Sigmund Freud’s Biggest Slips

Two weeks before Sigmund Freud’s fortieth birthday in 1896, he presented a lecture to his Viennese colleagues on the cause of the neuroses, to “show them the solution of a thousands-years-old problem.”  The evening ended in humiliation when one of the most distinguished listeners dismissed his work as a “scientific fairly tale.”  The talk even harmed his professional practice because he later wrote to a friend that a “password has been given out to abandon me.”  Though many scientific pioneers have been misjudged by their contemporaries, in this case the assessment by the audience was correct.

What was Freud’s error?  The path to that lecture began years earlier.  While practicing as a neurologist, Freud frequently encountered patients whose symptoms could not be explained.  Many of them had a history of sexual abuse in childhood (as such patients often do today).  Not surprisingly, he began looking for this background in all patients with unexplained illness.  Unfortunately, Freud pressured those who did not remember such an experience to recall abuse in early childhood, insisting it must be present.  Eventually he convinced himself that sexual abuse caused 100% of neurotic and unexplained medical symptoms, even when many patients steadfastly denied such a history.  His audience at the lecture easily saw through the invalid practice that attempted to force patients to recall nonexistent events.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Freud committed an even greater error.  Over the next few years he changed his theory almost to its opposite and assumed that nearly all reports of sexual abuse by his patients were fantasies, even when patients insisted they were not.  A source for many of his later theories of conscious and unconscious mental functioning was this faulty interpretation of his patient’s histories.

This is a cautionary tale for everyone who works in this field where the truth can be hidden behind many filters, our patient’s and our own.  It is fortunate that a sensitive search for the truth is usually therapeutic for our clients.

Gay, P.  1998.  Freud, A Life for Our Time.  Norton.

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