Freud Discovers Childhood Sexual Abuse

In Freud's opinion, his new method of probing a patient's memories without hypnosis produced longer-lasting cures than the cathartic method using hypnosis. His patients retained a clear memory of the therapy itself, and they could think about what they had learned while they were away from the doctor. Because the technique did not require hypnosis, it could be used on everybody.

With uncanny reliability, the procedure revealed traumatic incidents responsible for the first symptoms of hysteria. For example, an eighteen-year-old girl who was troubled by anxiety attacks and shortness of breath lost her symptoms when (with great outpouring of emotion) she remembered her father's attempt to seduce her when she was fourteen.

Another patient, secretly in love with her sister's husband, was cured when she remembered standing at her dying sister's bedside and thinking an awful thought: "Now he is free again and I can be his wife." When she remembered the incident, her symptoms of anxiety became worse for a time, then her symptoms went away.

What pattern did Freud claim to have found, by 1896?

By 1896, Freud claimed to see a definite pattern in memories his patients expressed during cathartic episodes. They always involved sex, or some connection with sex. In fact, with a little prodding, every one of his patients could remember being victimized by seduction attempts during childhood. Freud wrote:

What did Freud think was the specific cause of hysteria?

The event of which the subject has retained an unconscious memory is a precocious [unusually early] experience of sexual relations with actual excitement of the genitals, resulting from sexual abuse committed by another person; and the period of life at which this fatal event takes place is earliest youth—the years up to the age of eight or ten, before the child has reached sexual maturity. A passive sexual experience before puberty: this then is the specific aetiology [cause] of hysteria.

...In some eighteen cases of hysteria I have been able to discover this connection in every single case and, where the circumstances allowed, to confirm it by therapeutic success. (1962/1896, p.199)

Then Freud changed his mind. In a decision that is still hotly debated, Freud declared that many of these memories were fantasies or confabulations (false memories ) rather than actual recollections of seduction attempts. It did not matter, he said, because the false memories still showed how a person was thinking and feeling in childhood. Freud had a strong commitment to his theory of the family drama, which included the idea of sexual fantasies in childhood, so in a sense it did not matter to Freud if the memories of sexual abuse in childhood were accurate or not; they reflected what he believed was a universal emotional drama of childhood.

Some present-day psychologists think Freud was correct in identifying many of the memories as confabulations, because Freud was encouraging particular types of memories under a state resembling hypnosis, and false memories easily occur under such circumstances. Others think Freud made a huge mistake, because childhood sexual abuse is actually quite common and can indeed cause troubling aftereffects later in life.

How might his "19th patient" have influenced Freud?

Why did Freud change his mind and decide his patients were fabricating their memories? We cannot know for sure, but some scholars suggest Freud was influenced by his "nineteenth patient"—himself. Freud carried out a very thorough (Freudians sometimes say "heroic") self-analysis in 1897. During that time, Freud decided he and his brothers and sisters all showed signs of hysterical behavior. If these symptoms were always related to perverse sexual experiences, as Freud believed, it would imply that Freud's father molested his children, which was unthinkable. So (according to this theory) Freud decided his patients' early recollections were just fantasies. That let his father off the hook.

What is evidence that Freud avoided blaming fathers?

There is other evidence that Freud had a hang-up about guilty fathers. Florence Rush, who researched the topic for her book, The Best Kept Secret, pointed out that Freud went to extraordinary lengths to avoid blaming fathers in print, even when it meant changing the facts. Freud referred to seductions by governesses, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, but never fathers. A case described earlier—the 18-year-old who was molested at age 14—was initially published in an article where Freud blamed her uncle. Only 30 years later, in 1925, did Freud reveal that the "uncle" was actually her father.

This all makes it sound like Freud was engaged in some kind of cover-up, and his patients were having accurate memories. But matters are not necessarily so simple. Probably some of Freud's patients did make up false memories. Freud urged them to have such memories while they were lying quietly in a state similar to hypnosis. Modern psychologists know that hypnotized people easily confabulate (make up) memories at the suggestion of the hypnotist, and later they are unable to distinguish the hypnotically-induced fantasies from genuine memories.

What is some evidence that memories of sexual abuse can be forgotten? Why is this not necessarily compelling evidence for repression?

This whole recovered memory issue has become quite controversial. Some psychologists maintain that there is no good evidence of memory repression as a phenomenon. Others point to data showing that some people do indeed forget sexual abuse. Psychologist Linda Meyer Williams found that 38 of 100 women with a history of childhood sexual abuse documented in their hospital records could not remember the incidents as adults (Bower, 1993). However, memory for all life events is full of gaps. Elizabeth Loftus, a prominent memory expert, cites data showing that memories of sexual abuse are forgotten (and remembered) at rates no different from other life experiences (Holden, 2000).

Perhaps some of Freud's patients were retrieving genuine memories and others were having false memories because of Freud's probing questions. It does seem somewhat unlikely that 18 patients in a row were suffering from the same problem.

What did Freud eventually decide?

Eventually Freud decided it might not matter whether the memories were true or false, because they functioned psychologically as if they were true. Freud started to put less emphasis on recollections. Eventually Freud stopped trying to eliminate symptoms one by one and concentrated on long-lasting change in the whole person (a goal he never achieved, according to some critics—Freud only published a handful of case histories, and none showed consistent long-term improvement). But Freud never minimized the importance of catharsis. He wrote in 1925:

The cathartic method was the immediate precursor of psycho-analysis; and, in spite of every extension of experience and every modification of theory, is still contained within its nucleus.


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