Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson stumbled onto secrets that Anna Freud urged him to forget. She had given the young psychoanalyst and researcher free run of her father’s final home. There he found letters and notes showing that Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychoanalysis, harbored misgivings about some of his most famous conclusions. In 1984, Masson documented this history in his ground-breaking book, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.
In 1895 and 1896 Freud, listening to his women patients, learned that something dreadful lay in their past. Doctors who had heard these stories before had called their patients "hysterical" and had dismissed their memories as mere fantasy. Freud was the first psychiatrist who publicly admitted that he believed his patients were telling the truth: These women were sick because something terrible and secret had been done to them as children.
Freud disclosed this to his colleagues when he delivered his lecture on "The Aetiology of Hysteria" before the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna on April 21, 1896. He theorized that significant mental illness in adults comes from sexual abuse and violence perpetrated on them as children, often by their own fathers. Freud called it the "seduction theory."
The gentlemen who sat before him belonged to the same upper middle class as his patients. Freud frequently encountered those patients at parties, theatres, and exhibitions; he sometimes knew their fathers. His theory elicited icy silence. He felt himself instantly frozen out of that society.
Masson obtained a letter Freud wrote to the one friend and colleague who stood by him: "I am as isolated as you could wish me to be: the word has been given out to abandon me, and a void is forming around me."
Recoiling from the isolation, Freud realized a change was needed. By 1899, perhaps influenced by his friend's emerging views of infantile sexuality, Freud propounded a new theory, the "Oedipal complex." Instead of parents seducing and violating their children, as his patients had described to him, he now hypothesized that children merely imagine this seduction and then respond to their own fantasies with aggressive impulses against their parents. This leads to hysterical neurosis.
The psychoanalytic community breathed a sigh of relief, announced that Freud had recanted, and became heavily invested in ignoring his earlier findings.
Ironically, Freud and the friend he kept writing to--ear, nose, and throat physician Wilhelm Fliess—shared their own guilty secret of horribly botched surgery testing theories of female sexuality. Furthermore, Fliess' son, Robert, born in 1895, would devote his career to describing "ambulatory psychosis," whereby highly regarded professionals, including scientists, could be nonetheless psychotic. He left no doubt that he had suffered at the hands of his own father. For him, it was no fantasy:
"…the child of such a parent becomes the object of defused aggression (maltreated and beaten almost within an inch of his life), and of a perverse sexuality that hardly knows an incest barrier (is seduced in the most bizarre ways by the parents, and, at his or her instigation, by others)" (Assault on Truth, p. 142).
Masson blames Freud for a failure of moral courage and has no qualms about accusing this "father" of harming his "child"--the entire field of psychoanalysis. When Freud abandoned his original insight, writes Masson, he "began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, is at the root of the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis and psychiatry throughout the world."
This turning away from the real world is exactly what happens when family courts seek out mental health "experts" to deal with children who complain of abuse and with those parents who try to protect them. Like victims of abuse who sought healing from psychoanalysis, those who seek justice in the courts often discover too late that they made a tragic mistake in doing so.
Masson writes that Freud appears to have gained some of his original insights from lectures at the morgue in Paris describing horrific evidence of abuse committed by parents and teachers against children that was discovered in the autopsy of their corpses.
Repulsed by the harshness of the real world, some mental health "experts" today settle into leather chairs for 50-minute sessions that allow violent batterers to chemically balance their moods and appear stable. In the serenity of their offices, they may deduce their hypotheses and produce their reports ignoring the raw terror of children's lives. Few clinicians spend any time in the homes they are supposed to examine. Some court evaluators never meet the children, whose "best interests" they claim to understand. They may recommend that the court award custody to whichever parent pays their bill.
As Masson discovered, Freud learned his lesson. Once shunned for raising the subject of parents sexually abusing their children, Freud steadfastly avoided the subject. Masson reveals the complete absence of this topic from later volumes that Freud edited and from the cumulative index of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association through 1974. In 1988, The New Harvard Guide to Psychiatry included only one reference to "incest"—under "delusional disorders" (Assault on Truth, 2003, p. 341).
Asked to report his findings in 1981, Masson, like Freud in 1896, felt the disdain of his colleagues in the psychoanalytic community for raising this uncomfortable subject. A series about his work in the New York Times led to his dismissal as director of the Freud Archives.
One colleague pleaded for just one more psychiatrist who would concur that Masson was mentally ill so they could commit him to a psychiatric hospital.
Eventually Masson left the profession altogether. In his book, Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst (1990), he writes: "while I admire much of what Freud taught us, I do not admire the fact that he turned astute observations about human nature into elements of a vast and profitable profession with all the trappings of a jealously protected guild. The price for joining this fraternity is silence. . . . Corruption is incorporated, not exposed; prejudice and bias have been accepted, even embraced" (Final Analysis, p. 4).
Masson condemns the lack of professional ethics, noting it is well known that some analysts even have sex with their patients. He expresses dismay that "sexual abuse of one form or another was the core trauma of many women's lives, yet there was total silence about it. There was no taboo on the commission of incest, only a taboo on speaking about incest" (Final Analysis, p. 176).
In contrast to his own colleagues, many outside the psychoanalytic profession welcome the work of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. A year after The Assault on Truth appeared, his second edition credits "the feminist literature of the 1970s that finally broke the silence about the incidence and prevalence of incest."
In 1992 Masson writes:
Few now deny that [child sexual abuse] happens frequently . . . across all lines of class, income, and education. Ten years ago this was not the case. Then there was a lonely contingent of courageous feminist researchers--among them Louise Armstrong, Florence Rush, Judith Herman, and Diana Russell--whose works were ignored, by and large, by the mainstream media and especially by psychiatry, the very profession women who were abused as children often turned to in their tragically mistaken belief that they could find help. Psychiatry was largely responsible for the climate of disbelief that surrounded those women who braved the scorn of male professionals and spoke up about their own experience of abuse. ("Postscript to the 1992 Edition," Assault on Truth, 2003, p. 311).
"How has psychiatry reacted?" Masson asks in 1992, "As if all along these professionals were the ones fighting to have an unwelcomed truth recognized. And now they were prepared to accept their reward in the form of being called upon as experts" (Assault on Truth,p. 312).
Early in his career, psychiatrist Richard Gardner may have made a genuine attempt to discern the truth. But like Freud and Fliess, he found far greater acceptance and reward when he argued that children only imagine being abused or simply lie about it. He built his career testifying that these children have been brainwashed and programmed by vindictive mothers, who "alienate" them from their fathers.
Gardner's tolerance for incest and pedophilia was documented long before his 2003 suicide.
The last lawyer to cross-examine him in court was Louisiana lawyer Richard Ducote, who currently represents a Rhode Island mother accused of "parental alienation." In 2003, under Ducote's questioning in Paterson, New Jersey, Gardner admitted that he had not spoken to the Dean of Columbia University's medical school for over fifteen years. Gardner had no hospital admitting privileges for over twenty-five years. He had not been court-appointed to do anything for decades. He lacked the professional standing he had been claiming as an expert witness.
But Gardner's "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS) has been a windfall for many. A 2007 graduate in computer science from the University of Alabama, advertises online as a forensic expert offering to analyze custody cases for PAS at $75 an hour.
On July 3, 2007, authorities arrested Seattle, Washington, psychologist Stuart Greenberg, a nationally renowned expert on child sexual abuse and former president of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, for videotaping women colleagues and clients in his office restroom. Police charged that Greenberg would later masturbate to these images.
Greenberg confessed to the secret taping and committed suicide on July 25. He had worked as a consultant to the Archdiocese of Seattle in their defense against sexual abuse by priests.
His arrest and death have raised questions about a huge volume of child custody cases in which Greenberg served as a "parenting evaluator" to assess claims of abuse. Judges often rely uncritically on evaluations and recommendations provided by contract clinicians.
Many of those now building their careers in PAS are women attorneys and clinicians, who are actively recruited to produce reports condemning mothers--as if their gender makes them more credible in their attacks on other women.
Confidential comments may be sent to Anne Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org