The Assault on Truth

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The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory
The Assault on Truth, 1984 edition.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Country United States
Language English
Subject Sigmund Freud
Published 1984 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 308 (1984 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition)
343 (1998 Pocket books edition)
ISBN 978-0345452795

The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984; second edition 1985; third edition 1992; fourth edition 1998; fifth edition 2003) is a book by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in which the author argues that Sigmund Freud deliberately suppressed his early hypothesis that hysteria is caused by sexual abuse during infancy. Masson reached this conclusion while he had access to some of Freud's unpublished letters as projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives.[1] The Assault on Truth aroused massive publicity and controversy. Several reviewers found the work flawed, and it received condemnation from reviewers within the psychoanalytic profession. Some feminists endorsed Masson's conclusions, and The Assault on Truth has been blamed for accelerating the spread of the recovered memory movement, although Masson has rejected the accusation as unfounded.


Formerly a Sanskrit professor, Masson retrained as a psychoanalyst, and in the 1970s found support within the psychoanalytic profession in the United States. His relationship with psychoanalyst Kurt R. Eissler helped him become the projects director of the Freud Archives, where he was entrusted with publishing the authorized edition of the correspondence between Freud and Wilhelm Fliess. Masson aroused controversy after presenting his views about the origins of Freud's psychoanalytic theories in a paper delivered at a 1981 meeting of the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society. The New York Times printed two articles reporting Masson's views, as well as an interview with him. Eissler fired Masson, who retaliated with writs. Journalist Janet Malcolm published two long articles about the controversy in The New Yorker, which were later issued as a book, In the Freud Archives (1984).[2]


Masson argued that the accepted account of Sigmund Freud's abandonment of his seduction theory is incorrect. According to Masson, Freud's female patients told him in 1895 and 1896 that they had been abused as children, but Freud later came to disbelieve their accounts. Masson argued that Freud was wrong to disbelieve his female patients and that the real reason Freud abandoned the seduction theory is that he could not accept that children are "the victims of sexual violence and abuse within their own families". Masson suggested that Freud's theories of "internal fantasy and of spontaneous childhood sexuality", which he developed after abandoning the seduction theory, allowed sexual violence to be attributed to the victim's imagination, and therefore posed no threat to the existing social order. Masson acknowledged the tentative nature of his reinterpretation of Freud's reasons for abandoning the seduction theory. Masson discussed Freud's 1896 essay "The Aetiology of Hysteria", which he provided in an appendix.[3]

Publishing history[edit]

The Assault on Truth was first published in 1984, with revised editions following in 1985, 1992, 1998, and 2003.[4]


The Assault on Truth aroused massive publicity and controversy,[5] and became a best-seller.[6] Because of the circumstances surrounding its publication, and the growing mistrust of psychoanalysis since the 1960s, especially among feminists, the book received a mixed response, which included condemnation from reviewers within the psychoanalytic profession and their supporters.[7] In 1984, it received negative reviews from the historian Peter Gay in The Philadelphia Inquirer,[8] the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr in The New York Times Book Review,[9] the philosopher Arnold Davidson in the London Review of Books,[10] and the philosopher Frank Cioffi in the Times Literary Supplement.[11] Writing in 1985, Gay called The Assault on Truth a "sensational polemic", and noted that he was not the only reviewer to have rejected Masson's reading of psychoanalytic history.[8]

In 1986, The Assault on Truth received a negative review from Charles Hanly in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.[12] Masson's book was endorsed by some feminists.[13] The lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, who found The Assault on Truth a revealing discussion of Freud, wrote that, "Masson's book was more than iconoclastic; it threatened the ground on which psychoanalysis stands: more than Freud's credibility, women's lack of it."[14] Gay wrote in Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) that Masson had confused discussion of Freud's seduction theory and that Masson's suggestion that Freud had abandoned the theory because he could not tolerate isolation from the Vienna medical establishment was preposterous.[15] The historian Roy Porter considered The Assault on Truth "tendentious", but a necessary corrective to Ernest Jones' The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953-1957).[16] Jenny Turner, in a 1991 review of Masson's Final Analysis (1990) in New Statesman and Society, dismissed The Assault on Truth, accusing Masson of misreadings, making inept arguments, and of being motivated by spite.[17] Author John Kerr considered The Assault on Truth "seriously flawed" but nevertheless "useful in getting the topic of childhood sexual abuse back on the psychoanalytic agenda."[18] Author Allen Esterson credited Cioffi with being the only reviewer of The Assault on Truth to have pointed out that it was questionable whether Freud's patients had indeed reported childhood seductions, and that the factual basis of the controversy surrounding whether Freud was correct to have rejected the reports was therefore suspect.[19] The critic Camille Paglia criticized feminists for their interest in Masson's work, deeming it an indication of an obsession with exposing the failings of great figures.[20] The critic Frederick Crews praised Cioffi's review of The Assault on Truth for its astuteness.[11]

Author Richard Webster wrote in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) that The Assault on Truth is similar to E. M. Thornton's The Freudian Fallacy in its author's hostility towards Freud and psychoanalysis, but suggested that Masson nevertheless retains a partly positive view of Freud. Webster credited Masson makes some contributions to the history of psychoanalysis, but noted that his central argument has not convinced either the psychoanalytic establishment or the majority of Freud's critics, as Masson accepted that Freud formulated the seduction theory on the basis of memories of childhood seduction provided by his patients, an account disputed by scholars such as Cioffi, Thornton, Han Israëls, and Morton Schatzman, who have argued that Freud's original account of his therapeutic methods suggests that this is not what occurred. Freud's seduction theory maintained that episodes of childhood seduction would have a pathological effect only if the victim had no conscious recollection of them, and the purpose of his therapeutic sessions was not to listen to freely offered recollections but to encourage his patients to discover or construct scenes of which they had no recollection. Webster blamed Masson for accelerating the spread of the recovered memory movement by implying that most or all serious cases of neurosis are caused by child sexual abuse, that orthodox psychoanalysts were collectively engaged in a massive denial of this fact, and that an equally massive collective effort to retrieve painful memories of incest was required.[21] Masson rejected Webster's suggestion that he encouraged the recovered memory movement, stating that he had no interest in memory retrieval in The Assault on Truth.[22]

Professor of German Ritchie Robertson wrote that Masson overstated the case against Freud.[23] The psychologist Louis Breger considered Masson correct to question the accepted account of the abandonment of the seduction theory, but found Masson's speculations about why Freud abandoned the theory unconvincing. Breger accepted that The Assault on Truth contains valuable information on the later life of Emma Eckstein.[24] Author Anthony Elliott argued that Masson seriously misrepresented Freud, and that Masson's critique of Freud is "greviously flawed", since "Freud did not dispute his patients' accounts of actual seduction and sexual abuse", being concerned rather with the way in which "external events are suffused with fantasy and desire."[6] Crews, writing in The New York Review of Books in 2004, called The Assault on Truth melodramatic, and wrote that Masson misrepresented "Freud's 'seduction' patients as self-aware incest victims rather than as the doubters that they remained".[25]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Webster 2005. p. 23.
  2. ^ Porter 1996. p. 278-279.
  3. ^ Masson 2003. pp. xv-xxi.
  4. ^ Masson 2003. p. v.
  5. ^ Webster 2005. p. 515.
  6. ^ a b Elliott 2002. p. 18.
  7. ^ Porter 1996. p. 279.
  8. ^ a b Gay 1985. p. 117.
  9. ^ Porter 1996. p. 279, 292.
  10. ^ Davidson 1984.
  11. ^ a b Crews 1996. p. 309.
  12. ^ Porter 1996. p. 279, 291.
  13. ^ Webster 2005. p. 22.
  14. ^ MacKinnon 1986. pp. xii-xiv.
  15. ^ Gay 1995. p. 751.
  16. ^ Porter 1989. p. 250.
  17. ^ Porter 1996. p. 279, 292.
  18. ^ Kerr 2012. p. 583.
  19. ^ Esterson 1993. p. 12.
  20. ^ Paglia 1993. p. 265.
  21. ^ Webster 2005. pp. 22-23, 201-2, 519.
  22. ^ Masson 2003. pp. 320-21.
  23. ^ Robertson 1999. p. x.
  24. ^ Breger 2000. pp. 385-6.
  25. ^ Crews 2006. pp. 153-155.


  • Breger, Louis (2000). Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-31628-8. 
  • Crews, Frederick (1996). Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Debating Gender, Debating Sexuality. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-4655-1. 
  • Crews, Frederick (2006). Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays. Emeryville, California: Shoemaker Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-101-5. 
  • Elliott, Anthony (2002). Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave. ISBN 0-333-91912-2. 
  • Esterson, Allen (1993). Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8126-9231-4. 
  • Gay, Peter (1995). Freud: A Life for Our Times. London: Papermac. ISBN 0-333-48638-2. 
  • Gay, Peter (1985). Freud for Historians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503586-0. 
  • Kerr, John (2012). A Dangerous Method. London: Atlantic Books. ISBN 9780857891785. 
  • MacKinnon, Catharine; Masson, Jeffrey (1986). A Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
  • Masson, Jeffrey (2003). The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-45279-8. 
  • Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017209-2. 
  • Porter, Roy (1989). A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-79571-6. 
  • Porter, Roy (1996). Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Debating Gender, Debating Sexuality. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-4655-1. 
  • Robertson, Ritchie; Freud, Sigmund (1999). The Interpretation of Dreams. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-210049-1. 
  • Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
Online articles

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