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The Legacy of Sigmund Freud

January 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


SUSAN DENTZER: Sigmund Freud was the father of psychology. He delved into long-neglected territory — the human unconscious — and fashioned a new tool, psychoanalysis, to plumb its depths.

SIGMUND FREUD: I discovered some important new facts about the unconscious in psychic life. People did not believe in my facts and thought my theories unsavory.

SUSAN DENTZER: Depending on whom you believe, Freud was either one of the leading lights of the 20th century, or something close to a fraud. The controversy over those competing views has dogged a current exhibition about Freud at Washington’s Library of Congress. Even the exhibition’s curator, historian Michael Roth, acknowledges that the debate surrounds Freud to this day.

MICHAEL ROTH, Historian: We make the point in the exhibition that there is not a scientific consensus on any of Freud’s idea. This exhibition is about Freud’s place in the intellectual history of our century. If you’re walking down the 20th Century history of ideas, the history of culture, Freud is someone to reckon with.

SUSAN DENTZER: Psychoanalyst Dorothy Holmes agrees that Freud’s influence has been profound.

DOROTHY HOLMES, Psychoanalyst: Freudian thought, I would say, could hardly be more alive — certainly as an intellectual enterprise — universities, departments of the humanities, the arts.

SUSAN DENTZER: Some cultural analysts like literary critic Frederick Crews agree that Freud’s influence has been pervasive. But as perhaps the leading Freud critic in the country, Crews also believes that much of Freudian theory is unsupportable — and even dangerous.

FREDERICK CREWS Freud Critic: An apparently scientific doctrine which, in fact, was medieval in its assumptions, was sold to the Western public, including its intellectuals, for almost 100 years in an age of science, in an age of empiricism, in an age of technology. To my mind, this is one of the strangest and most interesting facts about the century that we live in, that we bought into Freud.

SUSAN DENTZER: Crews is among a number of Freud critics who protested the library’s initial plans for the exhibition as being entirely too favorable to Freud. That protest almost derailed the exhibition, which finally opened this fall, a year later than originally expected. The show draws heavily on the extensive collections of the Library of Congress, which is the world’s largest repository of Freud’s manuscripts, letters, and other memorabilia. The exhibition also demonstrates Freud’s impact on the popular culture through television and film clips. One is this excerpt from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Spellbound.”

ACTRESS ONE: I think this whole thing is ridiculous.

ACTRESS TWO: What whole thing, Mary?

ACTRESS ONE: Psychoanalysis. It bores the pants off me, lying on the couch like some dreary nitwit telling all.

SUSAN DENTZER: A tour through the exhibition raises scores of questions about Freud’s life and work. For example, how much real scientific basis lay behind Freud’s theories of the human psyche at the time he proposed them? And do the methods he used to treat his patients have any relevance to clinical practice today? Since Freud’s time, modern brain research has revolutionized our understanding of the underlying physical causes of many mental conditions. And a costly course of psychoanalysis seems obsolete in an era of medications like Prozac — or at a time when managed care is squeezing down on mental health care costs. These hallmarks of modern psychology were scarcely imaginable when Freud was born in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic. His family soon moved to Vienna, and it was there that Freud grew up, married, and trained in neurology.

SIGMUND FREUD: I started my professional activity as a neurologist trying to bring relief to my neurotic patients.

SUSAN DENTZER: In 1885, he went to Paris to study with a famed neurologist of the time, Jean Martin Charcot. Under Charcot’s tutelage he began using techniques like hypnosis to treat patients. He thus gained critical insight into the workings of the unconscious — the vital mental processes that seemed to go on beneath the level of day-to-day consciousness.

MICHAEL ROTH: He says human beings can keep no secrets. They reveal their innermost selves with their clothes, with their twitches, with their unconscious mannerisms; that whatever we do, we’re expressing things about ourselves, for people who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And I think that this is really the fundamental orientation of Freud.

SUSAN DENTZER: Among the things that Freud believed often lay buried in the unconscious were traumas that people suffered when they were infants or children. For example, for a while Freud thought that many of his patients’ symptoms stemmed from long-repressed memories of being sexually abused. Later, as he wrote to a colleague, Freud abandoned that belief — apparently because it became clear even to him that the theory was without much — if any — foundation in reality. Freud also eventually abandoned hypnosis as a technique for delving into the psyches of his patients — including famous ones like Princess Marie Bonaparte. Instead, he encouraged patients to talk about themselves while awake — and to say everything that came to mind, however unimportant or unpleasant it seemed.

ACTOR: Let’s see. I kept thinking while I was dreaming that all this meant something.

SUSAN DENTZER: In Freud’s words, patients would “free associate,” even about such things as their dreams. In the process, Freud believed that the deepest and often darkest truths of the unconscious could be glimpsed. Freud called the treatment psychoanalysis. Although later parodied, the therapy caught on. And its influence arguably helped to transform much of Western society into a system increasingly preoccupied with the self.

MICHAEL ROTH: Freud doesn’t set out to cure people or make them normal. Psychoanalysis is not about self-help to become like everyone else. It’s about finding yourself and then you have to decide what to do.

SUSAN DENTZER: But was any of this treatment scientifically valid — or for that matter, helpful for patients? In his private papers, even Freud revealed his doubts, although by and large he kept them from the public. Several examples of the troubled course of Freud’s treatment of patients are featured in the exhibition. One of the most notorious is the case of Sergei Pankeev, known as the Wolf Man. Pankeev was a wealthy Russian émigré, who was plagued with debilitating symptoms, ranging from obsessions to psychosis. To try to cure him, Freud analyzed a dream that Pankeev had of wolves sitting in a tree outside his window. Based on his theories, Freud decided that the dream reflected a trauma that Pankeev must have experienced at age one and a half, when he saw his parents making love in their bedroom. But Pankeev later insisted that the bedroom encounter Freud believed had occurred had, in fact, never happened.

FREDERICK CREWS: You know, the Wolf Man retained his personal affection for Freud, as so many people did, but he said, “‘Psychoanalysis is a disaster. Psychoanalysts are a problem, no doubt about it,” he said, quote, unquote.

MICHAEL ROTH: He did say that. He also at other times in his life said very different things. One can select things from the Wolf Man to show that he didn’t like Freud, or select things from the Wolf Man that shows he did like Freud. And so that, I think, is not going to take us very far. What does, I think, take us far and what the exhibit does say quite directly is how difficult it is, if not impossible, to know whether anyone is helped by psychoanalysis, just like it’s difficult to know whether anyone is helped by a friendship, by a conversation, by being in love.

SUSAN DENTZER: Whether or not psychoanalysis cured patients, its influence spread. Freud created an international network of psychoanalytic associations, even traveling to the United States at one point to drum up support for the movement. In time, psychoanalysis became the treatment of choice of a well-heeled western intelligentsia.


WOODY ALLEN: I got time. I’ve got nothing ’til my analyst appointment.

DIANE KEATON: Oh? You see an analyst?

WOODY ALLEN: Just for 15 years.

DIANE KEATON: Fifteen years!

WOODY ALLEN: I’m going to give him one more year and then I’m going to Lourdes.


SUSAN DENTZER: Two decades have now passed since the movie “Annie Hall” made its debut — and although director Woody Allen may still be in Freudian-style psychoanalysis, he is one of only about 20,000 Americans who are. That’s just over 1 percent of those in any ongoing type of psychotherapy. Moreover, Freudianism has all but vanished from modern psychological research. Today, researchers look to fields like brain chemistry and physiology to explain phenomena that Freud once attributed to repressed memories.

FREDERICK CREWS: If you consult psychology faculties in top American universities, you will find almost no one now who believes in the Freudian system of thought. As a research paradigm it’s pretty much dead.

SUSAN DENTZER: Yet, Dorothy Holmes is one of a small group of psychoanalysts who are still treating patients. Fees for such treatment range as high as $200 an hour and often are not fully covered by health insurance. Holmes says that while many practicing psychoanalysts still use tools like the couch, they have rejected many other Freudian techniques — such as relying heavily on patients’ memories.

DOROTHY HOLMES: We do not think that people retain memories of events as they happened, but rather that the mind is always active in the reformation of what we call memory. Psychoanalysis is not directed at recovery of memory per se. Analysis is directed at reclaiming of capacities to have meaningful relationships, to think clearly, to be able to think about one’s thoughts, to have access to one’s feelings.

SUSAN DENTZER: Curator Roth says that whatever the flaws in Freud’s theories, he raised questions that are still important.

MICHAEL ROTH: He drew attention to issues that remain for us puzzling, interesting, sometimes fascinating, and I think if we can use the exhibition to return to those questions and issues, we will be well served.

SUSAN DENTZER: The exhibition is on display at the Library of Congress through mid-January. After that, it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York City, the Getty Institute in Los Angeles, and abroad.