And Lo, There Arose A Generation That Knew Not Freud

Were the stories of sexual molestation told to Freud by his patients true, or expressions of infantile fantasy? We frequently read that “in the light of what we now know”, it is more likely that they were true. But this is a circularity, since “what we now know” is dependent on our having forgotten or at least discounted Freud’s own interpretation. It is thus not a matter of knowledge, but of a decision as to what to believe. And some of us harbour dark desires to believe certain things, delusions from which neither Freud nor his contemporary opponents suffered.

In the late 20th century Freud was attacked by feminists and others on the grounds that he was a coward who had invented the idea of incest wishes in order to duck out of admitting that so many parents were sexually abusing their children. (The all-too-common invocation of the phrase “respectable Viennese” in this context automatically convicts the writer of ignorance of the facts of Freud’s work, since almost none of his patients were native Viennese, respectable or otherwise; rather, they were from the provinces, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.)

According to this school of thought, it is as if Freud could take on board the idea of universal incest wishes more easily than that of universal child abuse. Such a proclivity is flatly contradicted by the now largely forgotten facts of his life. At first Freud himself believed that all the stories of sexual abuse told him by his patients were the simple truth, and only very slowly did he come to formulate the notion of adult and infantile “sexual wishes” that were not – usually – acted upon by either party. He wrote that, given that “the return of the repressed” only happens if several factors coincide – that is, the number of people remembering these experiences is far smaller than the number who actually suffered them – then if all the incest stories were factual the proportion of rapist fathers would have to be pretty much 100%. He himself had a sexual dream about one of his own daughters, but knew that he had not in fact abused her – with a certainty not available to him regarding his patients. Ergo, dreams and fantasies not grounded in bodily acts existed, and if they existed in himself they could exist in others.

The extracts from his letters reproduced by Ernest Jones make this even plainer. Firstly, Freud was not at all fazed at the notion of a large number of fathers being rapists of their own children, only at the notion of every single one of them without exception being so. Secondly, his contemporaries were more shocked by the notion of infantile sexuality (sexual wishes) than by the idea of widespread parental abuse. Back then everyone knew perfectly well that some fathers molested their own children – this was not something that was hushed up or unthinkable. But infantile sexuality was an entirely new idea. A motive of cowardice ought, therefore, to have dictated that Freud merely report that the incidence of molestation was much higher than had hitherto been suspected. The Viennese could easily have accepted that.

Nowadays it seems as if Freud never existed. Some feminists are coming very close to saying that, yes, all fathers are sexual abusers. We never seem to hear anything about child incest wishes and child incest fantasies, because these are just as unspeakable now as they ever were in Hapsburg and Red Vienna, if not more so. Everything is taken at its face value, and everything the children say must be credited absolutely, even when they report Satanic rituals and orgies in tunnels under their school that do not in fact exist. Suggesting that some children truly have been abused while others have imagined it or been brainwashed by rent-seeking “therapists” seems now to be heresy, in the sense that it cannot be argued, only punished. It is almost as if we have forgotten the very concept of “fantasy” and instead recovered the pre-Freudian notion of the child as a purely passive victim, existing in a state of sacred innocence.

We might then enquire whether this development has come about because the psychotherapy profession has understood, weighed, judged and refuted the whole Freud theory of child incest wishes and fantasies, or is it because we now have whole generations of practitioners, not to mention amateurs, who never made its acquaintance in the first place?

Leave a Reply