Posted by: exiwp | August 9, 1981

The Politics of Penis Envy (1981)

By Jacqueline Salit

Jacqueline Salit is the Executive Editor of the National Alliance and a member of the Practice Editorial Board. This essay first appeared as the lead story in the December 4, 1981 issue of the National Alliance.

“Penis envy is bullshit,” said Dr. Jeffrey Masson, an eminent Freudian scholar and analyst who finds himself at the center of a major controversy over the father of psychoanalysis and begetter of the concept of penis envy, Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Everyone envies everything,” Masson continued, “so penis envy is hardly the bedrock of society.” For comments like these—and other more scholarly investigation into the history of Freud’s work—Masson has been declared persona non grata by the American psychoanalytic movement and fired from his position as the Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives.

The controversy erupted after Masson gave a talk at Yale University last summer. He had been working at the Archives, where he was editing a volume of previously unpublished correspondence between Freud and his close colleague, Wilhelm Fliess. While editing the material, he uncovered evidence that Freud had abandoned an early theory the seduction theory even though there was abundant evidence supporting it. The seduction theory acknowledged the widespread sexual abuse of women and children in Austrian society at the turn of the century, a social phenomenon on which Freud had based much of his early understanding of emotional problems and mental illness.

But Freud subsequently revised that understanding in favor of a theory which located the roots of mental illness and emotional problems in fantasy. Masson claimed that “had Freud had the courage to face the total social isolation” that adhering to the seduction theory would have produced, “he would have been forced to ally himself with forces in Austrian society which were working for social change.” Masson added that “if Freud’s early theories were right, it would have demanded a change of the society.” In the Yale talk, Masson concluded that in turning his back on the overwhelming evidence that this social reality, and not intra-psychic fantasy, was deeply affecting the emotional health of many of his patients, Freud paved the way for the “present day sterility” of Freudianism.

Following these remarks at Yale, he was dismissed from his position at the Archives by the executors of Freud’s literary estate, though he had planned to continue editing the material for a book to be published by Harvard University Press. But this week, when he arrived at the Library of Congress to resume work on the Freud correspondence, he was denied entry. Library of Congress officials informed him that Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter and herself a psychoanalyst) and Dr. Kurt Eissler of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute had written requesting that Masson be barred from further access to the materials.

Freudians Go Nuts

Though Dr. Masson plans to fight the exclusion, for the moment he has no access to the unpublished correspondence. He is without a job, having given up a full professorship at the University of Toronto to work in the Archives. Following his presentation at Yale, he was invited by six psychoanalytic institutes around the country to present his findings. After The New York Times printed the story of his firing, he was disinvited from all six speaking engagements.

Meanwhile, many in the field are downplaying the controversy. Dr. Mark Kanzer of the sanctified New York Psychoanalytic Institute said, “The controversy is nothing new.” Even Dr. Joel Kovel, Director of Psychiatric Residency Training at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and a noted progressive critic of Freud called the controversy a “tempest in a teapot.” Dr. Eissler, the man responsible for Masson’s firing, also claimed that Masson’s material was nothing new and had already been assimilated by the science of psychoanalysis. But Masson questions why someone would be fired for saying something that everyone already knows. His contention is that Freudians are concerned that though controversy has raged before, this time it won’t be assimilated.

Dr. Masson, who sees himself as not offering only criticism, but also historical evidence, might well be right. Though many of theeminents in the field say that it’s happened before, their seemingly unconcerned attitude is belied by the aggressive moves that have been made against Dr. Masson, which strongly suggest a real fear that the state of the science isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is true not only in the fields of psychiatry and psychology; it is also true for many other sciences, including economics, sociology, and physics, to name a few. Mainstream economics has demonstrated no capacity either to explain or to ameliorate the current economic crisis; it is, rather, an apology for that crisis. Sociological theories have more and more been evolved to justify social policies that are racist and oppressive to women, gay people, and minorities. Likewise, as Freudianism and neo Freudianism remain the dominant framework of modern psychology, mental illness is growing at faster and faster rates and mainstream science has yet to develop an understanding of and method for curing people’s emotional problems.

Social Critics Make the Point

Bette Braun, Clinical Director of the ten year old New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research, which has developed a theory and practice of psychology based on people’s relationship to and capacity to change social reality, described an incident which illustrates the problem with Freudianism. While working as a social worker at Jacobi Hospital, she was telephoned by a patient, a welfare recipient, who told her that since her checks had been repeatedly stolen from her mailbox she planned to stay home that day and wait for the postman, thereby missing her regular session. Braun’s supervisor, well schooled in Freudian theory (and anti poor politics) said: “She’s not coming because she’s resistant. She just doesn’t want to get better.”

Freda Rosen, Coordinator of the Coalition of Grassroots Women and an adjunct staff member at the New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research commented: “Far from it being the case that the Freudian and neo-Freudian models are effective in treating women, it’s much more the case that the model and the method drive women crazy. Middle class women blame themselves for not achieving satisfaction in the lives that have been predetermined for them, and poor and working class women blame themselves for not achieving middle class status. Women think that these problems are their fault, and that it’s all in their heads.”

Similar self blaming attitudes in the gay community have been organized and strongly reinforced by Freudianism. Nomi Azulay, Coordinator of the New York City Union of Lesbians and Gay Men, said in a discussion of the effect of Freudianism on gays, “Freud’s view of homosexuality was that it is a backward and infantile mode of relating, that gay people get stuck at a certain stage of their sexual development. That way of thinking has gone a long way toward making gays blame themselves for not fitting in and participating in the mainstream forms of sexuality. Freudianism has left people without the understanding that homosexuality can be an advanced form of human relating.”

Identifying what’s in people’s heads as the root of their problems—as opposed to their ability to deal with what’s in the world—is a psychology that has proven of little use to poor and working people. A group of psychologists at Columbia University took this kind of psychology to an extreme last year when they began to study international anti war movements. They claimed, in the tradition of Freud, that people project their own psychic conflicts onto the world. Therefore, if we wanted to understand why young people across the United States and Western Europe were protesting the development of nuclear power, we had to understand how the bomb is understood by these millions of young people as a symbol of their mothers. Perhaps this mistake grows out of the fact that Freud lived before it was “scientifically proven” that it is bombs that blow up the world, not mothers.

In addition to the maelstrom of hate mail from psychoanalysts around the country, Dr. Masson has also been contacted by patients whose experiences in Freudian analysis validate his perspective. A Boston woman contacted him in tears upon hearing of the controversy. She had entered analysis 8 years ago, having been raped by her father. The analyst told her it was a fantasy and treated her accordingly. It was only after she read of Dr. Masson’s work that she was able to see the overt oppressiveness of the Freudian assumptions. Thus, while Dr. Masson is told by the American Analytic Association that all the publicity that he is generating is “bad for patients,” it appears that it is merely bad for business.

Dr. Fred Newman, a clinical staff member at the New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research summed up his thoughts on the Masson affair. “This whole furor is no academic issue. Psychoanalysis and Freudian concepts in general have been used for decades, in this country in particular, to support conservative politics and conservative ideology. Given the current collapse of the economy and the destabilization of social institutions, it becomes more and more important to those who control things to convince people that everything is in their minds. So the intelligentsia works overtime to maintain the sanctity of the traditional sciences, including traditional psychology. But the basic tenets of Freudianism are indistinguishable from Watergate just another hoax designed to keep those in power in and those out of power out.”

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