Freud’s thought can be divided into two utterly distinct phases and the transition from the one to the other has had an impact on our culture that to date has been profoundly underestimated. Up until 1896 Freud believed that psychological disturbance was created by childhood abuse and the repression of the associated memories. His views were rejected. He renounced his insight and said instead (in his Drive Conflict Theory) that children became disturbed because of their own inability to handle real life.
One of the most famous of Freud’s cases was called the ‘Ratman’, commonly studied in many psychotherapy trainings. It’s a psychoanalytical room 101. The appeal is Freud’s enthusiasm for this patient who exemplified his substitute ‘Drive Conflict’ theory and the bizarre nature of the case which is bound to titillate the voyeur in us all.
In brief, the poor Ratman was terrified of rats. His particular fear was of rats being strapped to his behind in a cage and left to gnaw their way out through his anus. His fear stemmed from childhood after a nanny had encouraged him to view her genitals.
Freud’s view was that the Ratman’s ‘eroticized’ phobia was a symbolic expression of castration anxiety should his father find out ‘what he had done’ and what Freud felt he wished to do again, a desire which resulted in him suffering from ‘the vicissitudes of sexual curiosity’ (Freud 1991). Students invariably swallow whole the cleverness of modern psychology’s father/king without blurting out the obvious; the Ratboy had been sexually abused.
Imagine the public outrage if someone stood up in a modern court claiming they had ‘allowed’ a prepubescent child to view their genitals? Imagine it then being given as expert opinion that if the child had a bad reaction to this exposure it was simply because the complicit child was afraid of being caught and punished. The court would erupt. Yet this is what Freud suggested. How is this possible? This poor child was betrayed by a carer in ‘loco parentis’. How had the reality of his abuse been denied?
Sexual abuse of children is deeply psychologically damaging. It can destroy the quality of a person’s life. It has a catastrophic impact on a child’s self-esteem, ability to relate and express feelings. It also profoundly affects the capacity to make emotional commitments in later life.
On the 21st April 1896 a young Sigmund Freud stood up before the collective might of the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna and read his paper, ’The Aetiology of Hysteria’, a clear formulation of the part parental abuse plays in the disturbance of childhood.. It was met with total silence. In the days that followed Freud wrote to his friend Wilhelm Flies, ‘the word has been given out to abandon me and a void is forming around me.’(Masson1992). What had happened? Why had his paper met with such hostility?
What Freud had so bravely done was to confront polite society with its own shadow. He argued that childhood abuse was at the root of later neuroses. The Society were appalled. Madness was caused by parents. By them.
It did not take long for Freud to realise what he had provoked. ‘I am as isolated as you could wish me to be,’ (ibid) he complained to Flies. In private and amongst his remaining colleagues he began to recant and by 1905 made a public retraction. This, despite an intervening period as an intern at the Paris morgue where he saw evidence at first hand of the brutal rape and murder of children, ‘of which’, he says in private letters, ‘science prefers to take no notice.’ Soon, Freud himself was turning a blind eye until by 1925 he was able to say, ‘I was at last obliged to recognise these scenes of seduction had never taken place. They were only fantasies..’(ibid)
Neuroses were now due to an individual’s inability to resolve inner conflicts. Freud capitalised on children’s tendency to blame themselves for the ills that befall them.
Freud turned his theory around entirely. Any charges of abuse now reflected the child’s failure and were themselves construed as neurotic symptoms. The symbol and pedigree of this utterly revised theory of neurosis was the ‘Oedipal Complex’. The story is twisted to imply Oedipus wanting to sexually possess his mother, the Ratman to sexually possess his childminder and the battered corpses in the Paris morgue to possess their murderers.
Freud stumbled on the threshold of midlife, failing to stand by his convictions and endure the censure of his peers. He succumbed to the self-preservation that would ensure his social standing, his professional career and his income but sacrificed his earlier theoretical framework which supported the reality of child sexual abuse.
I think what happened was that the Ratman had no-one to mirror back to him the truth of the abuse he had suffered. ‘And so’, to paraphrase Alice Miller (ibid), ‘he lost sight of it himself’. His experiences of intrusion were repressed. They became symbolised in the dramatic set of images characterising his case. They were split off and relegated to a future possibility, preferable to his past reality but still gnawing at him from behind.
We are used to dreams containing symbols representing and poetically expressing the issues with which we struggle. Sometimes these spill over into frightening fantasies, waking dreams which give us clues about the origins of suffering. But why sexually violent rats? Why not locusts or fire ants? There are all kinds of tortures the Ratboy could have fixed upon. Freud doesn’t explore the meaning of the symbol.
The trick with symbols is not to be too clever or to assume, with Freud, that they are intent on concealment. Symbols are a language with a purpose like any other, to communicate as clearly as possible. They are problematic because they occur when consciousness is turning a deaf ear. Both the Ratman and Freud shared the same problem. Neither of them could face how the patient had been sexually molested, aggressively intruded upon by a plump, furry thing that awed and frightened him.
When Freud renounced the theory which had made him so unpopular with the Viennese and substituted one they liked a lot better, he effectively excluded adult influence from the causes of psychological disturbance. The roots of madness were then intra-psychic rather than inter-personal. Issues of madness and sanity were no longer about Relatedness. Parental impact on childhood was reduced to the workings of the ‘super-ego’, which, throughout his writing, always seem beyond reproach. It is ‘’ what is highest in the human mind’’ (Freud 2001). He uses the term interchangeably with ‘ego ideal’. If there is a problem regarding ego formation this is put down to the unruly child.
In his paper ‘The Ego and Superego’, he tantalizes us, ‘’I shall presently bring forward a suggestion about the source of the superego’s power to dominate… the source that is, of it’s compulsive character which manifests itself in the form of a categorical imperative.’’ (ibid p374). When we turn to the designated page reference we find, ‘’as the child was once under the compulsion to obey its parents, so the ego submits to the superego.’’ (ibid) The source of the superego’s power is the child’s compulsion to obey. Parents are ideal. No wonder the Victorians loved him. It was the era of the father/king.
The Ratboy was doubly betrayed, first by his nanny and then by his analyst who, because he had renounced his Trauma theory, couldn’t validate the reality of the boy’s subjective experience or help him through it. His new and much more popular theory suggested if children haven’t wholly imagined the abuse then they must have at least been a party to it. This meant that the adult in the equation could be vindicated whilst the wicked child was left in unacknowledged anguish not unlike poor Oedipus whose father had tortured and abandoned him.
The Victorian age could be characterised by the denial of sexuality. It was an era when ladies fainted at the sight of a chair leg. This denial was at the level of ordinary, healthy, ‘’normal’’ sexuality. What then of sexuality which strayed from this norm? Male homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time. Female homosexuality in England was not criminalised but only because Queen Victoria refused to believe that there was any such thing as a lesbian. If homosexuality ‘dared not speak its name’, or simply didn’t exist, what of sexuality which was clearly deviant?
Husbands were allowed to rape their wives as their ‘conjugal right’ and could beat them too without fear of prosecution or conscience. Child rape was rarely if ever prosecuted successfully. In Austria at the time it was punishable by one to three months imprisonment. What were the chances of speaking openly and candidly about the abuse of children? Society simply refused to do so, denial reflected in the fact that the age of consent was as low as twelve for many years.
Freud’s wildly successful contribution to science was paradoxical. His ideas were so challenging and revolutionary in daring to talk about sex at all, yet permitted society to continue denying their worst secrets. He made it acceptable for society to talk openly about sex, which must have been a relief; yet denied truths a grateful public could not face, which must also have been a relief.
Freud’s theory is the West’s neurotic solution to its own alienation from the body, its erosion of the Continuum. It opened up sexuality for discussion but only by sexualising children. He managed to dovetail his theories with the otherwise insurmountable contradictions of an age determined to adopt both an attitude of unquestionable moral superiority and a set of thoroughly dehumanising attitudes to children.
As soon as he ‘discovered’ infantile sexuality Freud was immediately and heartily endorsed by fellow physicians. They too were clever enough to see the Emperor’s new clothes. Believing in things because we want to, rather than because they are there, is something rather common. We do this out of the fear of chaos inherent in any change, especially wholesale paradigm shifts and so we resist change accordingly.
People believed the earth was flat for a long time after it was circumnavigated. The belief that the sun revolved around the earth persisted for generations after Galileo proved otherwise and the need to believe in witches lasted for centuries backed up by all kinds of incontrovertible ‘evidence’.
We have all experienced presenting someone with undeniable evidence of something which is rejected when it is at odds with a treasured belief. Once, a Jehovah’s Witness tried to convert me with promises of an assured place amongst the 144,000 chosen in Heaven. I pointed out there were more than that number of Witnesses already and therefore my conversion was no guarantee of a reserved place. He simply wouldn’t accept the logic. He accepted the facts but refused to put them together.
What Freud offered us, persuasive enough to have lasted for over a century, is the opportunity to maintain the belief in our own psychological sophistication whilst being relieved of the burdonsome facts of childhood vulnerability. We lapped up his paradigm as eagerly as our ancestors believed in dragons and ice giants. To let his theory go means to raise once more the spectre of child abuse.
Ironically, Freud himself shed light on this negation of childhood suffering in a paper that he wrote 30 years after his ‘discovery’ of infantile sexuality. Occasionally the reality of the inner world bursts through the mask of the false self in the most unlikely and unusual ways. And so we findFreud himself produced a succinct little four page article entitled ‘Negation’ (1925), in which he states,
“In our interpretation, we take the liberty of disregarding the negation ….. To negate something in a judgement is at bottom to say ‘this is something which I should prefer to repress’. A negative judgement is the intellectual substitute for repression, its ‘no’ is the hallmark of repression ….. Thus, originally, the mere existence of a presentation was a guarantee of the reality of what was represented.”
Freud could have applied these thoughts directly to his own negation of the reality of childhood suffering and its consequences for adult life. This seems not to have crossed his mind. Perhaps this paper was as close as he could get to admitting what he had done. Perhaps the fact that it has taken so long to come to light is as close as we can get to acknowledging our complicity.
based on an extract from my new book, ‘Abundant Delicious’.