Freud’s Favorite Paranoiac

Schreber: Father and Son

by Han Israëls
International Universities Press, 376 pp., $50.00

“Psycho-analytical Notes on an Auto-biographical Account of a Case of Paranoia” (1911) was Freud’s interpretation of the case of Paul Schreber, a psychotic nineteenth-century German judge. Freud was so stimulated by his story that he described the subject as “the wonderful Schreber,” but in fact it has undoubtedly engendered more controversy than any of his case studies.

Paul Schreber was born in Leipzig in 1842. He was the third of five children whose childhood was spent largely within an orthopedic clinic owned and run by his father, Moritz Schreber (1808–1861). As a young man Paul Schreber studied law and seemed destined for a successful career in the judiciary. He married at the relatively late age of thirty-five and had no children. At forty-two he stood as a candidate for the Reichstag. He lost the election, and soon after this rejection he began to suffer from a number of severe hypochondriacal complaints, believing for example that his body was falling apart. After spending some months in a psychiatric clinic, he was released, apparently cured. Nine years later, after accepting a senior legal position, he again entered a psychiatric clinic.

By now he was in the grip of delusions: he was terrified that he was being persecuted by supernatural powers and had hallucinations that he was turning into a woman. Within a few years, despite the opinion of his doctors to the contrary, he believed that he had recovered sufficiently to live a normal life. As an experienced lawyer he knew how to take action to secure his release and he submitted an account of his mental illness as part of his case for being discharged. The authorities gave him his freedom, which lasted for four years until he was again admitted to a hospital, where he died in 1911.

In 1910 Carl Jung drew Freud’s attention to Schreber’s extraordinary auto-biography (published in 1903) as an intriguing case study of schizophrenia, or dementia praecox as it was then generally known. Jung had been treating many such cases, in contrast to Freud, who had never actually encountered a disorder of this kind in his practice.

The same year Freud had published his monograph on Leonardo da Vinci in which he depicted the painter as a relatively “normal” homosexual who had sublimated his erotic leanings into artistic creation and scientific investigation. Most of Freud’s knowledge of Leonardo derived from a Russian novel by D.S. Merezhkovsky, and Freud has subsequently been criticized for making elaborate conjectures without any solid knowledge of Leonardo himself or of the cultural assumptions of his time.

While the Leonardo essay was still in galley proof Freud read Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness) and found in it material that seemed to substantiate his own theory of psychosis. Schreber described the two breakdowns he had suffered, and he had much to say about the symptoms and delusions that led to his stay in a mental clinic during 1884 and 1885, and to a more serious episode lasting from 1893…

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