Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear,” Scientology, Freud, and Child Abuse

I know that most of you faithful followers of my blog expect me to write about animals, and usually I do. But some of you may know that I began my working life as a Freudian analyst, and bowed out (other expressions come to mind) over the issue of child abuse. In one sentence: I believed Freud was right the first time, when he believed in the reality of child abuse, which he called the Seduction Theory, and wrong some years later when he renounced it. Freudians, when I was in training, believed the opposite. So trouble was bound to occur. It did. I was fired from my position as Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. That was many years ago. But the issues behind child abuse do not die so easily, as we have seen with the scandals in the Catholic Church. It is interesting that people do not deny the abuse happened. The controversy is over how much cover-up those high in the Catholic hierarchy were prepared to offer priests accused of sexually abusing both young boys and young girls.

So Freud’s position on child abuse comes up often enough. His views are not irrelevant. He was, after all, the first figure in history to raise the issue. But it was not his discovery of sexual abuse in childhood that was to prove influential, but rather his later renunciation; for nearly a hundred years, women were routinely disbelieved when they recalled (or recovered) memories of abuse. So it is important to know what Freud said. That is where the difficulty starts. Most people, even scholars, do not get it right.

The latest person to get it wrong, very wrong, is Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer-prize winning author (for The Looming Tower) of a new book that has been extravagantly praised: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief.

I found his account of the role psychoanalysis played in the history of scientology interesting. But to my surprise (given how much fact-checking was supposed to have been done on this book in its first incarnation as an article in the New Yorker), Wright gives a completely erroneous account of why Freud abandoned his earlier belief in the reality of sexual abuse. Wright is talking about memory, and he quotes a passage that Freud wrote in 1916 about how fallible memory can be. Freud gives three examples: memories of seduction, memories of observing parents having intercourse, and memories of being threatened with castration. Freud, writes Wright, was “troubled by the fact that many of these supposed memories were formed at a suspiciously early age.” He then quotes Freud: “The extreme achievement on these lines is a phantasy of observing parental intercourse while one is still an unborn baby in the womb.” Wright comments: “That absurdity was one of the reasons he [Freud] eventually cast aside the seduction theory.”

In fact, nobody knows for certain why Freud cast aside his belief in the reality of child sexual abuse. But whatever the reasons (I have suggested he could not take the anger direct against him by his male colleagues for holding such a view), they do not include fantasies about parental intercourse. That is a completely separate topic and Freud never suggested that anyone had fantasies from before birth of being seduced. Wright is simply wrong, and the fact checkers should have caught it. Any careful reader can see that this statement makes absolutely no sense. None of Freud’s patients, or anyone else, I am sure, has ever claimed a memory of abuse from the womb. Freud is not talking here about sexual abuse, but about observing parental intercourse. Wright is confused. Given that Wright has written a whole book about sexual abuse, Remembering Satan, this is rather alarming. Moreover, note that when Wright speaks of Freud “eventually” casting aside the seduction theory, the fact is that Freud did so at the latest in 1903, so thirteen years before the passage Wright quotes.

Moreover, to complicate matters, Freud does discuss in this paper (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis), sexual abuse. He writes, famously of “a phantasy of being seduced when no seduction has occurred,” and gives as the reason for this fantasy, the desire of the child to screen off his own sexual desires and activity as a child. I don’t believe Freud is right, but it is an interesting observation. Even more interesting, Freud goes on to say, “You must not suppose, however, that sexual abuse of a child by its nearest male relatives belongs entirely to the realm of phantasy. Most analysts will have treated cases in which such events were real and could be unimpeachably established; but even so they related to the alter years of childhood and had been transposed into earlier times.”

This seems like a reasonable position. But Freud also states in this very passage, “if in the case of girls who produce such an event in the story of their childhood their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer, there can be no doubt either of the imaginary nature of the accusation or of the motive that has led it to it.” (He repeats this later, in his final comment on child abuse, in The New Introductory Lectures of 1933). No doubt this was one of the principal reasons Freud gave up his theory: he could not believe that fathers were capable of the sexual abuse of their own daughter. Oddly, he knew this to be true from some of his own earlier case histories, as I have detailed in my book The Assault on Truth.

These are not minor historical matters. Abuse, alas, is very much alive, and it is important to get it right. What Freud said and what Freud meant is not trivial. It is doubtful that L. Ron Hubbard ever actually read these passages of Freud. But I find it interesting that in his wholesale rejection of modern psychiatry, (the only thing in scientology that I agree with), he does not seem to include Freudian psychoanalysis. Somebody should attempt to understand why.

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13 Responses to Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear,” Scientology, Freud, and Child Abuse

  1. says:

    Response part 1

    This is very interesting as I am in the middle of preparing an essay on a very closely related topic. First, I must admit I have not read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear. I did however attend the most recent conferences of the International Cultic Studies Association in Montreal (where I gave a paper on the experience of having a psychotherapist who belonged to a cult) and the Ferenczi conference in Budapest on Trauma (where I especially wanted to look into how much therapists traumatize patients versus how much the help them). I am currently doing extensive research in preparation to writing a novel about Ferenczi and those close to him. (I should state that I am not a mental health professional or academic but a writer and intellectual, an editor by trade, and the mother of a mammalian biologist.)

    In the course of my research I came across the rarely mentioned (and never by Freud) fact that several of the pioneers of psychoanalysis (all male) reported that they had been sexually abused as children. This especially jumped out at me because the reality of female childhood sexual abuse has been acknowledged by most therapists for decades now (in very large part because of your courageous path-breaking work, not to mention Ferenczi’s earlier but little known confusion of Tongues paper) but very little has been done in the area of healing men who were abused as boys as especially not in the area of social psychology and prevention.

    What was so surprising was how little this personal trauma entered the theories of the pioneers, though those who mentioned it (Jung, Rank, Ferenczi) all did eventually distance themselves from theories of infantile sexuality and oedipal fantasies. So I guess that is something big. But Jung and Rank at least didn’t see how child abuse (of boys too!) could be a fundamental cause of later distress. I suspect that Jones also was sexually abused as a child since he later became a perpetrator, but I’ve not yet researched that deeply. Also in Freud’s inner circle, Abraham recognized the reality of female childhood sexual abuse but was too timid to make much of it. Although Jung and Rank both reported their own abuse in writing that Freud read there is no record of his ever reacting to it (for example in correspondence with them).

    With the latest Vatican and sports scandals finally leading to some criminal consequences the time is overripe for acknowledging the early sexual abuse of boys and how it later affects their functioning and well being not to mention their later treatment of children. For example, Rank called this experience “the gravestone of my joy.” That seems rather significant. (Yet he attributed major emotional disturbance to separation trauma from the mother.)

    In part 2 I will talk about how I discovered that this connects with Scientology (though it wasn’t my primary area of investigation).

    • Very interesting. I agree. Except Jung never did acknowledge child abuse, in spite of his own. Ferenczi is my hero. I wrote, I thought, a good chapter about him in The Assault on Truth. Pierre Sabourin just did a new book about him in French.

  2. says:

    Part 2

    As I looked more deeply into the sexual abuse of early pioneers of psychotherapy I discovered some very interesting things that actually connect to Scientology. I don’t know what Wright had to say but I found a strong probable link between L. Ron Hubbard and Harry Stack Sullivan (the “psychiatrist of America” according to the primary biography of him) in the person of the Navy doctor Capt. Joseph Thompson, whom Sullivan certainly knew well via his close friend Dr. Clara Thompson (no relation to the commander) and who I suspect was probably introduced to her through himself. (I suspect they may even have met in Chicago before Sullivan became a psychiatrist.)

    In any case there should be little dispute that Sullivan was sexually abused as a boy both by an older “chum” and by his high school principal. Sadly, he did not get good treatment for the after effects (in his own words he had a schizophrenic break and he lost his place at Cornell) but healed as best he could through homosexual friends and then passed this on as a mode of healing to later patients. He himself was a perpetrator in a sexual relationship with a fifteen year old patient who had been a male hustler and he belonged to a high-brow clique that favored man-boy relations. This heavily covered up history really should be brought out and the unfortunate consequences of his influence brought to light (if nothing else because his interpersonal relational theory blocked out more fruitful theories of dissociation and trauma, just as Hubbard’s reliance on ineffective “abreaction” treatment prevents more fruitful ways of healing from trauma).

    We know from his own statements that Hubbard got his ideas about Freudian analysis and abreaction from Captain Thompson when he was a Boy Scout and that Thompson got them indirectly from Freud. Thompson was a legitimate MD, though basically self-taught as a psychotherapist. There is speculation on ex-Scientologist weblogs that twelve-year-old Hubbard was sexually abused by the older Thompson. Certainly he was getting a deep Freudian point of view from him. I have not researched Hubbard deeply but the blogs seem to think this is part of his psychopathic makeup.

    What I have found is quite compelling similarities in Sullivan’s and Hubbard’s personalities and paths. It’s my conclusion based on what evidence is available that Sullivan was essentially a con artist who practiced medicine without a license (like Hubbard) based perhaps on contact with J. Thompson and his own experiences as a mental patient. Like Hubbard, he was quite bright and had been expected to do well in higher education but was unable to do so. He is known to have been highly irresponsible in borrowing money and not repaying it and became bankrupt. Sullivan was never caught as a quack as Hubbard was, at which time Hubbard switched from psychiatry to religion as his game. Sullivan generally moved as quickly as he could from medicine (of which I think he was quite ignorant) toward speculative social science where he made original contributions but in a manner that was primarily based on being sycophantic and assimilative toward those with more substantial academic backgrounds. There is no evidence that Sullivan completed medical school other than a diploma that, given his tendency to fabricate experience and lie about dates, could well have been forged or obtained in an unconventional way.

    Given that Scientology and psychiatry struggle for the same niche and Hubbard and his Dianetics was forced out of medicine (while Sullivan was not, given the lax background checks of his day and his apparent early success) it should not be surprising that there is animosity between the two groups. Modern psychiatry for better or worse has access to drug treatments, whereas a religion does not. (Interestingly, the only drug that Sullivan prescribed his adolescent patients was booze and he himself was alcoholic, taking swigs of brandy out of a flask throughout the work day.) From what I’ve read Hubbard didn’t oppose psychotherapy and always had the highest regard for Cmdr. Thompson. But he was stuck in the type of therapy that he learned from Thompson. Even Clara Thompson (who also had a legitimate medical degree) said she was not healed in her psychoanalysis with Thompson, though she was so taken by his personality that she lost her position in the prestigious Johns Hopkins hospital because she would not stop seeing him. (She later spent a long analysis with Ferenczi and claimed that he did heal her.)

  3. katy meigs says:

    Jung certainly acknowledged his abuse to Freud (in their correspondence) and even said the experience made him leery of Freud’s very friendly to say the least approaches to Jung. But I guess you mean in his theories and that is something that I’m really interested in: why it was ignored in his and Rank’s theories and even Ferenczi hadn’t gotten as far as the abuse of boys (other than himself, and that was by his nanny not a man).

    I know Ferenczi is your hero. He’s mine too. Though he did mess up a few of his female patients. I see him as an Everyman. What he did to Rank was done to him by Freud. I think it’s because of you that I decided to go to the Ferenczi conference, which has changed my life.

    Is Sabourin’s book good? I’ve read every word I think written about him in English and he still needs a thorough biography. But since I don’t know Hungarian or German and I can write a novel I thought I could contribute best that way.

    • As far as I am concerned, there is no really good book about Ferenczi. He richly deserves one. Even a novel would be great. If you read French there is a lot out there now, but nothing, I find, amazing. You read, I take it, his wonderful diary?

      • katy meigs says:

        Yes, of course, the amazing Diary. And the letters with Freud. Great letters and history, much more revealing than Freud’s letters with Rank or even Jung. I feel like I know him and his family and associates. And especially what he went through with patients, family, and Freud. Knowing Clara Thompson was patient Dm made me look into her more and from her to Sullivan. The conference was wonderful. Lots going on in trauma field as well as psych history. He seemed to have a DID patient in the famous RN, Elizabeth Severn.

        Have you read Ferenzci’s letters with Groddeck? Now I’d really like to learn more about Groddeck, but so much is in German. I don’t think I can pick it up as quickly as you did.

        As a novel I imagine six “subcharacters” in search of an over-arching narrative. The irony and pathos.

  4. katy meigs says:

    By subcharacters I mean my first interest was in writing a novel about Elma (his patient and would-be finacee but eventually, thanks to Freud, only stepdaughter). The whole experience was very depressing to her and as I said my main interest was in how patients were treated. I could relate to Elma’s experience.

    But then I saw how similarly he was treated by Freud and he must have seen the parallel himself. Not to mention how he cut off Rank at Freud’s initiative. When he cut Rank dead in Penn Station Rank said it was the painful interpersonal experience of his life, even more than being cut off by Freud.

    Ferenczi had so much regret for making Freud his guru and following his dictates totally. And sadly Elma though sympathetic and interesting is not as interesting overall as Fererenzi himself. So I’m thinking of an approach of those who knew him and one another for a fuller picture.

  5. gacho says:

    Precisamente yo le busqué a usted en internet, tras ir a la mitad de su libro “El asalto a la verdad”, la sorpresa me la encontré al verle convertido en un vegano defensor de los animaes, I mean, que pensé que seguiría con el psicoanáisis o algo parecido.
    Su libro (que no llegúé a terminar, pero que tengo siempre a mano porque realmente quiero hacerlo) me impactó muchísimo. No hablemos solo del abuso sexual a los niños sino de todo el maltrato en general al que eran (y son) sometidos sin que nadie los defendiese, sin que la sociedad tomara cartas en el asunto.. Quizá si Freud hubiese sido más valiente y no se hubiese retractado de su teoría sobre la seducción, nos hubiésemos evitado muchos disgustos, gran parte de la misoginia que todavía existe en la sociedad (es muy frecuente llamar histéricas a las mujeres, con tal de taparles la boca), y quizá estaríamos en una sociedad menos enferma.
    Que alguien haga un recopilatorio preguntando a simples maestros de escuelas primarias a lo largo de los años, cuántos casos de niñas embarazadas por sus padres han tendio que atender (y ocultar)
    Sí: yo le busqué a usted por ese libro suyo, no por su defensa de los animales.
    Anyway, todo me parece estupendo.

  6. Ashu says:

    [But whatever the reasons (I have suggested he could not take the anger direct against him by his male colleagues for holding such a view), they do not include fantasies about parental intercourse. That is a completely separate topic and Freud never suggested that anyone had fantasies from before birth of being seduced. Wright is simply wrong, and the fact checkers should have caught it. Any careful reader can see that this statement makes absolutely no sense. None of Freud’s patients, or anyone else, I am sure, has ever claimed a memory of abuse from the womb. Freud is not talking here about sexual abuse, but about observing parental intercourse. Wright is confused.]

    There’s definitely some confusion going on here somewhere, and you’re absolutely right that the thinking you attribute to Wright makes absolutely no sense. I don’t have the book, but from what you have quoted it seems obvious that when Wright writes “That absurdity was one of the reasons he eventually cast aside the seduction theory”, he means the absurdity of the fantasy of prenatally observing parental intercourse, which is one of the three examples of false memory given by Freud, “the extreme achievement” of false memory, in fact; so he means that it was the possibility that people could have such indisputably false memories of prenatally witnessing parental intercourse that finally convinced Freud that memories of seduction were also false (like uncastrated adult men’s memories of childhood castration). It sounds like Wright is sloppy in describing his reasoning, but it’s clear that this must be the path it takes, and I don’t see any sign that he thought that Freud was talking about memories of being sexually abused _in the womb_, presumably by the father who is having sex with the mother (and at the same time, apparently, with the unborn child). That would really be bizarre, even though there can be no doubt that people do have such ideas.

    Anyway, you will obviously have written Wright about this, so I very much hope that you will follow up this article with another in which you let us know what he has to say for himself.

  7. Sarah Myslis says:

    I am so happy to discover not only your blog, but the intelligent comments about this post. Constantly on public radio programs I hear stories and attitudes dismissing the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse and denigrating those who believe in dissociative disorders. At least it seems constant to me. At some point I will enter the fray on the side of truth, but not until I can do it without totally losing my cool.

    In The Assault on Truth, you related that many psychologists privately revealed to you that they agree with you, but will not say so publicly. Do you feel that attitudes within the profession have changed since you wrote that? I wonder how so many people can deny that dissociative disorders exist when a sizable number of psychiatrists must believe they do, or they would not appear in the DSM.

    Thank you very much.

  8. Hi Jeffrey,Sé que eres un erudito en este tema,tu libro “El asalto a la verdad” está tan claramente escrito, fue sorprendente para mí descubrir los datos que allí señalas.Así como las cartas completas de Freud -Fliess que has publicado.Sólo espero que el resto de tus lectores sepa que eres muy serio en esta materia.Y agrego que me ha gratificado mucho ver que en artículos de importantes revistas psicoanalíticas,estás empezando a ser citado…bravo!!Este reconocimiento recién está comenzando..

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