Discuss how the case history of “Little Hans” illustrates Freud’s
theory of sexuality, referring specifically to the first two of the Three Essays on Sexuality
personal nature of childhood sexuality, and the issues it brings to light, can make the researching and writing of an essay
of this kind a difficult and painful task. I happened to be re-reading Alexander Lowen’s Bioenergetics around
this time when I came across his confession that he too had found it difficult to read Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality.
As he says, “I had got halfway into the second essay entitled infantile sexuality when I stopped reading. I realised,
then, that this essay had touched my unconscious anxiety about my own infantile sexuality.”[i] It is in the light of this reflection that this essay is now presented.
The Case of Little Hans
case history of Little Hans can be seen to display many characteristics of Freud’s theory of sexuality and human development,
as outlined in his first two essays on sexuality. Hans displays aspects of the so-called “Anal” and “genital”
stages of development, as well as aspects of the “Oedipus Complex”. There is the transformation of sexual anxiety
into a phobia (in Hans’s case, of horses falling down and biting him). The little Hans case is taken to be a seminal
case history of psychoanalytic interpretation and application.
learn early in the case study that Hans is the son of a Viennese couple, who are acquaintances of Freud. He describes them
as “among my closest adherents”.[ii] In fact Hans’s mother was a patient of Freud’s at one stage.
During this period Freud was in the habit of instructing friends to report on their children’s development, to provide
first hand accounts that he needed to test ideas he was formulating from working with adult clients. In the first essay on
sexuality, the Sexual Aberrations, Freud concludes that all adult neurosis can be traced back to problems in infantile sexuality.
The Hans’s case covers the boy’s development from just under three years of age to when he is five. We are told
that Hans is a “cheerful, good-natured and lively little boy”[iii] to begin with. However, over the course of time, he develops a phobia of
horses that is severe enough to demand attention.
Little Hans and Infantile Sexuality
of the most striking things about the case study is how it illustrates that Hans had a very lively interest in sexual matters.
This I believe is still counter-intuitive for many of us, for despite one hundred years of Freudian influence, there is still
a common presumption that puberty marks the emergence of interest for young people regarding sex. Certainly Freud recognised
that his theory would be cutting against the grain when he wrote in his second essay on sexuality the following:
“Popular opinion has
quite definite ideas about the nature and characteristics of this sexual instinct. It is generally understood to be absent
in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in
the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon another; while its aim is presumed to be sexual
union, or in all events actions leading in that direction. We have every reason to believe, however, that these views give
a very false picture of the true situation”.[iv]
case study of Little Hans certainly confirms much that is in the first two essay on sexuality. Foremost in this we learn early
on that Hans’s interest in sex centred on the genitals, or more specifically, the penis, not least his own. He referred
to penises as “widdlers”, and they held an almost endless fascination for him. At one point he asks his mother,
“Mummy, have you got a widdler too?”[v]. He was interested in his own penis, other people’s penises and animal’s
penises. The fascination with which Hans approached the topic can be seen by one comment he made upon seeing a cow being milked,
“’Oh look’ he said, ‘there’s milk coming out of its widdler!’”[vi]
child’s focus on the genitals as a site of interest is confirmed in Freud’s essays on sexuality. In the second
essay he outlines what he termed the “erotiogenic zones” of the body that the child tends to fixate on during
their development. These zones are the oral, anal and genital, which correspond respectively to the three stages of pre-latency-period
psychosexual development in the child. Not only did Hans enjoy talking about “widdlers”, but he also enjoyed touching
his own, which his parents strongly discouraged him from doing. Hans also sought to get his mother to touch his penis, saying,
“‘why don’t you put your finger there’”[vii]. She rebuked him for this, replying that it would be “piggish”.
He clearly didn’t see it that way, telling her, “But it’s great fun!”[viii]
a Freudian point of view Hans was in a state of “polymorphous perversity”. This is a stage where the young person
“can be led into all possible kinds of sexual irregularity”, when the young person can derive pleasure from any
source without guilt or shame.[ix] Hans’s displayed an interest in scopophilia, exhibitionism. He displays
both a kind of “homosexuality” as well as heterosexuality in terms of his object choice of desire. Freud in the
second essay distinguishes between “auto-erotism” and “object-choice” in infantile sexuality. “Auto-erotism”
is simply a person finding pleasure from their own body, whereas object choice is where the person desires another (person
or thing) to fulfil their pleasure needs. Hans seems to possess both auto-erotism and object choice. The love object for Hans
varied from little girls he played with, to little boys, but a constant love object for him was, not surprisingly, his mother.
The onset of the phobia
are told in the case history of Hans’s anxiety began when he was approximately four and three quarters. Around this
time he awoke from a dream fearing that his mother had gone and that he had, “no Mummy to coax [cuddle] with”.[x] This was accompanied by his general unwillingness to go outside. Freud
draws our attention to the fact that at first the boy’s anxiety was free-floating and had no object, but soon it was
transformed into a phobia of horses. Hans reported that he was afraid that “a horse will bite him in the street”.[xi] This fear became exacerbated with time, making what was once an outgoing
boy into a timid and anxious youngster unwilling to venture out. The phobia was no doubt quite debilitating for Hans, as well
as his family. As the case progressed the phobia incorporated another fear, a fear of falling into and drowning in a big bath
the family possessed.
Freud’s interpretation of the phobia
Freud attempted to demonstrate the interpretation that Hans’s phobias revolves around the boy’s frustrated desire
for his mother and the two obstacles in his way to possessing her – his father and his baby sister Hanna. He is presented
as having conflicted feelings; love as well as hate for his father and sister; plus he has fear that his murderous wishes
will be found out and that there will be retribution.
Hans first began to exhibit his anxiety attacks he soon learned that “his mother could be prevailed upon, when he got
into such moods, to take him into her bed.”[xii] So initially Hans’s symptoms allowed him to satisfy his needs and
wishes. Naturally it wasn’t that simple - the course of true love never runs smooth. Hans had two fellow family members
to persistently compete with for his mother’s affection, and it was the inner conflicts that this provoked in Hans that
prompted his phobias, according to Freud.
accordance with Freud’s theory of over-determinism, the way that Hans develops his phobia of horses is layered and complex.
It appears that Hans unconsciously identified horses with his father, whom he bore animosity towards for getting in the way
of his love of his mother. First of all, our attention is drawn to the fact that Hans notices that horses have big “widdlers”.
Likewise Hans believes that adult people must have big “widdlers” also. Combine this with the black around the
horses’ eyes and mouth. This is interpreted as associated with the moustache and spectacles on Hans’s father’s
face. It seems to point to Hans linking horses and his father in his mind, unconsciously. The idea that horses could bit one’s
finger is frightening to Hans because he is in the grip of the “castration complex”, the fear that he will have
his penis cut off for wanting to replace his father in relation to his mother.
bath phobia that Hans develops late in the case study is interesting in that it seems to be more to do with his sister Hanna.
Hanna poses as much an obstacle to the attainment of his mother’s attention as his father does. Hans reports that he
is afraid of being in the bath, due to fears of falling in. Under questioning, Hans’s father asks, “When you were
watching Mummy giving Hanna her bath, perhaps you wished she would let go of her so that Hanna should fall in?” To this
Hans replies, “Yes”.[xiii] Getting Hanna out of the way is on Hans’s mind, and this is naturally
causing some anxiety for the boy. Freud remarks, “Hans’s father, we cannot help thinking, had made a very good
The resolution of the phobia
resolution of Han’s phobia didn’t happen overnight, nor from one intervention. It took some time and effort for
him to fully recover from his fears and lead a full life again. The resolution was a combination of one interview between
Hans and Freud, along with many interventions by his father, under Freud’s guidance.
kernel of the treatment of Hans’s phobia was to bring the boy’s awareness of his unconscious wishes to the attention
of his consciousness, within an open, safe and supportive environment. As Freud says in the Discussion section of the case
study, the aim of psychoanalysis is to replace the blunt dams of psychological repression with the more tempered inhibition
of condemnation. As he puts it, repression is a “automatic and excessive” method of the mind to manage difficult
wishes coming from the Id, whereas awareness of ones unconscious wishes and conflicts allows for a “temperate and purposeful
control on the part of the highest agencies of the mind”.[xv] Since the superego is only forming during the Oedipal phase, the ego needs
all the help it can get in negotiating the conflicting brut emotional demands that are put upon it. So both Freud and the
boy’s father try to present the boy with his unconscious wishes – his love for his mother and his resentment of
the father and sister for getting in the way of that. As Freud says, “Hans really was a little Oedipus who wanted to
have his father ‘out of the way’, to get rid of him, so that he might be alone with his beautiful mother and sleep
Oedipus complex is usually known for the triangulated relationship between the parents and the child in question. However,
according to Freud, the crucial event in Hans’s psychosocial development, “was the birth of a baby sister when
he was three and a half years old”.[xvii] This event, combined with the loss of other playmates for Hans when he
left the country retreat that the family used to stay at, intensified his clinging to his mother and need for her attention.
Hans was brought to see Freud the solution that was offered to him was in the form a story, a creation myth that he lacked
of his own origins:
I then disclosed to him [Hans]
that he was afraid of his father precisely because he was so fond of his mother. It must be, I told him, that he thought his
father was angry with him on this account; but this was not so, his father was fond of him in spite of it, and he might admit
everything to him without any fears. Long before he was in the world, I went on, I had known that a little Hans would come
who would be so fond of his mother that he would be bound to feel afraid of his father because of it.”[xviii]
did not recover from his phobias directly after this meeting with Freud. The boy’s father had to work with Hans for
many months, bringing his conflicted feelings of hostility and anxiety into the open, within a supportive environment, before
he made a full recovery.
Skynner, in his central text on family therapy, One Flesh, Separate Persons, reviews many cases of family dysfunctionality
where there are Oedipal struggles within the family system. He comments:
“… there must be
no doubt left in the child’s mind that the most fundamental loyalty and attraction in the family is between the parents
and that he is excluded where this is concerned – that his domain stops at the bedroom door.”[xix]
young person growing up is seeking a clear message on their role within the family system. They seek direction on where boundaries
lie and how needs are to be expressed, negotiated and met. Those parents who work at developing a strong partnership bond
and openness in communication are in a good position to ensure that this is supplied.
[i] Lowen, Alexander. (1975), Bioenergetics,
Arkana, New York, p27
Sigmund. (1953-1974), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey,
Hogarth Press, London. Volume X (1909) Two Case Histories (‘Little Hans’ and the ‘Rat Man’),
[iv] Freud, Sigmund. (1977), The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 7, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
and Other Works, ed. James Strachey, Angela Richards, Penguin, London,
[v] Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition,
Volumn X, p7
[ix] Freud, Sigmund. (1977), The Pelican
Freud Library, Volume 7, On Sexuality, p109
[x] Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition,
Volumn X, p23
[xix] Skynner, A. C. Robin. (1976), One
Flesh, Separate Persons, Constable, London, p32