Freud’s Rat Man
Freud’s Rat Man and the Meaning of the Rat Torture
© John Barresi, Sept 7, 2019
Department of Psychology & Neuroscience
Freud’s 1909 case of obsessional neurosis of a patient called the Rat Man is unique in
being the only case for which he saved his process notes. Because these notes provide data with
which we can both evaluate Freud’s account in his case report and generate alternative, possibly
better, accounts, it is one of the best ways to evaluate Freud’s analytical techniques and the
historical constructions reported in his case studies. I provide a novel interpretation of the ‘rat
torture’, which is the signature obsession in this case. Freud provided an elaborate account of the
meaning for why the patient feared that this punishment would be given to his lady love and
dead father. I give a simpler explanation in proposing that the patient’s father engaged in anal
sexual abuse with his children and provide evidence for this hypothesis from the process notes. I
evaluate both Freud’s and the present interpretation with respect to Freud’s changing view of the
bases for neurosis from the sexual seduction theory to the fantasy theory and to more recent work
on child sexual abuse as an important contributor to psychopathology.
Keywords: Freud, Rat Man, incest, sexual seduction theory, childhood sexual abuse
(CSA), personology, Freud’s case studies, single case studies
I’m giving up on finding a suitable venue for publication of this paper, after versions of it were
rejected – mostly as inappropriate to their journal – by 3 APA journals, a Psychoanalytic society
journal, and two other seemingly relevant journals. I’m not interested in pay-to-publish journals;
but if an alternative relevant venue is interested, I may be willing to publish it there.
Freud’s Rat Man
Freud’s Rat Man and the Meaning of the Rat Torture
Freud’s creative contribution of ideas to psychology is beyond dispute, as is his failure to
contribute to psychology as a science – at least as viewed by psychologists not entrenched in
psychoanalytic theory. The causes of Freud’s failure as a scientific psychologist are multiple.
Some of these are no particular fault of his, since his work mainly involved verifying his
theoretical innovations using case studies of single individuals rather than statistical
experimental methods on multiple individuals. The use of case studies both before and after
Freud has been a problematic method for testing general truths about human psychology. Even
so, a variety of case study methods have been developed that do contribute to understanding
individual persons, and can be approached using scientific methods of verification not requiring
multiple participants and statistics (e.g., Runyan, 1982). One method of this sort is to engage in
repeated analyses of data available from the single case – a method typically used in the study of
lives of historical individuals. In cases of this sort, alternative accounts of single lives can be
compared to each other and novel theoretical accounts can be shown either to complement,
improve on, or totally replace, previous accounts (cf. Runyan, 1981; Barresi, 2018).
However, when one focuses on Freud’s own analyses of individual lives, one is
constantly faced with the fact that Freud was very selective in what he viewed as important to his
clinical case histories and psychological biographies of historical individuals, and his hypotheses
are almost always of a sort that cannot be refuted by the usual methods applied to individual
lives. There are exceptions, however, when Freud uses public information, such as in his case
study of Leonardo (1910/1953), which has been eminently refuted by Elms and others (Elms,
2007). Also, some of his clinical case studies have provided enough information that alternative
accounts can be shown to be much more congruent with general psychological theories, and
Freud’s Rat Man
superior to unjustified, theory-driven accounts provided by Freud himself (e.g., Freud, 1909a;
Wolpe & Rachman, 1960). Alternative analyses of Freud’s original case reports where sufficient
data is available to critique them are important because his case studies are often used for
teaching purposes; and without alternative better grounded theoretical accounts, the impression is
left either that clinical case studies of the sort that Freud wrote have little value, or that Freud’s
own accounts provide ideal models (or “masterpieces”) of successful case reports (e.g., Krempen
& Krempen, 2016).
There is, however, one famous instance where Freud himself critically evaluated his own
previous theoretical account of the cause of neuroses, based on a change in his interpretation of
the data he had collected from individual patients. This is his shift from the “sexual seduction
theory” to the “fantasy theory” as the primary cause of hysteria and obsessive neurosis. In 1896
he presented his famous talk and paper, “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (Freud, 1896a), arguing that
child sexual abuse (CSA) was the original cause of hysteria and obsessions in 18 patients whom
he had analyzed, though he didn’t describe any of these cases in detail, and he came to the
conclusion that this was a general and primary cause of neurosis. Within a year, he was already
doubting his explanation, and beginning to develop an alternative theory that the material
reported by his patients, or that he inferred from their symptoms, was based on fantasies of
sexual abuse, not actual abuse. He eventually, went public with this fantasy theory in later
publications, and his change of views on this issue had an enormous long-term impact on the
development of psychoanalysis.
Until the 1980s, most psychoanalysts continued to maintain the fantasy theory even when
their patients insisted on the reality of CSA. But the situation has changed in recent years, due
initially to women therapists, such as Alice Miller (1986) and Judith Herman (1992); but also to
Freud’s Rat Man
Jeffrey Masson’s book, Assault on Truth (Masson, 1984), that reviewed the early history of
Freud’s views and documented the transition period that occurred in them from the late 1890s to
the start of the 20th century. Following these developments, there has been a continuing and quite
general debate over whether to believe, or not, adult patient recovery of memories of childhood
abuse (e.g. Belli, 2012). In retrospect, it appears that both for his sexual seduction theory as well
as for his subsequent fantasy theory, Freud’s treatment and analyses of his patients were strongly
influenced by his theories rather than from evidence derivable from his patients’ uninfluenced
reports. From early on Freud would often insist that his patients recall sexual events from early
childhood, and accused them of resistance, or invoked repression, when they failed to produce
these memories. Eventually, Freud increased his use of “free association” and the investigation
of transference phenomena rather than instructing his patients on theory and guiding them
toward dreams, fantasies, and recollections that tended to support his hypotheses. But, he likely
never got over this tendency both to instruct his patients and provide biased interpretations of
their reports that confirmed hypotheses that he entertained at the time. This tendency for
instruction as well as distortion of primary data will be demonstrated in the present paper that
focuses on Freud’s Rat Man case study (Freud, 1909b/1953).
Of all the cases that Freud provided histories for, the most extensive and useful for
evaluating Freud’s therapeutic technique and his historical reconstructions is his 1909 case of
obsessional neurosis of the patient called the Rat Man (Freud, 1909b/1953). It is not only one of
the few longer case studies written by Freud, but it is also the only case in which the daily
written process notes on the patient remain (Freud, 1909c/1953). Since the process notes for the
Rat Man case were published in his collected works (Freud, 1909c/1953), a number of
psychoanalysts as well as other interdisciplinary scholars have written about the case and
Freud’s Rat Man
compared Freud’s case report to the process notes. One of the earliest was by Zetzel (1966), who
pointed out that Freud’s case report hardly dealt at all with the patient’s mother and sisters who
were involved in the patient’s history and appeared often in the process notes. Freud’s emphasis
on the father to the exclusion of other family members seems to have been a limitation in Freud’s
technique and, in recent papers by Billig (1999) and Duschinsky & Leigh (2015), the patient’s
siblings play a major role in their re-evaluation of the Rat Man case. The most extensive study of
the Rat Man case yet published was by Patrick Mahoney (1986), who, in a close analysis of these
two texts in comparison with other sources, makes clear that Freud exaggerated the length of
treatment of the patient in his case history, and quite often reordered the timing of material in the
process notes in his narrative of the case. He also showed that Freud’s case history is not only a
slightly revised narrative to keep the story relatively simple, but a significant distortion of
material in the process notes – not, it seems, to protect privacy, but mainly to support Freud’s
preferred account of the case with respect to theories of interest to him at the time.
In the present paper, I will focus on the ‘rat torture’, the signature obsession of the case,
and contrast the elaborate interpretation that Freud constructed for it, with a simpler
interpretation that proposes that “Paul Lorenz” (I will maintain the pseudonyms that Freud used
for the patient and his sisters) and some of his sisters were sexually abused by their father. In a
sense, the present account returns to Freud’s original sexual seduction theory (Freud,
1896a/1953) in contrast to a later theory that he applied in his analysis of this case, a sort of half-
way house to the full fantasy theory that he exhibited in subsequent work (cf. Glymour, 1980).
Since Freud’s process notes do not present direct evidence of CSA by Lorenz’s father, it is
perhaps no wonder that therapists and scholars who have re-evaluated this case have so far not
suggested the possibility that patient’s father’s sexual abuse of his children, including the patient,
Freud’s Rat Man
was the primary cause of Lorenz’s obsessive-compulsive psychopathology, nor attempted to
explain the major symptom associated with the rat torture as directly connected to this sexual
abuse. Here, I will try to justify my own account of the case, and, in particular, of the symptoms
associated with the rat torture, and critique Freud’s. However, I present it merely as an
hypothesis, or conjecture, not as established truth, since there is no direct evidence of CSA.
Thus, I must leave it to the reader to decide whether the present hypothesis, which is congruent
with Freud’s original sexual seduction theory, is to be preferred to the account of the case that
Freud himself gave. I view as more important than deciding between these hypotheses, whether
we should at least consider and evaluate the possibility that CSA, and, in particular, incest
perpetrated by the patient’s father, might have occurred in this important case in Freud’s
published works. Without a serious consideration of this possibility, Freud’s legacy will continue
to emphasize his later theory of the Oedipus complex and the role of childhood fantasy as
predominant causes of adult psychopathologies, when traumatic experiences, and especially
CSA, are much more likely causes of serious psychological illnesses of the sort found in this
The Rat Torture
The first major section of Freud’s case history provides a detailed summary of the first
meeting that occurred on Oct, 1, 1907 and seven following daily therapeutic sessions. It is in the
second therapy session that the rat torture first comes up. Lorenz describes being on military
maneuvers when at a halt he lost his pince-nez glasses, which resulted in a very complex
obsession involving payment for its replacement that he will shortly describe at length, but
presented here by way of an introduction to the fact that he was sitting between two captains, one
Freud’s Rat Man
of whom he dreaded, “for he was obviously fond of cruelty.” (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 166) This
captain told him about “a horrible punishment” used in the East:
’the criminal was tied up … a pot was turned upside down on his buttocks … some rats
were put into it … and they … bored their way in…’-Into his anus, I helped him out.
(Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 166)
This is the rat torture. Freud described Lorenz’s expression when telling him of it as: “one of
horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware.” Freud continues: “He
proceeded with the greatest difficulty: ‘At that moment the idea flashed through my mind that
this was happening to a person who was very dear to me.’” (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 167). This
person was his cousin and “lady love,” Gisela. However, shortly afterwards, he indicated that
both his lady and a second person would receive the torture if he didn’t take certain verbal
measures to prevent it from happening. When asked who the second person was, it turned out to
be his father, his dead father.
Here I will contrast two hypotheses as to the meaning of symptoms associated with the
rat torture. The first is the one proposed by Freud in his analysis. This hypothesis focuses on a
severe punishment that the patient as a child received at his father’s hand, a punishment that
produced a rage and an indestructible repressed hatred of his father. On this account the deep
meaning of the rat torture involves a complex understanding of a number of meanings that rats
had for Lorenz and how they combine in the dual treatment of the lady and father. The second
hypothesis, one that has its roots in Freud’s earlier theory of the basis for obsessional neurosis, is
simpler. The reason that the rat torture applies to both the woman and the father is that it refers
back to traumatic scenes in Lorenz’s infancy and childhood, where the father engaged in anal
sexual activity with his own children. In the next section, I will present more fully these two
Freud’s Rat Man
constructions in relation to Freud’s interpretation of various meanings of rats to Lorenz and how
these meanings connect to the two accounts. This will require the consideration of the multiple
references to rats that Freud considered in the case report and that appear in the process notes.
The acquired meaning of rats based on the rat torture and how they relate to two
After hearing about the torture with rats by the “cruel” captain, rats acquired a variety of
meanings in Lorenz’s mental life. These meanings appear both in Freud’s case report and in the
processes notes, though there is not a perfect congruence between these two sources. The case
report lists five major meanings, which Freud integrates with some minor ones into his
construction of the interpreted deep meaning of the rat torture to Lorenz, but only three of these
meanings occur in the process notes. In his construction, Freud tries to relate these meanings to
the original infantile causes of Lorenz’s obsessive neurosis. In what follows, I will first present
the meanings that Freud gives to rats in his overview, along with material from the process notes
upon which some of them are based. Then I will present his construction based on his summary
of these meanings and critique it. I will follow this with my own construction based on anal
sexual abuse, and relate this account to some of the meanings of rats from Freud’s list that are in
the process notes.
Five major meanings of rats in Freud’s case report
Toward the end of the section titled, “Father complex and the solution of the rat idea” in
Freud’s case study he reports five major symbolic meanings of rats which he presents in italics in
the following order: money, syphilitic infection, penis, to marry, and children. Of these, money or
a rat currency is the one that appears most often in the process notes. It is based on the
association of “Ratten” for rats and “Raten” for installments, and appears often when money is
Freud’s Rat Man
involved. Part of the reason that this association was salient, was because Lorenz pronounced the
words Ratten and Raten in the same way. In the case report, Freud (1909b/1953) mentioned the
monetary statement about his fees as producing the thought, “So many florins, so many rats,” (p.
212) and claimed that he heard of this 6 months into therapy. But in the process notes of Nov 29,
only 2 months into therapy, Freud writes, “When at our first interview I told him my fees he said
to himself, ‘for each krone a rat for the children’.” (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 288). That these rats
should be for the children is not mentioning it in the case report; nor does Freud follow up in the
process notes on the possible meaning of rats for the children.
In the previous session on Nov. 26, Lorenz first mentioned syphilitic infection with
respect to his cousin’s step-father, a Lieutenant who is syphilitic, and that his being so was the
cause of the breakdown of his marriage to Lorenz’s aunt, Gisela’s mother. At the Nov. 29th
session, after going into rats as money, Freud states: “Evidently the idea of syphilis gnawing and
eating had reminded him of rats. He in fact gave a number of sources for this, especially from his
time of military service, where the subject was discussed.” (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 288) More
importantly, in this process note Freud goes on to say:
Military life reminded him not only of D. [the step-father] but of his father, who was in
the army so long. The idea that his father was syphilitic was not so unfamiliar to him.…
He had often thought that the nervous troubles of all of them might perhaps be due to his
father having syphilis. (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 289)
This highly relevant connection of syphilis to both his lady’s step-father and his own father, is
not presented in the case report. Instead, all Freud (1909b/1953) has to say on this topic is that:
the patient was also familiar with the fact that rats are carriers of dangerous infectious
diseases; he could therefore employ them as symbols of his dread … of syphilitic
Freud’s Rat Man
infection. This dread concealed all sorts of doubts as to the kind of life his father had led
during his term of military service. (p. 214)
Doubts are mentioned here, but no direct connection is made to actual fears that Lorenz had
about how his father’s syphilis might relate to his own illness or that of others in his family, and
that rats entering the anus might symbolize more exactly how syphilis could have been
transmitted in his family.
In his case report, Freud (1909b/1953) turns to his next association, that “the penis itself
is a carrier of syphilitic infection; and in this way he could consider the rat as a male organ of
sex.” (p. 214) and goes on to suggest that “it is certainly not a matter of indifference that the
substitution of a penis for a rat in the captain's story resulted in a situation of intercourse per
anum, which could not fail to be especially revolting to him when brought into connection with
his father and the woman he loved.” (p. 214) This particular connection of rats to penis and to
anal sexual abuse was not brought up in the process notes of Nov. 29 when it would have been
apt. Instead, it first appears on Jan. 3, 1908, where the connection was made by Freud. And, even
here, it was not pursued by Freud as indicating the possibility of anal sexual abuse by the
The final two rat associations that Freud mentions in his case report are to marriage and
children. Neither of these associations appear in the process notes. In the case report Freud
claims that all the material so far collected “and more besides, was woven into the fabric of the
rat discussions behind the screen-association ‘heiraten’ [‘to marry’].” (Freud, 1909b/1953, p.
215) but adds nothing to this association at this time. Children are reported to associate with rats
through Ibsen’s play, Little Eyolf, which Freud says “came up in analysis” and are connected
because the play is about a Rat-Wife who drowns rats, and Eyolf, who follows her to the sea,
Freud’s Rat Man
also drowns. For Freud, the important point of the association is that rats are filthy animals with
sharp teeth that “gnaw and bite,” and that:
[H]e himself had been just such a nasty, dirty little wretch, who was apt to bite people
when he was in a rage, and had been fearfully punished for doing so. He could truly be
said to find ‘a living likeness of himself’ in the rat. (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 216)
Freud sees a connection here to a report from Lorenz’s mother that he was once punished by his
father, not for autoerotic activity as Freud hoped to discover, but for biting someone. Freud also
notes here another potentially important factor involving children. Lorenz’s cousin could not
have children due to an operation she had that removed her ovaries and Freud suggests that this
was “the chief reason for his hesitation” about marrying her. (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 217)
Freud’s construction & its critique
Freud has now collected the materials needed for his construction:
When, at the afternoon halt (during which he had lost his pince-nez), the captain had told
him about the rat punishment, the patient had only been struck at first by the combined
cruelty and lasciviousness of the situation depicted. But immediately afterwards a
connection had been set up with the scene from his childhood in which he himself had
bitten someone. The captain—a man who could defend such punishments—had become a
substitute for his father, and had thus drawn down upon himself a part of the reviving
animosity which had burst out, on the original occasion, against his cruel father. The idea
which came into his consciousness for a moment, to the effect that something of the sort
might happen to someone he was fond of, is probably to be translated into a wish such as
‘You ought to have the same thing done to you!’ aimed at the teller of the story, but
through him at his father. (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 217)
Freud’s Rat Man
Thus far, Freud’s construction deals only with Lorenz’s father and to himself as a biter, like a rat,
who gets punished and as a consequence hates his father and the cruel captain as his symbolic
substitute. In order to bring in his cousin, Freud makes use of the elaborate obsession involving
payment for the replaced pince-nez and the cruel captain’s mistaken instructions on who to pay
the money to:
[O]ut of the stirrings of his father-complex and out of his memory of the scene from his
childhood, there formed in his mind some such answer as: ‘Yes! I'll pay back the money
to A. when my father and the lady have children!’ or ‘As sure as my father and the lady
can have children, I'll pay him back the money!’ In short, a derisive affirmation attached
to an absurd condition which could never be fulfilled. (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 218)
The consequence of this idea that Freud projects into Lorenz’s mind was that he had now
“insulted the two persons who were dearest to him—his father and his lady.” (Freud,
1909b/1953, p. 218) This called for a punishment, which required an elaborate attempt to fulfill
the cruel captain’s “ill-founded request.” In this manner, Freud connects the rat torture not only
to his father, but to his cousin, and to the elaborate payment obsession.
But why should his lady love enter into the construction, in the challenge, “Yes! I'll pay
back the money to A. when my father and the lady have children!”? First off, this imagined
challenge is suggested by Freud to occur with respect to paying for the pince-nez by the
instruction of the captain. But this instruction occurred a day and a half after the rat torture was
described (Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 217; cf. Mahoney, 1986, p. 53). And, Lorenz’s memory of
what happened when he heard of the torture was an immediate fear that not only his father but
also his cousin would receive the torture. So, dragging in the pince-nez obsession, however great
and interesting it was to Freud, is both irrelevant and, due to temporal spacing of events,
Freud’s Rat Man
logically impossible for explaining the meaning of the immediate fear that the torture would
happen to his now dead father and to his lady love. In addition, there appears to be no good
reason why his father and the lady having children should be part of this derisive thought.
However, Freud is not finished. After a discussion of Lorenz’s conflicted libido and
whether he should be ‘obedient’ to his father or ‘faithful’ to his beloved, Freud finally provides
an explanation for the derisive thought and incurred sanctions, through the associations of rats to
heiraten and to children:
I may add a word upon the interpretation of the ‘sanction’ which, it will be remembered,
was to the effect that ‘otherwise the rat punishment will be carried out on both of them’.
It was based upon the influence of two infantile sexual theories, which I have discussed
elsewhere [Freud, 1908/1953]. The first of these theories is that babies come out of the
anus; and the second, which follows logically from the first, is that men can have babies
just as well as women. According to the technical rules for interpreting dreams, the
notion of coming out of the rectum can be represented by the opposite notion of creeping
into the rectum (as in the rat punishment), and vice versa. (Freud, 1909b/1953, pp. 219-
Now we see that rats entering the rectum has the real meaning of babies (or children) being born
from the rectum and that the rat torture simply translates for Lorenz’s infantile mind the ‘absurd’
condition of the derisive thought that Freud posited as occurring in Lorenz’s adult mind as well
as the sanction that must follow. But there is no evidence in this case that might justify invoking
an explanatory fantasy of this sort, other than to somehow explain why the application of the rat
torture to his father and lady love should loom so large in the patient’s symptoms, which
Freud’s Rat Man
required Freud to place apparently relevant imagined thoughts into the patient’s mind, and then
invoking his theories about childhood sexual fantasies to explain why they occurred there.
Freud finally concludes:
We should not be justified in expecting such severe obsessional ideas as were present in
this case to be cleared up in any simpler manner or by any other means. When we
reached the solution that has been described above, the patient's rat delirium disappeared.
(Freud, 1909b/1953, p. 220)
There is no evidence in the process notes that this construction of Freud’s played any role in why
the patient terminated therapy, apparently in January, 1908, nor that “the patient’s rat delirium
disappeared” in response to it (cf. Mahoney, 1986, 76-78). In the next section we will propose an
alternative construction that better fits the January process notes and termination of therapy.
An alternative construction: Father as sexual abuser of his children
In the present alternative account of the meaning of the rat torture for Lorenz, only two of
the symbolic associations discussed by Freud, syphilitic infection and penis, play a significant
role. In this account I propose that Lorenz’s father sexually abused his children and that anal
sexual abuse was involved. In what follows I will go over some evidence that this abuse
occurred, then show how the rat torture and these two associations connect to this construction.
But first I want to discuss more generally some of the aspects of this case that indicate the
possibility of that Lorenz’s father abused his children without looking for direct evidence.
Of first importance, is that the patient reports early on in the process notes that he has,
himself, abused his younger sister Julie, has also engaged in voyeurism of his even younger
sister, and has engaged in aggressive sexual behavior with other women. Because Billig (1999)
has reported the evidence of these behaviors from the process notes, and discussed Lorenz’s self-
Freud’s Rat Man
assertion of criminality based on these behaviors, I need not go into this aspect of the case here. I
merely wish to consider Lorenz’s reported own incestuous relations with his sisters with respect
to the father’s possible abuse of his children as a risk factor. At the time that Freud favored his
seduction theory, he reported (Freud, 1896b) a case of this sort, in which independent evidence
confirmed that brother-sister incest, was preceded by an earlier seduction of the boy by an older
male cousin. Recently, a community study (Griffee, Swindell, O’Keefe, Stroebel, et al., 2016)
that investigated risk factors associated with sibling incest found that parent incest with a child
had a significant association with sibling incest involving that child, with an increased likelihood
of 6.4 to 1 compared to cases where parental incest did not occur. Moreover, these odds were
higher when the father rather than the mother was the abuser and brother-sister incest was the
dependent variable. In the reduced sample of 34 females with brothers, and a father who abused
them, 9 (or 26.5%) also had incestuous relations with their brother. At the time that he proposed
his seduction hypothesis, Freud (1896 a, b) also suggested that a typical symptom for a boy who
was an actor in incestuous relations with sisters was obsession. Again, more recent studies find a
relevant statistical association. Several large epidemiological studies found that obsessive
compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychopathology especially associated with sexual traumas and
that a significant association of CSA with OCD was found in several studies (Brander, Pérez-
Vigila, Larsson, & Mataix-Cols., 2016). Thus, even before we consider evidence more directly
indicating the occurrence of father incestuous relationships with his children in Rat Man case,
there is evidence from other, albeit recent, sources to indicate that this might be a causal factor
behind the patient’s own incestuous relations with his sisters and his obsessive-compulsive
Freud’s Rat Man
In fact, the process notes provide some evidence that Lorenz’s father did abuse at least
three of his children: Katherine, who was eight years old when Lorenz was three, Julie, who was
three years younger than Paul, and Paul himself. The available evidence is not as direct as one
might wish to support the conjecture, but in at least one case it is pretty direct – the case of Julie.
I will present this first, then describe why I think Katherine as well as Paul were also sexually
abused based on indications from the process notes. None of this information is reviewed by
Freud in his case report.
On what was apparently the process note of Jan. 1, 1908, Lorenz reports the death of Dr.
Pr., who was his family doctor from Lorenz’s youth onward. He plays an important role in
considering what happened to Katherine, but in this session, the focus is on a phantasy involving
Julie and what appears to be a crucial memory that follows:
Interruption owing to Dr. Pr.'s illness and death. He treated him like his father, and so
arrived at personal relations with him, in which all sorts of hostile elements
emerged…He…mentioned a phantasy of Dr. Pr. assaulting his sister Julie sexually. …
He went on to a memory that his father must have done something he shouldn't have to
her when she was ten. He heard screams from the room and then his father came out and
said: ‘That girl has an arse like a rock.’ (Freud 1909c/1953, p. 307)
On a variety of grounds, it is obvious that Dr. Pr. stands in for Lorenz’s father in this and some
other notes. So the phantasy is best understood as Lorenz’s father sexually abusing Julie. The
memory that immediately follows, where Lorenz’s father says that Julie ‘has an arse like a rock,’
appears to move from a phantasy to an actual memory involving the form of sexual abuse that
Lorenz’s father engaged in with respect to his 10-year-old daughter—anal sex. Yet, Freud does
not pursue this possibility either in this session or in the subsequent therapeutic sessions reported
Freud’s Rat Man
in the process notes before they terminate on Jan. 20. Moreover, Mahoney (1986), who, for the
most part, is very attentive to differences between Freud’s case report and the process notes,
mentions in two places the father “beating” (p. 25) and “punishing” (p. 122) her, without
indicating that there is an alternative interpretation that better fits the context. If it were a beating
or punishing, then why would the phantasy of sexual abuse be mentioned by Lorenz just before
it? Moreover, the expression that his “father must have done something he shouldn’t have”
suggests an immoral act, and this does not fit well with the notion of beating. The German phrase
here is: “dass Papa einmal etwas Ungehöriges [unseemly, improper] mit ihr” (Hawelka, 1974, p.
220). This material of potential father sexual abuse of Julie is also not mentioned in two recent
papers that focus on the incestuous relationship between Lorenz and this sister, based on other
notes (Billig, 1999; Duschinsky, & Leigh, 2015); nor can I find it discussed anywhere else in the
literature reviewing this case.
The evidence that Paul’s older sister Katherine was also sexually abused by her father is
more indirect and circumstantial. Paul’s earliest memories are of Katherine before she died. He
was only three at the time; she was eight. The most significant memory related to this issue that
Lorenz reported appeared in the process notes on Dec. 23, 1907 in the context of Dr. Pr.’s illness
that soon led to his death and the above note. Freud asks what is the origin of Lorenz’s “idea of
I believe it dates back to the first death in his family, that of Katherine—about which he
had three memories. He corrected and enlarged the first of these. He saw her being
carried to bed, not by her father [as earlier reported], and before it was known that she
was ill. For her father was scolding and she was being carried away from her parents'
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bed. She had for a long time been complaining of feeling tired, which was disregarded.
But once, when Dr. Pr. was examining her, he turned pale.
He diagnosed a carcinoma (?) to which she later succumbed. (Freud, 1909c/1953, pp.
At that time, I presume that Katherine slept regularly in her parent’s bed, probably between them
as the next quote will indicate. The Griffee et al. (2016) study described earlier found that
sleeping together was a significant risk factor for incest between siblings. The situation here of a
man sleeping next to his 8-year-old daughter instead of his wife seems even more dangerous as a
risk factor for incest. I think that she was abused in that position by her father and that this
caused her illness. Lorenz believed for a long time that his father had syphilis and that this was
the cause of general neuroses in his family (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 289). He may have passed it
on to Katherine for there is a rectal form of syphilis that gives the appearance of cancer (Ceretti,
Virdis, Maroni, Arena, et al., 2015).
That Paul was next in line to replace Katherine in his parent’s bed on her illness and
death is suggested by a number of memories and phantasies that indicate a belief in his own
omnipotence and the capacity to ‘gain’ from someone else’s death. But here is the most
important note on this issue that comes from the process notes of Nov. 22, 1907:
A fresh transference: —My mother was dead. He was anxious to offer his condolences,
but was afraid that in doing so an impertinent laugh might break out as had repeatedly
happened before in the case of a death…. ‘Now you'll turn me out.’ It was a question of a
picture of me and my wife in bed with a dead child lying between us. He knew the origin
of this. When he was a little boy (age uncertain, perhaps 5 or 6) he was lying between his
father and mother and wetted the bed, upon which his father beat him and turned him out.
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The dead child can only be his sister Katherine, he must have gained by her death. The
scene occurred, as he confirmed, after her death.” (Freud, 1909c/1953, pp. 283-284)
There are several remarkable things about this note. First, it indicates that Paul did replace
Katherine in his parent’s bed, a ‘gain’ based on his sister’s death. Second, he now remembers a
case of being beaten by his father. However, he had earlier claimed that he had no recall of ever
being beaten by his father, though he knew indirectly of the event that his mother recalled as
involving his biting someone. Finally, even in this relatively early session, Freud seems close to
discovering what might have happened generally within Lorenz’s family; but he does not pursue
While this note does not indicate that anal sexual abuse was involved, there is other
evidence that supports the conjecture. Lorenz was particularly sensitive about being touched in
the rear end as is evident from the process notes of January, 1908. In the note of January 1,
immediately after the earlier quote involving his father’s abuse of Julie, Freud (1909c/1953)
Connected with this, though it is not clear at what point, there was a transference
phantasy. Between two women—my wife and my mother—a herring was stretched,
extending from the anus of one to that of the other. A girl cut it in two, upon which the
two pieces fell away (as though peeled off). …. The girl was one he had seen on the stairs
and had taken to be my twelve-year-old daughter. (pp. 307-308)
This herring phantasy leads to a discussion on January 2 and 3, of rats, worms, and enemas, one
that eventually gets to penises. On January 2, Freud notes “While he was wishing Constanze (an
older sister) the rats he felt a rat gnawing at his own anus and had a visual image of it (italics
added).” (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 307) Then on January 3, Freud’s note begins: “If the rat is a
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worm, it is also a penis. I decided to tell him this.” (Freud 1909c/1953, p. 311) After this
information, and a series of other associations, Lorenz produced a memory that “in the course of
homosexual games with his brother he was horrified once when, while they were romping
together in bed, his brother's penis came into contact with his anus.” (Freud, 1909c/1953, p. 313)
Note that here we have Lorenz’s own anus being entered by a rat, and a penis. These indicate
that following his phantasy and memory of possible anal sex involving Julie it is Lorenz’s own
anus having contact with a rat or penis that enters his mind.
This is followed on Jan. 4:
Cheerful. A large number of further associations, transferences, etc. . . . In connection
with the child (my science) who cleared up the herring-slander, he had a phantasy of
kicking it, and afterwards of his father smashing a window-pane. (Freud 1909c/1953, p.
Note that this kick is of a child and is immediately followed by his father smashing a window-
pane. I believe that the window smashing is symbolic of body invasion and of his father’s sexual
entry into his own anus as a child. At this point Lorenz seems to be recognizing that Freud’s
science has made him aware that not only his sister, but he was also an object of his father’s
abuse, where there may be an association here between the anus entering “herring” (German:
“hering” or “herring”) and the German honorific term, “Herr” for Sir, Mister or master that could
represent his father.
These quotes from process notes of early January, 1908, while presenting good evidence
that Lorenz’s father sexually abused Julie, are less secure in indicating that the same occurred to
Paul. However, there is a further piece of evidence in January suggesting that Paul, at that time,
has arrived at this conclusion for himself based on these and other associations, though Freud
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seems unaware of this meaning. But before describing this evidence we need to reflect on the
symbolic meaning of rats in the rat torture with respect to the present construction.
The present construction depends on only two of the symbolic associations discussed by
Freud, syphilitic infection and penis. In this construction the rat torture immediately uncovered
memories and beliefs about how his father had sexually abused his children, thus identifying rats
with penis, though these memories probably did not reach consciousness at the time. Instead,
Lorenz’s initial reaction to hearing about the torture was to fear that it would happen to his lady
love, but shortly afterwards he added his father. On the present construction, the reasons that the
torture produced these two fears are different. The ‘fear’ in the case of his cousin, is an actual
fear, and one that recalled the anal sexual abuse that Lorenz believes occurred to his sisters by
his father, though there may also be included with this fear a suppressed ‘wish’ to have anal
intercourse with her, the form of incest that he may himself have had with his sister Julie. By
contrast, the ‘fear’ that it would happen to his father reflects his unconscious hatred of his father
for having committed a crime analogous to the rat torture against his children, and the
punishment that is intended here for his father fit the crime.
In addition to the obvious connection of rats to penis, also important in interpreting the
rat torture is the association of rats to syphilis and Lorenz’s belief that his father had syphilis that
affected his family’s neuroses. In the Nov. 29 process note presented above, he doesn’t explain
the mechanism involved, whether by inheritance or some immediate causal mechanism, such as
sexual abuse, but he has made the connection. Moreover, in that same session he indicates sexual
abuse as involved in the case of Gisela’s syphilitic step-father, so he may have had a similar idea
in mind for his father, if not consciously, at least at a deeper level. Unfortunately, Freud did not
pursue this line of evidence at the time and it is only in January, 1908 that Freud brings in rats as
Freud’s Rat Man
symbolic of the penis and the connection to anal sexual intercourse is made more explicit. By
then, I believe that Lorenz has worked out for himself that, not only Julie, but he, himself, was
sexually abused by his father.
I take as additional evidence that Lorenz has worked out the cause of his rat neurosis, the
fact that he soon terminates therapy and that, according to Freud, his rat obsession disappeared,
even without a full working out of its meaning with Freud. Rather, I see him trying to tell Freud
his discovery in his report of a dental dream. Freud had already told him on a previous occasion
that dental dreams had a connection with masturbation (Freud, 1909c/1953; Oct. 18, arrears; p.
269), though Freud seems to have forgotten this prior instruction. Freud begins his process notes
for Jan. 6 & 7 with the comment, “He was smiling with sly amusement, as though he had
something up his sleeve.” Freud continues, “He dreamt that he went to the dentist to have a bad
tooth pulled out. He pulled one out, but it was not the right one…. When it had come out he was
astonished at its size.” (Freud, 1909c/1953, pp. 315) Freud asks himself, “What could be the
meaning of its not having been the right tooth?” (p. 316) but does not answer this question and,
instead, continues to pursue his masturbation hypothesis. What I think the dream suggests is that
Freud’s therapeutic process (as already indicated by the ‘herring’ dream) has revealed to Lorenz
the anal sexual activity that occurred in his family with his father as the abuser, and in this dream
he is trying to tell Freud that it wasn’t masturbation with his ‘little penis’, but his father’s large
penis, that was the ‘tooth’ that Freud had actually pulled out and relieved him of.
Two constructions: history in reverse
We have now considered two constructions of the meaning of the rat torture. The first is Freud’s
construction in his case report; the second the present construction. This second construction
harks back to Freud’s theories about infantile sexual abuse as the foundation of neuroses that he
Freud’s Rat Man
presented in the mid 1890s, in particular in his talk and paper titled: “The Aetiology of Hysteria”
(1896a/1953). In this theory Freud made much of the similarities that he found between the
symptoms of neuroses found in adults and the specifics of abuse that he believed occurred to his
patients in infancy, both with respect to the abuse’s “suitability to serve as a determinant” of
particular symptoms and their “traumatic force”. I believe that anal sexual abuse by Lorenz’s
father of his daughters and son match the rat torture as a symptom on both of Freud’s criteria.
The formal similarity of the rat torture to anal sexual abuse fits the ‘suitability’ criterion, while
the very nature of sexual abuse fits the criterion of ‘traumatic force’. By contrast, Freud’s
construction, both of what actually happened in infancy and how this might connect to the rat
torture, do not. The child biting episode and punishment adequately fit these criteria with respect
to the father, given the interpretation of rats as biters like Lorenz as a child. However, to justify
applying the torture to Gisela, Freud first projects thoughts into Lorenz’s adult mind linking
Gisela to his father in parenting children, then uses the equation of rats with children in
conjunction with the assumption that Lorenz had the childhood belief that children are born from
the anus of both parents, to argue that childbirth from the anuses of his father and Gisela is
analogous, using dream logic, to the rat torture. Even so, without more assumptions to justify
punishment for some analogous crime this construction when applied to Gisela does not provide
an adequate fit either to suitability or traumatic force. So, it seems that he also relies on the fact
that Gisela cannot have children and his resentment that arises from this fact; but the connection
of these adult experiences to criteria that were originally intended to be based on childhood
traumatic experiences cannot substitute for the absence of earlier traumas. While Freud’s account
doesn’t match closely criteria he proposed in his earlier paper for identifying the relationship
between symptoms and their causes, neither does it match with what we commonly think of as
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Freud’s alternative fantasy theory and the Oedipus complex. In this theory, there is no actual
abuse in infancy, but the patient in adolescence may reconstruct memories of the past as having
such abuse, when it was the patient’s own autoerotic activities and imagined competition and
defeat by the father for the mother’s attention at that time, that was the original cause of
neuroses. No physical punishment by the father is required for this fantasy version, just the
primary repression that followed this phallic stage of development.
It has been suggested by Glymour (1980), that the failure of Freud to find evidence to
support his hypothesis that actual punishment by the father for autoerotic activity was the
primary cause of the Lorenz’s symptoms, finally led him to the full version of the fantasy theory.
In his later work and that of many of his followers the fantasy theory and Oedipus complex
became increasingly used as an account of neuroses; and traumas in infancy, and in particular
those involving sexual abuse received much less attention, if not outright discouragement. Only
since the 1980s with the rediscovery of the role of early traumatic experiences, both sexual and
non-sexual, on adult psychopathology (Miller, 1986, Herman, 1992), as well as Jeffrey Masson’s
(1984) book, has the situation changed. With respect to the present case, I hope that some
progress has been made here, by contrasting Freud’s own account with one that is based on
Freud’s earlier theory and more recent theories that give prominence to CSA, in understanding
patients who present symptoms and have memories of the sort presented by the Rat Man in this
case. Whether the hypothesis presented here is accurate or not in providing a partial explanation
for Lorenz’s obsession over the rat torture, I believe it provides a more compelling account than
the one provided by Freud. It conforms more closely to criteria for looking for distal causes that
Freud himself laid down for his early theory, and conforms to similar criteria generated more
recently from script theory that have been productive for relating intense emotional experiences
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in early life to adult behavior (e.g., Barresi, 2006; Carlson, 1981; Tomkins, 1979). Although we
cannot be sure that everything that appeared in Freud’s process notes should be accepted as
accurate, the present account conforms more closely to information in these notes than does
Freud’s own account of the rat torture by these criteria. Furthermore, the anal sexual abuse
hypothesis is a more likely explanation for the rat torture given the risk factors for CSA that
these process notes reveal about sleeping arrangements in Lorenz’s childhood and his admission
of adult incestuous behavior with his sister.
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