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Book Review: Freud’s Early Psychoanalysis, Witch Trials and the Inquisitorial Method: The Harsh Therapy 

by Dr. Kathleen Duffy


Published by Routledge ISBN: 978-0-367-36924-8, 978-0-367-35925-5 978-0-429-35193-8
reviewed by William Pattengill

The title of Dr. Kathleen Duffy’s book clearly links two concepts that appear unrelated at first glance but are closely connected: Freud’s early psychoanalytic method, and the inquisitions of witches that were conducted centuries before him. Duffy quotes a “puzzling” (3) sentence from a letter from Freud to his friend, Dr. Wilhelm Fleiss, and in the book’s introduction she sets out her intent to “make sense of that statement” (3). Apparently other researchers have touched upon the subject, but Duffy delves into it armed with a vast amount of supporting documentation from several different centuries, including the book of Genesis, which surprisingly yields its own contribution to the process.

The sentence in question: “I dream, therefore, of a primeval devil religion with rites that are carried on secretly and understand the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges.” (3)

In Part One she devotes her considerable energies towards an understanding of what witchcraft really was about in its European heyday, and what the trials were intending to accomplish. Witches still hold a firm place in our culture, and we all have our own ideas about them, but she points out that everything we think we know comes directly from the few remaining records written by their judges. No memoirs, interviews, or other first-person accounts were bequeathed to us by the actual practitioners of witchcraft who went on trial in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, we are relying on the accounts of men only who, unlike judges of today, had no oath of impartiality to uphold. Duffy tenaciously digs at the roots of both the phenomenon of witches and the social, moral, and legal reactions to their alleged behaviour, in order to untangle the “puzzling” (3) reference Freud makes to his newborn psychoanalytic methods and the “harsh therapy” (3) of the witches’ judges.

All the events in the book occur in the distant or recent past, but Duffy suggests her work points to possible and potential misuses of psychoanalysis today. The link to all the trials, Freud’s therapy, and our practice today is the inquisitorial method. Most of us are familiar with the accusatory procedure of our legal system which presupposes the innocence of the accused until proven guilty. However the inquisitorial method used by European courts in the time of the witch trials was the reverse. According to Duffy’s research, anyone suspected and accused of witchcraft was automatically guilty no matter how weak the evidence or the age of the accuser, so the judges were working towards squeezing (sometimes literally) a confession of guilt from their captive and saw resistance as further proof of guilt.

Part Two jumps forward to Freud’s years at university in Paris where in 1885 he was introduced to this material by one of his teachers, who was examining the connection between the mysterious phenomenon of hysteria in women to their equally mysterious ‘possession by the devil’ centuries before. Freud’s interest in hysteria led him to his own research, and this is how he encountered the judges’ “harsh therapy” (3). Duffy’s work suggests that the crusading doctor (who was dead set on world fame before 40) knowingly or otherwise embraced the inquisitorial method himself in that he was positive all his hysterical patients had been sexually abused in childhood and that it was his mission to ‘squeeze’ an admission (confession?) out of them in order for their healing to begin. The judges also believed the only way to salvation for the witches was forced confession and then death of the body to release the soul heavenward.

But within a few years, Freud abandoned his ‘seduction’ theory, and this was again due to the influence of his ongoing study of the witches and their judges. He came to a new conclusion, that his patients’ memories of seduction were actually the manifestation of their own sexual fantasy life and not actual events – just as he saw the witches’ testimony and the judges’ coercion as a product of the repressed desires of both accused and accusers. We are then led by Duffy (139) into Freud’s writings on the subject which seems like a hall of mirrors reflecting the secret dreams and wishes of the witches, the judges, the patients, and Freud himself. It is commendable that he admitted his own unconscious may have influenced his work, but that is an avenue of inquiry he did not explore as much as Jung did.

In her conclusion, Duffy claims success in her quest for an understanding of the formerly puzzling statement, and after 155 pages backed by a bibliography of over 100 sources, one has to agree. She also sends up a flare of warning to her contemporaries - are they knowingly, or not, beginning casework with preconceptions of the course of therapy that may contradict the clients’ own evidence? Could they be modern inquisitors themselves? She opens that door but quickly closes it as her book ends, suggesting others might want to investigate that possibility.

My thoughts on the book.
I found the accounts of Freud’s early works and his single-minded approach to his clients (or ‘patients’) a bit disturbing in light of the evolved style of therapy we have available today. That feeling was especially evoked by Duffy’s descriptions of his collaboration with his friend and loyal supporter, Dr. Wilhelm Fleiss, who practiced nasal surgery on women to treat vaginal disorders, which in those times included hysteria (85). Duffy shines a harsh light on the now revered subject of her book, bringing attention to his dark side in the process but reserving judgement as she maintains her academic perspective. This applies to her focus later in the book on his feeling of kinship with the medieval judges at the witch trials, allowing the reader to form their own opinion. In her Conclusion, to my relief, she gives us a glimpse of a personal opinion at last, suggesting that his inquisitorial method could be present as a hidden component of current psychoanalytical practice. She also addresses Freud’s iconic stature with a warning that “misplaced loyalty either to the judges and inquisitors and to Freud can prevent a critical examination of what they did. Shielding them from historical scrutiny would be an expression of false loyalty.” (158). I found it interesting that she brings up this controversial idea with her typical academic remove on the last few pages, leaving it to the reader to pick up the thread of inquiry if so inclined.

William Pattengill is a member of the editorial board and occasional contributor to Inside Out. After retiring from the home renovation field, he has enjoyed the opportunity to return to his roots as a journalist. 



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