This book is one of the most shocking pieces of revisionist history I’ve ever read. It’s hardly the first Freud-bashing book ever written, so “revisionist” may not be the right word other than in my own universe: it has simply shattered my idea of Freud in a big way. “Shocking,” however, is the right word no matter how much you think you already know about Freud. In this book the author sets out to trash the character of Sigmund Freud with a special kind of thoroughness, and ends up doing a pretty convincing job.
Freud, according to Frederick Crews, was a fraud, a cheat, a liar, a backstabbing opportunist, a plagiarizer, an adulterer, a snob, a braggart, a drug addict, and a child molester. He was weak, cold, cruel, opportunistic, insecure, spiteful, lazy, neurotic, and completely lacking in professional ethics, originality, and direction. If he was alive today, he would probably be sued for malpractice and charged with manslaughter.
Ordinarily, a biographer who demonstrates such a skewed point of view – whether a hagiography or a hatchet job – is suspect, as the author himself admits in his preface. We expect biographers to recognize the complexity of human nature and provide a balanced, fair assessment about both positive and negative aspects of their subject. Crews, however, is a man on a mission. A moral responsibility to correct the record weighs heavily upon him, as does the obligation to tell the truth as he sees it.
“In this book, the author sets out to trash the character of Sigmund Freud with a special kind of thoroughness.”
He explains that his book is passionate because it is a response to “Freudolatry” – to those postwar disciples of Freud, including Freud’s daughter Anna, who worked together to edit and bowdlerize the man’s papers after his death, and to ostracize those in the field who dared question the myth of Freud’s genius. Crews supplies plenty of evidence for the conspiracy, and in fact, his efforts to leave no stone unturned – to parse all sources and his own points as far as they can possibly be parsed – can sometimes leave the reader lost in the thicket of the argument. The book is 660 pages long, not including the appendices, and several expert reviewers agree that his arguments are exhaustive – perhaps the final word in the tide that’s been steadily turning against Freud for the last half century.
Freud, Crews argues, was a cocaine addict for years, was largely responsible for the growth of its recreational use, and routinely fed the drug to his wife, his patients, and his friends, often to devastating effect. Freud’s thoughts and writings were cocaine-fueled, the author claims, thus accounting for their complete break from the scientific and empirical foundation of his profession, and for what, in the final analysis, is nothing more than a reflection of Freud’s own sexual obsessions.
The author shows how Freud lied and plagiarized his way to fame, first claiming colleagues’ ideas as his own, then trashing those colleagues when they were dead or otherwise incapable of defending themselves. Amazingly, Freud harbored a personal antipathy for the therapeutic process. He had few patients and no cures over the span of his career, and lied about the circumstances of those cases in his writings. He basically held his clients in contempt, commenting at one point to a student that he would prefer simply to throttle them all.
All this, and much more, can be convincingly documented, and the facts by themselves would be damning enough in the eyes of almost anybody. But the most intriguing and incriminatory part of the book is, the author admits, speculation – although speculation that makes logical, sickening sense. Crews claims an incestuous relationship between Freud and his sister that began when she was a toddler and continued beyond puberty. Additionally, he argues that in all likelihood Freud molested his own daughter, Anna, when she was 22, during “two secret analyses on her father’s couch, six days a week, lasting a total of four years.”
“Chalk it up to . . . ‘mass infatuation’ fueled by an international cult of personality.”
His rhetorical path to these controversial conclusions is not hard to follow and, once you get there, not hard to believe. After such a devastating analysis, the reader is left to wonder only, How did such a man come to have such a profound influence on 20th century thinking? By the end of this unsettling book, the reader is sure to have forgotten the preface, in which this question is answered directly. Chalk it up, in part, to hagiographers, the times being ripe for pessimism, Freud’s own consuming drive to immortalize his brand, and the resulting extended episode of “mass infatuation” fueled by an international cult of personality.
This is the second biography I’ve read this month that has upended my world – or at least my customary ways of thinking. The first was Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life, during the course of which I fell in love with the man – and now this – which I can without exaggeration describe as a horrifyingly eye-opening experience. I can only feel thankful that I still have Einstein and Darwin to worship – at least until the next revisionist biography comes out. The upside, in general, is that the world is blessed to have such enterprising, brilliant writers so hard at work on so many things that matter – and I am personally blessed to have started this blog.