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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, Sabine, had an incapacitating stroke he fell ill again, and from then until his death in 1911 remained in the asylum. “Speaks only very rarely with the doctor,” said his notes, “and then only that he is being tortured with the food that he cannot eat, etc. Continually under the tormenting influence of his hallucinations. Sleep at night mostly poor. Moans, stands in bed, stands rigidly in front of the window with eyes closed and an expression of listening on his face.” From time to time Schreber would scribble words on scraps of paper: “miracles”—“tomb”—“not eat.” His expressed wish—that “when my last hour strikes I will no longer find myself in an Asylum, but in orderly domestic life surrounded by my near relatives, as I may need more loving care than I could get in an Asylum”—was not to be granted.

Freud’s basic interpretation of the case—drawn from the book, for he never tried to meet the man—was what would be expected from his views at the time: Schreber’s fantasy of being turned into a woman (one of his psychotic symptoms) indicated repressed homosexual love for his father in the shape of the asylum director Flechsig. Flechsig figures as a sort of malign demigod throughout the Memoirs. Lothane’s arguments against Freud’s interpretation is that it is far too schematic and limited (although Freud did add that “much more material remains to be gathered from the symbolic content of the fantasies and delusions of this gifted paranoiac”).

When Schreber in his isolation began to believe that the whole world had been devastated, with only himself chosen by God to repopulate the world from his womb, he was surely representing his own life’s devastation rather than expressing a homosexual wish. He speaks not so much of desiring men, Lothane argues, as of feeling his body to be that of a fecund woman, identifying with woman. Freud puts the father-son relation at the center of his analysis and, as usual, left women and mothers well out of the picture. Writing that he came to have “a thing between his legs which hardly resembled at all a normally formed male organ,” Schreber was summing up his degradations in the asylum, the loss of his friends and profession, the deprivation of his married life. He and his wife had failed to produce a living child; that would be compensated for by the new Schreber race that God planned to bring out of him. What Lothane is stressing is that people who are put in the hospital because their mental life has smashed are as much describing the horrors they are going through as conflicts from childhood. Of all the writers who have had their say on the Schreber case, Lothane points out, only Thomas Szasz has criticized Freud for devoting “page after page to speculations about the character and cause of Schreber’s ‘illness’ but not a word to the problem posed by his imprisonment or his right to freedom.”

The research Lothane has done on Schreber’s two psychiatrists and their views makes it clear why they figure in the Memoirs as demonic. Flechsig, director of Schreber’s first asylum, was primarily a neuroanatomist, with a guiding maxim that “mental disorders are brain disorders.” Drugs and physical restraints—straps, railings, padded cells—were his methods of treatment; women patients might have their ovaries or uterus taken out. He had, he confided to a colleague, little real interest in psychiatry, which he considered a “hopeless science.” The head of the public asylum to which Schreber was sent afterward, Guido Weber, was of the same view, and opposed Schreber’s eventual discharge from the asylum strongly enough to delay it for some time.

Freud himself, however, for all that his paper on Schreber now seems dated, did see the delusions that characterize madness as the real and interesting creations of a human being. Creating them was for Freud a work, a process—Wahnbildungsarbeit or the “work of delusion-formation.” Even more strikingly, Freud proposes the idea that delusional systems are a means of keeping the patient going, holding a world together:

The end of the world is a projection of this internal catastrophe: his [i.e., the paranoiac’s] subjective world has come to an end since his withdrawal of his love from it. And the paranoiac builds it again, not more splendid, it is true, but at least so that he can once more live in it. He builds it up by the work of his delusions. The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.

As with dreams,” Lothane says, “[Freud] restored to hallucinations the dignity of a personal redeeming epiphany”—something that would have been unthinkable for Flechsig or Weber.

Lothane’s defense of Schreber the son, his response to the incomprehension he encountered everywhere, is convincing. (One might just object that misdiagnosis as homosexual or paranoid is not “character assassination,” as Lothane calls it—simply inaccurate.) His defense of Schreber père is less convincing. Moritz’s demand for blind obedience, Paul’s rebound into delusions of omnipotence, have been linked by Elias Canetti, then later by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, with German totalitarianism; Lothane finds this exaggerated and unhistorical. And yet Hitler’s generation was growing up at a time when Moritz Schreber’s books of “household totalitarianism”—Morton Schatzman’s good phrase in his version of the case, Soul Murder (1989)—were still popular. And, from the quotations Lothane gives, they are indeed sinister. Control, obedience, suppression are the keynotes. The child’s “crude nature” and “ignoble parts” are to be erased at all costs. Obedience must be blind: “The idea should never cross the child’s mind that his will might prevail.” Even babies conform: “repeated threatening gestures” will be enough to silence them. Some of the books are illustrated by the Schreber equipment, which seems not unlike that used in the asylum by Flechsig: the head holder, the bed straps, the chin band, and of course the Geradehalter. Lothane argues that there are references in the books to loving attitudes; on occasions, in fact, a “loving playing-together and joking-together” is recommended. But one feels that the playing together and joking together of the Schreber family may have had a certain grim quality.

The capricious, punitive God of Schreber’s delusionary world does seem made in the image of his father. God, like the paterfamilias of the child-rearing manuals, “did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses”; this has “run like a red thread through my entire life.” His father forsook his son, too, first by withdrawing into depression and then by dying early. In addition, Paul Schreber grew up with the contradictory messages that writers such as R.D. Laing have pin-pointed in the families of schizophrenics: the child hears that everything is being done for the best, while getting messages of anger or hate at the same time. Schreber, to be tormented in the asylum by the contradictory instructions of a most irrational god, was reared not just by a stern paterfamilias but by the child-rearing expert. Moritz was famous for his Orthopaedic Institute and his books; and after his death, playgrounds continued to be called Schrebergärten. He must be right; but Lothane shows that in one sense the Memoirs were a rewriting of Moritz’s message to posterity, an alternative version. In the asylum Paul discovered horrifying systems running the universe, and made it his quest to decode them, patch over the rent in the world. Flechsig and Weber and the asylum claimed to be caring for him, but transmitted a different message; his wife was said to love him, but did not visit. There must therefore be a plot

to hand me over to another human being…in such a way that my soul was handed to him, but my body—transformed into a female body and, misconstruing the above-described fundamental tendency of the Order of the World—was then left to that human being for sexual misuse and simply “forsaken,” in other words left to rot. One does not seem to have been quite clear what was to happen to such a “forsaken” human being…. Naturally such matters were not mentioned by Professor Flechsig when he faced me as a human being. But the purpose was clearly expressed in the nerve-language…. Completely cut off from the outside world, without any contact with my family, left in the hands of rough attendants with whom, the inner voices said, it was my duty to fight now and then to prove my manly courage, I could think of nothing else but that any manner of death, however frightful, was preferable to so degrading an end.

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