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A Fork in the Road

I am currently re-reading the very first book I ever read on trauma – and I still think it’s one of the best. The book is by Judith Lewis Herman entitled “Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Violence to Political Terror[1].” Apart from recommending this book to you as a wonderful insight into both the personal and social dynamics of trauma, she tells a wonderful story about Freud which I will try to briefly capture here.

Freud is well known for his work in the area of hysteria. In the mid-1890s Freud studied with the French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. Freud was interested in understanding the causes of hysteria and Charcot had set up a specialist clinic for this specific purpose. At this time, hysteria was seen as a condition unique to women and little was known or understood about it.

Freud came to this work with a great deal of energy and openness. It was during this work that he realized that it was not sufficient to just observe his ‘patients’ but that in order to gain a deeper understanding it was necessary to talk with them. Freud was really the first to establish this practice and he reputably undertook his ‘listening’ or counseling / therapy as we would now call it, with great compassion.

Herman notes the significance of this.

For a brief decade men of science listened to women with a devotion and a respect unparalleled before or since.” (Herman, 1997:12)

I had not realized that the young Freud came with a humility and compassion such as this and in many ways I think that this approach was quite revolutionary for that social time. My first surprise about Freud!

But the second surprise is by far the greatest. By the mid 1890s Freud came to the conclusion that the cause of hysteria was psychological trauma, most particularly childhood sexual abuse.[2] He believed that the most effective treatment for this was that the women were able to talk about their memories and by putting them into words their symptoms could be relieved. He wrote a seminal paper called “The Aetiology of Hysteria” in which he asserted that the cause of hysteria was childhood sexual abuse.

Obviously Freud expected a resounding response from his colleagues, having finally established the cause of this mysterious condition but this was far from the reality. Freud was left feeling isolated by his peers with his arguments largely ignored.

His discovery of childhood sexual exploitation at the roots of hysteria crossed the outer limits of social credibility and brought him to a position of total ostracism within his profession. (Herman, 1997:18)

This, in effect, was the fork in the road. At some point shortly after the publication of this paper, Freud turned away from his assertion and instead claimed that the women’s stories were untrue and were fantasies that they had made up in therapy; fantasies designed to cover up their desires.

It appears that the reason for his reversal was mostly related to the difficulty that he had in accepting the social implications of what he was initially asserting. If he was correct in this connection between hysteria and childhood sexual abuse, then he would have to also accept that the sexual abuse of children was widespread across many different classes and countries. Freud believed this to be, literally, incredible and withdrew his theory based on this. I’m sure he was also influenced by his peers and their lack of interest in his position – and they too, were most likely of the belief that his assertions were unbelievable.

Herman’s purpose in telling this story is to demonstrate that trauma depends on a political movement to gain legitimacy. She believes that at this time in society Freud had no choice but to turn his back on his findings.

No matter how cogent his arguments or how valid his observations, Freud’s discovery could not gain acceptance in the absence of a political and social context that would support the investigation of hysteria, wherever it might lead. (Herman, 1997:18)

Of course Freud went on to develop highly influential theories that served to ensure women’s oppression remained in force for many years to come. Had he been able to pursue his initial finding, which was of course, wholly accurate, I wonder where our society would now be in terms of our regard for both women and those who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

It appears to me that we were at a significant fork in the road in the late 1800s where we may well have found the social and political will to see the connection between mental health issues and childhood abuse, especially the sexual abuse of children. I wonder how long we will have to wait for this will to develop so that next time we will choose the fork that leads to a more just approach for survivors of trauma.

I’m now off to find a copy of Freud’s article – maybe the subject matter of another blog!


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