Psychotherapies Without Feeling

by Dr. Arthur Janov

Posted June 2005 on

Chapter 7: The Evolution of Freudís Theory:  Attributing Neurosis to Non-Existent Causes

The Early Years

Freud's first inkling of the nature of mental processes came about as a result of his work with Viennese physician Joseph Breuer. By the time Freud joined Breuer in 1882, Breuer had already discovered that hysterical patients could recall experiences under hypnosis which they could not recall in the waking state. The famous case of Anna 0. fascinated Freud, and he discussed it "over and over again" with Breuer.

Anna had developed a disturbing array of hysterical symptoms after the death of her father. Her speech, sight, and limbs were all seriously affected. Under hypnosis, Anna recalled the traumatic scene with her father in which she had sat on his bedside as he lay dying. It turned out that there were unexpected correlations between the details of that scene and the exact location and nature of her hysterical symptoms. To Breuer's surprise, Anna's symptoms gradually diminished with the repetition of Anna's recollection of traumatic events while under hypnosis, which Anna herself nicknamed "the talking cure."

The theoretical outcome of this work with Anna 0. (and with other hysterical patients) was the formulation of a "traumatic theory of hysteria" which described the role of the unconscious in the formation of neurotic symptoms. Co-authored by Freud and Breuer, the publication of Studies in Hysteria in 1895 marked the historical beginning of psychoanalysis. In it, Freud and Breuer observed several important factors:

(1) an experience could be barred from conscious recall if it were sufficiently painful;

(2) it could then be recalled under hypnosis; and

(3) the hysterical symptom matched or mirrored some detail of the original traumatic experience.

They concluded that a traumatic experience could exert a lasting influence, producing symptoms years later, even though the memory of it remained completely unconscious. Finally, they stated that only when the memory was retrieved under hypnosis, and "was accompanied by an intense reproduction of the original emotion, often with a hallucinatory reproduction of the trauma...the symptom disappeared." [1]  They termed this process emotional catharsis.

Here we see the seeds of several important principles of mental and physical functioning -- some of which have endured the test of time and some of which lapsed, later to be rediscovered.

* Pain and trauma produce repression.

* Repression results in symptomatology.

* There is a meaningful correspondence between psychological events and physiological symptoms.

* Repressed material exerts a lasting influence until it is released through recall and emotional catharsis.

Indeed, Freud's early work with Breuer broke ground which we all stand upon today, for in addition to laying the groundwork for psychoanalysis as one particular "school" of psychology, he was also laying a groundwork for psychology as a field and a science with its own rigor.

While hypnosis continued to play a central role in Breuer's work, Freud abandoned use of it by the time Studies in Hysteria was actually published. He was dissatisfied with hypnosis for several reasons.  One was that he found that not all patients could be hypnotized.; another that the hypnotic "cure" of symptoms was usually only temporary; and still another was that it could not influence many types of unconscious contents. Only those which were "seeking expression," Freud found, could be brought forth under hypnosis.

During his work with Breuer, Freud discovered that, if the physician listened sympathetically, patients could recall long-buried memories and motives without the aid of hypnosis. He then developed an approach that is as obvious to us today as it was thoroughly novel in Freud's time: he made the patient the focus of study by asking questions, listening, and then seeking to organize and interpret what was revealed. This new approach became known as the "free association" technique, and Freud was convinced that it accomplished what hypnosis could not: it tapped into unconscious contents, eliciting the "deeper, more primitive and imaginative components of the mind" while the patient was in the waking state. Freud became convinced that the same (or better) information could be retrieved retrieved without all the folderol of hypnotic procedures.

Freud's Biological Roots: The "Project for a Scientific Psychology"

 Immediately after completing Studies in Hysteria with Breuer in 1895, Freud undertook one of his most ambitious projects: the formulation of a "Psychology for Neurologists." Comprising three notebooks (two of which contained over 100 manuscript pages), Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology was probably the clearest statement of his desire to establish a neurobiological model of the mind. In explaining the purposes of the Project in the opening chapter, Freud wrote:

The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction.[2] [Emphasis added]

The content of the Project was ambitious: Freud proposed three separate systems of neuronal activity to account for the varying functions of perception, memory, and consciousness. He also proposed neurophysiological models for the "ego functions" (such as cognition, judgment, recall, etc.), sleep and dream states, and hallucinatory and hysterical states. Despite these rather formidable accomplishments Freud failed in the one area in which he was most interested: the discovery of a biological model of repression. He had wanted to achieve nothing short of "a comprehensive physiological explanation of...the precise neurological and chemical details of repression."[3] Since he viewed the problems of defense and repression as the "core of the riddle," his inability to solve the riddle constituted a major professional loss.

In writing to his friend Fleiss about the first two notebooks of the Project, Freud lamented that the third one, which dealt with the longed-for "mechanical explanation of neurosis," was not "hanging together." By 1896 Freud had abandoned the Project altogether. This failure triggered a decisive turning point in his career in which he ruefully abandoned the unattainable biological laws for more accessible and less disputable psychological concepts. He wrote:

From this point onwards, I shall venture to leave unanswered the question of finding a mechanical representation of biological rules such as this.... Perhaps in the end I may have to content myself with the clinical explanation of neurosis.[4]

This is precisely what Freud proceeded to do.

Freud's First Model of the Mind: A Bipartite System

What Freud had originally described in the neuroanatomical language of the Project in 1895, he now re-described in psychological concepts in his historical The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Here he presented what was assumed to be his first formulation of the structure of the minda psychological description of the "psychical apparatus."

The unexpected discovery of the Project in the 1950s threw shadows of controversy over The Interpretation of Dreams, which had been always regarded as Freud's first masterpiece. In light of the Project, some historians believed that Freud's psychological re-formulation in The Interpretation of Dreams amounted to nothing more than a "convenient fiction [that] had the paradoxical effect of preserving these [biological] assumptions by hiding their original nature, and by transferring the operations of the apparatus into a conceptual realm where they were insulated from correction by progress in neurophysiology and brain anatomy."[5] In effect, a kind of conceptual whitewash job. Sulloway evaluates:

Did Freud...simply retain old-fashioned neurological terms (e.g., "cathexis") while giving them a new and independent psychoanalytic meaning in The Interpretation of Dreams and subsequent works? Or, are the outmoded nineteenth-century neurological constructs so evident in the Project still holding up the creaking scaffolding of present-day psychoanalysis, as Robert Holt insists, and has their cryptic nature insulated psychoanalysis from a much_needed rejuvenation within the fertile field of neurophysiology where it originated?[6]

We have no way of knowing if, as Holt suggests, Freud consciously or unconsciously intended to insulate and protect his theories by means of a psychological reformulation. It seems likely that his new terminology might have been a legitimate attempt to sustain psychoanalytic theory despite lack of scientific corroboration, and to propose concepts that might be clinically useful in understanding the human mind. What is noteworthy in this controversy, as Sulloway indicates, is not so much what Freud failed to do, but what his successors have chosen not to do. That is, rejuvenate modern-day psychoanalytic theory "within the fertile field of neurophysiology where it originated."

Freud's First Model of Mental Functioning

Freud initially divided the mind into the unconscious system and the preconscious system. Contents in the preconscious system, he theorized, could enter consciousness fairly easily. One need only give sufficient attention and energy (cathexis) to them and they would pass into conscious thought (the "transference phenomena"). A rarely purchased grocery item, an unimportant phone call, the title of a book, and so forth, might slip forgotten into the preconscious for a period of time, but could be remembered. Unconscious contents, however, never had direct access to consciousness. They had to first pass through the preconscious system, which modified them into a form suitable for conscious perception. Thus:

We were only able to explain the formation of dreams by venturing upon the hypothesis of there being two physical agencies, one of which submitted the activity of the other to a criticism which involved its exclusion from consciousness. The critical agency, we concluded, stands in a closer relation to consciousness than the agency criticized: it stands like a screen between the latter and consciousness.[7]

Here we see Freud's free use of metaphor ("it stands like a screen") to depict processes he had formerly described in Project in terms of cell permeability and impermeability, the "inertial pattern of neuronal discharge," and the phi, psi, and omega system of neurones. One might even say this new reformulation anthropomorphizes, with its "critical agency and its "agency criticized" submitting and excluding information between both sets of ideas.  This is not to devalue the reformulation, only to point out the degree to which Freud had turned in a different direction.[8]

In essence, Freud suggests that we cannot receive anything directly from the unconscious. All unconscious wishes, impulses, and motivations first had to be censored and altered by a "passage" through the "screen" of the preconscious. This screening process was most clearly observable in dream activity. One could deduce the original unconscious content -- say, a desire to murder the mother -- and see how it was redressed by its passage through the preconscious: in the manifest dream, the dreamer makes several unsuccessful attempts to kill a pesky mosquito. And so forth.

What is interesting to note here is that even at this early point Freud saw the mechanisms of censorship and repression as non-pathological. They could become pathological through the neurotic process, but they were first and foremost a critical part of maintaining normal mental health -- so critical, in fact, that psychosis would result if they failed

Freud's Second Model of the Mind: A Tripartite System

By 1914, Freud had reformulated his view of repression. He had originally conceived of the process as occurring in a simple and straightforward manner: the ego was the agent of repression, and the unconscious was the receiver of the repressed material. Now he contended that "a special psychical agency" was responsible for repression, which he called ego ideal, so named because it contained the ego's ideals, and had as its tasks repression, morality, conscience, censorship, etc. By 1923 Freud had changed the name of his new agency to superego, thus establishing his famous tripartite model of the mind.

In a nutshell, this model classified mental activity in terms of its degree of accessibility to consciousness (whether it was unconscious, preconscious, or conscious), and in terms of its function: whether it was a part of the duties of id, ego, or superego. The ego and superego could operate on both conscious and unconscious levels, but the id remained wholly unconscious. Both ego and superego emerged out of the id, which was the prime material of the mind, and contained "the core of the unconscious, the source of all passions, and the biologically innate in man."[9]

Freud's last discussion of his model of the mind occurred in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938). Herein he maintained the germinative position of the id, and reaffirmed the same general topographic divisions and qualities of mental functioning described above.

Freud's three mental divisions often describe the interactions of the three levels of consciousness at a psychological level. The Freudian model does not correspond to the real neurological structures and functions which science is finding today.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Freudian model which cannot be discarded altogether. To be fair, the Freudian formulation does broadly imply (if it never specifies) some correspondence with underlying neurological structures. The psychological components of id, ego, and superego are seen as common to all of us, and therefore must rest upon those physiological attributes which as members of a species we have in common. In other words, the physiological side of the body-mind duality which Freud initially set his sights upon establishing and then abandoned must nonetheless have remained as a background to his thinking. Just because he could not see the connection does not mean that he ceased to believe it existed. We feel certain that if Freud had had the same experience and knowledge that is available to us now, he would have had little hesitation in renouncing (or drastically redefining) the id-ego-superego model in favor of a formulation which could be used interchangeably by both psychology and neurology. That is, after all, what he set out to discover when he embarked upon his Project.

Freud could not "see" the full unconscious, so he called it "blind." Because he did not realize that it could be known directly through feeling, he decided that it was "unknowable."

A Sexual Etiology of Neurosis: The Road from Trauma to Instinct

In addition to his work on The Interpretation of Dreams in the late 1890s, Freud was formulating his sexual theory of neurosis. Since patient after patient had reported infantile and childhood seduction traumas, Freud first concluded that these experiences were the cause of adult neurosis: the memories of the trauma had to be repressed, and so various neurotic defense mechanisms were developed. By May of 1897, however, he had shifted this view to what he termed "a big advance in insight" in which he now saw impulses rather than memories as the cause of the problem:

The psychical structures which in hysteria are subjected to repression are not properly speaking memories...but impulses deriving from the primal scenes.[10]

Thus, what Freud had originally viewed a result of personal traumatic experience, he now saw as a result of universal and innate impulses.

By June of 1897 he had conceptualized the Oedipal Complex (hatred of the same-sexed parent by the child), and by July he was "viewing the psychoneuroses in terms of a vicious and dynamic circle of perverse libidinal impulses undergoing continual repression and resurgence."[11] {Emphasis added.} Freud himself wrote:

The result (of the repression and resurgence process) is all these distortions of memory and phantasies, either about the past or future. I am learning the rules which govern the formation of these structures, and the reasons why they are stronger than real memories, and have thus learned new things about the characteristics of processes in the unconscious. Side by side with these structures perverse impulses arise, and the repression of these phantasies and rise to new motives for clinging to the illness.[12] {Italics added}

By September of 1897 Freud had completed his fundamental writing to his friend Fleiss about "the great secret which has been slowly dawning on me in recent months." The great secret was a realization that the reports of early seductions from his patients were, in most instances, simply not true. This was no easy admission for Freud to make, as it brought into serious question the validity of psychoanalysis as a method of psychological investigation. After some inner turmoil, however, Freud reasoned that the commonality of the reports was in itself significant, and that surely it was reflective of some common, underlying principle of human behavior.

Freud now moved on to solve his theoretical dilemma by proposing just such a principle: reports of childhood seduction traumas actually represented infantile seduction wishes. These wishes were secondary manifestations (derivatives) of underlying (primary) instinctual impulses. In other words, infants and children have innate, sexual impulses toward their parents. These biological impulses give rise to mental wishes which must be repressed because of societal sanctions. The wish then surfaces in adulthood as a report of trauma, because that is the only acceptable way to express it.

What is the significance of Freud's theoretical shift? It seems twofold.

First, by minimizing the role of trauma in neurosis, Freud moved the focus of psychoanalysis away from personal, concrete experience and placed it on impersonal, imperceptible instincts and impulses. One of Freud's biographers, Ernst Kris, contended that, with this revision, Freud "turned psychoanalysis into a psychology of the instincts." The irony here is that although instinct is a legitimate scientific concept, Freud's successors have not brought Freudian instincts any closer to scientific (neurobiological) validation than they were in Freud's day.

The second significant aspect in this shift is the validity and meaningfulness Freud attributed to internal psychological processes. Although the memories of seduction traumas were not true in terms of external events, he contended that they did represent a kind of "pseudo-memory" which was a significant and meaningful fact in its own right. He further understood that repressed fantasies and wishes (which arose as the pseudo-memory of trauma) could exert the same lasting effect on personality as the actual experience. This innovative viewpoint really constituted a new view of reality. Intangible wishes, emotions, and fantasies --in short, the invisible inner worlds of man -- were recognized as having a directive impact on us equally as potent as the impact of the visible, external world.

Freud's Mechanisms of Pathology

Three more concepts in Freud's theory of infantile sexuality bear discussion. After 1900, Freud proposed three "fundamental mechanisms of pathological development," which were the vehicles of adult neuroses: fixation, regression, and the pertinacity of early impressions. He drew all three concepts from the biological sciences, reinterpreting them in a psychological context.


As we know, Freud by this time strongly believed in infantile sexuality. The question was not whether or not one had had some kind of early sexual experience, but what the consequences of those experiences had been. If the consequences were painful or punitive, a "pathological fixation of the libido" would probably occur, putting the child squarely on the road to adult neurosis.

Freud saw fixation in the psychological sense as the persistence of an unconscious wish, which had been dominant at an earlier stage of development. A simple example of this would be the adult who is plagued by compulsive overeating: in psychoanalytic terms he would be described as fixated at the oral stage of development. Freud initially emphasized the impact of sexual experience producing fixation. By 1905, however, his thinking had shifted to a new direction, now establishing heredity (rather than the actual sexual experience) as the critical factor which determined the outcome of the fixation:

He (Freud) recognized libidinal fixations as having three possible consequences -- neurosis, normality, or perversion -- with the particular outcome being attributed largely to heredity -- that is, to whether there is an organic disposition toward repressing the fixation.[13]

Theoretically, a person with the right genes could undergo a sexual trauma in infancy or childhood and come through it "normally." The main (if not only) variable in the issue of infantile sexuality thus became heredity. Sexual experiences were bound to occur; fixations were bound to occur; but neurosis would result only if there were an unfortunate "organic disposition toward repressing the fixation."


In Freud's concept of regression, he again moved his thinking away from actual experience in favor of hypothesized forces. According to Freud the regression that occurs in the "severely neurotic" is governed by the "hereditary constitutional factor." This factor was itself a convergence of three different layers of experience -- familial, ancestral, and species-related -- which were either innate or inherited.[14]

Although the relevance of personal life experience was again minimized in this formulation, Freud somewhat reinstates its value with his third concept.

Pertinacity of Early Impressions

In the third formulation of this time period, Freud proclaimed "the pertinacity of early impressions" as another critical factor in his childhood etiology of neurosis. Recognizing the principle as a "provisional psychological concept," he offered a biological analogy from embryological experiments to justify his position: sticking a needle into an embryonic cell mass results in much more serious damage when it is done during the early stages of growth. The psychological corollary was that the earlier a trauma occurred, the more serious and enduring its impact.

Freud believed that early experiences were important to the degree that they affected libidinal development, and that relatively minor experiences could result in adult neurosis. Sulloway explains that Freud's "belief in the primacy of early experience...allowed Freud to attribute the neuroses of adults to relatively small disturbances in childhood libidinal development."[15] Thus instinct (libidinal development) remained the centerpoint for even this principle; it served to further minimize the role of trauma and experience in the creation of adult neurosis by reducing it to "relatively small disturbances

A Theoretical Compromise: Trauma Plus Instinct

So far, we have Freud's etiological theory of neurosis through two stages. In the first, childhood sexual trauma was emphasized (the seduction theory), and in the second, instinctual drives were emphasized (the libido theory). Sulloway points out that in this second stage, "neurosis was interpreted as the repressed 'negative' of a stage of perversion."[16] Freud did not leave it at that, however.

The publication of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920 established the third and final stage of Freud's theory where he renewed his emphasis on childhood trauma as a cause of neurosis. Basically, Freud blended his first two stages of thought into a recognition that both factors -- childhood trauma and repressed instincts -- functioned as instruments of neurosis:

Henceforth traumas, operating independently of repressed perversions, were given increasing recognition as major sources of neurotic symptoms...(Freud) subsequently extended the role of childhood traumas to include a regular series of developmental disturbances, or "threats," to libido: birth, loss of the mother as nurturing object, loss of penis, loss of the mother's love, and loss of superego's love.[17]

Sulloway points out that this period of Freud's work also reflected his renewed effort to bring together the two fields of science which he believed would finally result in a unified theory of human behavior:

Of all of Freud's works, Beyond the Pleasure Principle offers perhaps the closest conceptual ties to the unpublished Project for a Scientific Psychology, drafted a quarter of a century earlier. One is struck by the bold and frankly speculative vein of both works as well as by their common guiding principle --attempt to unite psychology with biology in resolving his most fundamental questions about human behavior. Biology, as he reaffirmed in the later work, was indeed "a land of unlimited possibilities."[18]

There are, however, important conceptual differences between Freud's Project and his Beyond the Pleasure Principle Ė differences which might partly account for the non-biological direction ultimately taken by psychoanalysis as a theory and a therapy. Concepts in the Project were based upon "proximate-causal reductionism" whereby the mechanisms of psychophysics and neurophysiology were used to explain human behavior. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud shifted his vantage point to one of "ultimate-causal reductionism" where historical and evolutionary factors moved into the forefront. Sulloway evaluates:

In many ways Beyond the Pleasure Principle is the culmination of Freud's remarkable biogenetic romance about human psychosexuality, a romance first cultivated some twenty-five years earlier in the wake of his problematic Project for a Scientific Psychology. It is historicism, not mechanisms or psychophysics, that pervades the innovative logic of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It is also historicism, not mechanism, that enabled Freud to extend his biogenetic romance from the very origins of life itself, through the evolutionary odyssey of primal man, and finally to the conflict-ridden problems of present-day psychological man.[19]

A Primal Evaluation

Sulloway points out that it is historicism rather than psychophysiological mechanisms which characterizes Freud's later formulations. In these formulations we see Freud opt for hypothesis over reality, for "biogenetic romances" and "evolutionary odysseys" over present, personal human experience. Freud became more of a philosopher than an empirical researcher, preferring ontological ruminations over the once-treasured biological mechanisms. Even with his eventual redemption of trauma to a position of importance in the etiology of neurosis, the person under consideration still remained over-shadowed by rather monumental laws of phylogeny. Individual experience took a back seat to the playing out of mysteries inherent in the species.

Of course, phylogeny is part of the dynamic backdrop to individual experience. Nevertheless, each person truly has a life of his own, with an evolution specific to it. If the dictates of phylogeny are what we must battle, then we know we enter a losing cause -- with compromise the only solution. Psychoanalysis teaches us the inevitability of this compromise and helps us to support it. It teaches us to fear the real self as threatening, for with all of its innately perverse impulses our only recourse is to work on control and sublimation. But, paradoxically, it is actually control (repression) of the real self which has lead to perversity, and it is admission (experience) of the real self which makes sublimation irrelevant.

No doubt there are some powerfully influential forces from the occult world of phylogeny which are unknown to us. That is no reason, however, to make those found the center of attention, subordinating the known realities of individual experience to them. We can relate much more easily to our real experiences, real memories, and real feelings than to universal mysteries of which we are but a minute part. It is certainly difficult to understand how we are going to recover from those real experiences by trying to view them in the light of hypothetical universal principles

With the libido theory, Freud disavowed the reported personal experiences upon which his seduction theory was based in order to espouse the exact opposite. Not only were his patients not traumatized by the parental sexual abuse they had reported, worse: Freud now contended that they actually had longed for it as children. This longing took the form of an unconscious wish which was itself a derivative of some primary biological impulse for sexual union with the parent.

It is just conceivable that a child might wish for sexual union with a parent -- or at least appear to -- but it is not an inborn instinctive impulse, as Freud would have us believe. Certainly a child does not need sexual union. If it occurs at all, it is because the child somehow senses that sex is the only way she may have the contact and love she truly needs. Of course, the child would prefer the natural form of attention, but a desperate child will take what is offered. In spite of appearances, however, it is not the sex the child wants, but the contact. The child's need might appear sexual because that is often the only way parents (and other adults) can look at sensual need. Sexualization of childhood need comes not from the child but from the parent. After all, sexualization can only come from the one with sexuality.

It is clear that Freud viewed the issue of childhood sexuality from a backward position. Too often, parents want sexual contact with their children, even though beneath that desire lies parents' own neglected primal needs.

The neurotic gets many of his primal needs "satisfied" through sex because sex offers the gratification of all the senses. Therefore it has great symbolic possibilities for ameliorating the past neglect of those senses. In addition, neurotic parents invariably want from their children all the things they were denied in their own childhoods -- affection, stimulation, support, attention, etc. When these two factors combine, the parent is likely to act out his primal needs through sexual contact with his child. This may lead the child to conclude unconsciously: "If I want Daddy to love me, I have to give Daddy what he wants." This idea then gets shortened to: "I want what Daddy wants," which ultimately becomes, "I want Daddy" -- which is then completely misconstrued as a sexual desire. The natural desire for contact came from the child; the sex came from the parent.

How did this erroneous view of childhood sexuality take hold? If children are sexual, then indeed they would have to inhibit their instincts because of the harmful possibilities of incest. But children are not sexual; they are sensual. It is when sensuality is mistaken for sexuality that it is subjected to the taboos appropriate to sexuality and incest. In other words, the necessity to inhibit sexuality between family members is co-opted to help repress sensuality as well.

Infantile sexuality becomes a dangerous concept when it is applied clinically and heralded as a cause for adult neurosis and adult Pain. It is dangerous because it implies that the victim --the child -- is his own assailant. The neurotic adult is left with nothing more than his own childish incestuous desires to explain his agony and his debility. Worse, the concept is itself seductive. It is an adult concept that falsely exonerates the adults who hold it. It perverts the neurotic child's reality by ignoring the deprivation inherent in the very creation of neurosis.

If it is the child's sexual desires that ultimately sicken him, and if it is the cultural taboo on incest that is responsible for such hysterical fear, then no parent need wonder at his or her role. The culprit again becomes an amorphous, impersonal, and immutable force: the taboos of society. The implication is that this conflict is inevitable. All children will desire to have sex with their parents; the desire will always be strongly forbidden; so all children must learn to deal with their desire in the face of the taboo in the best way possible. Those who manage this task will be well; those who don't will be neurotic.

Here Freud is far removed from the grim realities of the neurotic child's life. The child does not fear some abstract taboo, he fears being violated by his parents in concrete ways. He fears being abused, neglected, manipulated, ignored, humiliated, controlled, pressured, raped. He feels fear each time his needs are rebuffed, overlooked, or devalued. He fears not being taken seriously; he fears not having any power to decide how he spends his day, what he eats, how he talks, what he feels.

To cure someone of neurosis, a patient's inner reality has to be accepted as true on some level.

If the childhood seductions did not occur on a physical level (which they do, all too frequently), then they occurred on an emotional level. The adult with memories of childhood seduction was seduced. As a child he was repeatedly seduced into fulfilling the needs and expectations of the parent, rather than freely being himself. He was repeatedly seduced into acting, speaking, walking, thinking, behaving in whatever ways appeased and satisfied the parent. This kind of covert seduction might be even more harmful than "real" seduction because it is so insidious. Under the guise of parental authority and obedience, the child develops neurotic fears and problems "for no apparent reason." The child feels violated, but he is told that this is what it means to be a good boy. The child has no choice but to feel that all of his fears are without cause -- because the cause is unadmitted. Most parents are guilty of imposing their own wills and needs, of repeatedly manipulating their children to be what they never were and to do what they never did. If Freud's concept of unconscious wishes does indeed enter the picture, it enters it on the side of the parent, not of the child. It is the parent's own unconscious wishes that are picked up by the child and later contribute to the development of his neurosis.

The significance and ramifications of Freud's move away from the real-life trauma of the seduction theory to the hypothesized wishes of the libido theory. A fascinating and controversial insight into the possible hidden motivations for Freud's theoretical shift has been provided by Jeffrey M. Massonís book, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984).  Masson argues convincingly that Freud abandoned the seduction theory out of a misguided desire to protect both himself and his friend Fleiss.  Apparently, Fleiss had bungled an operation on one of Freud's patients, Emma Eckstein. The operation had been undertaken because of Fleiss' dubious and bizarre theory that sexual problems could be cured through nasal surgery. Eckstein suffered from profuse bleeding as a result of the operation, during which she nearly died.

In an article in The Atlantic Monthly of February 1984 that excerpted his book, Masson writes:

Freud had the option to recognize (his and Fleiss's mistake), confess it to Emma Eckstein, confront Fleiss with the truth, and face the consequences. Or he could protect Fleiss by excusing what had happened. But in order to do this, to efface the external trauma of the operation, it would prove necessary to construct a theory based on hysterical fantasies, a theory whereby the external traumas suffered by the patient never happened, and were inventions. If Emma Eckstein's problems (her bleeding) had nothing to do with the real world (Fleiss's operation), then her earlier accounts of seduction could well have been fantasies.

As Masson points out, once Freud had decided that Eckstein's hemorrhages were hysterical symptoms and the result of sexual fantasies, he was free to give up his original seduction theory. Masson traces Freud's struggle with the issue of real versus fantasized trauma and notes that in 1897 Freud was beginning to recognize that children have aggressive impulses towards their parents. Of course, says Masson, if seductions had actually occurred, then these impulses were natural and righteous reactions to unbearable injury. But once Freud became convinced that the seductions were only fantasies -- that the parents were innocent --then impulses took over from seduction in Freud's theories.

An act was replaced by an impulse, a deed by a fantasy. This new " reality" came to be so important for Freud that the impulses of parents against their children were forgotten, never to reclaim importance in his writings. It was not only the aggressive acts of the parent that were attributed to the fantasy life of a child; now aggressive impulses, too, belonged to the child, not the adult.

Not surprisingly, Jeffrey Masson's reinstatement of the seduction theory met with resistance from the psychoanalytic community. He quotes a letter from Anna Freud, with whom he apparently had a number of disagreements over his disclosures. Anna Freud wrote:

Keeping up the seduction theory would mean to abandon the Oedipus complex, and with it the whole importance of phantasy life, conscious or unconscious phantasy. In fact, I think there would have been no psychoanalysis afterwards.

As Masson points out, this is a crucial point because most therapies "are based openly or implicitly, on Freudian theory."

Masson does not think that Freud made a conscious cold-blooded decision to ignore his earlier experiences. Nevertheless, he believes that, in doing so, Freud had forsaken the important truth "that sexual, physical and emotional violence is a real and tragic part of the lives of many children."

If this etiological formulation is true, and if it is further true that such events form the core of every severe neurosis, then it will be impossible to achieve a successful cure of a neurosis if these central events are ignored.

Masson further says that any analyst who turns memories into fantasies "does violence to the inner life of his patient and is in covert collusion with what made her ill in the first place." Success in the terms of such a treatment is measured in the ability of the patient to suppress her memories and knowledge of the past and to believe that the emotions which overwhelm her are displaced. This means a denial of self and a denial of reality, which spells the end of the patient's independence, since her health is tied to the analyst's view of her. Masson is led to condemn psychoanalysis because "the silence demanded of the child by the person who violated her is perpetuated and enforced by the very person to whom has come for help."

Masson writes:

Free and honest retrieval of painful memories cannot occur in the face of skepticism and fear of the truth. If the analyst is frightened of the real history of his own science, he will never be able to face the past of any of his patients.

It is conceivable that this concept could be expanded to include not the analystís fear of his science as much as his past. In fact, it may be the analystís need to deny his own pain, which keeps him from admitting the trauma-filled pasts of his patients.

In Freud's seduction theory, sexual assault is always the central event in the etiology of neurosis. Today it is acknowledged in many schools of psychotherapy that though sexual assault happens frequently and exerts a devastating influence, it is not the sole cause of debilitating neurosis. Any serious deprivation, neglect, or abuse of basic needs during childhood is a trauma which leads to neurosis in adulthood.   Nevertheless the results of Freudís misguided theory has resonated in psychology for years. As Masson writes in The Atlantic Monthly:

By shifting the emphasis from an actual world of sadness, misery, and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors perform invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own creation, Freud began a trend away from the real world which, it seems to me, is at the root of the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis and psychiatry throughout the world.

Masson's work confirms our belief that psychoanalysis failed because it attributed neurosis to the wrong causes.  In fact, it attributed it to causes that do not exist. This was a mistake which helped set psychotherapy on a misguided course -- on a course which led away from a dialectical approach to neurosis.  When subsequent theorists rejected its focus and method, they buried Freudís important notions. Instead of returning to identify where psychoanalysis veered off track, they shut the door, turning their backs on not only the past of their science, but the past of their patients as well.

By abandoning the seduction theory, Freud ensured the failure of his treatment by handing his critics a justification for rejecting psychoanalysis.  Today modern Freudians have shifted toward the present by adopting ďego psychology,Ē an approach that focuses on the present day adjustments of the patient, beginning a steady march into non-dynamic, here and now theories and methods which discounted the unconscious and steered away from addressing the generating sources of neurosis.

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[1]Ives Hendrick, Facts and Theories of Psychoanalysis (New York): Knopf), 1967 p. 12.

[2]citation? Sulloway?

[3]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 113.

[4]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 126.

[5]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 120 (quoting Robert Holt).

[6]Sulloway, op.cit., p. 120.


[8]It is important to realize that although Freud had opted to draw this "first crude map" of the mind in the hypothetical (and often metaphorical) language of psychology, he made lt quite clear that he viewed psychological processes as derivatives or secondary manifestations of the underlying and primary biophysiological processes -- which he still hoped someday to discover.

[9]Sulloway, op. cit., p. 374.

[10]Sulloway, op. cit., p. 204.

[11]Sulloway, op. cit., p. 206.

[12]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 206. (Original source: Origins, p. 212.)

[13]Sulloway, op. cit., p. 212.

[14]See Sulloway, pp. 289-309, for a detailed discussion of this factor.

[15]Sulloway, p. 389.

[16]Ibid., p. 409.

[17]Sulloway, pp. 409-410.

[18]Sulloway, p. 415.

[19]Ibid., p. 415.