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Of Recent Interest… is the new book by Louis Breger, A Dream of Undying Fame: How Freud Betrayed His Mentor and Invented Psychoanalysis (Basic Books 2009). Warring over the proper interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s work heated up considerably in relation to the Freud exhibit of the Library of Congress. For decades Freud’s legacy was controlled by psychoanalytic practitioners who largely lionized their heroic mentor. Then starting in the 1970s, the pendulum began to swing far in the opposite direction. The scientific character of psychoanalysis came under scathing criticism, and this form of therapy was pictured as almost exclusively authoritarian mind control, at its best a sort of secularized religious belief system genuinely but misguidedly attempting to help people, and at its worst a sort of secularized religious belief system dedicated to extending the domain of power and wealth for its selected clergy by preying on the weak and vulnerable. As the “god who failed,” Freud himself has been pictured in the subsequent literature as a consciously vicious, power-hungry flimflam man, more than willing to falsify evidence and mercilessly exploit colleagues, friends and patients for his own aggrandizement.
Now material is appearing that offers a more balanced perspective. In these interpretations, Freud is certainly understood as a human being, with as many human foibles as the next, but also a man of considerable intellect who made valuable contributions to the study of the mind and human behavior. One important book of special interest offering this more balanced view is Jerry S. Piven’s Death and Delusion (2000), which made the case that Freud drew back at certain key places from pursuing his insights, just as other human beings, to insulate himself against naked death anxiety.
The book under review here is another good example of the more balanced interpretation, offering a very humanly-flawed Freud, but nevertheless a Freud deserving of respect and gratitude for his revolutionary accomplishments in psychology and culture. The meat of this work centers on the making and aftermath of Studies in Hysteria (1895), published jointly by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, and widely recognized as the book that got what later developed into psychoanalysis off the ground and into the public eye. Josef Breuer was an older, well-established physician who took the role of mentor to the young and not-yet-established Freud.
Studies in Hysteria is composed of a number of case histories, along with commentary, discussion and analysis by the authors. The most famous case from the book was Breuer’s patient, Bertha Pappenheim, known in the literature as Anna O. Although most of the theoretical work in Studies is a mix of neurology and psychology, leaning heavily toward neurology, the case of Anna O. stands out because here the psychological basis for her symptoms was most clear and also because here Breuer began to rely most heavily on a technique called in the book “catharsis,” and which we now recognize more generally as “talking cure.”
Breger subsequently asks some very poignant questions about Freud’s development after the publication of Studies, namely, whereas the focus in Studies was clearly on a variety of traumatic experiences, and especially those revolving around issues of death, grief and loss, in the etiology of hysterical symptoms, why did Freud become so determined to find one overriding source, and thus come to pursue the sexual-seduction theory (and as that was finally rejected, his “phantasy-seduction” theory) so exclusively? Breger’s answer is that Freud was driven by a deep seated need for fame and recognition. This is easily understandable, but the side effect for Freud’s theorizing was to take his eye off of the more balanced plethora of human experiences, ignoring those that did not fit his theory and distorting others so as to make them fit his theory. Furthermore, Freud’s childhood identification with great military leaders strongly impacted the methods by which he led the psychoanalytic movement that grew up around him. One by one, those who disagreed with Freud or who contributed creative ideas of their own were cut off from the group.
Through all of this, Breger aims for balance in recognizing the advances and contributions Freud made, while also demonstrating that largely because of Freud’s own foibles, most of the real advances in psychodynamic therapy, starting already with Breuer, and then Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, and continuing on up into the present, have come from those who stand mainly outside of the psychoanalytic mainstream. The final irony, as Breger presents it, is that psychodynamic therapy has basically now come “full circle” back largely to embrace the very insights of Breuer that Freud rejected (along with his friendship with Breuer) in order to develop his own “iron-clad scientific” system. On reaching the final paragraphs of this book, I for one was left with the thought, “Sigmund Freud, human. All too human.”
Laughing at Death
Becker “too dark?” He said laughter reflects a very advanced stage of faith and grace. See Neil’s "Laughing at Death: The evolution of humor to disarm fundamentalism.”
Download a .pdf version of Neil's essay here. The Ernest Becker Foundation - 3621 72nd Ave. SE Mercer Island, WA 98040 - (206) 232-2994