What would drive an essayist and literary critic to craft a meticulous, 700-plus page takedown of Sigmund Freud?
What would drive an essayist and literary critic to craft a meticulous, 700-plus page takedown of Sigmund Freud? Could it be that the author is sexually attracted to his mother and therefore resents the Father of Psychoanalysis and progenitor of the Oedipus complex? Is his scathing argument on the fraud of Freud the result of hysteria induced by excessive masturbation or derived from dreams, which universally recall repressed memories of childhood sexuality and abuse? Could such an aggressive rebuke be effectively treated with the application of the non-addictive, miracle cure-all cocaine? Frederick Crews builds a convincing case in his tome Freud: The Making of an Illusion that the famed psychologist’s ambiguous science and reckless methodology are no less preposterous and random than the above theories.
Crews crafts an argument that’s impressive in scope. He doesn’t focus solely on Freud’s career but delves deeply into the man’s personal life, family history and—through excerpts from his personal correspondence—his psyche itself. What results is a portrait of a cold, self-preoccupied, disingenuous and vindictive man, one quick to claim the accomplishments of others as his own and to smear former associates when they were no longer of use to him; a scientist clumsy with numbers and lacking in scientific rigor; a doctor, made queasy by the sight of blood, who favored the application of abstract notions over objective clinical results; a sexually-confused male who oscillated between lechery and impotence; and a cocaine-enthusiast who sought to benefit his career at the expense of the health of others.
What’s most striking about Crews’ book is how compellingly he makes these harsh arguments. Thoroughly researched and impeccably presented, Crews’ treatise on Freud’s personal failings and professional charlatanism backs up every barb with a systematic unraveling of the “Freudolatry” that has followed history’s most famous psychologist. The author spends a great deal of time focusing on Freud’s early medical career, where he sought to gain fame through the publication of “On Coca,” his haphazardly compiled study on the seemingly near-magical properties of cocaine, especially as it related to treating morphine addiction. Of course, in the end, it was shown that Freud—fueled for years by his own use of cocaine—was merely masking the ill-effects of morphine withdrawal with the euphoria of cocaine intoxication, even obscuring facts and twisting the destruction it wrought on colleagues and patients into professional successes.
This theme of Freud taking undue credit and shirking blame repeats throughout the book, even as Freud eventually must abandon his cocaine advocacy as the scientific community grows wise to the intensely addictive drug’s destructive power. But his slipshod approach to medicine and eventually psychology—in which he’d often imbue the results of one or two cases with an uncorroborated universality—never abated. The same rang true for his foray into hypnotherapy (Crews points out that Freud was lackluster in hypnosis skills without the application of drugs), electrotherapy involving the painful zapping of symptomatic body parts, his overdiagnosis of “hysteria” to explain away a vast swath of ailments with direct physical causes and eventually his landmark achievement of psychoanalysis.
What’s most striking is how much of his theories were fueled by his own subjective experience. Crews illustrates how the famed Oedipus complex was derived from Freud’s own introspection about feelings of jealousy toward his father and childhood desire of his mother, which he then assumed must be the universal human condition. His theory of castration anxiety stemmed from his own misogynist view that all women were ultimately “sinister creatures whose genital concavity bears the menace of castration” and heterosexual sex as an act in which the “penis envy” of women drives them to seek the absorption of the phallus. His focus on the interpretation of dreams arose from examination of his own dreams and the faulty reasoning that because most of his dreams weren’t the result of recallable memories, they must be the discovery of repressed experiences from his own childhood.
Though the book’s length and detail can cause it to drag, especially when the focus shifts from Freud directly to lengthy passages about other scientists who influenced his work, Freud remains a hugely compelling takedown of a psychological titan. The author argues that Freud’s acclaim arose largely out of his ability to capture the public’s attention through superstition and lurid titillation dressed up as science. As Crews points out, Freud’s own wife, Martha, described psychoanalysis as “a form of pornography,” and even at its best, the method consisted of a constantly shifting set of techniques and theories that constituted a brand by which Freud—who Crews posits sought fame and riches above all else—made his mark more than an efficacious means of treating mental illness. With incisive arguments supported by a wealth of direct sources, including the man’s own words, this book pulls no punches as Freud’s specious reasoning and malicious intentions are laid bare.