Freud and hypnosis:
The hypno-suggestive roots of the Oedipus complex

Thierry Melchior, Psychologist,
University of Brussels,
Milton Erickson Institute of the North of France.

This paper has been published in The Milton H. Erickson Foundation NEWSLETTER Vol. 19, No 1, Spring 1999 (Copyright)

You may get more information about the Newsletter at:

Editor's Note: This paper is an elaboration of a message posted on Ericksonian Internet Listserv, September 12, 1998, in response to a discussion about Freud's connection to hypnosis.

When Freud came back from Paris, where he attended Charcot's 1885 lectures, he was excited with the idea that at least some types of hysteria had a traumatic origin. For instance, an accident could have had such a frightening effect that a nonorganic "hysterical" paralysis could ensue. With time, Freu extended this idea of trauma to all forms of hysteria and soon after to all forms of what he termed "psychoneurosis" which also included "obsessional neurosis". He also committed himself to the idea that sexuality had something to do with hysteria. This was not a new idea. Hysteria comes from the Greek word for womb, and many gynecologists of his time also believed hysteria was a sexuality related problem. If you add the idea of trauma to the idea of sexuality, you get the idea of sexual abuse.

In the meantime, after having experimented with Bernheim's style of hypnotherapy (i.e., direct suggestion of symptom removal), he turned to the cathartic method used by Breuer in 1881 with Anna O. Ironically, the case of Anna O. is not a good example of the cathartic method. It is the only known case Breuer "treated" this way. Moreover, contrary to Breuer and Freud's claims, this case was not at all a success, as we now know through the records of hospital archives in Austria. Hence it proved nothing about the validity of the method. However, Freud was enthusiastic because he had found a congruence between the idea of traumatic/sexual etiology of hysteria and the cathartic method (searching of the repressed causes of the problem).

When questioning his patients, Freud was extremely leading, during hypnosis and later while using the Drück Methode (i.e., putting his hand on the patient's forehead and saying "Now you will remember..."). In Studies on Hysteria and other papers of this period (1890-1897), Freud clearly states that if the patient doesn't recall what the doctor is prepared to discover (i.e., a sexual abuse), he has to say very firmly to the patient "You are wrong, this has nothing to do with what we are searching for, it is something else that has happened, continue to try to remember !" As a result, patients either fled away or ended up "remembering" the abuse. Those who ended in "remembering" were probably highly motivated to do so, first because of Freud's intense pressure, and second, because Freud has led them to believe that remembering was the only way to get rid of their painful symptoms, whatever they were.

It is also important to realize that none of the patients he talks about during this time had any previous spontaneous recollection of having been abused in their infancy. In fact, if they have had such conscious memories, Freud's theory of that time could not have applied - there would have been no symptoms at all. In his view, there were symptoms precisely because the memories were repressed. Describing the treatment of people who already were consciously aware of prior abuse would have been totally out of topic and thus useless for his demonstration of the validity of his etiological theory.

Another development of Freud's technique was symbolic interpretation, the belief that one thing could mean something else. This type of strategy, which I call "broadening", opened the door so that nearly anything could be the sign or symbol of something else, most commonly of sexual abuse. Inevitably finding signs of sexual abuse in whatever his patients said or did, Freud developed a stronger and stronger conviction that he was right. He also became increasingly authoritarian and leading in his way of questioning. He even reached a point where he no longer needed the memory to be retrieved by the patient. When Freud's conviction was sufficient, and it became more and more rapidly sufficient, he himself self-confidently declared to the patient that he had without any doubt been abused in his infancy in such and such a manner.

Freud often criticized Bernheim's authoritarian approach to hypnosis, and he was right to do so. But as can be seen, if Bernheim was using a power-based authoritarianism, Freud's style of intervention was a knowledge-based authoritarianism. Because Freud felt that he knew more about the symptoms than the patient, he pushed for a memory of a forgotten abuse. Even if power-based authoritarianism is not a good idea, at least it is clear and obvious, for the patient as for the therapist. However, knowledge-based authoritarianism is much more sneaky and difficult to detect. Even the therapist may not be aware of the fact that his own theoretical convictions exert a tremendous pressure upon the patient. For this reason it is more dangerous.

Freud was very proud of his new etiology of the psychoneurosis. He thought he had found the key to one of the greatest mysteries fo his time. He even believed he had discovered why some people became hysterical while others became obsessive. The former, he declared, had taken no pleasure in the abuse while the latter had enjoyed it. He thought this discovery was of the same importance to Neurology as the discovery of the springs of the Nile was for Geography. This is why, when he finally realized, in 1897, that it wasn't possible that all his "psychoneurotic" patients had been abused, he became very depressed can be seen in his letters to Fliess.
He was forced to accept one of two possibilities: One option was to recognize that he had suggested false memories to his patients. But at that time this phenomena was much less understood than it is now. Freud had little or no awareness of the importance of interaction, and hence no great awareness of the importance and the role of the therapist's beliefs system during these interactions. Moreover, from a narcissistic point of view, it would have been very painful for him to recognize his own influence in what had happened. The second option was to find some fault in his patients who told him, as he believed, that they had indeed been abused. This is the option he chose. To do so, he began to search for what in childhood sexuality could explain both the development of a neurosis and the false recall of a memory of abuse.

Looking so closely at childhood sexuality with such spectacles on the tip of his nose, it is no surprise that he discovered a crisis to fit his needs. Human childhood sexuality must a priori be traumatic in its essence. It must a priori be wild and perverse in order to explain later neuroses. And, it must a priori involve a universal wish to commit incest with the mother or the father (i.e., Oedipus complex). Thus, the Oedipus complex is a sexual abuse "memory" assumed to be generated by the child through fantasy instead of having been committed by the adult. The difference between the two is that the first is of an internal origin while the latter is of an external origin.

Hence, the historical notion of the Oedipal complex is most likely the result of Freud's inability to acknowledge his own responsibility in suggesting false memories to his 1895-1897 patients. In later times, psychoanalysts have attributed other meanings to this "complex", some of which may be interesting or useful.


R. Webster (1995). "Why Freud was wrong ?" , Basic Books, Harper Collins, NY NY.

Th. Melchior (1995). "De l'hypnose à la psychanalyse", Psychothérapies, vol XV, No 4.

Th. Melchior (1998). "Créer le réel, hypnose et thérapie" , Ed. du Seuil, Paris, 1998

Thanks to Dan Short, Editor of the Newsletter, who helped me editing this paper in English.

This paper is, of course, controversial: if you wish to e-mail me a feed-back, feel free to do so.



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Max Ernst, Oeudipus Rex