Fortress Freud

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm
    Cape, 165 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02979 7

Psychoanalysts have a difficult relationship with the rest of the world – or, as they sometimes call it, ‘the goyim’. Janet Malcolm’s two very striking books of reportage, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, make this clear. Freud’s wife, according to her grandson, ‘divided the world into those who knew of grandfather and those who did not’. The latter, he said, ‘did not play any role in her life’. In that sense every analyst is Freud’s wife and lives in a world entirely taken up with psychoanalytic concerns. Sometimes it seems that they hardly know what may happen in real life and fear it accordingly. On the night of the New York black-out in 1965 someone I know was with his analyst. As the lights went out the analyst – not the patient – jumped out of his chair and shouted: ‘They’re coming to get me.’ Psychoanalysts have had good reasons for considering themselves beleaguered, but for the past twenty years at least, the world, being less interested in them, has been less interested than they imagine in finding them out. ‘No decent analyst would let his picture appear in the Times,’ one New York analyst snapped at another, as if he had caught him sneaking his image into the temple of Baal. Ms Malcolm speaks of the ‘chilly castle of psychoanalysis’ and admires its austerities. One might less admiringly think of it as Fortress Freud and question whether it too needs to be so insistently defended.

The idea that psychoanalysis is something to be guarded from the world was of course Freud’s: ‘we have been obliged to recognise and express as our conviction,’ he said in 1933, ‘that no one has a right to join in a discussion of psychoanalysis who has not had particular experiences which can only be obtained by being analysed oneself; and Ms Malcolm, who is unusual in being nice as well as astute, wants us to know that he regretted this – ‘you can believe me,’ she quotes him as saying, ‘when I tell you that we do not enjoy giving an impression of being members of a secret society.’ Though she concedes that he went too far in speaking of a ‘right’ to talk about psychoanalysis, she also believes that he had no alternative: ‘From the resistance that even card-carrying Freudians put up against the Freudian unconscious, the resistance of the non or anti-Freudians may be deduced.’ But the idea of ‘resistance’ is an old Freudian wheeze for dismissing other people’s opinions; and one doesn’t have to cite the shortcomings of the rest of the world in order to account for Freud’s attempt to declare psychoanalysis a total exclusion zone.

Despite what is said by loyal members of the task force, Freud was never entirely on his own, though it’s true that in the years of ‘splendid isolation’, as he called them, the years of his friendship with Fliess, no one shared the confidence he had in himself. By 1902, however, a psychoanalytic society met every Wednesday around a table in his waiting room; and if to start with it had only four members, its discussions were still considered sufficiently interesting to be reported each week in the Sunday edition of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. At the end of his life, when he made those remarks about giving an impression of belonging to a secret society and not enjoying it, his ideas were ‘detonating’ (Ms Malcolm’s word) throughout the intellectual world. He was passionately determined to make his mark as a scientist, and it could be that the most effective way of persuading the world that he’d seen further than any of his rivals, especially those among them, like Adler and Jung, who’d been obliged to pack their bags and leave the Freudian house, was by surrounding his secrets with secrecy. ‘I am nothing by temperament but a conquistador,’ he said in a letter to Fliess, and he fought hard to make his sovereignty over the unconscious secure. In the world at large Freud’s revelations were assimilated in all sorts of ways. Psychoanalysis, however, was a family matter.

The situation has scarcely changed even now. Take, for example, Freud’s own reputation. Present-day analysts, so Ms Malcolm asserts, are unruffled by what is now routinely, though not always persuasively, said about Freud: that he persecuted his colleagues, that he took unfair advantage of them, that he faked his evidence, that he fucked his sister-in-law. ‘Most Freudian analysts,’ she writes, ‘can take or leave Freud himself,’ and reading that sentence, one may briefly wonder what can have happened to make them all so reckless, but her real meaning, to judge by the analysts whom she herself cites, is that they can take or leave what is said about Freud by anyone who isn’t an analyst. Within the profession security is almost as tight today as it was when Freud was in charge, and it is still the case, Ms Malcolm reports, that ‘outsiders wishing to join in the discussion of psychoanalysis are in effect told to go away and maybe come back after they’ve been analysed.’ No analyst would say in public that he had doubts about Freud.

The first of Ms Malcolm’s two books is an account of the contemporary psychoanalytic profession largely based on the experience of one middle-aged New York analyst whom she calls ‘Aaron Green’. He is an edgy, discontented man, committed to Freud’s legacy in its most classical form and at the same time acutely aware of the profession’s shortcomings. He discusses, for example, the period when he was in training at the New York Institute of Psychoanalysis:

‘I had several friends who were asked to resign.’
‘After a long time in training?’
‘Yes, sometimes after many years.’
‘What does it mean when someone is dropped?’
‘I don’t know. These things are shrouded in mystery.’

Far from having been abandoned, the ways of the secret society have been institutionalised. Authority relies on silence and mystification to get its effects and no one knows on what grounds candidates for membership have been blackballed: they simply vanish into the daylight. Ms Malcolm, whose own feelings about psychoanalysis aren’t at all easy to gauge, talks about ‘the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy’ and represents the training institutes and analytic societies as ‘decrepit mansions with drawn shades’ planted along ‘hidden, almost secret byways ...marked with inscrutable road signs’. What she seems to have in mind is something drawn by Charles Addams, homes for ghouls rather than the headquarters of what is commonly assumed to be a form of therapy.

Once an analyst has completed his training he begins to hope that he will, in time, become a training analyst himself; or, as Green puts it, be admitted into the inner sanctum of psychoanalysis, his own analyst’s bedroom. ‘Not everyone,’ he says, ‘feels like that – some people drop out of the Institute world and go their own way – but the majority, like me, for whatever infantilely motivated reason, hope that they will get into that bedroom: that they will become training analysts.’ Once they are in the bedroom that’s where they want to stay. Analysts, it seems, spend most of their time in each other’s company – at meetings, over supper, in matrimony; they worry to an unusual degree about each other’s good opinion and, as they say themselves, find little to talk about with people ‘on the outside’; the members of a given Institute speak the same way, even dress the same way. ‘Aaron’s attitude towards the NYU Institute is ... affectionate’: for the Columbia analysts ‘he has nothing but bitterness and scorn.’

‘But the schism was years ago,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter with them now?’
Aaron frowned, and said in a low, dark voice: ‘They’re sharp dressers.’

In the early Sixties I used to see a middle-aged analyst who found it impossible to accept that the reason some of his patients wore miniskirts was that most of their friends wore them too: it must, he insisted, have some deeper significance.

There are many analysts – Green is one – who would agree that analysts spend more time closeted with each other than is good for them; and the question of what psychoanalysis can and cannot sensibly account for is more unstable, or ambiguous, than most patients realise when they are lying on the couch wondering why their analyst hasn’t spoken for the past three-quarters of an hour. For example, Ms Malcolm says of Freud that ‘it has become a kind of cliché that he was “no Menschenkenner” ’ (i.e. no judge of people). To those who are not au fait with the subtle, self-protecting, teasing ways in which psychoanalysis both tries and refuses to connect with the external world this may seem surprising. ‘Throughout his life’, Malcolm continues, Freud ‘was beset by the affliction of overestimation’, but since the overestimations she cites – which are the ones that are usually cited in this context – are his overestimations of Breuer, Fliess and Jung (‘the most prominent of those who came within the orbit of Freud’s propensity for idealisation followed by disillusionment’), one might suspect that the cliché, however well founded, is also a convenient way of making it seem that there was nothing in Freud’s behaviour that could decently be thought reprehensible.

Psychoanalytic theory offers no grounds for expecting analysts to be wiser than anyone else: its view of human nature and its capacity for change, let alone improvement, is far too gloomy for that. According to Green, ‘such small edge as analysts have they exercise in only one situation in life – namely, the analytic situation.’ Ms Malcolm is more eloquent. ‘The greatest analyst in the world,’ she says with seeming admiration, ‘can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being,’ but the unjustified sinner, the really ordinary human being, may think there is something tricky about a science that claims so much and so little for itself and its adherents. Her remark, intended perhaps to release psychoanalysts from the uncomfortable burden of other people’s expectations, at the same time makes it plain that analysis should not be seen in the way it is conventionally seen – as a means of assisting people to get their lives in order. What it provides is, appropriately, both more modest and more magisterial: an initiation into its own way of thinking.

On the other hand, if it’s the case that the greatest analyst in the world can’t get any more grip than the rest of us, why have Freudians laboured so hard to keep up the image of Great Father Freud? And why have so many people, most of them loosely or formerly connected with psychoanalysis, felt it necessary to work away at the destruction of that image? It has often been said, and not only by its detractors, that there is too much of the family romance in psychoanalysis (consider the number of analysts who, as Green points out, boast that their analyst was analysed by X who was analysed by Freud or Abraham or Ferenczi – though I’ve not yet come across any who’ve boasted about being analysed by my relative Max Eitingon): maybe a history in which filial passions have played such a critical part can itself be taken as evidence in favour of Freudian theory.

The current black sheep and family snitch is Jeffrey Masson, the principal subject of Ms Malcolm’s second book. Masson made his first appearance in the international psychoanalytic community in the early Seventies and the community was dazzled. ‘He wasn’t,’ writes Ms Malcolm, who has an eye for these things, ‘like the other analytical candidates one sees at congresses – quiet and serious and somewhat cowed-looking young psychiatrists who stand about together like shy, plain girls at dances ... Masson was dancing with some of the most attractive and desirable partners at the ball.’ He was a student of Sanskrit at Harvard when he first had recourse to psychoanalysis (‘my main symptom was total promiscuity’). From Harvard he went to Canada to teach Sanskrit at the University of Toronto and on the day term began realised he would have to give it up. (‘I couldn’t sit there with four students, all eccentric, and read this little script. I just couldn’t.’) So he decided to embark on a training analysis at the local Institute in preparation for a second career. As with everything else in his life, he was first enraptured, then bored – though to begin with, he was bored only with psychoanalysis in Toronto: ‘when I get to the real heart of things,’ he told himself, ‘it will all be different.’ In 1974, at a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Denver, he gave a paper on Schreber and Freud: ‘Canada,’ a New York analyst said, ‘has sent us a national treasure.’

It was at the Denver congress that Masson met his man. Kurt Eissler is one of the grandees of contemporary psychoanalysis, the guardian of Freud’s good name (he once wrote a review of Freud’s Collected Letters to which he gave the title ‘Mankind at its Best’) and, more to the point, the exceedingly jealous guardian of the Freud Archives in Washington. Like Freud when he first met Jung, Eissler was enchanted by Masson. ‘He embodied all that Eissler most cherished in people: intellect, erudition, energy, zest, colour, sparkle, even a certain wildness – qualities that the early analysts evidently had in abundance but that today’s sober practitioners entirely lack.’ In his turn, Eissler, who, at the time of their first meeting, was exactly twice Masson’s age, represented everything that in a perfect life a son might want of his father; and not only did he, as Malcolm reports, love Masson ‘quite beyond all expectation’, he also promised him the freedom of the Archives – which, given that Masson’s interest in analysis was almost entirely historical and that large sections of the Archives are closed to everyone else, was like giving him the keys to the kingdom.

In October 1980 Masson was appointed the Archives’ Projects Director, to the dismay of many members of the analytic community, which was by then losing confidence in him. (‘This man,’ they said, ‘is a mistake.’) Even worse, when Eissler retired Masson would be taking his place. But Eissler didn’t read the papers Masson was sending him and, it appears, didn’t listen to the things he said. In October 1981, after two articles appeared in the New York Times announcing to the world and to his unsuspecting patron that Masson had developed new and heretical ideas about Freud, his appointment was rescinded. ‘I’m going to recommend to the Board that you be terminated,’ Eissler is supposed to have said: the implication being that, in ceasing to be acceptable to the family, Masson would also cease to exist – another casualty of the ancestral propensity for idealisation followed by thoughts of assassination.

In the Freud Archives was initially published in the New Yorker after Masson had been expelled from the analytic community but before the appearance of his own book, Freud: The Assault on Truth, which, he believed, would blow away the foundations of psychoanalysis. It will be like the Pinto, he told Ms Malcolm: they will have to recall every patient since 1901. But when the book came out last year, though it had many reviews, no patients were recalled and the only effect it’s likely to have is to ensure that no one else makes it into the Archives for many years to come. Not even the anti-Freudians welcomed it. Frank Cioffi, for example, whose opinion of Freud could scarcely be lower, took the view that Masson had ‘achieved the remarkable feat of concocting an account ... no less tendentious and unreliable than Freud’s own’. Yet for all Masson’s excesses and his wrong-headed scholarship, there is something sympathetic in what he says about psychoanalysis.

The subject of his book is the seduction theory, which Freud held between 1895 and 1897 and then dropped – in Masson’s view, suppressed. In April 1896, in a paper on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’, Freud argued that sexual abuse in infancy or early childhood was the invariable cause of the hysterical symptoms which so many 19th-century women (and some men) developed in adult life, that these experiences ‘could be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis’, and the symptoms thus relieved. This, in brief, is the seduction theory. Its importance for Masson is that it was based on the idea that people are made ill by something that really happened to them. The paper was delivered to the members of the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology and, Freud reported to Fliess, ‘met with an icy reception from the asses’; Krafft-Ebing, who was in the chair, said that it sounded ‘like a scientific fairy-tale’. At the time Freud was enraged (his colleagues, he told Fliess, could go to hell), but it wasn’t long before he, too, began to think he’d been wrong. His patients weren’t getting better, for one thing – and in those days patients were expected to get better pretty quickly.

The seduction theory eventually yielded to the theory of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; ‘psychical reality’ took over from ‘material reality’; when patients talked about childhood seductions they were no longer thought to be talking about something that had really happened to them but about something they wished had happened. This has generally been taken to be one of the great moments in the history of psychoanalysis: a victory for common sense (it was, after all, unlikely that so many children were either assaulted by their fathers or seduced by the maid – Jocasta, as so often, barely features in the story), and one of Freud’s decisive contributions to the way we think of ourselves. Masson, however, sees it differently: ‘by shifting the emphasis from an actual world of sadness, misery and cruelty to an internal stage on which actors performed invented dramas for an invisible audience of their own creation, Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it seems to me, is at the root of the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis and psychiatry throughout the world.’

There are many sober, dark-suited analysts, Freudians as well as post-Freudians, who might agree with much of what is said in that sentence (provided they didn’t know it was written by Masson) without wishing to see the seduction theory brought back to life or sharing Masson’s hectic suspicion of the reasons that led Freud to ditch it. Reviewers of Masson’s book have had no difficulty in persuading their readers of the sloppiness of his research or the simple-mindedness of the conclusions he draws from it: indeed one doesn’t have to have read the whole of Freud to see that Masson got much of it wrong and that his book is chiefly interesting insofar as it constitutes another inglorious episode in the long-drawn-out family romance. It is still, however, the case that the relationship between orthodox psychoanalysis and the reality of patients’ lives is ambiguous and often unhelpful; and that when analysts say to their patients, as most of them do, ‘I’m not interested in what happened to you but in what you have made of it,’ the patients may reasonably feel that hermeneutics are not enough. As Leonard Shengold, one of the most sympathetic of the analysts Ms Malcolm talked to, said in a paper on child abuse, ‘the patient must know what he has suffered, at whose hands, and how it has affected him.’ It’s an important point, and not exactly arcane, yet the issue is far too often evaded.

The behaviour of the analyst I used to see varied with the time of day when I saw him. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I saw him early in the morning and these ‘sessions’ were, I imagine, like everyone else’s, low-key and fairly formal. On Mondays and Fridays my appointment was at six and he was usually more friendly and forthcoming. On Wednesdays, however, I went at 6.30 or seven and often he used to make odd, disconnected remarks and sometimes his speech was slurred. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but from time to time I would nerve myself the following morning to ask him whether there’d been anything wrong the night before, to which he always responded by asking me what it was about me that caused me to find reasons for alarm in other people’s behaviour. The last time I saw him, around five o’clock in the afternoon, he was quite bananas and kept repeating questions I’d already answered. Afterwards, wanting to make my peace with psychoanalysis, I talked to other analysts, whose response was always much the same as his. Fifteen years later someone told me what should have been clear to me at the time: that the man was an alcoholic. If it wasn’t so easy for analysts to deny the reality of their patients’ lives (to use a phrase of Masson’s) and if this analyst’s colleagues had been less concerned to protect him and more willing to grant that patients have an important stake in their own perceptions, I might not, despite six dutiful years of analysis, have ended up with such fiercely ambivalent feelings about it. Similarly, if the keepers of the Fortress were less concerned to protect Freud’s good name, to preserve the mysteriousness of his mysteries and to foreclose discussion, if, for example, their archives, like most archives, were open to scholars, Masson and others like him might not become so inflamed every time they succeed in prising away a bit of evidence that shows (or may show) that Freud was (or may have been) less than totally perfect.