Slip-up on Freud

January 15, 2009

David Pilgrim criticises Paul McHugh for failing to grasp the facts concerning Freud's "original claim about the high prevalence of incest survivors on his couch" in his book Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash over Meaning, Memory and Mind ("Dislocation and demystification", 1 January).

In doing so, he recycles Jeffrey Masson's thesis that in the 1890s Freud "betrayed and deserted true victims" of childhood sexual abuse. Evidently Pilgrim is ignorant of the work of numerous Freud scholars in recent decades, starting with Frank Cioffi in 1974, that demonstrates the falsity of the traditional story that most of Freud's female patients in the mid-1890s told him they had been sexually abused in early childhood.

This story, from Freud's later writings, is contradicted by the original 1896 papers, in which he wrote that the patients "have no feeling of remembering" the infantile "sexual scenes" that he claimed to have analytically uncovered for all his current patients, and that they "assure me emphatically of their unbelief".

Freud never provided the clinical evidence he promised would be forthcoming, so his claims have had to be taken on trust. Nor, incidentally, did the original papers highlight "incest", since the theory that he claimed to have confirmed required only there to be repressed memories of early-childhood sexual abuse, for which he listed a wide variety of supposed culprits.

Allen Esterson, London.

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