Confessions of a fallen Freudian

Sigmund Freud

In my youth, I was a zealous believer in Freudian psychology.  I read, more than once, The Interpretation of Dreams, and analyzed the unspeakable imagery produced by my twentysomething slumbers.  I read Dora, The Ego and the Id, Civilization and Its Discontent, and Freud’s fulmination on religion, The Future of an Illusion.

Those books still glare at me from their shelf with an unrepressed air of superiority.

Back then, everything was a symbol – and every symbol was about sex.  As a healthy young male, the truth of this proposition seemed to me self-evident.  The most innocent object represented someone’s sublimated urges.  Best of all, I could talk about It with women and sound deep rather than smutty.

As a Freudian, I belonged to the exclusive sect of those wise and brave enough to confront human nature.

All others were repressed.  The entire older generation, I figured, was repressed.  My teachers were repressed.  My parents were repressed, even though they accidentally  managed to produce me.  In those days, if I didn’t like you, if I didn’t know you, if I wanted to feel superior to you, you were repressed.

This wasn’t up for debate.  Like Marxism and most artistic modernisms, Freudian psychology placed its doctrines beyond the reach of the uninitiated.  Questioning merited therapy, never discussion.  If you argued, that was neurotic behavior – proof of your repression.

Some very smart people, like Karl Popper, pointed out the circularity of this logic.  But we who were inside the sect reveled in it.

My downfall began when I watched, helplessly, a real-life person being tormented for years by psychoanalysts, who was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar.  Psychotherapy, I learned, could be reduced to finding dark traumas in one’s family life, even when – as in this case – none had occurred.  Blaming one’s family was axiomatic and mandatory.

The effect was to absolve the patient from the need to deal with her condition, and to separate her from those who wished to assist and support her.

I have since learned that this was a typically destructive effect of Freudian therapy.  Mothers of autistic children, to cite one horrific example, were called “refrigerator moms” and accused of damaging the emotions of their afflicted offspring.  These and many additional instances of psychoanalysis run amok can be found in Edward Dolnik’s excellent, if depressing, Madness on the Couch.

Freudian therapy, it became clear, was hopelessly flawed.  What about the theory?  I re-read the books, and came away shocked by Freud’s facile interpretations.  Dora in particular is an appalling book.  Freud comes across like a totalitarian dictator purging  Dora’s emotional life.  He decides what’s meaningful and what isn’t, then bullies her into agreement.  An indefinite number of alternate possibilities aren’t discussed – probably, because they didn’t occur to him.

Freud’s psychological categories, which I had taken for granted, suddenly seemed vague  and bizarre.  What is the ego, and where does one find it?  The id?  The superego?  How does one square an Oedipus complex or a death wish with evolutionary theory?  Freud had raged against religion, but how different in kind were these abstractions from the Christian mystery of the trinity?

The main difference was Freud’s standing as a scientist:  but the claims made in Dora and The Interpretation of Dreams were unproveable, unfalsifiable, and mysterious.

The Freudian contempt toward critics began with Freud himself.  He had no time for scientific modesty and at times behaved like a dogmatic pope – excommunicating disciples like Carl Jung who strayed from his infallible orthodoxy.

What can I say?  I lost my faith.  I left the sect.  That was long ago, and I have watched with fascination while a stream of research swept away the underpinnings of Freudian psychology, bringing down the entire edifice in the eerie silence reserved for failed hypotheses.

Dreams probably result from the random stimulation of brain cells.  Emotional traumas aren’t repressed but remembered even when we wish to forget.  Today it’s all about neurology rather than Greek mythology.  This is less sexy than what we believed in my youth, but has the advantage of also being less wildly inaccurate.

Freudian ideas never fully persuaded the scientific establishment, but they became immensely popular with intellectuals and artists.  Hollywood could never get enough of the stuff.  Alfred Hitchcock directed a thriller based on repressed memory, with sets by Salvador Dali.  John Huston directed a life of Freud, with script by Jean-Paul Sartre.  In one entertaining film, Freud out-detectives Sherlock Holmes.  In my favorite early sci-fi movie, Freudian psychology delivers real-life “monsters from the id.”

The reason for this popularity bears some reflection.  In part, explaining the human personality in terms of Greek tragedy lent itself naturally to drama.  Psychotherapy’s obsessive focus on one’s emotional life also indulged intellectual and artistic narcissism.  But I believe there was another, less benign reason.

Unlike their predecessors in every period of history, modern thinkers and artists have, as a class, set themselves against their own community.  They despise middle class life; their works compete with one another in the ferocity with which they reject its values.  Freudianism preached that morality was hypocrisy – that self-realization meant transcending conventional ideas about sexuality.  Honesty mandated an ironic detachment from moral rules which bordered on nihilism.

Popper ranked Freud among the enemies of the open society.  Recalling the buzz of superiority I felt as a young Freudian – my sectarian contempt for the ignorant and repressed – I’m inclined to agree.

Hollywood Freud cures Sherlock Holmes

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3 Responses to Confessions of a fallen Freudian

  1. Adam says:

    Excellent post. The repression of Freudianism and false consciousness of Marxism are definitely among the analytic tools used to explain away inconvenient facts that might stand in the way of one’s beloved theory.

    I have to say though, reading your telling of how you felt you were a part of a select group, I started to wonder whether that isn’t something typical of just about any strong belief, particularly those associated with self-selected “intellectuals”.

    This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

    As a Freudian, I belonged to the exclusive sect of those wise and brave enough to confront human nature.

    In the program at GMU, you sort of had to resist with all of your might to stop from feeling this way. And often I did, anyway, in spite of myself.

    I think that consistent adherence to the ethic and attitude of the open society is something that comes naturally to very few; the rest of us have to struggle to hold onto it, and to regain it when we’ve let it slip.

  2. Mari says:

    Actually, psychiatrists do not torture their patients, they either bore them to tears or annoy the hell out of them.

    I took a class in college called “death of God theology” and my class paper was “Freud and the Death of God”. I knew then it was B.S., and I continue to think so, on all fronts. Freud was a jerk, and either God is or isn’t, but it’s doubtful that he died (except maybe for Jesus, if you so believe). Anyhow, just another slick bit of writing on my part and I got an A in the paper and the course.

    I believe some day they will be able to know the activity in the nervous system that causes mental illness and will be able to treat it painlessly and without side effects. No id, ego, or superego; no couch; no endless blathering group sessions; no nasty pills. It could happen.

    One last point, Freud did contribute to being aware of mental illness as something that is treatable; that he was completely wrong about its origins and treatment is the irony of history.

    • The person I mentioned was tormented by bipolarism, and her pain was multiplied by glib, arrogant psychoanalysts: there was nothing boring about her condition.

      Freud was a brilliant man – no one who has read his books would doubt this. But he wasn’t a scientist or a healer. He was a dogmatist – or if you want to be generous, a philosopher.

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