That psychoanalysis, as a mode of treatment, has been experiencing a long institutional decline is no longer in serious dispute. Nor is the reason: though some patients claim to have acquired profound self-insight and even alterations of personality, in the aggregate psychoanalysis has proved to be an indifferently successful and vastly inefficient method of removing neurotic symptoms. It is also the method that is least likely to be “over when it’s over.” The experience of undergoing an intensive analysis may have genuine value as a form of extended meditation, but it seems to produce a good many more converts than cures. Indeed, among the dwindling number of practicing analysts, many have now backed away from any medical claims for a treatment that was once touted as the only lasting remedy for the entire spectrum of disorders this side of psychosis.

Freud’s doctrine has been faring no better, in scientifically serious quarters, as a cluster of propositions about the mind. Without significant experimental or epidemiological support for any of its notions, psychoanalysis has simply been left behind by mainstream psychological research. No one has been able to mount a successful defense against the charge, most fully developed in Adolf Grünbaum’s meticulous Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984), that “clinical validation” of Freudian hypotheses is an epistemic sieve; as a means of gaining knowledge, psychoanalysis is fatally contaminated by the inclusion, among its working assumptions and in its dialogue with patients, of the very ideas that supposedly get corroborated by clinical experience. And Grünbaum further showed that even if Freud’s means of gathering evidence had been sound, that evidence couldn’t have reliably yielded the usual constructions that he placed on it. We cannot be surprised, then, by Malcolm Macmillan’s recent exhaustive demonstration that Freud’s theories of personality and neurosis—derived as they were from misleading precedents, vacuous pseudophysical metaphors, and a long concatenation of mistaken inferences that couldn’t be subjected to empirical review—amount to castles in the air.1

Nevertheless, Freudian concepts retain some currency in popular lore, the arts, and the academic humanities, three arenas in which flawed but once modish ideas, secure from the menace of rigorous testing, can be kept indefinitely in play. There psychoanalysis continues to be accepted largely on faith—namely, a faith in Freud’s self-description as a fearless explorer, a solver of deep mysteries, a rigorously objective thinker, and an ethically scrupulous reporter of both clinical data and therapeutic outcomes. That is the image that his own suave texts, aided by the work of loyalist biographers from Ernest Jones through Peter Gay, have managed to keep before our eyes for many decades now. Surely, the average reader of such works infers, a man who has widened our horizons so decisively must have bequeathed us some irreversible gains in our understanding of the mind.

Not surprisingly, however, the tradition of hero worship is now being challenged as vigorously as are the claims of Freudian therapy and theory. Since the 1970s, a rapidly growing number of independent scholars—including among others Henri Ellenberger, Paul Roazen, Frank Cioffi, Frank J. Sulloway, Peter J. Swales, E.M. Thornton, Morton Schatzman, Hans Israëls, and Phyllis Grosskurth—have been showing us a different Freud, darker but far more interesting than the canonical one. According to their revisionist view, our would-be Prometheus was highly cultivated, sophisticated, and endowed with extraordinary literary power, sardonic wit, and charm, but he was also quite lacking in the empirical and ethical scruples that we would hope to find in any responsible scientist, to say nothing of a major one.

Now we are beginning to discern a notably willful and opportunistic Freud who appears to have thrown together his magisterial-looking claims from various unacknowledged sources—some of them more folkloric than scientific—while passing them off as sober inferences from the data of his clinical practice. Once having arrived at those claims, we see, he adhered to them with a blind, combative stubbornness—though not without willingness to expand the system on an ad hoc basis to encompass newly perceived difficulties. And he promoted that conceptually overstuffed system by means of devious rhetorical maneuvers that disarmed criticism without obliging Freud himself to take the criticism into material account. Through all his conduct, at least from the 1890s onward, runs a note of existential daring and high disdain that could hardly be more remote from ordinary scientific prudence. Fiercely believing in his general vision yet stooping to low tricks in defense of it, this Freud is a saturnine self-dramatizer who defies us to see through his bravado and provides us with tantalizing autobiographical clues for doing so.

Such a figure differs so radically from the Freud we thought we knew that readers may understandably wonder which version comes closer to the truth. But it is really no contest. Until recently, most people who wrote about Freud in any detail were open partisans of psychoanalysis who needed to safeguard the legend of the scientist-genius-humanitarian, and many of the sources they used had already passed through the censorship of a jealously secretive psychoanalytic establishment, whose leaders have been so fearful of open historical judgment that they have locked away large numbers of Freud’s papers and letters in the Library of Congress for periods extending as far ahead as the twenty-second century. But as some sensitive documents, having already served their Sleeping Beauty sentences, make their way into the light, and as serendipity turns up others from outside sources, the more improvisational and fallible Freud will necessarily come into ever sharper focus.


Two examples may help to show this link between emergent primary materials and the revisionist portrait of Freud. When the orthodox analysts Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris first edited Freud’s correspondence with his one-time friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1950, they omitted everything that, in their announced judgment, lacked “scientific” interest. Republication, under different editorship, of the unbowdlerized letters in 1985 showed that the dismissible “unscientific” category had included everything from Freud’s cavalier approach to clinical sessions—his writing to Fliess while an early patient was under hypnosis, for example, and his habit of napping while his later psychoanalytic ones were free-associating on the couch—to his naive acceptance of Fliess’s dubious theories of periodicity and nasal-genital correspondence.2 The full letters also put on view the now notorious case of Emma Eckstein, whom Freud had grotesquely diagnosed as “bleeding for love” of himself, whereas she was actually suffering from a half-meter of gauze that Fliess had accidentally left within the remains of her nose after a mad-scientist operation that Freud, too, underwent for his own “nasal reflex neurosis.” We will see that the Eckstein story, which Freud’s heirs were so anxious to hide from posterity, is no aberration in the wider record; it constitutes an entirely typical instance of Freud’s rashness in always preferring the arcane explanation to the obvious one.

As for the second example, the following scarcely believable events may illustrate how previously unexamined (not suppressed) documents can transform our image of Freud. Thanks to a long-neglected and rediscovered cache of letters that avoided becoming time capsules in the Library of Congress, we can now reconstruct the history of Freud’s relations with one Horace Frink, a married American patient and protégé who, like many another psychoanalyst of the 1920s, was having an affair with a patient of his own, the bank heiress Angelika Bijur.3 Despite this redundant testimony to his sexual orientation, Frink was told by Freud that he was a latent homosexual who stood in great peril of becoming an overt one. To avoid that fate, Freud prescribed, Frink would have to divorce his wife and marry Bijur, whom he also urged to divorce her husband, even though Freud had never met either of the allegedly unsuitable spouses.

Freud’s transparent aim was to get his own hands on some of the heiress Bijur’s money. As he brazenly if perhaps semifacetiously wrote to Frink in steering him toward divorce and remarriage to Bijur, “Your complaint that you cannot grasp your homosexuality implies that you are not yet aware of your phantasy of making me a rich man. If matters turn out all right let us change this imaginary gift into a real contribution to the Psychoanalytic Funds.”4 The divorce and remarriage did occur—soon followed by the deaths of both of the abandoned, devastated spouses, an early suit for divorce by Frink’s new wife, and the decline of the guilt-ridden Frink himself into a psychotic depression and repeated attempts at suicide.

It is not recorded whether Freud ever expressed regret for having destroyed these four lives, but we know that it would have been out of character for him to do so. Advancing the fortunes of his movement was for him an imperative that overrode all others. As many casual remarks in his correspondence reveal, he was indifferent to his patients’ suffering and quite dismissive of their real-world dilemmas, which struck him as a set of pretexts for not getting down to the repressed fantasies that really mattered. Nor did he care very much, except from a public relations angle, whether those patients improved as a result of his treatment. As he sarcastically wrote to Carl Jung in 1912 about a woman who had been in and out of his care since 1908, “she is beyond any possibility of therapy, but it is still her duty to sacrifice herself to science.”5 Frink, it seems, also had to be sacrificed—in this instance to Freud’s working capital rather than to his intellectual passions.


What the Eckstein and Frink episodes have most in common is a perfect match between Freud’s diagnoses and his immediate self-interest. That fit is obvious in Frink’s case. As for Eckstein, by designating her bleeding as psychosomatic Freud was exculpating both his surgeon friend Fliess and himself for having recommended the gruesome and pointless operation. Such stories can only lead us to wonder whether Freud’s powers of observation and analysis ever functioned with sufficient independence from his wishes. That, in brief, is the paramount issue confronting Freud studies today.

This is not to say that every Freud scholar is obliged to tackle that issue head on. Of the four books under review here, only one (Esterson’s) takes Freud’s scientific incompetence as its central theme. In varying degrees, the other three works all convey mixed feelings about Freud’s stature and the legitimacy of psychoanalytic claims. But for that very reason, it is instructive to see how convergent their accounts of Freud’s imperious style of reasoning prove to be.

Take, to begin with, James L. Rice’s informative and subtle study, Freud’s Russia: National Identity in the Evolution of Psychoanalysis. For Rice, Freud is anything but the objective scientific investigator who insulates himself from cultural impulses and discovers only later, as he maintained, that imaginative writers had anticipated his findings. Instead, he is fully a man of his own time, one whose sensibility, intellect, and specific ideas about the mind were crucially shaped by his reading.6 And he is also, as Rice puts it, “one of the great egos of our age.”

Rice has no trouble perceiving that behind Freud’s physicianly manner and his solemnity about the libidinal sacrifices exacted by civilized mores, there lay the nihilism of a disillusioned revolutionary who had deemed the species not worth saving after all. Insofar as it has been noticed, this quality has understandably called to mind the figure of Nietzsche, whose writings Freud disingenuously claimed to have encountered after the psychoanalytic system had been fully shaped. Rice understands, however, that nihilism and spiritual extremism in general had another strong correlate in Freud’s imagination: Russia. Freud’s family roots lay in Lithuania, where he retained many kin, and where his imagination turned when he thought, as he continually did, about the persecution of Jews and about their efforts to strike back. Up to the early years of Stalin’s rule, Rice shows, Freud thrilled to revolutionism and looked to Russia for a political equivalent to his own assault on the tyranny of the despotic superego. Indeed, the Stalinist debacle had much to do with bringing on the futilitarian mood that dominates that most bathetic of “classics,” Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

Long before the accession of Stalin, however, Freud feared Russian extremism as strongly as he was drawn to it. As Rice convincingly argues, Freud’s notion of ambivalence owed much to his idea of the Russian national character, featuring a supposed savage repressiveness which always gets reimposed after sadistic and erotic uprisings. This creaky formula became his master key to understanding Dostoevsky, about whom he published a celebrated monograph in 1928, “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” That essay in turn, as Rice coolly anatomizes it, deserves our attention here as an especially clear instance of the apriorism that vitiates all of Freud’s psychoanalytic work, both clinical and belletristic. The fact that we know so much about Dostoevsky from other sources affords us a rare opportunity to compare the record to what Freud self-indulgently made of it.

As Rice explains, in most respects “Dostoevsky and Parricide” is a derivative effort, indebted to views of the novelist that had been popular ever since his enormous Germanic vogue began in 1906. In one key respect, however, Freud’s essay was original: its rejection of the idea that Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy and its substitution of hysteria originating from a primal scene, or a child’s discovery of “female castration” through witnessing an act of parental intercourse. Although other analysts within Freud’s circle had already made the diagnosis of hysteria on Dostoevsky’s part, it is obvious that they were doing so with the blessing of Freud, who had decreed in 1908 that “all those illnesses called hysteroepilepsies are simply hysterias.”

Today, thanks to Rice’s own work in Dostoevsky and the Healing Art (1985), there is no room for doubt that Dostoevsky, who endured seizures approximately once a month, waking and sleeping, for the last thirty-four years of his life, was a genuine epileptic. As Rice concedes, however, the state of medical knowledge in the 1920s allowed for some uncertainty on that point. In “Dostoevsky and Parricide” Freud advances his erroneous view with a typically guileful show of tentativeness; but then, just as typically, he goes on to treat it as firmly settled. Only with the hindsight granted by the general decline of psychoanalytic authority can we perceive, as Rice does, the perfect circularity of Freud’s argumentative procedure. Dostoevsky’s epilepsy is brushed aside in order to leave an opening for acts of non-neurological oedipal decoding, acts whose consilience with one another then “proves” that Dostoevsky was never epileptic.

This was by no means the only point of obtuseness in Freud’s assessment of Dostoevsky, against whom he bore a gratuitous ill-will. As he wrote to Theodor Reik in 1929, he disliked Dostoevsky because he had already seen too many “pathological natures” in his clinical practice. “In art and life,” he reported, “I am intolerant of them.” In “Dostoevsky and Parricide” this intolerance takes the form of saddling the novelist with the political cynicism of the Grand Inquisitor and, more remarkably still, with the criminal temperament of Stavrogin. As Rice makes clear, Freud’s whole indictment of Dostoevsky as humanity’s jailer is built on prosecutorial animus and is buttressed by elementary misunderstanding of the difference between an author and his created characters. We need only add that such misunderstanding is facilitated by psychoanalytic theory, which teaches us to peel away defensive sublimations and to regard as primary whatever psychic materials appear most base.

Dostoevsky was an unlucky man in several ways, but he did have the good fortune to have died without presenting his troubles in person to Sigmund Freud and his epigones. Not so the other notable Russian featured in Rice’s study, Sergei Pankeev, or the “Wolf Man,” who, beginning in 1910, received some five years’ worth of Freud’s professional attention. Thanks to the suspenseful case history of 1918 in which Freud claimed to have removed all of his symptoms and inhibitions, the Wolf Man became the most celebrated of all Freud’s alleged cures.7 Freud knew perfectly well, however, that psychoanalysis had not helped the depressed and obsessive Pankeev at all. By reminding us of this discrepancy and by going into the specifics of Freud’s bungling of the case, Rice brings us to the verge of a more general critique of Freudian logic.

Just as he was later to do for Dostoevsky, Freud perceived Pankeev through the distorting lens of “Russian national character.” The concept of Russische Innerlichkeit, or Russian spiritual inwardness, was especially comforting in Pankeev’s case because it served Freud as a private excuse for the Wolf Man’s recalcitrance to treatment. But Dostoevsky was already very much on Freud’s mind when he first began treating Pankeev in 1910. Indeed, one of the main contributions of Freud’s Russia is its demonstration that Pankeev and Dostoevsky were curiously interchangeable in Freud’s mind. If, for example, a reader of “Dostoevsky and Parricide” wonders why Freud perversely insists on the murderousness of the haunted and harmless novelist, who had been permanently traumatized by a tsarist firing squad, Rice suggests that the answer can probably be found in the severely relapsed Pankeev’s announced intention of shooting Freud at the time when the Dostoevsky paper was being composed. For the phylogenetically minded Freud, what one Russian was acting out in 1926–1927 must be what another Russian had secretly harbored in his unconscious fifty years earlier.

The full career of Sergei Pankeev, who was in and out of psychoanalytic treatment for almost seventy years, makes up one of the strangest chapters in the history of Freud’s movement. Having lost a millionaire’s fortune when (on Freud’s advice) he neglected to return to Russia and rescue his estate from the ascendant Bolsheviks, Pankeev adopted the vocation of celebrity charity patient. As the protagonist of Freud’s triumphant case history, he allowed himself to be passed from one awestruck analyst to another and even took to signing his letters “Wolfsmann.” Later, however, his conspicuous debilitation caused him to be regarded as a bomb that could blow up in the face of psychoanalysis, and he was strongly encouraged, by “pension” payments as well as exhortations, not to tell his story to outsiders. But he eventually did so anyway, spilling his grievances to the Austrian journalist Karin Obholzer in the 1970s and lamenting that, in the final stage of his long Freudian odyssey, “the whole thing looks like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as when I first came to Freud, and Freud is no more.”8

Yet Pankeev’s thralldom to Freud was no greater than that of the analytic community at large, which left the contradictions and implausibilities in Freud’s published account of the Wolf Man case entirely unchallenged from 1918 until the 1970s. Even with the aging Pankeev on hand as living evidence that his announced cure was bogus, no Freudian dared to ask whether Freud had tampered with the record to make himself appear a master detective and healer. Rice understands, however, that that is exactly what Freud did.

Involved as he was in a fierce battle against the schismatics Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, each of whom had denied the importance of infantile sexuality in the etiology of neurosis, Freud was determined to find a primal scene to serve as the fountainhead of Pankeev’s symptoms. He made it materialize through a transparently arbitrary interpretation of a remembered dream of Pankeev’s, from the suspiciously early age of four, of six or seven white wolves (actually dogs, as Freud was later compelled to admit) sitting in a tree outside his window. The wolves, Freud explained, were the parents; their whiteness meant bedclothes; their stillness meant the opposite, coital motion; their big tails signified, by the same indulgent logic, castration; daylight meant night; and all this could be traced most assuredly to a memory from age one of Pankeev’s mother and father copulating, doggy style, no fewer than three times in succession while he watched from the crib and soiled himself in horrified protest.

Because he has fully absorbed the revisionist spirit in Freud scholarship, Rice stands in no danger of being taken in by Freud’s posited primal scene. With acknowledgment, he builds upon a trenchant study by the singularly critical psychoanalyst Patrick Mahony, who, though he remains a loyal Freudian, has exposed much of Freud’s inventiveness in this instance.9 For Mahony and Rice alike, the Wolf Man’s primal scene lacks all verisimilitude. Freud elsewhere reports that Pankeev’s mother disliked sex, for example, yet here he has the wedded pair going at it repeatedly like teen-agers on speed, with a one-year-old kibitzer precociously keeping score while observing, from across the room, both his mother’s “castrated” genitals and her rapt but suitably passive facial expression—a feat of observation, as Mahony has remarked, that “would exceed the ingenious staging of any pornographic film producer.”10

More tellingly, and more portentously for a final judgment of psychoanalytic claims in general, Freud was never able to convince Pankeev himself that this “terribly farfetched” episode, as Pankeev later called it, had ever occurred. “These scenes from infancy,” Freud admits, “are not reproduced during the treatment as recollections, they are the products of construction” (SE, 17: 50–51). That is to say, all such “memories,” including the Wolf Man’s, were proposed by Freud himself without necessarily involving the patient’s cooperation or assent.

Yet having admitted that Pankeev had no recollection of a primal scene, Freud twice reports specific memories on the Wolf Man’s part that “confirm” that scene with volunteered details. How strange this is, in view of Pankeev’s assurance to Karin Obholzer that, given the customs of his social class, he could hardly have found himself in the parental bedroom where Freud insistently placed him! And to make matters more bizarre, in the course of revising his paper Freud himself came to deny the reality of the primal scene and then to reassert its genuineness, leaving all three propositions to jostle one another in the text. The illogic of Freud’s presentation is matched, for absurdity, only by the inherent ridiculousness of the fabricated tale itself.

If the Wolf Man never presented Freud with the required primal scene, from which depths was it hauled up? Rice argues that it was the child Freud, not Pankeev, who slept in his parents’ bedroom and who later fancied that he recalled a traumatically enlightening act of intercourse. And it was Freud who was demonstrably obsessed with copulation from the rear and with yet another pivotal feature of the Wolf Man analysis, sexual initiation at the hands of servant girls. One might add the suggestive fact that little Sigismund, according to The Interpretation of Dreams, was permanently scarred by a paternal rebuke after he had relieved himself in his parents’ bedroom (SE, 4:16), thus anticipating, and perhaps determining, what would later be ascribed to the Wolf Man’s infancy.


What necessarily falls beyond Rice’s purview is the relation of the Wolf Man case, with its fanatical misconstructions and its pathetic outcome, to Freud’s normal practice. For a concise sense of that relation, readers can consult an important 1991 article by Frank Sulloway that reviews all of the major case histories and infers that they compose a uniform picture of forced interpretation, indifferent or negative therapeutic results, and an opportunistic approach to truth.11 We can go further and ask whether, strictly speaking, Freud can be said to have ever practiced psychoanalysis in the sense that he commended to others. Freud generally lacked the equanimity to act on his key methodological principle, that the patient’s free associations would lead of their own accord to the crucially repressed material. Some of his own accounts and those of his ex-patients reveal that, when he was not filling the hour with opinionated chitchat, he sought to “nail” the client with hastily conceived interpretations which he then drove home unabatingly. As a distinguished American psychiatrist, Joseph Wortis, recalled from his own training analysis, Freud “would wait until he found an association which would fit into his scheme of interpretation and pick it up like a detective at a line-up who waits until he sees his man.”12

Revisionist students of psychoanalysis agree that one case history in particular illustrates that tendentiousness with especial clarity. This is the 1905 “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” (SE, 7:3–122), a work that forms the topic of Robin Tolmach Lakoff and James C. Coyne’s new study, Father Knows Best: The Use and Abuse of Power in Freud’s Case of Dora. Even though “Dora” (Ida Bauer) severed relations with Freud after just three months of tempestuous sessions, Freud’s portrait of her has been used as a model in psychoanalytic training—as, in Erik H. Erikson’s words, “the classical analysis of the structure and genesis of hysteria.” 13 But by today the Dora case is more often regarded as one long indiscretion on Freud’s part. As the first of his fully psychoanalytic cases to be written up, it is relatively candid and vivid in its portrayal of his behavior—so much so that it filled his nonpsychoanalytic contemporaries with alarm. The immediate scandal aroused by the Dora report taught Freud to be more circumspect in subsequent writings, but there is no sign that it altered his peremptory clinical style.

Father Knows Best resembles many another recent study of Dora in approaching the case from a manifestly feminist perspective. It distinguishes itself from most other accounts, however, by showing concern for Dora the actual person, whose escape from Freud’s orbit may not have been as free of consequence as other observers have assumed. Though the eighteen-year-old Bauer went to Freud unwillingly, he did represent her final hope of establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect with an authoritative adult. By betraying that hope in a singularly bullying way, Lakoff and Coyne maintain, Freud helped to ensure Bauer’s later unhappiness.

Whether or not this is so, there can be no doubt that, even by the standards of 1901, Freud’s treatment of Bauer constituted psychiatric malpractice. Granted, Freud could not have realized what now seems obvious, the sexual aggressiveness of his own behavior in attempting to force prurient suggestions upon his virginal teen-age patient. But as Lakoff and Coyne understand, what matters most is the larger picture, namely, that Freud withheld all sympathy from Bauer and assailed her self-esteem at every turn. Abetted by the bias of psychoanalytic theory away from real-life factors and toward sexual fantasy, he tried to convince Bauer that she herself, by virtue of having repressed her latent homosexuality, her fantasies of pregnancy and oral sex, and her memories of childhood masturbation and of the obligatory primal scene, was to blame for a distress that clearly had much to do with the current ugly situation into which she had been plunged by others. But that was not the worst of it, for he also tacitly sought her acquiescence in a scheme that can only be characterized as monstrous.

Lakoff and Coyne offer an exceptionally clear account of Bauer’s situation when she consulted Freud. The key facts are these:

  1. Her syphilitic father was having an affair with the wife of a close family friend, “Herr K.”
  2. Herr K himself had taken a sexual interest in Bauer since she was fourteen years old and was now pressing his attentions on her once again.
  3. Bauer’s father evidently found those attentions convenient, since Herr K’s proposed misconduct seemed no worse than his own and might distract Herr K from his role as cuckolded husband, thus leaving the father a free hand with Frau K.
  4. When Bauer complained to her father about this, he rebuffed her and sent her off to Freud to be cured not just of her numerous tics and suicidal thoughts but also of her insubordination.

Freud was only too happy to oblige. In Lakoff and Coyne’s summary, he demanded that Bauer “become aware of her responsibility for her predicament and on the basis of that awareness, modify her reactions, bringing them into conformity with the wishes of her milieu.” Prominent among those wishes was a desire that Bauer give up her antagonism to the pedophilic Herr K, whose intentions toward her had been made plain by a forced kiss when she was fourteen and a direct verbal invitation to sexual activity when she was sixteen, as well as by daily gifts and flowers. Accordingly, Freud labored to show Bauer not only that it had been hysterical on her part to spurn Herr K’s original kiss but also that she had been in love with him all along. 14

It is a pity, Freud tells us, that Dora spitefully cut off the treatment before he could bring her to this useful realization. If Herr K had learned “that the slap Dora gave him by no means signified a final ‘No’ on her part,” and if he had resolved “to press his suit with a passion which left room for no doubts, the result might very well have been a triumph of the girl’s affection for him over all her internal difficulties.” (SE, 7:109–110) In short, a sexually and morally uninhibited Bauer, rounded into psychic trim by Freud, would have been of service to both her father and Herr K, the two predatory males who, unlike any of the women in the story, basked in the glow of Freud’s unwavering respect.

It is this last aspect of gender bias that especially catches the interest of Lakoff and Coyne. Using the tools of their academic specialties—Lakoff’s is “linguistic pragmatics,” and Coyne’s is “interpersonal systems theory”—the coauthors take turns exploring the nonreciprocity between Freud and Dora. Freud, they show, overmastered and dehumanized his teen-age patient with his badgering. In doing so, Lakoff and Coyne maintain, Freud was redoubling the age-old subjection of women to masculine will by exploiting a power imbalance already inherent in the clinical setting.

Lakoff and Coyne suggest that all psychotherapy relies to some extent on such an imbalance, and they consider it indispensable to therapeutic progress. But psychoanalysis, they feel, tips the scales egregiously, and doubly so when the analyst is male and the analysand female. Freud’s personal quirks aside, Lakoff and Coyne argue, psychoanalysis as an institution—with its deliberate coldness, its cultivation of emotional regression, its depreciation of the patient’s self-perceptions as inauthentic, its reckless dispensation of guilt, its historic view of women’s moral inferiority and destined passivity, and its elastic interpretative license, allowing the analyst to be “right every time”—seems ideally geared to assaulting the very selfhood of insecure female patients.

The point is worth pondering, but the Dora case, precisely because it is one of the worst instances on record of sexist hectoring by a reputed healer, is not representative enough to convey it. If Lakoff and Coyne’s primary target was really psychoanalysis rather than Freud personally, they would have done better to show how the standard analytic “power imbalance” warps the conduct of cases in which the therapist behaves more rationally and humanely than Freud did with Bauer. Contemporary analysts, faced with Lakoff and Coyne’s critique, will have no trouble disowning “Dora” and maintaining that Father Knows Best overlooks the improved modern state of their craft.

Odd as it may seem, this book must also be judged insufficiently skeptical toward Freud himself. Because their interest stops at Freud’s tyrannizing over Bauer and his dismissal of her real-life predicament in favor of “an inspection of [her] internal, pre-existing conflicts,” Lakoff and Coyne rashly concede the accuracy of what he asserted about those conflicts. There is, they declare, “no clear reason to dispute any of Freud’s interpretations of the material”; he is “precisely on target with every interpretation that reflects poorly on Dora’s motives”; and in general, he “often displays a remarkably subtle analytic ear for language as his patients use it,” presumably in this case as well as in others. But these compliments defy the by now well-established fact that Freud’s hypersensitive ear was chiefly attuned to his own fanciful associations, not to Bauer’s. And his reconstructions of Bauer’s infantile habits, traumas, and repressions are, transparently, a tissue of flimsy preconceived ideas. As he aptly said in a letter to Fliess when he had known Bauer for scarcely a week, the case “has smoothly opened to the existing collection of picklocks” (Freud-Fliess Letters, p. 427).

There is, finally, the neglected but overarching issue of whether Bauer was ever a hysteric in the first place. Lakoff and Coyne casually assume that she was, but her immediate family featured a rich array of disorders, from asthma to tuberculosis to syphilis, that would have set off alarms in the mind of a responsible physician. We will probably never know whether Bauer suffered from an organic disease, because Freud made no attempt to find out. Instead, he followed his customary diagnostic procedure, which we have already seen at work with the Wolf Man and in the armchair case of Dostoevsky. That is, he leapt immediately to a conclusion that would permit him to put his trademark suppositions into play and then held to them like a pit bull—later, however, portraying himself as having gradually solved the case with all the prudent objectivity and uncanny astuteness of his favorite literary character, Sherlock Holmes.


Lakoff and Coyne’s hesitation about taking too adversary a position toward Freud and psychoanalysis illustrates the continuing resilience of the Freud legend, which tends to snap back into shape at every point that is not under immediate pressure. To a lesser extent, even James Rice’s steadily lucid book on Freud and Russia exhibits the same phenomenon. And so, as we shall see, does John Kerr’s otherwise superb A Most Dangerous Method. All four authors could have profited from scanning the other revisionist book to be considered here, Allen Esterson’s Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud. By concisely surveying the whole Freudian enterprise with a skeptical eye, Esterson dispels any impression that some parts of that enterprise have passed beyond controversy.

Except for an incisive discussion of the Wolf Man case establishing that Freud must have invented one of its key figures, the servant girl Grusha, Seductive Mirage does not add to our factual knowledge about Freud. Rather, it combines a close scrutiny of his ethics and rhetoric with criticism of his original “seduction theory” and its putative correction, his major case histories, his theories of neurosis and dream formation, his several reformulations of metapsychology, and his clinical technique and its results. Esterson’s book, I should emphasize, is not a polemic written by a long-time foe of psychoanalysis. It is a piece of careful and sustained reasoning by a mathematician who happens to be offended by specious means of argumentation. And its eventual verdict—that every notion and practice peculiar to psychoanalysis is open to fundamental objection—rests on evidence that any reader can check by following up Esterson’s cited sources.15

Because people do have such a hard time perceiving the nakedness of Emperor Freud, Seductive Mirage will prove especially illuminating for the attention it gives to Freud’s seduction theory and its sequel, the founding of psychoanalysis per se. After all, to take note of Freud’s unsuccess with individual patients like Dora and the Wolf Man leaves the working assumptions of psychoanalysis largely uncompromised. There is always the possibility that Freud simply had little aptitude for therapeutically applying his perfectly sound principles. But if, with Esterson, we uncover grave flaws of reasoning or even outright fraudulence behind the cases that supposedly compelled Freud to adopt those principles, the stakes of the game are considerably raised.

As Esterson relates, up until a certain day in 1897 there was no such thing as psychoanalysis. The method of investigation was in place, but it was producing “findings” of an opposite purport—namely, that hysteria and obsessional neurosis were caused by the repression of actual sexual abuse in childhood. Psychoanalysis came into existence when Freud reinterpreted the very same clinical data to indicate that it must have been his patients themselves, when scarcely out of the cradle, who had predisposed themselves to neurosis by harboring and then repressing incestuous designs of their own. Every later development of psychoanalytic theory would crucially rely upon this root hypothesis, which spared Freud the embarrassment of having to discard his most cherished concept, that of repression. But had he actually discovered anything, and if so, where was his evidence for it?

As Esterson reminds us, the controversy over Freud’s seduction theory has concentrated on whether the accusatory tales recounted by his patients were believable. Some feminists and defenders of children follow Jeffrey Masson in holding that those stories were true and that Freud showed a failure of nerve in renouncing them.16 Freudians, by contrast, take it for granted that the stories were false. In Peter Gay’s words, “for a time [Freud] continued to accept as true his patients’ lurid recitals,” until he reluctantly concluded that he had been told “a collection of fairy tales.”17 But Esterson, drawing on pioneering studies by Frank Cioffi and Jean G. Schimek among others, demonstrates that both parties have been drastically misled. 18 The question they should have posed to themselves is not, Were those stories true? but rather, What stories?

It was Freud himself who taught both his followers and his adversaries to take the seduction narratives seriously as productions of his patients’ minds. Beginning in 1914, some twenty years after his work on the pivotal cases, he repeatedly asserted that “almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father” and that he had innocently believed those narratives until their cumulative unlikelihood became too apparent (SE, 22:120; see also 14:17 and 20:33–34). But as Esterson makes unavoidably clear, Freud’s papers from the Nineties expose this claim as a cover-up for a very different state of affairs.

“Before they come for analysis,” Freud declared in 1896, “the patients know nothing about these scenes…. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them” (SE, 3:204). “The principal point,” he revealed, “is that I should guess the secret and tell it to the patient straight out” (SE, 2:281). And he confessed that even after his patients had been “induced” to join in the story making, “they have no feeling of remembering the scenes” thus concocted (SE, 3:204); emphasis added). Here is the heart of the matter. As in the case of the Wolf Man’s and Dora’s primal scenes, Freud himself laid down the outlines of the seduction plots, which were then fleshed out from “clues” supplied by his bewildered and frightened patients, whose signs of distress he took to be proof that his constructions were correct.19

Freud’s motive, in later years, for trying to hide his principal authorship of his patients’ “scenes” is easy to discern. The myth of the birth of psychoanalysis required that some sexual material have been presented to Freud for explanation. Otherwise, even a simpleton would be able to detect the fallacious means by which Freud segued from the seduction theory to psychoanalysis proper. In Esterson’s words, “having decided that his own constructions [about childhood sexual abuse] are untrue he concludes that they are not genuine occurrences, but are phantasies of his patients!” That was exactly the indefensible leap Freud had taken, but it disappeared from view as soon as he convinced his critics, and perhaps himself as well, that his patients had come to him with “lurid recitals.”

Given Freud’s severe problem with reality testing, it may seem wonderful that he was able to let go of his seduction theory at all. But here again, dishonesty and cowardice played a larger role than rationality. In the spring of 1896 he had already delivered a talk announcing the seduction theory to Viennese neurologists and psychiatrists, claiming that his views had been borne out by “some eighteen cases of hysteria,” treated on the whole with “therapeutic success” (SE, 3:199). We now know from the uncensored Freud-Fliess letters that, at the time, Freud had not resolved a single one of his thirteen cases; nor, despite increasingly frantic efforts, did he ever do so. As the months dragged on and his patients wandered away, disillusioned, each of them became a potential refuter of his seduction claims. Somehow he had to minimize his exposure to the revelation that those people had been neither sexually abused nor cured of their symptoms. His means of doing so was to slap together a new theory whereby it no longer mattered what had happened to patients in their infancy, since in their fantasy life they and every other child who ever breathed had been the would-be seducers—namely, of their opposite-sex parents.

Freud had a plain medical and scientific obligation to retract his seduction theory as soon as he realized its implausibility in 1897. Instead, he publicly reaffirmed it in the following year (SE, 3:263). By 1905, in the Dora case history, he was taking the desperate tack of pretending that his published conclusions of 1895 and 1896 had already been fully psychoanalytic; the Dora case, he maintained, would “substantiate” those findings (SE, 7:7). And even when he felt secure enough to admit his seduction mistake and turn it to rhetorical advantage, he continued to adulterate the facts. In 1896 the alleged seducers of infants were said to have been governesses, teachers, servants, strangers, and siblings, but in later descriptions Freud retroactively changed most of them to fathers so that a properly oedipal spin could be placed on the recycled material. At every stage, earlier acts of fakery and equivocation were compounded by fresh ones. And this pattern, as Esterson shows in devastating detail, holds for the entirety of Freud’s psychoanalytic career.

Dissembling aside, it was no coincidence that the key amendment enabling psychoanalysis to begin its colorful history was one that placed Freud altogether beyond the reach of empirically based objections. Thenceforth, he and his successors could claim to be dealing with evidence that was undetectable by any means other than his own clinical technique—the same technique, as Esterson emphasizes, that had generated the false tales of seduction. Instead of spelling out that technique for the sake of the medically solicitous or the scientifically curious, Freud chose to keep it a mystery that he would unveil only to disciples whom he trusted to accept his word without cavil.

In a word, then, Freud had launched a pseudoscience—that is, a nominally scientific enterprise which is so faulty at the core that it cannot afford to submit its hypotheses for unsparing peer review by the wider community, but must instead resort to provisos that forestall any possibility of refutation. And despite some well-intentioned efforts at reform, a pseudoscience is what psychoanalysis has remained.20 Such a doctrine can accrue any number of theoretical niceties as it continually trims its sails to the Zeitgeist, but it can never confront the nullity of its knowledge claims, since to do so would be institutional suicide.

It is precisely the institutional emergence of psychoanalysis—its metamorphosis from Freud’s personal hobbyhorse to a contentious and internally riven movement—that occupies the final book under review here, John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. As its subtitle indicates, this impressive work is essentially a narrative, one that spans the crucial years (1904–1914) of Freud’s volatile collaboration and eventual falling out with Jung. But the narrative is informed at all points by Kerr’s discriminating awareness of methodological issues. The story he tells is not just a dramatic tale of professional empire building, ethnic mistrust, erotic complications, and vendettas; it is also an account of the haphazard way in which psychoanalytic doctrine acquired some of its major lineaments. For Kerr, the deeply antiscientific character of Freudianism—with its unformalized procedures, its gratuitous causal assertions, and its appeal to evidence consisting of unobservable buried wishes—left a rational void that could only be filled by exercises of personal power.

Thus readers of A Most Dangerous Method who grasp the complex interactions between Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, the hitherto under-appreciated woman who inadvertently sharpened the co-leaders’ differences and precipitated their split, will find that they have also acquired insight into the surprisingly negotiable content of psychoanalysis itself. Because Freud was reluctant to say just what he meant by psychoanalysis, and because he was principally concerned to launch an international movement that would leave behind his hapless circle of misfits and drudges in Vienna, it appeared for a while that Jung, his chosen heir, could bend the emerging “science” to spiritualizing purposes of his own. Eventually, of course, Freud proved adamant on large and small points of dogma—but not before he and Jung had freely traded speculations and turned psychoanalytic theory building into a tense dialogue of coded thrusts and parries.

In several respects, A Most Dangerous Method serves as an invaluable corrective to received views about the Jung-Freud relationship. Kerr establishes, for example, that in prestige Jung was by no means the supplicant “son” to the authoritative “father,” Freud. Because the Zurich contingent commanded a psychiatric clinic and had already published well-regarded research, “it was Jung and [Eugen] Bleuler who put Freud on the scientific map, not the other way around.” Similarly, the common assumption that Jung was the less empirically minded of the two thinkers cannot survive Kerr’s penetrating discussion. Freud was more suspicious of idealizations than Jung, but the latter, for all his woolly emphasis on a guiding subliminal self, adhered to hypotheses about conflict and regression that required fewer leaps of faith than Freud’s.

Whereas Jung believed, plausibly, that the failure of patients to cope with present dilemmas caused them to act regressively, Freud saddled himself with a counterintuitive structure of inextinguishable, polymorphously perverse wishes and repressions that were supposed to become suddenly virulent many years after their formation, dwarfing the patient’s contemporary sources of trouble and requiring a mode of analysis that demeaned those sources as trivial. Thus, while Freud treated the patient’s unconscious as an obscure and devious text to be deciphered through the cracking of resistances, Jung saw the unconscious as a potential ally that deserved to be courted and activated. Jung may have been naive in his optimism and reckless (as Freud was) about the transmission of ancestral impulses, but his supportive and enabling attitude forestalled the kind of injury that Freud wrought on Dora, the Wolf Man, and others as he prodded them for “memories” that would shore up his dubious premises.

We are often admonished that Freud’s work should not be held accountable to stricter standards than those prevailing in his own day. As Kerr shows, however, Freud’s peers understood both the man and his errors more clearly than have the generations that came of age after psychoanalysis had acquired its transatlantic vogue. Freud, observed William James in 1909, is “obsessed with fixed ideas”; in the words of Poul Bjerre, he possessed “an infelicitous tendency to drive one-sidedness to absurdity.” His refusal to provide extensive case data to support his notions aroused generally unfavorable comment. As for his therapeutic regimen, James Jackson Putnam remarked in 1906 that it established a “dependence of the patient upon the physician which it may, in the end, be difficult to get rid of.” And Putnam added that such unhealthy closeness allows the therapist to impose his sexual pre-occupations through suggestion. As Albert Moll astutely observed,

Much in the alleged histories has been introduced by the suggestive questioning of the examiner…. The impression produced in my mind is that the theory of Freud and his followers suffices to account for the clinical histories, not that the clinical histories suffice to prove the truth of the theory.

Above all, A Most Dangerous Method is useful for the light it throws on the ossification of psychoanalysis, during the period of the Freud-Jung struggle, into what Kerr calls “a totalizing worldview.” Kerr is at his best when showing how inevitable it was that psychoanalysis be plagued by sectarianism and, in its reconstituted core, patched together by enforced ideological conformity. Running through this book, subtly but insistently, is a parallel between psychoanalysis and a modern totalitarian regime in which propaganda campaigns and heresy trials come to preempt free debate. That analogy becomes inescapable when Kerr recounts the activity of Freud’s top-secret “Committee,” convened in 1912 by none other than Freud’s official biographer-to-be, Ernest Jones, and taking as its mission the shielding of Freud from criticism by promulgating whatever his latest line might be and by heaping ridicule on his opponents. This Orwellian project, which continued until 1926 and remained undisclosed until 1944, guaranteed that the sounding board for Freud’s newest fancies, like those of any insecure dictator, would be an echo chamber.

Unsettling though it is, Kerr’s discussion of the inquisitorial “Committee” will not be considered either his most original or his most shocking contribution to revisionist Freud scholarship.21 That distinction belongs to two “love stories,” one solidly documented and the other quite speculative, that Kerr regards as having crucially affected Freud’s and Jung’s perception and treatment of each other. The less certain of those stories shouldn’t affect our picture of Freud unless it is borne out by further research. But in the better-established case of Sabina Spielrein’s affair with Jung, at least, we gain some valuable insight into the sexual ethics of the earliest psychoanalysts and the sexual politics that affected the shaping of both Freudian and Jungian theory.

Briefly, Sabina Spielrein began as Jung’s patient in Zurich, became his soul friend and mistress, drifted into Freud’s orbit when the already married Jung deemed her a liability, and gained equivocal acceptance as a Freudian analyst in Vienna, thereafter returning to her native Russia to introduce and champion psychoanalysis until Stalin closed it down as counterrevolutionary.22 In the course of that career—brought to a barbaric end when Spielrein and the other Jews of Rostov-on-Don were herded into a synagogue and shot by Nazi troops in 1941—Spielrein worked not just with Freud and Jung but also with such other luminaries as Jean Piaget, A.R. Luria, and Alexander Vygotsky, the latter two being for a while her protégés in Moscow.

As Kerr is at some pains to argue, the one point on which Spielrein has hitherto received general credit, that of having anticipated Freud’s concept of a death instinct, is largely a misapprehension. On the other hand, Kerr shows, Spielrein has not been properly acknowledged as the prototype of Jung’s “anima,” the female presence that supposedly occupies a command post within a man’s unconscious. But that attenuated form of immortality looks like small recompense for Spielrein’s suffering because of Jung’s sexual hypocrisy and the icy misogyny with which she was greeted by Freud’s small-minded cadre in Vienna.

Freud had heard directly from Spielrein about her involvement with her psychiatrist Jung, and he knew that the aspirations of the paterfamilias and hospital officer Jung in Protestant Zurich could have been considerably thwarted by word of that affair.23 As he incurred more and more of Freud’s intellectual displeasure, Jung trembled before the prospect of exposure by Freud, who had a well-known record of dealing unscrupulously with former friends.24 But if Kerr is right, Jung held a higher card that could be played if necessary: Freud himself was the potential subject of an even more damaging story, one about a sexual involvement with his own sister-in-law.

It was Peter Swales—by all odds the canniest and most dogged, as well as the most irrepressible, of Freud researchers—who first systematically argued that Freud, during the decades spanning the turn of the century, may have consoled himself for his then sexless, intellectually sterile marriage by sleeping with his usual traveling companion and confidante, Minna Bernays.25 The idea has been summarily dismissed by Freudians, who find it incompatible with the high-mindedness they associate with the discoverer of ubiquitous incest wishes.26 But Swales’s essay on the topic abounds in arresting circumstantial evidence. And we do know for certain that Jung confidentially told a number of people that the morally distressed Bernays herself had revealed the secret to him in person. It is equally clear that something induced Freud and Jung alike to step back from mud-slinging and to end their collaboration on relatively civil terms. To put it mildly, the jury is still out on the Freud-Bernays question.

Meanwhile, of course, there remains the less sensational but more important issue of whether anything is salvageable from a once respected body of theory whose evidential grounds have proved so flimsy. On this point, I must say, John Kerr is not always helpful or consistent. At moments he forgets his own powerful account of the psychoanalytic movement’s early and decisive break with the scientific ethos—as, for example, when he refers to Freud as “a systematic thinker of the highest rank,” or when he characterizes the typically self-flattering Rat Man case as “a stunning demonstration of the method and a matchless psychological study in its own right.” Kerr also seems occasionally inclined to lay all the subsequent troubles of the psychoanalytic movement at the door of the Jung-Freud clash. Freudians who are willing to come to grips with the shameful side of their history, he tell us, may yet be able to “renovate [psychoanalysis] or build extensions” upon it.

It may be pertinent to note here that A Most Dangerous Method began as a dissertation directed by a psychoanalyst, though a relatively critical one, Robert Holt. In a concluding bibliographical essay, Kerr tells us that Holt’s (distinctly waffling) book of 1989, Freud Reappraised, has served as one of his essential guides to the scientific standing of psychoanalysis. Has Kerr, like the Frank Sulloway of the unrevised 1979 Freud, Biologist of the Mind, written a major study of psychoanalysis that is still residually under the spell of the Freud legend? If so, I would like to think that his further development will also follow Sulloway’s. For now, I am left wondering which wing of the ramshackle Freudian edifice could be deemed solid enough to “build extensions” on.

A Most Dangerous Method does make a case for psychoanalysis as having been a progressive force at the turn of the century, when psychiatry was burdened with sinister theories of hereditary degeneration and racial inferiority. We should be grateful to the early Freudians, Kerr tells us, for their candor about sex, their cultivation of a developmental perspective, their addressing of the problems and opportunities posed by transference, and their belief in deep and intricate continuities among a patient’s disparate productions of symptom and language. Though one could retort that the Freudian craze postponed investigative approaches that have proved more fruitful than psychoanalysis, this perspective has some merit. To be deemed progressive, after all, a psychological movement needn’t put forward accurate hypotheses about the mind; it need only raise useful new questions and attract followers who are eager to put aside the older dispensation.

Let us not remain in doubt, however, about whether psychoanalysis remains a vanguard influence today. Incorrect but widely dispersed ideas about the mind inevitably end by causing social damage. Thanks to the once imposing prestige of psychoanalysis, people harboring diseases or genetic conditions have deferred effective treatment while scouring their infantile past for the sources of their trouble. Parents have agonized about having caused their children’s homosexuality. Women have accepted a view of themselves as inherently envious, passive, and amoral. And, most recently, even our criminal justice system has suffered episodes of delusion. As I write, a number of parents and child-care providers are serving long prison terms, and others are awaiting trial, on the basis of therapeutically induced “memories” of child sexual abuse that never in fact occurred.27 Although the therapists in question are hardly Park Avenue psychoanalysts, the tradition of Freudian theory and practice unmistakably lies behind their tragic deception of both patients and jurors.

This claim will, I know, strike most readers as a slur on Freud and his movement. Didn’t psychoanalysis arise precisely from a denial that certain alleged molestations were veridical? But we have seen earlier that it was Freud’s technique of breaking down resistance that brought those charges into being in the first place, and we have further seen that the same technique, unaltered in any way, saddled Dora and the Wolf Man with initially unremembered primal scenes. By virtue of his prodding, both before and after he devised psychoanalytic theory, to get his patients to “recall” nonexistent sexual events, Freud is the true historical sponsor of “false memory syndrome.” Indeed, the modern cases hinge absolutely on Freud’s still unsubstantiated notion that children routinely repress anxiety-producing memories—for how else could their initial denial of having been molested be so blithely set aside? Moreover, our incest Pied Pipers are following the most basic, if also the least noted, of all Freudian precedents, a discounting of the suggestibility of patients under emotional stress.28

Freud’s net legacy, then, may not be quite so positive as the conventional wisdom assumes. While we are assessing it, we can only applaud the efforts of revisionist scholars to restore to us the historical Freud who, before his own promotional efforts and those of his clandestine “Committee” rendered him sacrosanct, used to be regarded with healthy skepticism. The new Freud studies are having the salutary effect of putting the deviser of psychoanalysis back where he stood at the turn of the century, possessed of a hobbyhorse about the infantile-sexual roots of neurosis and having to win over a sophisticated audience of doubters. The first time around, Freud prevailed by snubbing his most acute critics and posturing before lay readers who knew only that he stood in the forefront of the anti-Victorian camp. This time, it seems, he will not be so lucky.

This Issue

November 18, 1993