Sigmund Freud and the Mystery of Psychoanalysis

Shadia B. Drury

Freud: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2017, ISBN 9781627797177 768 pp. Hardcover, $40.00.


The appeal of Freudian psychoanalysis is something of a mystery. How did a man with a set of bizarre ideas—Oedipus complex, castration complex, penis envy, urethral eroticism, repression, sublimation, neurosis, psychosis, and the unconscious—become so readily part of the fabric of Western civilization? The simple answer is that he claimed to heal people’s suffering from all sorts of physical as well as neurological disorders—anxieties, tremors, fears, and phobias. The psychoanalytic cure is built on a simple premise: traumatic experiences, thoughts, and even fantasies are repressed or banished into the unconscious, where they supposedly wreak havoc. The point of psychoanalysis is to plumb the unconscious, tease out these hidden thoughts or memories, and bring them to the light of day. But why is bringing painful memories to the fore cathartic? Does this cure work?

In Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews provides an exhaustively researched intellectual biography of Freud in which he provides an answer to those who wonder how exactly the psychoanalytic cure works. He illustrates, brick by brick and plank by plank, how Freud perpetrated a grand swindle that has absolutely no basis in science or in any empirical observations whatsoever. Crews illustrates that the cure does not work—and has never worked. All the successful cases that Freud boasts about in his writings are lies. Freud has never cured anyone, and most of his patients ended up worse off as a result of his care. Freud was a charlatan, a fraud, and a swindler. He did not make a single medical discovery—he had no medical aptitude whatsoever.

To illustrate Freud’s intellectual credulity, Crews provides evidence that Freud was a believer in the magic of cocaine. He was convinced that it was a totally harmless elixir that could cure any ailment. He prescribed it to his patients liberally and used it himself to deal with his migraines, crippling depression, black moods, and social inadequacy. Crews suspects that cocaine also clouded Freud’s judgment and made him even more incompetent as a physician than he might have been.

Crews uncovers a mind-boggling array of botched cases and medical malpractice that make it patently clear that, far from being at the cutting edge of neurological science, Freud represents a setback in the history of mental care. For example, Freud joined the bandwagon of recommending hysterectomy, ovariectomy, and clitoridectomy for nervous women. He was even inclined to treat women suffering from “unwholesome female intellectuality” with electricity, bed-rest, and a rich diet to fatten them up for childbearing.

Another example of the tragic consequences of Freud’s vacillation from one implausible theory to the next is the shift from the molestation theory to the Oedipus complex. In the former, the source of neurotic symptoms was believed to be the repressed memory of sexual molestation in childhood—fathers were identified as the primary culprits. In contrast, the Oedipus theory shifted the blame onto the child’s own repressed sexual fantasy—the desire to copulate with the parent of the opposite sex; it blamed the child—even in cases where the child had in fact been molested. Both theories had tragic consequences.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, under the influence of the feminist movement, psychoanalysis revived the theory of sexual molestation. By using hypnosis, psychoanalysts were able to conjure up fictitious memories of childhood molestation. The result was the criminalization of family members, especially fathers. Some lost their reputations and their jobs. Others went to prison. Families were destroyed.

Crews writes like a novelist, and the book reads like a psychodrama. The protagonist is the cunning, clawing, ambitious, morally unscrupulous Freud—whose ruthless quest for fame, wealth, and success was achieved at the cost of his patients, friends, colleagues, and his long-suffering wife, Martha Bernays. Crews focuses with dogged persistence not only on Freud’s ineptitude but also on his character. Why? Because Crews thinks that the power of psychoanalysis has its source not only in Freud’s scientific aura but in his veracity, integrity, and respectability. Instead, Crews reveals him to be a calculating, egotistical liar—a sex-intoxicated man who blamed his mother for her sexualized care of him in childhood and who had a sexual affair with his sister-in-law.

Crews acknowledges that there is more to the appeal of Freud than his unscrupulous schemes to present his unfounded obsessions in a scientific guise. There is also the Sherlock Holmes syndrome—the exhilaration of uncovering the dark truth of the unconscious. But to what end? According to Crews, Freud imagined himself as the new Hannibal, the Semitic avenger of his people (the Jewish people) who will demolish Christian civilization. Crews paints Freud as a daring atheist who set out to destroy Christian values. Here is where Crews’s thesis becomes implausible. After all, there is a great deal of overlap between Christian and Judaic values. It is impossible to destroy one without also destroying the other.

In contrast to Crews, I believe that Freud’s theories were readily accepted because they are pseudoscientific versions of ideas that were already deeply entrenched in Christian culture. Take the famous case where Freud tells us about a neurotic patient who had lost the father she had nursed during a long illness. Meanwhile, her older sister married, but soon after, the sister suddenly fell ill and died. Freud surmised that the traumatic event that caused the neurosis was not the death of the father or the sister. The real trouble was that the patient was attracted to her brother-in-law. So, when she reached the bedside of her dying sister, she thought: “Now he is free and can marry me.” But owing to a revolt of her feelings, the girl repressed the thought and the result was severe hysterical symptoms (Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, pp. 24–25). As Crews points out, the patient was recalcitrant, but Freud was adamant. So, why would psychoanalysts not realize the fallacy involved? Namely, that the psychoanalyst was imposing his own straitjacket on the case—irrespective of the facts.

The fundamental idea at the heart of psychoanalysis is that the patient must bring her illicit desire to consciousness and acknowledge her guilt, if she is to be cured. For people raised in a Christian culture, the idea is not only familiar but self-evident: the truth will set you free. What is that truth? For Freud, as for Christianity, the truth that we must confront is the truth about ourselves. What could be more natural for a Christian culture to accept than the assertion that human nature is depraved—and that our sexuality is at the heart of that depravity? What could be more natural for a Christian culture than the insistence that we confess our wanton depravity and recognize the need to be saved—either by the priest or by the psychoanalyst? Psychoanalysis has not succeeded because it is bent on overthrowing Christian culture, as Crews suggests, but quite the reverse. Its success is due in no small part to the happy correspondence between religious and psychoanalytic norms.

Unfortunately, these norms are as irrational as they are harmful. Accepting guilt that has no rational foundation cannot possibly make anyone psychologically healthier. It is irrational to accept guilt for a desire on which one did not act and had no intention of acting. Moreover, there is no reason for thinking that bringing painful memories to the fore is cathartic. After all, forgetfulness is a defense mechanism that prevents people from dwelling or brooding over painful memories. Forgetfulness is allied to the healing power of time.

The effect of both Christian religion and psychoanalysis is to augment the burden of guilt. The psychoanalyst mimics the priest by insisting on the confession of guilt—real or imaginary. According to Freud, we feel for Oedipus because we have committed the same crime—in our hearts. Freud went so far as to maintain that the only reason that Hamlet procrastinated for so long before killing the man who killed his father, married his mother, and usurped the kingdom, is because he recognized that he was as guilty as the murderer—in his heart he wanted to kill his father and marry his mother. This leads Freud to create a moral equivalence between Hamlet and the murderer (Interpretation of Dreams, p. 264). In this preposterous augmentation of guilt, Freud follows Christianity. Like the latter, he fails to distinguish between acts and thoughts—real crimes and fleeting fantasies. This blurring of the lines between fantasy and actuality results in forcing people to accept guilt—not real guilt based on deeds or misdeeds but psychoanalytic guilt—a guilt that has no basis in reality, a guilt that is as imaginary as original sin.

Freud praised Christianity. He admired the religion of the Son who admits the murder of the father and seeks expiation through his death on the cross. He thought that Christianity has its foundation in truth, because it admits the sin against the father and accepts the burden of guilt (Moses and Monotheism, p. 174). The Oedipus complex—the desire to kill the father and usurp his place—is an echo of original sin. Freud thinks that Jews are more neurotic than Christians because they refuse to confess their crime—killing the Father. In my view, Freud gives Christianity too much credit. Recognition of original sin notwithstanding, Christians nevertheless have regarded themselves as morally superior to Jews, whom they accuse of being the killers of Christ—the incarnation of the heavenly Father.

Freud also shared the Christian view of morality. Echoing St. Augustine, Luther, and other Christian fathers, Freud thought that the moral law of God is at odds with human nature. In “The Moses of Michelangelo,” Freud surmised that Moses, as represented by Michelangelo, came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments tucked under his arm, looking anxious and serene. Why? Supposedly because he knew the libidinal cost involved in following the moral law. For Freud as for Christianity, morality is not integral to human fulfillment but an ascetic renunciation of natural instincts, self-abnegation, and masochistic self-flagellation, which are antithetical to natural human happiness.

Freud replaces the conflict between the flesh and the spirit in Christianity with the conflict between the id and the superego. Like the flesh, the id is integral to the natural self. In contrast, the spirit and the superego are foreign interventions. Morality is possible only as a result of the conquest of the soul by external forces. Conscience is for Freud the internalization of the authority of the superego, which he describes as a “garrison in a conquered city.” This foreign usurpation of the psyche mimics the “descent of the spirit” in Christian lore. In both cases, this colonization of the mind alone makes human decency possible. Once converted or socialized, one’s actions are no longer one’s own. In both cases, moral training amounts to taming or domesticating the human animal.

Crews is right to assert that the Freudian view invites a Promethean revolt against God and morality—not because it is deeply anti-Christian, as Crews maintains, but the reverse. Christianity itself invites a revolt against morals. After all, what self-respecting creatures can submit to the project of being tamed, domesticated, and despoiled? Every fiber of their being rebels in the name of the authentic self. However, when the authentic self is painted in the darkest brush-strokes, then the quest for authenticity (the desire to be true to oneself) becomes a valorization of evil.

Crews is also right in thinking that Freud had contempt for humanity. Far from maintaining that human beings were ruled by the “pleasure principle,” Freud thought that the masses were masochistic. They longed for strong autocratic leaders to tyrannize over them and abuse them (Moses and Monotheism, p. 140). In contrast to the masses, great men dare to defy the taboos, trample on the prohibitions, gratify their instincts, and affirm nature. Only the “great man” can give us a glimpse into the original nature of human beings prior to their domestication by the civilizing forces. Crews gives us plenty of evidence for thinking that Freud imagined himself to be a great man.

Far from liberating humanity, Freud joins Christianity in augmenting guilt, contrition, self-loathing, and submission to autocratic forces as the necessary price for our survival. In my view, all these uncanny similarities to Christianity explain the mystery—the swift readiness with which our culture has imbibed Freudian ideas—for they are the same old ideas in pseudo-scientific garb.

Editor’s note: Please see the January/February 2018 issue of our sister magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, for an alternative review of this book.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Frederick Crews’s new book paints Freud as a swindling purveyor of pseudoscience.

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