Sigmund Freud, Aphasie 1888
In my post of 5 March I quoted Josef Breuer's description of Bertha's aphasia. It was of a complex nature and varied over the course of her illness, ranging from the typical telegrammatic speech of Broca's aphasia to the complete loss of her mother tongue, at which stage she could only express herself in other languages, mainly English. How then, in view of Freud's already published view about hysterical aphasia, could he and Breuer be subscribing to the idea that her aphasia was hysterically induced?
Freud was clearly enchanted by his own theories about hysteria, so much so that it seems almost to have constituted a default diagnosis for him. Once convinced that a patient suffered from hysteria nothing would budge him from that conclusion.
In the case of Frau Emmy von N (the second of the cases reported in Studies on Hysteria) the patient displayed, in addition to depression and insomnia, a set of symptoms which would nowadays be recognised as associated with Tourette's syndrome: random interjections and clacking sounds, agitated finger movements, convulsive facial tics and neck spasms. Freud, treating her with the cathartic method developed in discussion with Breuer, elicited from his patient a number of traumatic childhood memories, after which, he claimed, her vocal tics 'were strikingly improved' although they 'were not completely relieved'. This limited success turned out to be 'not a lasting one'.
There is nothing surprising in this. Tourette's symptoms are known to wax and wane, quite independently of any treatment.What is surprising is that Freud didn't even consider the possibility of a neurological cause as he had known Gilles de Tourette while working with Charcot in Paris, at the very time when de la Tourette first published a paper on the disorder which was to bear his name.
A later, and much more serious, misdiagnosis was made in the case of a fourteen-year-old girl, known only as M-l, who suffered from abdominal pains. Freud diagnosed her as an 'unmistakable' case of hysteria, which he claimed cleared up 'quickly and radically' under his care. The girl died two months later of sarcoma of the abdominal glands.
Freud was still loath to relinquish the hysteria diagnosis. The girl had indeed been a hysteric, he maintained. The hysteria, instead of creating its own symptoms, had simply appropriated for itself the existing pains produced by the sarcoma.
This 'mixed aetiology' explanation has served on other occasions as a get-out clause in the history of hysteria. We see it too in the above case of Frau Emmy von N. Finding that the neck spasms were continuing unabated Freud declared that they did not form part of the hysterical picture but were a form of migraine, therefore of organic origin and not susceptible to the cathartic treatment.
It's difficult to see how the mixed-aetiology explanation could be applied to solve the question I started this post with but given Freud's belief in his ability to wriggle Houdini-like out of any diagnostic bind he found himself in he would surely have come up with some rationale.