I’m about halfway through the 600-page book (with over 100 additional pages of notes) by my friend Fred Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which will be formally released on Tuesday. It’s an excellent read: Fred was formerly chair of the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and writes clearly and engagingly. If you want to know why Freud was a fraud, and has fallen from grace, read this book, which attempts to answer the question, “How did a poor but ambitious Jewish boy from Vienna turn himself into a renowned doyen of psychoanalysis?” It’s not a full biography, for it concentrates on Freud’s early years when he transformed himself from a failed nobody into a world-famous figure. I’ll give the Amazon summary, which is accurate:
From the master of Freud debunkers, the book that definitively puts an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator
Since the 1970s, Sigmund Freud’s scientific reputation has been in an accelerating tailspin―but nonetheless the idea persists that some of his contributions were visionary discoveries of lasting value. Now, drawing on rarely consulted archives, Frederick Crews has assembled a great volume of evidence that reveals a surprising new Freud: a man who blundered tragicomically in his dealings with patients, who in fact never cured anyone, who promoted cocaine as a miracle drug capable of curing a wide range of diseases, and who advanced his career through falsifying case histories and betraying the mentors who had helped him to rise. The legend has persisted, Crews shows, thanks to Freud’s fictive self-invention as a master detective of the psyche, and later through a campaign of censorship and falsification conducted by his followers.
This is no exaggeration; Crews’s extensive work has turned up the picture of a fiercely ambitious, self-aggrandizing man who would stop at nothing—including scientific fraud, rewriting his personal history, blatant sycophancy, and even hastening the death of a good friend through misapplication of “cocaine therapy”—to make his name. (Freud’s extensive use of cocaine, which he considered a medical panacea, on himself and his patients is especially disturbing.) He succeeded in his ambitions, of course. But from Crews’s earlier work (reprised in more detail in this book), and the research of others, we now know that Freud carried on his fraudulent “science”—which involved a hefty dose of confirmation bias and simply making up stuff—after he’d become a famous psychoanalyst.
The front-page review of the book in today’s New York Times, by George Prochnik, is largely negative, but Prochnik’s assessment is way off. He decries the book’s negativity, but in fact Freud was pretty much an odious character, and his “science”, and even his insights into the psyche, were largely worthless. (Crews has emphasized here and in his earlier writings that what is seen as valuable in Freud’s ideas was developed by people before him, and Freud added almost nothing except a bunch of specious and now-discredited hypotheses.)
Yet, confoundingly, Freud “is destined to remain among us as the most influential of 20th-century sages,” Crews writes, claiming that the attention bestowed on him by contemporary scholars and commentators ranks with that accorded Shakespeare and Jesus. Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.
Crews is right that the matter demands further investigation, but this is not the book he has written. Instead “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” focuses on the man — specifically how a reflective young scientist with high ambitions and gifted mentors lost perspective on his “wild hunches,” covered up his errors and created “an international cult of personality.” In practice, this translates into 700-plus pages of Freud mangling experiments, shafting loved ones, friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and ultimately, God help us, swindling humanity at large. Here we have Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester, woman hater, money-worshiper, chronic plagiarizer and all-around nasty nut job. This Freud doesn’t really develop, he just builds a rap sheet.
But Freud’s character and duplicitous practices were already in place when he was a young medical student, and in that respect he didn’t develop: he remained the same man when he later hit on a set of ideas that were thought to be not only culturally transformative, but personally curative. Freud’s acolytes, as is well known, have bowdlerized his history, censoring letters and documents that make him look bad, and not looking too hard at Freud’s supposed “cures” (which didn’t take). Only now have people like Crews begun to delve into Freud’s archives (his letters to his fiancee, quoted extensively by Crews, are telling), and the results aren’t pretty. I’m not an expert on Freud, but Crews’s scholarship paints a damning portrait of the man—and the scholarship, though conveyed in lively words, is extensive. Tellingly, nowhere in Prochnik’s review does he find fault with Crews’s scholarship and evidence.
Google says this about Prochnik:
GEORGE PROCHNIK’s essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. He has taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine, and is the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology.
Prochnik hurls this brickbat at the end:
Crews has been debunking Freud’s scientific pretensions for decades now; and it seems fair to ask what keeps driving him back to stab the corpse again. He may give a hint at the opening of this book, when he confesses that he too participated in the “episode of mass infatuation” with psychoanalysis that swept the country 50 years ago. The wholesale denigration of its founder is what we might expect in response to a personal betrayal of the highest order, such as only an idol can deliver. Paraphrasing Voltaire, if Freud didn’t exist, Frederick Crews would have had to invent him. In showing us a relentlessly self-interested and interminably mistaken Freud, it might be said he’s done just that.
This is unfair. Yes, Crews was once taken by Freud’s ideas, and was slowly disillusioned. Given that those ideas dominated much of twentieth-century thought—Freud is ranked with Einstein and Marx as one of the three Jewish men who changed modern humanity’s self image—it’s completely fair to reveal what one found when further digging into Freud’s life and practice. What Prochnik is doing here is psychoanalyzing Crews, and blaming the book’s “negativity” on an intellectual acting-out based on disillusionment. And even if that were true—and I’m sure it’s not—Crews’s scholarship stands on its own, and does indeed show us a “relentlessly self-interested and interminably mistaken Freud”. One could well question Prochnik’s motivations in writing a negative book review while neglecting the facts that the book adduces, but psychoanalysis of an author is a mug’s game.
I’m not writing this defense just because I know Fred, but because Prochnik’s review is unfair and inaccurate. If you have any interest in Freud and psychoanalysis, I highly recommend this book. It’s by no means dull or tedious, for the writing is great and the evidence damning.