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Freud’s Clay Feet

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Frederick Crews has a loyalty of preoccupation rare in a literary academic. His attacks on Sigmund Freud began way back in the mid-1970s with his publicly proclaimed conversion away from the Freudian literary criticism he practiced at the time. Since then his assault has drawn sustenance from a variety of revisionist Freud sleuths and scholars. High among the sleuths is the tireless Peter Swales, a onetime assistant to the Rolling Stones and a follower of the cultish G.I. Gurdjieff, who grew interested in Freud because of his cocaine use and sniffed out all manner of facts about the originals of his cases and his supposed affair with his sister-in-law. The scholars include more academic thinkers whose conclusions about Freud don’t always agree with Crews’s, whatever their arguments with Freud’s practice or writings. Like Karl Popper or Adolf Grünbaum, they may also question Freud’s status as a scientist—whether he was one at all, or whether his claims are sufficiently supported by empirical evidence.

Crews’s 746-page biography, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, damning and mesmerizing by turns, is about the young Freud and reaches The Interpretation of Dreams only on page 543, allowing just a few brief glimpses into the second part of his life. It marks the zenith of what has become Crews’s crusade “to put an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator” by stripping Freud of both his empiricist credentials and the image of a “lone explorer possessing courageous perseverance, deductive brilliance, tragic insight, and healing power,” a series of attributes Crews finds in Freud’s own self-portrayal and in Ernest Jones’s landmark biography (1953–1957).

The idealization of Freud the man that Crews is so keen to prove a blinding illusion is hardly prevalent. Most scholars, commentators, and even analysts don’t need it to make use of Freud’s insights into the opacity and unpredictability of the human mind, or the ways in which love and hate coexist, or how our childhoods echo through us, sometimes trapping us, or how our identifications with early figures in our lives shape the complicated humans we become. Or perhaps most important, how much we share with those whom we casually label with the many diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Jones himself, by the time he wrote his biography of Freud, had shifted his theoretical allegiances to Melanie Klein, the Hungarian analyst who so influenced the British Pychoanalytic Society. Indeed, the Freud illusion was only prevalent in the United States from the 1950s until about 1968. At that time, Freud was taken up first by liberal then by radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse; and Freudian therapy, in an American translation, formed part of psychiatric training. Freud, who had died in 1939, became an often comic know-it-all figure in popular culture. Ironically, despite this “fame,” in 1956, the year of his centenary, there were only 942 card-carrying psychoanalysts in the country.

It is the attention Freud receives that most irritates Crews. His opening line headily claims: “Among historical figures, Sigmund Freud ranks with Shakespeare and Jesus of Nazareth for the amount of attention bestowed upon him by scholars and commentators.” Surely not. And surely not even in America, where Jesus—with his clergy and priests, many of whom count as scholars and commentators, not to mention his countless churches, followers, websites—still gets more attention than the author of The Interpretation of Dreams and Civilization and its Discontents. But Crews is on the march against the man who purportedly had a “craving to pull down the temple of Pauline law.” Perhaps Pope Pius XII hadn’t noticed this when in 1953 he formally approved “the use of psychoanalysis as a healing device,” indicating that “science affirms that recent observations have brought to light the hidden layers of the psychic structure of man.”1 Pope Francis himself recently revealed that he had had psychoanalysis at the age of forty-two. He called his analyst a courageous woman.

Crews’s subtitle echoes Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927), in which Freud argues that our religious beliefs are “fulfilments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Crews doesn’t explore—as Ernest Gellner did in The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985)—how the growth of psychoanalysis may be understood as akin to the development of a religious movement, or how its claims, while pretending to be scientific, are actually those of a belief system in disguise. His main thrust is always ad hominem. Crews is convinced that if Freud is shown to be a case-faking scoundrel more interested in money than patients, then everything he has written about repressed memories, sexuality and desire, fantasy and the Oedipal romance of the family, dreams, slips, and the everyday workings of the human mind will be seen to be only the seedy fictions of a demented, hypnotizing Caligari, after whose cabinet Crews suggestively names one of his chapters.

In Crews’s view Freud was a man who set out to “achieve fame at any cost” and who sacrificed “his integrity as both a scientist and a physician” to that end. Having invented a science with no empirical base, only fabrication, Freud, with his inability to “forgo his luxuries,” his “commercial mentality,” and his aim “to protect and promote his brand,” was able to perpetrate a gigantic hoax on the twentieth century.

The rhetorical strategy at work here is that of a talented prosecutor. It traps the reader. Either you buy into the facts Crews foregrounds and relish the mounting glee of his attack or you’re propelled into an identification with the accused and ever struggling for breath, wishing that a defense attorney were in sight.

It also makes you wonder why on June 23, 1938, a bare two weeks after Freud, fleeing Nazi persecution, landed in England with his immediate family, he received a visit from representatives of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific establishment. Founded in 1660, inspired by Francis Bacon, and including among its eminent fellows Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, it had elected Freud to be one of its own.

Why had this elite scientific body decided to name Freud to its ranks? The citation certificate reads “for pioneering work in psychoanalysis.” The ever-disputatious fellows, with their long view of history, knew that science is not a narrow domain whose residents, like adherents of a strict religion, follow one rigid set of eternal rules, but rather a capacious and diverse mansion where observation of not only the animal but also the human world could count as science, where doubters could live side by side and engage in heated argument.

They also, in their wisdom, recognized that scientists are not uniformly consistent either in their ideas or in their lives. Nor is it always clear how one shapes the other. Newton, who had formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, was also a mystic with beliefs strange even for his time, and behaved fraudulently in a dispute with Leibniz. Crews, by contrast, seems to idealize science and even to dehistoricize it, forgetting that at the time Freud began his practice, dangerous patent medicines were touted by many doctors in the US; clinical trials of drugs were not instituted until 1947.

Crews is only interested in Freud’s speculations and observations when they relate to hysteria and his earliest cases, or to his rivalries, claims to priority, and “lazy reluctance to collect sufficient evidence.” He portrays Freud as “aroused” by “envy” of the well-connected young French psychologist Pierre Janet, and claims that Freud simply borrowed Janet’s conceptions of the unconscious and symptom formation. But the Standard Edition of Freud’s writings has sixty references to Janet and his ideas, tracing a sustained argument with him between 1888 and 1925. Freud may want to win the debate, but there is nothing to indicate that he thought his own ideas came to him ex nihilo—as his own notes and countless references to literature ancient and modern suggest.

Crews brings a great many, if highly selective, facts to his case. His early Freud is not only a sloppy neurologist but a deluded cocaine addict, a betrayer of friends, homoerotic in his desires (though he may have committed adultery with his sister-in-law), and a doctor who had very few patients on whom to base his ever-changing theories. Those he did have he let down or harmed or falsely suggested ailments to. His only patient was himself. When he didn’t steal his ideas from others, he provided no verifiable evidence for any of his own. He was also neurotic, depressive, and sex-obsessed. The rest is all a giant con. The whole edifice of psychoanalysis, Freud’s insights over many volumes, is a sham—as must, by deduction, be the worldwide institution of psychoanalysis from Brazil to China and its offshoot therapies.

Many of the basic facts of Crews’s account, as he admits, already appeared in Ernest Jones’s chatty but far fuller life of Freud. Jones, despite the myth he is purported to have launched, was no hagiographer. He wrote of Freud’s use of the then new drug cocaine, his Victorian views on women and their psychic satisfaction in having children (even if Freud welcomed women into the new profession), his changes of mind as his practice progressed, the autobiographical content in The Interpretation of Dreams, and more.

All this was in the 1950s, when biographies of public figures rarely went into private matters. When Jones’s biography appeared in the US in 1956, Time stated that it came from the “warts-and-all” school. Crews forgets the “all” and wants only to pick at the warts, aggravate them, and find new ones. In the process what emerges is a lurid Freud who is something of a Faustian cartoon villain. “By 1895,” Crews writes,

Freud had already awarded himself a license to invent, suppress, alter, and rearrange facts in the interest of enhanced self-portraiture and theoretical vindication…. The Katharina chapter [in Studies on Hysteria] puts us on notice that its author…would stop at nothing in manufacturing “evidence” of his imaginary prowess.

Though Crews has written much about the vagaries of memory, for his current purposes it is reliable only as long as it concerns negative memories of Freud. Freud’s own memories, in Crews’s view, inevitably lie. In the climax to a chapter intent on underlining Freud’s lack of success with his early hysterics, his untrustworthy and repugnant nature, and his being “widely regarded with suspicion” by elite Viennese Jews, Crews quotes Arthur Koestler’s mother speaking in 1953 about her experience with Freud sixty-three years earlier. Having been sent to the young neurologist in 1890 at age nineteen and gone only reluctantly, she recalls that “he was a disgusting fellow,” his interest in sex was “scandalous and outlandish,” and no one in her circle took him seriously. She sounds just like a teenager to me, though it’s slightly odd, if what she says about the prevailing view is true, that she was sent to Freud at all.

Such evidence could of course be used to demonstrate Freud’s sense of himself as a lone outsider, but Crews doesn’t want that either. Freud’s own seventy-page Autobiographical Study (1925) is used to question his veracity about the disappointment he experienced when he first went to the University of Vienna in 1873 at the age of seventeen. “Above all,” the sixty-eight-year-old Freud wrote, “I found that I was expected to feel myself inferior and an alien because I was a Jew.” Crews is skeptical:

If Freud had been met with ostracism on entering the university, he surely would have wanted to end the ordeal as speedily as possible, but he lingered over an eclectic potpourri of courses. Nor does it appear that he was deprived of an active social life.

Since 21 percent of the student body were “already” Jews, though they composed 10.1 percent of the Viennese population, Crews distrusts Freud’s memory, and sees it only as feeding his own myth of an “outcast who had nobly embraced his fate.”

Of course, there is something of the noble lonely pioneer in Freud’s Autobiographical Study. It was part of a series commissioned by Leipzig publishers of brief lives of eminent doctors, several of whom write in the same vein. These are the tropes of the profession. They remember the heroic age of medicine: they are Ibsenesque enemies of the people who have had steep paths to climb, struggles to establish new fields—epidemiology, public health medicine, new diphtheria antitoxins, and, yes, psychoanalysis. The romantic legend that Crews attacks—and arguably it is no more romantic than the scientific romance of the careful, persistent siever of years of accumulated evidence—is not peculiar to Freud, even if his may be the one we know best.

But it is Crews’s querying of Freud’s feelings about anti-Semitism that is itself questionable here. Contrary to what he states, anti-Semitism was in fact prevalent when Freud entered the university. But no young person hungry for knowledge, as Freud was, and strained in finances would be easily routed by prejudice and leave his studies. Crews is sadly deaf to ambivalence, the simultaneous wishes to belong and make a triumph of feeling yourself apart, in particular when it comes to Freud.

The voluminous correspondence between Freud and his fiancée, Martha Bernays—known as Die Brautbriefe since it covers the period of their engagement—has recently been made available on the Library of Congress website, and also published in meticulously edited form in German. Of the five projected volumes, three have appeared in German2 and one in English. Though a selection of the letters had been published before and Jones had had access to all of them, the Brautbriefe is one of the new sources Crews brings to his biography.

The letters begin in June 1882, when Freud is an impoverished young researcher and end in September 1886, after he had returned home from his four months of research in Paris at the Salpêtrière hospital with Jean-Martin Charcot, the Napoleon of the Neuroses. They cover the period when Freud set up in private practice, alongside his hospital work, so that he could earn enough of a living on which to support a wife and children, as well as the many other members of his family who were dependent on him. The Brautbriefe, eloquent on both sides, are used by Crews largely to throw vitriol at Freud. Freud’s constant references to money and desperate need for it—either from new discoveries that would secure future posts or, toward the end of the period when he has decided to abandon research, from new paying patients—are never seen as something Martha might expect from a fiancé forced to delay their marriage. In Crews’s view they’re a signal that Freud values wealth above scientific integrity or his patients.

Crews is taken aback by the daily toll of Freud’s letters with their details of “migraine headaches, crippling depression, and outbursts of fierce anger,” occasionally against Martha, but mostly against people who have slighted him. It’s Martha, too, who gets all the ups and downs that accompany Freud’s cocaine habit during these years, his lustful fantasies, and, far more sadly, his confessed failure to cure his friend Ernst Fleischl von Marxow of morphine addiction. It’s hard for Crews to imagine why Martha Bernays—intelligent, well read, from a more privileged background—waited for and decided to marry the dishonest, bungling bully Crews portrays and stay with him through six children and fifty years.

Her decision is even more astonishing given Crews’s belief in the circumstantial evidence that purportedly places her sister Minna, who moved in with the Freuds soon after their sixth child arrived, squarely in her husband’s bed, not only on travels, one of which might have ended with an abortion, but in a house filled with children who never noticed. No one else ever actually saw the two in bed together either, nor have any records of an abortion been found by assiduous investigators into Freud’s life. The rumor of the relationship comes from a casual remark that Carl Jung—himself a serial adulterer—made in 1957 that Minna had confessed the affair to him as he was leaving the Freud apartment in 1907.

Crews’s fulsome concentration on the details of what he blithely calls “Sigmund and Minna’s lovefest on the banks of Lake Garda” and the supposed subsequent abortion is meant to undermine the moral credentials that have been attributed to the “legendary” Freud by his biographers Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. But equally important for Crews is the opportunity the episode gives him to do some textual analysis—to give us “an object lesson in how to apprehend Freud’s texts with due awareness of their guile.”

His aim is to reveal that much of Freud’s writing on dreams, screen memories (or memories that hide deeper or older memories), love, sex, and marriage is more autobiographical than we already know. His Freud is utterly solipsistic, never actually drawing on patients or any human and social observation. So Freud’s essays on sex, love, and marriage (1908, 1910–1911) are built on his own case, not on more general behavior. Yet his Viennese contemporaries, like Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig—as well as early feminists who decry the lack of education, including sexual education, for women at the time—paint a picture of life that corresponds to Freud’s descriptions.

Crews has a good grasp of the general culture of neurological and psychiatric medicine at the turn of the last century, but in his zealous attempt to indict Freud, he fails to give it proper historical weight. There were no cures for psychiatric illnesses, including hysteria, with its wide range of often severe symptoms. Treatments were harsh, penitential, and sometimes terminal.

Because Freud learned from Charcot, Crews tries to disparage him. Charcot was indeed theatrical in his public lectures and used hypnotism. But hypnotism was one of the time’s scientific experimental methods, and in Charcot’s case a diagnostic tool. Crews chooses not to mention that what Freud learned from Charcot was “la chose genitale”—the sexuality that was everywhere in the hospital and in the stories the hysterics told about themselves and to which Freud, unlike Charcot, listened.

In contrast, Crews rightly admires the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, a contemporary of Freud’s, for his orderly disease classifications and descriptions, the kind that form the basis for the DSM. Kraepelin may have kept the kinds of tables Crews values, but he was also a believer in the born criminal and a firm eugenicist, facts Crews doesn’t bother with. Both Kraepelin and Charcot had large asylum populations to draw on for their detailed clinical descriptions. But neither was primarily interested in curing the mentally ill.

Freud at least attempted to do so. At the time, mental hospitals and private clinics used whatever drugs they could find, from chloral to potassium bromide, to calm their patients. The anguished behavior of the ill—often verbally, sexually, and physically agitated—is well known. It’s hardly surprising that Josef Breuer used sedatives on Bertha Pappenheim, known as Anna O., the first patient in the Studies on Hysteria, or that Freud at first tried that and whatever other techniques were available to him. Managing such patients was the best that could be done. Failure was the norm.

Yet Freud left drugs and hypnotism behind for his new, far gentler talking and listening therapy. Most hospitals and asylums, even clinics, did not. In the course of the more “scientific” twentieth century came miracle cures, often deadly on application, such as insulin, tooth-pulling, lobotomy, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Modern ECT entails a more powerful application of electricity than the nineteenth-century electrotherapies the young Freud used, and for which Crews mocks him.

Crews’s decision to turn Freud’s work with his early hysterical patients into an exposé of his callow incompetence makes for unsavory reading. Many mental and emotional illnesses are intractable or recurrent. If Freud at first turned to a sexual and eventually a familial etiology for the internal conflicts that in his view led to illness, he often enough, as in the case of Dora, alerted us to his own mistakes in treatment. Whatever Freud’s highhanded and patriarchal misreadings of this troubled adolescent girl, Dora didn’t commit suicide, as her parents were worried she might; nor did Freud’s other patients. That may not be a miraculous result, but neither is it a total failure, as anyone working in today’s challenging mental health environment would surely agree. Freud, unlike many in his time, at least acknowledged that women’s voices were worth listening to—that women were sexual beings with desires. Crews chooses not to give any positive accounts of analysis with Freud, but there have been notable ones, not least from the American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the Russian-born writer and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Nor is it accurate for Crews to claim that Freud had almost no patients in his early years on whom to base his insights, or that he routinely misdiagnosed. His patient record book from 1896 to 1899 is held by the Library of Congress. Freud saw about sixty patients a year for over five hundred visits. It was through these sessions and his own self-analysis that he moved from a short-lived use of hypnosis to a talking treatment based on free association and dream and transference analysis. After 1900, aside from the war years, he was working with patients some eleven hours a day.

Putting psychological conflicts into words in a therapeutic setting seems to help. The recent exposure of the extent to which negative evidence in clinical trials of much-hyped psychoactive drugs was massaged away with the help of doctors on pharmaceutical company payrolls, the way clinical results highlighted only what would prove profitable, the masking of side effects, suicide among them—all this has made the purported misdeeds of psychoanalysts look benign.3 The talking therapies may produce no instant miracles; neither do they do comparable harm. Insurers may want to think again about costs over a patient’s lifetime. Then, too, hand in hand with the development of these new, highly touted “scientific” psychoactive drugs, the number of sufferers from mental disorders has grown enormously.

Unlike Adam Phillips in his brilliant Becoming Freud (2014) or Joel Whitebook in his recent intellectual biography (2017), Crews is never interested in touching on what Freud’s writing might still convey about the mysteries of our everyday lives. I think when it comes to Freud and psychoanalysis, I’ll take my cue from Stanley Cavell:

Most philosophers in my tradition, I believe, relate to psychoanalysis, if at all, with suspicion, habitually asking whether psychoanalysis deserves the title of a science…. I am for myself convinced that the corpus of Freud’s writing, and a considerable amount of writing that depends upon it, has achieved an unsurpassed horizon of knowledge about the human mind. Accordingly I would not be satisfied with an answer that declares psychoanalysis not to be a science, if that answer denies that horizon of knowledge.


Return of The Freud Wars October 19, 2017

  1. 1

    Dagmar Herzog, Cold War Freud (Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 52. 

  2. 2

    Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays, Die Brautbriefe, edited by Gerhard Fichtner, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, and Albrecht Hirschmüller in collaboration with Wolfgang Kloft (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2011–2015). 

  3. 3

    See Marcia Angell’s articles in these pages, among them “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” January 15, 2009; “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?,” June 23, 2011; and “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” July 14, 2011. See also David Healy, The Antidepressant Era (Harvard University Press, 1999) and Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship Between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression (NYU Press, 2004).