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Reading: Freud Under Fire

His critics want to return to the time when the psyche was a simple thing, free of conflict, desire, and ambivalence.

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Freud has had a rough year. He's been the subject of a small flood of hostile books, some challenging his personal and professional ethics, others the tenets of his work. In last year's A Most Dangerous Method, a typical example of the genre, John Kerr traced the rift between Freud and Jung to a complex, sordid sexual psychodrama that involved both men in illicit affairs and a kind of mutual blackmail. In Seductive Mirage, also published last year, Allen Esterson purported to deconstruct Freud's case histories to show that he regularly twisted facts to fit his theories. A recent cover story in Time magazine asked: "Is Freud Dead?" The authors, with the practiced equivocation typical of Time trend stories, answered: sort of, concluding that Freudianism, if hardly a science, has been at least an emotionally comforting superstition. But the critics they quoted are hardly so measured. "Psychoanalysis is built upon quicksand," Frank Sulloway told Time. "It's like a 10-story hotel sinking into an unsound foundation. And the analysts are in this building. You tell them it's sinking, and they say, "It's OK, we're on the 10th floor."'

Once upon a time such comments would have been unthinkable. For several decades after World War II, Freud's influence on American culture was inescapable. Freud--the discoverer of the unconscious, the interpreter of dreams--was revered as a great mind and a profound moral influence. He bequeathed to our culture a new vocabulary of the psyche: superego, ego, id, the Oedipal complex, fixation, resistance, and--for better or worse--penis envy. His scattered and voluminous writings, cultural critic Philip Rieff wrote in 1959, formed the "masterwork of the century"; his theories made him the most influential thinker of the modern age. "He presides over the mass media," Rieff noted, "the college classroom, the chatter at parties, the playgrounds of the middle-classes where child-rearing is a prominent and somewhat anxious topic of conversation." He was not only a thinker but a prophet, Rieff concluded, "the first visionary to look neither forward nor backward except to stare down projections and to penetrate fixations."

A lot has changed since Rieff wrote his tribute. After Freud's glory days in the 1940s and '50s, challengers began to chip away at his intellectual edifice. The first to attack, in the 1960s and '70s, were feminist critics--from Betty Friedan to Germaine Greer--who accused the Old Man of a monumental insensitivity when it came to women. Much of the criticism was justified. In his more candid moments, Freud admitted he was baffled by the psychology of women, but he didn't let his befuddlement prevent him from making dramatic pronouncements on the subject. It was Freud, after all, who explained that female sexuality is rooted in the desire to produce a "penis-baby" as a kind of recompense for a missing penis, who demanded that women abandon the "phallic" sexuality of the clitoris for the more mature, more properly feminine sexuality of the vagina. Indeed, in support of his theory, Freud took to lecturing female body parts on their proper functions: "With the change to femininity the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina."

Over the last decade or so, criticism of Freud has become even more intense and far-reaching. No longer is he taken to task for specific errors and failings; contemporary critics challenge his basic premises. The progress of Freud critic Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson--from disgruntled analyst to zealous opponent of therapy--is a case in point. In his 1984 book The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, Masson accused Freud of dishonesty and cowardice, of covering up the evidence of sexual abuse suffered by his patients. Several years later, Masson declared himself unequivocally "against therapy" in a book of that name, rallying the troops for an all-out assault on the profession.

Another exemplar of the now-fashionable hostility toward Freud is literary critic Frederick Crews. Once a Freudian true believer, he's now turned on the Old Man with a strident, unfocused anger. In a famous 1980 Commentary article that helped to usher in the current age of Freud bashing, Crews predicted with undisguised satisfaction that psychoanalysis would "fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits." Such rhetoric had its intended effect--further undermining the reputation of Freud and his "science." (The Time magazine authors, in what is perhaps an unconscious tribute to Crews, also compare psychoanalysis to "phrenology or mesmerism or any of the other pseudosciences that once offered unsubstantiated answers or false solace.") Crews has kept up the attack in the years since he predicted the collapse of psychoanalysis. In a New York Review of Books essay last fall--which caused a predictable stir among analysts--he described psychoanalysis as little more than a modern superstition, ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, a process producing "a good many more converts than cures." Like Masson, Crews focuses his attack on the Old Man in his youth, describing derisively the "haphazard" origins of this "pseudoscience." It's not clear to me how Crews can base so much of his argument on the mistakes Freud made in the early years of his practice, however; Freud learned from many of his mistakes, and other analysts have learned more since. One wonders how Crews imagines "real" science is done: Are mistakes forbidden? Are modern chemists, say, somehow implicated in the mistakes of their alchemist forbears?

Crews attacks with particular vengeance Freud's own analytic practice--which even his followers admit bore little resemblance to his austere theories. Crews wonders whether "Freud can be said to have ever practiced psychoanalysis in the sense that he commended to others. Freud generally lacked the equanimity to act on his key methodological principle, that the patient's free associations would lead of their own accord to the crucially repressed material. Some of his own accounts and those of his ex-patients reveal that, when he was not filling the hour with his own opinionated chitchat, he sought to "nail' the clients with hastily conceived interpretations which he then drove home unabatingly." Freud, in short, was not a Freudian; though a brilliant man, he was almost certainly an insensitive analyst. But Crews intends his argument to be more than a historic footnote--in his mind Freud's failures as an analyst cast aspersions on psychoanalysis in its current incarnation. But since therapists are carefully trained to avoid just these temptations and pitfalls, Crews's critique is irrelevant unless one assumes that most therapists break the rules in precisely the way Freud did.

Such intemperate writing and untenable assertions are typical of the current crop of Freud critics. Like Crews, Masson does not strictly speaking offer an argument against therapy; he makes categorical assertions about what he sees as its inherent evils and offers specific examples of misguided or actively destructive therapeutic practice. The argument in The Assault on Truth is problematic enough, but Against Therapy (recently issued in paperback) is a virtual compilation of logical fallacies. Here Masson describes a dishonest therapist--and concludes that "therapy is never honest." He offers examples of therapists who have taken advantage of their power, often quite cruelly; but to him this is evidence that "no therapist can consistently and permanently avoid the temptation to abuse the inevitable and inherent power imbalance." He reports that some therapists, among them Freud, force their interpretations on reluctant patients; from this he concludes that "the very idea of psychotherapy is wrong. The structure of psychotherapy is such that no matter how kindly a person is, when that person becomes a therapist, he or she is engaged in acts that are bound to diminish the dignity, autonomy, and freedom of the person who comes for help."

Masson attempts to cover over the logical holes in his "argument" by inflating his rhetoric and multiplying his examples. But these are simply the actions of a small number of therapists who've gone astray. Would he argue that the actions of a few teachers who abuse their students similarly challenge the concept of teaching?

In a new afterword to his book, Masson replies to this kind of criticism by insisting his methods work fine. "After all, there are a finite number of psychotherapists, and after a while, when you continue to find evidence of abuse, you begin to ask yourself whether there is not something inherently corrupting about the very process of becoming a psychotherapist." In essence he bases the validity of his argument on the bulk accumulation of therapeutic abuses. He's got a long way to go, however, before his argument has any genuine weight. In Against Therapy Masson chronicles in some detail the "corruption" of a dozen or so more-or-less prominent practitioners, but since there are some 150,000 psychologists in this country alone, he would need to write a thousand more such books for his "evidence" to be convincing.

The fallacies of Masson and Crews would matter little if they were isolated cases, but they're not. These are perhaps the two most influential critics of Freud--at least outside of the profession--yet too often their arguments have gone unexamined. Masson's basic premise in Assault on Truth has become, in watered-down form, the standard interpretation of Freud among certain feminists--contemporary Women's Studies majors absorb Masson's accusations as if they were unquestionable truths. And Crews's brand of sophisticated sarcasm has spread far beyond the subscription rolls of Commentary and the New York Review of Books. "Everybody knows that Freud has fallen from grace," Paul Robinson notes in his thoughtful recent book Freud and His Critics, which takes on the sophistries of Masson and several other leading Freud bashers. "Whenever I have told someone that I was writing a book about him, the response has almost invariably been the same: "Hasn't he been disproved?' Or I have been asked about the latest scandal from the newspapers: "Wasn't he a cocaine addict?' "Didn't he lie about his patients being sexually abused?"'

The willingness of so many otherwise sensible people to believe the worst about Freud (and by extension, to accept the hyperbole of Masson and Crews) is itself revealing, suggesting that much of the current reaction against Freud is driven less by intellectual arguments than by emotion. The Freud bashers seem oblivious to the simple fact that Freud's insights, modified and corrected through years of practice, have in fact helped millions of people to free themselves from their own irrational compulsions and neuroses. Though Freud has fallen from grace in the popular culture, a number of recent studies suggest that for an increasing number of people, therapy has proven highly successful. It doesn't help everyone; patients with more severe problems, such as depression, respond slowly to analytic intervention, and may be better off treated with medication or a combination of medication and therapy. But in general the "talking cure" helps, and the more time devoted to it, the greater the improvement: according to a massive 30-year study overseen by psychologist Kenneth Howard, some 50 percent of patients show measurable improvement by the 8th session, and the figure increases to 75 percent by the 20th session.

The critics of Freud seem not only oblivious to the clear evidence of therapeutic success, they seem indifferent to (or are perhaps strategically uninformed about) the transformation of the profession in the years since Freud's death. Today there are few strict Freudians, insisting on Freud's regimen of four or five free-associational sessions weekly, even among the 20 or 30 percent of therapists who trace their lineage fairly directly back to the Old Man. As analyst Stephen Mitchell notes in his provocative book Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis, the theory and practice of therapy "has changed from Freud's day to ours much more radically than is generally acknowledged [though] the seeming self-containment of psychoanalysis tends to obscure those changes." While hardly perfect, contemporary therapy bears little resemblance to the rigid, domineering procedures of psychoanalysts in the early days. By focusing on Freud's early years, his critics offer oddly anachronistic critiques: many of these problems were long ago recognized by the profession, which has attempted, often with considerable success, to solve them.

Masson and Crews are right to criticize Freud's stubborn insistence on finding in the lives of his patients confirmation for his pet theories. His insistence that he was always right was correctly seen by many of those he treated as a threat to their personal integrity. But contemporary analysts are already challenging some of the "fundamental beliefs" of classical psychoanalysis--without rejecting the insights of analysis in the process. Therapists today, Mitchell notes, are likely to look with suspicion on the old-fashioned notion "that the analyst knows better, sees more maturely and deeply into the patient's difficulties and into the very nature of life--the premise that the analyst's vision is a rational antidote to the chaotic, infantile, illusion-bound hopes and dreads of the patient's emotional inner world."

For Freud, the point of therapy was to lead his patients to a rational awakening, to force them to renounce their cherished fantasies, to accept the harsh dictates of reality. "Where id was," Freud said, "there ego shall be." But Freud's rigid focus on the intellectual achievements of therapy has given way to an appreciation of the patient's emotional realities. "Where Freud was after clarity, explanation, and insight, contemporary analytic authors stress ambiguity, enrichment, and meaning," Mitchell writes. "Rational thought and the clarification of conflicts are still very much part of contemporary analytic work. But they are no longer at the heart of it. Confusion is now equally valued, the sort of creative disorganization and ambiguity that results from the ability to suspend judgement, premature understanding, and forced clarity."

Masson and Crews may see therapy as an attempt to force the lives of innocent patients to fit Freud's preconceived narratives, but to many patients therapy offers the chance to lead spontaneous lives. "Meaning in personal experience is composed of narratives," Mitchell notes. "The narratives that the patient brings into treatment are generally stereotyped and closed. A central part of what the analyst adds is imagination . . . a capacity to envision different endings, different futures." This is a far cry from Masson's caricature of therapy as a form of domination.

The critics of Freud naturally focus on his early years--he did, after all, make mistakes in the process of formulating his theories and developing his methods of analysis. But perhaps the primary reason they focus on the early Freud is that they themselves hold 19th-century views about the self, the views that Freud helped push us beyond. In effect these critics wish to return to the world as we knew it before Freud--a world in which the psyche was a simple thing, devoid of anger and desire and ambivalence, devoid of darker impulses; a world in which people's professed beliefs could be taken at face value. "Freud articulates a modern conception of the self: it is divided, at odds with itself, ambivalent. It houses desires that are not always compatible with its conscious convictions, and Freud regards its self-representations with suspicion," Robinson notes. "For Masson, on the other hand, the self is fundamentally unified and reliable. There are no secret corners, no hidden recesses unavailable to consciousness, that might stand at odds with explicit ideas or beliefs."

Much of the current reaction against Freud stems from an intense, even irrational suspicion of psychological complexity--from a wish to return us to a world in which everyone is innocent and the source of psychological corruption, whether "dysfunctional" or abusive parents, pornography or violence on TV, is always external. But as Freud taught, none of us is ever innocent. We are complex creatures, full of internal dissension, forever in conflict with ourselves and with the outer world; we are born with the capacity both for love and for hate--often at the same time. To deny Freud is, ultimately, to deny this complexity, and to deny in some profound sense our dignity.

Freud and His Critics by Paul Robinson, University of California Press, $25.

Against Therapy by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Common Courage Press, $15.95.

Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis by Stephen A. Mitchell, Basic Books, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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