California Literary Review

An Interview With Freud Biographer Peter D. Kramer


April 3rd, 2007 at 8:22 pm

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Peter D. Kramer

What was Freud’s childhood like – particularly his relationship to his parents and siblings?
For many years, our impressions of Freud’s childhood were dominated by a few well-known stories drawn from Freud’s autobiography and correspondence. I’m thinking of the vignettes that previewed his later greatness, as predicted by an old peasant woman, a wandering poet, and so on. But recent studies have focused on independent testimony—from observers other than Freud. In writing a brief biography, I tried to highlight certain pieces of that new research, ones that seemed to cohere and tell a story.One such story is that what Freud calls objective scientific findings may be better understood as memoir. For instance, Freud built his report on the analysis of Sergei Pankejeff , the “Wolf Man,” around a sexual scene the patient was said to have witnessed in his parents’ bedroom, at age eighteen months. In the 1970s, Pankejeff told a journalist that as a child of upper class parents, he had slept with a nanny, far from his parent’s bedroom. But at the start of Freud’s life, he lived in a one-room apartment with his mother and father. We do not know whether Freud witnessed what he called the “primal scene”; but we have reason to suspect that the notion of such a trauma did not originate with his patient.
To turn more directly to Freud’s childhood: When Amalia Nathansohn, who would become Freud’s mother, met Jakob Freud, he was a widower with two grown sons. At the time of their marriage, Jakob was forty and Amalia was twenty, about the age of her stepsons. In Freud’s early childhood, one of the stepsons carried on a flirtation and perhaps an affair with Amalia who, between pregnancies and the demands of a chronic illness, probably tuberculosis, was often unavailable to Freud.

In the book, I write:
“Freud would later make his mark by proposing fear of the father, competition with the father over the mother’s favors, and guilt over any victory in these struggles as central motivators in every man. But in an autobiographical footnote written in 1924, Freud lets slip the observation that hostile and jealous feelings ordinarily directed at the father were in his own case turned toward his half brother. At issue was a phenomenon recognized since Genesis, sibling rivalry. Beyond the friction between the half brothers, there appears to have been competition between Jakob and Philipp—but here it would have been adult, and not infantile, sexuality that was at issue. It is amusing to speculate how Western thought may have been transformed by the confusing environment of Freud’s earliest years and his amalgamation of two mundane conflicts, sibling rivalry and marital jealousy, into one dramatic story, the Oedipus complex.”
Another theme I consider concerns Freud’s social awkwardness. In the standard account, Freud is seen as a wise, thoughtful listener in the consulting room. But recent research suggests that he was far from intuitive or empathetic; in practice, he imposed rigid theories on patients whose central problems should have been reasonably obvious. There is testimony that a sort of stiffness was evident in Freud in his teenage years. In a eulogy, his sister Anna wrote that Freud had not playmates so much as study companions. She characterizes him as pompous, pedantic, and priggish. Freud himself later recognized a problem in his “expression or temperament” that caused others to hold back from him. In a letter to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, he confessed, “I consider it a great misfortune that nature has not granted me that indefinite something that attracts people.”
Overall, Freud looks like an anxious, socially uncomfortable child in a complex family of origin. What has not been questioned is his brilliance. He was promising at every age.

Freud had an unwavering belief that childhood sexual trauma explained all neuroses. Your description of how this view was forced upon his patients despite contradicting evidence is shocking. Would you give us an example?
Over time, Freud offered differing views on infantile sexuality, all of them problematic. The most dramatic mistake became associated with the phrase “seduction theory.” As he was turning forty, in a desperate attempt to achieve fame Freud gave a speech to his Viennese colleagues on the origins of hysteria. In it, he claimed to have analyzed a series of 18 patients suffering from hysteria or a combination of hysteria and obsessionality. In every case, he had uncovered evidence of an early sexual event. All the hysterics had experienced “coitus-like acts” between the ages of two and four—at the hands of parents, siblings, other relatives, or nannies—and these events were the original cause of their disorder. The tale of Freud’s entry into and exit from this stance is complex, but his original presentation suggests not so much that Freud was misled by patients but that he misdirected them through making his expectations clear.Famously, Freud soon reversed the direction of infantile sexuality and claimed that what was pathogenic was children’s repressed desire for the parent of the opposite sex. Critics have pointed out that this transformation—the idea that the hysterics had been fantasizing rather than remembering—is an odd one, since Freud had not been dealing primarily in reports about fathers but had needed, to construct his earlier theory, to reach widely to incidents involving a variety of caregivers.
The famous cases that seem worrisome today involve this question of repressed desire. One disturbing example concerns Freud’s early patient Ida Bauer, whom in his written account he called Dora. In 1898, at age seventeen, Dora was forced into treatment by her father. Dora suffered such symptoms as depression and a nervous cough. The father was carrying on an affair with the wife of his friend, Hans Zellenka, Freud’s “Herr K.” Zellenka, in turn, had made a sexual approach to Ida/Dora when she was fifteen; earlier, when she was thirteen, Zellenka had forced a kiss on the girl. Freud wrote that Dora “used to be overcome by the idea that she had been handed over to Herr K. as the price of his tolerating relations between her father and his wife. . .”
In consonance with his new theory, Freud formulates the case in terms of Dora’s desire. According to Freud, when embraced by Herr K., Dora should have experienced genital excitation, on feeling her father’s contemporary press his penis against her. Her repressed desire was displaced upward, causing mouth and throat symptoms. Freud concluded that Dora was an accomplice in her father’s affair, allowing it to continue so that she could not be reproached for her closeness to Herr K.!
Fortunately, Bauer was a spirited young woman. She left treatment and successfully confronted the Zellenkas. But Freud looks very bad. Here he is consulting with a young woman in need of support, and instead Freud locates the pathology in her and normalizes the behavior of her molester. Freud goes on to claim that Dora must have left treatment because she also desired him, the analyst—and that his mistake was in not asking her whether she harbored the fantasy of kissing her doctor!
The profession’s assessment of Freud’s work with Bauer has changed over time. For decades, Dora was part of a Pantheon of great cases—in this instance, not because of Freud’s success but because of his novel understanding of the young woman. But by the 1990s, Patrick Mahoney, an analyst who mostly writes admiringly of Freud, concluded that the Dora report is “one of the most remarkable exhibitions of a clinician’s published rejections of his patient; spectacular, though tragic, evidence of sexual abuse of a young girl, and her own analyst’s exoneration of that abuse; an eminent case of forced associations, forced remembering, and perhaps several forced dreams . . .”
As happens often in Freud’s work, this wrongheaded case formulation contains a fruitful concept, the transference. Dora may never have fantasized about kissing Freud. And Freud’s conclusion, that patients project onto the analyst feelings traceable to infantile sexual desires, may be overly specific. But Freud points in a direction that has had lasting value—toward the utility of examining interactions in the consulting room as a window on relationships elsewhere in the patient’s life.
In a more direct way, the Rat Man case, which went reasonably well for the patient, Ernst Lanzer, displays Freud pushing his infantile sexuality notion on a patient. At the heart of Freud’s account is his speculation that Lanzer’s father humiliated his son, at age six, for an episode of masturbation. Lanzer, who confessed to more embarrassing sexual encounters, could recall no such experience.
What is fascinating is how the analytic community and, in a sense, the Western world put so much stock in these cases. The wish to rebel against Victorian or, more properly, Hapsburger sexual hypocrisies (already in retreat) was so strong that readers were willing to embrace as gospel interpretations that Freud’s patients never came to accept.
Freud’s desire for fame and a fear of humiliation seemed to be the two driving forces in his life. So much so that truth and honest scientific inquiry suffered greatly. Is that too harsh?
I think it’s on target, although the ambition was so strong that Freud risked (and encountered) repeated embarrassment. Think of his wild efforts at the start of his psychiatric career. First Freud champions cocaine, including its use to treat morphine addiction—only to discover that his colleagues have experience with both drugs and understand the folly of that approach. Then he claims that tracing hysterical symptoms to their source results in their extirpation—and finds that skilled clinicians have serious doubts. Freud swerves to make the outrageous claims associated with the seduction theory. Then he backtracks and propounds the Oedipus Complex, in effect admitting misreporting in the “onion peeling” cases and the molestation reports. He was swinging wildly, aiming for the fences. And by his own account, every at bat was a home run.There’s where the research of the past couple of decades has been most damaging. Scholars have located collateral information about Freud’s patients. Few of them recovered under his care, and none was treated by the methods—involving neutral observation—that Freud came to champion. Of course, his means of proof, as regards his theories, rests on those twin pillars, fantasies that arise spontaneously and cure that results when they are interpreted. Freud’s work as a neurologist, early in his career, demonstrates that he had the makings of a gifted scientist; but in the development of psychoanalysis, he used other talents, those of the autobiographer, rhetoritician, and polemicist.

Later in life Freud turned his attention to issues of social psychology and used a wonderful phrase, the “narcissism of small differences.” Would you explain what he meant by that and some of his views on human group behavior?

Freud coined the phrase to encapsulate an observation made by anthropologists, that often our hatred, fear, and contempt are directed at people who resemble us, while our pride is attached to the small markers that distinguish us from them. Freud referred to the idea during the First World War, but most famously in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929-1930), where he was describing an inborn aggressive stance in men and its application in ethnic conflicts, as between the Spaniards and the Portuguese or the English and the Scots.Whether Freud was prescient in this regard—foreseeing the corrosive role that ethnic conflict would play throughout the twentieth century—is a difficult question. Early in his career, Freud displayed strains of social optimism and even chauvinism. He envisioned a quick Imperial victory in the First World War. And during the conflict he continued to write in praise of sublimation, the capacity of certain heroes to transform sexual repression into creativity. After the War, Freud adopted the familiar pessimistic stance of the European intellectual.
Freud built his social theory around a hypothesis that he had floated speculatively in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913). Freud imagines that culture has its roots in a prehistoric act of patricide by a band of brothers who then experience communal guilt and elevate the dead father as an object of veneration. Though this notion was based in outdated anthropology, in time, Freud went on to embrace it as fact, even speculating, via a Lamarkian view of inheritance, that we are born to bear harsh superegos, because we carry this primal guilt within. Equally, Freud embraced the notion of a death instinct that later he came to equate with an innate tendency toward aggression. A third element in his social theory is the idea that sexual repression is a necessary element in any civilization. So, for reasons both external and internal, humankind faces an uphill struggle against violence and guilt, in a social surround that places severe limits on pleasure. By this view, social solutions to the problem of human misery are likely to fail.
In 1921, Freud gathered some of these observations in his commentary on Gustav Le Bon’s book, Psychology of Crowds. Freud translates LeBon’s work into psychoanalytic terms and notes the dangers of nationalism, modern dictatorship, and total war. Again, whether Freud was prescient or belated in his observations is a matter of interpretation.
WWI caused Freud to reexamine some of his theories and develop new ones. Why was this?
Beyond the suffering he witnessed and experienced, Freud faced the problem of shell shock, the Great War’s version of post-traumatic stress disorder. After the war, shell shock assumed the role previously held by hysteria as the key problem for psychiatry. For decades, Freud had been elaborating a psychology that ran against the then conventional wisdom that a variety of traumata could produce mental illness. What made Freud’s theory novel was the contention that virtually all symptoms can be traced not to injuries in adult life but to infantile sexuality and repressed desire. The grand illustration of Freud’s method was dream interpretation—the “royal road to the unconscious”—in which even unpleasant affect is shown to represent the fulfillment of wishes that finally reveal a sexual basis with roots in childhood.But the central drive that Freud recognized, the pursuit of pleasure, could not explain why veterans produce repetitive dreams and memories centering on painful events encountered in battle. And this repetition resembles in form the transference, or reenactment of childhood experiences, that Freud considered central to psychoanalysis.
Freud’s response was a reworking—some followers considered it a betrayal—of his theory to include a death instinct. This addition created all sorts of problems. Self-destructive behavior once understood as arising from a transformation of repressed sexual drives might now be attributed directly to the death instinct. Therefore, not all symptoms are interpretable. If self-destructiveness is inborn, there can be neurosis without an Oedipus complex and depression without ambivalence toward a lost beloved. Much of the remainder of Freud’s work constitutes an attempt to reconstruct a dynamic theory—that is, one grounded in unconscious conflict—in the face of the unlikely solution he had developed to account for shell shock.

You have some interesting thoughts on the acceptance of Freud’s theories and the advent of Modernism in the arts and literature. Would you share some of those with us?
This issue is one that I consider throughout the book. Repeatedly, Freud compared himself to Copernicus and Darwin, but he is not in their category as a scientist. Their discoveries remain at the core of the relevant disciplines; most of Freud’s “discoveries” have gone by the boards, so that psychiatry today is reasonably continuous with the field as it existed before Freud proposed infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, penis envy, castration anxiety, the death instinct, and the other concepts that (unlike the unconscious, taken in general terms) were original to him. In a brief biography, a writer needs to set himself a limited question. I chose this one: given Freud’s shortcomings as a scientist, many of them evident in his day, how did he achieve his enormous cultural impact?In the arts, we see “Freud” in the stream of consciousness technique in fiction, imitative of the free association technique in psychoanalysis. The mark of Freud’s attention to insignificant phenomena, like jokes and slips of the tongue, is evident in literary theory over decades, from the “New Criticism” to structuralism, semiology, critical theory, and the rest. (Think of Roland Barthes’s “Le monde où l’on catche,” a serious consideration tag-team wrestling.) The predominance of confessional memoir, in our time, owes much both to the method of therapy and to Freud’s self-revelation in The Interpretation of Dreams. The significance of dreams in art (as in Salvador Dali’s work), extending to a more general embrace of absurdity—these trends reflect Freud’s influence. Though his examples are literary, Lionel Trilling’s distinction of authenticity from sincerity is Freudian.
So strong are these links that Freud’s critics risk being judged as philistines—as if to question Freud’s methods, contributions, or character is to reveal an aversion to subtlety, sophistication, and complex layering of thought. Writing this biography, I worried that I might be branding myself anti-intellectual. But I think that a considered approach to Freud today might result in the conclusion that he is at the periphery of science and the core of high art and critical theory; as I say, much of the book is devoted to examining this disjunction.
Are there any purely Freudian psychiatrists still practicing? Where does psychiatry stand now? Does a patient need to choose a psychiatrist from competing schools, or is the profession more integrated?
If you accept Janet Malcolm’s depiction of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, strict Freudians held power within the profession in the 1980s. I assume that there are dinosaurs still in practice.It’s important to note that Freud himself was eclectic. If you look at the theories he propounded, under the single name psychoanalysis, you see approaches that rely on unconscious conflict, distribution of mental energy, personality types, inborn self-critical structures, and so on. Of course, Freud’s eclecticism did not extend to the embrace of theories propounded by his rivals, such as Jung and Adler.
The profession remains divided. Two leading schools place empathy at the center of the therapeutic encounter (as Freud decidedly did not). Another emphasizes characteristic leanings in intimate relationships. Social and environmental factors play a key role in certain approaches. And then there is “classical” psychoanalysis with its attention to on sexual drives, unconscious conflict, and the Oedipus Complex. And there are still Jungians and Adlerians.
Once one steps outside psychoanalysis to consider psychotherapy, it’s Katy-bar-the-door. I am a collector of charming, idiosyncratic therapies: I explored some in Moments of Engagement and more in Should You Leave?, my consideration of American theories of intimacy in the middle and late twentieth century. There are treatments based on equity or fairness and treatments based on the ability to hold one’s own views in the face of communal pressures, treatments enacted through paradoxical injunctions (to continue behaving in the way that’s getting you into trouble) and treatments enacted through coaching and advice.
That said, the most common psychotherapy is “eclectic,” which often means “Freud lite”: making the unconscious conscious remains a method, and the transference may remain a topic of discussion—but Freud’s technique for motivating the patient, through a sort of frustration that optimizes anxiety, will have gone by the boards. Whether the therapeutic approach makes a difference is a subject of scientific debate; my best reading of the literature is that we don’t know. Most researchers would say that what is more certain is that factors related to the therapist, such as experience, factors related to the patient, such as education, and factors related to the patient-therapist match, such as the quality of the “working alliance,” account for a modest but important part of the difference in treatment outcomes. I should add that for a variety of reasons (some outlined in Moments of Engagement), I am skeptical about many comparative studies of psychotherapies.
I would add (in possible contradiction to the “narcissism of small differences” theory) that as power has passed in the professions from psychoanalysis to medication, the power struggles among psychotherapists have diminished. It is possible to admire a variety of approaches and practitioners.

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