Sigmund Freud - a liar? by Frank Cioffi

The story of how Sigmund Freud discovered the Oedipus complex and
thus the main source of neurotic tribulation is a celebrated one, which has
fired imagination and warmed hearts from the shores of Asia to the
Edgware Road. Let me remind you of how it goes.

In the mid-nineties of the 1800-hundreds, Freud, a Viennese physician
who specialized in the treatment of nervous disorders, had a succesion
of patients who recalled an occasion in infancy in which they had been
sexually molested, usually by one of their own parents. This came as a great
shock to Freud, as he had no inkling of the pathogenic potency of sexual
life and was, indeed, reluctant to credit it. Nevertheless, he believed his
patients' stories, and when he had heard about a dozen or so he duly
reported that he had discovered the specific cause of psychoneurotic dis-
order: a passive sexual experience before puberty. In other words, a

Let me continue the story in the words of Freud's biographer, Ernest
Jones. "[Freud] found that several of the seduction stories were simply
untrue, there had been no seduction. But lic held fast to the fact that the
patient had told him these stories ... with the result that lic discovered
the importance of infantile fantasy life in the genesis of the neuroses."

How did Freud do this? How did he turn the seduction mistake into a
discovery about the role of parents in infantile fantasy? Well, the story
continues, Freud brilliantly penetrated the patients' false memories of
being seduced by a parent and found concealed behind them their own
infantile wishes for sexual relations with the parent.

Here I want to persuade you that with the exception of the claim that
Freud was practising medicine in Vienna during the nineties, this story
has about as much historicity as that of George Washington and the
cherry tree or King Alfred and the cakes. The truth of the matter can be
briefly stated, though not briefly documented. Freud did not base his
seduction theory on stories of infantile seduction related by his patients.
In any case, his patients did not tell him any fictitious seduction stories.
And the seduction stories of whose truth they were eventually persuaded
did not normally involve parents and so are unlikely to have been trans-
formations of fantasies concerning parents. Further, Freud could not, for
a variety of reasons, have been surprised by the discovery that his
patients' illnesses had sexual causes. Rather it is likely that it was Freud's
own preconceptions concerning the influence of sexual life that incited
his patients to accept a sexual cause for their difficulties.

I think what really happened was this. At first Freud was exhilarated by
the way in which his patients produced confirmation for his seduction
theory. Then be discovered that some of the seductions had never hap-
pened. He had been warned by the reviewers of his first book on hysteria
of the serious risk that his method produced false convictions in his patients
as to the correctness of his explanations. And his critics, it seemed, were
right. What a humiliation! Freud now put all his enormous resourcefulness
into mitigating if not entirely evading it. When he finished he had persuaded
himself that, in his own words, "not the analysis but the patient must ... bear
the responsibility for this unexpected disappointment." How did be manage it?

Freud had to account for the consistency with which he had arrived at
the seduction scenes. They had to be fantasies, for the alternative was that
they had been suggested by Freud, or worse, arbitrarily imputed by him.
Freud's predicament can be presented in the form of a dilemma. Either
the seductions were authentic or Freud's method of reconstructing the
infantile past of his patients was invalid. But many of the seductions had
proved fictitious, so it must have been Freud's method that was invalid.

Freud solved this dilemma by falsifying one of its horns. It then
became "Either the seductions are authentic or my patients are self-
deceived and their confessions false. But the seductions are fictitious;
therefore my patients' confessions are false." He was now almost ready to
face the world. But there was still a difficulty. Might not the alleged con-
fessions of his patients be attributed to their suggestibility? Might the con-
fessions not be the result of his own preconceived views as to the role of
sexuality in nervous disorders? Freud resolved this difficulty by obliter-
ating from his consciousness the fact that he had any preconceived views
as to the influence of sexuality.

It is an established part of psychoanalytic folklore that Freud came
slowly and reluctantly to an acknowledgement of the role of sexuality in
the production of neurotic illness. And, like most psychoanalytic folklore,
it derives directly from Freud's repeated assertions of it. But it is com-
pIetely untrue. Freud was searching for the sources of neurotic disorders
in the sexual life of his patients before he began practicing psychoanalysis
even in its most primitive and rudimentary forms. And by the mid-
nineties, when he put forward the seduction theory, he was already sub-
subjecting his patients to an aggressive cross-examination as to their sexual

So far I have merely shown that there is nothing extravagant in putting
klown Freud's grossly distorted account of the seduction episode to a
failure of memory. But I have not yet shown that Freud's account was
grossly distorted. My first thesis is this: that the seduction stories were
related by Freud to his patients and not to Freud by his patiens. First let me
show that it is untrue  to hold, as Freud later insisted, that his patients
told imaginary seductions stories.  ln the course of attempting to allay
suspicions that his patients may have wilfully deceived him, Freud said
of their attitude towards the seductions that "whilst calling these infantile
experiences into consciousness ... they still try to withhold belief by emphasizing
the fact that they had no feeling of recollecting these scenes." So before Freud
discovered that the seductions were imaginary, he was describing them as
experiences which his patients had no feeling of recollecting. After he had
discovered that the seductions had not occurred, he described them as
"the deceptive memories of hysterics concerning their childhood." How
can these two accounts be reconciled?

In the next sentence Freud went on to urge against the view that the
seduction stories were fabrications the fact that "patients assure me ...
emphatically of their unbelief." This implies that not only were his
patients not recollecting the seductions but that they were not even con-
vinced that the seductions happened. And how is this to be reconciled
with the active role Freud later assigned to his patients in statements like
"hysterics trace back their symptoms to fictitious traumas," or patients
"ascribe their symptoms to passive sexual experiences in early childhood."
Was it not Freud himself who did the tracing and the ascribing? ...

This brings us to another reason for holding that Freud unconsciously
fabricated the patients' confessions. In his retrospective accounts, Freud
tells us that the patients' delusions of seduction usually pertained to par-
ents. But in the original seduction papers themselves the cast list includes
nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, teachers, tutors, older chil-
dren and even brothers, but no parents. The claim that it is the parents
who are the seducers is not only not made in the original seduction
papers, it is inconsistent with them. Freud then says that in seven of the
cases it was brothers who were the seducers, and since brothers are
as identifiable as parents, the motive for this discrepancy can hardly be

By the way, even if the seduction beliefs of Freud's patients had uni-
formly pertained to the cross-sex parents, it is not obvious why this is a
natural transformation of infantile fantasies about seducing that parent.
Freud is very unforthcoming as to why this should be so. He merely
asserts that the seduction memories are less wounding to the patient than
the acknowledgement of his own incestuous infantile inclinations. But is
the thought that you were sexually used by your mother reallys less dis-
agreeable than the thought that you once desired her? Ihave not found
anyone who felt so, but I am struck by the way in which people who
gabble happily about the Oedipus complex are mildly affronted if you
attempt to introduce a degree of particularity into the discussion. And
since the imputed fantasies are unconscious in any case, why isn't that
sufficient protection against self-reproach? Why the additional precaution
of inverting them and giving the parents the active role actually taken by
the child? You mustn't even ask.

Still, so far I have merely shown that Freud's patients did not relate sto-
ries of seduction and not that Freud did. My reasons for maintaining this
are largely circumstantial. First there is the matter of Freud's tremendous
confidence in his diagnostic powers, combined with the most unpsycho-
logical reluctance to credit the power of suggestibility. This is what he
said in his book on hysteria, published in 1895, a year before the three
seduction theory papers: "We need not be afraid of telling the patient
what we think his next ... thought is going to be. It will do no harm."
Within a year of this remark he had stumbled into the seduction blunder.

One bit of evidence that it was Freud's practice to communicate his
seduction suspicions to his patients comes from the analysis of one of his
own dreams. In the dream Freud reproaches a patient for not accepting
his explanations as to why she was ill and blames the persistence of her
illness on this refusal. In his associations to this item, Freud says that
the reproach in the dream was probably just a repetition of a reproach he
had made to his patient in waking life. He adds: "It was my view at this
time . . . that my task was fulfilled when I had informed the patient of the
hidden meaning of his symptoms." But this was the dream of Irma's injec-
tion, and since we know the exact date of that dream, we can state that
Irma was one of Freud's original batch of presumably seduced patients. Is
it rash to infer that the "hidden meaning of the symptoms" about which
Freud made it a practice to inform his patients at that time was a sexual
seduction in infancy?

You may think this a bit thin. So let me see if I can do better. During
the period when Freud thought he was receiving daily confirmation of his
seduction hypothesis, a patient confessed to him that when a young girl
she had been the victim of a sexual assault by her father. "Naturally,"
Freud wrote to the correspondent to whom he related the incident, "she
did not find it incredible when I told her that similar and worse things
must have happened to her in infancy." This was from a letter to his
friend Fliess - and you can see why Freud wanted this correspondance

One of the questions that the seduction story presents us with is this:
How did Freud come by the discovery that the seduction theory was
false? Once again Freud has a ready answer, and once again it is com-
pletely untrue. When Freud first publicly admitted the seduction error
nine years later, he explained it as follows: "I did not then know that per-
sons who remain normal may have had the same experiences in their
childhood...... But he did know. In the original paper he wrote "We
have heard and acknowledged that there are many people who have a
very clear recollection of infantile sexual experiences and yet do not suffer
from hysteria." Why the discrepancy?

In this account Freud is explaining his discovery of the seduction error
in terms of his realization that, as he put it, "persons who remain normal
may have had the same experiences in childhood." This makes it sound as
if the seduction error consisted only in the rashness of Freud's extrapo-
lating to hysterics in general and not in attributing false histories of seduc-
tions to his own patients. The measure of Freud's inability to come to
terms with the seduction error is to be found in the earlier portion of the
sentence I quoted, which says, astonishingly, of the seductions, "I cannot
admit that I exaggerated their frequency or their importance...... It had
taken Freud nine years to bring himself to publicly admit the seduction
error, and when it came to the point be funked it. Why? From the same
motive which led him to make the false assertion that his confidence in
the reality of the seductions was based on his patients' confidence in
them. This flatly contradicts what he said at the time, which was, "We
adhere to the principle of not adopting the patients' belief without a thor-
ough critical examination."

How then did Freud convince himself of the reality of the seductions?
In his own words, "by letting the symptoms tell the tale." Far from basing
his conviction on the patients' testimony, Freud argued that just as a
physician can explain how a physical injury has been caused without any
information from the injured person, so in hysteria the analyst can pene-
trate from the symptoms to their causes without the testimony of the

Why should Freud have gone to such lengths to conceal from himself
the real basis of his confidence in the reality of the infatile seductions?
For a perfectly understandable reason. Freud could not bring himself to
recognise the reasoning by which he had persuaded himself of the
authenticity of the seductions because it was the same sort of reasoning
which for the rest of his career he was to employ in his reconstruction of
infantile fantasy life and of the content of the unconscious in general. This
emerges clearly in one of the original seduction papers, in which Freud
urges against scepticism concerning the seductions the fact that "patients
appeared to live through it with all the appropriate emotions."

Let me sum up. Freud did not fall into the seduction error through
believing his patients' stories; he did not fall into it through ignorance of
the fact that persons sexually molested in infancy may, nevertheless, not
succumb to neurosis; he did not fall into it through underestimating the
frequency of seduction in the general population. Freud fell into the
seduction error through the use of a procedure which to this day remains
the basis of the psychoanalytic reconstruction of infantile life: the attribu-
tion to patients of certain infantile experiences because they appear to the
analyst to be living "through them with all the appropriate emotions."

The lesson Freud ought to have learned from the discovery that the
infantile seductions which he believed to be the specific cause of the psy-
choneurosis were often fictitious was not that infantile fantasy life is as
important in the genesis of neurotic illness as actual infantile events, but
that his method of eliciting from patients their infantile histories and,
more important still, of interpreting these elicitations was an unreliable
one which leads to mistaken reconstructions that deceive not only the
physician but the patient himself. But instead of modifying his procedure
so as to lessen the risk of mistaken inferences, Freud merely made the
inferences themselves so indeterminate that the validity of his methods
could never again be placed in jeopardy. Freud, like the emperor in the
story, dealt with bad news by having the bearer executed.

Before you mechanically reject this blasphemous suggestion, ask your-
self the following question: What could overthrow Freud's later theories
of the infantile sources of neurotic illness, as the fictitious character of the
seductions overthrew the seduction theory? The history of psychoanalytic
disputes over the nature oI infantile mental life is largely a history of
mutual recrimination. What else could an orthodox Freudian say to
Kleinian revisionists but that their nonsense didn't suit his nonsense?

The history of psychoanalysis is full of ironies. It seems that Freud, the
apostle of selfknowledge, the relentless seeker of truth, was no better
at detecting his own essays in self-deception than the rest of us. There is
an aphorism of Nietzsche's which Freud quoted on several occasions to
illustrate the affinity between Nietzsche's thought and his own: "I did this,
says my Memory. I cannot have done this, says my Pride, and remains
inexorable. In the end Memory yields." On severat occasions in after
years, Freud attempted to reconstruct the considerations which had led
him to assert, first, that a sexual seduction and then that incestuous fan-
tasy lay at the root of every psychoneurosis. I have tried to show that
whenever he made this attempt, Freud's pride would not yield, and it was
memory that lost.