SUSAN DENTZER: Thank you very much, Professor Crews, for being with us today.
FREDERICK CREWS: My pleasure.
SUSAN DENTZER: You have described Freudianism as a system of psychological thought that you once found very attractive. Why?
FREDERICK CREWS: Yes, indeed. Back in the 1960s I was a literary critic who had a good deal of faith in the Freudian description of the human mind, and I felt that if this was a good psychology, then it probably told us a lot about writers and their works. So I wrote Freudian literary criticism and I taught it to graduate students at Berkeley. But as the sixties went on into the seventies, I developed more and more doubts about the scientific foundations of this theory.
SUSAN DENTZER: What was it originally that you found so appealing about Freud's description of the mind?
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, psychoanalysis is a charming doctrine. It gives us the feeling that we have instant access to depth; that we can use this technique of analysis in order to arrive at the factors that underlie surface manifestations, and if that's so, then we can learn things about a work of literature, for example, that the author himself never suspected. And this carries over into everything that psychoanalysis touches. It gives us the feeling that perhaps we can understand the meaning of history, the origins of the human race, why there is culture, where there is mental illness, why there is poetry.
SUSAN DENTZER: Now, you underwent a celebrated conversion into a Freud basher, as you've been called. Why?
FREDERICK CREWS: Yes. Well, of course, I take exception to the term "Freud basher" because Freudians use the term as a diagnostic category. It's almost like an obsessive compulsive syndrome. One has this psychological need to beat up on Freud.
To my mind Freud is a major intellectual figure and still an important influence on our conduct and our thought, and if his system of ideas is not empirically well grounded, it's very important to figure out why not and to say so.
The reason I went over not to being a Freud basher but to being a complete Freud skeptic is that I read critiques of the logic of psychoanalysis, both the logic of its discovery of concepts, and much more importantly, the logic by which the concepts are defended. And I found that I reluctantly had to agree with the critiques instead of with my own former views.
SUSAN DENTZER: And the critiques basically said that Freud was a fraud.
FREDERICK CREWS: No, the critiques didn't say that. What the critiques said was that Freud used rules of interpretation that were much too lax and circular. I'll give you an example. He had concepts at his disposal such as resistance and denial and reaction formation, and these concepts enabled him to take a statement by a patient that seemed to contradict his theories and simply to appropriate it as a corroboration of his theories.
Well, if you play by these rules, obviously, you can prove anything any time.
SUSAN DENTZER: In other words, if a patient denied that something had happened in his life, Freud would say well, he's resisting it, therefore it did happen, therefore this is a reason why he's ill.
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, exactly. And the reason this is so important is that when you play by these rules, you remove the possibility that your ideas will ever be disconfirmed. For example, let's say we affirmed the Oedipus complex, and the Oedipus complex predicts that a little boy will hate his father because his father is his sexual rival for his mother's affections.
If the patient says well, I can't remember ever having hated my father, the doctor simply says well, of course. This is denial. This is reaction formation.
So the theory is affirmed by whatever evidence appears, and these are the rules by which pseudo-science is played.
SUSAN DENTZER: Well, why doesn't that make Freud a fraud, then?
FREDERICK CREWS: It doesn't make Freud a fraud because Freud sincerely believed that he was arriving at the truth. Now, Freud did a number of fraudulent things, the most important of which was that he misrepresented the outcome of the majority of his cases. If you read his long case histories, his famous case histories, he's fairly candid in most instances about the lack of therapeutic success that he achieved. But when he spoke to the general public about psychoanalysis, he called it successful in the most triumphant terms. And now that we have many more of his letters and private papers to look at, we can see that he never believed that himself. He was simply lying.
SUSAN DENTZER: Let's talk a bit about some of the other criticisms you've had about what Freud gave rise to; for example, recovered memory.
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, yes, and I'd like to do that in the context of the Freud exhibit., because the exhibit purports to show us Freud's influence. When the exhibit was first announced, an expectation was raised that his intellectual, philosophical, medical influence would be dealt into by the show. I think one finds very little of that, if any, in the show which dwells instead on Hollywood images, television images, popularizing Freudian notions.
To my mind, one should go directly to the concepts that Freud imparted to his followers, and that his followers then imparted to society at large, and look at the effects of those concepts.
The recovered memory movement that we've had from about 1985 until now is to my mind a prime example. According to recovered memory therapists, it's possible to delve up in therapy repressed memories of sexual molestation in early childhood, the repression of which has caused the patient to be neurotic.
This was exactly Freud's own theory in 1896 which he renounced when he founded that psychoanalysis proper. However, the only change Freud made in 1897 was to replace the molestations with the Oedipus complex. Everything else remained the same.
So when recovered memory therapists right now tell us that they can accurately - they can force patients to recall exactly what happened, even though the patients have had no memory of it for 20 or 30 or 40 years.
When the therapists tell us that sexual traumas are the most important kind. When the therapists tell us that the patients can't get well unless they remember these traumas, and when the therapists then suggest to the patients that these visualizations are real and the patient acts upon it, all of this reproduces the atmosphere of psychoanalysis. There's only one change - the Oedipus complex isn't there.
And above all, the theory of repression itself is still active, and I would say virulent in our therapeutic culture.
SUSAN DENTZER: Doesn't that speak to Freud's tremendous influence on our culture even to this day?
FREDERICK CREWS: Absolutely. No one denies Freud's importance. The only question is has it been for good or ill, and has his influence been based on scientifically sound findings, and, you know, 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 it lives on in our culture as we see over and over again in this exhibit, even in The Simpsons cartoons.
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, yes, but let's not talk about the Simpsons. I think that the show has trivialized Freud's influence tremendously. What I prefer to talk about is the split between psychological researchers on the one hand and clinical practitioners on the other, because the clinical practitioners for the most part are still very much under the influence of the Freudian paradigm. And that means that people out there are being treated according to assumptions, that the research psychologist believed to be false.
SUSAN DENTZER: Talk therapy lives.
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, I have no objection to talk therapy. We all need to talk. What I object to is psychodynamic therapy. That is to say, therapy based on the assumption that the patient's self presentation has got to be wrong because there are deep factors that will take a long time to uncover from the patients' childhood that will be necessary to unearth. That's the kind of therapy that is potentially quite dangerous.
SUSAN DENTZER: What does it say that these cultural influences that stem from Freud still live on and are so profound even as so much of the psychological research arena has rejected these influences and these theories.
FREDERICK CREWS: I think what it speaks to primarily is the lack of communication between the scientific community and the therapeutic community. The therapists simply are not following what the psychologists are discovering.
SUSAN DENTZER: And if they were -
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, if they were, and if there were some kind of real regulation of the practice of psychotherapy, a good number of modes of intervention would be reconsidered, to put it mildly.
SUSAN DENTZER: And those would include?
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, they would certainly include classical psychoanalysis, but it must be granted that most psychoanalysts now have tossed out a good part of Freud's theory. If they'd all tossed out the same parts, we could be impressed, but the trouble is each analyst saves certain parts of Freud and throws out certain other parts of Freud according to taste. And what this all goes back to is the problem I spoke of earlier, that there is no empirical basis for choosing among these various theories.
SUSAN DENTZER: You wrote that Freud treated many people in his movement as if he had been a petty generalissimo, and not someone who was really generally interested in affording an empirical basis for his work. Do you believe that those kinds of things have gotten sufficient attention in this exhibit?
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, no, of course they have not. I mean, just to put it in one sentence. But the phenomenon of the Freudian movement is itself of great significance. It's eminently worthy of cultural and historical study. There is no Einsteinium movement. There is no Copernican movement. There is no Darwinian movement, although some people think there is, but there is a Freudian movement; why?
You need a movement if your ideas cannot make their way on their own, on the basis of the independent evidence that can be adduced in their favor. So Freud had to act like he was a kind of pope of a church with sects that had to be excommunicated, individuals that had to be excommunicated. He had to take public relations measures in order to insure that psychoanalysis make its way in the world, because the doctrines themselves couldn't do it. And in fact, Freud refused to tell the general public what his great methods of discovery were. He wanted to keep it in a kind of clique, a kind of guild, and that is what psychoanalysis became.
SUSAN DENTZER: If Freud were alive today, it's difficult to imagine that Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes wouldn't grill him and expose him as a person who was if not a fraud as you suggest, at least distorting scientific method and abusing scientific method in advancing his theories.
FREDERICK CREWS: I couldn't agree more. People have idolized Freud to the extent that when things are revealed about Freud that would disbar any other practitioner, people just shrug it off and say well, you know, Newton was an alchemist or something like that.
A philosopher friend of mine once defined a lie as a self-interested untruth told by someone other than Freud. You're going to believe Freud even when he says the thing which is not because he is the great Freud. And really, although I've been called a Freud basher, the burden of my work is simply to say this; let's look at Freud's ideas as if they were anybody else's ideas. Let's have a level playing field and see whether these ideas check out empirically.
SUSAN DENTZER: You noted that this exhibit takes note of an instance where Freud wrote the mother of a patient who was a homosexual, and the exhibit seems to suggest that he was trying to relieve this mother's anxiety about her son being a homosexual and in essence promote intolerance, when in fact you argue that was not the point of what Freud was saying. Let's talk about that.
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, Freud's letter was very compassionate. I have no objection to Freud's letter to the mother. I think it's a wonderful letter. However, the exhibition gives the impression that this is what Freud had to say about homosexuality, sort of all sexual practices are equal, and that's the opposite of what Freud said. He regarded homosexuality as a perversion, and he regarded it as a perversion which arose not for some kind of genetic or biological reasons, but because of the way the little boy or little girl had been treated in childhood.
The implication of this was that the parents were to blame for making people homosexual, and Freud's followers in the 1940s and '50s and '60s in this country took this hint of Freud's and turned it into a full blown theory of the mother who makes the son homosexual, and in addition the mother who makes the child autistic. The mother even who makes the child schizophrenic.
We had the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother. It's not Freud's idea, but it's a very clear example of Freud's influence and, of course, there was a lot of pain caused by this.
SUSAN DENTZER: And the consensus now is that generations of patients with schizophrenia were horribly mistreated as a consequence.
FREDERICK CREWS: Absolutely. Not generations. It was a limited period. Nevertheless, it's an example of Freud's influence.
SUSAN DENTZER: If this exhibit were to be done again and placed Freud in context, would it talk about Freudianism as having been a horrible scientific delusion that the culture broadly underwent? How would you have redone this exhibit differently?
FREDERICK CREWS: I have a feeling that I would not have been invited to assemble this exhibit. But if I had, I would have tried to show how 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: And why ultimately do you think we did?
FREDERICK CREWS: It's very complicated. It's extremely complicated. I mean, there are so many factors one could name. One is, "But Freud did found a movement, and that the movement operated very efficiently."
Freud founded a legend - a personal legend about himself which stood in the place of the independent scientific evidence. In other words, to believe psychoanalysis you essentially have to believe that Freud was a great genius who made a great personal breakthrough. And Freudians propagated this idea themselves. His biographers, Ernest Jones, turned it into an official saint's life, and the idea still prevails in many circles today.
But society as a whole found a lot of fun, a lot of intellectual temptation in Freud. People who feel resentful of science found that psychoanalysis was a kind of rival science that they could understand, and it stood against all of this arid materialism.
Psychoanalysis gave us a kind of secular church in which people who had lost their religious faith could still have a confessional, could still believe in original sin, namely, infantile sexuality, and could feel superior to other people because they had a deeper, darker insight.
So there are many, many factors here that make the theory almost irresistibly charming.
SUSAN DENTZER: This exhibit closes with exploring some of Freud's understanding and attitudes toward what was happening in history in the 1930s as the world was on the verge of a second terrible war, throes of Nazism and so forth, all of which also the popular culture found his possible explanation of that aggression, for example, the aggression impulse, perhaps even the death instinct as persuasive explanations for it. What do you make of that?
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, yes, the most popular of all Freud's books in college curricula is Civilization and Its Discontents, where these things are spelled out, and the exhibit gives the impression that Freud may have been right or he may have been wrong in his ideas about the causes of war, but certainly he's dealing with the important things. He's calling our attention to the important things.
But what are the important things? In Freud's view they are the same factors which operate in peace as well as war. The individual has these drives conflicting within him or herself. If it happens all the time to everybody, how can it be a cause of war.
As long a we follow the Freudian paradigm, we overlook the geopolitical considerations. We overlook the ideological considerations, and we have a pseudo-scientific idea that one drive is winning out against another drive within individuals, and that this is then multiplied indefinitely. Any good historian would just laugh at this.
SUSAN DENTZER: If we were to talk about things that have come forth into popular culture today, or even beyond popular culture, as having been real legacies of Freud and Freudianism, what would those be? Do you get anything positive out of this?
FREDERICK CREWS: I don't see much that's positive, but I think the ultimate influence of Freud on our culture is this: as late as the 19th Century people still felt that they should regulate their conduct according to norms that came from outside themselves. Perhaps they were given by religion. Perhaps they were given by an ethical system.
Freud taught us that the norm, the ultimate norm is our own sense of well being. We must regulate the forces inside ourselves, and the result of that in brief is a therapeutic culture, a culture of self-absorption, a culture of feeling good. This is a tremendous consequence, and clearly Freud isn't the only one who is responsible for it. But it's the sort of thing that a show like this should have gone into. There's not a hint of it here.
SUSAN DENTZER: And that we should have used this show as an opportunity for social critique?
FREDERICK CREWS: Well, social reflection. I mean, you know, the started out aiming at showing Freud's influence and showing the correctness of his theories, that when the Library of Congress first announced the show, it talked about the - Freud's fundamental insights into the origins of drives and conflict in the individual and society. I believe that's an exact quotation.
The show backed off from that because it was controversial, and so it concentrated solely, or largely on influence. But we go from Sigmund Freud to Woody Woodpecker with nothing in between. I'm afraid it's vulgar and trivial.