Freud: The Making of an Illusion

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

by Frederick Crews
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Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews

From the master of Freud debunkers, the biography that finally and definitively puts an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator

Since the 1970s, Sigmund Freud’s scientific reputation has been in an accelerating tailspin. Nonetheless, the idea persists that some of Freud’s contributions were visionary discoveries of lasting value. In Freud: The Making of a Wizard, Frederick Crews investigates these discoveries and reveals findings that will revolutionize our conception of the therapist, the theorist, and the human being.

With unusual access to archives not yet publically available, Crews sheds new light on Freud’s character, values, and conduct. He gives the full account of Freud’s fifteen-year involvement with cocaine; he explores Freud’s early struggles as a physician; his relations with eminent mentors; his case histories—some of which involved “patients” who didn’t exist; the misogyny that haunted his private and professional life; and the role of his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who served as his secretary, muse, and concubine.

In the process, Crews shows us a surprising new Freud: a man who blundered tragicomically in his dealings with patients, who misunderstood the psychological controversies of the era, who tried to appropriate the findings of others, and who advanced his career through falsifying his record and betraying the colleagues who had helped him to rise. The legend has persisted, Crews shows, thanks to Freud’s fictive self-invention as a master detective of the psyche, and later through a campaign of censorship and falsification conducted by his followers.
A monumental biography and a slashing critique, Freud: The Making of a Wizard will stand as the last word on the most significant and contested figure of the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627797177
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Pages: 768
Sales rank: 257,953
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Frederick Crews is the author of many books, including the bestselling satire The Pooh Perplex, Postmodern Pooh, and most recently, Follies of the Wise, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award. A professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley and a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is widely regarded as the leading critic of Freud and psychoanalysis.

Read an Excerpt


Between Identities


When Sigmund — Schlomo Sigismund — Freud enrolled in the University of Vienna in 1873 at age seventeen, he bore with him the high expectations of a family that desperately needed him to become a salary earner. His father, Kallamon Jacob, formerly a wholesale wool merchant in Freiberg, Moravia, had gone bankrupt, and a year's further search for business in Leipzig, Germany, had proved fruitless.

Relocated in Vienna since 1860, Jacob had long since given up actively looking for work. The Freuds were surviving mainly on charity from local and distant relatives, including the two sons from Jacob's first marriage, who had emigrated to England and become modestly successful shopkeepers in Manchester.

If Sigismund had been the only child of Jacob and Amalie Freud, their future would have looked brighter, but the marriage was distressingly prolific in offspring. Although Jacob was already forty, with one or possibly two marriages already behind him, when he married the twenty-year-old Amalie, Sigismund's birth proved to be the first of eight. And five of his siblings were sisters, unlikely to find middle-class employment or to make advantageous matches. Jacob was of no more financial help to his brood than Dickens's Mr. Micawber, to whom his son would later compare him.

Freud's childhood was marked by incidents whose traumatic effects he subsequently judged to have been severe. His Czech nanny in Freiberg, who functioned as a surrogate mother when Amalie went from one pregnancy to the next, had been abruptly fired and jailed for stealing. Years later, Sigismund was haunted by the awful thought that his ill wishes toward his first immediate sibling, Julius — born when Sigismund was just seventeen months old, and dead six months later — had somehow killed the baby. And his relocation from Freiberg to Leipzig and thence to a lower-class Jewish enclave within the Viennese district of Leopoldstadt, where he would grow up in the midst of overcrowding, illness, and penury, was evidently a protracted trial.

One incident in particular stands out as a source of continuing mortification. In 1865 Sigismund's uncle Josef was sentenced to ten years in prison for having counterfeited rubles; a well-founded suspicion persisted that Sigismund's half-brothers in Manchester had been involved in the scam. (The phony bills, after all, had been made in England.) Sigismund was nine when the Viennese newspapers were trumpeting the sting operation that had caught the Jewish forger Josef Freud. The boy and later the man may never have fully recovered from that shame.

The easygoing Jacob was proud of Sigismund and assumed loving charge of his early education, including his acquaintance with Judaism. Jacob looked forward each year to reading aloud the Passover Haggadah, and he twice presented his son with a Hebrew-German "Samuelson Bible"— the same volume both times, rebound for the adult and backsliding Sigmund and inscribed with a traditional cluster of sacred passages. But Jacob had little use for theology. He had embraced the movement known as Haskalah, which sought to bring European Jews out of their cultural isolation and, at the same time, to promote scriptural study in a nonliteral, nonmystical, ethical spirit. The editorial content of his son's Bible, which moralized the epic tales of Moses and David, was itself an expression of Haskalah humanism.

This undogmatic idea of what it means to be a Jew was amplified by the teenage Sigismund's religious studies, which were required by his college-preparatory school, the Sperl (Leopoldstadter Communal) Gymnasium. In extracurricular sessions with Samuel Hammerschlag, who would remain his friend in later years, he learned to regard the ethical aspect of Jewish thought as consonant with enlightened social values. From Hammerschlag, too, he came to value the heroic strain in another ancient tradition, that of the Greek and Roman classics.

In boyhood, Sigismund had idolized his father and associated him with the noblest Hebrews of the Bible. As his own dream of greatness took hold, however, disillusionment set in. Having grasped that parents can exercise a measure of choice regarding the size of their families, and finding himself required, vexatiously, to look after five young sisters and a final brother, the boy grew impatient with a father who had gone on engendering children while failing to provide for them.

Moreover, Sigismund was shocked when Jacob, seeking to let him know how bad things had formerly been for Jews in Freiberg, confided that he hadn't fought back against gentile bullying. After learning of such "unheroic" conduct, Sigismund compensated by fantasizing himself as Hannibal, the Semitic Carthaginian general whose father had made him swear to "take vengeance on the Romans"— metaphorically, on the established Roman Catholics of Austria. Such daydreaming became chronic as Sigismund, with dawning consciousness of his family's humble state, identified not just with Hannibal but also with the world-shaking Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, among others.

Meanwhile, his more practical ambitions were swelled by his irreligious mother, Amalie, who openly favored her firstborn at the expense of his siblings. Relying on the forecast of a fortune teller and on old-wives' superstition, she insisted he was destined for a brilliant career. Sigismund appears to have taken the prophecy in earnest and to have accepted his special privileges in the household as nothing more than his due. But by giving birth to seven more children, and by withdrawing into mourning over baby Julius when Sigismund was not yet two years old, Amalie left him with a permanent sense of abandonment.

In different ways, both of Freud's parents would strike the eventual theorist of the "family romance" as unworthy of his innate nobility and as an impediment to his social ascent. Along with thousands of other beneficiaries of the emperor Franz Josef's lifting of anti-Jewish restrictions, they had both emigrated from Galicia, a region that now includes parts of Poland and Ukraine; Amalie had also passed some of her childhood still farther east, in Odessa. Strong-willed, boisterous, and histrionic, with "little grace and no manners," this emotional "tornado" of a mother remained closer to her eastern roots than her upwardly mobile son would have liked. Jacob was more subdued, but too much so; his resignation to defeat gave Sigismund a constant reminder of how far he could fall if he were to lose his foothold on the ladder of professional success.

Jacob and Amalie Freud, whose personalities were even farther apart than their ages, agreed on one important point: the best hope for a turnaround in the family's circumstances lay with Sigismund's academic achievements. The parents were heartened when he proved to be a precocious reader, a deft student of Greek, Latin, and history, and, after home schooling until age nine, the academic star nearly every year in his class at Leopoldstadt's multiethnic gymnasium. If Sigismund were to continue on the same prize-winning path, he would presumably earn the support of influential university professors. And in the distance lay respectable and remunerative career opportunities in a number of fields, from law and medicine to business, banking, higher education, and civil service.

Freud's parents were not mistaken about his mental agility. Before founding and leading an international movement, he would become a skilled anatomist, the holder of a prestigious postgraduate fellowship, a pediatric neurologist, a family doctor, and a scientific author. None of those achievements and honors, however, would slake his appetite for greatness or earn him more than temporary peace of mind. Already disposed to regard himself as disadvantaged by his humble origins and poverty, he would gradually acquire a sense of isolation, a mistrust of others' motives, and a panicked conviction that only some extraordinary breakthrough or windfall could allow him to realize his dreams.


The most important contributor to that feeling of narrowed access to recognition was the psychological weight of anti-Semitism. Freud himself, in his autobiographical remarks, recalled that burden and emphasized the adjustment of attitude he had needed to make in order to press ahead with his career. Interestingly, though, he said nothing about a topic that will concern us much later: the effect of prejudice on the shaping of psychoanalysis.

Freud's eventual doctrine would constitute a turning of the tables on the anti-Semites — a "transvaluation of values" that delegitimized the Christian dichotomy between spirit and sexual passion. But Freud couldn't acknowledge that impetus without exposing the "science" of psychoanalysis as an ideological production. Consequently, anti-Semitism figured in his retrospect only as an obstacle to be negotiated in his path to discovery of universal psychological laws. From Freud's account we could never suspect either that he retained a lifetime grudge against gentiles or that — as we will find — one strain of anti-Semitism affected his own apprehension of fellow Jews.

Looking backward in his Autobiographical Study of 1925, Freud maintained that his struggle with prejudice had already been fully engaged in his adolescence. "Anti-Semitic feelings among the other boys," he wrote of his concluding school years, "warned me that I must take up a definite position. ... And the increasing importance of the effects of the anti-Semitic movement upon our emotional life helped to fix the thoughts and feelings of those early days."But a look at the record will show that until he was about nineteen and beginning medical school, he hadn't expected to be handicapped by his ethnicity.

We cannot doubt that Freud did experience some of the slights described in the Autobiographical Study. Even though, by the time of his graduation, Jews made up a full 73 percent of the Sperl Gymnasium's pupils, that majority constituted no insurance against snubbing. The rapid increase in Jewish enrollment, from 68 to 300, during the years of Freud's attendance was well suited to producing hostility from gentile teenagers who perceived "their school" as having fallen into alien hands. Nevertheless, the adolescent Freud didn't regard prejudice as a credible threat to his advancement. A favorable sociopolitical climate encouraged him to believe that his opportunities would be almost limitless if he properly "Germanized" himself. This is not to say that his early fondness for Goethe, Schiller, and Heine was feigned. Rather, he saw no conflict between retaining his identity as a Jew and becoming culturally German.

That Freud aimed at Germanization from the outset is most clearly indicated by his early decision to alter his given name. In either 1869 or 1870, no later than age fourteen, he began registering for his school courses not as Schlomo Sigismund but as Sigmund, and his early letters also show him experimenting with the new version before definitively adopting it in his signature. Quite a bit of baggage was then left behind. "Schlomo," honoring Freud's paternal grandfather, means "Solomon." "Sigismund" was his parents' tribute to a sixteenth-century Polish monarch who had protected Jews against pogroms. But quite recently the name had come to stand, like the later "Hymie," for the generic Jew in anti-Semitic jokes. In contrast, "Sigmund" would have evoked the Norse hero Siegmund in the Niebelungenlied, a work that was then serving as a rallying point for pan-Germanic sentiment; Wagner's Die Walküre (1870) strongly advanced that connection.

Although Freud wasn't trying to pass for a gentile, as a refashioned Sigmund he was announcing his eagerness to become as kulturdeutsch as anyone else. And he had an imposing model to follow. His first close friend — a fellow Jew and on-and-off classmate in the Leopoldstadt gymnasium — was Heinrich Braun, who would go on to attain prominence in Social Democratic politics and journalism; he even served briefly in the German parliament. The debonair, charismatic Braun, a bold rebel, encouraged Freud to supplement his school curriculum with implicitly subversive books by the progressive British historians W. E. H. Lecky and Henry Thomas Buckle and by the gentile German skeptics Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss.

Braun confided to Freud his plan of acquiring a law degree and then becoming a radical politician. Smitten by his panache, Freud thereupon decided he would follow that very course himself. Although he soon thought better of the idea and opted for a medical career, it was a telling sign of the times that two young Jews could plausibly imagine themselves becoming socialist leaders, operating freely within the broader society to accomplish reforms that would be applauded by Jews and gentiles alike.

An even more impressive crossing of ethnic lines was effected by Braun's eventual brother-in-law, Victor Adler, whom Freud came to know (and envy, and dislike) at the University of Vienna. A physician in private life, Adler believed that his political organizing and parliamentary initiatives extended naturally from his concern for patients who were experiencing class oppression. As the founder of the first Social Democratic party in Austria, Adler would manage to legislate universal manhood suffrage in a land where the nobility's illusions were still being humored. In 1907, thanks to Adler, the workers could vote at last, and they made his party the strongest in Austria. When the whole empire imploded at the end of World War I, it was the dying Adler who "led the orderly and peaceful revolution which removed the last formalities of Habsburg rule." Neither Adler nor Braun, then, felt significantly limited by antiSemitism. Nor, apparently, did Freud himself feel persecuted in his schoolboy years, as can be inferred from two fragmentary sets of extant correspondence: a handful of letters to his Freiberg companion Emil Fluss, with whom he had reconnected in a visit to his birthplace at age sixteen, and a more extensive collection, composed mostly in errant self-taught Spanish between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that he sent to his closest teenage friend and "private academy" confidant, Eduard Silberstein. Both Fluss and Silberstein were Jews, and Silberstein, one year behind in the gymnasium, had been exposed to the same local atmosphere as Freud. While each set of Freud's letters occasionally mentions Jewish ethnicity, neither of them contains so much as a hint of ill treatment.

We meet in these archly ironizing documents a bookish, ponderously playful, sententious adolescent who exudes optimism about his studies and his plans for a sterling career. His literary and philosophical orientation is already German. He often sounds as if he is parroting judgments that were pronounced in class by his teachers. But there are signs, as well, of youthful cynicism about an older generation's pomposities. Jewish, Christian, and imperial Austro-Hungarian customs alike are treated satirically, with an implication that forward-looking youths in this modern age can no longer be bothered with religious or patriotic nonsense.

According to Freud's Autobiographical Study, a wall of antiSemitism, more formidable than the occasional taunts of schoolboys, greeted him as soon as he undertook his higher education at seventeen:

When, in 1873, I first joined the University, I experienced some appreciable disappointments. Above all, I found that I was expected to feel myself inferior and an alien because I was a Jew. I refused absolutely to do the first of these things. I have never been able to see why I should feel ashamed of my descent or, as people were beginning to say, of my "race." I put up, without much regret, with my non-acceptance into the community; for it seemed to me that in spite of this exclusion an active fellow-worker could not fail to find a little place [ein Plätzchen] in the framework of humanity. These first impressions at the University, however, had one consequence which was afterwards to prove important; for at an early age I was made familiar with the fate of being in the opposition and of being put under the ban of the "compact majority." The foundations were thus laid for a certain independence [eine gewisse Unabhängigkeit].

This stirring paragraph bears only an oblique relation to the truth. To begin with, had Freud really been so alone and despised during his first years at the University of Vienna? Although Jews composed only 10.1 percent of the Viennese population in 1880, they already made up 21 percent of the university's students, and most of them who were enrolled in 1873 appear to have felt at home there. Even the nationalist fraternities had yet to turn against Germanizing secularists such as Freud. Although he had no taste for drinking and dueling, he told Silberstein that he could have joined such a fraternity in either of his first two years.


Excerpted from "Freud"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Frederick Crews.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii

A Note on Sources xv

Abbreviated Titles xvii

Preface 1

Part 1 Sigmund the Unready

1 Between Identities 9

2 Getting By 24

3 Forsaking All Others 39

Part 2 The First Temptation

4 White Magic 57

5 A Friend in Need 74

6 The Wrong Discoverer 91

7 Expert Judgments 109

8 The Survivor 127

9 Exit, Pursued 140

Part 3 Blind submission

10 A French Connection 157

11 The Travesty 172

12 Attachment Therapy 189

13 In Dubious Battle 212

Part 4 Playing Doctor

14 Medicine Man 239

15 Tending to Goldfish 258

16 Lessons Taken and Applied 275

17 Traumas on Demand 293

Part 5 His Turn to Shine

18 Now or Never 319

19 The Founding Deception 339

20 Adjusting the Record 361

21 Narrative Truth 380

22 Arraying the Neuroses 398

Part 6 Oft the Deep End

23 The Secret Sharer 415

24 The Freudian Neuron 435

25 Diminished Capacity 452

26 Dire Therapy 466

27 Self-Seduced 486

28 The Breakthrough That Wasn't 506

29 The Labyrinth of Reproaches 519

Part 7 Little Big Man

30 Wishing Makes It So 543

31 Sexual Healing 563

32 The Unborn Avenger 578

33 Girl Trouble 590

34 A Law unto Himself 617

35 Imposing His Will 641

Appendix: Are We Being Freudian Yet? 661

Notes 667

Works Cited 709

Acknowledgments 731

Index 733

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