The Woman Who Fought Freud—and Won
| January 26, 2009
Feminist theorist and activist Florence Rush died on December 9, 2008. At a New York memorial last weekend, author Susan Brownmiller recalled how Rush’s insights about childhood sexual abuse inspired a movement. She also recalled their friendship.
Florence loved old movies. I’d say her favorite was Gaslight, from 1944. Ingrid Bergman has begun to suspect that Charles Boyer, her husband, murdered his first wife. Boyer employs all sorts of tricks to convince her that she is losing her mind. He makes the gaslights in the house flicker and dim; he removes pictures from the wall; he hides his “missing” watch in her purse; mysterious footsteps emanate from the attic. He alters her reality to the point where she is literally going crazy—until Joseph Cotten, a Scotland Yard inspector, unmasks Boyer as the true villain he is.
In conversation and in her writing, Florence used “gaslight” as a verb for the act of distorting reality to suit a dark purpose. As she uncovered the extent of the sexual abuse of children—by fathers, stepfathers, other relatives, neighbors, strangers, men in a position of authority over children—she pondered Freud’s curious abandonment of his poorly named Seduction Theory. Freud had located the hysterical symptoms of his female patients in abuse by their fathers at an early age. His patients had told him of this abuse; the pattern was very clear. But the implications were apparently too frightening. He suppressed the evidence, reversed himself, and cooked up another theory—that the women were fantasizing childhood abuse because of their subconscious desire to sleep with their fathers. The notion that most sexual abuse was a fantasy became a staple of Freudian therapy, a part of liberal-leftist thinking, and a great boon to defense lawyers in court. All of us had been gaslighted. And probably a lot of women in the heyday of the Freudian era did go crazy when their reality was denied.
Florence was the first person to wrestle Freud to the mat. I was in the audience at the New York Radical Feminist Conference on Rape in April 1971 when this calm, quiet-spoken woman with short hair walked onto the stage in a demure dress, and, barely peeping over the lectern, delivered the speech that brought us all to our feet in wild applause. She had the credentials: a Masters degree in social work, and job experience in a home for delinquent girls, many of whom had suffered sexual abuse. She had statistics from the scant number of studies that then existed: 90 percent of sexual child abuse victims were female; 99 percent of the perpetrators were male. And she also had her personal experience—in the menacing form of her childhood dentist, and her own Uncle Willy. No one had ever proposed a political theory of the sexual abuse of children before Florence Rush. No one ever before had called it endemic, pervasive, legalized in ancient texts, denied or still incorporated in modern civilizations, and part and parcel of men’s control over women.
Her 1971 speech was widely anthologized. Nine years later her book, The Best Kept Secret, was published. Florence was no stranger to radical politics. As a mother of three in suburbia, she had been an activist on the left and for the civil-rights movement. Her brilliant mind could invent new thoughts that she expounded with passionate clarity, but she never thought that she would be a writer. Feminism created the path, and she, in turn, widened that path by breaking new ground in feminist theory. Scholars sought her out, and thanked her profusely for opening their eyes. She received invitations to speak at universities. Twice she was paired with Harry Reems, the reigning stud in porn movies. He proposed that they take their act on the road and rake in the money. She declined.
Old Hollywood movies, and new ones, were a continuing source of inspiration—and indignation—for her when they presented barely pubescent femme fatales. “Media images are synthetic,” Florence wrote. “Designed to produce particular impressions and elicit particular feelings, they befog actual knowledge, experience, and reality.” Another form of gaslighting. She put her outrage into NOW’s committee on Images of Children in the Media.
When we began our weekly poker games in 1989, Florence’s suburban-honed skills nourished her friends with hearty meals on a regular basis. She had a special way with meat loaf and baked lasagna, and there was always plenty of it. She loved the tinkle of ice cubes in a heavy glass. Her plants cascaded in green perfection. After the imperious Simone hissed and retreated to the bedroom, we talked and argued about the latest news, the newest books, before we settled down to play cards, which Florence was pretty good at.
As the decades passed, Florence’s effect on my life took a new turn. It was about how to accommodate to the dreadful, inevitable physical changes of age without succumbing to the conventions of looking like an old lady. She was my template. Don’t let yourself go.
Sure you can wear shorts and a T-shirt on neighborhood errands. Her vanity about her appearance was adorable, until it became a risk when she refused to give up her platform clogs, which she abandoned only when she found a pair of platform sneakers. She had a trim, strong, sexy little body but she always believed that she was meant to be a few inches taller. The funny thing is, none of her friends thought of her as short. We always knew she was a giant.