On Not Knowing What You Know:
Object-Coercive Doubting and Freud's Theory of Seduction

Ann Salyard
Draft 14: 5-4-94

I. The Announcement of the Seduction Theory: A Critical Look

Freud announced his discovery of the Seduction Theory in a lecture to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology of Vienna in April 1896; he rejected the theory in September 1897. Although his abandonment of the theory has been the subject of numerous interpretations (Balmary, 1979; Eissler, 1993; Garcia, 1989; Jones, 1953; Krull, 1979/1986 trans.; Kupfersmid, 1993; LaPlanche and Pontalis, 1967/1973 trans.; Lerman, 1986; Masson, 1984; McGrath, 1986; Miller, 1984; Robinson, 1993; Rush, 1980; Sulloway, 1979), his announcement of the theory has not received similar attention.

The fact that Freud's announcement of the Seduction Theory has been given little scrutiny likely reflects the fact that Freud's published writings were the source of the traditional account and the reason for its announcement appeared self-evident. In the 1896 lecture, Freud claimed that hysteria resulted from childhood seduction and that the discovery was "a momentous scientific breakthrough, 'the discovery of a source of the Nile' in neuropathology" (1896, p. 203). In his history of psychoanalysis, Freud said he abandoned his early belief in the theory when he discovered it was a "mistaken idea . . . which might have been almost fatal to the young science" (1914, p. 17), "an error . . . which might well have had fatal consequences for the whole of my work" (1925, p. 33). Given a long absence of data which differed from these accounts, it is not surprising that when interpreting Freud's abandonment of the theory, researchers have tended to accept Freud's original belief in its validity and the sufficiency of his evidence. Recently this situation changed. The publication in 1985 of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887 - 1904, which includes letters of this critical period, provides opportunity to gain insight into Freud's thinking about the Seduction Theory at the time he announced it.

In this paper, I examine the text of "The Aetiology of Hysteria" in light of letters Freud wrote to Fliess in the weeks before and after the lecture and conclude that these materials show that Freud doubted the Seduction Theory at the very time he presented it as a momentous scientific discovery. Freud's doubts about his theory at the time he announced it in April 1896 provide a new perspective on which to judge his abandonment of the theory in 1897.

The Audience as Others Who Doubt

The audience to whom Freud delivered "The Aetiology of Hysteria," was comprised of the elite of the Vienna medical profession, men whom Freud would recognize as authorities. Richard von Kraft-Ebbing, the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vienna, chaired the meeting. The style and content of Freud's address to this distinguished audience is striking; throughout the lecture, Freud addressed these physicians as doubters of his momentous discovery and presented content which lacked clarity and integration.

At the end of his introduction, Freud cited his finding that, "Whatever case and whatever symptom we take as our point of departure, in the end we infallibly come to the field of sexual experience." He continued: "From previous experience I can foresee that it is precisely against this assertion or against its universal validity that your contradiction, Gentleman, will be directed" (1896b, p. 199).

Freud then stated his thesis: "At the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades" (p. 203). He expressed complete confidence in the fundamental nature and importance of his findings for he declared: "I believe that this is an important finding, the discovery of a caput Nili [Source of the Nile] in neuropathology." Then, after commenting that he hardly knew "what to take as a starting-point," he asked: "Shall I put before you the actual material I have obtained from my analyses? Or shall I rather try first to meet the masses of objections and doubts which, as I am surely correct in supposing, have now taken possession of your attention?" Freud continued: "I shall choose the latter course; perhaps we shall then be able to go over the facts more calmly" (p. 203).

Freud devoted the entire second section of the paper to answering assumed objections and doubts of the audience. For example, he stated that patients' reproductions of the past referred to actual events, and were not products of the patients' imagination nor the result of patients' compliance with suggestion; he claimed that children were exposed to sexual aggression far more frequently than is commonly believed. In concluding his lecture, Freud again addressed the audience as a group who doubted his findings. He said he was prepared to meet with contradiction and disbelief, and asked that the audience not regard his conclusions as the fruit of idle speculation because they were based on "laborious individual examination of patients" (p. 220).

Though some readers might dismiss Freud's manner of address to the audience as rhetorical style, it was a style which permitted him to use the audience of physicians as Others who doubt and object to the truth he claimed to have discovered.

Theoretical Uncertainty, January - April, 1896

Freud's addressing the audience as doubters of his discoveries is especially striking in light of evidence that throughout the weeks prior to the talk, Freud himself had doubts about his work. On New Year's Day 1896, he had written to Fliess that "A gentle voice has counseled me to postpone the account of hysteria since there are still to many uncertainties in it" (p. 159). In a paper submitted for publication on February 5, Freud explained that two years of observations had enabled him to give his theory of defense a clinical foundation, but cautiously noted it was not yet possible "to bring forward the evidence needful to support my assertions," although he hoped to do it later (Freud, 1896a, p. 162).

In March, Freud continued to mention uncertainties in his work and the need for time to complete it. On March 16, he wrote Fliess that he was "not getting anywhere in my understanding of the common neuroses." However, he appeared to accept the situation, noting that he "did not need to retract anything," and that he would "set out to do the work and pull things together." He reported he had "probably neither a million, nor yet a kreuzer - but a lump of ore containing unknown quantities of precious metal" (Freud, 1985, pp. 178-179).

In early April, just three weeks before his lecture, Freud appeared to feel that, even though he was making progress, completion of his work would take much more time. He wrote Fleiss that "If both of us are still granted a few more years for quiet work, we shall certainly leave behind something that can justify our existence. Knowing this, I feel strong in the face of daily cares and worries" (p. 180).

Re-interpretation of a Key Case in April 1896

In addition to revealing the incomplete state of his work, letters written during April, May and June, 1896 reveal that the period in which Freud presented and published "The Aetiology of Hysteria" coincided with a time during which Freud was beginning to re-interpret material from one key patient, Emma Eckstein, who suffered from hysteria. Eckstein was Freud's patient in the mid-90's, and "served for Freud as a kind of experimental laboratory in which .... he could test out and develop his various hypotheses" Swales (1983, p. 4n+). Eckstein provided material with which Freud developed the Seduction Theory (Masson, 1984, pp. 87-89), the theory of transference (Salyard, 1992) and the theory that actual seduction episodes were fantasies (Schur, 1979, p. 114).

On April 16, just five days before he announced the Seduction Theory, Freud wrote to Fliess that he had "already figured out" Eckstein's story, that his explanation was completely surprising and would give Fliess much pleasure (Masson, 1985, p. 181). Details of the story he said he had figured out appear in letters of late April, May, June and the following January. Max Schur (1979) first published deleted portions of letters of May 1896 and January 1897 and drew attention to the fact that in these letters Freud's use of the word "scene" shifts from a real episode to its having connotations of fantasy connected to wish fulfillment. In his letter of May 4, 1896, Freud said, "[Emma] described a scene from the age of fifteen, in which she suddenly began to bleed from the nose when she had the wish to be treated by a certain young doctor...." Schur (1979, p. 114) cited this letter as one of three letters which are "very significant." The other letters are dated January 17 and 24, 1897 and continue the theme which first appears in May 1896. On the basis of his analysis of this material, Schur concluded that "Emma was one of the first patients who offered Freud a clue to the crucial realization that what his patients had described to him as actual seduction episodes were fantasies" (p. 114). This shift opened the way for Freud to conclude that what Eckstein and other patients described as actual seductions were fantasies.

The glimpses that we get of Freud's thinking about Eckstein in the 5 letters of spring 1896 and the two of January 1897 are fragmentary, leaving the reader with gaps and unanswered questions. Nevertheless, the letters reveal that at the very time he delivered "The Aetiology of Hysteria," Freud was beginning to re-interpret a key case along lines which gave primacy to fantasy rather than actual traumatic experience.

Bold Claim vs. Credibility of Evidence

The foregoing evidence suggests that in mid-April 1896 Freud did not feel completely confidence in the Seduction Theory. Nevertheless, on April 21, he claimed absolute certainty about its universal validity and its great significance to science. However, despite Freud's claim, I believe that he did not provide convincing evidence. Moreover, the material Freud presented contained errors and inconsistencies, and was sometimes ambiguous, confusing and lacking in clarity. Some of the inconsistencies and errors would have been apparent to the audience; some are apparent in light of Freud's later writings. Some examples of these follow.

Example of confusion: Freud devoted approximately 40% of the paper to answering assumed audience objections to his theory. At the same time, he undercut the credibility of his case material with his audience. Early in the lecture, after giving examples of two central concepts, he said that the examples were his inventions and that he even regarded "such solutions of hysterical symptoms as impossible" (Freud, 1896b, p. 196). Then, after giving imaginary examples when the audience believed they were hearing real ones, Freud went on to assure the audience that they should believe the scenes his patients' described to him were real, not imagined.

Freud used inadequate justification for use of invented examples. His claim that real examples were too complicated to describe in the period of the lecture is inconsistent with existing evidence of Freud's ability to succinctly characterize case studies (e.g. Katarina in Studies in Hysteria [1895] and Frau P. in "Further Remarks on the Neuropsychoses of Defense" [1896a]), Example of error: Freud claimed the successful completion of 18 cases, stating that in every one, he had been able to discover the connection with childhood sexual experience "in every single symptom, and, where the circumstances allowed, to confirm it by therapeutic success" (1896b, p. 199). He disclaimed any expectation that additional cases would disprove his theory. But in a letter to Fliess two weeks later he said that none of his old treatments had been completed (Freud, 1985, p. 185) and in another letter he acknowledged "the absence of complete successes on which I had counted" (p. 264).

Example of contradiction: Freud claimed that he had started his investigation with no preconceived ideas about the sexual factor in the aetiology of hysteria (Freud, 1896b, p. 199). He then stated that he regarded "the participation of sexual motive forces as an indispensable premiss" (p. 200). This assertion makes problematic the earlier statement that he had no preconceived ideas.

Example of lack of clarity: Freud made conflicting comments about attention to technique. Early in the lecture, Freud stated that he did not intend to discuss "the difficult technique of this therapeutic procedure." Yet later he stated that "The general doubt about the reliability of the psycho-analytic method can be appraised and removed only when a complete presentation of its technique and results is available" (p. 204). If this was the case, the audience might rightfully withhold believing his findings as they were not provided with a description of the techniques used in acquiring and interpreting the data.

Example of retrospective falsification: Freud's later reports of what he said in 1896 contain errors:

1) When speaking of his lack of preconceived opinions about the sexual factor, he noted that two of his mentors, Charcot and Breuer, were "far from having any such presupposition" (p. 199). Yet in The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914, pp. 13-15), Freud disclosed that two of the three "illustrious" parents of the idea were Charcot and Breuer.

2) The categories of abusers whom Freud listed in 1896 were adults who were strangers; adult caretakers including nursery maids, governesses, tutors and close relatives; and two children of different sexes, one whom had previously been seduced by an adult. Parents, though implicitly included in "close relatives" and "an adult of the female sex" were not mentioned. However, in the 1925 and 1933 accounts of the seduction theory the father was the seducer and other groups were not mentioned.

3) In his 1896 lecture, Freud presented the discovery of Seduction Theory as a highly significant contribution to science; yet in The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, he stated: "I treated my discoveries as ordinary contributions to science and hoped they would be received in the same spirit" (1914, p. 21).

4) Schimek (1987, pp. 959-960) reviewed the accounts of the Seduction Theory which Freud gave in 1905, 1906, 1914, 1917, 1925, 1933 in light of his 1896 paper and concluded that Freud repudiated versions of the Seduction Theory which had not appeared in print.

Since we do not have access to the original data obtained from his patients, our knowledge of the origins of the Seduction Theory is necessarily inconclusive. Nevertheless, after reviewing the Seduction Theory as Freud presented it in 1896, Schimek (1987) concluded that:

1) The original infantile traumas were not directly reported by patients but were reconstructed by Freud on the basis of his interpretation of a variety of more or less disguised and partial manifestations and "reproduction," with the likelihood of a strong transferential element.

2) Freud did not indicate the form in which the patients presented what he reported as findings, nor did he specify the actual ages involved.

3) Freud did not clearly or consistently distinguish between his various sources of evidence or specify the amount of inference and interpretation involved in reaching conclusions.

4) At best, Freud indicated that childhood seductions do occur.

Although he had not proved his theory, Freud's belief that he had done so is revealed in his April 28, 1896 letter in which he expressed rage at the audience, calling them "asses," who could "go to hell (euphemistically expressed)" for their unresponsive, "icy" reception of his discoveries, and the chairman's labeling the talk "a scientific fairy tale" (Freud, 1985, p. 184). He immediately sent the paper off to Weiner klinische Rundschau for publication. A contemporary reviewer of "The Aetiology of Hysteria" (Hughes, 1896) claimed that Freud was "loose in his logic and faulty in his observations and conclusions" (in Kiell, 1988, pp. 35-36). More recently, Kurt Eissler (1984) commented that Freud "did not have the evidence to support such a fundamental theory."

II. Knowing and Not Knowing: An Interpretation

On the basis of the style and content of The Aetiology of Hysteria," and of the fact that Freud was aware of theoretical uncertainties in the weeks immediately preceding the lecture, I believe that when Freud announced the Seduction Theory on April 21, he disavowed uncertainty about his theory and declared its universal validity. Freud claimed to know what he knew, but it appears he did not. The collapse of the theory is not hard to understand. What needs interpretation is Freud's declaring certainty in the first place. We need to understand what personal psychodynamics would might have contributed to his knowing and not knowing, to the fact that his intellect became the plaything of his emotions.

In my opinion, two factors which contributed significantly to Freud's announcement of the Seduction Theory were his personal psychodynamics which were affected by his experience of maternal seduction between ages two and two and a half (Salyard, 1988) and his attack of dread of dying in April 1896 (Schur, 1972).

Maternal Seduction and Object-Coercive Doubting

In a previous paper, I examined Freud's reference to himself in November 1896 as "Pegasus Yoked to the Plough," (Salyard, 1988) and concluded that in using this phrase, Freud revealed that his early experiences included maternal seduction and the primal scene. Using other of Freud's writings, I concluded that the seduction occurred between the death of Julius and the birth of Anna when Freud was between two and two and a half. I also concluded that awakening of the memories of the early experiences was traumatic and that Freud successfully warded off their reconstruction in 1896 and throughout his life.

I believe that Freud's interest in and sensitivity to the effects of childhood seduction related to his own experience of maternal seduction. However, I also believe that his capacity to investigate this issue in patients' lives had been severely impaired by the very experience which may have attracted him to the work in the first place. For, although I believe Freud warded off reconstruction of his experiences, he could not eradicate their effects; early experiences of mother shape a child's orientation to the world of reality and contribute to the development of intellectual functioning. A child who experiences maternal overstimulation at an early age uses mind-distorting defensive operations in order to continue to think and feel. Furman (1984), pointed out that early experience of incest impairs the capacity for integration and reality testing. Shengold (1979, p. 539) noted that where a young child is abused by a parent to whom the child must turn for relief, the child must break with his experience and register the bad parent delusionally as good, a mind-splitting, mind-fragmenting process. A child who clings to an idealized image of the parent with intense persistence in order to deal with the intense fear and rage resulting from the experience learns to know and not know in complex and subtle ways. In another article, Shengold (1985, p. 34) drew attention to Orwell's principle of "doublethink" as a description of an outcome of child abuse: "To know and not know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both."

Given my hypothesis of Freud's early maternal seduction, I found the concept of object-coercive doubting, especially useful in providing perspective on Freud's thinking as revealed in "The Aetiology of Hysteria." According to Kramer (1985), object-coercive doubting is a unique cognitive style which she encountered in patients who had experienced maternal incest before separation-individuation, the time at which I believe Freud's experiences occurred.

Object-coercive doubting serves the purpose of knowing and not knowing. It is characterized by the person's coercing the maternal object or substitute to argue one of the opposing sides of an intrapsychic conflict or its derivative. Kramer says that when incest occurs early, the child's personality is not sufficiently consolidated for him to be able to use the massive denial necessary to cope with it. In such circumstances, a child struggles with whether he can know or must ignore what his mind has registered; his reality testing and capacity for integration are impaired. Indeed, his reality is confused, "for the maternal part of the self-object does not permit clarity" (p. 349). Kramer pointed out:

The incomplete separation of self and object allows or possibly even forces the child to coerce the maternal object to take one of the contradictory sides in an argument that expresses the child's extreme conflict, which he cannot assimilate or handle in any way except by doubting (p. 348).

The child's constant, tormenting doubt is usually about knowing something. The child takes one side of the argument and forces the maternal object to take the other, but there is no resolution, no closure. Denial does not work. Doubts are better than a terrible truth. Kramer reported that her patients' doubting and questioning did not stop until the maternal stimulation was analyzed (p. 335).

Kramer believes that the defense described by Freud which appears closest to object-coercive doubting is disavowal, a defense the ego can use when it needs to fend off some distressing demand from the external world; the ego does this by disavowing perceptions which bring about knowledge of this demand. According to Freud, writing near the end of his life, disavowals "occur very often. . .and. . .turn out to be incomplete attempts at detachment from reality" (Freud, 1940, pp. 203-204).

Dread of Dying and Unconscious Distortion of Judgment

In recounting the history of psychoanalysis years later, Freud termed the Seduction Theory "an error...which might well have had fatal consequences for the whole of my work" (1925, p. 33). Earlier Freud noted that an error indicates a struggle with some type of disturbing influence "due to mental processes lying outside our intention" (1901, p. 221). Freud also singled out errors in scientific judgment for special comment: "Only for the rarest and best adjusted minds does it seem possible to preserve the picture of external reality as they perceive it from distortion which occurs in the course of normal life of individuals" (p. 229). So a question which arises is: did a disturbance occur in April 1896 which could have affected Freud's scientific judgment.

Freud's April 16 letter to Fliess revealed that he had an attack of Todesangst, dread of dying (Freud, 1985, p. 181; Jones, 1953, p. 305-306; Schur, 1972, p. 104, n7). The attack was brought on by identification with the well-known sculptor, Victor Tilgner, who had died that morning, just five days before his ultimate artistic triumph, a statue of Mozart, was to have been unveiled in Vienna amid much ceremony. This serious disturbance could have affected Freud's judgment and contributed to his claiming to have made a significant scientific discovery.

Schur reported that the newspaper articles about Tilgner were "`made to order' for Freud to have a neurotic identification with him," so that Freud's reaction to the news of Tilgner's death - in essence, was `There but for the grace of God go I'" (Schur, 1972, p. 100). Anzieu reports that following Tilgner's death, Freud "suffered a fresh and more serious outbreak of symptoms, pondering. . . that. . .all great innovators are doomed . . .to die before success is theirs" (1975/1986, p. 166).

Unquestionably, Freud had the rare mind of a genius; however, in the 1890s, he was not among the best adjusted; indeed, during the 90's, Freud exhibited considerable psychoneuroses (Anzieu, p. 160; Jones 1953, pp. 305-306) including alternation between periods of elation and self-confidence on the one hand and periods of severe depression, doubt and inhibition on the other. Freud functioned throughout this period; however, his suffering was very intense and according to Jones "for those ten years there could have been only occasional intervals where life seemed much worth living" (pp. 304-305). According to Schur (1972), Freud's letter of April 16, 1896 - five days before he presented the Seduction Theory - provides evidence of the severity of his conflicts (pp. 97-99).

Freud's attack of Todesangst occurred at a time of vulnerability. Tilgner's death happened the day after the anniversary of the death of Freud's brother, Julius; it also coincided with a time when Freud expected to die; his 40th birthday, May 6, was a few weeks away and he had not realized his professional ambitions. He had suffered great disappointment in the reception of Studies in Hysteria; and he had abandoned The Project for a Scientific Psychology late in 1895 when the possibility of empirical verification of his theoretical formulations seemed to have eluded him. His relationship with his former mentor, Breuer, cast "a deep shadow over [his] existence" and he felt he "could do nothing right for him and [had] given up trying" (Freud, 1985, p. 175).

In addition to frustration from unrealized professional ambitions, Freud's daily work with patients had presented him with unavoidable stresses. As he later remarked, "Constant attention to patients' unconscious material which is struggling for expression stirs up in the analyst all the instinctual demands which he is otherwise able to keep under suppression" (Freud, 1937, p. 249). In addition to Freud's patients, his family of 6 children between 4 months and 9 years brought both economic and emotional pressures including need for a moratorium on his sexual life. Freud's father was in a terminal illness, so he could anticipate responsibility for his mother.

Given the stresses in Freud's life at the time, it appears that Freud was unable to preserve the picture of external reality as he had perceived it earlier in 1896 against the distortions introduced by his unconscious in the face of death. The possibility of unconscious distortion of data is plausible since Freud's data was derived from observations made in an interpersonal context with the strong likelihood of unresolved transference and coutertransference issues. In 1896, Freud had not begun his systematic self-analysis nor did he fully understand the dynamics of transference and countertransference. In addition, Freud's style of lecturing allowed latitude for the emergence of unconscious material. Freud seldom made much preparation for a lecture and seldom used notes, preferring to leave himself open to the inspiration of the moment (Jones, 1953, p. 341).

Freud's wish to make a significant scientific discovery is easy to understand. Had he proved it the Seduction Theory - had he really demonstrated the solution to a more-than-thousand-year-old problem - some of his deepest longings would have been fulfilled. In his September 21, 1897 letter to Fliess, he reflected:

"The expectation of eternal fame was so beautiful, as was that of certain wealth, complete independence, travels, and lifting the children above the severe worries that robbed me of my youth. Everything depended upon whether or not hysteria would come out right" (Freud, 1985, p. 266).

I believe that when in the throes of an attack of fear of dying, Freud's drive for immortal fame through scientific achievement drowned out the gentle voice which had counseled him earlier in the year to "postpone the account of the hysteria." Freud disavowed his perception that his theory had gaps and was not ready. His change of position from doubt to certainty appears to have been a breakthrough of a sense of a truth which he knew and could not let himself know: seduction in early childhood leaves "countless permanent effects which deserve to be traced in the greatest detail" (Freud, 1896b, p. 215).

Persistence of Doubts

Five days following the lecture, Freud began a letter to Fliess:

"You have not written for a long time, which means that either you are feeling so well that you are able to do a lot of work, or you feel quite bad; and this uncertainty of interpretation really ruins the present for me" (Freud, 1985, p. 183).

Two sentences later Freud broke off the letter. Uncertainty about the meaning of Fleiss' silence appears to have been disturbing him. I believe that at another level, the uncertainty of interpretation which was ruining Freud's present may have related both to his patients' scenes and to the meaning of the icy silence of the audience to whom he had lectured.

Six months following the lecture, when Freud's father died, and Freud's "whole past stirred," he referred to himself as "Pegasus yoked to the plough." This is the reference I have interpreted as revealing Freud's transient, concealed reference to his own early experience of maternal seduction and the primal scene (Salyard, 1988). During late 1896 and early 1897, Freud warded off memories of those early events. Then in his letter to Fliess of August 14, 1897, he referred to his own symptoms as hysteria for the first time. Using his own theory, this would mean he had been seduced as a young child. In the same letter Freud said he was "tormented by grave doubts about [his seduction] theory" (Freud, 1985, p. 261). Five weeks later, Freud wrote to Fliess that he had abandoned the theory. I believe that Freud's rejection of the Seduction Theory, even as he doubted, appears to have grown out of need to fend off what he thought he remembered.

Given Freud's uncertainties in 1896, and the circumstances under which Freud had presented it, the fact that Freud's belief in the Seduction Theory was short-lived is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that even after he told Fliess he had abandoned his neurotica, he continued to vacillate about the role of seduction in hysteria. In an earlier section, I noted that Kramer stated that her patients' doubting and questioning did not stop until the maternal sexual stimulation had been analyzed; I also noted that Freud's relationship with his mother remained repressed and unanalyzed throughout his life (Gay, 1988, p. 505; Salyard, 1988).

Following the death of his father, Freud turned his attention to writing The Interpretation of Dreams and in the years following, psychoanalysis became a psychology of the evolving inner mental life and its vicissitudes. Though Freud acknowledged the fact of the occurrence of seduction throughout his life, he did not give it the aetiological significance he had claimed in 1896. Throughout his life, he continued to debate the question of inner and outer reality and whether patients' material is based on fact or fantasy and whether it really matters. For example, toward the end of his life, he wrote that the child's first erotic object is the mother's breast and that by her provision of nourishment and care of the child's body, the mother arouses physical sensations, pleasurable and unpleasurable and thereby "becomes [the child's] first seducer." Yet, right after, he negated the significance of the child's experience when he added: "In all this the phylogenetic foundation has so much the upper hand over personal accidental experience that it makes no difference whether a child has really sucked at the breast or has been brought up on the bottle and never enjoyed the tenderness of a mother's care" (1940, p. 188).


The foregoing discussion reveals that Freud was not certain about the Seduction Theory at the time of its announcement; nor did he reject it as completely as his accounts suggest. Doubt followed his rejection of the theory. Freud's comment about the compelling force of the pleasure principle, written near the end of his life, provides perspective on what I believe was operating in both April 1896 and in September 1897:

"The psychical apparatus is intolerant of unpleasure; it has to fend it off at all costs, and if the perception of reality entails unpleasure, that perception - that is, the truth - must be sacrificed....One cannot flee from oneself; flight is no help against internal dangers. And for that reason, the defensive mechanisms of the ego are condemned to falsify one's internal perception and to give one only an imperfect and distorted picture of one's id. In its relations to the id, therefore, the ego is paralyzed by its restrictions or blinded by its errors; and the result of this in the sphere of psychical events can only be compared to being out walking in a country one does not know and without having a good pair of legs" (Freud, 1937, p. 237).

Freud's image of walking in a country he did not know without a good pair of lets is reminiscent of his dream of dissecting his own pelvis written just before the completion of The Interpretation of Dreams and is a reference to his self-analysis. In that dream, Freud was making his way through a changing landscape where the ground was boggy and slippery and his legs were tired, having just been restored to his body after the dissection of his pelvis.

Nearly 30 years later, when Freud wrote about abandoning his erroneous belief in his patients' stories, he described his mistake as "of the same kind as would be made by someone who believed that the legendary story of the early kings of Rome (as told by Livy) was historical truth instead of what it is in fact - a reaction against the memory of times and circumstances that were insignificant and occasionally, perhaps inglorious" (SE, XX, p. 35). I believe this comment suggests that Freud's remarks about the early events of psychoanalysis can be understood, not as literal historical truth, but as his reaction against the memory of those times - including his lecture to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology of Vienna, that were, perhaps, inglorious.

Yet, however inglorious and perhaps shameful the memories of April 1896 may have been to Freud, and whatever his need to write history in reaction against those times, I believe that it is important to bear in mind that Freud's struggle to perceive, understand and interpret patients' material was an tremendous challenge, given his own unanalyzed experiences, including those connected with early maternal seduction. In 1896, Freud was indeed walking in a country he did not know without a good pair of legs.


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Copyright (c) 1990, 1994, Ann Salyard. All rights reserved.

A draft of this paper was published as:

Salyard, A. (1994). On not knowing what you know: Object-coercive doubting and Freud's theory of seduction. Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 659-676.

An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the 1990 Spring Meeting of the Division for Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association in New York.