Society Forgot About Child Sexual Abuse

Why did our society forgot all about the prevalence of child sexual abuse until recently? This, despite it being perfectly understood in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, Sigmund Freud in Vienna and Pierre Janet in Paris were two influential figures who brought new awareness to the strange mental disease their peers called hysteria.  Most physicians believed hysteria was a disease only women could get because it originated in the uterus.  The name meant “wandering uterus.”

Both men declared the condition to be caused by psychological, physical and sexual trauma.  Unbearable emotional reactions to traumatic events produced an altered state of consciousness, which in turn induced hysterical symptoms.  Janet called these alterations in consciousness “dissociation.”

They also found that hysterical symptoms could be alleviated when the traumatic memories, along with the intense feelings that accompanied them, were recovered and put into words.

Janet was the great French neurologist in the ancient Parisian asylum, Salpetriere.  His benign, insightful leadership continued until World War I.  Sadly, the psychological world later forgot about dissociation and trauma.  Janet himself, who never did abandon his theory and never retreated from his hysterical patients, lived to see his works forgotten and his ideas neglected by those who followed him.

By the First World War, soldiers subjected to unremitting horrors of trench warfare, began to break down in shocking numbers.  Confined and rendered helpless, subjugated to constant threat of annihilation, and forced to witness the mutilation and death of their comrades without any hope of reprieve, many soldiers began to act like “hysterical women.”  They screamed and wept uncontrollably.  They froze and could not move.  They became mute and unresponsive.  They lost their memory and their capacity to feel.  They were called cowards and shot by their own officers.  (For more read Judith Herman’s excellent book: Trauma and Recovery.)

Clearly, anyone facing intolerable stress and inescapable horrors could develop the symptoms of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My next post continues with Sigmund Freud’s role in committing himself to his belief that child sexual abuse was the origin of hysteria.

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