[This book review was published in the Spring/Summer issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 185-194.]
Freud: The Making of an Illusion
Metropolitan Books, 2017
In his The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (itself an excellent book to which we will refer frequently in this review), Hans Eysenck gives an ideal summation to what Frederick Crews tells us in this detailed biography. Eysenck writes that Freud “was, without doubt, a genius, not of science, but of propaganda, not of rigorous proof, but of persuasion.” After finishing this book by Frederick Crews, we have reread Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which we find a striking exemplar of Eysenck’s description. Freud was indeed a top-notch writer, with attention-grabbing narratives, some sharp insights and a notable facility with language. Unfortunately, he turned those gifts to building an elaborate intellectual superstructure that was ideally suited to attracting the scientifically gullible – i.e., those who respond enthusiastically to elaborate hypotheses and esoteric language even though not supported by so much as a scintilla of proof. We pride ourselves on living in an “age of science,” but nothing so much demonstrates the continuing hold of mythology and uncritical faith as the success of Sigmund Freud, who used the language of science to build a fantastical world of demons and goblins. Having all the characteristics of a new, albeit secular, religion, it was a world in which boys, wanting to copulate with their mothers, hated their fathers (the famous “Oedipus Complex”); a world in which masturbation “provided a litmus test of authenticity for claimants to sexual enlightenment”; a world of “penis envy,” “castration complex,” “death instinct,” libido, ego, id, superego – and much more.
Starting with a small coterie of well-disciplined disciples, Freud made his theories of psychoanalysis the rage of the first half of the twentieth century, “swelling to an international movement.” This held sway until about 1970, when, according to Crews, a number of thoughtful people began to see that the emperor had no clothes and Freud’s scientific reputation began to fall. In his excellent analysis of that decline, Eysenck tells us that professionals working with the mentally ill “now concentrate on the biological side of mental disorder, particularly pharmacological methods of treatment, or else to behavioural methods.”
The marvel is that the new sexualized mythology was formulated by Freud and accepted by so much of the world without the slightest concern for evidence and scientific method. Freud admitted as much in a letter when he said “I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador….” That this was so (with the exception of that part of his statement that says he wasn’t a thinker) is borne out by much that Crews tells us. As a student, Freud “could barely pass his science courses.” After noting how Freud concluded that seeing the Jungfrau (a name that’s German for “virgin”) peak in the Alps stimulated a patient “to masturbate over it at age fourteen,” Crew says that “what we observe in such examples is a style of ‘investigation’ whereby findings can be reached without a need to gather any facts.” He quotes Michel Onfray as saying that to Freud the world is “a theater in which hats are penises, locks are vaginas, boxes are neuroses, money is fecal matter, a loose tooth is a wish to masturbate, the loss of hair is castration.” Freud wrote a paper called “Contribution” about which Crews comments that “from a methodological standpoint, [it] may rank among the most careless research studies ever to see print.” Among the several defects Crews lists about the article are observations that “Freud made no effort to control his cocaine dosages” and “he never stated how many trials he had conducted.” Freud himself must have realized these shortcomings; he said in a letter that the paper “should never have been published.”
What was missing most was any way to substantiate his mythological superstructure of psychic causation. It was a construct which, though elaborate, “reduced human experience to a few standard plot elements.” He built those as if they were castles in the air, justifying them as inferences on little or no evidence, drawing arbitrary conclusions that no one had any way to either confirm or deny. It is little wonder that Crews can call it “a pseudoscience lacking any objective means of adjudicating internal differences of judgment.”
Even more than Crews, Eysenck addresses the question of what proper scientific procedure would have required. “To the scientist, two approaches to truth are particularly important. The first of these is informed and constructive criticism.” He adds that “psychoanalysts, and particularly Freud himself, have always disliked and discouraged any form of criticism.” Further, there is a need to consider alternative hypotheses: “usually there are several possible explanations, and the experimentalist has to design empirical tests to decide between them.” For this purpose, Eysenck sees the need for control groups, including one to measure the effects of a placebo. “Only proper clinical trials, using an untreated control group and comparing its progress with that made by an experimental group treated by psychoanalysis, can solve the problems of establishing effectiveness.” We can appreciate that, even though they are imperative for scientific verification, such trials are hardly adaptable to psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, seeing their importance, Eysenck did out together precisely such a study, and found that “both groups recovered to approximately the same extent” – which means the psychotherapy had little or no effect.
This lack of positive effect points to Freud’s failure on another of the criteria for something’s being “scientific.” The philosopher Karl Popper is famous for his “falsifiability” requirement. Eysenck says that “Popper instances psychoanalysis, Marxism and astrology as three pseudo-sciences, and argues that none of them have put forward testable hypotheses.” Eysenck disagrees, saying Freud’s theories are testable – but adds they “fail the test.” Oddly, Eysenck backtracks on his disagreement with Popper, at one point saying “the Freudian credo [is] entirely subjective in its method of proof, [and so] cannot furnish any ways of deciding between alternative theories.” He repeats this, in effect, when he says “Freud constructed grandiose schemes and theories on a small and unreliable factual basis,” and then asks “how would one ever test a theory of this complex kind?” We come away from Eysenck’s book thinking that the disagreement with Popper is something of an evanescent quibble – and, most importantly, that Freud comes out on the short end of the “test” criterion.
We are aware that our discussion here of Freud’s deviation from an intellectually satisfactory basis for his many assertions only scratches the surface of what could be said. Freud’s movement from one theory of neuroses to another, each time claiming the undeniable truth of his new formulation; his many contradictions; his falsification of case histories; the non sequiturs involved when there is no connection between a theory and the cases he cites (such as we see when Eysenck points out, about Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams, that “all the dreams quoted by Freud as illustrating and proving his theories, in fact do the opposite; none of them is based on wishes arising from infantile repression”) – all this and much more awaits those who read Crews’ book, as well as Eysenck’s.
Crews goes into detail about Freud’s more famous cases, which the Freudian movement has celebrated as landmarks. (There is actually quite a paucity of cases; Eysenck tells us that Freud “published only six extensive case histories.”) It’s significant that Freud’s treatments, sometimes ballyhooed as great successes, were either failures or produced indeterminate results. The alleged successes have been taken as confirmation of his theories, and in like fashion failures can be considered refutations (although we have to be careful about this: neither confirmation nor refutation can be seen as definitely established for a whole assortment of reasons).
One of the leading cases was that of “Anna O.,” whose real identity was later revealed to be Bertha Pappenheim and whose case was written up by Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer in the 1895 book Studies on Hysteria. Crews devotes forty pages to the case, and writes that it “would be showcased in Freud’s twentieth-century apologetics as the very ‘foundation of psychoanalytic therapy.’” Even though the therapy was done by Breuer, Freud “would cite that triumph of healing more often than any of his own alleged successes.” Anna suffered over a period of years from several symptoms, which included, but weren’t limited to, a chronic cough, hallucinations, headaches, and loss of feeling in her extremities. Freud claimed her symptoms disappeared after Breuer brought her unconscious processes into the open. According to Freud, Anna had “an unconscious desire to commit incest” with her dying father. (Freud had a falling out with Breuer, who had devoted more than a thousand hours to the treatment, “over the issue of sexuality” in Anna’s case, because Breuer “had stopped short of aligning it with Freud’s doctrine that every neurosis has a sexual basis.”) This difference led Freud, Crews says, to a dilemma: “On the one hand, he needed to keep reiterating that Anna O. had been cathartically liberated from hysteria. On the other hand, how could the cure have occurred if Breuer had possessed no inkling of the repressed sexual trauma….?”). In any event, the question of whether there ever was a “cure” remains a subject of debate. Eysenck, though, concludes more definitively that “Anna O. was not in fact a psychiatric patient; she suffered from a serious physical disease, and the alleged ‘cure’ was no cure at all.” Disagreeing slightly with Eysenck, Crews believes Anna suffered from even more than an organic disease, attributing many of her symptoms to morphine addiction and the effects of withdrawal. As with all the cases, it is worth reading Crews’ full account.
The case of “Little Hans” is trumpeted as among Freud’s “greatest successes” (and as the beginning of child psychiatry), even though Freud saw him only once. Hans suffered a fear of horses. Applying his standard formula of the Oedipal Complex, Freud concluded that Hans wanted sex with his mother and to kill his father, of whom horses were thought by Freud to be symbolic. (Hans, as was usual, denied any knowledge of all this, which made no difference to Freud, to whom patients’ denials were just another indication of their repression of the putative memory.) The case is discussed at length in a 1960 article by J. Wolpe and S. Rachman in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders. They concluded that “there is no satisfactory evidence that the [Oedipal] ‘insights’… had any therapeutic value…” Indeed, Hans’ case seems to present a good example of “spontaneous remission,” since his “later improvement appears to have been smooth and gradual.” Their observation that “Freud bases his conclusions entirely on deductions from his theory” might well be applied generally to Freud’s career.
Other much-noted cases included:
. Anna von Lieben (who after Freud’s long treatment “became a total nervous invalid”).
. Emmy von N (real name “Fanny Moser,” whose treatment was Freud’s “most humbling failure”).
. The “Wolf Man” (whose frightening dream Freud analyzed, and about whom Eysenck says “Freud’s treatment did nothing whatsoever for the patient’s mental health”).
. “Miss Lucy” (Ilona Weiss, who “retained her disability for life”).
. Margarethe Csonka (regarding female homosexuality, where “even Freud admitted that the treatment had failed,” and where “after each session, [Margarethe] would amuse her girlfriend with uproarious accounts of her therapist’s fatuity”).
. Elise Gomperz (whom Freud treated for seven years, leading to an “exacerbated nervous state” for which her husband blamed Freud), and
. Emma Eckstein (whose neurosis, Freud thought, was caused by masturbation; and who was later found to have several uterine abscesses that a surgeon was able to treat).
It is interesting that Freud’s first patients were from the “Viennese Coterie,” a circle of extremely wealthy baronesses and “great Jewish families.” Crews reports that “the Coterie was a hub of eccentricity and nervous illness,” which lent itself to many hours of highly-paid treatment, the fees for which sustained Freud financially for several years. His career took a surprising turn eventually when the Coterie soured on him, finding him “untrustworthy and repugnant,” in part in response to his being “overbearing with patients.” It would be a mistake, though, to think that this ended Freud’s tie with the Jewish community. When in 1902 he gathered together his movement of disciples, he “acquired a circle of obstreperous admirers – nearly all of them Viennese Jews, and all drawn to radical ideas,” who “viewed themselves as a Jewish avant-garde.” As disciples are wont to do, they saw him “as a quasi-divine figure.” Crew tells how “privately, he regarded them as a sorry lot of crackpots.” It wasn’t until 1908 that a local gentile joined the circle. As the movement spread internationally, psychoanalysis became a “cult of personality.” Eysenck speaks of it as a cult “hostile to all outsiders, resolutely refusing to accept criticism however well-founded,” and reflecting Freud’s determination “to create a mythology centring [sic] on himself and his achievements.”
What sort of a man was Freud? What Crews’ long biography reveals about him may well be the most interesting thing about the book. Before we recount Freud’s characteristics, it is well to recall Eysenck’s overview that he was no doubt a genius, not of science but of persuasion. In many ways, Freud was a crank and a sham, but his success in making himself the head of an international movement that for many years commanded much of the intellectual world’s obeisance makes him a remarkable figure.
As we review our notes about Freud as a person, we see that several of his characteristics cluster around his narcissism and cold relations toward other people. Imagine writing your fiancée and telling her “If you can’t be fond enough of me to renounce your family for my sake, then you must lose me….” Crews speaks of “the eerie coldness and self-preoccupation that many observers… would remark in him….” Freud wrote a friend: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings as a whole… In my experience, most of them are trash.”
It would appear that he used other people unconscionably. He would have mentors or friends – such as Jean-Martin Charcot, Josef Breuer, Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Koller – only to turn hostile against them “as soon as they posed an obstacle to his goals” or when “he had no more use for someone.” This hostility took the form of severe ad hominem attacks against the person’s “character and/or mental health.” When one of Freud’s followers argued, “in one of his more desperate fibs,” that Freud “never strove for money as such,” Crews, who says Freud bled his wealthy patients financially, undercuts the “fib” by pointing out how the follower “let it slip” that Freud “was a tax evader who had hidden his fortune in at least one foreign bank account.”
It was consistent with his self-absorption and contempt for other people that he was also a misogynist. His wife “begged him only for ‘a little respect’; but she would never receive it.” After she had borne him six children and thus “lost her figure,” he shifted his affections to his sister-in-law. Most of his patients were women suffering from the “hysteria” that was so much in vogue at that time, and he had little respect for them, calling them “a rabble.” This showed up in his theories, all of which centered on sex: “Women – all women – impressed him as sinister creatures whose genital concavity bears a menace of ‘castration’ to any male….” Thinking of “penis envy,” he fantasized that “the secret ambition of every female was to acquire the envied penis by absorbing and severing it.”
Sex was central not just to his thinking, but to his life, in which he mixed masturbation with bisexual relations with women and at least one male friend. It seems remarkable that Freud was a major intellectual precursor of the “sexual liberation” of the 1960s when we consider that his contributions were more in opening the subject up for more attention and in undercutting the norms of “bourgeois morality” than in making sex appear desirable.
If one sees Freud as his disciples have seen him, Freud’s “desperation to achieve distinction” and “sense of a world-historical mission” count as good qualities. Whatever we may think of this, his drive for fame led him into uninhibited self-boosterism. Crews says he had “a full arsenal of braggadocio,” and says Freud’s literary success came from drawing readers’ attention into Sherlock Holmes-like detective work in which primarily Freud “cured” his own initial perplexities about a case. He consistently “exaggerated his certainty,” with writing replete with phrases like “we shall find it infallibly,” “brilliantly justified,” “invariably achieved its aim,” and the like.
Part of the self-promotion came, Crews tells us, through lies, misrepresenting outcomes, and selective reporting. Crews speaks of Freud’s “sheer misrepresentation of his own published statements” as he “gambled on his readers’ inability to remember what he had written.” When Freud declared “therapeutic success” with “eighteen cases of molestation-induced hysteria,” Crews calls it a “scientific fraud.” He says “not one word of this was true,” and cites reports that Freud made confidentially to Wilhelm Fliess that admitted “I have not finished a single case.”
We have commented at length on the defects in Freud’s “science,” and have noted how he acknowledged late in life that “I am not at all a man of science,” so it isn’t surprising that even as early as 1896 he expressed an interest in the paranormal. As time went on, he “consulted a soothsayer,” believed in “clairvoyant visions,” mental telepathy, and “visitations from departed spirits.” Crew says that for Freud “occultism was no hobbyistic sideline.” Rather, “the psychoanalytic interview itself was a process of paranormal thought transference.”
In all, it doesn’t make a pretty picture. To this litany of Freud’s personal qualities we must add his abundant use of cocaine in both his personal life and professional practice. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the dangers of cocaine weren’t generally known, so it was well received by society at large. Freud thought of it as a wonder drug, and prescribed it liberally. Just two months after he became aware of it in 1884, he wrote an essay “On Coca,” presenting himself as an expert on everything about it. He became, in effect, a crusader for cocaine. In his letters to his fiancée, he extolled the drug’s “enhancement of [sexual] desire”; and Crews says one of Freud’s disciples “understood that for Freud the sexual meaning of cocaine was primary.” Toward the end of the century, the dangers of cocaine began to become known, and interest shifted from medical uses to “recreational use.” Crew conjectures that it was “probably the eroticizing property of cocaine” that accounted for this. Whether Freud’s own consumption of cocaine was significantly responsible for his sexually-centered theories isn’t an issue pressed by Crews, who points out that Freud took it in diluted form. Eysenck, however, would have us note the radical change in Freud’s personality in the early 1890s, which included (among other things) moving from “a non-conformist member of the bourgeoisie, conservative and orthodox” to an advocate of “the complete overthrow of all conventional sexual morality.” Eysenck agrees with those who would ascribe this to Freud’s cocaine addiction.
Freud – the Making of an Illusion runs, all told, to 747 pages. Because there is much more in it than we have been able to cover here, a reader will find it informative to read Crews’ entire narrative. The detail of Freud’s life and thought is an important foundation for approaching a matter of much greater significance: How is it that such a non-science could come to captivate much of the intellectual world for so long? There is much for students of the sociology of science and, further, of the origins of religious belief to ponder.
Much of what Crews reports is disputed by Freudians. As, however, a reader seeks to balance his study of Freud by reading the refutations, it will be well to apply some “rules” Eysenck suggests. The first is an admonition that is good for all critical inquiry, regardless of the subject: “Do not believe anything you see written about Freud or psychoanalysis, particularly when written by Freud or other psychoanalysts, without looking at the relevant evidence” [our emphasis]. The other rules warn to question claims of “success of psychoanalytic treatment” and claims that Freud’s thinking was original to him. Eysenck also urges questioning “alleged evidence of the correctness of Freud’s theories,” saying “the evidence often proves exactly the opposite.” Those who have read Crews’ biography will certainly understand the need for circumspection.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. Hans J. Eysenck, The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (Washington: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1990), p. 208. A biography on GoodTherapy.org says that “at the time of his death in 1997, Eysenck held the distinction of being the most-cited psychologist in scientific journals.” We highly recommend his book – for its merit and by no means just because we were its publisher.
2. Crews tells of Freud’s “Secret Committee,” which he says was “proposed in 1912 to combat backsliding – or, as Louis Breger bluntly puts it, ‘to stifle debate and impose censorship’… The little team… operated, with interruptions, from 1913 until 1936, but its existence remained hidden until 1944. The Committee worked behind the scenes to attack, ridicule, and blacklist defectors….”
3. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 207.
4. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 11-13, 47, 80.
5. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 15.
6. Eysenck spells out the details of Wolpe and Rachman’s analysis; see Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 109-111.
7. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 25.
8. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 37-8.
9. Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 26-38.
 Hans J. Eysenck, The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (Washington: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1990), p. 208. A biography on GoodTherapy.org, says that “at the time of his death in 1997, Eysenck held the distinction of being the most-cited psychologist in scientific journals.” We highly recommend his book – for its merit and by no means just because we were its publisher.
 Crews tells of Freud’s “Secret Committee,” which he says was “proposed in 1912 to combat backsliding – or, as Louis Breger bluntly puts it, ‘to stifle debate and impose censorship’… The little team… operated, with interruptions, from 1913 until 1936, but its existence remained hidden until 1944. The Committee worked behind the scenes to attack, ridicule, and blacklist defectors….”
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 207.
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 11-13, 47, 80.
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 15.
 Eysenck spells out the details of Wolpe and Rachman’s analysis; see Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 109-111.
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 25.
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, p. 37-8.
 Eysenck, Decline and Fall, pp. 26-38.