Trauma & Dissociation in the News

An Interview with Jeffrey Masson: Part I

Interview Conducted 13th August, 2019 by Warwick Middleton

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee.

Warwick Middleton: Jeff, you have an unusual career path, where you started out as a Sanskrit scholar, moved into training in psychoanalysis, became the custodian of the Freudian archives, wrote what would probably be the most controversial book in psychoanalysis in the last century, then embarked on a new role writing about the emotional life of animals. And now, you are looking at a new updated edition of your 1984 book, “The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory”.

Having posed all that, Jeff, what was it in your upbringing or childhood, that might have contributed to that interesting career path?

Jeffrey Masson: I think I’ve always been interested in trauma. When I was young, reading about the Holocaust (I’m Jewish), I was intrigued. I was born in 1941, so it must have had a deep influence on my childhood. My parents gave me the name Jeffrey Lloyd Masson, which was obviously a way of hiding the fact that we were Jewish. I think there is no Jew in the world who was not affected by what was happening. When you lose 6 million of your people – that is a trauma.

So, I believe that I was sensitized to trauma. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of trauma is this: What is it that allows some people to recognize what happened to them, to think about it, and to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else, while others cannot acknowledge it. They deny it, they suppress it, they push it way back into their psyche, and then sometimes, especially if they are men, they re-visit the same trauma on other people, as a way of dealing with it.

I lived for many years with Catherine McKinnon, the great legal scholar from Harvard Law School, who was the first person, to write a book (in 1975) about sexual harassment. When we were living together we talked a lot about trauma. One of the things she pointed out to me, which I had not considered, was that, in effect, I had been sexually abused by my mother. Both my mother and father were inordinately interested in my sexual life, from about the time I was 18 on. They were intrusive, demanded details. My mother insisted on taking baths with me until I was 16. So there I was, denying my own stuff. I still believe it was not comparable to those who are raped, or get abused in their childhood by close relatives, but it was a form of abuse. It did sensitize me to looking at this, and thinking about it.

Warwick Middleton (left) interviewing Jeffery Masson (right), August 2019.

I was in studying in Pune, India, getting my PhD from Harvard in 1968…I thought, “This is not for me, this is not who I am! I’m someone who is interested in what people live through, what they have to go through, I’m interested in trauma.” Even then I thought that. I’m interested in how people are hurting, in how they can be hurt in so many different ways.

And I picked up in a bookstore in Poona, the three volumes of Ernest Jones’ (1879-1958), “The Life of Freud”, and I thought, “This is what I want to do! This is absolutely fascinating to me, looking at the inner life of people.” … I became a candidate in the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis. One of the first things I noticed was that my interest in trauma, which I thought was the kernel of psychoanalysis, was not the ‘kernel’ for the people with whom I was studying.

I remember very clearly the first time that we were talking (about trauma), because abuse, of course, was a central theme of psychoanalysis, even if it was to be rejected, because that’s how Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) started his career. He began by believing 18 people, 12 women and 6 men, who said they were abused as children. Freud believed them and that’s how psychoanalysis began. So, we had to talk about this. Freud, did believe these 18 patients in 1896, but remember, he later claimed that they were under the influence of fantasy.

The first time I heard this, I said, “Look! I have people come into my house, and they sit on my couch, and they tell me, ‘A terrible thing happened to me’, and, of course I believe them, and of course I think this is important. You’re telling me, that when somebody tells you this you have to disbelieve them?”

And they said, “That’s correct. It’s what Freud called, and we call, hysterical mendacity. That is, they are lying – mendacity, because of hysteria. They are covering up their own fantasies … they had a fantasy of desiring the person who they think abused them. The person did not abuse them. They have a need to believe they were abused in order to hide their own early childhood fantasies.”

I remember saying, “That makes absolutely no sense!” They were annoyed at me. “You are not a psychiatrist! You are not even a medical doctor. You have never seen this. We see it every day”, and the 11 other students said, “Yes, that’s correct, that’s correct. Women come in and tell us they were abused, and we know it’s not so.”

I said, “Well, tell me, exactly, how do you go about disproving the fact that someone tells you, ‘I was abused at 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 18, whenever it is, by a neighbor, by a relative, by my father, by a brother’. How do you decide that did not happen to them? I just don’t get it!”

And eventually this became quite nasty – the debate. I really was appalled. I said this is a little bit like people saying ‘the Holocaust never happened, you know… You weren’t there, there was no such thing as Auschwitz, there were no ovens in Auschwitz, as Holocaust deniers would say’… I drew a parallel with that, and they got very upset with me, and basically said, “You ought not to be in this program!” And I was beginning to think, ‘Maybe they’re right’, but my mistake was to believe that this was Toronto, which I regarded as an intellectual backwater. It wasn’t, but I thought of it that way. I thought, ‘Well, these people don’t represent psychoanalysis. When I graduate from here in ten years, God help me, I will find people who agree with me…and I will go to England, and I will meet The Queen, (laughing) that is, Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, and she will say, ‘You are right, Jeffrey Masson, trauma is the very heart of psychoanalysis’.’

Now I remember an interesting episode about two years into my training. My wife at the time, Terri, was also in analysis, and agreed with me about the influence of trauma. She was a survivor of the Holocaust. She was born in 1937 in Warsaw, and was interred in the Warsaw Ghetto, and later in a concentration camp.’

So, we went to see Anna Freud in about 1973. She was reluctant to meet us – I forget how I managed to see her – and when Terri and I walked into her house at Mansfield Gardens, she looked at us, barely a greeting, and said, “What do you want to talk about? Why have you come to see me?”

So, we wasted no time. We said, “We’re interested in trauma and we’re interested in the reality of abuse, both sexual and in the Holocaust.” And she was silent. And Terri said to her, “I went through the Holocaust, I’m a survivor”, as was Anna Freud, by the way. Anna Freud, in fact, had spent an entire day with the Gestapo, in 1938 in Vienna. Nobody knows what happened to her there…

Warwick Middleton: And a number of her Aunts were murdered.

Jeffrey Masson: Yes, yes. Freud’s sisters were murdered, nearly all of them, I believe. He came from a large family, so the trauma for her must have been enormous. And, I can understand that she wouldn’t want to talk to me, an American Jew, but Terri was a survivor, and had experienced far more of the Holocaust than had Anna Freud. So, I expected her to say, “Tell me a little about what happened to you.” Nothing of the kind. I mean, she was ice-cold to us…

So, I then tried to make it more intellectual. Clearly this was not going to become personal. I said, “Why is it that Freudian analysts have never written anything directly about the Holocaust?’

And Anna Freud looked at us, and I could see she looked perplexed. She said, “Psychoanalysis has nothing to say about the Holocaust.” I said, “Yes, I know that, and I don’t understand why not! Really, this is what they should be writing about – that and sexual abuse.” And she said, “No, no, you’re wrong. Psychoanalysis is about the inner world, about fantasy, not about the external world, not about what happens.” And we were just completely shocked. Our jaws fell open. I was very disappointed.

So basically, Anna Freud was telling me, “Your professors, your teachers in the Psychoanalytic Institute in Toronto were right and you were wrong. Psychoanalysis is not about real trauma. It’s about fantasy and internal trauma. Regarding what we do with an external trauma, how we represent that in our interior life, we have no interest, basically.” … We left, deeply disappointed, and I began to think, “Geez, maybe I’m in the wrong profession. Up till now…

Warwick Middleton: Had you actually met any psychoanalyst who did have a demonstrable interest in trauma?

Jeffrey Masson: Yes, I did. I met William Niederland (1904-1993) and Kurt Eissler (1908-1999), who was the great man of psychoanalysis at the time, the head of the Freud Archives. He was born in Austria, and he was very close to Anna Freud. Both of these men wrote about Jews who wanted to get compensated – what they call in German: wiedergutmachen – to make it all good again! (Laughs) It’s a strange expression. But it was the ability of Jews who had been harmed in the Holocaust to get reparations. Niederland had written and was very active in this, and so was Kurt Eissler.

I sought them out and became quite close to both of them. They were much, much older than me, but we had something in common. Niederland had written about the Schreber case. Schreber was a, quote “psychotic man” who believed his father was doing terrible things to him. Well, his father was doing terrible things to him. His father actually put all these devices on him, horrendous devices to straighten his back, to stop him from masturbating, and so on. It was torture. He became psychotic and wrote a book about this. And Niederland was the first to point out, “Wait a minute, these things happened to him, these were not fantasies.” So, I thought Niederland and I had something in common, which we did; and Eissler and I had something in common.

Then there was another analyst who was a bit younger than them, but still quite a bit older than me, who’d written “Soul Murder”.

Warwick Middleton: This was Leonard Shengold.

Jeffrey Masson: That’s right, Shengold. Once, very early on, I gave a paper, my first paper at a psychoanalytic meeting. It was about soul murder and child abuse, and Len Shengold was in the audience. Shengold got up, and he said, “This man is a national treasure. He should be repatriated from (quick laugh) Canada, and made to live in the United States!”

I was beyond myself with pleasure, I cannot tell you! I thought, Wow! Now, finally I’ve found my soul mates. Niederland and Shengold and Eissler, these are the men who believe in trauma. And to some extent it was true. Shengold wrote a series of very good books, called “Soul Murder”, and Niederland wrote about Schreber, and Eissler wrote about everything.

I did eventually graduate from the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society. I couldn’t wait to get away from Toronto. Mistakenly believing that everything would be different in San Francisco, I moved there. I was told that in order to become a member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, you have to give a paper.

I was delighted. The paper was about trauma. It was called “Trauma, Memory and Denial” and it was written with my wife, Terri, who is now dead. It was about sexual abuse and the Holocaust, all the themes that have interested me, from the beginning of my life practically, till today.

It was in San Francisco, and there must have been 50 or 60 people in the audience…and, um, they didn’t like it, at all! … I gave the paper…and there was silence. They did not respond. They did not like it.

Warwick Middleton: How did you get your access to the Freud Archives?

Jeffrey Masson: Well, I became close to Eissler. He was the Director of the Freud Archives. I was leaving Toronto, and I realized that I could not be a psychoanalyst, a practicing psychoanalyst. I didn’t have… I was not good at listening to people, being patient, sitting down, it was not for me. I was not a good therapist. No, I just wasn’t…

Muriel Gardener (1901-1985), who was a wonderful friend, a psychoanalyst. She told me very early on, “Jeff, I love you, but don’t become a practicing psychoanalyst. You’re no good at it! You’re good at doing historical research.” …

And Eissler basically told me the same thing. He said, “Jeff, forget practicing. I’m an old man now. You’re still young, you take over the Archives. You love historical research. You can live in Anna Freud’s house when she dies, and you can do all the historical research to your heart’s content. Anything you want to do. I said, “That’s great. I agree, yeah!”

Warwick Middleton: How was that greeted by your other colleagues?

Jeffrey Masson: “Good riddance, Masson! Let him go.” But on the other hand, it was a very prestigious post, to be Director of the Freud Archives. And it made them nervous. There was (also) a certain amount of envy and distrust. Plus, I had spoken quite openly about the importance of child sexual abuse, and they did not like that.

I remember Ralph Greenson (1911-1979), who was Marilyn Monroe’s (1926-1962) analyst… I got on quite well with him. He was in Los Angeles. And I remember when I first started doing my research on child abuse in the Freud Archives, I talked to him, and he said, “Jeff, that’s amazing that you found these letters about the reality of child abuse from Freud. I want to talk about this with you. I had this problem with Marilyn Monroe. She told me that she was abused as a child, and I told her it was a fantasy, and she got seriously depressed.”

Well, who wouldn’t? When you talk about the most terrible thing that ever happened to you, and some authority figure, like Ralph Greenson, tells you, “No, that never happened, it’s a fantasy.” Of course, that’s very deeply depressing and distressing.

So, now to get back to (The Freud Archives)…I’d had this one meeting with Anna Freud, with Terri, and now suddenly Eissler wanted me to take over the Archives, so Anna Freud had to look at me in a new light…

Warwick Middleton: So, this is late 70s, isn’t it?

Jeffrey Masson: Yes, ‘78, ‘79. And to her credit, she was very open. When I talked to her, I said, “You remember we met?” No, she didn’t. I said, “Well, I was interested in real trauma. I’m still interested in that. And I believe that when people tell you that they were abused, they were. I don’t believe it’s a fantasy, like you and your father believe, and I know that that’s a very deep difference between us.”

She said, “Well, you’re wrong”. I said, “Well, maybe I am, but, I want to see the documents. I want to see the letters that you omitted from “The Origins of Psychoanalysis”. This was the most important book in the history of Psychoanalysis, published by Princess Marie Bonaparte, (1882-1962) Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris (1900-1957) in 1954.

But Anna Freud left out letters between Freud and Fliess, she left out 163 letters. And I said, “Miss Freud, I want to see those letters…there may be something of interest in there.” She said, “No, there’s not! I promise you there’s not. They’re all personal.” And I said, “Well, you may not think so, but I still want to see them.”

Masson with his dog Benji, 2016

She was, at first, very wary of me, but one day her chow was there, and I started playing with her chow, and she looked at me and said, “Oh, you like dogs? I love dogs! Well, let’s sit down and talk some more.” She loved dogs, and I loved dogs, and that was a kind of bond between us.

But she was difficult. She was a cold woman. And she was the daughter of her father, she could not go against what her father had said. But she said, “OK, Eissler wants you to be the head of the Freud Archives, you’re clearly able to do research, and…I describe this in Final Analysis and other books…She said, “OK, you can see these letters, but, you can’t read them. They’re in German…Go and learn German, then come back.” I did.

Warwick Middleton: It should be noted that critiques of your publication of the Freud-Fliess letters, particularly exemplified just how good your German was. It was translated as better than the average speaker of German.

Jeffrey Masson: Well, I had a lot of help. Lotte Neumann, who was a very fine translator, had first translated these letters. I had used her. … And, then I had an older German woman Marianne Loring, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. It was wonderful, and she and I worked very hard on it. I do believe we did a very good job of translating it. It was difficult because Freud’s handwriting was in what they called the Sütterlin, a very old-fashioned style of handwriting. You can’t read it unless you’re trained to read it.

One of the letters I read, with the help of Neumann, was from the end of (approximately) 1897. It was after Freud was supposed to have given up his belief in the reality of ‘seduction’; and by seduction, he meant child sexual abuse. This powerful letter told the story of a three year old girl, who was anally raped by her father, and who nearly bled to death. Freud tells the story in a long letter, possibly the longest letter he ever wrote to Fliess. At the end of it, he says, he knew the father. He said, “I know the father. He is indeed capable of having done this.” And then he says, “Wilhelm, I have a new motto for my new science of psychoanalysis: Poor child, what have they done to you? And this was a line from a very famous poem, by Goethe, “What have they done to you?”

Warwick Middleton: Just to get your opinion on an important matter: what’s your perception of what sort of person Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928) was, and the nature of his relationship with Freud?

Jeffrey Masson: Well, he was bad. His son believed he was psychotic. I believe that, too. We could talk for hours. Let me just tell you briefly, in 1895, Fliess had a child called Robert – the same year that Anna Freud was born. Robert Fliess (1895-1970) went on to become a very prominent analyst in New York. He was Shengold’s analyst. That was why Shengold was interested in abuse. And he, Robert Fliess believed that he had been abused by his father. He writes that in a book. I became friendly with his widow when he died, and the widow said to me, “There is no question, he believed he had been sexually abused by his father.” Whether he was, or wasn’t, I don’t know. But he believed that.

And he wrote a very significant book called “Symbol, Dream and Psychosis”, a very important book, a very psychoanalytic book. It was published very early on in New York, and people thought, this is beyond the pale, because one of the things he said in this very important book, is that he disagrees with Freud about child abuse. He said, “Nobody becomes ill from a fantasy of abuse; it’s only memories in repression that lead to illness.” That was a very deep thing to say. And then he said, “I disagree with Freud when he said these abuses never took place. I believe they did take place, and most of the time they are repressed, sometimes they come back and sometimes you need analysis to do that.

And, for the psychoanalytic world, it was a shitstorm! Just like what happened to Freud in 1896 when he said the same thing in front of his psychiatric colleagues. They told him, “You’re mad! You’re paranoid to believe women!” And suddenly Fliess was “mad”. They threw him out. Well, they didn’t exactly throw him out. He quit. He left the Society. He moved to Upper State New York with his wife. He was a very bitter man and he died.

And this was Wilhelm Fliess’s son. So, Wilhelm Fliess, who was probably the only real friend that Freud ever had, (they had a deep bond), was mad… And the main thing that he was mad about was child abuse. … Fliess did not like the idea of Freud zeroing in on parents as abusers. That would implicate him.

Wilhelm Fliess, to whom Freud was telling everything he believed about child abuse, was basically telling him: “You’re on the wrong path! This can’t be, this is not true.” Not only did Freud love him as a friend, but he trusted him completely.

So, to go back to the story with Anna Freud, when I found this letter that said, “Poor child, what have they done to you?”, Anna Freud had put a big X, a big red X though it, saying, “Not To Be Published”, I said, “Miss Freud, with all due respect, this is the most beautiful letter your father has ever written, the most heart-felt cri de Coeur – he was calling out from his heart to believe children, and to realize how terrible it is to be hurt in this way. How can you say, this will not be published?”

And she looked at me with a kind of horror. She said, “But he was wrong.” And I said, “You may believe that, all your psychoanalytic friends may believe that, but why don’t you leave it up to history to decide? How can you simply take out of the public record the most heart-felt, beautiful letter that your father wrote?”

And she sighed and said, “Well, you’re now the Director of the Freud Archives, you’re now the head of the Freud Copyright, which they also made me. You do what you want, you have my permission to publish this, I don’t think it should be published, but it’s up to you.”

I said, “OK, I’m going to publish every single word of these letters.”


Next Month in Part II we will hear from Jeff about the consequences of that decision.