The Book Club

Pollitt and Sullivan

Hello, Andrew,

I looked forward keenly to this week’s book, Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, a collection of writings edited by Frederick Crews. He is the former Freudian literary critic and scholar turned celebrated debunker of psychoanalysis and scourge of recovered-memorists, who has been holding forth for the last several years with great verve and passion in the pages of the New York Review of Books. In NYRB, Crews definitely was on a roll–mocking, gleeful, slashing at all corners with Voltairean wit and scorn. His immediate target was the recovered memory movement which actually doesn’t have a lot to do with psychoanalysis–indeed, Freudians have been attacked by many feminists and other critics for tending to disbelieve patients’ reports of incest and rape–but the issues Crews raised had much broader application: where is the verification of the analyst’s interpretations, for example? Where’s the quality control? What counts as a “cure”?

Like many people who’ve either had some analysis or known people who have done so (both, in my case), I find myself rather hard put to say exactly what good it does–or rather, what good it does that other types of therapy don’t. Classical Freudian theory, in which everything derives from the sex drive, seems quite mad to me, quite apart from the misogyny, the confusion of conformity with psychological health (especially in the U.S.), and the fact that, as with theology, the territory analysis claims for itself seems only to shrink, never expand. In case after case–autism, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder–serious mental illnesses attributed by Freudians to childhood trauma (usually caused by Mom), have turned out to have neurological origins and to be much better treated through drugs and behavioral therapy. It’s useless for alcoholism and drug addiction–worse, a life-threatening time-waster. And then there are all those people once considered pathological and in dire need of the couch–homosexuals, women not thrilled with their assigned “role,” political and social rebels of whatever stripe–who seem quite normal now. As medicine or science or Great Monocausal Explanation of Everything, psychoanalysis doesn’t have all that much to show for its hundred years. The people I know who swear by it are all, curiously enough, writers, who see it as a voyage of self-discovery.

Primed as I was to relish Unauthorized Freud, I found it simultaneously fascinating and unsatisfying. Crews has scissored and pasted a kind of greatest hits of anti-Freud scholarship–the eighteen selections include writings by Adolph Grunbaum, Sebastian Timpanaro, Peter Swales, Rosemarie Sand, and Frank J. Sulloway–in which Freud is variously portrayed as a fabricator, a malpractioner, a manipulator, and a crackpot. His celebrated case studies of Anna O., Dora, the Wolf Man, Little Hans and others are fraudulent, basically self-serving little fictions trimmed to serve as “proof” of theories which otherwise had none. His basic technique was to bully the patient into accepting some wild inference by sheer force of personality and skilled use of the No-means-Yes gambit: that is, if you accept the analyst’s interpretation of your motives, he’s right, and if you deny it, he’s also right: you’re just resisting. Freud claimed to have cured people (the Wolf Man) who remained troubled for life, and interfered disastrously in the lives of his patients for venal purposes. In the last section, Lavinia Edmunds documents Freud’s manipulation of Horace Frink, whom he had selected to lead the cause to psychoanalysis in the United States, into divorcing his wife and marrying his own patient, the wealthy and married Angelika Bijur, with tragic results for the new couple and their castoff spouses. “Your complain that you cannot grasp your homosexuality,” Freud wrote the bewildered Frink, who was resisting the notion he was gay and therefore needed to marry Bijur right away, “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.” Crews charges further that after Freud’s death, the keepers of the flame–his daughter Anna Freud, Kurt Eissler, head of the Freud Archives–strove mightily to keep all Freud’s unsavory doings from public view, restricting access to Freud’s papers and doing their best to thwart journalists from tracking down people, like the disenchanted Wolf Man, who would cast doubt on any aspect of the legend.

Crew’s Freud, in a word, couldn’t be more of a charlatan: he’s infatuated with cocaine, with the insane theories of Wilhelm Fliess, with hypnotism–this last the real, irredeemably tainted source, along with Freud’s own vivid imagination, of the “memories” of childhood sexual abuse that Freud first claimed were real and later decided represented the patients’ repressed wishes. Like the repressed memory victims of today, Crews argues, Freud’s patients were basically trying to please their therapist. In one of the cleverest sections, Sebastian Timpanaro uses linguistics to deconstruct the concept of the Freudian Slip: the young man in “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” who misquotes a line from Vergil, allowing a Sherlock Holmesian Freud to deduce that he is afraid his girlfriend is pregnant, was only banalizing his half-remembered schoolboy Latin–that is, making it more like his native German. Timpanaro has fun showing how easy it is to construct a chain of free associations between any word and any other.

And yet, despite my own anti-Freud skepticism, I have to say I don’t think Unauthorized Freud delivers the knock-out punch to psychoanalysis Crews aims for. It’s too literal-mindedly obsessed with the personality and works of Freud himself, for one thing. Most analysts today are not such fundamentalists (although there are still some of those around, to be sure–an analyst friend recently told me of one of her colleagues, who refused to prescribe anti-depressants because they violated the principle of the talking cure). They honor Freud as the Founder, who asked deep questions and had some profound insights, not as the Master of revealed and complete truth. At least that’s what they say when pressed about now-notorious scandals like the botched nasal surgery Freud and his nutty colleague Fliess imagined would cure the problems of Emma Eckstein. After all, in 1900 physical medicine was full of quackery too.

There’s something of the village atheist about Crews (and I say that as a nonbeliever myself). He’s like those people that write pamphlets trying to prove there was never a historical Jesus. Even if he’s right, and Freud was a monster, his method a tissue of logical fallacies, Crews’ own explanatory framework, his sense of life, feels too thin to provide a satisfying replacement. Although he alludes approvingly to the existence of some hundred-plus non-Freudian forms of therapy, you never get a sense that he believes that people’s motives are ever hidden from them, that childhood does indeed mark the personality, that we don’t, after all, always mean what we say. Why is it that so many people keep repeating patterns that all their friends know perfectly well make them miserable, choosing the wrong kind of partner–and always the same wrong kind!--sabotaging their own dearest desires, arranging in the most ingenious and elaborate ways, their own frustration in love, work, life? These seem to me questions about which Freud has some suggestive things to say–and that have a lot to do with why people enter psychoanalysis today. You can argue that other therapies work better, and maybe they do–certainly most are faster and cheaper. But what’s missing from Crew’s demolition project is an acknowledgement that it is not always enough to tell people to pull themselves together and be sensible. In fact, it’s almost never enough!

What did you think?