The majority of patients in Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud’s book Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895/1983) were described as having been victims of sexual abuse and up until 1895 Freud considered that the majority of his patients were suffering from the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood.
Freud then rejected this idea. There has been a great deal of speculation regarding this decision. Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones (Jones, 1953), proposed that given many of the fathers of his patients were part of his own social circle, it would have been difficult for Freud to publicly state that his patients had been sexually abused as children.
to then explain the symptoms of his patients, in the absence of any real trauma, Freud produced a socially acceptable theory that denied the reality of childhood sexual abuse. Once the memories of sexual abuse reported by personalities were rejected by Freud as not being memories of true events, then the interpretation of the nature of these additional, or ‘alter’ personalities had to change.
Whereas others, such as Morton Prince (Prince, 1905/1978), had embraced the idea that there could be parallel rational conscious activity which could be described as “subconscious” or “co-conscious”, Freud rejected this idea and invented his unconscious (Freud, 1915/1995). From this point onward Freud referred only to an unconscious as distinct from a subconscious (Ellenberger, 1970.).
The unconscious of Freud, therefore, was not able to hold accurate memories, assume rational control of the body, or to think as would a rational adult. If the sexual abuse was not seen to be true, then the alter personalities (or the “unconscious” for Freud) must be irrational.
Despite the many great contributions made by Freud, this theory and the acceptance of his theory meant that many victims of sexual abuse were not believed and many patients with multiple personalities (or Dissociative Identity Disorder – DID) were to be misdiagnosed. For most of the twentieth-century the reality of many DID patient’s condition was also rejected as their appearance did not fit accepted theory.