- - Wednesday, October 18, 2017



By Frederick Crews

Metropolitan Books, $40, 746 pages

If there is anything to the theory of reincarnation, Sigmund Freud must have been Moby Dick in a past life and his most recent biographer, Frederick Crews, was probably Captain Ahab.

Mr. Crews plies his harpoon to great effect and readers who make it all the way through his 746-page, tightly reasoned, thoroughly documented and crisply written indictment of the Great White Whale of psychoanalysis will come away wondering at how Sigmund Freud could excel as a marketer of such shoddy psychological merchandise while admitting to confidants that most of his clients were past curing and mainly of interest to him as lab specimens.

Even as he treated his patients as guinea pigs, manipulating their dreams and symptoms to fit into his theories of the moment, he also fed on their dependency, keeping the meter running for endless lucrative sessions with well-heeled patrons to support a lavish lifestyle. One shocked colleague “would never forget the exact words of Freud’s reply when asked how he felt about his patients: ‘I could throttle every one of them.’ “

“It may be asked why Freud continued to accept patients at all,” Mr. Crews writes. “The answer can be stated in one word, but it is a word that, in most Freud studies, dare not speak its name: money.”

Many of Freud’s colleagues “had been shocked at his willingness to keep affluent patients in treatment for as long as five years without signs of consistent improvement. And he made no secret, among his friends, that he wanted his professorship chiefly in order to attract high-paying clients and to raise his fees.” Four years of meandering couch conversations cost one wealthy patient what would today amount to half a million euros, with Freud also urging the man to give him a valuable gift in order to “keep his feeling of gratitude from becoming too strong.”

After losing his first fortune during World War I, from 1919 onward Freud made a point of “accepting only clients who could pay him in inflation-resistant currencies (the dollar was especially strong), and hiding his earnings from the tax authorities.” He may have respected the Yankee dollar, but “Freud’s hatred of the United States was sharpened, not alleviated, by his acceptance of well-off American clients. he found Americans grievously lacking in respect for class distinctions.”

If Freud can be forgiven for dissing his cash cows even as he milked them, his irresponsible turn-of-the-century touting of cocaine as a new miracle drug is inexcusable. By the mid-1880s, he had concluded that almost everything went better with coke. In at least one case, his “therapy” of prescribing consumption of cocaine as a cure for a patient’s morphine habit left his hapless victim suffering from two addictions instead of just one.

At times a heavy user of the stuff himself, some of the notions Freud came up with during what might be called his Cocaine Period “give off a ‘druggy’ air of strangeness,” not least his assertion that “[t]he use of a condom is evidence of weak potency; being something analogous to masturbation, it is a continuous causation of melancholia.” Put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.

An old acquaintance of mine who had a successful career as a psychiatrist once confessed to me that, except for a few young patients with minor complaints who “got to him in time,” he doubted if he had ever cured anybody of anything. Most of his clients, he told me, were affluent, rather boring people who were willing to pay handsomely to get someone to listen to them babble on endlessly about themselves and their foibles.

That, in essence, may be what the Freudian revolution was all about, and what led the Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus, who was present at its creation, to conclude that, “Psychoanalysis is that mental disease for which it regards itself as therapy.”

Again and again, Sigmund Freud projected his own obsessions and fixations onto others, tampered with the evidence and then presented his pre-existing biases as scientifically proven fact. He was talented, articulate and always kept his eyes on the prize: a proto L. Ron Hubbard with a bigger audience and a broader intellect, a cult leader whose mumbo-jumbo message is still taken seriously by a lot of troubled souls today.

The best remedy, writes Mr. Crews, “is just to display the record of Freud’s doings.” In “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” he does so, strapping Sigmund Freud to his own couch with devastating results.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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