Magazine | September 11, 2017, Issue

The Death of Freud

Freud: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews (Metropolitan, 768 pp., $40)

This is the longest but most engaging obituary I have ever read. Although it has been known for several years that Sigmund Freud has been on life support, the final demise of the man responsible for popularizing the unconscious comes nevertheless as a shock. As W. H. Auden once noted: “To us he is no more a person / Now but a whole climate of opinion.” Frederick Crews’s new biography demonstrates not just that this “climate of opinion” has disappeared but that psychoanalysis, as a specific method for the treatment of mental disorders, is also dead. Crews systematically and convincingly autopsies the corpse to prove it.

But wait — why should we even care? Much of Crews’s book concerns the details of self-absorbed young men in 1890s Vienna debating whether men are really anxious about having their penis cut off because, as children, they wanted to kill their father so they could marry their mother. What does that have to do with 21st-century America? Surprisingly, much more than most people realize. Freud’s ideas influenced America more than they influenced any other country, from Benjamin Spock’s admonitions about toilet training to Margaret Mead’s pronouncements on sexual freedom to Norman O. Brown’s advocacy of political activism (he claimed to have read Freud’s writings “six and ten times”). Freudian ideas came to dominate the publishing and film industries as well as — according to a 1961 article in The Atlantic Monthly — “sociology, anthropology, legal thought and practice, humor, manners and mores, even organized religion.” And this is not merely of historical interest. The current disastrous mental-illness-treatment system in the United States is a direct consequence of Freudian ideas about treating children so as to prevent the emergence of serious mental illness in adulthood. The 20th-century architects of the system, such as William Menninger, claimed that Freudian theory “serves as the only logical basis for preventive psychiatry.” We are now experiencing the consequences of these mistakes.

One of the people who were seduced by Freud in the 1970s, as he acknowledges in his book, was a young English professor at Berkeley named Frederick Crews. In his 1975 book Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method, Crews praised psychoanalysis as “the only thoroughgoing theory of motive that mankind has devised.” A decade later, Crews had become skeptical and began systematically examining Freud’s ideas. This led to a series of encounters with Freudian true believers and extensive literary battles fought largely on the pages of The New York Review of Books.

Crews continued his mission and became probably the most respected of Freud’s many critics. Freud: The Making of an Illusion is the culmination of more than 40 years of research and was eleven years in the writing. It is doubtful whether it will be surpassed as a scholarly work on Freud as a person or on the origin of his ideas.

Ascertaining the historic truth about Freud and his ideas turns out to be a difficult task. Freud himself destroyed many papers and letters that cast doubt on the myth he had created, and others were destroyed by his daughter Anna or various keepers of the Freud archives. Other papers and letters were locked away in bank vaults to be made available in the distant future. Crews documents his sources carefully and gives proper credit to other Freud scholars (including Peter Swales) who patiently tracked down the truth.

Regarding the origin of psychoanalysis, Crews shows it to be one of Freud’s many schemes to make money and become famous. Freud appears to have been obsessed with economic and social success. When he officially announced his new therapy in 1896, according to Crews, it “was little more than a brand name for a product in beta development. His subsequent aim would be to protect and promote his brand, irrespective of its run-ins with evidence and logic.” Initially Freud claimed that most cases of neuroses were caused by molestation of the child by the parent, but in 1897 he abruptly dropped the molestation (“seduction”) theory in favor of the Oedipal theory, thereby moving the origin of the problem from the parent to the child.

Exactly what Freud was doing with his patients in 1896, when he publicly claimed to have discovered a new therapy, is unclear, since the use of free association would not be described for another eight years and the problem of transference for yet one more year. What is clear is that whatever Freud was doing was not working. “Freud lacked a single ex-patient who could testify to the capacity of the psychoanalytic method to yield the specific effects he claimed for it,” Crews writes. “Freud knew that his claims of healing power for psychoanalysis lacked any basis in fact.” That did not stop Freud from publicly claiming that psychoanalysis was “the only possible method of treatment for certain illnesses.” Privately, however, he told one of his disciples: “Patients only serve to provide us with a livelihood and material to learn from. We certainly cannot help them.”

Freud scholars have argued at length regarding the origin of Freud’s ideas. Some were most certainly borrowed from others, according to Crews, “with only the most glancing gestures of acknowledgment.” Crews also quotes Freudian scholar Paul Roazen: “The theme of plagiarism can be found almost everywhere one turns in Freud’s career.” Many other ideas appear to have come from Freud himself during the 15-year period — from 1884 to 1899 — when he was using cocaine heavily. As described in detail by Crews, Freud was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic promoters of cocaine, giving it to his fiancée, friends, and patients, and continuing to claim that it was non-addictive even after his friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, had clearly become addicted. Thus Freud was using cocaine during the same years that he was developing his ideas regarding the origins of mental disorders and the use of psychoanalysis to treat them. As Freud wrote in 1895: “I need a lot of cocaine.” Crews cites Freud’s cocaine use as being “of cardinal importance for our study,” since “it follows that his writings were typically influenced by cocaine.” (Unfortunately, Crews fails to provide any specifics about what effect he thinks cocaine had on Freud’s work.)

The bottom line of Crews’s book is that psychoanalytic theory and therapy were based not on any scientific foundation, but rather on the meanderings of a cocaine-addicted but economically ambitious mind. Although Freud had been trained as a physician and had even carried out some early neuropathological research, by the time he developed psychoanalysis, according to Crews, Freud “had retired his microscope for good and replaced it with a crystal ball.” He made no attempt to test any of his psychological theories. In 1911, Freud joined the Society for Psychical Research and later consulted a soothsayer. Crews further notes that Freud “attended at least one séance with his daughter Anna, frequently exchanged ‘thought reading’ with her,” and believed in “visitations from departed spirits.”

In addition to the origins of psychoanalysis, a major theme of Crews’s biography is the character of Sigmund Freud. He is not a sympathetic figure, emerging on the best of days as ethically challenged. His relationship with his daughter was bizarre: “In person and in correspondence, the teenage Anna kept Sigmund apprised of her unsuccessful attempt to stop masturbating, and fantasizing about being beaten by him. . . . And at 22 she began the first of two secret analyses on her father’s couch, six days a week, lasting a total of four years.” Crews also assembles data that confirm what many scholars had long suspected — that Freud had a long-running affair with his wife’s younger sister, Minna, who lived with them, and that on one occasion he got her pregnant (she apparently got an abortion).

Freud was also an inveterate self-promoter, comparing himself to Copernicus and Darwin. In his later years, he demanded complete conformity from his followers, denigrating those such as Jung who broke away. According to one psychoanalyst: “Freud was often deceptive, manipulative, and Machiavellian. He schemed with his favorites to get rid of others for whom he expressed contempt, riding roughshod over them when they got in the way of his grand design.” Freud’s obsession with money, which he called his “money complex,” was also prominent. He selectively took rich patients, whom he referred to as “goldfish,” and colleagues were “shocked by his willingness to keep affluent patients in treatment for as long as five years without signs of consistent improvement.” The number and consistency of such stories collected by Crews leaves little doubt regarding the character of Freud.

Finally, Crews details some of Freud’s most unsavory clinical cases, among them that of Emma Eckstein, a young woman he treated in 1895 for hysteria. Freud’s closest collaborator at the time was Wilhelm Fliess, an otolaryngologist, and the two shared a belief that “genital spots” within the nose influenced the reproductive system. With Freud’s encouragement, Fliess operated on Eckstein, removing a piece of turbinate and causing her almost to bleed to death after the operation. Also included is the story of Horace Frink, a New York psychoanalyst who had bipolar disorder and came to Freud for treatment. Frink was having an affair with one of his patients, a very wealthy heiress. Freud therefore ordered Frink to divorce his wife, which he did, and also ordered the heiress to divorce her husband, which she also eventually did. Freud told Frink that, by marrying the heiress, he would have his psychoanalysis completed, and that Frink could repay Freud by making him a “rich man.” Freud never got his money, since the new marriage went badly and both Frink and the heiress blamed Freud for having ruined their lives.

What are we to conclude from 768 pages on Freud and his psychoanalysis? Freud’s reputation has suffered gravely in recent decades and Crews’s book will certainly accelerate that decline. As for psychoanalysis as a treatment modality, it seems likely that it will continue to wither away, joining other dead approaches, such as primal-scream therapy, as museum curiosities. What Freud is likely to be remembered for is popularizing the unconscious — The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. People enjoy the idea that their dreams, and Freudian slips, have meaning, even if most of the time they don’t.

Mr. Torrey is a medical doctor, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, and the author of Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture.

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