Abuse and Denial: More Reasons Why Pastors Don’t Stand With Abuse Victims — from Judith Herman
[August 1, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Once more, Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery [*Affiliate link], provides us with wonderful insight into why so many church leaders minimize, trivialize, and dismiss abuse victims. Listen to Herman’s summation here of what Sigmund Freud found in the early years of his research on “hysteria” (i.e., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder):
This empathic identification with his patients’ reactions is characteristic of Freud’s early writings on hysteria. His case histories reveal a man possessed of such passionate curiosity that he was willing to overcome his own defensiveness, and willing to listen. What he heard was appalling. Repeatedly his patients told him of sexual assault, abuse, and incest.
Following back the thread of memory, Freud and his patients uncovered major traumatic events of childhood concealed beneath the more recent, often relatively trivial experiences that had actually triggered the onset of hysterical symptoms. By 1896 Freud believed he had found the source. In a report on eighteen case studies, entitled The Aetiology of Hysteria, he made a dramatic claim: “I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades. I believe that this is an important finding, the discovery of a caput Nili in neuropathology.”
A century later, this paper still rivals contemporary clinical descriptions of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. It is a brilliant, compassionate, eloquently argued, closely reasoned document. Its triumphant title and exultant tone suggest that Freud viewed his contribution as the crowning achievement in the field. Instead, the publication of The Aetiology of Hysteria marked the end of this line of inquiry.
Within a year, Freud had privately repudiated the traumatic theory of the origins of hysteria. His correspondence makes clear that he was increasingly troubled by the radical social implications of his hypothesis. Hysteria was so common among women that if his patients’ stories were true, and if his theory were correct, he would be forced to conclude that what he called “perverted acts against children” were endemic, not only among the proletariat of Paris, where he had first studied hysteria, but also among the respectable bourgeois families of Vienna, where he had established his practice. This idea was simply unacceptable. It was beyond credibility.
Faced with this dilemma, Freud stopped listening to his female patients. The turning point is documented in the famous case of Dora. This, the last of Freud’s case studies on hysteria, reads more like a battle of wits than a cooperative venture. The interaction between Freud and Dora has been described as “emotional combat. In this case Freud still acknowledged the reality of his patient’s experience: the adolescent Dora was being used as a pawn in her father’s elaborate sex intrigues. Her father had essentially offered her to his friends as a sexual toy. Freud refused, however, to validate Dora’s feelings of outrage and humiliation. Instead, he insisted upon exploring her feelings of erotic excitement, as if the exploitative situation were a fulfillment of her desire. In an act that Freud viewed as revenge, Dora broke off the treatment.
The breach of their alliance marked the bitter end of an era of collaboration between ambitious investigators and hysterical patients. For close to a century, these patients would again be scorned and silenced. Freud’s followers held a particular grudge against the rebellious Dora, who was later described by a disciple as “one of the most repulsive hysterics he had ever met.”1
Out of the ruins of the traumatic theory of hysteria, Freud created psychoanalysis. The dominant psychological theory of the next century was founded in the denial of women’s reality. Sexuality remained the central focus of inquiry. But the exploitative social context in which sexual relations actually occur became utterly invisible. Psychoanalysis became a study of the internal vicissitudes of fantasy and desire, dissociated from the reality of experience. By the first decade of the twentieth century, without ever offering any clinical documentation of false complaints, Freud had concluded that his hysterical patients’ accounts of childhood sexual abuse were untrue: “I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up.”
Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (pp. 13-14). Kindle Edition.
I hardly need to make the analogy, right? Just as Freud could not deal with the implications of what his findings meant (that a large number of leading folk in Vienna were child-molesting perverts), so today pastors, church leaders, and church members cannot accept the consequences they sense would result if we started believing the abuse victims in our churches. The elephant in the room would become visible for all to see. If we admit that saintly Mr. Smith is, in fact, a fake saint who has been abusing his wife and children for years, then just how many other Mr. Smiths might be hiding in our pews in disguise? How many other victims whose stories we have disbelieved were, in fact, telling the truth?
The Trojan Horse would have entered Troy and conquered the city some time back. And we wouldn’t even know.
1[August 1, 2022: We added this paragraph. It might have been missing from the Kindle edition used to create this post, or it might have accidentally been omitted when the post was created. Editors.]
[August 1, 2022: Editors’ notes:
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