Posted: March 18th, 2023
The Case of Dora: Raising Questions About Sigmund Freud’s Analysis
In the scholarship that critiques and evaluates Sigmund Freud’s the Case of Dora there is evidence that this pioneer without peer – a man who appears to be reveling in his moment of fame and revelation – missed the mark on Dora’s analysis. Brilliant though he was, Freud was fallible, and capable of allowing his chauvinism and stubbornness to interfere with his considerable psychological skills. There are signs as big as billboards along the road to understanding Dora’s real psychological roadblocks and demons that show flaws in Freud’s assertions of hysteria.
This paper will present the case – through a careful review of existing scholarship and this writer’s own investigation – that Freud was a chauvinist who didn’t listen to Dora’s cry for understanding, but rather became aggressive in his desire to verify his own interpretations of her issues. In short, there is evidence that Dora was a victim of trauma, but in his haste to prove his point about hysteria, Freud used his narrative to spin the truth his own selfish way. And moreover, he made rash assumptions about Dora’s family – in particular her mother – without having full knowledge and background of those dynamics, and he didn’t record the substance of his therapy with Dora until after the sessions had been completed. It is altogether possible that Freud’s assumptions – and his own ego-driven male bias – led him to wrongful conclusions, and the fact that he relied on his memory to complete the delicate yet pivotal recording of the interactions with Dora leads observers today to wonder as regards the accuracy therein.
SCHOLARSHIP REVIEW and INVESTIGATIVE NARRATIVE: The point can be made these hundred and seven years after Freud spent those seventy hours (over three months) in session with Dora that he was only human and hence, one would expect to discover at least minor errors in his presentation. The greater tragedy would be that those weaknesses would not only be overlooked all these years, but that they, if proven and positioned in proper context, became part of this great man’s sterling legacy. But the real meat of the matter: this paper contends that Freud erred in judgment – based on his enormous ego and his desire to be the champion in his own game – and in the actual technical reporting of his research.
A logical beginning will be with his problems in reporting his findings. On page 26 of Freud: On War Sex and Neurosis, Freud admits that the “…presentation of my case histories remains a problem which is hard for me to solve.” These “difficulties” he encounters are “partly of a technical kind,” he writes, but also due to the nature of the “circumstances themselves.” He goes on (Freud 26) to describe those circumstances: “If it is true…” that the underlying causes of hysteria are located in the patient’s “psycho-sexual life” Freud explains, then it is the duty of the discoverer of those “secret and repressed wishes” that caused the hysteria to keep them secret. So, because of his desire not to reveal such intimate secrets about a client, he claims he waited four years from the time he was working with Dora to publish his findings.
In those four long years, isn’t it conceivable that the editing of his copy – which no doubt included re-writing and second-guessing of the original posits as any editor would do – would be slanted towards what he learned in the time subsequent to his work with Dora? or, more specifically, isn’t it possible that Freud’s editing would be geared toward proving assertions he had made – both to build the case within the scientific and psychological community that he had been correct, and to reassure his bloated ego – previous to and/or during his Dora research?
Meanwhile, as to the “technical” problems in recording the results and theories that are part of the Dora case – which on page 28 he admits to “forcing through the limitations imposed” by “unfavorable circumstances” – Freud claims that he didn’t take notes after each of his sessions with Dora. Those sessions included “six or eight psychotherapeutic treatments of the sort in a day” (Freud 28) and one cannot take notes during these sessions “for fear of shaking the patient’s confidence,” which is reasonable. But what is questionable in terms of Freud’s note-taking – a vital ingredient in any investigative pursuit, particularly when human health is at risk – is the fact that he documented the case history “to writing from memory” (Freud 29) after the three months of sessions was completed. He considered the material “still fresh” in his memory after three months and his interest in making a fair recounting of those therapy sessions was “heightened by my interest in its publication” (Freud 29).
That having been said – and indeed it appears his desire to publish this steamy, ground-breaking and adventuresome research involving the sexual intimacies of an attractive 18-year-old woman was driven in part by his need for peer and popular recognition – Freud admits that the record of his work with Dora “…is not absolutely – phonographically – exact.” He adds, however, assurances that the record “can claim to possess a high degree of trustworthiness.”
The point of exploring Freud’s tactics and strategies in the recording of this case is that Freud seems particularly concerned at the outset of his book that he explain why the results are less than perfect. Given Freud’s concern, one can’t help but wonder how severe the gaps really are in this case. On page 31 of his book Freud blames some of the study’s “shortcomings” on Dora herself; “…its results remain incomplete…” Freud writes, because the “treatment” was “broken off at the patient’s own wish when it had reached a certain point.” A bit later in this paper the possible reasons as to why Dora quit the treatment will be discussed.
Dr. Patrick J. Mahony, Professor Emeritus at the University of Montreal and the Training and Supervising Analyst for the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, takes objection to previous scholarship on the Dora case. Mahony is put off by earlier critiques, that found the Dora case appropriate for use as a “model for students of psychoanalysis” (Mahony 28), and as “…a classic analysis of the structure and the genesis of a hysteria.” Other psychoanalytic researchers were patently incorrect to have claimed the Dora writing by Freud is “…a landmark in the evolution of psychoanalytic technique,” writes Mahony. Contrary to those admiring remarks, Mahony views Freud as “unsettled, disconcerted, even overwhelmed”; and he begins his assault on Freud’s credibility by alluding to Freud’s book, the Interpretation of Dreams, which Freud completed just prior to beginning his sessions with Dora.
The writing of the book was interrupted when Freud developed writer’s block; he was then forced him into a systematic self-analysis, and that allowed a number of inconsistencies to be presented, Mahony goes on. The flaws in the book mentioned by Mahony are significant, and blatant, but suffice it to say Mahony has done his homework and there won’t be space in this paper to extrapolate his particulars. Mahony spends time critiquing the dream book – in which “chauvinism thematically saturates [the] dialogue” – because much of what Freud used in his treatment of Dora sprang from his interpretation of her dreams.
A quick summary of why Dora wound up on Freud’s couch to begin with is instructive. A “Mr. K” sexually molested Dora when she was 13, and made attempts when she was 15. Dora then told her parents about this but they offered nothing in the way of support for their daughter; “she was hung out to dry,” Mahony asserted. Mr. K denied that he has molested Dora, and he was able to convince Dora’s parents that, according to Mahony’s recounting of the story, “…she was obsessed with sex and had fantasized the seductive incident.” Meanwhile, Dora’s father was willing “to offer her as a barter chip, a consolation prize, to the cuckolded Mr. K,” Mahony explains on page 32. And moreover, during her sessions with Freud, in which she wondered out loud if in fact she was suffering more from trauma than hysteria (which was Freud’s view of her problem), Freud “over empathized with Dora’s traumatizer,” Mahony insists.
Freud had a “pitiless attitude” toward Dora, Mahony expresses on page 34. Freud accused Dora of having told her parents about Mr. K’s sexual wrongdoing because she wanted “revenge”; and Freud viewed Dora as a “vicious, cunning agent in an adult drama,” Mahony believed. And without a “disapproving word toward her pedophilic harasser,” Freud allowed Mr. K to slip away into the night and instead “put the spotlight on how Dora’s early childhood masturbation” caused her later trauma. Is this the case of a male therapist attaching his chauvinistic bias to a young female patient? Does this begin to appear that Freud was trying to fit Dora into the description that he had earlier assigned to the concept of “hysteria”? Yes, and yes.
The picture is indeed emerging here of Freud as a chauvinist, perhaps (in the opinion of this paper) suffering from some testosterone imbalance himself; and perhaps, as Mahony writes on page 33 of his journal article, Freud was projecting his “male-bound wishes and fantasies” when he imagined that at the moment Mr. K first accosted Dora and “pressed his erection against her” she then experienced “an analogous change” (Freud’s quote) in her clitoris. That seems a huge stretch and even a wild fantasy, hardly becoming a man of such professional prestige. But Freud’s fantasy goes further into the abyss of his apparent bias; he argues that the traumatic incident with the middle-aged Mr. K must have summoned up “a distinct feeling of excitement” in a “normal girl.”
Indeed, Freud noted earlier that Dora’s father had discovered wetness in her bed sheets, from time to time. And on page 119 of Freud: On War Sex and Neurosis the little wetness clue led Freud to somehow link Dora’s “hysterical symptoms” with her “genital catarrh.” The “pride taken by women in the appearance of their genitals is quite a special feature of their vanity,” he explains. So, if Dora really did have some vaginal discharge that may have disgusted her, it somehow played perfectly into the convenient box that Freud wished to place her in – hysteria – because Freud goes on (Freud 199) to advise readers that “disorders of the genitals…have an incredible power of humiliating [females], of lowering their self-esteem, and of making them irritable, sensitive, and distrustful.” Mahony (page 35) insists Freud’s “…blunders…demonstrate his profound misunderstanding of his beleaguered patient.”
Meanwhile, Dr. David M. Sachs, Training and Supervisory Analyst with the Psychoanalytic Center in Philadelphia, and Clinical Professor in Child and Adult Psychiatry at Drexel University Medical School, published a Dora-related article in the journal Psychoanalytic Inquiry. Sachs, who takes some of what Mahony has put forward and builds on Mahony’s critique, begins his analysis by declaring that Freud’s “narrative style” is like a “brilliantly painted logical mask” which enables Freud to “conceal inconsistencies and contradictions” in his presentation. Sachs isn’t the only scholar who praises the quality of Freud’s writing – and sees how coyly that narrative can be used to spin Freud’s pet ideas – but Sachs sees that in this instance it was used to cover up gaps and shortcomings in the treatment of Dora. Freud was “neither modest nor tentative” in his explanation of Dora’s symptoms (Sachs 2000-page 46). Dora, because of her “well taken” (Sachs 46) objections to Freud’s interpretations of her problem, had a strong desire to be heard by her therapist. She clearly did not accept the validity of Freud’s narrative, but “failed in her attempt to get Freud to pay attention to her objections,” Sachs writes.
Hence, a power struggle ensued between the two, and the result, in Sachs’ view, is partially helpful in showing that Freud’s analysis of Dora was more along the lines of “suggestive therapy” than it was “hypothesis formulation.” Freud, in effect, then created a “false narrative to explain Dora’s symptoms,” Sachs continued, and went on to “paint his personal theories and values onto the psychology of his analysis.” The bottom line is that Freud “diagnosed Dora as hysteric and ignored that she was a victim of trauma,” Sachs concludes on page 47. He goes on to state that what Freud really sought was to prove his “a priori assumption that traumatic events were not the cause of Dora’s symptoms,” and hence he failed to acknowledge with her that Mr. K’s behavior, “like his own,” was “boorish, inappropriate, and aggressive.” In other words, while Mr. K assaulted Dora physically, and made criminal advances, Freud only assaulted her with his interpretations of her problems. And while Mr. K was greedy and hungry for some sex from a young beautiful virgin, Freud was greedily imposing his need to justify his previously held – and condescending – theories on hysteria and women.
Thus far in this paper the critiques of the Dora – Freud matter have come from the male gender; placing the matter under a feminine microscope is Dr. Rachel T. Hare-Mustin, whose article in American Psychologist asserts that “Freud fails to recognize and understand his own personal motives for the harshness and coldness with which he has treated Dora” (Hare-Mustin 593). What Dora actually needed, Hare-Mustin writes, was “confirmation of the truthfulness of her perceptions” and “confirmation of herself.”
Part of the problem then, and now, Hare-Mustin continues (594), is this: psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories which have influenced professionals “specify women’s innate nature as passive, dependent, and morally inferior to men.” As for Freud, he meets Dora’s father but never meets her mother, and yet he sees her “…as an uncultivated woman and above all as a foolish one, who had concentrated all her interests upon domestic affairs” (Hare-Mustin 593). Further, Freud labels Dora’s mother as “having a house-wife’s psychosis,” Hare-Mustin writes. One clearly can perceive here a male therapist with male prejudices passing judgment on a client’s mother whom he has never met, but presumes to understand well.
Hare-Mustin mentions that the theories of human development put forward by psychological icons like Freud “…seem to achieve a mythic quality” and they tend to “persist long after evidence has accumulated that they do not accurately reflect women’s half-known lives” (Hare-Mustin 594). Moreover, not only have Freud’s theories on hysteria – based on Dora’s treatment, albeit incomplete and seemingly flawed – had long shelf life beyond their actual value, they are based on “men’s development and on the anatomical differences between the sexes,” with women presumed to be biologically inferior, Hare-Mustin adds.
Meanwhile, additional female perspective on the subject is offered by Cynthia D. Schrager in the journal Feminine Studies; Schrager finds it “sordid” that Freud was willing to “exculpate Dora’s father and Mr. K for their use of Dora; and worse, Freud affixes blame…” On Dora’s mother and on Dora herself, along with Dora’s governess (who allegedly filled Dora’s head with sexy ideas when she was very young). This attempt by Freud to attach blame on convenient women rather than treat Dora’s real symptoms – those experienced by a victim of trauma – shows him to be not only clinically wrong but also morally shallow enough to seek out phantom scapegoats.
Schrager adds that Freud is way off the mark when he suggests that Dora’s hysteria “…emerged out of her repressed heterosexual desire for Herr K.” To give an example of how terrible wrong Freud was in his analysis, Schrager alludes to the scene by the lake, during which 14-year-old Dora pushed Mr. K away and slapped his face. “Freud infamously writes: ‘I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable’…” (So, given that previous quote found in Freud’s book, it is the great psychologist’s view that any young woman who resists the illegal and immoral sexual advances of an adult male is hysterical?)
In that same scene by the lake, as Mr. K attempts to have sex with Dora, he states, “I get nothing from my wife.” That line causes severe distress for Dora, according to Dr. Lorraine Markotic, professor of English at the University of Calgary, writing in Paragraph (Markotic 1999). Dora is upset with that remark because she knows he used that exact same line on a governess he had seduced. She is aware at this time that her father is having a sexual affair with Mr. K’s wife, and she has told that to Freud. He scoffed at it, insisting that her father is “sexually impotent.” The point of this reference is that Markotic believes Dora was tossed another curve ball from her parents – that is, Mrs. K wasn’t so much an object of Dora’s father’s desire as she was a kind of “stand-in.” And moreover, Dora had wanted to identify with an adult female woman, and she had wanted that woman to be Mrs. K; but now, more disappointment as Dora learns that Mrs. KI is just a substitute, and Markotic goes on to sum up that tangled web of emotion:
In my view,” Markotic asserts, “Dora’s world falls apart with Herr K’s words because her identification is shattered and because she is forced to consider that the ideal she has embraced may be an illusion.” And ironically, or perhaps appropriately, Freud doesn’t really grasp any of these dynamics, but rather he sees a chance here to place his client Dora into the contextual box that he had been building all along – the stereotypical hysterical woman – and hence, complete his clinical package.
Still another female writer offers some interesting and poignant perspective on Freud’s treatment and interaction with Dora. In the book, Hysteria Beyond Freud, essayist, critic and feminist Elaine Showalter notes that by the turn of the century, “the sympathy with women’s intellectual and creative frustrations,” along with the willingness to listen to their voices (and not simply treat the symptoms) had become.”..codified in the interests of Freud’s emerging psychoanalytic system” (Showalter 316). That psychoanalytic system “depended very much on domination over the patient,” Showalter explains, and the rigidity of that style of psychoanalysis was the order of the day as Freud treated Dora, who had been “handed over” to Freud by her father who hoped Freud would “bring her to reason” (Showalter 317). Dora felt “conspired against” and “she was conspired against,” Showalter quotes Freud researcher Jeffrey Masson as saying. “She felt lied to. She was lied to. She felt used. She was used” (taken from Masson’s book Against Therapy).
Showalter states that Freud was determined to label Dora an hysteric, no matter that she did not show the classic symptoms; they were “few and slight,” Showalter writes on page 317, amounting to just a cough, some headaches, and depressions on occasion. But Freud believed that the fact that her symptoms were ordinary, they fit perfectly into his theories about “…hysteria in childhood sexual trauma and repressed desires” (317). Freud was “committed from the start” to diagnose Dora as an hysteric, Showalter insists, and this is one of the points in the thesis of this paper; that Freud wanted to spin the truth his own selfish way.
Showalter (317) points out that Freud told Dora that notwithstanding her protestations to the contrary she was indeed attracted to Mr. K; he insisted that she was also attracted to and in love with her father; and Freud audaciously asserted to her that she love him too. “He ignored the appalling circumstances of Dora’s family situation,” and given those dynamics, it is little wonder that Dora broke off her association with Freud – albeit he would later use her departure as an excuse for his less-than-perfect report on her treatment. Freud even fudged the truth when it came to an ending for his book, quoted by Showalter on 317-318: “Years have gone by since her visit. In the meantime the girl has married…and had been reclaimed once more by the realities of life.” The truth is, Freud’s ending was more spin than realty – much like Freud’s diagnosis of hysteria – since Dora’s marriage didn’t work out well.
Freud, Sigmund. Freud: On War, Sex and Neurosis. New York: Arts & Science Press, 1947.
Hare-Mustin, Rachel T. “An Appraisal of the Relationship Between Women and Psychotherapy: 80 Years After the Case of Dora.” American Psychologist 38.5 (1983):
Mahony, Patrick J. “Freud’s Unadorned and Unadorable: A Case History Terminable and Interminable.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 25.1 (2005): 27-44.
Markotic, Lorraine. “Identifying Dora’s Desire.” Paragraph 22.3 (1999): 248-256.
Sachs, David M. “Reflections on Freud’s Dora Case after 48 Years.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry
Schrager, Cynthia D. “Questioning the Promise of Self-Help: A Reading of Women Who Love
Too Much.” Feminist Studies 19.1 (1993): 176-193.
Showalter, Elaine. “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender” in Hysteria Beyond Freud. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993, 286-341.
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