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Welcome to Psychotherapy & Culture

Welcome to what I hope will be an informative, stimulating, and possibly even provocative series of exchanges about the relationship between psychotherapy and culture. My intention is to provide background to this topic, along with reviews of books, films, and other representations of the way psychotherapy impacts culture and culture – in turn- impacts psychotherapy – particularly in the U.S. I will be including some of my own experiences as both an anthropologist and a psychotherapist. I will also be including some interviews I have done with a number of leading psychotherapists throughout the world. I will be investigating and interrogating a variety of different psychotherapy “tribes” and “lineages”, such as psychoanalysis , cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, Jungian depth psychotherapy, humanistic and existential psychotherapy, as well as a number of indigenous therapies in other cultures. I invite you to comment on my posts. I look forward to exchanging ideas with you.

Robert McAndrews, Ph.D.

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Reviews

I will be posting occasional reviews of books, articles, films and television programs about psychotherapy. These reviews will be in random order and not in time sequence – in other words, some reviews will be about books from many years ago, while others will be very current. An example of a current review will be of the book by Catherine Clay (2016), “Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis”.

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Interviews

During the last 25 years I have interviewed more than forty leading psychotherapists around the world. I will be sharing parts of these interviews along with some of my commentary. I contacted each therapist ahead of my arrival for the interview with a summary of the three essential questions I would be asking them. So they were somewhat prepared in advance with the direction  the interview might take. Of course there were follow-up questions and some of my interviews were more like dialogues or conversations than straight interviews. The three essential questions were: 1) What were your background influences in your decision to become a psychotherapist and develop your particular approaches and contributions to psychotherapy?

2) How would you describe the distinctions between what you have developed and written about from any other approaches to psychotherapy?

3) What do you anticipate your legacy to be? How might your work be continued and who might be your heirs? Also, what do you believe will be the future of psychotherapy?

I have included in this post a list of the therapist I interviewed. I will share parts of the interviews in future posts.

Voices of the Elders in Psychotherapy

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Insider: Perceval’s Narrative

“Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830-1832” (1979), is edited, with and Introduction by Gregory Bateson. This is likely the first account by a person with diagnosed schizophrenia, and it is a remarkable document. John Perceval was the son of a prime minister of England, who was assassinated when John was 9 years old. John, the fifth child of 12, was involuntarily incarcerated in an asylum in Bristol, England, when he was 27 years old. He was in the military. He was severely disturbed by religious conflict. He went briefly to Oxford, then joined an evangelical Christian cult. He began acting in a disordered manner and was placed under restraint in December, 1831. He remained in the Bristol institution until May, 1832 when he was moved to an asylum in Sussex, England. He remained there until the beginning of 1834.

Because of John’s intelligence and ability to articulate his journey into and out of his mental illness, we have his recorded narrative. I will share just some of his own descriptions of his mental state and insights into his condition and then comment on a few critical theoretical issues raised by Bateson in his Introduction.

The following is part of Perceval’s narration of the beginnings of his psychosis:

“I was tormented by the commands of what I imagined was the Holy Spirit, to say other things, which as often as I attempted, I was fearfully rebuked for beginning in my own voice, and not in a voice given to me. These contradictory commands were the cause, now, as before, of the incoherency of my behavior, and these imaginations formed the chief causes of my ultimate total derangement. For I was commanded to speak, on pain of dreadful torments, of provoking the wrath of the Holy Spirit, and of incurring the guilt of the grossest ingratitude; and at the same moment, whenever I attempted to speak, I was harshly and contumeliously rebuked for not using the utterance of a spirit sent to me; and when again I attempted, I still went wrong, and when I pleaded internally that I knew not what I was to do, I was accused of falsehood and deceit; and of being really unwilling to do what I was commanded. I then lost patience, and proceeded to say what I was desired pell-mell, determined to show that it was not fear or want of will that prevented me. But when I did this I felt as formerly the pain in the nerves of my palate and throat of speaking, which convinced me that I was not only rebelling against God, but against nature; and I relapsed into an agonizing sense of hopelessness and of ingraditude.” (p.x)

Bateson’s comment on this part of Perceval’s narrative, points to the impossible bind Perceval’s voices have put him in – a “double bind”. This notion refers to the choices presented to Perceval, that even if he does the “right” thing, he is blamed for doing it for the wrong reasons. Bateson suggests, “And his final word, ‘ingratitude’, suggests that this pattern of unconscious expectation- that every course will lead to rejection- has probably been early installed by the behavior of parents and siblings.”(p.xi) I will discuss the implications of Bateson’s suggestion and the larger context of his notion of the “double bind” in a follow-up post. For now, John Perceval’s narrative provides insights into his mental illness, but not necessarily it’s cause (we still do not know what may cause schizophrenia). Later in Perceval’s narrative his voices seem to offer alternatives to the double bind:

“At another time my spirits began singing to me this strain. ‘you are in a lunatic asylum, if you will’ – ‘if not you are in,’ &c.&c. ‘That is Samuel Hobbs if you will – if not, it is Herminet Herbert,’ &c.&c. But I had been so long deceived by my spirits that I did not now believe them when they spoke the truth. However, by listening and finding that the patients called him Samuel Hobbs, and by other accidents, I discovered at last that I was yet on earth, in natural, although very painful, circumstances in a madhouse. My delusions being thus very much abolished, I soon after got liberty during the day-time “(p.146)

Bateson comments, ” Here the voices are doing what Perceval wished his brother had done – accepting the fact of the delusion and reinforcing the doubt. They are also presenting real alternatives between which the patient can and must choose, while indicating their willingness to accept either choice. Perceval remarks that it was very unpleasant to have the voices do this, but he is honest enough to perceive that every time they do it he makes a step toward recovery. Here then Perceval presents, in two diagrammatic thumbnail sketches, the recipes, first for inducing his insanity, and then for curing it.” (p.xi)

Based on Perceval’s own narrative, it would seem that he “spontaneously recovered” from his schizophrenia and that the so-called curative factors were somehow built into his delutionary voices. Bateson even suggests that Perceval’s mental illness may have been an initiatory ceremony: “But it would appear that Perceval was a better, happier, and more imaginative man after his psychotic experience and I have suggested that the psychosis is more like some vast and painful initiatory ceremony conducted by the self.” (p.xix) This interpretation of Perceval’s journey provides the basis of lines of thinking about a psychotic experience as an almost sacred journey of discovery. And part of this line suggests that schizophrenia can be brought about by conflicts within families which may construct double binds, and that the way out of the conflicts may be to provide alternatives to the double binds. This line of thinking, which has been taken up by some family systems and family therapy approaches, and credited to Bateson, is still active, even in this era of bio-chemical-genetic interpretations of the causes and potential cures for psychoses.

Insiders: “The Center Cannot Hold” by Elyn R. Saks

Elyn Saks is a professor at the University of California Gould School Law and and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine. She is extremely accomplished by any measure. That she has done this while managing serious mental illness is remarkable. In a piece she wrote for the New York Times in 2013, she said,

“Although I fought my diagnosis for many years, I came to accept that I have schizophrenia and will be in treatment for the rest of my life. Indeed, excellent psychoanalytic treatment and medication have been critical to my success. What I refused to accept was my prognosis. Conventional psychiatric thinking and its diagnostic categories say that people like me don’t exist. Either I don’t have schizophrenia (please tell that to the delusions crowding my mind), or I couldn’t have accomplished what I have (please tell that to USC’s committee on faculty affairs). But I do have and I have. I am not alone. There are others with schizophrenia and such active symptoms as delusions and hallucinations who have significant academic and professional achievements.”

Saks provides some of the best descriptions of what living with schizophrenia has been like in her best selling book, “The Center Cannot Hold” (2007).

“This experience is much harder, and weirder, to describe than extreme fear or terror. Most people know what it is like to be seriously afraid. But explaining what I’ve come to call ‘disorganization’ is a different challenge altogether. Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One’s center gives way. The center cannot hold. The ‘me’ becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal” “No organizing principle takes successive moments in time and puts them together in a coherent way from which sense can made. And it’s all taking place in slow motion.” (p13).

Saks has become a significant spokesperson for combining medication and talk therapy for managing schizophrenia.

“Medication has no doubt played a central role in helping me to manage my psychosis, but what has allowed me to see the meaning in my struggles – to make sense of everything that happened before and during the course of my illness, and to mobilize what strengths I may possess into a rich and productive life- is talk therapy. People like me with a thought disorder are not supposed to benefit much from this kind of treatment, a talk therapy oriented toward insight and based upon a relationship. But I have. There may be a substitute for the human connection – for two people sitting together in a room, one of them with the freedom to speak her mind, knowing the other is paying careful and thoughtful attention – but I don’t know what that substitute might be. It is, at the heart of things, a relationship, and for me it has been the key to every other relationship I hold precious. Often, I’m navigating my life through uncertain, even threatening waters – I need the people in my life to tell me what’s safe, what’s real, and what’s worth holding on to.” (p.331).

Saks may be considered the ideal spokesperson for those who may believe one can overcome schizophrenia, but she honestly confronts that notion with her own experiences of both success in managing her illness and constant reminders of the limits and challenges she must deal with.

“My life today is not without it’s troubles. I have a major mental illness. I will never fully recover from schizophrenia. I will always need to be on antipsychotic medication and in talk therapy. I will always have good days and bad, and I will get sick.” (p.335).

A friend of Saks asked her if there were a pill that would instantly cure her, would she take it. She thought of the poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, who would decline psychoanalysis saying, ” don’t take my devils away, because my angles may flee too”. And she responds, “My psychosis is a waking nightmare , in which my demons are so terrifying that all my angels have already fled. So would I take the pill? In a heartbeat.” (p.336).

Insiders: “The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang

Esme Weijun Wang’s book is a collection of essays. As such it is different from most other memoirs about schizophrenia. The essays do not necessarily form a cohesive picture of the collected schizophrenias or of Ms Wang’s experiences as a person with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Her first essay, “Diagnosis”, does, however lay the groundwork for both an understanding of the background and context of various diagnostic categories and her own experience with her particular diagnosis (es). The other essays provide a combination of her ongoing struggles with her disorder and commentary of the psychiatric and psychopharmacological cultures.

To provide for context here, I will share just the first part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5) description of symptoms for schizophrenia, indicated on page 8 of Wang’s book:

“Schizophrenia, 295.90

A. Two (or more) of the following, each present for a significant portion of time during a 1 month period (or less if successfully treated). At least one of these must be (1), (2), or (3):

  1. Delusions
  2. Hallucinations.
  3. Disorganized Speech (e.g. frequent derailment or incoherence)
  4. Grossly Disorganized or Catatonic Behavior
  5. Negative Symptoms (i.e. diminished emotional expression of avolition).”

Wang distinguishes the diagnosis of schizophrenia from her own diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder:

” Schizophrenia is the most familiar of the psychotic disorders. Schizoaffective disorder is less familiar to the layperson and so I have a ready song -and- dance that I use to explain it. Ive quipped onstage to thousands that schizoaffective disorder is the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia, though this is not quite accurate: because schizoaffective disorder must include a major mood episode, the disorder may combine mania and schizophrenia or depression and schizophrenia.”(p.10).

I will have plenty to say about the DSM as a political/economic “sacred text” later, but for now, Wang’s description of her diagnosis in the context of her own felt experience is wonderfully expressed in the following passage:

” To read the DSM-5 definition of my felt experience is to be cast far from the horror of psychosis and an unbridled mood; it shrink-wraps the bloody circumstance with objectivity until the words are colorless. I received the new diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder after twelve years of being considered bipolar, in the middle of a psychiatric crisis that went on for ten months. By then, the trees had long shed their dead leaves. But in the beginning of 2013, the psychosis was young. I had months to go of a frequent erasure of time; the loss of feeling toward family, as though they had been replaced by doubles (known as Capgras delusion); the inability to read a page of words, and so forth, which meant that the agitation I felt at realizing something was badly wrong would only go on and on and on and on.” (p.11)

In her essay, “On the Ward”, Wang addresses the issue of involuntary hospitalizations and her assessment of the effects of her own involuntary hospitalizations:

“For those of us living with severe mental illness, the world is full of cages where we can be locked in. My hope is that I’ll stay out of those cages for the rest of my life, although I allow myself the option of checking into a psychiatric ward if suicide feels like the only other option. I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas.”(p.110)

Wang’s last two essays, “Chimayo” and “Beyond the Hedge”, report her somewhat flailing attempts to identify a diagnosis she can fit on for size, such as the possibility that she may have “neuroborreliosis” (late stage Lyme disease) rather than schizoaffective disorder, and her attempts to align her experiences with spirituality- that her illness might be a “spiritual gift”. Wanting to have her illness have some meaning, she expresses what many others with any illness likely feel, “In my illness I became hungry to understand suffering; if I could understand it, I could perhaps suffer less, and even find comfort in the understanding. What I have found difficult is not seeking an escape hatch out of pain, whether that be pills, alcohol, or the dogged pursuit of a cure. In suffering, I am always looking for a way out.”(183).

Insiders: The Schizophrenias

Among the number of insider accounts of living with the diagnosis of and the symptoms of schizophrenia, I will share my understandings of and reflections on the following significant accounts:

  • “The Collected Schizophrenias” (2019) by Esme Weijun Wang
  • “The Center Cannot Hold” (2007) by Elyn R. Saks
  • “Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830-1832”. (1974) Edited with an Introduction by Gregory Bateson
  • ” Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic” (1976) by Barbara O’Brien
  • “Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness” (1978) by Mary Barnes and Joe Burke
  • “A Mingled Yarn: Chronicle of a Troubled Family” (1979) by Bulah Parker
  • “Is There No Place for Me?” (2014) by Susan Sheehan

I venture into my reflections with several caveats and some wariness. Of all mental illnesses, schizophrenia may be the most represented (and misrepresented) and controversial psychotic disorders. There continue be a number of misconceptions about schizophrenia and the long standing debate between the strictly medical diagnosis and some psychosocial/familial interpretations of what might be basic causes of schizophrenia continues to be a controversy. I will discuss this as I move through the sources mentioned above. My plan is to provide some background about the history of diagnosing psychotic illnesses, focusing particularly on schizophrenia, then mention what are currently considered various schizophrenias in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V), and then to move to insider accounts.

For readers who would like to begin investigation of some of the sources I mention, I suggest that you begin reading Esme Weijun Wang’s first essay , “Diagnosis”(p.3) in “The Collected Schizophrenias” (2019). She provides an up-to-date analysis of the different types of schizophrenia diagnoses in the context of her own experience (currently) with schizo-affective bipolar type disorder. I will also begin my probe into the insiders’ stories with her essays.

I will then discuss the classic current account of personal experience with schizophrenia by Elyn R. Saks, “The Center Cannot Hold” (2007). “Percival’s Narrative” is likely the first known insider account, since John Percival kept a journal while he was committed to a mental institution from 1830-1832. I will discuss this account based on Gregory Bateson’s commentary, which will also lead into some discussion about Bateson’s notion of the “Double Bind” and other psycho-social interpretations of the bases of schizophrenia. The classic “Operators and Things” (1976) by Barbara O’Brien may give the reader the best “inside” feel for what happens to the mind and person who has schizophrenia. I will share some or her descriptions of her hallucinations and her journey with schizophrenia.

“Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness” (1978) by Mary Barnes, who had schizophrenia, and her psychoanalyst, Joe Burke, may be the only insider account which includes both patient and therapist. This document is also unique in it’s approach to treatment which is based on the R.D.Laing and Tavistock Clinic in London concepts of de-stigmatizing schizophrenia. I will discuss this as well.

Buelah Parker was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who reports her experience working with a particular American family in “A Mingled Yarn” ((1979). Parker’s framework represents an example of the family systems interpretations of the psycho-social causes of schizophrenia, which I will discuss in the context of Bateson’s “double bind” theory and the family systems/family therapy movement.

“Is There No Place for Me” (2014) is not strictly an “insider” account, because Susan Sheehan is not a patient or therapist. She is a journalist. But her ethnographic approach captures the experiences of Sylvia Frumkin’s insider story of living with schizophrenia with amazing insider documentation. Sheehan practically lived with Sylvia during two years of her mental institution experience.

Insiders in Psychotherapy


I am referring to people who are inside of psychotherapy as either patients or clients and as helpers – primarily psychotherapists and psychiatrists. There is a genre of memoirs by former and current people with some degree of mental illness. The illnesses vary but are primarily about living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, and types of personality disorder. I will be reviewing and commenting on all of these and possibly some other illnesses. There is also a genre of case studies or “case stories” written by psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists. I will also review and comment on some of these. There is a third type of insider genre – very unusual- of a combination of a patient’s account and that of the therapist’s in the same document. The primary example of this genre is “Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness” (1978) by Mary Barnes and Joe Burke, which I will review later. Finally, there are a few examples of writers who have had and continue to have mental illness and who are also helpers – psychotherapists or psychiatrists. Lauren Slater, whose books I reviewed earlier, fits this category , as does Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written several books about her own mental illness and the burden of depression. I will review her work when I focus on depression. Non-insider (social scientists, historians, philosophers, journalists) accounts can sometimes resemble insider accounts when a degree of imbeddedness or ethnographic involvement captures the authenticity of the inside experience of being mentally ill and living with this illness – both psychologically and within societal structures, such as mental institutions. I will also comment on some of these.

Freud Biographer: Elisabeth Roudinesco

The final recent biography of Freud that I will recommend is Elisabeth Roudinesco’s ” Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016). Roudinesco is the Head of Research in History at the University of Paris Diderot. She is also a psychoanalyst and a biographer of Jaques Lacan. I have previously recommended Peter Gay’s biography for a comprehensive treatment of Freud’s life and thought. I now recommend Roudinesco’s biography as a recent update and intellectually engaging and relatively balanced treatment of Freud’s life in the context of history. Roudinesco makes a convincing case for the ongoing influence of many of Freud’s ideas, while fairly judging other ideas as no longer relevant. She includes a commentary on the “many Freud’s” , the point with which I began my series of posts.

Roudinesco lists some of the many ways that Freud’s life has been interpreted: “Freud and Judaism, Freud and religion, Freud and women, Freud the clinician, Freud the family man, Freud with his cigars, Freud and his dogs, Freud and Freemasons, Freud and neurons, and so on. Turning to Freud bashing, still more Freud’s can be found: Freud the rapacious, Freud the organizer of a clinical gulag, the demonically, incestuous, lying, counterfeiting, fascist Freud.” (p.2) This underscores my post title, “Whose Freud? Who’s Freud”.

Roudinesco capsulizes Freud in his historical context with this comment:

“being, simultaneously, an enlightened conservative seeking to liberate sex the better to control it, a decipherer of enigmas, and attentive observer of the animal species, a friend of women, a stoic well versed in the classics, a ‘dissolutionist’ of the imaginary, an heir to German Romanticism, a debunker of myths regarding consciousness, but also and perhaps especially a Viennese Jew, a deconstruction of Judiasm and communitarian identities, just as attached to the tradition of the Greek tragedies (Oedipus) as to the heritage of Shakespeare’s theater (Hamlet).”(p.3)

Freud was definitely more than a clinician and Roudinesco convincingly argues for the ambitious and influential conceptual Freud:

“At a time when feminism, socialism, and Zionism were all developing, Freud too dreamed of conquering a new promised land and becoming a modern-day Socrates.” (p.114)

And, “Psychoanalysis, a strange discipline at the intersection of archeology, medicine, literary analysis, anthropology and psychology that plumbs the depths of intimacy, was never reduced by its inventor to a clinical approach to the psyche. From the outset, Freud sought to make it a full-fledged system of thought; one that could be conveyed by a movement of which he would be not the leader but the master.” (p.114)

Roudinesco wraps her biography by reminding us of the Freud who continues to influence and impact our contemporary societies, even with those who have so fiercely railed against him and his ideas.

“Seventy-five years after his death (the French edition was in 2014), Freud was still disturbing Western consciousness, with his myths, his princely dynasties, his traversal of dreams, his stories of savage hordes, of Gradiva on the march, of the vulture found in Leonardo, of the murderer of the father, and of Moses losing the tablets of the law.”

She closes with: “I imagined him brandishing his cane against the anti-semites; putting on his finest shirt to visit the Acropolis; discovering Rome like a lover overcome with joy; lashing out at imbeciles; speaking without notes before Americans; reigning in his timeless dwelling amid his objects, his red chow chows, his decibels, his women, and his mad patients; waiting attentively for Hitler without managing to speak his mane; and I tell myself that, for a long time yet, he will remain the great thinker of his time and ours.” (p.427)

Freud Basher: Frederick Crews

Frederick Crews published “Sigmund Freud: The Making of an Illusion” in 2017. I have already stated in earlier posts that I will not be reviewing this biography, in part because I am quite familiar with Crews’s previous writing criticizing everything imaginable about Freud’s person and ideas.. I will share, however, comments from a review by Alexaner C. Kafka in the November 10, 2017 edition of “The Chronicle Review”. Kafka’s best one line comment captures my sentiment: “Steadfast Freudians are bored, puzzled, and sometimes amused by Crews’s anti-Freudian repetition compulsion.” (p.B16)

Kafka quotes Harold Blum, a New York psychoanalyst and former director of the Freud Archives: “I find it very hard to take Crews seriously. Oedipal urges, the insect taboo, the erotic fantansies underlying locker room talk and dirty jokes, loaded linguistic metaphors, Freudian slips, the vividness of infantile sexuality, the stages of child development, the importance of nurturing the young, the symbolic weight of dream images, on and on. These beautiful psychoanalytic insights are in the very air we breathe. To deny that, Blum says, is ‘irrational'”. (p.B16)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one wonders why Crews spent so much time nitpicking every aspect of Freud and his ideas and practices and why the New York Review of Books continued to publish his rants, when Crews was clearly living off of being a Freud Basher and readers were already more than familiar with his criticisms.

Freud Biographer: Joel Whitebook

Joel Whitebook’s new book is: “Freud: An Intellectual Biography” (2017). This is the most recent biography that I have reviewed. I will not be reviewing the other 2017 biography by Frederick Crews, though I will refer (in another post) to a November 10, 2017 review of his book in “The Chronicle Review” by Alexander C. Kafka.

Whitebook is a philosopher and psychoanalyst. He maintains a psychoanalytic practice in New York.. His familiarity with psychoanalysis is on full display in this probing biography.  Whitebook opens his book with a question that many might ask, ” Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?” He follows this, with, “the answer is an emphatic yes. Utilizing what we have learned from Freud Studies, advances in psychoanalytic theory, the feminist critique of the field, infant research, attachment theory,  and extensive clinical experience working with the ‘unclassical patient’ in the last half century, a new biography will allow us to sort out important unanswered questions concerning Freud’s life and address critical issues in contemporary psychoanalysis and philosophy.” (p.1)

Whitebook focuses on two central themes, which he claims have not yet been adequately explored in earlier biographies of Freud: “the missing mother and “the break with tradition”.

He further explains these themes: “What one might wonder, is the connection between my two  seemingly disparate  themes – the missing mother, and the break with tradition? In response to his experience of the break with tradition, Freud became a dark enlightener and his theoretical task consisted in confronting the irrational in order to integrate it into a fuller conception of reason. Psychoanalytically, in addition to the unconscious, the irrational is also instantiated in the realm of archaic Oedipal and pre-verbal experience, centering on the infant-mother relationship. Therefore, to the extent that the ‘official’ Freud, owing to his early history, was unable to engage the maternal dimension in psychic life, he was also unable to explore the irrational and fulfill his theoretical program.” (p.12)

My assessment of Whitebook’s biography is that he succeeds in exploring his two themes while integrating material on Freud’s intellectual and interpersonal life. This is not the biography one might consult for a comprehensive biography and Whitebook acknowledges this. A reader might require some familiarity with psychoanalytic terminology and theory in order to follow some of Whitbook’s analysis and explanations.

I found that Martin Jay’s statement on the Whitebook book jacket captures my thoughts about the book and the current status of psychoanalytic studies:

“Despite all attempts to bury him, Freud remains the ultimate revenant, haunting the 21st century at a time when all  the best efforts to outgrow our self-incurred immaturity have come to naught. Drawing on his sustained experience as a practicing psychoanalyst and deep immersion in contemporary theory, Joel Whitebook shows how relevant many of Freud’s ideas remain. By linking critical elements of Freud’s thought with crucial aspects of his life- his vexed relationship with his mother, troubled relationships with Fleiss and Jung, ambivalent response to war, and rumination on mortality – he offers a fresh and insightful reading, neither excessively pious nor reductively dismissive, of a thinker we are only beginning to understand and from whom much is still to be learned.”

Freud Biographer : Louis Breger

Louis Breger’s “Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision” (2000) is definitely one of the best biographies I have read. For more updated material than what Peter Gay had available to him and a more psychoanalytic view of Freud and his ideas, Breger’s biography may be the best blend of psychoanalytic insights and critical appraisals of Freud.

Mark Edmundson, in his review of Breger’s biography in the New York Times, December 2000, says this: “Breger strives to put himself in a middle position between what he takes to be the hagiographic approaches of Freud’s best known biographers, Ernest Jones and Peter Gay, and the bitter, albeit often eloquent, denunciations of Frederick Crews.” I would not agree with Breger that Jones and Gay were, strictly speaking, hagiographic, though they are largely supportive and considerably less critical than the Freud “bashers”, such as Crews.

An example of Breger’s psychoanalytic interpretations of Freud, is his argument that Freud’s attitudes and ideas about women stem from  early traumas in Freud’s life. Mark Edmundson says, ” Breger claims that Freud’s mother neglected him as one new sibling after another came into the picture.To Breger, Freud’s derogatory theories about women were a form of long postponed revenge, and example of neurotic darkness in the midst of a valuable vision”.

Breger includes a chapter on “Background and Sources”  which provides an excellent survey of current (as of 2000) and likely future directions of psychoanalysis. He supports my own view about the variety of Freud chroniclers: “Within present-day Psychoanalysis there is a wide range of views and positions, from the most devoted to the sharply critical. All these analysts have at least one thing in common: work with patients in analysis and psychotherapy. there is also a large group – philosophers, literary critics, historians, experimental psychologists – who have written about Freud with little or no clinical experience. Each of these commendations brings their strengths and limitations: no position guarantees that the author will arrive at a coherent interpretation of Freud and his work.”(p.375).

Edmundson (2000), in his review of Breger’s biography, says “psychoanalysis has, and probably always will have, its manifest weaknesses, but it still stands as a distinguished secular blend of literature, philosophy and pedagogy that has the power to help people change their lives for the better.” This statement and Breger’s and Edmundson’s view of contemporary psychoanalysis has been challenged by a number of Freud’s critics, the majority of whom are not psychoanalysts. This is a topic which I will return to in future posts, since much has ensued with the psychoanalytic movement since the Breger biography and Mark Edmundson’s review of it.

 

Freud Biographers: Peter Gay and Richard Wollheim

One of the best and most thorough biographies of Freud is Peter Gay’s “A Life for Our Time” (1988). Gay may have been the most qualified of Freud’s biographers as he was trained in psychoanalysis, and was a professional historian and biographer. While some of the most extreme of Freud’s critics argued that Gay was insufficiently critical of psychoanalysis and of Freud’s ideas and his personal behavior, I believe Gay provides a relatively balanced analysis and critique of all of these. At more than 800 pages, Gay’s biography offers considerably more than an introduction to Freud’s life and ideas as well as the development of psychoanalysis. Gay also includes a 38 page biographical essay, which is indispensable for Freudian scholars.

Gregory McNamee, in the March/April, 1989 “Bloomsbury Review”, had this to say about Gay’s biography:

“A library devoted to the work and influence of Freud would be vast, a Borgesian universe; even a modest, basic collection would number many dozens of volumes, the most important of them written by the prolific Freud himself. That basic library should now include Peter Gay’s new biography “Freud: A Life For Our Time”.”

Richard Wollheim, in his Preface to the second edition  of “Freud” (1991), says, “Gay’s biography is a magisterial work. It invites comparison to, though it is ultimately incommensurable with, Ernest Jones’s great three-volume biography. Jones had the inestimable advantage of having lived within Freud’s intimate circle for several decades. Another difference between Jones and Gay lies in their general biographical strategies. Jones was evenhanded between life and thought, and the result is a huge sandwich in which the two alternate. By contrast Gay adopted the plan of alternating life and thought. In tracing Freud’s formation, Gay is able to balance internal, or psychological, factors, or the events of the time, into which, as an accomplished historian, he has excellent insight.”

Wollheim’s biography, originally written in 1971, with a 1991 second edition is , perhaps, the best brief introduction to Freud’s life and thought, and the development of psychoanalysis. I would recommend Wollheim’s “Freud” for it’s analytic strength and fair treatment of the many strengths and weaknesses of Freud himself, as well as the project and prospects of psychoanalysis.

A number of more recent biographies of Freud have used the Jones and Gay biographies as well as that of Wollheim in building their own projects.