Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis

By Coline Covington; Barbara Wharton | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

Comments on the Burghölzli hospital records of Sabina Spielrein

Coline Covington

On the basis of accepting the historical accounts of his patients as literal, Freud hypothesized his seduction theory and rooted pathogenic behaviour in the trauma of the past. Freud's 'cathartic method' of analysis enabled the patient to recover traumatic memories from the unconscious and to restore a cognitive link between the past and the present. The relation between memory and trauma had become a matter of debate and speculation since 1872 when Charcot's treatment of hysterics by means of hypnosis at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris first received wide attention within scientific and medical circles. In 1885 Freud became Charcot's apprentice. During this time Janet was also demonstrating how hypnosis could be used to reveal the repressed psychological trauma that underlay hysteria. By 1888 Janet had published several cases of hysteria. Four years later Freud finished the translation of Charcot's lectures and presented his own view of hysteria in a footnote:

The core of a hysterical attack, in whatever form it may appear, is a memory, the hallucinatory reliving of a scene which is significant for the onset of the illness…the content of the memory is as a rule a psychical trauma which is qualified by its intensity to provoke the outbreak of hysteria in the patient or is the event which, owing to its occurrence at a particular moment, has become a trauma.

(Freud 1886-1899:137)

Three years later, in 1895, Freud wrote, 'Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences'. Taking a step further from the moral and physical traumas that Charcot and Janet had hypothesized as causing hysteria, Freud postulated that hysteria was more specifically linked to the trauma of seduction or sexual assault. 'Reminiscences' were expressed in the form of distorted memories. It was only after 1897, when Freud had to abandon his seduction theory, that the roots of hysteria were further extended and 'psychologized' as resting in purely psychic events, i.e. the repressed sexual fantasies of childhood.

-177-

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