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.

The key word is “forsaken.” The Memoirs are an account of what it is to be forsaken by everything familiar and real, and of the delusionary world that gets invented in its place. As Freud said, “the delusion is found applied like a patch over the place where originally a rent has appeared in the ego’s relation to the external world.”

The complicated, mythic universe that Schreber in his captivity created—an affair of rays and miracles, struggles against the “Order of the World”—concerned itself with issues of realness and unreality, identity and fusion, power and passivity. His own identity having been invaded, fragmented, distorted, and annihilated, a story had to be found that made sense of it. The more terrible the violations, the more grandiose the explanations. He was forsaken; so “since the dawn of the world there can hardly have been a case like mine, in which a human being entered into continual contact…with the totality of all souls and with God’s omnipotence itself.” He was shut away and forgotten; so “since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns.” Nobody cared if he lived or died; so “what detailed measures God would have to adopt after my death I feel I can hardly as much as speculate on.” All meaning had left his life; so “it is still my conviction that this is the truth—that I had had to solve one of the most intricate problems ever set for man and that I had to fight a sacred battle for the greatest good of mankind.” He was totally lonely; so crowds of shadowy figures flitted in and out of his body—at one time no fewer than 240 Benedictine monks, under the leadership of a Jesuit father. His mind had been emptied; so it was taken over by compulsions—“the nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man’s natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest…was from the beginning denied me by the rays.” So the emptiness of his cell was filled up with tormenting activity; though as his plight became more terrifying, “bad news came in from all sides that even this or that star or this or that group of stars had to be ‘given up’; at one time it was said that even Venus had ‘flooded,’ at another that the whole solar system would now have to be ‘disconnected.”‘

Schreber’s delusionary systems are a kind of parody of the preoccupations of philosophy: How did he know who he was? that anyone else existed? What was time? Was there free will? In particular, what was real and what was not? His views on this were formed by his forsakenness. As he was moved from Flechsig’s private asylum to the more brutal public one of Weber, his ability to believe in the realness of other people waned, and he arrived at the category of “fleetingly-improvised” people. These creatures arbitrarily came and went, no longer having the solidity he would once have ascribed to them. On the journey to Sonnenstein public asylum he caught a glimpse of the outside world, but “I did not know whether to take the streets of Leipzig through which I travelled as only theatre props, perhaps in the fashion in which Prince Potemkin is said to have put them up for Empress Catherine II of Russia during her travels through the desolate country, so as to give her the impression of a flourishing countryside.” He was inclined to believe, in any case, that the rest of the human race had in fact perished, for “the impression gained hold of me that the period in question, which, according to human calculation, stretched only over three to four months, had covered an immensely long period…. I therefore thought I was the last real human being left, and that the few human shapes whom I saw…were only ‘fleetingly-improvised-men’ created by miracle.” He had no watch, and his shutters were locked at night, so that “I regarded the starry sky as largely, if not wholly, extinguished.”

Schreber’s identity underwent startling changes. These are reminiscent of William James’s description of self-fragmentation in insanity in his Principles of Psychology:

One patient has another self that repeats all his thoughts for him…. Another has two bodies, lying in different beds. Some patients feel as if they had lost parts of their bodies, teeth, brains, stomach, etc. In some it is made of wood, glass, butter, etc.

“Attempts,” says Schreber, “were made to falsify my mental individuality in all sorts of ways.” He was put into an inferior body, had to share his skull with other souls, acquired a profusion of heads. Flechsig’s and Weber’s souls insinuated themselves into his body. The inside of his skull was even lined with a foreign membrane so that he should forget who he was. Innumerable tortures were inflicted: the compression-of-the-chest miracle (which Schatzman and others have linked with the wearing of the Geradehalter), the head-compression machine, the stealing of his stomach, the invasion of the lungworm. He was not allowed to sit, lie, or stand: “Rays did not seem to appreciate at all that a human being who actually exists must be somewhere.”

Poison was injected into him; though the voices told him that if he must be forsaken, he should be forsaken with a pure body. Sometimes the voices said things that sound as if they came from Schreber père: “Do not think about certain parts of your body”; “A job started must be finished.” Sometimes, as when Virginia Woolf heard the birds speaking in Greek, the voices put themselves into birds who called “Are you not ashamed?” when he fed them. Freud in his paper on Schreber did not investigate the mystery of “voices”: how it is that speech, presumably inner speech from the patient’s mind, appears so forcibly to come from outside. Along with Socrates and Saint Joan, Freud had in fact experienced this himself; he describes it in an early paper on aphasia:

I remember having twice been in danger in my life, and each time the awareness of the danger occurred to me quite suddenly. On both occasions I felt “this was the end,” and while otherwise my inner language proceeded with only indistinct sound images and slight lip movements, in these situations of danger I heard the words as if somebody was shouting them into my ear, and at the same time I saw them as if they were printed on a piece of paper floating in the air.

There is a kind of awesome literary charge in the sheer fertility of the mad imagination. When the rays said that Schreber was to be reincarnated, it was to be as, first, a “Hyperborean woman,” then a “Jesuit Novice in Ossegg,” then a “Burgomaster of Klattau,” then “an Alsatian girl who had to defend her honour against a victorious French officer,” and finally “a Mongolian Prince.” The whole cast of a surrealist play immediately springs into being. If there was in fact a compensation for poor Schreber in his sufferings, it was that the mind freed from reason is full of pictures. He speaks of the joy of “picturing”:

It has truly often been a consolation and comfort in the unending monotony of my dreary life, in the mental tortures I suffered from the nonsensical twaddle of voices. What great joy to be able to picture again in my mind’s eye recollections of journeys and landscapes, sometimes—when the rays behave favourably—with surprising faithfulness and true colour.

Mountains, people, entire operas were called up at will. His deliberate picturing became a weapon against the involuntary hallucinations: “Seeing pictures purifies rays…they then enter into me without their usual destructive force. For this reason attempts are regularly made by counter-miracles to blot out what I have ‘pictured’; but I am usually victorious.” Other kinds of imaginative work figured in the return to a precarious sanity that enabled Schreber to gain his release. First among these was playing the piano. One was put into his room for his sole use; his feelings on seeing it he expresses by a quotation from Tannhaüser: “I could only remember that I had lost all hope of ever greeting you again or ever raising my eyes to you.” He began to remember that he had forgotten. Music, having its own recollected laws, also defeated the rays: “During piano playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned…. Every attempt at ‘representing’ me by the ‘creation of a false feeling’ and suchlike is doomed to end in failure because of the real feeling one can put into piano playing.” Playing an aria from The Magic Flute—“Oh, I feel it, it has vanished, gone for ever”—he found music embodying truths that he recognized. Other mitigations of his forsakenness—seeing a children’s procession in the street, getting a letter from a relative with an identifiable stamp on—began to win him round to the idea that the human race still existed. He drowned the voices by learning pieces of poetry by heart, he played chess with other patients. What remains missing up to the end is feeling itself; no tears are recorded.

Lothane calls his final chapter “The Dreams and Dramas of Love,” arguing that these are what form a hidden text both in the Memoirs and in Freud’s paper. “Schreber’s hallucinations and delusions were speeches, gestures, and cries of anguish and pain, of love unrequited.” They symbolized the tears. Lothane points out how little, in view of Schreber’s transvestite fantasies, we know about the place of the women in his life. From family testimony it seems that his mother was a strong matriarch, indeed must have been when Moritz withdrew into his long depression. In spite of his father’s legacy of manly exhortations, she could have been the stronger figure for Schreber to identify with. Perhaps a suppressed femininity in Moritz had to be acted out by his son; perhaps the son had to throw out an unreal masculine ethos clamped on him like the Geradehalter. It is an irony that the commanding Moritz Schreber is remembered after all for being the father of a madman.

Too little is known also about Schreber’s wife, Sabine. The chapter that was removed from the Memoirs for discretion’s sake might have many relevant secrets in it. She is known to have been close to her influential father, to have admired Flechsig and kept a photograph of him on her desk, to have consented to her husband’s forced removal to a public asylum, and to have been far from eager to have him home. All could have been good cause for “cries of anguish and pain.” The couple’s adopted daughter, Fridoline, told an interviewer in her old age that her adoptive father was “more of a mother to me than my mother”; she preferred him, because he was “loving, just and kind.” There is some mystery about Fridoline’s adoption and it has even been suggested that she was Sabine’s illegitimate daughter, but there is no proof. There were certainly dreams and dramas in the Schreber family.

The Memoirs will probably go on and on being written about; as Lothane says, they reveal something new on every rereading. No one else who has been as mad and as hallucinated as Schreber was has described with such detail and lucidity what happened to him. In following Schreber’s testimony on what shapes the mind breaks up into when it goes wrong, it is as though we are also seeing a spool of film unwind, which records the putting-together of reality from infancy onward. Step by step, the ordinary growing child puts together time and space and identity. Schreber deconstructs them.

This Issue

March 3, 1994