The Double Bind

Gregory Bateson’s idea about double binds began with the work he, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland ( the “Palo Alto” group) did from 1952 to 1954, and published as an essay, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” (p.201) in Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” (1972). His later thinking about the notion of double binds went well beyond the early research focus on family relations with schizophrenic patients. For the purposes of this blog, I will comment only on the application of the double bind theory to the family dynamics of schizophrenic patients as represented in the original Palo Alto group research and a follow-up paper given by Bateson in 1969 at a Symposium on the Double Bind and included as an essay, “Double Bind 1969″(p.271) in “Steps”.

An example from the original research, which has been most often cited, and which best describes the double bind conflict for a schizophrenic patient is given on page 217 in “Steps”:

“An analysis of an incident occurring between a schizophrenic patient and his mother illustrates the double bind situation. A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘don’t you love me anymore?’. He then blushed, and she said. ‘Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.’ The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.”

This example illustrates the bind that the patient has been put into by his mother’s contradictory messages. She both invites his emotional expression and rejects it. He is caught and does not have an obvious way out of the conflict. Bateson and the rest of the Palo Alto group found similar conflicting messages among other families of schizophrenic patients and their research helped inform the family therapy and family systems movement about communications within families which may be a contributory cause of mental illness.

While we still know very little about schizophrenia and its possible causes, there was far less known in the 1950s/1960s. We need to keep this in mind when judging the assumptions made from the research findings of the Palo Alto group. One assumption Bateson and others made was that the dynamic of the double bind could almost by itself ( though they did acknowledge possible genetic and bio-chemical influences) set up the conditions for a schizophrenic break. We now know there are some genetic and biochemical components to any schizophrenic syndrome. I believe that most psychiatrists do not acknowledge the possibility that double bind conflicts could also contribute to schizophrenic episodes. Double bind conflicts can also contribute to other mental and emotional disturbances and family therapists know this. It is likely that schizophrenia is caused by some aspects of social-interpersonal dynamics along with genetic tendencies. The posts I made on the memoirs of Esme Weijun Wang and Elyn Saks would support this point. Both women have managed their schizophrenia with a combination of anti-psychotic medications and psychotherapy. Another assumption made by Bateson and others was that the essential conflict in a double bind familial situation was between a mother and her son or daughter. This was also part of a period of blaming the mother for all sorts of deficiencies and illnesses. Leo Kanner’s notion of the “refrigerator mother” which implied that a cold and rigid mother may have caused children to become autistic was part of this period. Kanner asserted this in a 1949 paper, “Problems of Nosology and Psychodynamics of Early Infantile Autism” and Bruno Bettelheim, an influential child psychiatrist, later reinforced this idea in his 1967 book, “The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autisim and the Birth of the Self”. By 1969, however, the refrigerator mother notion was already being discredited. Kanner, himself, stated at a conference at the National Society for Autistic Children, that the condition of autism was innate.

Mary Catherine Bateson, Gregory’s daughter, has a chapter, “The Double Bind: Pathology and Creativity” in “Cybernetics and Human Knowing”, Volume 12, No. 1-2, 2005, in which she explains how the double bind theory goes beyond the focus on pathology that marked the original research with schizophrenics, but she also comments on Gregory’s original insights about the “language” of schizophrenics:

“I can remember listening with Gregory to tapes of ‘schizophrenic word salad’ as he commented that there was a structure to this seemingly chaotic rant. Not to put too fine a point on it, he said, ‘there’s a method in his madness’. Gregory came to the conclusion that at the root of schizophrenia there was a logical incoherence, a disruption in thought and communication, that could be seen as either caused or exacerbated by patterns of relationship in the families of schizophrenics. These patterns were referred to as the double bind.” (p.12)

Whether family dynamics or other external influences play a role in the etiology of schizophrenia or not, the double bind theory has influenced family therapists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists to some extent until the present. And while we are currently in a biomedical period, it may be worth considering how family dynamics may contribute to various mental and emotional issues.

Insider: Barbara O’Brien

There are two themes from Perceval’s Narrative which I wish to explore: Bateson’s idea of the double bind (to be discussed in my next post) and the unusual circumstance of an apparent “spontaneous recovery” from schizophrenia, which I will discuss here. Barbara O’Brien’s “Operators and Things”(1976) is the most vivid account of a schizophrenic journey during her six months riding on Greyhound buses across the U.S. while being controlled by “Operators” – her hallucinated voices. O’Brien explains what she knows about schizophrenia (in 1958 when the book was first published) in the opening section of her book. She then explains how she developed schizophrenia and how the operators first came to her:

“I developed schizophrenia abruptly, in the way which is now considered most fortunate for an optimistic prognosis. I awoke one morning, during a time of great personal tension and self conflict, to find three grey and somewhat wispy figures standing at my bedside. I was, as might be imagined, completely taken up by them. Within a few minutes they had banished my own sordid problem from my mind and replaced it with another and more intriguing one. They were not Men From Mars, but the Operators, a group in some ways stranger than Martians could be. I listed to what the Operators had to say, weighed the facts which they presented to me , and decided that there was wisdom in following their directions. I packed some clothes and mounted a Greyhound bus, as they directed, and followed them. Riding off in the bus, I left safely behind me a mess of reality with which I was totally incapable of coping.” (p.9-10)

O’Brien narrates the specific personalities and characters of each of her Operators along her six -month long Greyhound schizophrenic journey. At one point she queries Hinton, one of her chief Operators, about the relationship between Operators and Things:

” Hinton sighed. ‘Things. Yes, of course. think of the word with a capital initial, if you like. It may help your ego a bit. All people like you are Things to us – Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions canoe motivated. Does that surprise you? It goes on all the time. There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine. A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind. Actually, you have more free will at this moment than most of your kind ever have.'” (p.39)

Another Operator, Bert, explains, “the one great difference between an Operator and a thing is the construction and ability of the mind. Operators are born with special brain cells known as the battlement. With these cells, and Operator can extend and probe into the mind of a Thing. He can tap the thing’s mind and discover what is going on there, and even feed thoughts to the Thing’s mind in order to motivate it. The mental difference is one of ability, not one of quality. Operators, like things, may be stupid or intelligent. But that one difference permits the Operators to rule the Things.” (p.42).

O’Brien was “directed” or “guided” by Operators to buy Greyhound bus tickets to various cities and towns, to seek treatment for some ailments, and to continue to maintain her daily life for six months on the road. She wrote “Operators andThings” three years after she stopped having the hallucinations and delusions, which she has discussed as products of her her unconscious mind – Operators are the unconscious and Things are the conscious. She reflects on her “spontaneous recovery”:

“If I were having a slow time tracking down the cause of my schizophrenia, it was clear that once I had unconsciously understood the cause very well. I could cite a spontaneous recovery after six months of continuous hallucinations and delusions, a certificate of sorts, proof that my mind had found the road out of insanity, a feat that is never accidental. If the guideposts that remained in my memory appeared very often to be too much mumbo-jumbo, it seemed at least possible that the appearance of mumbo-jumbo existed because I could not read the strange language. According the the psychoanalyst who treated me, spontaneous recoveries are rare and weird events in advanced schizophrenia and when they occur they present mysterious spectacle- that of a mind walking out of a fourth dimension into which it had been propelled. No matter how many times I went over the story the Operators and told myself that it represented only well-organized fantasy without guidance or planning, the clear indications of guidance and planning persisted in standing out.” (p.145)

Both O’Brien and Perceval claimed to have recovered “spontaneously” from their schizophrenia, though both had spent time in mental hospitals. They both are critical of mental hospital treatments and the psychotherapists or psychoanalysts who worked with them. Approaches to treating psychotic conditions were obviously quite different for Perceval in the 19th century and O’Brien in the 1950s, and they would be considerably different now from what they were for O’Brien. Still, there is no known “cure” for schizophrenia and from current accounts by insiders, such as Elyn Saks and Esme Weijun Wang, there are not likely any single approaches , medications, or other treatments which seem to be effective for all cases.


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.”