Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Freud's "Seduction Theory" and the Forged Memoir

Freud's "seduction theory" was a hypothesis posited in the mid-1890s by Sigmund Freud that he believed provided the solution to the problem of the origins of hysteria and obsessional neurosis. According to the theory, a repressed memory of an early childhood sexual abuse or molestation experience was the essential precondition for hysterical or obsessional symptoms, with the addition of an active sexual experience up to the age of eight for the latter.

In the traditional account of development of seduction theory, Freud initially thought that his patients were relating more or less factual stories of sexual mistreatment, and that the sexual abuse was responsible for many of his patients' neuroses and other mental health problems. Within a few years Freud abandoned his theory, concluding that the memories of sexual abuse were in fact imaginary fantasies.

Freud replaced the seduction theory with a body of concepts and theories, that grew out of his dream research, which form the basis of psychoanalysis. Freudian psychoanalysis refers to a specific type of treatment in which the "analysand" (analytic patient) verbalizes thoughts, including free associations, fantasies, and dreams, from which the analyst induces the unconscious conflicts causing the patient's symptoms and character problems, and interprets them for the patient to create insight for resolution of the problems.
The specifics of the analyst's interventions typically include confronting and clarifying the patient's pathological defenses, wishes and guilt. Through the analysis of conflicts, including those contributing to resistance and those involving transference onto the analyst of distorted reactions, psychoanalytic treatment can clarify how patients unconsciously are their own worst enemies: how unconscious, symbolic reactions that have been stimulated by experience are causing symptoms.

It is important to recognize that in rejecting patients' reports of childhood sexual abuse (in many, but not all, cases) as fantasy Freud did not reject the importance patients' beliefs as an analyzable entity.  Freud shifted the focus from an emphasis on the historical truth of the patients' reports to an emphasis on the importance of the patients' reports as fantasy, with all that tells the analyst about the nature of his patients' unconscious wishes, conflicts and prohibitions.

There is an analogy between Freud's rejection of historical truth in favor of  analysis of the patient's beliefs-as-fantasy, on the one hand, and the rejection of an author's memoir as historically true but psychologically telling, on the other.

A worthwhile example is presented by the case of Benjamin Wilkormirski's Holocaust "memoir," Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, published in 1995.

Binjamin Wilkomirski was a name which Bruno Dössekker (born Bruno Grosjean in 1941) adopted in his constructed identity as a Holocaust survivor and published author. His 1995 fictional memoirs were debunked in the late 1990s by a Swiss journalist.

In the book, Wilkomirski described what he claimed were his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust. The supposed memories of World War II are presented in a fractured manner and using simple language from the point of view of the narrator, an overwhelmed, very young Jewish child. His first memory is of a man being crushed by uniformed men against the wall of a house; the narrator is seemingly too young for a more precise recollection, but the reader is led to infer that this is his father. Later on, the narrator and his brother hide out in a farmhouse in Poland before being arrested and interned in two Nazi concentration camps, where he meets his dying mother for the last time. After his liberation from the death camps, he is brought to an orphanage in Krakow and, finally, to Switzerland where he lives for decades before being able to reconstruct his fragmented past.

In August 1998, a Swiss journalist and writer named Daniel Ganzfried questioned the veracity of Fragments in an article published in the Swiss newsweekly Weltwoche. Ganzfried argued that Wilkomirski knew the concentration camps “only as a tourist”, and that, far from being born in Latvia, he was actually born Bruno Grosjean, an illegitimate child of an unmarried mother named Yvonne Grosjean from Biel in Switzerland. The boy had been sent to an orphanage in Adelboden, Switzerland, from which he was taken in by the Dössekkers, a wealthy and childless couple in Zurich who finally adopted him.

Wilkomirski became a cause célèbre in the English-speaking world, appearing on 60 Minutes and the BBC and in Granta and The New Yorker. He insisted that he was an authentic Holocaust survivor who had been secretly switched as a young boy with Bruno Grosjean upon his arrival in Switzerland. His supporters condemned Ganzfried, who, however, presented further evidence to support his theory. The beleaguered Wilkomirski could not verify his claims, but Ganzfried too was unable to prove his arguments conclusively. 

The disclosure of Wilkomirski's fabrications altered the status of his book. The words are the same, but the work is not. Many critics argued that Fragments no longer had any literary value. One reviewer stated: “Once the professed interrelationship between the first-person narrator, the death-camp story he narrates, and historical reality are proved palpably false, what was a masterpiece becomes kitsch."

But there is another viewpoint.  For a few scholars, even as a pseudomemoir, the merits of the work still remain. “Those merits reside in a ferocious vision, a powerful narrative, an accumulation of indelible images, and the unforgettable way in which a small child's voice is deployed in an unfeeling adult world, during the war and thereafter."

Returning to the issue of Freud and psychoanalysis, it is testimony to the genius of Freud that upon his recognition that the reports of childhood sexual abuse his patients offered up had no historical truth, he did not simply reject the narratives.  For Freud came to see that embedded in a patient's report of abuse lurked an inner world of fantasy that comprised an analyzable tapestry of unconscious wishes, conflicts and prohibitions that formed the substructure of that patient's conscious distress.


Gary Freedman said...

Speaking metaphorically, Freud was not a Holocaust denier -- he was a memoir denier (in certain cases).

Throughout his career as a psychoanalyst Freud continued to recognize the existence of child abuse and the fact that it had psychological consequences. Talk to Dr. Shengold.

Gary Freedman said...

Freud was like a gold-digger in the 19th century. He digs and digs and doesn't find any gold. But he finds oil, and has the genius to think: "Maybe I can do things with this substance that will make it as valuable as gold."

Gary Freedman said...

I reject the view that Wilkomirski's book is simply a clever forgery.

It is an absolutely brilliant book by a disturbed person -- a work of fiction that sheds light on the ability of a creative writer to forge (in both senses of the word) an alter ego -- and a credible narrative arising out of that alter ego.