A Freudian virus infects our minds

January 17, 2002



We often compare the human mind to a computer, discussing matters of input, output and memory. What we need to do now is carry that analogy a bit further and begin talking about mind viruses. While we've been worrying about detecting, repairing, quarantining and deleting the many Internet viruses that infect our computers, we've been ignoring a virus that is doing equally nasty things to the way our minds function.

It causes us to think in an irrational way when it comes to understanding flawed lives. Automatically we accept the notion that there must be something that causes people to fail. We assume that they're not responsible for how their lives turned out and that whatever went wrong is not their fault. We're compelled to think they've been psychologically hurt and invisibly harmed. This "Freudian virus"-for it was Freud who first theorized how sexual experiences in childhood affected people throughout their lives-has been burrowing into minds for decades, planting the notion that psychological problems of adulthood are manifestations of a traumatic childhood often involving sexual abuse. Now, whether its drug abuse, alcoholism, depression or even immoral or criminal behaviour, the assumption is that the root cause is clear. Other explanations, however plausible, are simply ignored.

Once we tell ourselves that we know the cause, then all problems can be understood as "damage" for which someone else is held to blame. We can't possibly hold a poor victim responsible for his or her unfortunate life. To do so is not only politically incorrect, it's downright cruel, and it's dismissed as faulty thinking-a system error.

Like the "Millennium" or "ILOVE-YOU" viruses that spread from individual computers to eventually contaminate large corporate and government computers, this Freudian virus has infected the way our social, political and legal institutions work.

Take for example, last month's B.C. Supreme Court judgment awarding a 51-year-old man $233,400 for sexual abuse that purportedly happened more than 40 years ago at a residential school run by the Roman Catholic Order of the Oblates. The plaintiff testified that Martin Saxey, a baker at the school who is now long dead, sexually assaulted him.

As proof of the abuse, the plaintiff, identified only as E. B., claimed he has suffered from bedwetting, a failed marriage, anxiety, sexual problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (a diagnosis which in itself relies on the assumption of earlier abuse). All of these, as well as frequent unemployment and several criminal offences, he attributed to the sexual abuse. "It was hard to cope with life, it was hard to cope with society," he testified.

His admission of alcohol abuse was also considered an indication of the supposed earlier abuse. Wrote Justice Brian Cohen: "The evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff used alcohol at least partly as a form of self-medication in an attempt to forget about the abuse."

Lawyers for the Oblates challenged this infected thinking, arguing that all E. B.'s siblings were also alcoholic and that while several had died from alcohol-related causes, none of them had been abused. Although acknowledging that it was "highly likely that the plaintiff (would) have developed an alcohol problem in any event," Justice Cohen still concluded that the alcohol abuse was a result of the sexual abuse. "At this stage," he wrote, "the Oblates can only escape liability if they can demonstrate that the plaintiff would have become an alcoholic regardless of the sexual (abuse)"-a logical impossibility.

Last year, B.C. Chief Justice Donald Brenner wrote that in cases of historical sexual assault, the plaintiff is likely to be claiming for chronic injuries, often psychological in nature. "Unravelling the question of causation in these cases arising as they do from (acts) committed so long ago is a daunting task."

Not so for those contaminated with the Freudian virus. What should indeed be an overwhelming task is made simple by the circular reasoning that, if someone's life is a mess, it shows that they've been abused and that the abuse has ruined what would otherwise have been idyllic. Unlike the technological varieties for which there is anti-virus protection, this infection has, at present, no antidote. How, I wonder, might one develop the software able to debug our infected minds?


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,