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Freud and Sexual Abuse

In response to:

Speak, Memory from the February 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

Oliver Sacks is evidently unaware that Freud’s retrospective reports that his patients in the mid-1890s “gave him accounts of having been sexually seduced or abused in childhood” have been refuted by a number of scholars in recent decades [“Speak, Memory,” NYR, February 21]. Freud’s 1896 theory of the etiology of hysteria and obsessional neurosis was predicated on the notion that his patients had unconscious memories of experiences of sexual abuse in early childhood, and at the time he stated that “before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [conjectured] scenes,” and indeed during the course of their treatment “assure me emphatically of their unbelief.” As he wrote, “The [sexual] scenes must be present as unconscious memories; only so long as, and in so far as, they are unconscious are they able to create and maintain hysterical symptoms.”1

The coercive reconstructive analytic procedures by means of which he claimed to have uncovered such repressed memories from infancy for all his current patients were such that, in the words of Kurt Eissler, former director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, they “reduce[d] the probability of gaining reliable data to zero.”2 The inconsistencies in Freud’s several later accounts of the episode testify to their unreliability, and even untenability, as has been shown by, for instance, Schimek3 and Israëls and Schatzman.4

Allen Esterson

Oliver Sacks replies:

I thank Professor Esterson for clarifying this complex issue, where Freud’s later accounts were at odds with his original (1896) description. Such reconstructions, however they are to be interpreted, are not unknown in the scientific literature. Thus the great Victorian neurologist W.R. Gowers, after describing a complex and unusual epileptic seizure in 1881, redescribed it quite differently when he wrote about it again in 1904.5

  1. 1

    Sigmund Freud, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Hogarth Press, 1996), Vol. 3, pp. 204, 211. 

  2. 2

    Kurt R. Eissler, Freud and the Seduction Theory: A Brief Love Affair (International Universities Press, 2001), p. 115. 

  3. 3

    J.G. Schimek, “Fact and Fantasy in the Seduction Theory: A Historical Review,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 35, No. 4 (1987). 

  4. 4

    H. Israëls and M. Schatzman, “The Seduction Theory,” History of Psychiatry, Vol. 4 (1993). 

  5. 5

    Oliver Sacks, “Gowers’ Memory,” Neurology, Vol. 46 (May 1996). 

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