Hysteria, stemming from the Greek word “Hystera” meaning “womb” or “uterus,” once provided a link between certain nervous disorders and diseases of the female sexual and reproductive organs. In 1886, Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to contrast the original theory that hysteria was a neurotic disease solely experienced by women. Truthfully, hysteria is a neurotic illness related to the affects, emotions, and experiences that individual humans, both men and women, have but do not fully understand.
Freud once believed that hysteria stemmed from a real act of seduction during one’s childhood. This hypothesis, commonly known as “The Seduction Theory,” alleged that childhood sexual experiences were always common and had sufficient traumatic force that provoked long-term consequences.
However, Freud abandoned his earlier theory in his letters to Fliess. Freud argued that imaginative and real experiences have the exact same force on the human psyche, alluding that not all recounted sexual encounters are actual.
Freud rejected “the Seduction Theory” for five reasons. He studied the difference between a patient’s story as fantasy and story as truth. He understood natural feelings of jealousy and experiences of tragedy through the Oedipus complex. Freud came to understand the importance of self-esteem and self-confidence that patients often lacked. He came to the realization that not every child of hysteria was raised by a perverted paternal figure. Lastly, Freud emphasized the importance of psychosis and self-reflection.
Freud originally thought that his patient’s stories were true but realized later that the memories of sexual abuse were fantasies. Freud came to this conclusion by understanding the relationship between the unconscious mind and screen memories. The unconscious is the part of the mind that holds a collection of mental memories that are clear in the unconscious but are not known to the person at the time in which they occur. A screen memory is a reminiscence that a person believes to have actually experienced but is only remembering such an incident because it is hiding what actually happened. For example, Freud once had a patient whom he was studying. She was telling him about a traumatic experience she had in a hut in a mountainous region, where her uncle molested her. Freud wrote down the memory as though it actually happened, but understood that the screen memory was covering up the actual memory of the unconscious mind, that the patient was not yet aware of.
There is no reality in the conscious. Fantasy—the fantasy of being molested—is just a real experience in one’s conscious. It takes time to realize that it was in fact a fantasy. If there is no sense of what is real in the conscious, than one has to be able to understand that the fantasy becomes as real as the actual experience hidden within the unconscious. Then, “the Seduction Theory” could not be accurate because that would mean that every single claim made of sexual experiences throughout childhood were real.
Freud did not deny that there were some real accounts of sexual experience throughout childhood that had long-term effects on the mind, but teaching and believing that these experiences were so common would be sole exaggeration.
Why, however, do people repress emotions and memories so much as to push them away from the conscious mind? Well, people use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the pain of not properly being able to fulfill all that they want to or of being afraid to obtain a specific desire.
Tragedy is experienced when trying to avoid something; one in turn makes it happen. If one does not try and avoid their fate, nothing will happen. For example, in the Oedipus complex, Oedipus was told of a tragedy that he would commit. He would kill his father and then marry his mother and have children with her. Fearing this from happening, Oedipus embarked on a journey where he hoped to be rid of any potential tragedy. However, he ended up killing his father, marrying his mother, and bearing her children anyways.
Each member of the audience was once…just such an Oedipus, and each one recoils in horror from the dream-fulfillment here transplanted into reality, with the whole quota of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one, (Gay 116).
When one has a vivid but bizarre dream, aspects within it can often be connected to early childhood experiences. Dreams can also be displaced. Freud believed that all dreams are intended of something and contain messages, which would obviously want to be forgotten because of that bizarreness.
Oedipus, however, was living this transplanted into reality. In order to forget what he had been expected to experience, he tried to run away from it. Thus, he repressed the memory of the expected experience into his unconscious mind and replaced it with the screen memory of escaping to prevent any tragedy from occurring. The unconscious mind carries memories that are pushed away from the conscious mind. Screen memories replace those memories in consciousness. The unconscious mind, however, picks up on these memories, dreams, or desires without one even being aware. For example, multinational corporations, aware of this, produce a number of advertisements each year and use subliminal messaging to reach the unconscious mind without the owner of the mind knowing. They may use slightly transparent images of sexual intercourse within an alcoholic beverage to trigger the desire of the unconscious mind, that have been repressed from the conscious, to experience and fulfill one’s sexual fantasies.
The Oedipus theory shows that each person carries illnesses from their families such as jealousy and envy in their unconscious mind because of certain experiences that took place beyond one’s control within one’s familial unit. Even Hamlet was jealous of his own father for he had the riches and the throne (116). “The Seduction Theory” was rejected for this reason, as well.
Freud’s “Seduction Theory” was also rejected because of the Origin of Disbelief, or a lack of self-esteem. Freud experienced continual disappointments in his attempts at bringing his analysis to a real conclusion (112).
If “the Seduction Theory” were accurate, it would mean that every father of a child of hysteria was a pervert—even Freud’s. This generalization was not very probable. Freud came to realize that he was neurotic, as well, but had no experience of being sexually molested or mistreated by his father. Therefore, how could he be neurotic if his father was not a pervert? How could every hysteric be a product of sexual molestation? Freud was certainly still neurotic, which meant that his original theory had to be revisited.
Freud wrote of a dream where a teacher of sex scolded him for being clumsy and incapable of fulfilling sexual acts (114). At the time of the dream, Freud was experiencing difficulty with his work as a therapist (114). He began feeling as though he was powerless and incapable of doing what he desired. Freud concluded that the dream was a combination of mortifying allusions that summarized any bad treatment (114). In his case, Freud felt that the dream was an imagery of how he received money for his bad treatment of others (114).
Through this analysis, Freud also realized that any inhibition of the mind is produced by a lack of self-esteem or self-confidence. If one does not have the belief that he or she can successfully complete a task because of a memory, that might not even be real, like a horrible car accident preventing a person from learning to drive, than one will not be able to open up for study nor successfully progress in their own understanding. One must be able to open up in order to be understood by another.
In order for all of these reasons for rejecting “the Seduction Theory” to be true, psychosis would not be able to break unconscious memories to the conscious. Psychoanalysis does this entirely. In doing so, psychosis helps to heal a person and gives them better understanding of their feelings because one is opened up, speaks about their troubles and experiences, is guided by the therapist, and finds the answers that were once so difficult to obtain. Therefore, secrets of childhood experiences are never disclosed which means that Freud eventually came to the conclusion that what his patients were exclaiming were screen memories from the conscious mind of sexual molestation to hide anther actual experiences from the unconscious mind, that were in fact the reason for their hysteria.
The Freud Reader. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1989. 112-116. Print.