A Sigmund Freud scholar knocked from his perch at the Freudian Archives and the subject of a famous New Yorker profile -- and the driver of subsequent libel litigation -- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson found a second career in the publishing world when he decided to set aside his beefs with the psychological community and just talk to the animals.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s career falls not-so-neatly into two rather distinct phases. In his early days, as a Freudian scholar and disenchanted psychoanalyst, he was an author-combatant (he uses the term “maverick” on his Web site), challenging perceived thinking on Sigmund Freud and therapy itself.
He rankled sensibilities, attracted often-harsh criticism and lost his post as guardian of the Freud Archives. He even became embroiled in one of the most notorious libel battles of recent times, alleging that writer Janet Malcolm made up quotes in her highly unflattering two-part profile of him in the New Yorker in 1983.
In the second -- and more commercially successful -- phase, Masson has instead focused his psychological insights on a community that cannot talk back: the animal kingdom. Beginning with When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals in 1995, Masson has put dogs, cats, mongooses, etc., on the couch, explaining that they, just like their more litigious bipedal cousins, have feelings.
"A masterpiece,” said Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of a similar classic, The Hidden Life of Dogs, “the most comprehensive and compelling argument for animal sensibility that I've yet seen."
Even amid the controversy of the early part of his career, Masson garnered positive reviews for his translations of Sigmund Freud’s letters and his passionate critiques of psychotherapy. (To be sure, he garnered less glowing ones as well.) A former Sanskrit scholar, Masson was placed in the care of the famous doctor’s archives. But when his research in those same archives turned up correspondence that he said discredited Freudian’s theories about sexual abuse among children, he made those findings public. He lost his position and faced the wrath of Freud’s defenders.
In the Nation, though, he found support. Reviewing Masson’s book on the discovery, the newspaper wrote: “Those who bother to read The Assault on Truth will probably be surprised to discover that the book is a lavishly documented, carefully reasoned work, written in a straightforward, readable style, with only occasional polemical flourishes. The passion of the book is that of a scholar trying to solve a puzzle; only now and then does the voice break to reveal the bewildered outrage and pain of the recently excommunicated disciple.”
His translation of the letters in question drew praise from The New York Times: "The publication of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess represents an important moment of truth... The general public can now evaluate at first hand the evidence bearing on the various controversial issues raised by the letters... Of more lasting importance, however, is the insight this new edition provides into the creative process at work in the formation of a fundamentally important scientific theory."
His 1988 attack on therapy itself, Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing was dismissed by many as a screed, but Time pointed out that screeds can sometimes also be wake-up calls: “Masson raises some intriguing points, even if he insists on doing so at the top of his voice. Psychotherapy is a big and largely unchallenged business in the U.S.; many of its practitioners wield considerable influence over personal lives and public policy. Once in a while, it does no harm to listen to an alarmist hollering that some of those shrinks have no clothes.”
Not until Masson turned to the psychological study of animals did he draw the widespread attention of the public at large. When Elephants Weep, written with Susan McCarthy, may have had critics pointing out that his evidence was largely anecdotal – the title, in fact, comes from a story of a circus elephant that collapsed in tears when it couldn’t learn a new routine – but an animal-loving public ate it up. Elephants has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold more than a half a million copies in the United States alone.
That set the stage for a hugely popular follow-up Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional Lives of Dogs. A bestseller, it won praise from the Los Angeles Times for its risk-taking and uncompromising puppy love. “The strengths that this Sanskrit scholar,” she wrote, “brings to his subject are intelligence, originality and a refreshing willingness to go out on a good number of scientifically unsupported limbs in his enthusiasm for canines.”
Now for the felines. The Nine Emotional Live of Cats: A Journey into the Feline Heart, released in the fall of 2002, again won praise from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who penned her own ode to the cat, The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture. "An affectionate, completely engaging book full of new insights into the emotional lives of cats,” she said. “Of course, all cats are interesting, but Masson’s five felines seem particularly so – and you don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy them via these pages."
Masson’s turn to the wild kingdom has brought him financial success certainly, but he says the rewards run even deeper than that. As he told Newsday in 1997, “I learned more about emotions from dogs than I did from my psychoanalysis. I think dogs make better therapists than Freudian analysts… and they don’t cost as much, either.”
Good To Know
Masson legally changed his middle name from Lloyd to Moussaieff in 1975.
In June 1980, when he was interviewing with Sigmund Freud’s 84-year-old daughter Anna for the position to head the Freud Archives, he walked her pet Chow in the back yard.
Masson's long-term goal is to help his wife, Leila, set up a camp for children with chronic illnesses where they can learn alternative methods to diminish pain.