A Case of Hysteria

The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 308 pp., $16.95

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is, or perhaps rather was, a psychoanalyst—at present he is not, one gathers, a member of any psychoanalytical organization, does not see patients, and does not teach psychoanalysis anywhere. His book is a contribution to the early history of psychoanalysis, or rather would have been if he had not elected to present it in the form of a polemical attack on Freud, and on Freud’s literary executors, notably Anna Freud, Ernest Jones, and K.R. Eissler. Its title is, indeed, in a most peculiar way a misnomer, since Masson attacks Freud not for assaulting truth but for retreating from it, and the assault described is Masson’s on Freud, whom he accuses of cowardice, on his literary executors, whom he accuses of suppressio veri, and on contemporary analysts, whom he accuses of ignoring the real violence inflicted on children.

As has been widely publicized, Dr. Masson was for a short while projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives and as such had access to letters and documents that are still inaccessible to the general public. He was dismissed from this post after delivering a lecture in which he argued that Freud’s abandonment of the theory that all his patients had been seduced as children had led to the “present-day sterility of psychoanalysis throughout the world.” Details of Masson’s career, of his relations with Anna Freud and Kurt Eissler, director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, and of his reaction to his dismissal, can be found in Janet Malcolm’s articles, “Annals of Scholarship: Trouble in the Archives,” in The New Yorker.*

For those unfamiliar with its early history, it must be explained that psychoanalysis began with the investigation of hysteria, a disorder common in the nineteenth century but now apparently rare. Freud originally maintained that the paralyses, faints, spells, deliriums, etc., suffered by hysterics were not, as previous neurologists had insisted, caused by exhaustion or degeneration of the nervous system, but were reactions to traumatic experiences, to disturbing events which the patient-victim had been unable to respond to and assimilate at the time. And he claimed, furthermore, that it was possible to cure hysteria by discovering what these traumatic experiences had been and helping the patient to remember them and to discharge the emotions appropriate to them.

Now this idea that hysterical, and by extension other neurotic, symptoms were reactions to traumata obviously raised the question of what kind of experiences could be traumatizing. By 1896 Freud had come to the conclusion that they were invariably sexual. In April of that year, he presented to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology, Vienna, a paper, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which he asserted that “without exception” “at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades.”

He went on to say that these premature sexual experiences had…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.