“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.

After Schatzman’s book, Schreber père was generally regarded by psychoanalytic commentators as a very bad man indeed. A Dutch scholar, Han Israëls, was concerned about the evidence for such a view and he has undertaken a careful investigation into the Schreber family. His book, Schreber: Father and Son, is a work of meticulous scholarship; it uncovers much new information and punctures mythologies that have long been accepted as fact.

Israëls traces two kinds of writing about Moritz Schreber. One tends to praise his work as a pedagogue and social reformer; the other sees him chiefly as the father of Paul, acting out the differing parts assigned him by Freud, Niederland, Schatzman, and other psychoanalysts. Interestingly, the two genres have managed to coexist without either impinging significantly on the other.

From 1844 on Moritz Schreber ran an orthopedic clinic in Leipzig, chiefly for children with malformations of the spine. Israëls has discovered that between 1844 and 1852 the doctor treated 252 such cases. He was actively involved in the founding of the Leipzig Turnvereinen (gymnastic clubs), and wrote a popular book on indoor gymnastics, although his other books on child rearing were not particularly successful. The image of Schreber as the Dr. Spock of nineteenth-century Germany has been circulated, Israëls contends, by “badly informed” authors. Indeed he speculates on the frustration Dr. Schreber must have suffered when his large and lavishly produced volumes were ignored by the authorities to whom he sent them. His name became widely known in German-speaking countries (particularly in East Germany) in connection with Schrebergarten, allotment gardens tilled by local citizens; but in fact, as Israëls shows, he had nothing to do with the gardens and his name was connected with them by accident.

Moritz had married the daughter of a professor of medicine, a woman somewhat above him socially. The Schrebers and their five children shared a house with the young patients undergoing treatment. But in 1851 a heavy ladder fell on Dr. Schreber’s head, an incident that apparently had a dramatic effect on his life. He began to withdraw to his room for hours at a time, refusing to see his children, and during the last decades of his life his wife ran the household. Nevertheless, during this period he produced most of his books—which seems to suggest, according to Israëls, that “there were tensions of some kind which only made social relations difficult for him.” (While Israëls is commendably skeptical about much of the information that has been circulated about Moritz Schreber, he never questions whether the ladder actually fell on his head, although the story might have been invented or exaggerated by the family to explain his unaccountable behavior.) Israëls finds no evidence that Schreber used his own children as guinea pigs for the “straightener” and the chin strap, although he admits the strong possibility that his children acted as models for the illustrations in their father’s books.

Dr. Schreber’s critics have made much of the story he told himself of an incident that illustrates his opposition to children eating between meals. A nursemaid was dismissed because she gave a piece of a pear she was eating to one of the children sitting on her lap. This incident has been used to suggest that Schreber would have torn his own children from their mother’s breast.

Israëls argues, however, that people concerned to improve the world frequently fail to follow their own advice, and that in the case of Moritz Schreber there is evidence that he grew detached from his family and did not want to act as an intrusive parent. It may very well be that he was not closely involved in bringing up his son. The psychoanalysts who have commented on Schreber point out that we hear little about Frau Schreber, which seems to them to suggest that she was a passive wife and mother; and Niederland writes that she “must have been perceived by the patient as the willing and active participant in the paternal practices, manipulations, and coercive procedures.”8 The indefatigable Israëls has turned up evidence, to which I will return, that she was in fact closely involved with her children.

Paul Schreber was nineteen when his father died. In 1865 he began his career in the judiciary, mainly in the kingdom of Saxony. Then in 1877 his older brother, Gustav (also a lawyer) shot himself. A year after his brother’s suicide, Paul married, but the marriage was childless. Apparently he wanted to have children, but his wife suffered six miscarriages.

A few years later, in 1884, he stood as a candidate for the Imperial Diet, or Reichstag. At the time he was a presiding judge in the provincial court of Chemnitz, in what is now the town of Karl-Marx-Stadt in southern East Germany. Israëls’s account of this election contains one of his major points of disagreement with psychoanalytic commentators. Schreber, he shows, was a supporter of Bismarck’s conservative party, and he was soundly beaten by the local socialist. The first period of his mental disorders followed soon after. Niederland explained Schreber’s reaction as arising from anxiety for having rebelled against a father-figure, namely Bismarck—an odd conclusion about a supporter of Bismarck. In his early writings on the subject, Niederland had simply assumed that Schreber was opposed to Bismarck, and even when later facts contradicted this, he continued to hold the same views. Israëls remarks wryly that “Niederland’s behavior demonstrates that a psychoanalyst’s hypothesis can only be ‘confirmed,’ never weakened or refuted, by newly discovered facts.”

Paul Schreber’s second, more serious, illness, between 1886 and 1893 was preceded by another period during which he experienced considerable stress. He apparently became overworked in his new post as president of the Dresden Superior State Court. Schreber began to consult Professor Flechsig, the psychiatrist who had treated him during his first illlness. After attempting to hang himself in his bedroom, he entered Flechsig’s clinic as an emergency case, and soon moved to a public asylum in Sonnenstein where he spent the last years of his life. A detailed account of his delusions during his second incarceration is given in the Memoirs, which Israëls encourages his readers to read, saying he is more concerned with the facts of the family history than with the content of Schreber’s psychotic fantasies.

Schreber began work on the Memoirs in 1900 in the hope that he would soon be able to live a normal life. In 1902 he was released, and went to live for a time with his mother in Leipzig. The following year he returned to Dresden to his wife who had by then adopted a thirteen-year-old girl (who provided Israëls with much factual information about her stepfather). Schreber was unable to obtain another official position but seemed to occupy himself contentedly enough with family matters; he built a house and became a devoted father. Israëls finds it significant that Schreber first went to stay with his mother after his discharge from the asylum. Although previous commentators had tended to deny that Schreber’s mother had close relations with him or her other children, Israëls finds much evidence to the contrary. Until Schreber’s marriage at the age of thirty-five, he had lived with his mother whenever he was working in Leipzig. His brother and three sisters also lived close to her, and another sister shared a home with her until her death. Paul Schreber wrote a long poem to his mother on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. She seems to have been a serious, energetic, family-minded woman who took great interest in the Schreber Turnverneinen, the gymnastic associations that her husband had established and that quickly spread after his death.

After she died in 1907 Schreber began to sleep badly and to worry about the disputes that had broken out among the various Schreber associations. Israëls speculated that “Paul Schreber must have had the feeling that whatever he did, he would be getting it wrong—that he would never be able to satisfy all the associations; and the consequence was again a flight into insanity.” It is perhaps significant that his wife had a stroke a few days before he developed the final illness that put him in a clinic in a suburb of Leipzig for the last three and a half years of his life. In an unpublished letter his daughter wrote: “Mother and I visited him there twice. However, he would not let us come close to him because he was afraid we might be harmed if he did. Always full of consideration.”

Israëls’s book tries to assess the validity of the issues raised by the two differing genres of writing connected with the Schreber family—the idealizing accounts of the Schreber Associations founded in Moritz Schreber’s name and the “demonizing” account of Moritz in modern psychoanalytical literature. He makes a convincing case that although Moritz Schreber did not become famous in his lifetime, psychiatrists have found it useful to accept the posthumous praise he received as accurately reflecting his reputation as a working doctor. If his reputation was so high that he seemed almost deified it then would be understandable, if Paul Schreber’s fantasy that God was persecuting him derived—as Schatzman claimed—from his relations with his father. Schatzman also links Moritz Schreber’s theories to National Socialist philosophy: “Remember: Hitler and his peers were raised when Dr. Schreber’s books, preaching household totalitarianism, were popular.”9 But Israëls shows he is wrong to assume that there were many editions and translations of Schreber’s books on the upbringing of children. In fact his books were not widely circulated and the evidence that his views were broadly influential seems weak. Nor was the Geradehalter widely adopted.

(Incidentally, neither Schatzman, Niederland, nor Israëls has anything to say about the physical abuse Paul Schreber claimed he suffered at the hands of the attendants in the asylum. That such mistreatment not only might have occurred but might have been connected with Schreber’s paranoid behavior seems a more plausible hypothesis than some others the psychoanalysts have put forward.)

Israëls’s extensive research is implicitly aimed at exposing the shaky factual basis of most commentaries on the Schrebers, and particularly of the psychoanalytic theories attempting to account for Paul’s mental illness. Israëls describes Niederland, notwithstanding his incomplete information about the Schreber family, as “undoubtedly the best of the psychoanalytic writers on father and son Schreber,” but he criticizes what seem to him contorted efforts by Niederland to avoid disagreeing with Freud. In order to remain a loyal Freudian, Niederland could not directly blame Moritz Schreber for his son’s illness; and in 1963 he claimed that the data so far accumulated threw no light on the nature of Schreber’s psychosis.10 Freud’s diagnosis, Niederland says, should be viewed “within the confines of the analytic knowledge of 1911.”11

Israëls, for his part, points out the errors made by Niederland and Schatzman, but he cautiously avoids any condemnation of Freud’s conclusion that Paul Schreber’s persecution mania could be explained as repressed homosexuality:

I do not propose to go into the details of Freud’s theory concerning Paul Schreber’s persecution mania. It is a theory that makes pronouncements almost exclusively about transformations supposed to have taken place inside Paul Schreber’s head; and with my new biographical material I have nothing to offer that might support or undermine the theory.

But if Niederland and Schatzman can be condemned for elaborate theories based on erroneous or incomplete information, should not Freud be subject to the same criticism? Freud writes almost as though he were Schreber’s attending psychiatrist, yet as we have seen he knew little about his family or his actual relations with his parents, and had no claim to reliable knowledge of Schreber’s “inner transformation.” What Israëls does not say is that the case seems to have provided Freud with an opportunity to work out some of his unresolved difficulties about the homosexual component of his own intense relationship with Wilhelm Fliess, from whom he had parted bitterly a decade earlier.

From the moment he opened the Memoirs Freud was full of excitement about “the wonderful Schreber, who ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director of a mental hospital.”12 That a strong identification was being made was indicated in a letter to Sandor Ferenczi on October 6, 1910:

Since Fliess’s case, with the overcoming of which you recently saw me occupied, that need has been extinguished. A part of homosexual cathexis has been withdrawn and made use of to enlarge my own ego. I have succeeded where the paranoiac fails.”13

On October 17 Freud congratulated himself for feeling “capable of handling everything and am pleased with the greater independence that results from having overcome my homosexuality.”14 On December 3 he told Jung: “I am all Schreber.”15 Finally, on December 16, his paper on Schreber completed, he reported triumphantly to Ferenczi, “I have now overcome Fliess.”16

This is a telling example of Freud’s tendency to base ambitious generalizations on partially reported specific cases. Only a Freudian fundamentalist could claim that Freud’s interpretation of Schreber led to a significant understanding of psychosis and paranoia. Israëls’s book makes an implicit but powerful case against any theory not substantiated by factual evidence. What remains of interest is the possibility of using the Schreber case to explain Freud’s own psyche and his tortuous relationship with Jung. Why did Jung provide Freud with the Memoirs when he knew that Freud would draw radically differing conclusions from his own? When Moritz Schreber’s educational theories and the Schrebergarten are put aside, vengeful, painful, and extremely interesting emotional relationships remain to be explained.

This Issue

January 18, 1990