Freud and the Seduction Theory

A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis 

In 1970, I became interested in the origins of psychoanalysis and in Sigmund Freud's relationship with Wilhelm Fliess, the nose and throat physician who was his closest friend during the years Freud was formulating his new theories.

For some time, I corresponded with Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, about the possibility of preparing a complete edition of Freud's letters to Fliess, an abridged version of which had been published in 1950 in German and in 1954 in English, as The Origins of Psychoanalysis. This edition had been edited by Anna Freud, Ernst Kris, and Marie Bonaparte. In 1980, I met with Anna Freud and Dr. K. R. Eissler, the head of the Sigmund Freud Archives and Anna Freud's trusted adviser and friend, in London, and Miss Freud agreed to a new edition of the Freud-Fliess letters. As a result, I was given access to this sealed correspondence (the originals are in the Library of Congress), which constitutes our most important source of information concerning the beginnings of psychoanalysis.

In addition to including all the letters and passages that had previously been omitted (which amounted to more than half the text), I thought it necessary to annotate the book fully. I therefore needed access to other relevant material. Anna Freud offered her complete cooperation, and I was given the freedom of Maresfield Gardens, in London, where Freud spent the last year of his life.

Freud's magnificent personal library was there, and many of the volumes, especially from the early years, were annotated by Freud. In his desk I discovered a notebook kept by Marie Bonaparte after she purchased Freud's letters to Fliess, in 1936, in which she comments on Freud's reactions to these letters, which he had written years before. I also found a series of letters concerned with Sándor Ferenczi, who was in Freud's later years his closest analytic friend and colleague, and with the last paper Ferenczi delivered, to the 12th International Psycho-Analytic Congress, in Wiesbaden, in 1932. This paper dealt with the sexual seduction of children, a topic that had engrossed Freud during the years of his friendship with Fliess.

In a large black cupboard outside Anna Freud's bedroom, I found many original letters to and from Freud written during the early period, letters that were previously unknown—a letter from Fliess to Freud, letters from the eminent French neurologist Charcot to Freud, and letters from Freud to his colleague Josef Breuer, to his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, to his wife, Martha, and to former patients.

A short time later, Dr. Eissler asked me to succeed him as director of the Freud Archives. I agreed and was appointed provisional projects director. The Archives had purchased Freud's house in Maresfield Gardens, and I was to convert the house into a museum and research center. Anna Freud gave me access to the restricted material she had already donated to the Library of Congress, to enable me to prepare a catalogue of all the Freud material at the Library (most of it from the Archives), which amounted to more than 75,000 documents. The Library agreed to supply copies of these documents to the projected museum. I also became one of the four directors of Sigmund Freud Copyrights, which allowed me to negotiate with Harvard University Press for the publication of Freud's letters in scholarly, annotated, complete editions.

As I was reading through the correspondence and preparing the annotations for the first volume of the series, the Freud-Fliess letters, I began to notice what appeared to be a pattern in the omissions made by Anna Freud in the original, abridged edition. In the letters written after September of 1897 (when Freud was supposed to have given up his "seduction" theory), all the case histories dealing with the sexual seduction of children had been excised. Moreover, every mention of Emma Eckstein, an early patient of Freud's and Fliess's, who seemed connected in some way with the seduction theory, had been deleted. I was particularly struck by a section of a letter written in December of 1897 that brought to light two facts previously unknown: Emma Eckstein was herself seeing patients in analysis (presumably under Freud's supervision); and Freud was inclined to give credence, once again, to the seduction theory.

I asked Anna Freud why she had deleted this section from the letter. She said that she no longer knew why. When I showed her an unpublished letter from Freud to Emma Eckstein, she said that she could well understand my interest, since Emma Eckstein had indeed been important to the early history of psychoanalysis, but the letter should nevertheless not be published. In subsequent conversations, Miss Freud indicated that since her father had eventually abandoned the seduction theory, it would only prove confusing to readers to be exposed to his early hesitations and doubts. I, on the other hand, felt that these passages not only were of great historical importance but might well represent the truth. Nobody, it seemed to me, had the right to decide for others, by altering the record, what was truth and what was error. Moreover, whatever Freud's ultimate decision, it is my belief that he was haunted by the seduction theory all his life.

I showed Miss Freud the 1932 correspondence I found in Freud's desk concerning Ferenczi's last paper, which dealt with this very topic. Clearly, I thought, it was her father's continued preoccupation with the seduction theory that explained his turning away from Ferenczi. Miss Freud, who was very fond of Ferenczi, found these letters painful reading and asked me not to publish them. But I insisted that the theory was not one that Freud had dismissed lightly as an early and insignificant error, as we had been led to believe.

Anna Freud urged me to direct my interests elsewhere. In conversations with other analysts close to the Freud family, I was given to understand that I had stumbled upon something that was better left alone. (This was made even more apparent when my connections with the Freud Archives were suddenly terminated.) If the seduction theory was really only a detour along the road to truth, as so many psychoanalysts believe, it would perhaps have been possible for me to turn my attention to other matters. But the seduction hypothesis, in my opinion, should have been the very cornerstone of psychoanalysis. In 1895 and 1896, Freud, in listening to his women patients, learned that something dreadful and violent lay in their past. The psychiatrists before Freud who had heard seduction stories had accused their patients of being hysterical liars and had dismissed their memories as fantasy. Freud was the first psychiatrist who believed that his patients were telling the truth.

Freud announced his discovery in a paper entitled "The Etiology of Hysteria," which he gave in April of 1896 to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna—his first major public address to his peers about his new sexual theories. As Freud was later to describe it, he believed that in giving this paper he would become "one of those who had, disturbed the sleep of the world." The address presented a revolutionary view of mental illness. Its title referred to Freud's new theory that the origin of hysteria lay in early sexual traumas, which he called "infantile sexual scenes" or "sexual intercourse" in childhood. This is what later came to be the seduction theory—namely, the belief that such early experiences were real, not fantasies, and had a damaging and lasting effect on the later lives of the children who suffered them.

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