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Sigmund Freud (1926). Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ( with signature added (

The Wizardry of Freud

“Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging claim.”

The above is from a 2011 British Medical Journal article about Andrew Wakefield, the British physician whose “discovery” of a link between vaccination and autism fueled a world wide anti-vaccination movement. Since its publication in 1998, the paper’s results were contradicted by many reputable scientific studies, and in 2011 Wakefield’s work was proved to be not only bad science but a fraud as well: a British court found him guilty of dishonestly misrepresenting his data, removed him from the roster of the British Medical Society, and disbarred him from practice.

In his new book, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews presents a Freud who was just such a fraud and who deserves the same fate. This is not the first time that Crews, a bona fide skeptic whose last book, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays (2007), was reviewed in the pages of this journal, has written critically about Freud. Crews had been drawn to psychoanalysis himself (disclosure: this reviewer was, too) in the 1960s and early 1970s when, along with the late Norman Holland, he pretty much created the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism. But a prestigious fellowship to the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (he was a professor of English at UC Berkeley at the time) gave him time to delve deeper into Freud, and convinced him instead that psychoanalysis was unscientific and untenable. Since then he has contributed to the growing skeptical scholarly and historical scholarship on Freud.

Philosophers of science have indicted key concepts of Freud’s psychoanalysis such as “free association,” “repression,” and “resistance” as circular and fatally flawed by confirmation bias. Historians have tracked down the actual patients whose treatment served Freud as evidence for his theories and have sought to place Freud and his theories in the historical and cultural context of his time. Crews—to his own surprise—became well known as a major, if not the major, critic of Freud in the public eye because of a series of articles he published in the New York Review of Books in the 1990s. For Crews is that now all too rare and rapidly disappearing creature—the public intellectual—who is able to explain and make accessible an otherwise unwieldy amount of erudite scholarship in clear, elegant, and jargon-free prose. Defenders of Freud have sought to discredit him as a “Freud basher,” thereby continuing the (not so honorable) tradition that Freud began of questioning the motives of a skeptic and attributing it to … “resistance” instead of answering his objections.

This is precisely one of the reasons that in previous books Crews has said that psychoanalysis is not only pseudoscience (as most philosophers of science agree, though for different reasons), but “the queen of pseudosciences,” because it is the only one that incorporates within its theory an explanation of why some people refuse to believe it, i.e. “unconscious resistance” which needs to be explained by Freud’s own ideas and methods—a most brilliant and masterful way of disarming criticism.

His new book, a biography of the first half of Freud’s life, with intensive focus on the period 1882–1900, examines the crucial years in which Freud was creating his “science of psychoanalysis,” which culminated in his Studies on Hysteria, 1895 and The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900. This time in Freud’s life has been somewhat neglected by Freud’s biographers for many reasons, including lack of sufficient available biographical information, but also because in these years Freud developed a theory of neurosis that he later said he abandoned. But Crews argues that all the principal concepts on which psychoanalysis rests were constructed at this early time. His logic is that if the roots of a tree are not sound, then the crown, no matter how beautiful and different from the roots, cannot be healthy. And recently a treasure trove of new data about Freud during this period has been released from censorship: the complete correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancée Martha Bernays during the long four and a half years of their engagement, 1882–1886.

This correspondence, which consists of an astounding 1539 letters in all, had been concealed from public view for some 60 years. Only a very small portion—97 letters, or 6.3% of them—had been previously published, and those in expurgated form. Their importance is attested to by the fact that Anna Freud, his daughter, kept them private at her house in London instead of depositing them in the Freud Archive along with the rest of Freud’s papers after her father’s death in 1939. It was not until her own death in 1982 that her heirs finally did deposit them in the Freud Archive—but even then it was with the stipulation that access to them be restricted until the year 2000. Why was this correspondence hidden for so long? Their content makes it clear why: they don’t paint a flattering portrait of Freud. A reading of these letters after they became available on the Library of Congress website spurred Crews to write this book, as it confirmed to him all the suspicions about Freud’s motives and manner of working that he and others had raised before but had had to remain somewhat speculative: the fraudulent and pseudo-scientific evidential base on which psychoanalysis rests.

Despite its nearly 700-page length and 22 pages of footnotes, Crews’s book is divided into sections with witty titles such as “Sigmund the Unready,” “Tending to Goldfish,” and “Girl Trouble” and is thoroughly absorbing and highly readable. He begins with an examination of Freud’s family history and early education, detailing the reasons why Freud was “unready” to undertake the study of medicine, and then focuses on Freud’s “First Temptation”: cocaine. Freud’s enthusiastic endorsement—and use of—cocaine, Crews contends, had a much greater consequence for the theory of psychoanalysis than is officially recognized. It was not a soon-to-be-discarded “youthful indiscretion,” as Ernest Jones called it in his official 1957 biography of Freud, for Freud continued to use cocaine regularly, almost daily, not just occasionally, for some 15 years. Crews details Freud’s early experiments with the substance, and documents his disastrous attempt to help ease his best friend Fleischl’s withdrawal from morphine addiction by means of injections of cocaine. Meant as a kindness, it became the opposite, as Freud ignored every sign that it was not working and was blatantly harming his friend instead. Later, Freud dishonestly claimed to have cured Fleischl, when in fact his friend tragically deteriorated while undergoing Freud’s treatment, and finally died in great pain with two addictions instead of one: morphine and cocaine. The details of what happened to Fleischl are gruesome to read, and Crews sees Freud’s tenacious clinging to a pet theory and ignoring any evidence to the contrary, no matter how devastating, as characteristic of him throughout his life from then on.

As Freud wrote Martha while recommending it to her, he used cocaine to alleviate his many physical and emotional symptoms, which ranged from headaches, stomach aches, and sciatica to recurring depressions and intermittent “bad moods” punctuated by periods of elation. It consoled him for his loneliness in Paris while studying with Charcot, and gave him the self-confidence that he mostly lacked at this time. Most importantly for the creation of his psychoanalysis, he used it to overcome his writer’s block. Hence he was “under the influence” while he was thinking, writing, and creating the theories of psychoanalysis. Crews develops the intriguing notion that Freud had a “cocaine self” that permitted him to misrepresent and exaggerate the flimsy evidence he did have for his theories—and to manufacture evidence when none existed. Freud as a student had been a “studious, ambitious, and philosophically reflective young man, trained in rigorous intuitivism by distinguished researchers,” as Crews acknowledges. But in the early 1880s he changed into someone so arrogant and overweeningly ambitious and grandiose, so absolutely and unaccountably convinced of his theory of the sexual etiology of hysteria that he didn’t hesitate to stoop to dishonesty and fraud to try to prove it.

Psychoanalysis is not only pseudoscience (as most philosophers of science agree, though for different reasons), but “the queen of pseudosciences”.

Cocaine is notoriously known to induce feelings of supreme self-confidence, elation, and grandiosity in the user, to the point that facts and reality no longer matter. It also heightens sexual feelings and fantasies and is often used as an aphrodisiac for that reason, as Freud was well aware, using it for that purpose himself. (More than once in his letters we find Freud telling Martha that he feels like a “sexual giant.”) And Crews argues that Freud’s cocaine use also explains his exaggerated focus on sexuality as the ultimate cause of all neuroses.

Freud’s theory at the time, in brief, was that sexual seduction (molestation) in childhood, usually by fathers, which was “repressed,” i.e. not consciously remembered, was the “invariable,” “only,” and “exclusive” cause of all hysteria—in fact, of “all the neuroses”—as he announced in a paper he gave to a group of his peers in 1896. In that paper he presented as evidence 13 cases that he said he had successfully cured. No matter that the group’s chairman, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, called Freud’s theory “a scientific fairy tale”—Freud rejected this judgment as due to his being an “ass” and a conventional prude—surely hard to believe of someone like Krafft-Ebing, the foremost expert in pedophilia in the world at that time, and a man from whom Freud actually took a number of ideas (without giving him credit). Even more shockingly, Freud later admitted to his friend, confidant, and collaborator Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin physician, that these 13 cases didn’t exist at all—he had just made them all up.

Freud believed in what has come to be called his “seduction theory of hysteria” for many years until he famously “changed his mind” about what it was that his patients had “repressed.” Although it is unclear exactly when he officially made this change (it was not until 1909 that he called the Oedipus complex the central complex of the neuroses), he privately confessed to Fliess in 1897 (a few months after presenting his fraudulent paper) that he had not actually been able to “conclude a single case” of analysis so far, i.e. that his treatments had not produced a single cure. In fact, he had not even been able to induce any patient to agree with him and “remember” such abuse consciously, even though he had exercised extreme pressure to get them to do so, including massage, “head pressure,” and drugs to put them in a more suggestible mood when verbal suggestion didn’t work (of course he had attributed this to their “resistance” and “repression”) This change of mind has long been celebrated as the beginning of “true psychoanalysis,” as it placed the cause of hysteria away from the external world and into the internal psychological world of his patients: they were not repressing memories of actual sexual molestation, but rather their own childhood sexual fantasies and desires that they had unconsciously attributed to their fathers. However, Crews shows that Freud had no more evidence for his second theory (in fact, less, as it was empirically not even potentially verifiable) than he did for his first one, and continued to use all the (circular and self-invented) concepts with which he had tried to “prove” the first theory, e.g. “repression,” “free association,” and “resistance,” all of which have meaning only in Freud’s own system.

If his new theory was no more empirically based than his first, how did Freud actually come up with his ideas of the etiology of hysteria? Crews takes his clue from the fact that Freud saw himself (and other family members, especially one of his sisters) as suffering from an hysteria exactly like those of his patients, and that what he represented as his empirically based “science of psychoanalysis” were actually his own—real or imagined—childhood sexual experiences. Crews’s exposition of what in Freud’s biography led him to his theories makes for interesting reading indeed. In the end, Crews demonstrates that Wilhelm Fliess, who at their last actual meeting in 1900 accused Freud of merely reading the contents of his own mind into that of his patients, was right. What this means is psychoanalysis is based on a case of one—Freud himself. That is, Freud took himself as representative of all people in all times and in all cultures—surely a supremely grandiose, narcissistic—and preposterous—idea.

This is just a thin slice of what else there is in this riveting and rewarding book. One chapter is devoted to Freud’s rather unsuccessful stay in Paris in the winter of 1885–86 observing Charcot’s treatment of hysterics at Paris’ famous Salpêtrière. Freud idealized Charcot, and never questioned the obvious artificiality of Charcot’s sexualized “theater of hysteria” that entertained the aristocratic audiences he invited to watch it, although others there at the same time as Freud saw through the charade, correctly seeing Charcot’s use of hypnosis as an extreme form of suggestion. Instead, he took over Charcot’s theory of the origin of hysteria wholesale. Charcot’s theory of hysteria died with Charcot in 1893, since by then it had become obvious that the great doctor had gone astray in his enthusiastic use of hypnotism. But Freud took no notice and elaborated Charcot’s method of using hypnosis on his patients after he returned to Vienna—with no success, as Crews details in sometimes hair-raising detail. The case of Bertha Pappenheim, considered to be the foundational case of psychoanalysis, is paradigmatic of the gulf between the reality of her treatment and its later reporting. Although she was Breuer’s patient from 1880–1882, Freud collaborated with him throughout the case, and referred to this particular case, “Anna O.,” later more than to any of his own cases. This supposedly “successful cure” showing how hysterical symptoms could be cured by cathartic “talking” was a complete failure instead. After two years and a thousand hours of therapy (!) by Breuer, Pappenheim was worse, not better. And all the while she was supposedly cured of her symptoms by talking freely until she found their point of origin (the famous “chimney sweeping” that Freud took from her and later called “free association”) Bertha was being given large quantities of mind-altering drugs such as chloral hydrate (a “hypnotic” chemical that today is often used as a “date rape” drug) and morphine—drugs whose side effects and withdrawal symptoms in turn were often misinterpreted by the two as the very “hysterical symptoms” she needed to have cured (thus giving new meaning to Karl Kraus’ assessment of psychoanalysis as “the disease it purports to cure”). The quantities used on her were such that five weeks after her discharge as “cured” she had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, still symptomatic, and needing be detoxed—a truth that Freud and Breuer failed to mention when they wrote the case up 13 years later. And so it went with many other patients, e.g. Anna von Lieben, whom Freud in 1897 called his “principal client” and “instructress,” Ida Bauer (“Dora”), and Emma Eckstein, whose treatment, which almost killed her and resulted in her severe facial disfigurement, qualifies as out and out medical malpractice.

Crews’s book takes us up through Freud’s life and ideas until his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. The idea that dreams have meaning is an old folk belief which is true on the face of it, as people do dream about matters of concern to them, but Freud’s elaborate dream theory gives that belief a pseudoscientific gloss, as he invented a complicated theory of dreams that attributed extraordinary intellectual and linguistic abilities to a supposed “dream censor” in our minds. It is pseudoscientific because—to give just one obvious reason—Freud’s interpretive scheme allowed for a symbol to mean either itself, its opposite (“You say it’s not your mother? Aha! It is your mother”) or anything else at all (displacement), with no way to determine which interpretation is correct, or even likely.

In the later part of his book, Crews also takes up the matter of Freud’s relationship with his sister-in-law Minna, the younger sister of Martha, who came to live with the Freuds in Vienna after the death of her fiancée in the mid-1890s. Crews finds the admittedly circumstantial evidence that she and Freud had a long-term affair too strong to ignore. (And what evidence can there be in something of this sort but circumstantial?) But he does not find this matter merely titillating. Crews argues that Freud’s closeness to Minna had an influence on his elaboration of psychoanalysis. As early as the mid-nineties, she supplanted Wilhelm Fliess as his confidant after that relationship ended in bitterness, as unlike Martha, she took a lively interest in his work, and helped him write his books and papers. Crews argues that she may have helped turn Freud away from whatever scientific and empirical values he still ostensibly held towards extremes of speculation such as spiritualism and telepathy. (At one point Freud actually claimed that what passed between the analyst’s and his patient’s “unconscious” happened by means of telepathy.)

Freud took himself as representative of all people in all times and in all cultures—surely a supremely grandiose, narcissistic—and preposterous—idea.

If, as Crews convincingly argues, Freud constructed psychoanalysis on a fraudulent foundation, how did he convince so many people of the correctness and the profundity of his theory? And not just his enthralled followers over whom he presided like the guru of a cult, excommunicating all apostates, but also many of us over many subsequent decades? One reason for Freud’s wizardry in doing this, Crews suggests, is Freud’s rhetorical mastery and guile, including his heart-warming protestations of modesty and scientific rigor. Crews, after all originally a literary critic, notes that the narrative structure of Freud’s case histories and his Interpretation of Dreams was that of a suspenseful detective story in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Freud’s favorite authors (Freud himself admitted—in supposed surprise—that his case histories read more like short stories). In The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, Freud induces his reader to identify with him and join him in a quest he structured as a difficult and unsparingly honest introspective journey leading to that heart of darkness, the source of all dreams—“the Unconscious.” (Not for nothing was Freud awarded the Goethe prize for literature in Germany in 1936.) So he was creating “literature,” as some who still idealize the founder today argue and actually see as a virtue, claiming that psychoanalysis is therefore a “hermeneutic” rather than an empirical “science,” one conveniently not subject to empirical rules of evidence. True, “literature” does not have to be attuned to empirical reality—it’s “truth” lies in a different realm—but a theory of mind and a “science,” especially one applied to the (costly) treatment of suffering patients in the actual world, does.

I can’t help but add that one reason that Crews’s book succeeds as a readable and compelling book is the same one to which he attributed a good deal of Freud’s success: he, too, is an eloquent and passionate writer who has here constructed as enthralling a detective story as any of Freud’s. He, too, becomes Sherlock Holmes, the objective, erudite, and supremely rational sleuth who relentlessly tracks down hidden clue after clue—which leads him inexorably to only one possible verdict: Freud is guilty of fraud as charged. Except—and this is the big difference—Crews provides ample documentation and evidence for what he says, whereas Freud only pretended to do so.

Is any of this still important today, when psychoanalysis has effectively been banished from the mainstream professions of psychiatry and psychology for its lack of efficacy? Today even basic Freudian terms such as “hysteria” and “neurosis” have been excised from the DSM, the bible of psychiatric practice. But Crews argues that psychoanalysis still remains culturally pervasive and that Freud’s ideas, though proven pseudoscientific many times, persist and are still capable of exerting harmful influence in the real world. A recent example was the widespread “recovered memory” movement of 1980s and 1990s that Crews detailed in his eye-opening book of 1995, The Memory Wars. This movement, which still has hangers-on today, destroyed the lives of many families, including that of the daughters who accused their fathers of sexually molesting them in childhood on the basis of a therapist’s unearthing their “repressed memories” of sexual abuse, and jailed a number of falsely accused men. It was obviously a revival of Freud’s original theory of neurosis, in which a therapist convinced of this theory subtly or not so subtly—as was clearly demonstrated in later lawsuits—suggested this to their patients, just as Freud himself did.

Crews hopes that by proving that Freud’s creation of psychoanalysis was a fraud he will finally help “close the door” on this “damaging claim.” Will it? Alas, exposure as a fraud does not seem to deter belief: in the U.S. a large fraction of the population still believes in Wakefield’s vaccination-autism theory, and in 2015, anti-vaccination groups in California actually recruited the discredited Wakefield himself to come to their state and head their campaign against the state legislature’s effort to pass a pro-vaccination law protecting school children.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion (book cover)

But “the still small voice of reason”—to quote Freud himself in another context—will, hopefully, prevail in the end. Anyone who reads Crews’s new book with an open mind will come away thinking that while Freud was indeed a highly imaginative thinker and an accomplished, eloquent writer—he was also a fraud and a huckster, a narcissistic con-man of overwhelming ambition, hungry equally for fame and fortune, who succeeded by means of deceptive propaganda and rhetoric in being the “conquistador” that he longed to be. But at end of the royal road to Freud’s Unconscious there is finally only the Wizard of Oz. END

About the Author

Dr. Margret Schaefer received a Ph.D. in English at UC Berkeley, and has taught at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a cultural and literary critic, journalist, and translator, and has written on issues in psychology and medical history as well as on Oscar Wilde, Kleist, Kafka, and Arthur Schnitzler. Recently she translated and published three volumes of Schnitzler’s fiction and two of his plays, which were produced in New York and in Berkeley.


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