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Book Forum: PSYCHOANALYSIS   |    
Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:511-a-513. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.3.511-a
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Meriden, Conn.

By Louis Breger. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2000, 472 pp., $30.00.

Breger’s central thesis in this "demythologizing" exploration of Freud’s character is that the main tenets of psychoanalysis were determined by Freud’s ambition to be a hero and by his correlative identifications with and idolization of military leaders, especially, the vengeful Semite Hannibal. The main reasons Breger gives for Freud’s emphasis on the warrior rather than the healer mode are 1) Freud’s experience of maternal deprivation and 2) the existence of Austrian anti-Semitism. Reacting to these influences, Freud allegedly became angry and vengeful and developed theoretical ideas that arose "primarily from his needs and personal blind spots" (p. 4).

This 472-page book is divided into three parts: Freud’s Life: The First Thirty Years, The Birth of Psychoanalysis, and The Psychoanalytic Movement: 1902–1939. There is an introduction titled "The Development of the Hero," an appendix, background and sources, notes, bibliography, credits, and an index. For the most part, the book is well written and interesting, demonstrating familiarity with both classical psychoanalysis and the "dissenters" such as Jung, Adler, and Rank. By now, the claim that Freud was an often nasty, mean-spirited, and even destructively judgmental person is old hat. What is unique about Breger’s exposition is the linkage of Freud’s character pathology with maternal deprivation and anti-Semitism. His contention that Freud’s theories were seriously distorted by these factors bears careful examination.

Breger sets up a bit of a straw man in order to claim that there was "never any evidence" for Freud’s "sweeping generalizations and imperial theories." He cites the "universal Oedipus complex, sexuality as the driving force for all human action,…the theory of penis envy…[and] the theory of unconscious homosexuality" (p. 4). Given these emphases, Breger is correct. However, it is not clear as to what he would regard as "convincing evidence"; he never states his criteria. Yet, during the course of a rigorous personal analysis, one might be expected to find fairly convincing evidence for the existence of less controversial phenomena such as the dream-work, transference, the infantile neurosis, the primal fantasy, the ego mechanisms of defense, and even some of the theses Breger targets, provided that they are stated more cautiously.

Psychoanalysis is ultimately a journey of personal discovery; whatever Freud’s initial empirical goals, psychoanalysis is not white rats running mazes or chemical reactions in a test tube. It seems anachronistic to have to say that what Freud discovered was a different kind of truth, a subjective one that ultimately, for the analysand, is as real, perhaps more real, than the "substitute world" (1) offered by traditional empirical science (2).

The case for substantial maternal deprivation during Freud’s childhood is not convincingly or consistently made. Repeatedly, Breger emphasizes Freud’s "loss" of his mother caused by the arrival of siblings and family hardships. Because of this hypothesized unsolacing maternal relationship, Freud would "for the rest of his life find a variety of targets for his fears, unhappiness, disappointments and hatreds" (p. 17). From what Breger concludes, one would think that Freud was an orphan or had been totally abandoned the way that Oedipus was by Jocasta. The facts, however, as Breger states them, say differently. Freud’s mother was virtually always physically there, and she was very invested in his "precocious" intellectuality (p. 23). Breger says, "She herself [Freud’s mother] valued males over females and gave preference to her sons, especially her firstborn. She would achieve power through her connection with his success" (p. 29). If anything, she emerges as a kind of psychoanalytic stage mother pushing and demanding public acclaim for her son.

Breger emphasizes, specifically, the lack of solace, comfort, and soothing Freud received from his mother (see, for example, pp. 2–3, 17, 29, 31). Such deprivation, if true, would likely have caused the baby Freud to grow into a psychopath rather than a cold, intellectualizing narcissist (3). Yet, Freud, unlike the psychopath, derived solace from a great many objects and activities both tangible and intangible. Indeed, I found Breger’s description of the multitude of ways, mostly very normal, by which Freud solaced himself (see pp. 23, 25, 31, 42, 48, 51, 54, 76, 77, 161, 237, 240, 244, 268, 361) one of the most interesting features of the book. Freud’s addiction to cocaine was perhaps his most self-destructive self-comforting strategy and, although Breger does not discuss it, may have played a pivotal role in many of Freud’s angry, paranoid attacks on Catholics, dissenters, and others.

The argument for deprivation of maternal comfort is further undermined by what Breger tells us of the pivotal role Freud’s nursemaid, a Czech Catholic woman and a "vital maternal figure" (p. 14), played in the young Freud’s life. She "told him pious stories, took him to church, and shaped his early education and sense of himself" (p. 14). Later in life, Freud spoke openly of his fondness and appreciation of what she had done for him (p. 15).

Freud’s "extreme and atypical aversion" to music (p. 127), which for adolescents is the most frequently used solacing transitional phenomenon and second only to another person for adults, may provide some support for Breger’s contention that there were distortions in the mother-child bond. However, while observing that music was "at the very heart of Viennese cultural life" (p. 33), Breger does nothing with Freud’s curious emotional disability.

Although Breger fails to convince us that maternal deprivation was central to Freud’s antipathetic nature, he gives the basis for consideration of other contributing maternal factors. Freud’s mother, Amalia, is variously described as aggressive, insensitive, violent, belligerent, volatile, shrill, domineering, tyrannical, and selfish (pp. 17–31). Freud may simply have identified with her. Also, there is the hereditary angle that Breger touches on without apparently seeing its potential significance for Freud. Freud’s son Martin described "the Jews of East Galica as a peculiar race [with] little grace and no manners…whenever you hear of Jews showing violence or belligerence, instead of that meekness and what seems poor-spirited acceptance of a hard fate sometimes associated with Jewish peoples, you may safely suspect the presence of men and women of Amalia’s race" (p. 28).

Breger finds complementary causation to maternal deprivation in the alleged existence of Austrian anti-Semitism. From beginning to end, the reader is reminded that Austrians were "anti-Semitic" (see pp. 3, 7, 16–17, 25, 27, 39, 40–42, 58, 62, 66, 101, 126, 161–162, 174–175, 177, 191, 356, 357, 359, 361, 392–393). However, Breger presents little evidence for this and, if anything, makes a strong case for the contrary.

Breger acknowledges that Freud himself, as well as those close to him, had actually experienced very little that could be construed as anti-Semitism but "let the impression stand that he had suffered this, that he was a Jew, an outsider, fighting against the ‘compact majority’ " (p. 42). In the all-important matter of career advancement, Breger notes that not only was a Jewish background not a handicap in advancing Freud’s career, it "may well have been an advantage" (p. 41).

Perhaps sensing that his case for pre-World War I Austrian anti-Semitism is weak, Breger saves his strongest statements about it for the section titled Notes: "Children would be taunted, called names, and occasionally beaten up in certain neighborhoods" (p. 393). But children are taunted, called names, and occasionally beaten up in neighborhoods where few if any Jews live; competitive conflict and bullying are ubiquitous. Moreover, Breger tells us that "there is no evidence that Freud encountered this himself as a child" (p. 41).

Breger seems to be essentially taking "the-everybody-knows-it" position about alleged Austrian anti-Semitism. Not only is it not safe to assume that everybody knows it, but it is crucial for the scholarly credibility of a claim such as Breger’s to document instances in which anti-Semitism was developmentally pivotal for Freud. For example, the case for prejudice against blacks in America is made with reference to such things as lynchings, church burnings, relegation to the back of the bus, deprivation of job and residential opportunities, and other discriminatory practices. Nowhere does Breger give comparable, specific evidence of such experiences having affected Freud’s perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs.

Breger also presents many facts that serve, paradoxically, to pull the rug out from claims of substantial prewar Austrian anti-Semitism affecting Jews in general (see, for example, pp. 22, 29, 33, 39, 40–41, 292–293), thus undermining the claim that Freud suffered from identification with the victim. Indeed, his descriptions of Jewish success in Austria actually support a contention of undue and disproportionate Jewish influence in pre-World War I Austria. It is hard to imagine anti-Semitism as having had legs in a country in which Jews had become so powerful. For Freud to have believed that anti-Semitism similar in magnitude and effect to the African American experience existed, in the face of what Breger tells us, would have required that Freud’s reality testing have been significantly impaired. Rather, he shows Freud as rageful, cruel, and vindictive—not psychotic. Perhaps the explanation for Freud’s preoccupation with anti-Semitism lies in Breger’s descriptive phrase, "Freud the propagandist: subtle but insidious" (p. 350).

Reichenbach H: Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1938
Horton PC, Coppolillo HP: Unconscious causality and the pyramid of science. Arch Gen Psychiatry  1972; 26:512-517
Horton PC: Introduction, in The Solace Paradigm: An Eclectic Search for Psychological Immunity. Edited by Horton PC, Gerwirtz H, Kreutter KJ. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1988, pp 3-39


Reichenbach H: Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1938
Horton PC, Coppolillo HP: Unconscious causality and the pyramid of science. Arch Gen Psychiatry  1972; 26:512-517
Horton PC: Introduction, in The Solace Paradigm: An Eclectic Search for Psychological Immunity. Edited by Horton PC, Gerwirtz H, Kreutter KJ. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1988, pp 3-39

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