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Sigmund Freud

THE SEDUCTION THEORY AND

THE SEDUCTION THEORY AND ITS REJECTION Freud discovered that, as his patients spoke to him of their pasts, they all brought up surprisingly similar childhood experiences. In their stories their hysterical illnesses inevitably referred back to a scene of sexual abuse by an older figure, usually the father but sometimes another authority figure, or a brother or sister. Interestingly, these sorts of repressed memories were shared by all his patients. Therefore Freud postulated that premature sexual contact or a traumatic sexual attack must have taken place if hysterical illness developed later in life. Although he later revised these ideas, this became his first fully developed theory of the origins of hysteria and neurosis (Freud 1896), the seduction theory. THE SEDUCTION THEORY Sometimes also known in psychoanalytic terminology as the ‘Real Event’, Freud’s seduction theory stated that repressed memories of neurotics and hysterics inevitably revealed seduction or molestation by an older figure, usually a parent: most often the father. The traumatic event which happened in childhood, however, would not be recognised as traumatic at the time. Instead a delayed reaction set in – an event later in life, when the child reached puberty, would set off a series of recollections in the child’s mind, and this delayed recognition would become a pathogenic or poisonous idea that would cause hysterical symptoms later in life. It’s interesting to note that Freud calls the seduction theory, the seduction theory, rather than the child-abuse theory or the rape theory. Already implied in the word seduction is the possibility of a willing capitulation. Seduction is a two-way street, involving the victim’s desires as well as the aggressor’s. Later, when Freud changes his mind about the meaning of this theory and postulates infantile sexual desires, the question of who seduces whom becomes key (see Gallop 1982). Freud introduced the seduction theory in his essay ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’: ‘Whatever case and whatever symptom we take as our point of departure, in the end we infallibly come to the field of sexual experience’ (Freud 1896:203). But what, precisely, is the field of sexual experience? When Freud wrote those words, in 1896, he was referring to actual bodily contact, but his ideas about that shortly began to change. As Freud continued his work with his patients he began to doubt the status of that repeated scene he had uncovered of a sexual assault by an adult towards a child. In a letter of 21 September 1897 he wrote to his close friend and scientific colleague Wilhelm Fliess that ‘I no longer believe in my neurotica’ (Masson 1985:264). This did not mean that he thought they were lying to him – rather, he meant that these events that they recalled as having taken place in reality might have actually taken place in fantasy. The re-emergence of forgotten memories is a key concept for understanding the development of Freud’s early opinions about hysteria. But memory itself was not a self-explanatory concept. Is memory always true? Can it be false? When Freud started doubting the literal truth of the stories told by his patients he changed his theory. He began to believe that infantile sexual desire alone might be formative of later neurotic symptoms. The scenes of sexual seduction changed direction – it was now the child who desired the parent, not the parent who seduced the child, and the child’s seduction of the parent happened in fantasy, not in reality. Freud’s concept of fantasy became one

of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis. FANTASY Also spelled Phantasy when used in technical psychoanalytic terminology, this concept involves an imaginary scene in which the subject who is fantasising is usually the protagonist. It represents the fulfilment of a wish in a distorted way, because consciousness cannot allow that wish to be fulfilled in reality, or even straightforwardly in the mind, because of inhibiting factors (see repression on p. 21). Fantasy takes numerous forms in order to distort the wish. Fantasies can occur consciously, as in daydreams or conscious desires, but they also can reveal themselves unconsciously through dreams or in primal fantasies (see Chapter 6). In 1896–97, at the same time that he was changing his ideas about sexual seduction, Freud was also changing his technique. Hypnotising patients in order to get them to speak was difficult for Freud. First, hypnosis was a hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes the patient was not easily hypnotisable, in which case the doctor who was attempting to hypnotise her was made to feel foolish, to lose his sense of control over the situation. You can see how the sense of the doctor’s mastery could be lost if you imagine a doctor saying to a patient as he tries to hypnotise her, ‘You are fast asleep,’ and the patient replying, ‘No I’m not.’ Freud himself never felt that he was adept at putting his patients into a hypnotic trance. But hypnotising patients also created another problem. With hypnosis the doctor could never be sure that he had not suggested certain ideas to his patients. Therefore, over time, Freud found himself drawn towards a new method of therapy, free association. The importance of free association was that the patient spoke for herself, rather than repeating the ideas of the analyst; she worked through her own material, rather than parroting another’s suggestions. FREE ASSOCIATION One of the cardinal rules of psychoanalytic practice. The patient promises that in the course of the analysis they will say to the doctor whatever comes into their mind as it occurs to them. It is when the patient and the analyst piece together the patient’s chain of associations that they can work together to unlock the patient’s problems. SUMMARY Freud and Breuer broke with a long tradition of treating hysterical women as either having inherited biological diseases or faking their illnesses. They suggested that a disease such as hysteria could be both psychological and real. Believing that the cure for hysteria might come from the patients themselves, Freud and Breuer listened to the stories their patients told about their own symptoms in order to come to an understanding of the origins of their hysterical illnesses. Freud found that the memories his patients uncovered about their childhoods often

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