A Theory for the 90s:
Traumatic Seduction in Historical Context

Douglas A. Davis1
Haverford College

Abstract

During the last five years of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud developed most of the core psychodynamic and developmental insights that became psychoanalysis. Freud's articulation and subsequent partial repudiation of a specific etiology ("seduction") theory for the neuroses represents a crucial chapter in the transformation of his positivist science into a modern hermeneutics. These changes in Freud's theoretical stance are complexly involved with his self-analysis and early clinical practice, and they form an important chapter in the intellectual history of psychodynamic psychology. The pre-psychoanalytic theory of traumatic etiology was a significant advance in epidemiological thinking and remains an important model for studying the effects of early emotional experience on personality development and adult psychopathology.

Psychoanalysis, as a related body of clinical technique, interpretive strategy, and developmental theory, took shape in a decade centered on 1900, spanning the period between the publication of Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895) and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905). Within this decade of fertile intellectual activity a four-year span, comprising the papers outlining the "Seduction Theory" (Freud, 1896a. 1896b, 1896c) and the completion of The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900), is of special interest for an assessment of the process by which psychoanalytic psychology evolved. Recent biographical work on Freud has also revealed the richness and complexity of the personal influences on his theorizing during these crucial mid-life years. One thinks, for example, of Anzieu's (1975/1986) Freud's Self-Analysis, Balmary's (1979/1982) Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis, Krüll's (1979/1986) Freud and His Father, and a series of papers by Swales (1982, 1983, 1989) concerning the subjective dimensions of Freud's early work. This new biographical work underscores the value for Freud scholarship of the material contained in his letters to Fliess throughout the 1890s (Masson, 1985). Reexamination of Freud's early published work in light of new biographical information offers the possibility of more fully understanding the core tensions informing all of psychoanalysis, and of locating Freud's discourse more appropriately in modern thought.

The aspect of Freud's work with which I am concerned here involves his transition from an empirically-articulated and (at least in principle) refutable theory of specific traumatic etiology for the neuroses in the middle 1890s to a less testable but more heuristic theory of psychodynamics and interpretation at the turn of the century. This intellectual exegesis has much to teach us as we approach the end of our own century of modernity, and Freud's early work proves strongly resonant with recent critical perspectives in history, criticism, and psychology (cf. Bruner, 1990; Gay, 1988; Spence, 1982, 1987). I will summarize Freud's initial theorizing regarding the effects of childhood trauma on the disposition to neurosis and relate these theoretical changes to his clinical practice and his self-analysis during the year following the death of his father, Jacob Freud, in October, 1896. As the other papers in this set attest (Coleman, 1994; Hartke, 1994; Salyard, 1994), Freud's theoretical moves during this crucial period are richly connected to his personal struggle to understand himself. On the other hand, work as theoretically complex and heuristic as Freud's in the period 1895-1900 demands to be understood in its philosophical and scientific context as well.

Freud's Early Theories of Neurotic Etiology

Freud's early writings on clinical phenomena make a fundamental distinction between two classes of psychopathology: the psychoneuroses or "neuro-psychoses of defence" (Freud, 1894, 1896b), including hysteria and obsession-compulsion, in which personality structures resulting from defensive attempts to deal with traumatic experiences in childhood predispose the individual to later psychopathology; and the "actual neuroses" (Freud, 1898), including anxiety neurosis and neurasthenia, in which contemporary causes suffice to explain a psychopathology of adult onset. Neurasthenia, or "nervous exhaustion," was a common psychiatric term in Freud's day, describing the presumed physical and emotional consequences of excessive stress on the nervous system. It was a common diagnosis where no organic cause could be found for vague physical complaints. Freud defined "anxiety neurosis" in an 1895 paper and described the stressors that characteristically produce neurotic anxiety. These are primarily in the realm of sexuality, Freud argued, and include a variety of sources of sexual frustration: coitus interruptus, impotence, and anxiety over pregnancy (Davis, 1990b).

Freud's speculation about the causes of psychopathology at this time assumed that both forgotten childhood trauma and a variety of adult stresses could cause neurosis, and that their influence was additive: a significant childhood disposition or a congenital physiological weakness could lead to the emergence of a psychoneurosis as a response to average levels of adult stress, while exceptional stress could produce an actual neurosis even in the absence of clear disposition. Since he believed that the most prevalent and problematic adult stresses where neurasthenia and anxiety neurosis were concerned were in the realm of sexuality, Freud studied the details of sexual satisfaction and frustration among his bourgeois Victorian peers and patients (cf. Ellenberger, 1970). By the middle of the 1890s he had become an advocate of sexual expression and orgiastic satisfaction for both sexes. Any emotional or physical interference with the full cycle of sexual arousal and satisfaction could serve as a cause of anxiety neurosis or as a contributing factor in psychoneurosis. And since, in Freud's view, female sexual gratification in intercourse depended on the male's completion of adequate foreplay and intromission, "it is positively a matter of public interest that men should enter upon sexual relations with full potency" (Freud, 1898, p. 278 -- emphasis in original).

Many of the draft manuscripts and notes sent by Freud to Fliess in the early 1890s concern the psychopathological effects of incomplete coitus and of other sources of sexual frustration. "Draft B." mailed to Fliess in February, 1893 and titled "The Etiology of the Neuroses," begins with the assertion that "neurasthenia actually can only be a sexual neurosis" (Masson, 1985, p. 39; emphasis in original), and Freud attributed neurasthenia in males to masturbation and to "onanismus conjugalis -- incomplete intercourse in order to prevent conception," which may function in a cumulative fashion or in conjunction with other factors (Masson, 1985, pp. 40-41). Whereas male neurasthenia typically begins after puberty and expresses itself clearly in the patient's 20s, Freud suggests, female neurasthenia in married women is often "derived from neurasthenia in a man," and "in that case there is almost always an admixture of hysteria and we have the common mixed neurosis of women" (Masson, 1985, p. 42).

The late 1890s saw a fundamental transformation of Freud's clinical and theoretical frame of reference, as he formulated a distinctive psychology combining both the scientific and the humanistic currents in his intellectual milieu. By reconstruction of Freud's interests as a student at the University of Vienna in the 1870s, McGrath (1986) has shown that the formulation of psychoanalysis 20 years later was in part an attempt at synthesis between the idealist philosophy of Brentano and the positivist reductionism of Br_cke (cf. Ellenberger, 1970). As he found his own rhetorical voice in the self-analytic years of 1896-1899, Freud advanced two arguments about the relation of childhood to adult sexual experiences: first of children as the objects of adults' perverse assaults and later of children as subject to oedipal desires and hostilities directed at their parents. In the first instance fathers and other care-givers were alleged to have raped children; in the second, children were alleged to have imagined raping their mothers, and to have elaborated fearful fantasies of their father as a result. The early theory claimed to have identified the distinctive (logically necessary) cause of the common neuroses, while the second claims to be a universal psychology of personality development. Some children have been abused, according to Freud -- but all have experienced Oedipus complex. The first theoretical position, adequately corroborated, would have assured Freud a modest chapter in the history of scientific psychiatry; the latter, although still problematic as science, has become a core intellectual attitude of the modern era. From an empiricist concern with detecting, unearthing, and detoxifying the residues of actual traumatic events in the patient's past, Freud moved to a hermeneutics of desire in which the emotional connotations rather than the facticity of childish memory shape the neurotic process and point to its cure.

By the time Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895) had gone to press, Freud's clinical attention was primarily on the psychoneuroses, and he set out to articulate the reasons common stresses such as marital sexuality gave rise to florid hysterical or obsessive symptoms in some, but not other, individuals. He seems to have become concerned with problems of child abuse in part because he saw reconstruction of the abusive history as evidence for a critical-period view of neurotic development: any genital stimulation of a very young child was almost certain to be traumatic because of the child's primitive emotional and cognitive resources and would give rise to psychological defenses (repression, reaction-formation, undoing) that would dispose the affected person to neurosis under even moderate adult stress.

Freud's early theoretical positions are recorded primarily in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess (Masson, 1985) and in volume three of the Standard Edition, titled "Early Psychoanalytic Publications." The 14 short pieces comprising volume three span a 7-year period and are not contrived as a coherent whole, yet they display Freud's theoretical concerns and his style of argumentation at the dawn of psychoanalysis. The set of published papers traces the evolution of Freud's thinking from his early alignment with Charcot's theory of hysteria (Freud, 1893) as the consequence of heredity (degeneracy, 'famille n»vropathique') with incidental environmental contributing causes ('agents provocateurs'), through the collaboration with Breuer (Breuer & Freud, 1895), to his own articulation of distinctive etiological courses for the "neuropsychoses of defence" (hysteria, obsession, phobia) with a distinctive childhood sexual trauma in each (Freud, 1894, 1896a, 1896b, 1896c). Freud clearly believed at the time that this etiological work would be the basis for his appointment to an appointment to an academic medical professorship. During this period Freud outlined, but never produced, a major treatise on neurosis. He seems to have planned to synthesize his clinical work and articulate his nascent views on interpretation and psychosexual development in a book on the distinctive course and treatment of the common psychoneuroses (Masson, 1985, pp. 178-179, 205; Freud, 1896b, p. 162-163, n. 2). In March, 1896, he described to Fliess writing on a sheet of paper "as a young poet tends to do," the title of a next work on the neuroses, behind which "looms a second and more beautiful work -- Psychology and Psychotherapy of the Neuroses of Defense -- for which I am allowing myself years of preparation and into which I shall put my whole soul" (Masson, 1985, p. 178).

Freud's primary concern in these early psychiatric and neuropsychological works was with the specific etiology of the common neurotic disorders, i.e., with the developmental preconditions under which prevalent subsequent life experiences such as the debut of sexual intercourse after marriage would give rise to one or another psychopathological condition. This concern with articulating the distinctive, developmentally necessary, features of the premorbid development of neurotics spanned the period of Freud's collaboration with Josef Breuer, as reported in their 1893 "Preliminary Communication" and in the 1895 Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895). The Freud/Breuer treatise described hysteria in terms of symptoms that were the reified symbolic representations of traumatic memories thereby kept unconscious and prevented from normal decay in intensity. "Thus," Freud asserted in his 1897 abstract of Studies, "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" (Freud, 1897, p. 244). Why some individuals might be especially susceptible to such reminiscences Breuer and Freud largely attribute to heredity. In this view hereditary disposition was the necessary cause of hysteria, and specific traumatic events -- whether in childhood or at the onset of the adult illness -- were incidental, incapable of producing psychopathology except where a predisposition existed.

"Seduction"

Freud borrowed the form of this argument, but not its content, in his own contributions the following year. He had in mind in 1896 an etiological theory focusing on ego-incompatible childhood experiences as the sources of susceptibility to the class of later illness he had labeled "neuropsychoses of defense" (Freud, 1894), because the core dynamic of each illness was the patient's warding off of the traumatic memory by means of psychological defense mechanisms -- repression in hysteria, undoing and reaction formation in obsession. Although the sources of these defences were held to be physical acts and their physiological effects on the child, the critical explanatory constructs Freud employed even in his early theorizing are primarily psychological, as Garcia (1987) has convincingly argued. This new theory reassessed the relative contributions of hereditary and of early environmental causes of psychopathology (Freud, 1896a) and specified the childhood erotic experiences which were precursors to the adult neurosis (Freud, 1895, 1896a, 1896b, 1896c, 1898). These experiences were in general ones Freud's society -- like our own -- considered to be instances of sexual abuse. It was a corollary of this theory of traumatic etiology that behind every neurosis there stands a perversion, separated by a generation and expressing itself as abuse of the child who will years later become neurotic (see Laplanche, 1987/1989, pp. 107-109). As to whom these perverted abusers of the child might have been, Freud variously mentioned adult strangers, nursemaids and other care-givers, and other children (Freud, 1896b, p. 164; 1896c, p. 208). Strachey has noted (Freud, 1896b, p. 164, note 2) that Freud seemed reticent in the 1896 publications about naming fathers as abusers of their children, although he had repeatedly mentioned them in his letters to Fliess. Despite the usual characterization this early etiological position as the "seduction" theory, the notion that the child might be moved to cooperate in the sexual events -- might in fact be seduced as well as abused -- developed only sporadically in the period immediately following Studies on Hysteria. The idea of the child's becoming an active participant in precocious eroticism already points toward the idea of "infantile sexuality," on which Freud would later base so many of his psychoanalytic formulations. While this revised theory did not deny the role of hereditary susceptibility in many cases, the focus was quite different. Now universal stages of child development were associated with vulnerability to particular classes of traumatic event. The new theory cast hysteria, obsession, perversion, and anxiety neurosis as alternate consequences of childhood trauma; and Freud's attention was thus focused on critical periods of child development and on classes of early experience predisposing the future patient to one or another syndrome, as well as to stressful details of adult life evoking symptomatology in predisposed individuals (Freud, 1898, p. 279).

As of 1896, for example, Freud argued that hysteria was the post-pubertal result of having played a passive role in childhood sexual episodes, while obsession-compulsion suggested that the (somewhat older) child had been moved to active arousal by childhood seduction. Freud's articulation of this sexual-trauma etiology of hysteria and obsession was presented to Fliess in October, 1895, as Anzieu (1975/1986, p. 161) has noted. Hysteria, Freud affirmed, is the result of a "presexual sexual shock," while "obsessional neurosis is the consequence of a presexual sexual pleasure" (Masson, 1985, pp. 144; Anzieu, 1975/1986, p. 161). Freud's concern in this period was not only with explanation but with amelioration of the adult neurosis by means of restoring the lost memories to consciousness (Freud, 1896c, p. 193). Freud commented in the next letter that he was convinced both disorders are "in general, curable -- not just individual symptoms but the neurotic disposition itself" (Masson, 1985, p. 145). A fortnight later Freud credited a patient with the clinical confirmation that "sexual shock" in the form of "infantile abuse" caused the later hysteria (Masson, 1985, p. 149).

The patient apparently referred to by Freud, identified throughout the Fliess correspondence as "E.," seems to have been Freud's first long-term male analysand. I have argued in a recent paper (Davis, 1990a) that "E."'s treatment coincided with -- and served as evidence for -- Freud's movement away from a traumatic theory of neurotic etiology and toward psychoanalysis proper. While early in the treatment of "E." Freud represented the task of therapy as uncovering evidence of real childhood trauma, by the conclusion of therapy it was the patient's need to experience his childhood as abusive that seemed central (Davis, 1990, p. 194; Masson, 1985, p. 409). Finally, the personal experience of the analyst was as crucial as that of the patient, with Freud comparing "E."'s agoraphobia to his own anxiety about train travel and attributing both neuroses to similar infantile Oedipal wishes. By this time Freud was also intensely involved -- for both personal and professional reasons -- in speculation about the arrangement of events in memory, and this in turn forced on him problems of ascertaining the accuracy of recalled events. These vexed questions led him to try a variety of formulations about memory organization, from which he began to produce the modern, fully psychological, conception of the mind we recognize as "Freudian." At this point the basis had been laid for a developmental psychology of emotional relationships and a therapeutic technique in which exploring the attachment to the analyst would be as important as the recovery of lost memories. It was the more explicit or "special" version of the seduction theory that Freud "abandoned" in 1897, as Laplanche has argued (Laplanche, 1987/1989, pp. 104-116). The "general" theory that gradually replaced the specific, of which both Freud's pivotal 1899 paper "Screen Memories" and The Interpretation of Dreams are the result, became psychoanalysis.

Re-evaluating the Seduction Theory

As noted above, this fertile period of theoretical reformulation culminated, not in an explicit statement of Freud's new position on the neuroses, but instead in a hermeneutic work on the meaning of dreams, in which the factual basis for mental phenomena is of merely ancillary interest (as "day residues") and the unconscious wish must always be inferred from a fragile array of associative links among the imperfectly recalled dream elements. Instead, after The Interpretation of Dreams, psychoanalysis developed gradually around a series of partial case histories and theoretical attacks on component problems for Freud's new discipline, with the clinically sparse Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905) as his major subsequent discourse on etiology.

The degree to which Freud changed his mind about the seduction theory, and his reasons for doing so, have attracted a great deal of attention in recent years (cf. Masson, 1984; Garcia, 1987). Most of these discussions have referred to Freud's own stated reasons in a famous letter to Fliess from September 1897, 11 months after the death of his father. In one of the most striking passages from the Fliess correspondence, Freud reported his loss of conviction about the seduction theory (his "neurotica") and articulated the reasons for his change of mind. In light of the careful scrutiny this letter has received in recent discussions of Freud (see McGrath, 1986; Krüll, 1979/1986; Balmary, 1979/1982), it is rather surprising that the entire set of reasons Freud gave for abandoning his "neurotica" has received little attention. Freud mentioned several motives for his change of mind, classed in groups.

The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring a single analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial successes in other ways, in the usual fashion -- this was the first group. Then the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own,[2] had to be accused of being perverse -- [and] the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, with precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable. The [incidence] of perversion would have to be immeasurably more frequent than the [resulting] hysteria because the illness, after all, occurs only where there has been an accumulation of events and there is a contributory factor that weakens the defense. Then, third, the certain insight that there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect. (Accordingly, there would remain the solution that the sexual fantasy invariably seizes upon the theme of the parents) (Masson, 1985, p. 264).

Freud's concerns are presented as two sets, the first including a variety of problems with using the patient's recollections, the anamnesis, to establish the correctness of the etiological theory: the seeming interminableness of many of his analyses; early (pre-therapeutic, counter-phobic) terminations of seemingly ideal patients; the lack of full therapeutic success even when the childhood memory seemed to have been fully recovered; and the availability of alternate explanations for partial successes. The second set had to do with the implausibly central role of fathers in the abusive experiences recalled by neurotics, and the consequent need in view of Freud's causal assumptions (i.e., that childhood trauma was necessary but not sufficient to produce the later neurosis) to assume a very high prevalence of father-child incest. One consideration -- that perverse acts against children might be common -- was epidemiological, while the other -- that fathers, including Freud's own, stand condemned -- is Oedipal/psychoanalytic. The concern that, if the theory were correct, the abreaction of remembered traumas should produce remission of symptoms suggests a causal argument like that advanced by Breuer and Freud and partially carried over into psychoanalysis, although largely ignored in the post-Freudian literature (cf. Meehl, 1973).

The third of Freud's criticisms of his earlier position -- having to do with the difficulty of establishing that any long-term memory was factual -- was the most telling, and the most over-determined. This was to be the argument of his brilliant short paper on "Screen Memories" two years later (Freud, 1899). This issue -- the practical impossibility of reliably distinguishing memory from wish in the unconscious -- points directly to central issues in psychoanalysis: the need for free association and extensive anamnesis in the context of a relationship between analyst and patient that allows continued study of the role of emotional needs in the memories and fantasies of each. In the psychoanalytic transference therapy Freud was beginning to practice by the time he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, no particular memory could be known with certainty but the web of connectedness that gradually emerged from the collaboration of therapist and patient was believed to reveal the salient aspects of the latter's personality.

One widely cited discussion of Freud's change of position, that of Masson (1984), refers to Freud's theoretical turn in 1896 as an active "suppression," rather than either an empirically justified revision or a defensive distortion, of the seduction theory. On this view Freud -- recognizing the professional cost of attempting to confront Victorian pretensions with the reality of child abuse, and moved also by his shame at the possibility that Fliess's malpractice with Emma Eckstein (cf. Gay, 1988, pp. 84-85; Schur, 1972, pp. 79-84) had exacerbated her problems -- focused on the more palatable alternative view that it was patients' own desires that made them ill. Masson finds in Freud's letter of September, 1897, evidence of an "internal reconciliation" to collegial objections he had adequately dealt with in his 1896 papers (Masson, 1984, p. 110). While Masson's argument pertaining to Eckstein has interesting implications for the evaluation of Freud's nascent theory of transference (cf. Salyard, 1992), it does little justice to the ambivalence with which Freud had earlier presented the seduction theory, as Salyard's paper in this set suggests. Furthermore, Masson's contention that Freud at a crucial juncture gave in to collegial criticism flies in the face of Freud's lifelong and almost monomaniacal assumption that his theories would evoke criticism and his insistence that therein lay some of the evidence for their correctness. More persuasive are arguments that on the one hand the empirical basis for assuming prepubertal sexual abuse in every case was extremely dubious (Garcia, 1987), and on the other that it was the partly the personal implications of the theory in light of Freud's self-analysis ("not excluding my own [father]") that gave him pause and facilitated a theory that underscores the child's, and blurs the adult's, culpability (Balmary, 1979/1982).

Conclusion

A combination of spotty evidence and his own ambivalence overcame Freud's seduction theory, and the successor general theory -- psychoanalysis -- has surely done more for psychology and psychiatry than the specific theory could have. While we are still in doubt over whether the products of Freud's mature genius belong with Science or with Art, the subtle reading of psychodynamics begun with The Interpretation of Dreams continues to provide the hermeneutic ground for modern thought. Societal attention is again focused on the psychological consequences of traumatic histories, however, and on the recurrence of the child's abuse a generation later in the adult's parenting; and we have in the current literature on post-traumatic stress disorder and recovered memories a new preoccupation with "actual" neurosis. An intense debate continues over the prevalence and the pathogenic import of parent-child incest, and one commentator has recently suggested that the discussion "has come full circle: from incest as social fact to incest as unconscious fantasy to incest as social fact" (Diamond 1989, p. 421). We are again involved as our own century draws to a close in pained reassessment of the violence and the seductiveness with which adult society treats the young (cf. Miller, 1981/1984), and once again it becomes problematic to know how to distinguish a memory of an actual emotional event from an emotion transferred to a constructed image of such an event.

Despite Freud's dissatisfaction with the seduction theory, and despite the superficiality of some recent discussion of his reasons for replacing it with the less deterministic but far more subtle propositions of psychoanalysis proper, this early theory deserves close re-examination. It reveals much about the concerns that motivated Freud during the most productive period of his life as a psychological theorist. Furthermore, Freud's careful examination of the requirements for an adequate theory of specific etiology for the neuroses remains a milestone in the literature on the effects of traumatic events on later psychological health. The interrelationship and relative importance of fantasy and reality, of whether psychoanalytic data should aspire to narrative or to historical truth (Spence, 1982) has become one of the most fertile grounds for interdisciplinary discussion of psychoanalytic ideas. This proto-psychoanalytic theory of Freud's merits study not only because it forms an essential early chapter in the history of psychoanalysis, but also because it presents in a rigorous manner components of any adequate theory of traumatic etiology. Specific etiology remains a core problem for psychiatry (Meehl, 1973). Freud's highly original work on this subject should be part of the burgeoning discussion of the specific effects of early experience on adult personality. Then the real work, of building a psychology of persons in which both contemporary psychodynamics and etiological constructs play a role, can begin -- with Freud's 1896 "seduction" theory setting some of the agenda. It is, indeed, a theory for the '90s.

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