were not repressed, since Freud is reporting what he learned on the occasion of her first visit [237].) Of the remaining cases, one is that alluded to above involving the 'scene' of the father licking the feet of a wet nurse (213). In another Freud claims he has 'traced his...seducer' to be an uncle of the patient (222). (The father is explicitly excluded.) Nurses are implicated in two cases (219, 223-4), in the second of which Freud claims he 'is able to trace back with certainty [sic] a patient's attack which merely resembled epilepsy' to his nurse's licking the infant boy's anus at the age of two. In the remaining case the supposed culprit is not identified, though the father (who died before the patient was 11 months old) is excluded (254). (The case of the patient who experienced epileptic-like attacks diagnosed by Freud as hysterical raises the issue of the validity of his ubiquitous diagnosing of somatic symptoms as 'hysterical'. Suffice it to say here that there must be a fair chance that some of his patients at that time were actually suffering from neurological disorders, for which he strove to find a sexual trauma aetiology.)

With this background in mind I shall now turn to the famous letter of 21 September 1897 in which Freud reports his renunciation of the seduction theory. Among the several reasons he gives for his loss of faith is the following: 'Then the surprise that in all cases the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse' (ibid.: 264). Only the weight of tradition can explain why this letter is still misconstrued as Freud's claiming that his clinical findings (rather than the indications from his recently developed theoretical conjectures) were that fathers were 'in all cases' the culprits. Were this the case, he would have written that in all cases the father had been accused, rather than, as he put it, the father had to be accused. Moreover, as we have seen, the traditional interpretation of his words is contradicted by the recent reports in letters to Fliess, which indicate that in only three out of eight reported cases was the father implicated in supposed instances of infantile abuse. When we take into account that in the case of the eighteen patients in the 'Aetiology' paper of April 1896 fathers were not even mentioned among the multifarious abusers, the contradiction is even starker.

This is an appropriate place to deal with the commonly held view that in the 1896 seduction theory papers Freud was concealing the fact that most of the culprits were fathers, a thesis for which there is no serious evidence. Of the two major items of purported evidence put forward in support of this claim, one is the above statement in the 'renunciation' letter, which we have seen has been completely misconstrued - and I shall present more evidence to this effect below. The other supposed evidence consists of Freud's late retrospective accounts of the seduction theory episode, most notably that in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, where he writes that in the seduction theory period 'almost all' his female patients told him they had been 'seduced' by their fathers (S.E.: XXII, 120). However, that this assertion is false has now been conclusively demonstrated by several scholars (Cioffi, 1972, 1974; Steele, 1982: 79-82; Schimek, 1987; Esterson, 1993: 21-5; 1998; IsraŽls and Schatzman, 1993); as we have seen, it is contradicted by the contemporary documentary evidence.

In my History of the Human Sciences article (Esterson, 1998: 9-10) I have shown that there are several reasons why the quoted sentence from the 'renunciation' letter cannot mean what it is traditionally taken to mean. Here I shall adduce one more reason in addition to that given above. In the letter in question Freud expresses his 'surprise' that fathers had to be blamed. Now suppose we assume for the moment the traditional interpretation of the sentence, namely, that Freud is saying that his clinical findings were that in all cases (or even most cases) fathers were the abusers. This would mean (as is widely assumed) that in 1895-6 the culprits were generally fathers, and that Freud was concealing this fact. But in that case the sentence in question makes no sense, for how could it be possible that in September 1897, more than eighteen months after his early findings with eighteen patients, Freud was still 'surprised' by what he had discovered? We are faced with a reductio ad absurdum. The crucial sentence in the renunciation letter cannot mean what tradition says it means - and, as a corollary, the case for the notion that in the seduction theory papers Freud was concealing the fact that the culprits were generally fathers collapses.

One final point should enable us to dispose completely of this false notion. Consider the chronological pattern of Freud's claims. The seduction theory for hysteria, first proposed in the autumn of 1895, postulated that the genitals of an hysteric had been stimulated in infancy, resulting in an unconscious memory trace having the potential to provoke somatic symptoms after puberty (S.E.: III, 152, 154). From the nature of the theory it is clear that the identities of the culprits are incidental, and the claimed assailants in the 1896 seduction theory papers were correspondingly various.1 Then in December 1896 through early 1897 his theoretical cogitations led him to the idea that in the case of hysterics, fathers were generally to blame. Since for Freud the conjecture was father to the claim, for the first time we find instances in the letters to Fliess of fathers being implicated. And when he abandoned the seduction theory after 1898 he ceased to make specific claims of indications of such ubiquitous infantile sexual abuse (whether real or phantasised) in his current cases, explicitly relegating such clinical experiences to 'the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering infantile sexual traumas' (S.E.: XXII, 120). The pattern is clear: Freud's clinical 'findings' tended to be in accord with his current theory (unless, as eventually happened in this case, a stage is reached when he recognises that the theory is so implausible that it '[breaks] down under the weight of its own improbability' [S.E.: XIV, 17]). In short, given the evidence adduced above, and in the light of Freud's propensity to achieve findings in line with his current theory, there is not the slightest ground for presuming that when he listed the wide variety of supposed assailants in 1896 he was deliberately concealing their true identities.

Freud's rhetorically brilliant (though, to the perceptive observer, blatantly inconsistent [Cioffi, 1972, 1974; Esterson, 1993: 21-5; 1998: 13-15]) retrospective reports of the episode have concealed the truth about the seduction theory episode - that the traditional story, taken on trust by adherents and critics alike for the best part of this century, is false. A corollary of this is that the very foundation of Jeffrey Masson's account of the seduction theory collapses. But equally, gone is the foundation of Freud's enthralling story of how he 'stumbled' (An Autobiographical Study, S.E.: XX, 34) upon infantile unconscious phantasies and, subsequently, the Oedipus complex - a story so compelling that, as Cioffi writes, it has 'fired imaginations and warmed hearts from the shores of Asia to the Edgware Road' (Cioffi, 1974: 172). Further, there are implications arising from this episode which impinge on Freud's ensuing claims of clinical confirmations of his theories of infantile psychosexual development. To quote Cioffi again, 'the reasoning [ie, Freud's interpretive and reconstructive technique] by which he had persuaded himself of the authenticity of the seductions [was] the same sort of reasoning which, for the rest of his career, he was to employ in his reconstruction of infantile fantasy life and of the content of the unconscious in general' (ibid.: 173-4). That reasoning is as flawed in relation to Freud's subsequent clinical 'findings' and to his 'discoveries' about infantile psychosexual development as it was when it led to the spurious seduction theory 'findings'.

The repercussions arising from the fact that the most crucial part of Freud's account of his discovery of infantile unconscious phantasies is false are considerable, and best dealt with in a separate contribution.


1. In the first two seduction theory papers Freud claimed that in 7 of the first 13 'hysterical' cases prepubertal boys were culprits (S.E.: III, 152, 164). Once one appreciates that Freud's findings tended to accord with his current theory, this rather curious statistic may be explicable as follows. His aetiological theory in the case of obsessionals was that, as well as having been sexually molested in infancy, they had at around the age of 8 engaged in active abuse of younger girls (S.E.: III, 155); and, correspondingly, his 'findings' included among the abusers several boys (mostly brothers) of the appropriate age (ibid.: 155-6, 168-8). I suggest he needed such boys to be implicated in his current cases to lend plausibility to his theory for obsessionals - and found them in his reconstructions relating to his female patients. It is significant that when he later gave his explanation of his, by his own account, erroneous 'seduction' claims from this period he completely ignored the remarkable 'findings' in the case of the six obsessionals. Nor is this surprising. His infantile phantasies explanation for the hysterics was far-fetched enough (Esterson, 1998: 18, n 11); he would have been hard put to come up with an unconscious phantasy explanation for the claims of both 'passive' (in infancy) and 'active' (before age ten) traumatic sexual experiences for these six cases.

In view of the fact that, in early February 1896, he claimed corroboration for all his current patients (even in the more complicated cases of his six 'obsessionals') in such a short time after alighting on the seduction theory (from late September/early October 1895 to early February 1896), one is left wondering if he anticipated some of his findings. In fact he had a draft paper completed by the end of 1895, less than three months after announcing the theory to Fliess (Masson, 1985: 162-9; see also 170), which indicates he was ready to claim successful corroborations for sixteen patients (S.E. III, 155; Esterson, 1998: 5) in an astonishingly short time - though in the 'Aetiology of Hysteria' paper he wrote that his procedure was so time-consuming that 'giving an account of the resolution of a single symptom...would amount to the task of relating an entire case history' (S.E.: III, 196-7). This suggestion is made all the more plausible by the fact that there was a precedent for such anticipation in Freud's earlier career. In March 1885 he delivered a paper claiming a successful cure of a case of morphine addiction by the use of injections of cocaine, with rapid withdrawal from the morphine without cocaine habituation. However, as reported by Freud's biographer Ernest Jones, by April the individual concerned (Freud's friend Fleischl) was taking enormous doses of cocaine - and was again taking morphine. Moreover, Freud allowed his paper containing the claim of the cure to be published without appropriate modification in August of that year. (Thornton, 1983: 38-9, 43-5)

The bibliographical citations above can be found in the Bibliography of my History of the Human Sciences article, vol.11, no. 1, February 1998, pp. 1-21.

Allen Esterson
February 7th, 1998 

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