It’s a tragedy when the truth is discovered but, because of the desire to protect egos and keep secrets, that truth is then buried. That’s The Assault on Truth that J. Moussaieff Masson is writing about. His claim is that Freud discovered that children were being sexually abused and made the claim publicly, but because of his ostracization retreated from his position. If true, Freud traded protecting children for his community and fame. He may not have known he was doing it at the time, but it may have been the result.
Before I move on to the tragic claims, it’s important to surface whether these claims are supported in fact or the kind of fantasy published by tabloid newspapers. The criticisms of Masson’s work largely focus on his character rather than the validity of his claims. That’s a serious reason to ignore them. Mastering Logical Fallacies calls this approach abusive – and I agree. Rather than explaining how Masson’s conclusions aren’t correct, the focus is on him as a person.
Observationally, Masson is clear about the places that he’s “reaching” to draw conclusions. He presents the facts that lead to the conclusion and, in at least a few places, some facts that lead away from the position he’s taking. While I don’t anticipate that anyone is completely unbiased, his writing in this place has the characteristics of a reasonably well-balanced argument.
In the Morgue
The suspicions that Freud developed, that his patients were suffering due to the abuses they suffered as children, may have originated in a Paris morgue. Freud studied with Ambroise Tardieu, who was a professor of legal medicine at the University of Paris. Tardieu’s position had him performing autopsies on children who had died, and he was tasked with either validating their accidental death or determining the more sinister situations that led to the death.
Tardieu’s investigations began to uncover the frightening frequency with which sexual assaults were being perpetrated against children, particularly young girls. Despite the claims that would come later that the children were “making up stories” about their assaults, the physical evidence of the deceased didn’t lie. The assessment was that there were real assaults that had occurred. The physical trauma was consistent with the kinds of trauma from a sexual assault.
Tardieu wasn’t alone. In 1886, Paul Bernard published a book with the English-translated title, Sexual Assaults on Young Girls. Paul Brouardel published a book on the rape of children, which was published posthumously. The point isn’t to catalog the list of professionals and researchers who were elevating this real societal problem. The point is to clarify that Freud’s voice wasn’t the only voice. His ideas likely were drawn from the work of his medical mentors. But Freud’s interest was slightly different.
His focus wasn’t on the physical trauma or the brutality. His focus was on what happens to children who are sexually abused.
At this time in history, it was believed that only women got hysteria. Hysteria was extreme – and often uncontrollable – emotions. To the outside world, it didn’t make logical sense. There weren’t conditions that should have warranted the kind of response that these women were experiencing. We know today that these experiences aren’t confined to women. They’re trauma responses that can happen to any human who has experienced trauma and hasn’t been able to deal with it. (See Trauma and Recovery for more.)
However, for Freud, the behaviors were a mystery. He was trying to sort out the root cause, and he stumbled across the secret of childhood abuse and its potential relationship. As researchers came after Freud, they would ultimately dismantle psychotherapy but, in the process, validated the core tenet of the relationship between the past and the present. It would be decades before John Bowlby and others would observe and explain the vulnerability of the young and how seemingly insignificant behaviors may have overwhelming impacts later in life.
John Bowlby isn’t mentioned in the text. However, it’s important to assemble the puzzle that Freud couldn’t fully see. His initial claims were that the disturbances that occurred later in life were caused by the abuse, and therefore trauma, of their lives as children. To understand the connection, we need to understand trauma and understand how attachment plays into the ways that we respond.
Michael Meaney observed odd behaviors with rats. Some would confidently leave their safe harbors and explore. Others would cower and go nowhere. The defining difference, Meaney’s observations confirmed, was that some pups were licked and groomed by their mothers more than others. In short, the behavioral support conveyed by licking and grooming made them more confident. Believing that they’ll be comforted and supported made them more likely to see what they were capable of. This was consistent with Bowlby’s belief that young children need a secure attachment to feel confident later in life.
Harry Harlow discovered something similar with rhesus macaques (monkeys). He placed monkeys in cages with two surrogate, inanimate, mothers. One had a bottle holder where the monkeys would feed, and the other had a terrycloth covering that provided physical comfort but no milk. He found that the monkeys would go and feed but then return to their terry cloth comfort. They ate enough to live but craved the comfort the terrycloth mother provided. This, too, was consistent with Bowlby’s belief that we need more than material needs: we need to feel nurtured.
Meaney’s work with rats was a part of the discovery that it was more than genetics that influenced growth. It was the experiences animals had that altered the gene expression (activation or deactivation), which played a part in an organism’s future. While Freud didn’t have the benefit of these experiments, he intuited that something was wrong with the adults he encountered. They were behaving in odd ways that seemed inconsistent with the way that other adults behaved – just as the animal analogs would prove later.
The disordered attachment, in Bowlby’s attachment theory, comes from the idea that an abusive childhood results in behaviors that are observable. To understand why, we need to understand how much our internal sense of safety plays into our behaviors.
Our overall safety has three basic factors: our situational assessment, our mood, and our traits. Very few people have a good understanding of their perceptions of safety. We know that our responses and behaviors are shaped by numerous things well below the threshold of consciousness. (See Predictably Irrational, Influence, and Pre-Suasion.) Our perception of safety is one of those things that often is subconscious.
State and Trait (with Mood in the Middle)
Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains that our sense of fear or safety is based on our assessment of the impact and probability of the potentials that our environment – including stressors – may bring. This is divided by our capacity to cope. When we assess the probability as very low, the impact as very low, or our ability to cope very high, we’re likely to feel safe.
This moment-by-moment assessment is our state. It’s the degree to which we perceive safety in our environment. While we believe these assessments are made without bias, we know that our mood and our traits can be invisibly influencing our sense of probability and our belief about our ability to cope.
If we’re in a foul mood, we won’t realize that we over-estimate the probability and impact while simultaneously underplaying our coping capacity. The factors that cause us to assess impact are varied but generally rely on our mood and our traits. Our mood is the most short-lived but influential factor in our assessment of the situation. Of course, sustained negative evaluations can reinforce a foul mood and ultimately create a reinforcing loop.
At the other end of the spectrum is our overall disposition. Largely, we expect that there’s some degree of the way that we see the world that comes from our genes. Some of us are blessed with less reactive genes and others are cursed with overactive genes that want to find concern in everything. While trait effects from our genes make up just less than half of the impact, for most people, cultivating moods can make a big difference in the way that the current state is evaluated.
The Coming of Cults
We each have images in our head of what a cult is. In most cases, we see the people in the cult as very “other.” That is, we believe that they’re not like us. For the most part, this isn’t correct. Mostly people in cults got caught up in a system designed to transform them to a disordered attachment so that they can be manipulated. The techniques that are used are both subtle and powerful. (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.)
By changing normal attachment to disordered attachment, it’s easier to manipulate people. Cult leaders do this by sending conflicting messages of love and punishment. The messages muddle care and concern with exploitation. Their safety can be threatened more easily, and they’re more susceptible to suggestions. The cult puts people in the very vulnerable state that Freud discovered and discussed, where their future behaviors don’t conform to norms because their attachment was disrupted. Instead of by a cult leader as an adult, it’s disrupted by a family member or acquaintance as a child.
As Trauma and Recovery explains, psychological trauma is simply that we’re momentarily overwhelmed. This means that we have some sense of inherent coping capacity. This coping capacity is severely diminished in the presence of disordered attachment. The evaluation of the potential for harm is substantially larger in disordered attachment than in a securely attached individual. If we want to prevent psychological trauma, we reduce the stressors and make them safer. If we want to create disordered attachment and trauma, we can do that by sending mixed signals.
Freud and his contemporaries didn’t have the benefit of Peter Levine’s work or the researchers who discovered tonic immobility. They didn’t know that, in cases of extreme fear, it’s possible to lose the ability to voluntarily control motor neurons and therefore muscles. They didn’t understand that even strong people who are sufficiently scared can freeze in ways that they can’t immediately self-resolve.
The result was that sometimes it was decided that rape victims weren’t actually raped, because they had the strength to resist their attacker. They didn’t know that, if tonic immobility sets in, strength doesn’t matter, because there is a gap between the brain’s instructions and what the muscles will do.
Some people experience a brief glimpse of this as they wake up. They’re conscious but are also aware that they can’t move their muscles. This is a normal brain process that occurs during sleep where muscle control is disconnected to prevent you from harming yourself. In some people, the effects extend until after conscious thought, resulting in a very concerning and disorienting period.
During a rape, tonic immobility isn’t disorienting. It’s terrifying. The dynamics of the situation sometimes cause the victim to act as if it were their fault. They’ll say to themselves, “If I only fought back.” They say this not realizing that it wasn’t an option. It wasn’t a matter of lack of will. It’s a matter of brain chemistry.
Sometimes accusations of rape are dismissed because the victim didn’t fight back or, occasionally, because they had previously had sex. Hopefully, we’re beyond these conclusions; unfortunately, I’m not so sure.
Sexual Gratification at Any Price
Adults who believe that they can and should pursue their desires without regard to the cost victimize children who seek protection and tenderness. The price the child pays is problems with relationships and love for the rest of their lives. Even those who have recovered through hard work and therapy will feel the lingering effects. They’ll have to fight for normal relationships that should come naturally. All of this happens while the adult inflicts their desire for sexual gratification on someone who can’t say no.
They can’t overpower the adult. They can’t say no because of the relational power structures – and their physical power. If the adult cares more about their sexual gratification, they’ll harm the child in the act, in the disordered attachment they create, and in the sense of powerlessness that they’ll leave the child with.
It would be appropriate to classify these acts as hatred for the child rather than love that some adults hope to contort them into.
On the surface, the fact that many of the children grow to be hypersexualized makes little sense. It’s only when you realize that they’ve coupled the sexual act as being worthy and desirable that you can see how the grown child might interpret sex as a way for them to restore their value.
The paradox is that the premature sexual contact often leaves the children believing there’s something wrong with them – that it’s their fault – and they seek the same thing to relieve them of their burden. We must realize that, in the face of uncontrollable abuse, children often choose to believe that it is about them. This allows them a sense of control – even if it means they must believe they are bad to make this work. They believe that they can become good enough, so the problems don’t happen any longer. (See The Myth of Normal for more.)
While Anna Freud was growing, there was a protégé of Sigmund Freud’s who he called “dear son.” Sándor Ferenczi was Freud’s closest analytical friend. Perhaps it was the friendship that caused Freud to discourage and block Ferenczi’s publication of nearly identical to the claims that Freud made and then retracted. It seems that Ferenczi reached the same conclusion – despite Freud’s objection.
Maybe there was some bit of Freud that Ferenczi detected that still harbored the knowledge that his disavowed theory was right. The record, as edited by Anna Freud, doesn’t contain evidence of her father’s contemplation about whether he did the right thing to retract the theory. Maybe he never lost the question – he just became more adept at hiding it from the record.
Ferenczi’s paper in 1932 was almost an echo of Freud’s 1896 paper. It validated the belief that something was happening to these children, and it’s the result of this psychic trauma that was being studied all this time. It wasn’t fantasies. It was a fact. Despite his mentor’s objections, Ferenczi persisted and accepted the ostracism to ensure that those whose voices had been silenced would once again be able to speak.
The fact that it keeps coming up, that individuals keep coming to the same conclusion, is evidence that it’s the truth, and that Freud, for the benefit of his career, played his part in The Assault on Truth.