Freud: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews (Metropolitan, 768 pp., $40)
This is the longest but most engaging obituary I have ever read. Although it has been known for several years that Sigmund Freud has been on life support, the final demise of the man responsible for popularizing the unconscious comes nevertheless as a shock. As W. H. Auden once noted: “To us he is no more a person / Now but a whole climate of opinion.” Frederick Crews’s new biography demonstrates not just that this “climate of opinion” has disappeared but that psychoanalysis, as a specific method for the treatment of mental disorders, is also dead. Crews systematically and convincingly autopsies the corpse to prove it.
But wait — why should we even care? Much of Crews’s book concerns the details of self-absorbed young men in 1890s Vienna debating whether men are really anxious about having their penis cut off because, as children, they wanted to kill their father so they could marry their mother. What does that have to do with 21st-century America? Surprisingly, much more than most people realize. Freud’s ideas influenced America more than they influenced any other country, from Benjamin Spock’s admonitions about toilet training to Margaret Mead’s pronouncements on sexual freedom to Norman O. Brown’s advocacy of political activism (he claimed to have read Freud’s writings “six and ten times”). Freudian ideas came to dominate the publishing and film industries as well as — according to a 1961 article in The Atlantic Monthly — “sociology, anthropology, legal thought and practice, humor, manners and mores, even organized religion.” And this is not merely of historical interest. The current disastrous mental-illness-treatment system in the United States is a direct consequence of Freudian ideas about treating children so as to prevent the emergence of serious mental illness in adulthood. The 20th-century architects of the system, such as William Menninger, claimed that Freudian theory “serves as the only logical basis for preventive psychiatry.” We are now experiencing the consequences of these mistakes.