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This story haunts me: Freud, diversity and how we ignore women.

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

When Freud first graduated from school, he couldn't find a hospital that would accept him, so he had to go into private practice.

His caseload quickly filled up with the only people who could afford talk therapy at the time, upper-middle-class women. Most of them were struggling with hysteria.

When Freud inquired in their lives, they often told a similar story: they had been sexually assaulted by the men in their lives.

Later, at a conference, Freud presented his theory that hysteria was caused by sexual assault.

No one believed him. No one could believe that there were that many uncles molesting their nieces and fathers molesting their daughters.

Freud later changed his theory. He believed that these women weren't actually sexually abused. Instead, they were misremembering, confusing their childhood fantasies with reality.

Thus, he developed his psychoanalytic theory and became the first therapist.

Sigmund Freud at his desk
Sigmund Freud at his desk

When I told a friend, a white woman, the above story, she replied, "Wow, just another example of a white man using his power to invalidate women."

This was interesting to me, a black male. I completely sympathized with him.

Freud was a Jew in pre-Nazi Vienna. He couldn't go to work in a hospital, the university/academia of his day, because the Austrians wouldn't let him.

Here's this guy, who's been barred from his dreams because of his ethnicity, and he gets to an academic conference and presents his findings. And all the anti-Semitic scholars tell him he's wrong.

So he changes his theory.

When I first read his story I was struck by how much he must have suffered in such a society.

I don't have some justification for Freud's actions. I have no "big idea" about diversity. I don't even have a conclusion.

I only have a musing.

My friend and I both had strong, different reactions to Freuds' story. It's interesting to me how much our lenses dictate how we interpret history.


Jordan (the Counselor)

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[1] For more on the history of psychotherapy I recommend Anne Harrington's The Cure Within. It's a fun and easy read of the history of mind body medicine, and was the major source for this article. She's also written Mind Fixers, a history of psychiatry.

I recommend starting this interview:

P. S. If any of you have a way to contact her I'd love to have her on the podcast for an interview!


This post was a bit of a downer. Consider reading this next. It's a nice pick me up ;) It's about why I'm optimistic.

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