An Unfinished Man

January 09, 1991|By Jason Berry

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans. IN 1981, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson abandoned a tenured career as a Sanskrit scholar in Toronto on becoming a psychoanalyst. He has been attacking psychoanalysis ever since.

Tossing his books at the therapeutic hierarchy like hand grenades, Dr. Masson is a writer on a quest. His extensive research into Sigmund Freud's early therapeutic cases -- in which Dr. Masson contends that certain female patients were mistreated when their complaints of advances by older men were dismissed as subconscious lust -- have won praise from many feminists and critics of the psychoanalytic establishment.

Yet Dr. Masson is an unfinished man. However penetrating his critique, questions about the critic are troubling because of unresolved issues in his own life.

He argues that mental-health professionals reinforce society's phobias by mistreating those who have already been abused. It is a potent, timely critique as society struggles to understand why adults harm children, and what we can do to reverse such behavior.

He is nevertheless an enigma. His journey from analyst to high critic is an odyssey with missing chapters. ''Final Analysis,'' Dr. Masson's latest book, recounts how he underwent daily sessions with a tyrannical analyst for five years, required training in order to become an analyst himself. Once certified, Dr. Masson chose research and won a rare job at the Freud Archives that allowed him access to sealed documents and the run of Anna Freud's house in London, with her late father's books and papers.

Those experiences shaped his 1984 book, ''The Assault on Truth'' in which he argued that Sigmund Freud suppressed revelations of child sex abuse by adult patients in the 1890s because Vienna's medical establishment recoiled from such a taboo topic. As a result, Dr. Masson wrote, the traumas of incest survivors and abuse victims were distorted by Freud's Oedipal theory of childhood erotic fantasies and unconscious sources on behavior.

Freud's vision of psychological forces shaping personality development and cultural mores had a vast influence on 20th-century thought. Peter Gay's biography of Freud dismissed Masson's theory in a footnote as ''preposterous.'' But Dr. Masson's research of documents in several languages -- including Freud's unpublished letters -- and biographical findings his patients strongly suggest Freud's misgivings, if not guilt, about the altering of his theoretical foundation.

When Dr. Masson first voiced his dissent in a 1981 interview with the New York Times, he was fired from the Freud Archives. He subsequently gave lengthy interviews to Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker. As a young man, when he began analysis, ''I had slept with close to a thousand women,'' he told her. In ''Final Analysis,'' he does not quantify his promiscuity, but says: ''I was unable to fall in love.'' He often mentions his sadness, and the hope he placed in analysts. He also writes that his parents and ex-wife read the manuscript, which may explain restrained passages about his discomfort with monogamy and the brief mention of his father's extra-marital affairs.

But, since Dr. Masson has raised these matters, a reader rightly wonders how he has resolved them in his own life. Dr. Masson leaves himself vulnerable to psychoanalysts, who might well argue that his sexual searchings are a projection of inner turmoil that his own therapy failed to quell. Whose fault was it then -- therapy's or Dr. Masson's?

Ms. Malcolm's lively, somewhat satirical account of Dr. Masson's conflict with the Freudian establishment has him say that the Freud house ''would have been a center of scholarship, but it would have been a place of sex, women, fun.'' Dr. Masson filed suit for libel, claiming that she fabricated some of his quotations. Ms. Malcolm strongly denies it. The suit is pending.

With no hint of irony, Dr. Masson writes in the preface to his own memoir: ''Who can recall, exactly, conversations that took place years in the past? Fortunately, for some of the conversations in this book, including sessions with my analyst, I have made notes immediately afterward. But where I have had to rely on my memory and reconstruct conversations, I have tried to ensure that the words I ascribe to others are authentic by searching out the original articles written by those I quote.''

Of Anna Freud, he remarks: ''There was no end to her generosity in letting me take whatever I wanted out of the house for copying or studying. . . . My joy was so pure, so obvious, that it began to act on her, and she too, got caught up in the search for new documents'' -- many of which Dr. Masson later cited in criticizing her father. Miss Freud was wondering ''about my motivation. . . . I wanted to say something to her that was more direct, more human . . . about the way people grew up in the world, and how they become unbearably sad.''

Like Thomas Szasz, Dr. Masson writes lucidly of therapy's inner ills. But his passion stems from more than scholar's hunger; sadness led him to psychoanalysis. Analysts who publicly wondered why he drew so much attention to himself in early speeches were essentially questioning his psychological motivations. Dr. Masson's search for the truth about Freud was also a search for himself.

He writes brilliantly of Freud, but even those in sympathy with his critique must wonder why he backs away from explaining those references to his recurrent sadness, its causes and effects on his life, or how he would have run the house in London after Miss Freud's death. The persona he presents is unfinished, leaving one to wonder, finally, who Jeffrey Masson is.

Jason Berry is an author and investigative journalist writing a book about sexual conflicts in the Catholic clergy.

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