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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 to 1902. His long, eerily logical apologia pro vita sua is primarily a description of his special relationship to God. How his delusions enabled him to be judged sane enough to be discharged is puzzling. More mystifying still is that Freud could consider him relatively cured.

Veering between the lucidity of self-understanding and a distorted perception of a bizarre cosmogony, Schreber describes a new vision of the world vouch-safed to him by God. Freud was particularly fascinated by what he took to be Schreber’s repressed homosexual feelings toward his father. Jung said he was troubled by what he considered the reductive quality of Freud’s attempt to explain psychosis as a matter of repressed sexuality; and the case was the occasion for a significant theoretical disagreement between them.

Freud admits in his essay that not nearly enough was known about Schreber. Schreber attributed his “nervous disorders” to episodes of mental overstrain, the first occurring after he had been defeated as a candidate for the Reichstag, the second after he was appointed to a high post at the Dresden Superior State Court.

Between his two breakdowns he began to have dreams about the pleasure a woman must experience in submitting to the act of copulation. During his second stay in the clinic he hallucinated that his body was decomposing, and that his sufferings were inflicted for some divine purpose. His principal tormentor was his former doctor, Paul Emilo Flechsig, whom he described as a “soul murderer.” In Freud’s view, the patient feared sexual abuse at the hands of his doctor. As time passed Schreber came to believe that he was gradually developing into a woman. Since he had also been singled out as the object of divine miracles, he was, he believed, undoubtedly the most remarkable human being who had ever lived. Freud points out that while the fantasy of being a Redeemer is a familiar feature of religious paranoia, the belief that one is being transformed into a woman is unusual.

In the early days of his illness Schreber had felt confused about the role of God in the monstrous plot against him, but gradually he realized, he said, that God himself had been an accomplice—if not the instigator—in a conspiracy whereby his body was to be used “like that of a strumpet.” Once Schreber had accepted “the Order of Things,” he was, he said, able to surrender to feelings and fantasies of voluptuous sensuality.

Schreber stresses that before the onset of his illness he had been a doubter in religious matters but had always adhered to a rigid moral code: “Few people have been brought up according to such strict moral principles as I, and have throughout life practiced such moderation especially in matters of sex, as I venture to claim for myself.”1

Freud is intrigued by Schreber’s attitude toward God. Living men are inaccessible to God, Schreber wrote, with a single exception, himself. Hence “the right of scoffing at God belongs in consequence to me alone and not to other men.”2 Like a young eaglet, he could gaze directly at the sun, and so God came to know him better. Schreber’s power was demonstrated when the soul of his persecutor, Dr. Flechsig, splintered into many powerless fragments, as Schreber explains in detail in the prefatory “Open Letter to Herr Geheimrat Prof. Dr. Flechsig” appended to the Memoirs.

But God, too, was divided into a “lower” and an “upper” Being. Schreber’s vision of the decomposition of both Flechsig and God, Freud explains as a paranoid reaction to both the loved and hated aspects of a single person: his father. This attitude, Freud said, is reminiscent of the “reverent submission and mutinous insubordination”3 in boys toward their fathers.

But why should his relationship with his father have made Schreber mentally ill? Freud assumes that he had a repressed homosexual fixation on his father, who had died when he was nineteen. He was unable to accept his unconscious saying “I do not love him—I hate him,” and could only justify this hatred by insisting that he was being persecuted by God. In other words, he “projected” his fear and anxiety into two other persons, Flechsig and God. Finally Freud concludes:

It may be suspected, however, that what enabled Schreber to reconcile himself to his homosexual phantasy, and so made it possible for his illness to terminate in something approximating to a recovery, may have been the fact that his father-complex was in the main positively toned and that in real life the later years of his relationship with an excellent father had probably been unclouded.4

What is curious about all this is that, apart from reading Paul Schreber’s memoir, Freud knew nothing about Schreber’s father or his relationship with his son. At the end of his paper Freud candidly admits that he had worked out a theory of paranoia before reading Schreber’s book. In other words, Schreber provided him with a convenient illustration of his theory, just as Leonardo had given him material to support his view of the origins of homosexuality. Freud concluded:

It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.5

A letter to Marie Bonaparte, written many years later, confirms that Freud was aware that Schreber suffered a final, even more severe, psychotic episode. The very wording of his conclusion presented future scholars with a challenge to dig more deeply into Schreber’s background, although some assumed that it was impenetrable. It was as though they did not want other evidence to disturb the neat cogency of Freud’s argument.

An exception was the American psychoanalyst, W.G. Niederland, who, in a series of papers published between 1959 and 1974, uncovered a great deal of material about Judge Schreber’s father, Moritz Schreber, an orthopedist and educator, who published several books on child rearing. One of the tortures endured by the tormented Paul Schreber was a feeling that his chest was being suffocated. Niederland was convinced that there was a link between this sensation of constriction and the father’s invention of the “straightener,” the Geradehalter, an iron bar which prevented a child from leaning forward while writing. He also advocated that bed straps be tied over the chest to ensure that children slept on their backs. Schreber complained of feeling that his head was compressed into a vise by the supersensory voices assailing him, an experience that Niederland links to a chin strap and a head-holder that encouraged “proud bearing,” since the wearer’s hair was pulled if the head tended to droop. Niederland leaves no doubt that there were parallels between Schreber’s particular form of insanity and his upbringing.

Subsequent commentators have been much influenced by this image of Moritz Schreber as a man with sadistic tendencies. Even though the psychoanalyst Hans Kohut had never actually read his work, he described Moritz Schreber as a man with

profoundly narcissistic and prenarcissistic…hypochondriacal tensions…a hidden psychotic system…a special kind of psychotic character structure in which reality testing remains broadly intact even though it is in the service of the psychosis of a central idée fixe. It is probably a kind of healed-over psychosis.6

The most severe indictment of all appeared in the widely read book Soul Murder (1973) by Morton Schatzman, who claimed that Niederland’s findings show Dr. Schreber to be directly responsible for his son’s illness. Paul Schreber’s father, he argues, had taught him as a child

patterns of operating upon his experience such that later on he felt forbidden (or forbade himself) to see that his strange relation to God was a reexperience of his childhood relation to his father.7

The subtitle of Schatzman’s book is Persecution in the Family, and his thesis is that authoritarian parents, by imposing their values on their children, sometimes by force, can do severe psychological damage.

  1. 1

    Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, translated and edited by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter (Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 208.

  2. 2

    Sigmund Freud, “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” Standard Edition, Vol. XII, p. 28.

  3. 3

    Freud, “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” p. 52.

  4. 4

    Freud, “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” p. 78.

  5. 5

    Freud, “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” p. 79.

  6. 6

    Hans Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders (International Universities Press, 1971), pp. 255, 256.

  7. 7

    Morton Schatzman, Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family (Random House, 1973), p. xi.

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