Putting Freud in His Place 

“THE STUDY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA has a curious history— one of episodic amnesia.”

Judith Herman (1992) makes this claim, noting the study of trauma is fostered by a supporting political movement. To study trauma is to take sides between the victim and the perpetrator, and ” The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Since the moment I read Freud’s psychosexual theory I thought he was a huge phony. But it wasn’t until I read Judith Herman’s “Trauma & Recovery: The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror” that I became aware of why I hated Freud and his Oedipus Complex. Freud, following the work of Charcot in 1885, studied hysteria. By 1896 Freud published a seminal work linking hysteria to sexual trauma in childhood. A year later, however, Freud repudiated this link, developing instead an intricate theory attributing hysteria and other psychological problems to a child’s libidinous urges toward the parent of the opposite sex. 

To acknowledge sexual trauma as the cause of hysteria would be to acknowledge that sexual abuse of women and children was rampant. Freud decided to maintain the patriarchal status quo and develop instead a theory that promoted the continued subjugation of women and ignored the damaging effects of trauma on the psyche. The depths of the lies housed in Freud’s theories are so aligned with society’s need to keep silent about trauma that his theories are still discussed today. Today, however, I am conscious of the deceit and can create a new space for truth for me and my clients. 

The truth is that I too have participated in the crimes of omission. Regarding trauma, I have taken the side of the perpetrator in my clinical practice. I have perpetuated silence and forgetting instead of acting on behalf of my clients and engaging with them unearthing their trauma. My motives then were to protect the client from my own ineptitude. I did not know how to work with trauma. I also had not studied how to treat it. 

My clients may have suffered in my hands because of my lack of awareness. One of my clients suffered a horrible trauma at the age of 10. What happened to her at the hands of a neighbor was compounded by the invalidation and emotional abuse perpetrated by her parents. I asked her about trauma on her first day of therapy. Because I did not feel prepared to help her (I had to study more, learn more), we did not address the trauma directly until a year into her treatment. By then, I’d become a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) clinician and I’d begun reading Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score.”

I worry now that I did her a disservice. That waiting as long as I did may have capitulated the invalidation she got from her parents. I know that by the time we were both ready to address the trauma head on, she was courageous and fierce. I’d like to think that I was also. She was fearless in writing the story of her trauma on a piece of paper we burned. Standing outside my facility with a borrowed lighter we burned the paper after she read each horrible word out loud. She credits that moment to her liberation. Her life still had the same ups and downs but after that day she felt she had crossed the abyss from victim to survivor. 

She has taught me, more than any book, that I can help my clients and now I am no longer silent. I speak to trauma, I say the words out loud. And hopefully, I help clear a space where others can speak and remember out loud.