Jeffrey Masson has led at least 3 adult lives and a childhood that could inspire an army of psychoanalysts. (And we will get to them later). Jeff has a PhD in Sanskrit, one of the few Americans to have such a degree. He moved to Canada and became a Professor at the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Jeffrey trained as a psychoanalyst. In 1980 he became projects director at the Freud Archives. Jeffrey’s research led him to the conclusion that Freud made a mistake in turning away from his insight that human misery was fueled by childhood sexual abuse. There was, in his opinion, a large number of documents, chief among them letters by Freud which had been kept from public view, and that showed the full extent of Freud’s original valuation of the reality of sexual abuse. Masson speculated that Freud gave in to peer pressure rather than acknowledge a truth that would have harmed his career. For such heresy, he was subsequently excommunicated (I use the term advisedly) from the Psychoanalytic movement,
During the last 20 years, Jeff has turned his formidable intelligence to the study of emotions in animals and in advocating animal rights. His newest book: The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food was published by W.W. Norton this past spring.
Jeff lives on the ocean in New Zealand (aka paradise). Check out Jeff’s website.
Andy: Jeff, I want to talk about Freud in this interview. It seems that the people who remember your critique of Freud don’t know much about your work on animal emotions. And those who are your current readers can’t remember what you did with Freud.
Let’s go back and talk about your revision of Freud. I have to say that I read part of your book and all of the reviews. As a layman, the dispute seemed sort of like medieval hair splitting. Why was your discovery so important and why did it enrage the entire Psychoanalytic profession?
Jeff: It was hardly a trivial point. I was maintaining that fantasy did not create neurosis, only reality has that power. This was not simply my opinion, but was supported by historical documents of which analysts preferred to remain ignorant. If I was right, then they had been unfair (verging on malpractice) to female patients who told them they were abused only to be assured it was merely a fantasy.
Andy: Some people think that your work was the beginning of the end of the Freudian dominion of Psychoanalysis. I know you are a modest person, but can you claim some credit here? Most psychotherapists aren’t Freudians any more, right. Hasn’t Freud primarily been relegated to literary theory and intellectual history?
Jeff: It was not my work, but the documents themselves. After all, you could not simply wish away letters by Freud that had been deliberately removed from the public record. I put them back, and when people began to become aware of the implications, Freud’s reputation suffered as did that of subsequent analysts. Eventually analysts recognized the damage that was being done by their “denial” and they switched camps. But it was a bit late in the game. Feminists like Florence Rush and Judith Herman and several others had been saying the same thing I did for years. Once these new letters came to light, it gave true gravity to their views. That said, I abhor the term “Freud basher” so often thoughtlessly applied to me. While I have fundamental criticisms, I also acknowledge that Freud did indeed have many fascinating insights into human nature and he could write far better than perhaps any other psychologist before or since. No mean achievement!
Andy: But you moved on from there too. You went from being a psychoanalytic heretic to being a very eloquent (if sometimes provocative) critic of the entire psychotherapeutic enterprise. And you have expressed no less withering contempt for psychopharmacology. It there nowhere left to turn in the Massonian Universe to restore one’s mental health?
Jeff: Yes, I did take a look at other therapies, and was even less impressed with them than with Freudian therapy. I still maintain, after all these years, that the best shrink is a dog. I really mean that too, as you know!
Andy: Whenever we talk about intellectual history, it seems that you still maintain an admiration for Freud as a thinker who contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves. Can you explain your (seemingly) contradictory feelings about Freud? What is your assessment of his contribution?
Jeff: I answered this partially above, but let me add that I am writing the new introduction to the Sterling Illustrated Edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I believe that among his great achievements was: the recognition of the importance of childhood for later human unhappiness (or trauma if you prefer); the mechanisms of defense, especially denial, repression, and counter-phobia – a marvelous idea when you think about: we become mountain climbers because we fear heights!; the unconscious; the importance of sexuality; the primacy of dreams; the reality of internal suffering. I could go on and on. But I never am given the chance any longer!
Andy: In the early 90’s, you moved in an entirely new direction. You started writing about the emotions of animals. Your first book, When Elephants Weep, was an international best seller. What led you to this fascination with animal emotions?
Jeff: I was disappointed with human emotions and wanted to study those of another species. Was it possible that other animals felt more deeply than we do, or even felt different emotions? It is an ever-fascinating question. I did not answer, but I attempted to, and this resonated with the public. People who lived with animals generally knew they had profound feelings, and liked seeing this view vindicated.
Andy: And that was followed by Dogs never Lie About Love, a book that sold over 1,000,000 copies worldwide. It really changed the way people thought about emotions in dogs.
Jeff: Yes, nowhere is it more obvious that we take second place when it comes to the ability to love freely, deeply, unconditionally, than with dogs. They are undoubtedly our superior in realms like friendship, loyalty, depth and ease of affection, and so on. Again, I was not saying anything unknown to dog lovers over the centuries.
Andy: You are back to dogs again, too, aren’t you? You have a new book about love between humans and dogs scheduled for release next year. Can you tell us something about this? You must know that dog books are a cottage industry. But I think that, against the odds, you actually have some important and original to say.
Jeff: I hope so. I maintain that we have become the species we are only because we co-evolved with dogs. Dogs have been with us longer than any other animal, by far. We go back at least 40,000 years and perhaps longer. So there was time for us to grow in tandem, and I believe we did, which is why we are the only two species who make friends so easily across the species barrier. I don’t think we would be the species we are without dogs.
Tags: andy ross, andy ross agency, animal emotions, ask the agent, book publishing, books, dogs, freud, freud archives, jeffrey moussaieff Masson, literary agent, literature, the face on your plate, vegan, writing