Before I present more documentation about child abuse and dissociation, I want to provide a little more background information. After the Civil War period, psychologists in France, namely Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud, studied what was then termed hysteria. Pierre Janet believed that the traumatic event occurred in a setting of altered consciousness or trance state, and was not produced by the hysterical symptoms.
Of special pertinence was the recognition of both Freud and Janet that the somatic (bodily) symptoms of hysteria were coded representations of events so traumatic that they could not be retained in conscious awareness and were retained in the altered state. Janet labeled the alteration of consciousness “dissociation.” He wrote in 1889 a major consequence of this dissociation is that the split-off traumatic material remained active as “subconscious fixed ideas” that under certain circumstances became activated and had a “behind the scenes” impact on a variety of conscious experiences and on memory processes and accessibility. Janet thought that chronic disease, organic affections of the nervous system, psychic weakness, and a succession of cumulative emotional effects made the individual more vulnerable to dissociation.
Sigmund Freud found that hysterical symptoms brought on by even minor upsets or injuries could be traced back to traumas early in life for which the memory and associated affect had been repressed. In his 1896 publication of The Aetiology of Hyseria, Sigmund Freud postulated a link between childhood abuse and psychiatric illnesses1. After he gave up his seduction theory – the idea that the origin of hysteria lay in the sexual abuse of children – he held that the original trauma involved emotions connected with the child’s own sexual and aggressive drives, thus putting the blame of child abuse on the child instead of the offending adult.
It was not until the rapid industrial growth following the Civil War, particularly the expansion of the railroads and the advent of compensation legislation and litigation, that the existence of male hysteria in the form of traumatic neurosis was generally recognized. By 1895, James Hendrie Lloyd, writing as Francis X. Dercum’s authoritative textbook on nervous disease, could state that next to heredity, trauma was the most important cause of hysteria.2
Childhood abuse has been a part of family homes since Day One. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s, however, before our country started addressing the issue. The forerunners of the child protective services agencies that today investigate and respond to child abuse and neglect were private associations known as “anticruelty societies.” The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children was the first to be formed. A visiting nurse made headlines by demanding the same intervention for a severely abused child that would be afforded an animal in similar circumstances. In that same year, 1877, New York passed a law to protect children and punish wrongs done to them, giving the anticruelty societies a legal foundation and a mandate to identify children who were being mistreated by their families. More states passed laws protecting children as the 20th century began, laying the groundwork for the nation’s juvenile court system.3
The National Vigilance Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, both founded in the 1880s, were concerned at first with control for sexual purposes. Reformers pointed to a specific and sensitive problem: the sexual abuse of girls in the congested family quarters of the large cities by fathers, brothers and/or uncles in crowded slum tenements. Incest was a clear danger to the institution of the family.
Did having these societies stop or bring national attention to child abuse? Not really, because the existing common law doctrine was that a minor could not sue her parents in tort. In the 1891 Mississippi case, Hewlet v. George, the court wrote: “The state, through its criminal laws, will give the minor child protection from parental violence and wrongdoing, and this is all the child can be heard to demand…”4 Since most children were beaten or threatened with abandonment to remain quiet about the abuse, just like in today’s society, protection by the court was rare.
So, we have the psychiatric community in the late 1880s aware of hysteria, premier psychologists like Pierre Janet actually giving a name, dissociation, to the manifestation of trauma, a connection of trauma and hysteria, the awareness of cruelty to children, the courts not allowing children to sue their parents, and the children threatened to keep their mouths shut. That was over 130 years ago and the protection of children from abuse is still not discussed at the national level even though much of what happened is the 1880s still goes on today.
In my next blog on dissociation, I will present the case of Miss Beauchamp. Dr. Corbett Thigpen, one of the authors of The Three Faces of Eve, cites this case as a reference in his book which he often referred to while treating Eve. There are many more cases citing double consciousness and multiple personalities in the 1800s. I didn’t want to write about all of them, but I did want you to see for yourself that this disorder has a long history in psychological textbooks.
1 “Trauma and Dissociation: 20 Years of Study and Lessons Learned Along the Way,” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Vol. 1 (1) 2000
2 “Conversion Disorders” by Edwin A. Weinstein M.D., War Psychiatry
4 “Evolution of the Dependency Component of the Juvenile Court,” Marvin Ventrill 1998