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Assault on Truth’

In response to:

A Case of Hysteria from the April 12, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to point out a few crucial errors in Charles Rycroft’s review of my book, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory [NYR, April 12]. Rycroft writes, “Masson also does not take full account of Jones’s paraphrase of Freud’s letter to Fliess, which reads, ‘It was the awful truth that most—not all—of the seductions in childhood which his patients had revealed and about which he had built his whole theory of hysteria, had never occurred.’ This implies that Freud continued to believe that some of his hysterical patients had been seduced in childhood.” Although, in fact, I quote this very passage (p. 107 of my book), there is no reason why I should take full account of someone else’s paraphrase of Freud’s 1897 letter rather than the letter itself (published in 1950), especially since Jones is confusing what Freud writes in this letter (which nowhere states that some of the seductions were real) with what Freud stated eight years later (in 1905, in a passage I cite on p. 129) that some seductions were real. Of course I am perfectly aware that Freud believed that some seductions were real, and in fact I state this explicitly in the very first sentence of the conclusion to my book: “Between 1897 and 1903, Freud came to believe that the case of his early patient Emma Eckstein was typical: most (though not all) of his women patients had deceived themselves and him.” My point, throughout the book, was that Freud declined to give theoretical significance to sexual abuse and no longer discussed its importance in the genesis of neurosis in any of his later works.

Rycroft writes, “In fact he [Masson] seems to have unearthed only one document which could be construed to mean that Freud continued to believe that all his hysterical patients had been seduced by their fathers after the September 1897 letter abandoning the idea. But one obscure, rather gnomic letter does not make or break a theory.” In fact, there are two previously unknown documents, both written by Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, which add significantly to our knowledge of the early history of psychoanalysis and which do not lend support to the standard view of the history of the abandonment of the seduction theory as reported by Jones, Anna Freud, and others. New Freud material is exceedingly rare, and letters from 1897 are extremely significant, by any standards. In an unpublished letter dated December 12, 1897, Freud tells Fliess: “My confidence in the father-etiology has risen greatly.” Two and a half months after supposedly giving up the seduction theory, Freud believes, once again, in his earlier theory. On December 22, 1897, Freud writes to Fliess about a two-year-old girl who was brutally raped by her father, nearly died, and then ends the letter by saying that he has a new motto for psychoanalysis: “What have they done to you, poor child?” These words were taken out of the public record by Anna Freud and Ernst Kris in their edition of the Freud/Fliess letters. Rycroft does not quote these passages (nor has any other critic of my book). There are, I should point out, a total of forty previously unpublished passages from Freud’s letters in my book. I think any objective reader will find that each passage exemplifies Freud’s lucid style.

Rycroft writes, “Although Masson says that he is ‘inclined to accept’ the view that the incidence of sexual violence in the early lives of children may be as high as one in three in the general population…he gives no evidence or references to support his inclination.” This paraphrase of my words omits the references I explicitly name in this passage; what I wrote (p. 189) is: “I am inclined to accept the view of many recent authors, Florence Rush, Alice Miller, Judith Herman and Louise Armstrong, among others, that the incidence of sexual violence in the early lives of children is much higher than generally acknowledged (Judith Herman believes it to be as high as one in every three women in the general population…).”

Rycroft mentions my speculation that Emma Eckstein may have had an illegitimate child, but fails to note that I relegated it to an appendix and drew no conclusions from it. Rycroft writes, “It [my passage] contains an insinuation: an illegitimate child must have a father as well as a mother. Although Masson’s avowed aim in discussing the case of Emma Eckstein is to demonstrate that Freud had a powerful subjective motive for wishing to deny the real effects of assaults, it is hard to resist the temptation that Masson is also engaged in stirring dirt in the hope that some will stick.” It is clear that Rycroft is accusing me of suggesting that Freud fathered Emma Eckstein’s child. Now if I believed such a thing, I would have said so directly, and not taken refuge in insinuation, as Rycroft has. I do not believe there is a shred of evidence that Freud fathered Emma Eckstein’s child, if indeed she had one. What I suggest is that Freud, as her analyst, would have known if she had an illegitimate child, and that the existence of such a child could help to explain some of Emma Eckstein’s concerns as revealed in her writings. I do not connect Emma Eckstein’s writings or speculation about her child with the seduction theory discussed in the main body of my book. Rycroft’s inference that I am trying to connect the two is an attempt to convince the reader that I suggest something I never say, and do not believe.

Rycroft accuses Ferenczi—and me, I suppose—of the “tendentious use of language, by the refusal to distinguish between such concepts as rape, assault, and seduction….” But it is in Freud’s own 1896 paper, “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (included as an Appendix to my book) that these words—rape (Vergewaltigung), assault (Attentat), and seduction (Verfuehrung)—are used interchangeably.

At the end of his review, Rycroft wonders as to my reasons for wishing to resurrect the seduction theory, since I am, according to him, “a Sanskrit scholar, not a doctor of medicine, and can have treated only a few patients.” In fact, it is the documents themselves that brought me to the conclusion that Freud abandoned the seduction theory for nonscientific reasons, and that is my motive for “wishing to resurrect” the theory. It was in my capacity as Projects Director for the Sigmund Freud Archives that I was granted access to these previously unavailable documents. I was appointed to this position by Kurt Eissler with the approval of Anna Freud (who was not a doctor of medicine) based on my qualifications as an analyst with full clinical training and my scholarly publications in the field. I should also mention that I am the appointed editor of the Freud-Fliess correspondence (to be published by Harvard University Press). It is research and scholarship that have “driven” me to return to Freud’s original hypothesis. Dr. Rycroft offers no new research and cites no new literature to contradict my conclusions. In short, he attempts to refute scholarship with unenlightened indignation.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Oakland, California

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