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What If Freud Were Phyllis?
If there is anything you do not understand in human life, consult the works of Dr. Freud.
It's important to understand that when Phyllis was growing up in Vienna, women were considered superior because of their ability to give birth. From the family parlor to the great matriarchal institutions of politics and religion, this was a uniform belief. Though she was a genius who was to tower above all others in enlightenment, she was, of course, a product of her time.
Women's superior position in society was so easily mistaken for an immutable fact of life that males had developed exaggerated versions of such inevitable but now somewhat diminished conditions as womb envy. Indeed, these beliefs in women's natural right to dominate were the very pillars of Western matriarchal civilization—impossible to weaken without endangering the edifice. At the drop of a hat, wise women would explain that while men might dabble imitatively in the arts, they could never become truly great painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, or anything else that demanded originality, for they lacked a womb, the very source of originality. Similarly, since men had only odd, castrated breasts which created no sustenance, they might become adequate family cooks—provided they followed recipes, of course—but certainly could never become great chefs, vintners, herbalists, nutritionists, or anything else that required a flair for food, a knowledge of nutrition, or an instinct for gustatory nuance. And because childbirth caused women to use the medical system more than men did, making childbirth its natural focus, there was little point in encouraging young men to become physicians, surgeons, researchers, or anything other than nurses and other low-paid health care helpers.
Even designing their own clothes could be left to men only at the risk of repetitive results. When allowed to dress themselves, they seldom could get beyond an envy of wombs and female genitals, which restricted them to an endless succession of female sexual symbols. Thus, the open button-to-neck "V" of men's jackets was a well-known recapitulation of the "V" of female genitalia; the knot in men's ties replicated the clitoris, while the long ends of the tie were clearly meant to represent the labia. As for men's bow ties, they were the clitoris erecta in all its glory. All these were, to use Phyllis Freud's technical term, "representations."
Of course, one can understand why men would not choose to replicate their own symbols—chicken necks, bits of rope, dumbbells, cigarillos, spring potatoes, kumquats, belfries, and the like—but instead would choose to admire the glories of cathedrals, stadia, and mammoth caves, the ocean, the sky, and other representations of the womb, as well as to replicate the exquisite jewel of the clitoris in the ties that were the only interesting feature of their dress. Nonetheless, you can also understand why stylish husbands of the well-to-do, or wife-hunting young bachelors of the upper classes, preferred to be well dressed by talented female designers.
Clearly, men's imitativeness did not include modesty; on the contrary. As Phyllis Freud was to write decades later in "Masculinity," her great synthesis of a lifetime of learning about male patients: "The effect of womb envy has a share, further, in the physical vanity of men, since they are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority."
In addition, men's lack of firsthand experience with birth and nonbirth—with choosing between existence and nonexistence, conception and contraception, as women must do so wisely for all their fertile years—severely inhibited their potential for developing a sense of justice and ethics. This tended to disqualify them as philosophers, whose purview was the "to be or not to be" issue, the deepest question of existence versus nonexistence, that dominates serious human discourse. Practically speaking, it also lessened men's ability to make life-and-death judgments, which explained their absence from decisionmaking positions in the judiciary, law enforcement, the military, and other such professions. True, one or two exceptional men might ascend to a position requiring high moral judgment, but they had been trained to "think like a woman" by rare contact with academia or because they had no sisters and their mothers were forced to burden their tender sons with matriarchal duties.
Finally, as Phyllis Freud's clinical findings showed, males were inclined toward meanness and backbiting, the inevitable result of having been cut off from the coveted sources of life and fulfillment to which their mates had such ready access within their bodies. As she wrote: "The fact that men must be regarded as having little sense of justice is no doubt related to the predominance of envy in their mental life; for the demand for justice is a modification of envy and lays down the condition subject to which one can put envy aside."
After life-giving wombs and sustenance-giving breasts, women's ability to menstruate was the most obvious proof of their superiority. Only women could bleed without injury or death; only they rose from the gore each month like a phoenix; only their bodies were in tune with the ululations of the universe and the timing of the tides. Without this innate lunar cycle, how could men have a sense of time, tides, space, seasons, movement of the universe, or the ability to measure anything at all? How could men mistress the skills of measurement necessary for mathematics, engineering, architecture, surveying—and so many other professions? In Christian churches, how could males, lacking monthly evidence of Her death and resurrection, serve the Daughter of the Goddess? In Judaism, how could they honor the Matriarch without the symbol of Her sacrifices recorded in the Old Ovariment? Thus insensible to the movements of the planets and the turning of the universe, how could men become astronomers, naturalists, scientists—or much of anything at all?
Certainly, careers in business or politics were out of the question. In the Austria of Phyllis Freud's day, men were not allowed a university education and studied only informally as their limited capacity permitted. ("How wise our educators," Phyllis said with her customary courtliness while still a student, "that they pester the handsome sex so little with scientific knowledge!!") Later, when she visited the United States, she mourned the overeducation of its males, for such intellectual activity could only keep them from assuaging their womb envy by attaching themselves to a woman ("wombed-one," as Freud explained etymologically) and raising the fruits of her womb. (Even today, many authorities agree with Freud that the high U.S. divorce rate proves the accuracy of her perception. Now that many scholars steeped in "the Freudian family romance" have explained that the cause of crime is not poverty but the breakdown of the nuclear, matriarchal family, even non-Freudians admit that the epidemic of single fathers and working fathers is a danger. After all, if men leave the home, who will raise the children? Those who bear them were obviously not intended to raise them, else one sex would be doing all the work. That wouldn't be fair, would it? But I digress. ) In Phyllis Freud's simpler time—for which, if truth be told, even many men feel nostalgia—males were not permitted to engage in commerce, go to court, supervise their households, or educate their children without the permission of their wives or mothers.
Beyond their clear biological, womb-acquiring need to raise children, there were few natural professions for men, but Phyllis Freud, always generous in comparison with other women of her unenlightened era, championed those that had any anatomical basis at all. Work related to fire was one. As she elucidated, men had originally learned to put out fire by peeing on it, but in order "to renounce the homosexually tinged desire to extinguish it by a stream of urine," they had to learn to control fire in other ways. No wonder little boys loved to play at cooking over fires, and men so often gathered around the campfire while women went hunting. No wonder pyromaniacs were overwhelmingly males who had been frightened early in life by seeing a woman urinate in a way that made it seem only females could withstand the heat of peeing directly on a fire, and no wonder the word "faggot" denoted "firewood" as well as "male homosexual." (It's a continuing tribute to Freud's genius that her insights can be made to explain so much of life and language.)
Weaving was the second naturally male profession she identified. Freud wrote: "It seems that men have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they may have invented—that of plaiting and weaving.... Nature himself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals." Obviously, the male's unsightly penile extension of the clitoris, and the low-hanging testicles which had descended, quite literally, from the ovaries, were in dire need of some camouflage. This led naturally to the masculine talent for weaving. As Freud explained: "Shame, which is considered to be a masculine characteristic par excellence ... has as its purpose, we believe, concealment of this genital unsightliness." But she generously gave men credit for the creative contribution that this endemic shame had forced them to make: "The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together."
Given such a powerful wedding of anatomy and aphorism, circumstance and common sense, we can see why Phyllis grew up believing that men's deepest satisfactions lay in manual labor, housekeeping, child care, and, among the upper classes, the social graces of embroidering or playing simple tunes upon the piano. We can understand why Freud herself, a serious matriarch, eschewed such male frivolity as music, and clapped her hands over her ears whenever she heard it. Or why she was not surprised when men among the lower classes so often became prostitutes or—the next thing to it—actors. It was simply accepted for males to be homemakers, ornaments, devoted sons, and sexual companions (providing they were well trained, of course, for though abortion was an honored rite of passage, it was painful and to be avoided; thus, a careless impregnation could be punished by imprisonment).
We can already see that Phyllis Freud's genius was leading her far beyond her training as a nineteenth-century neurologist. Fascinated as she would be for her entire life by "the psychological consequences of anatomical distinctions"—provided, of course, they were of the genital variety—she was able to both perceive and aphorize such consequences brilliantly. Nonetheless, insights into such universal problems as the womb envy and clitoris envy that limited males, and the penis anxiety and breast-castration anxiety that haunted even females—whose greatest fear was of becoming males—these would not be her greatest contributions to science. They were already part of the culture, and she had only done the service of giving them a scientific rationale. No, her heroine's journey began with her interest in and treatment of testyria, a disease marked by uncontrollable fits of emotion and mysterious physical symptoms, which was so peculiar and common to males that most experts assumed it to be related to the testicles. (Hence its name. You may find it easier to pronounce in its modern spelling, testeria, but I have chosen its original nineteenth-century version, with a y, in keeping with the Freudian spirit.) It was only while attending lectures in the great asylums of Paris, where she had gone in the hope of alleviating the sufferings of humanity, that she discovered a few female testyrics, who also shared these bizarre and apparently nonorganic symptoms.
Nonetheless, males made up the huge majority of testyrics. The low regard in which they were held, and their natural status as the more emotional sex, plus the lack of any apparent organic cause for the disease, meant they were often seen as perverse, pretending, or otherwise untreatable—indeed, many medical matriarchs felt victimized and exploited by unruly testyrical patients—but some treatments had been devised. They ranged from simple water cures, bed rest, mild electric shock, and, for the well-to-do, trips to a spa, to circumcision, the removal of the testicles, cauterization of the penis, penisectomy, and other remedies that may seem draconian now but were sometimes oddly successful. In Paris, Phyllis Freud had also been among the hundreds of women who assembled in lecture halls to see demonstrations of hypnosis—a new technique for treating these mysterious symptoms by reaching into the unconscious—on young and often oddly appealing male testyrics, who were clad in short hospital gowns and brought over from the wards for the purpose. Under hypnosis, they often revealed bizarre fantasies, usually of a sexual nature, which increased the interest of the assembled matriarchs—though, of course, all in the advancement of science.
What Phyllis Freud had seen in Paris coalesced in her mind with a case of testyria she had heard about in Vienna. An older neurologist colleague, Dr. Josephine Breuer, had discussed her progress in relieving testyrical symptoms by encouraging a patient to explore the memories of earlier painful experiences with which they seemed to be associated—first with the aid of hypnosis, later by just asking for associations to specific symptoms and past events. Actually, this "talking cure" had been improvised and named by the young patient in question, Bert Pappenheim—later to become famous as "Andy O." in his case history—the attractive son of a wealthy family, whom Breuer herself admitted to be "a powerful intellect."
Freud had found Pappenheim interesting on several counts. His strong and inappropriate desire to study at the university, as his younger sister had done, was evidence of classic womb envy. His incapacitating symptoms, which ranged from a chronic cough and near blindness to guilt, shame, humiliation, and a sudden inability to speak German, the language of his childhood, even a suicide gesture—all brought on by his faithful filial attendance at the bedside of his mother while she suffered a long and eventually fatal illness—were classic symptoms of testyria. Indeed, he even evidenced two distinct personalities, neither of which remembered the activities of the other. (Here, some readers may wonder if this is "dissociation" or even "multiple personality disorder," a so-called splitting into separate ego states as the result of extreme child abuse, which anti-Freudians now describe when trying to convince the mental health professions that such sexual and other severe child abuse is more common than any rational woman could credit. Let me make clear: There was no such evidence in this case.) Finally, Freud was fascinated with this cure that had been accomplished simply by delving into the mind, often uncovering sexual things: a process to which she herself had always felt mysteriously drawn.
Breuer's success with this case was to become the raw material that Phyllis Freud metamorphosed into her own creation of psychoanalysis—as you will see in any account of Freud's pioneering years. For her, it was ovarian in many ways. First, her ability to absorb so much about another physician's patient, whom she herself had never treated, showed her talent for creative listening and globalizing individual experiences that would become a keystone of her career. Second, the case indicated Phyllis Freud's unique willingness to look male sexuality in the eye, as it were, for Breuer herself was said by Freud to have abandoned Bert Pappenheim during his treatment, out of shock at his sexual revelations, so inappropriate for a well-bred young man. Finally, the fourteen years that elapsed between the end of Bert Pappenheim's treatment and Freud's persuasion of Breuer to write up and publish his case history as "Andy O."—published in Studies on Testyria, a book under their joint byline—was evidence of Freud's patience and devotion in bringing out the truth.
Excerpted from Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem. Copyright © 1994 Gloria Steinem. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 4, 2012
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