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Psychodrama in the Archives

ysilverman's picture

In the Freud Archives is famous in the journalistic community both for its quality as a piece of careful, investigative reporting and storytelling, but also for the controversy it caused after its publication: the main subject of the piece, Jeffrey Masson, sued the author Janet Malcolm, claiming she made up certain quotes attributed to him in the work. Still, for a reader interested in the life of the mind, Archives is even more powerful as a carefully crafted set of two tales, each one a parable of the other. In the forefront is the story of the meteoric rise and fall of young Freud scholar and analyst Masson at the hands of revered analyst K.R. Eissler. In the background is the story of Sigmund Freud’s relationship with his young protégé, otorhinolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess, with whom he had a relationship that vacillated from adoration and idealization to utter contempt, and for whom, Masson claimed, Freud may have erroneously convinced himself that traumas could (and more importantly, did) occur in the subconscious and not in a person’s reality. In Malcolm’s work she manages to create an assiduously crafted character assault on Masson, while at the same time raising real questions about Freud’s motives, and yet still demonstrating the subconscious drives that push us all.

At the center of psychoanalysis is a concept that Sigmund Freud struggled with for many years; namely, what sorts of psychic hurts can be caused by our minds alone? In his initial conception of the working of the human mind, Freud believed that actual childhood trauma necessarily preceded adult psychosis or neurosis, that all psychological ills resulted from actual seductions of children at the hands of their parents. In time, Freud came to believe almost the opposite, that experiential reality might have almost no effect on later emotional reality, and that our subconscious mind was capable of imagining events that could cause wide arrays of serious emotional trauma. As his daughter, Anna Freud, wrote in a letter, “Keeping up the seduction theory would mean to abandon the Oedipus complex, and with it the whole importance of fantasy life, conscious or unconscious fantasy. In fact, I think there would have been no psychoanalysis afterwards,” (63). Freud himself talked about the period of disillusionment that led him to the repudiation of the seduction theory and the “discovery” of the subconscious workings of our minds. Still, it is unclear how he came upon this moment of rejection. As Freud tells it, he at first tried to come to terms with the number of patients who reported sexual abuses to him, and finally realized that not all of these could be true, and that the subconscious imagining of a young girl’s sexual relationship with her father is actually a quite natural and common, though often damaging, phenomenon.

Masson believed Freud came to his moment of rejection quite differently, and it was Masson’s announcement of this, and subsequent condemnation of psychoanalysis that stemmed from it that lost him Eissler’s favor, and the position Eissler had promised to him as the replacement director of the Freud Archives upon the elder’s retirement. Malcolm works to make Masson look foolish and childish, though at the same time, doesn’t negate the potential veracity of some of his claims. Whereas Freud and his followers have certain beliefs about the transformation of psychoanalysis from merely a play at social science to a tremendously new way of envisioning the human brain, Masson used letters from Freud to Fliess to try to demonstrate that Freud rejected the seduction theory out of blind respect for a friend; when a patient Freud referred to Fliess began to hemorrhage after a botched surgery, Freud concluded that these hemorrhages were purely emotional in origin, having nothing to do with surgical instruments left in the patient’s body.

What makes Malcolm’s work so intriguing is its exploration of the emotional experiences of Eissler and, particularly, Masson. “Eissler … loved [Masson] quite beyond all expectation … And Masson, in return, fitted himself to the image that Eissler had formed of him. That things should have ended so badly between them was probably inevitable,” (13). Why exactly was the story’s denouement – Masson’s allegations against Freud, and against psychoanalysis, and Eissler’s subsequent disassociation – inevitable, in just the ways Freud’s relationships with Fliess, and later Carl Jung and Josef Breuer, fell apart in flames? There is a common dynamic to each of these relationships, one that Malcolm cleverly explores, using the dialogue of Masson and Eissler to most fully elucidate the kind of space they shared. “‘The manuscripts he sent me I did not read very carefully,’” Eissler explains of why he had not realized the possibility that Masson might turn out to try and denigrate Freud in ways similar to, if more extreme than, many other scholars, “‘If I look at it analytically, it was probably because I did not want to read them,” (115).

For Masson, his fall was part scholarly discovery, part brash rebellion. Early in Archives Malcolm confronts him, asking at which point his rejection of Freud became so extreme, morphing from a quiet paper delivered in New Haven to an extreme attack on Freud’s person and the field of psychoanalysis. As he puts it, explaining how other analysts view him, “‘I feel’ (they said this when I spoke in Chicago last year) ‘that you are the Oedipal child standing outside your parents bedroom’ – Freud and Matha’s, that is – ‘listening for the sounds of the primal scene. That’s what your research shows’” (54). And as Malcolm lays it out, Masson does have a real case, and real grievances. Some of the attitudes of hardcore, traditional analysts are difficult for most laypeople to stomach, and for much of the non-Freudian therapeutic community as well.

As Masson himself describes it, his big break with the Freud did not occur with his question of Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory, but did occur right after his paper delivery at the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society in New Haven, when he finished his talk by saying that “by shifting the emphasis from a real world of sadness, misery, and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors performed invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own creation, Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, has come to a dead-halt in the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis throughout the world,” (19). This comment, attached to the end of his paper through pure hubris, with little relevance to the rest of the piece, seems simply like an adolescent boy sticking up his middle finger at his parents, despite the fact that there is little doubt that Masson was, in some ways, correct. As he described orthodox psychoanalysis, “they were arguing that there is no such thing as reality – no single Auschwitz,” (55). Right or wrong, Masson certainly is not saying something that sounds wildly irrational or implausible. His scholarly work was highly regarded, and his proof appears undeniably significant, if not positively the singular truth. Masson appears greatly flawed in Malcolm’s work, but not because she is largely defensive of Freud the man, as Archives does not leave one convinced that Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory was unilaterally an intellectually sound one.

In a conversation with Leonard Shengold, an analyst about whom Malcolm says, “almost alone among analysts who have dedicated themselves to the repair of seriously damaged souls, [he] has remained comfortable with regular Freudian psychoanalysis,” he explains his take on what happened between Eissler and Masson (82). “The holocausts – public and private – did and do occur. They are hard to register. Neurosis has turned out to be the human condition, and not just the result of ‘seduction by the father,’” (84). And it is not just Shengold who sees Freudian paradigms proven in the relationship between Eissler and Masson, or Freud and Fliess (or Jung or Breuer.) These dynamics are exhibited, and explained, over and over again, by Eissler and others, even by Masson (who then always talks about just how erroneous they are.) What is so striking about Malcolm’s narratives isn’t that the Freudian analysts are able to find proof of Freud’s subconscious theories in the behaviors of themselves and those around them, but rather, how clearly Malcolm is able to demonstrate the consistent patterns played out in people’s subconscious minds, regardless of what they consciously want. Both Masson and Eissler wanted terribly for their relationship to remain intact, for Masson to remain anointed, for Eissler to respect as well as love, and yet, this wasn’t to be; in fact, Malcolm hints, could never have been.

The conclusion Malcolm leads the reader to is not about the validity or motive of Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory, but about the evidence of a subconscious pattern in the broader schema of human interaction. For Masson, his rejection of the seduction theory stood firmly in the center of his ostracism from psychoanalytic circles, but as Malcolm demonstrates, it was something else entirely. “In every case, it was a personal issue – not ideology – that caused the breach” she writes (155). It was, she suggests, the Oedipal complex playing itself out in Masson each and every way, and, from the other direction, emanating from Eissler too, as the figure of the father. As Dr. Wendy O’Flaherty, a colleague of Masson’s in his first rejected life as a Sanskrit scholar puts it, “I think that’s the way it has been with Jeff—not so much not caring about anything, but caring only to kill it,” (164). Even in Masson’s relationship with Freud, Masson acted out Freudian psychodrama, first revering, and ultimately attempting to destroy, Sigmund himself. Perhaps it is Eissler who best verbalizes Malcolm’s central thesis, writing in a letter to Masson, “You say it was quite obscure why Freud dropped the seduction theory. Well, only when an author replaces a correct theory with an erroneous one is it possible to raise such question. Is it so surprising that Freud discovered a wrong theory to be wrong?” (115). But what Malcolm concludes it not necessarily that Freud’s initial theory was wrong, but that his implementation of a new way of considering the human mind was exceptionally less wrong than what had preceded it, and that, in all of human behavior, these subconscious patterns play themselves out again and again, regardless of whether we are aware of them, or whether we even believe that they exist.





Cited Sources Malcolm, Janet, In the Freud Archives. Vintage Books, the United States of America, first printing 1983, 1985.





Paul Grobstein's picture

Beyond psychoanalysis?

"in all of human behavior, these subconscious patterns play themselves out again and again, regardless of whether we are aware of them, or whether we even believe that they exist"

A powerful point. And in a context full of irony, of course. And hence providing an interesting challenge. Yes, they "play themselves out again and again" when we don't believe they exist. And do so even if we are aware of them in some abstract way. Might there be a way to escape from that trap? What would that involve?