Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson: On Denial, Killer Whales, and the Human Condition


I am honored to share my exclusive interview with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson today.

Jeff is the best-selling author of dozens of books, including The Assault on Truth:  Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1984); Against Therapy:  Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing (Athenaeum, 1988), A Dark Science:  Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the 19th Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987). He has translated and edited The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, among dozens of other books, essays and even an introduction to one of my favorite children’s books, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. His book, Dogs Never Lie About Love, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide.

His forthcoming book is Us and Them: Apex Predators and the Search for the Origins of Good and Evil.  Jeff says, “Here is the thesis in one sentence:  in the 20th century alone humans have killed more than 200,000,000 members of our own species; during that time orcas (killer whales) have killed exactly not a single other killer whale.  So what happened to us?”

Jeff’s writing on therapy, Freud, and society’s suspicious views about women speaking out about their experiences opened a door for me. His empathy granted me permission to trust my own voice. I came to understand that to live my best chapter, I had to ask myself, who’s living rent-free in your head? (See my post on that here.) Once I figured out that I was trusting the voices of other people – and ignoring my own perceptions – I started to think clearly. And see clearly.  Voila! I started to change. Jeff’s work has helped me begin my next chapter.

Here’s an abbreviated version of Masson’s work on the curious U-turn in Sigmund Freud’s thinking. Freud originally believed women’s stories about their disturbing sexual experiences. But his ideas were so revolutionary, so ahead of his time and so disturbing to his colleagues, that he retracted them. Freud did a complete flip-flop and began stating that women were merely talking about their sexual fantasies. This dogmatic reversal – quashing women’s own memories and insisting they were only fantasies – continues to cause society to question women’s perceptions and their memories, their grasp of “objective reality” and their ability to serve as authorities — or even witnesses — of their own experiences.

Masson’s books are still revolutionary because they help change how we think about ourselves and that is the first step toward living our best chapter.

Diana: My recent post on countering depression and the Dalai Lama got more hits than any other. I’m still struck by how people are looking for a way out of what they feel is depression. (I’m not talking about clinical depression but a general malaise.) You’ve written so much about people (especially women) looking for “cures,” especially from men. Do you think that is part of the human condition? Or is something else going on?

Jeff: As you know, I am not a great fan of ANY kind of therapy, especially psychiatric ones, for what is simply part of the human condition.  I don’t use the word depression.  I say sadness.  Now of course I understand that some sadness is much worse than others, some perhaps almost unbearable.  But the idea that you can pay somebody to make it go away seems to me wrong.  I often felt melancholic when I lived in Toronto, but rarely in Berkeley or Auckland.  Frankly, I think it has to do with sunshine.  I am a great believer in Vitamin D, and the sun.

Diana: You have been brave in saying things that many people just don’t want to hear. What has struck me is how you were studying in the most respected institutions of learning and yet it dawned on you that what you were learning didn’t ring true. In a way, it’s like stepping out of denial and seeing things clearly. Was there a sudden crisis that inspired you or a building up of ideas? And what do you recommend people can do to begin to be aware – and begin to change?

Jeff: Well, it is a kind of whistle-blowing of one’s own self.  You have to recognize how you have often been duped by the powers that be, often even the educational powers that be.  When I think of how much that is taught at Harvard is simply wrong, I am astonished.  But these are not things that can really be proven, only intuited.  There were of course some wonderful teachers there as well, but the entire institution, in a sense, was a denial-building machine.

For example, in the department of psychology, Richard J. McNally teaches the students that women think they were sexually abused when they were not.  He compares their “faulty” memories with those of people who claim to be abducted by aliens.

This is just wrong.  Yet Harvard University Press published a book about this by him in 2003:  Remembering Trauma.  As he says about himself:  “I am among the approximately 260 psychologists and psychiatrists identified by the Institute for Scientific Information as “highly cited” (i.e., top one half of one percent of all published psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide in terms of citation impact).”  So it is not a trivial matter.

We are as a species, a kind of denial species.  It is our default position!  But how do we know when we are not denying? Nobody is aware of denying when they are in the middle of it.  Only later.  Usually when it is too late!

Diana: In your fascinating book, Against Therapy, you spoke out — obviously — against therapy. You wrote then that you didn’t really have an alternative. One solution you found was writing down one’s life story and sharing it with others. Over the years, have there been other things that you’ve discovered? Is there anything else you recommend?

Jeff: I find that coming together with like-minded people is far better than therapy.  Not group therapy, but simply people coming together, no money changes hands, no hierarchy, no experts.  Also, getting a dog can be one of the most therapeutic things you can do.  Failing that, a cat will do.

Diana: I love the line in your book, “Can there be an institute for an instillation of human kindness?” If you were running such an institute, what would be your message? 

Jeff: None, because you cannot teach kindness.  Or compassion.  Or even sympathy.  People either have it or they don’t.  Now what causes some to have it and others to lack it is one of the great unanswered questions of all time.

If I had an Institute of Kindness I would take the children on field trips, and teach them that ALL life is or should be sacred, so we don’t needlessly pick leaves off a tree, and certainly would never squash any insect.  We would marvel and observe and discuss, but never harm.  So at my Institute there would be no meat served, no eggs, no milk, not even honey!  And we would talk about why and visit farms with a critical eye.  Why, I would make them ask over and over, should we put ourselves and our lives over that of other living beings?  The message is:  do no harm!

Diana: Are there any tools that you use on a daily basis to live your own best chapter? When you’re down in the dumps, how do you pick yourself up?

Jeff: I take Benjy, my dog, for a walk; I also take Same, a natural herbal upper. I sit in the sun. I read Primo Levi.  I know:  the most depressing subject on earth, the Holocaust, but when somebody writes about it in such depth, it somehow gives me faith that there are good people in the world.

Diana: Thank you so much.

About dianabletter

Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (with photographs by Lori Grinker), shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. Her novel, A Remarkable Kindness, (HarperCollins) was published in 2015. She is the First Prize Winner of Moment Magazine's 2019 Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, tabletmag, Glamour, The Forward, The North American Review, Times of Israel, and is a reporter for Israel21C, and many other publications. She is author of Big Up Yourself: It's About Time You Like Being You and The Mom Who Took off On Her Motorcycle, a memoir of her 10,000-mile motorcycle trip to Alaska and back to New York. She lives in a small beach village in Western Galilee, Israel, with her husband and family. She is a member of the local hevra kadisha, the burial circle, and a Muslim-Jewish-Christian-Druze women's group in the nearby town of Akko. And, she likes snowboarding and climbing trees.
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5 Responses to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson: On Denial, Killer Whales, and the Human Condition

  1. stuartart says:

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the intro to Masson, I’ve not heard of him. I will look up his work. Excellent post. 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good interview, Diana. Can you share how it was conducted – via e-mail, phone…what?

    • dianabletter says:

      Thanks, Michael. The interview was conducted by e-mail. I’m looking forward to meeting Jeff in person one day!

  3. Michael Sklaroff says:

    (That was me, above, not Anonymous!)

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