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.