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.


Freud’s Biographers and Biographies

Among the more than two dozen biographies of Freud, I have selected for commentary those which I believe represent various interpretations and even biases  about Freud, the person, and Freud’s ideas and practices.

The first unauthorized biography of Freud was “Freud: His Life and His Mind” (1847) by Helen Walker Puner, who was neither a psychoanalyst, nor an historian or philosopher. She was a reporter. Her biography is readable but with very little knowledge of the inner workings of psychoanalysis or the cultural contexts within which Freud developed his ideas. She also did not have access to the volume of correspondence between Freud and significant others, which later biographers had.

The first authorized biography of Freud was Ernest Jones’s three volume “The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud” (1953,1955,1957). While some critics claim that Jones’s biography is close to a hagiography, others believe that this biography is comprehensive and fair, with some balance, yet, since Jones was a member of Freud’s inner circle and definitely a defender of Freud and psychoanalysis, some obvious bias is expected. Nevertheless his biography sets a baseline for all successive ones to build from. Since Anna Freud  selected Jones to write the first official biography of her father, she made available certain (not all) correspondences that Freud had and which were unavailable to any previous researchers.

For this post I am listing , according to publication dates, my selection of Freud biographies which I believe are worth investigating. There are a few biographies I recommend as essential and will comment further on these in a future post. In addition to Jones’s three volume work, they are: Peter Gay’s  “Freud: A Life for Our Time” (1988); Louis Breger’s”Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision” (2000); Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” (1991); and Elisabeth Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016).

After Jones’s three volume biography, Philip Rieff wrote “Freud: The Mind of a Moralist” (1961).  Rieff was a sociologist and his critique of Freud is generally favorable. Following Rieff’s biography there were three biographies, Paul Roazen’s “Freud and His Followers” (1976), Frank Sulloway’s “Freud: Biologist of the Mind” (1979), and Adolf Grunbaum’s “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique” (1984), which are generally considered among the most critical of Freud and his ideas. Roazen was a political and social scientist, Sulloway’s background was the history of science, and Grunbaum, a philosopher. One of the obvious weaknesses in their critiques of psychoanalysis is that they were not analysts themselves and their lack of clinical experience weakens their arguments about Freud’s and other analysts’ practice.

Steven Marcus published “Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis” in 1987. He was a professor of english and comparative literature. He focuses on an analysis of Freud’s famous cases of Dora and the Rat Man. His biography is generally favorable about Freud and his ideas. He also devotes a chapter to “Freud and Biography” wherein he assess various Freud biographies prior to his own. Peter Gay’s masterful biography was published in 1988. His background was in psychoanalysis, history and biography. I will comment on his book later. Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” in the Fontana Modern Masters series, published in 1991, is one of the best brief introductions to Freud’s ideas available and I will comment further in a later post. Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black wrote “Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought” in 1995 and I believe it is the best link between Freud’s ideas and the evolution of psychoanalytic theory and practice after Freud. Psychoanalysis has definitely evolved even beyond what they identified in 1995, but their book is essential for an understanding of the context of Freud’s influence within psychoanalysis.

Leate Lohser and Peter M.Newton ( both psychologists) published “Unorthodox Freud: The View From the Couch” in 1996. They identify significant differences between what is usually known of Freud’s analytic techniques and how he actually practiced. They investigated five cases as reported by the analysands to determine Freud’s actual practice. Paul Ferris, a biographer, wrote “Dr. Freud” in 1997. This is a generally fair and favorable, readable biography. Louis Breger’s “Freud: Darkness in the Middle of Vision” (2000) is a significant critical biography which I will comment on later. Mathew vonUnwerth’s “Freud’s Requium: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk” (2006) is not a general biography but focuses on Freud’s ideas about mortality and transcendence. “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days” by Mark Edmunson was published in 2007. Edmunson has been a literature and culture critic. This biographic work concentrates on Freud’s thinking and writing during the erupting years of Hitler and Freud’s eventual escape to England just before he died in 1939.

The most recent two biographies, which I will comment on later, are Elisabeth  Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) and Joel Whitebook’s “Freud: An Intellectual Biography” (2017).



Freud and His Critics Continued

As a follow-up to my previous post, Paul Ferris in “Dr. Freud: A Life” (1997) says, “Working on this book has taught me the inexhaustible nature of the subject. Freud is what you want him to be.” (p. xxxiii). I had indicated that my investigations of a number of biographies of Freud found that they seemed to vary according to the backgrounds and persuasions of each biographer. I will post on various biographies and biographers. For now keep in mind that my title “Whose Freud?” can also be “Who’s Freud?”.

Another follow-up to my previous post about the harshest Freud critics is a quote from Richard Wollheim in his biography, “Freud” (1991) wherein he comments on what he terms “the denigratory school” of Freud biographers/critics.

” What is distinctive of the denigratory or debunking school is a peculiar amalgam of fulsome praise of Freud and a battery of miscellaneous and uncoordinated criticism, some of it unsupported, some anachronistic, some undoubted well grounded, but much of it aimed at a target that conflates the thought of the man. A prime example is Paul Roazen’s “Freud and His Followers” (1976). (p.xxxiii).


Freud and His Critics: Whose Freud?

My challenge in writing anything about Freud is that there is not one Freud and the writings by Freud and others about Freud and his ideas are voluminous with wildly various interpretations. I think of this as a vast Rorschach test, where biographers and interpreters of Freud, his life and ideas, somehow see what they want to see and report what they interpret through their own particular biases.

Some of what I will review and reflect on will be several biographies, which range from Freud “critics” or “bashers” at one end of a continuum, and Freud “defenders” or “apologists” at the other. There are a number of fairly well balanced biographies between these extremes. The most recent one in this “middle” category is “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) by Elisabeth Roudinesco, which I will review later.

One of the best sources for an exchange between the critics and defenders is Paul Robinson’s “Freud and His Critics” (1993).Robinson goes after Jeffrey Masson, Frank Sulloway, and Adlof Grumbaum, three key critics of Freud. Robinson says Fredrick Crews, who has recently (2018) published his latest Freud bashing biography, is not worthy of his treatment. Robinson says, “there is also much to be said for the proposition that, whatever its shortcomings, psychoanalysis remains the best therapeutic game in town” (p. 11) This statement will be contested by all critics of Freud and psychoanalysis, but I will have something to say about it when I review the criticisms.

Robinson’s point about Masson, Sulloway, and Grunbaum is that, “all of them are unreconstructed, indeed unapologetic, positivists” (p.15). This raises my questions about categories of criticism and critics. How many of the critics are neo-positivists and how many of the supporters are linguistic, philosophic, post-modern interpretive thinkers ( e.g. Ricoeur, Habermas, Lit-Crit folks, Mythologists)? About this Robinson writes, “The anti-Freudian impulse of recent vintage stands at odds with the most visible intellectual current of the age. Stylistically, the opposition to Freud has a decidedly conservative feel to it, lending it a curious resonance with the politics of the 1980s.” (p.16) And: “like it or not, Freud virtually invented a new way of thinking about the self” (p 16).

Robinson’s suggestion that many of Freud’s critics “fail to take the measure of their man”, reinforces my point that many of Freud’s critics are capitalizing on Freud’s popularity and the recent (the last few decades) “anti-Freud” mood in the west. This is particularly true of Crews and Masson (more about them later), who have written endlessly about the same topic. Crews , in particular, has made a rather good living from his endless flogging a “dead horse” (at least the ideas he keeps attacking). Since Masson and Crews were once “believers”, their passionate and continuous attacks seem less than innocent and quite suspect in motive. Quite apart from whether one sees merit in their various arguments/interpretations, they have each lashed out against their former (Church, Father, Religion, God?) and become “converts” of a new “religion”. This new religion has brought them degrees of fame and fortune.

Tribal Gatherings

Some of my fieldwork as an ethnographer studying the culture of psychotherapy included attending various psychotherapy conferences, conventions, meetings to get a sense of the participants and their behavior patterns. Two of the largest conventions/conferences I attended were the American Psychological Association (twice) and the Evolution of Psychotherapy (once in Hamburg, once in Anaheim). The attached file is based on an article I wrote describing my experiences with each gathering and making some observations about how they were distinct.


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.