Foreword by Anthony Stadlen to Kathleen Duffy’s book ‘Freud’s Early Psychoanalysis, Witch Trials and the Inquisitorial Method: The Harsh Therapy’ (2019)

Freud's Early Psychoanalysis, Witch Trials and the: Duffy, Kathleen
Freud’s Early Psychoanalysis, Witch Trials and the Inquisitorial Method: The Harsh Therapy

Kathleen Duffy

(2019: Routledge)


Anthony Stadlen

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2019, 2020

[Note by Anthony Stadlen, 2020

This is the Foreword I wrote. The published version changes the position of a comma, thereby making Freuds achievement in his interpretations of Choisys and Kardiners dreams appear less brilliant than, as I had explained with the help of the correctly placed comma, it actually was. The published Foreword also further homogenises the unfortunate patients to whom, as I described, analysts dogmatically attribute an Oedipus complex or maternal ambivalence, by desexing them from he and she to they.]

On 21 April 1896 Freud announced to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna his new method (psychoanalysis) of unknotting (analysis) the soul (psyche). He claimed that it revealed sexual abuse in one hundred per cent of his hysterical patients. He called this a momentous discovery, like discovering the source of the Nile. He compared it to Kochs discovery, in the previous decade, of a bacillus as the specific aetiology of the illness tuberculosis. Freud hoped to become as famous as Koch by discovering and announcing, a fortnight before his fortieth birthday, the specific aetiology of the so-called mental illness’, hysteria.
Specific aetiology means a factor in whose absence the illness cannot occur. Freud was staking his reputation on there not having been a single hysteric’, male or female, since the beginning of time, who had not been sexually abused in childhood.
This was his so-called seduction theory. It was an all-or-nothing claim. A single hysteric who could somehow be shown never to have been sexually abused before the age of second dentition would make his theory not just a little bit wrong but wholly wrong.
But only seventeen months later Freud admitted in a private letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess that he lacked the evidence he had publicly announced that he had discovered for his dramatic claim.
How had he come to make this claim? He acknowledged his motive: world fame before he was forty. But how had he deceived himself that he was justified in making it?
Kathleen Duffys book can help answer this question. Moreover, but without explicitly stating this, it provides a method to clarify what is trustworthy and what is untrustworthy in the extraordinary proliferation of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy today.
Dr Duffy focusses on one sentence from another letter Freud wrote to Fliess, when he was still brooding on his seduction theory, nine months after having announced it and his avant-garde method, psychoanalysis, in Vienna. On 24 January 1897 Freud wrote to Fliess: I understand the harsh therapy of the witches judges.
Dr Duffy wonders ‘how this rational and compassionate physician and therapist can have entertained this comparison’. How can he have compared his own well-intentioned healing efforts to what he himself called the ‘squeezing out under torture’ of the ‘confessions’ of the accused women in the early-modern so-called ‘witch trials’?
This book is her answer.
Her revolutionary achievement is to show that, while Freud no doubt relished the black humour of the situation (had not his fellow Jews been objects of the same annihilating religious persecution?), he was entirely serious in identifying the central methodology of the witch trials with that of his own psychoanalysis.
What they had in common was the inquisitorial method.
The inquisitorial method in law entails the presumption of guilt. Our accusatorial or adversarial method, reached through centuries of struggle, entails presumption of innocence. Yet Freud insists that his method is, precisely, inquisitorial.
Dr Duffy shows, in meticulous detail, to devastating effect, that Freud is in earnest. And she shows that his comparison is accurate.
But what has psychoanalysis to do with guilt or innocence?
The common feature is that the inquisitor seeks to establish a particular narrative about the person accused of being a ‘witch’ or regarded as a ‘mental patient’. And the primary assumption is that the inquisitor’s narrative is correct. If the accused witch or identified patient protests that the narrative is false, the onus is on him or her to prove it.
In practice, the attempted proofs and protests are all too often taken as further evidence that the inquisitor is right.
For example, consider not just Freud’s seduction theory but also his subsequent retraction of it.
In the original theory he stated that only under the ‘strongest compulsion’ of his new method, psychoanalysis, could his patients be induced to ‘reproduce’ the ‘scenes’ of sexual abuse that he admitted he was suggesting to them. And he reported that the patients insisted that these scenes, even if ‘reproduced’ with emotion, did not have the feeling of being memories. This, Freud pronounced, was the most decisive proof that they were in fact memories!
However, when he began to doubt the universality of his supposed specific aetiology, he had the problem of explaining to his colleagues how he had made such an error. His solution was to blame the patient. He now claimed that his original theory had been that the patients had come to him volunteering stories of sexual abuse, which he, by implication the enlightened and compassionate therapist, had at first believed, but had now discovered in some cases to be fantasies.
What both his seduction theory and his retraction had in common was that he was right and the patient was wrong.
Freud loved to give detailed evidence, in the manner of a German Novelle, when he had it. But neither for the seduction theory nor for its retraction did he give a shred of evidence. This was his inquisitorial method at its height.
Not all psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is inquisitorial. Not all Freud is. Freud made brilliant hypotheses, from his patients’ dreams, about specific events in their childhood; and he encouraged the patients to test his hypotheses by asking relatives who could confirm or deny them. His patients Abram Kardiner and Maryse Choisy give astonishing evidence of such testing. This is psychoanalysis at its best, though not even the best psychoanalysis has to include such virtuosity.
Thomas Szasz said in a seminar in 2007, ‘I think psychotherapy is one of the most worthwhile things in the world.’ Szasz, more than anyone, had exposed the parallels between the Inquisition and modern psychiatry. He knew what was wrong with psychotherapy. But he knew it from the perspective of one who thought it could be ‘one of the most worthwhile things in the world’.
More than forty years ago, one of my supervisors, Dr Robert L. Tyson, who was to become Secretary of the International Psychoanalytic Association, suggested a rule that has been of incalculable value in my own practice of psychotherapy: ‘Never tell anyone what they are feeling.’ He also said: ‘I regard it as an insult to the patient to make an interpretation without giving one’s evidence for it.’
But not all psychoanalysts or psychotherapists talk, let alone act, like this. Many are the inquisitors and persecutors of their patients and clients. Anyone wanting to become a psychoanalyst, a psychotherapist, or a client should be alerted to this possibility by Kathleen Duffy’s marvellous book. They should seek their analyst, their therapist, their supervisor, their training institute with the same dispassionate discretion that Dr Duffy displays.
They should be aware that, alongside the superb psychoanalysts and psychotherapists of the world, there are those whose method is, unfortunately, even worse than that of the inquisitorial judges of the ‘witches’. It was difficult, but not impossible, for a woman accused of being a witch to give evidence to disprove it to her inquisitors. Such was the case of the astronomer Kepler’s mother, who was acquitted with the brilliant help of her son.
But nobody can disprove to a dogmatic psychoanalyst or psychotherapist that he has an Oedipus complex or that she hates as well as loves her baby, nor can they disprove any of the other things certain analysts and therapists believe they know to be universal truths.
Kathleen Duffy’s book will give invaluable scholarly assistance to specialists trying to make sense of Freud’s conceptualisation of his practice in 1896. But I hope it will also serve as a guide, philosopher and friend to anyone seeking, or wanting to become, a trustworthy psychoanalyst or psychotherapist today.

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