George Walford: A Falling God

Darwin sits firmly, Newton and Marx look likely to survive although their thrones may shake; Freud is in trouble. In the 1920s William Empson noted his tendency to devise a theory for a particular case of neurosis and then suggest that it applied to the average mind. Others also questioned the methods used, and recently criticism has become sharper. A movement politely known as ‘revisionist’ has begun to re-examine the early history of psychoanalysis, looking into letters, case-histories, publications and statements, and the emperor’s robes begin to look rather see-through. The investigators charge Freud with having used specious arguments in establishing his theory, they claim that fundamental objections can be brought against every practice and notion claimed by psychoanalysis as particularly its own. Among the words being used come not only the familiar ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘mystery,’ hurled by critics since psychoanalysis first began, but also ‘dishonesty,’ ‘cowardice,’ ‘equivocation,’ ‘ unscrupulous,’ ‘fakery’ and even ‘outright fraudulence.’ Freud was ‘quite lacking in the empirical and ethical scruples that we would hope to find in any responsible scientist.’ When undertaking diagnosis, one revisionist now charges, he ‘leapt immediately to a conclusion that would permit him to put his customary 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 favourite literary character, Sherlock Holmes.’

One female patient, diagnosed as ‘bleeding for love’ of himself (i.e. of Freud) turned out to have been suffering from gauze left in place after a nasal operation. In the most celebrated of his alleged cures Freud claimed to have removed all the symptoms and inhibitions of the ‘Wolf Man’ while knowing that psychoanalysis had not in fact helped the patient at all. (He later announced his intention of shooting Freud).

At an early stage in his work Freud reported that an astonishing proportion of his female patients claimed to have been sexually abused as young children; repression of this, he concluded, had caused the hysteria and obsessional neurosis that brought them to him. He later revised this diagnosis, deciding that they had been expressing a suppressed infantile wish to have sex with the father. This new interpretation, with its location of the source of neurosis and obsession within the psyche rather than in objective experience, constituted the distinctive beginning of psychoanalysis, providing the root hypothesis from which all later developments sprang.

So far things don’t look too bad; Freud may have been wrong, may even have clung unreasonably to his errors, but people at the sharp end of investigation have to be allowed their mistakes. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. From 1897 on, Freud was claiming that he had innocently believed these stories until their cumulative improbability opened his eyes to their being fantasies. Recent examination of his papers before that date, the revisionists report, shows otherwise; these accounts had not originated with the patients at all but with Freud himself. Before starting treatment the patients had known nothing about these alleged early seductions; he himself had to (as he put it) ‘guess the secret’ and tell it to the patient. And even after that the patients, he noted at the time, still had no feeling of remembering the scene. Having invented these seduction scenes himself, and having been later forced to admit that they had not happened, he still did not abandon them. He couldn’t, for his new ‘science’ rested on them. He decided that these inventions of his own imagination had happened in the fantasies of the patients, thus saving repression of sexuality, producing neurosis, as the basis of psychoanalysis.

It still looks like good dirty fun, a quarrel among theorists on a subject which offers them an excellent chance of getting articles into the tabloids, perhaps even to get on television. One line of thought, however, links the dispute with more serious matters, more serious even than Freud’s probity. It is claimed that people are serving long prison sentences because judges and social workers continue to accept a theory which looks increasingly dubious.

Although Freud eventually came to present “his patients'” (actually his own) stories of seduction as fantasies, the general line of his theory leads to the expectation, on the part of courts, police and social workers, that children will have repressed memories that produce anxiety. Ignoring the ease with which patients under stress can be induced to accept suggestions, the investigators, probing for the ‘hidden truth,’ actually implant false memories, inducing children to ‘remember’ seductions and sexual abuses that never happened. On the evidence provided by these artificially-created ‘recollections’ parents and others have been convicted.

It does not look like an issue that will readily find a satisfactory solution but it will, perhaps, give pause to the people who scorn a concern with truth and its conditions as merely abstract and theoretical.

[Based on a long article by Frederick Crews reviewing four books: Freud’s Russia; national identity in the evolution of psychoanalysis, by James L. Rice (Transaction). Father Knows Best; the use and abuse of Freud’s power in the case of ‘Dora,’┬áby Lakoff and Coyne (Teachers College Press). Seductive Mirage; an exploration of the work of Sigmund Freud, by Allen Esterson (Open Court). A Most Dangerous Method; the story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein, by John Kerr ( Knopf). NYR 18 November]

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.