Grand Delusion

In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry

by Zvi Lothane
Analytic Press, 550 pp., $59.95

Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness must be the most written-about document in all psychiatric literature. Professor Zvi Lothane’s huge bibliography to In Defense of Schreber (about half of it German publications) has some 120 entries solely about the case. Successive generations of psychiatric writers have used the book as the nub of successive theories. From the time that Freud’s paper about it was published in 1911, everyone has had something to say about Schreber.

If Freud had not been intrigued by the Memoirs, Schreber’s story might have been forgotten as others were, no doubt, from the madhouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But already in 1910 Freud was writing jokingly to Jung that “the wonderful Schreber” ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director of a mental hospital. It was Jung, always particularly interested in psychosis, who had drawn his colleague’s attention to the book, and the two men enjoyed borrowing Schreberisms such as flüchtige hingemacht, or “fleetingly improvised,” in their correspondence. After the break between them, however, Jung described Freud’s interpretation of the case—which is contested also by Lothane—as “very unsatisfactory.” In recent times Schreber has been discussed particularly in terms of his relation to the writings of his father, a renowned German authority on child-rearing. Lothane, however, also contests the view that it was Schreber senior’s fearsome views on child care that originally caused his son’s madness. In Defense of Schreber, therefore, means in defense of Moritz Schreber as cruel father, as well as of Paul Schreber as paranoid homosexual (Freud’s diagnosis).

Schreber the son was born in 1842 to the father whose thirty publications are also listed in Lothane’s bibliography. As late as the 1930s (I am told by a German friend) German children were being threatened with the Schreber Geradehalter, a contraption of boards and straps, if they did not sit up straight. Moritz Schreber had a system and a manual for everything—the cold-water health system, the system to cure harmful body habits, indoor gymnastic systems for health preservation, outdoor play systems, the life-long systematic diet guide. But of his two sons, one committed suicide and one (Paul) went mad; Moritz himself entered a deep and isolating depression ten years before his death and while Paul was still in his teens. Paul Schreber himself grew up to become a lawyer and then a judge; he married, but the couple had stillbirths and miscarriages and no surviving children. His first breakdown came when he was forty-two; he recovered well from it until in 1893, at the age of fifty-one, he lapsed disastrously again and disappeared into the hospital, at first voluntarily, for nine years.

The Memoirs were written while he was in Sonnenstein public asylum, as an account of what he believed were his unique experiences and as a plea for release. After two years of legal wrangles, Paul Schreber was released to his home and spent some apparently peaceful years with his wife and adopted daughter. But when his wife,…

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