It happens every few years: historians, psychologists, journalists and investigators find “new” material to dismiss and discredit the work of Sigmund Freud. Since his passing in 1939, the man, who is often mythologized, has undergone numerous character assassinations. Many have said his work is both unscientific and offensive, while others have labeled him a racist and a sexist. Most recently, his work and its lack of empirical research, has been cause (somewhat fairly) for concern about the effectiveness of psychoanalysis. In his new book, the British author and critic Frederick Crews continues his take down of the late Freud. The book, “The Making of an Illusion,” focuses on Freud’s shortcomings as a man and a professional, and rails against a form of treatment that created a “cult of personality” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Freud’s most notable dissenters have spent years rejecting his theories on penis envy, the Oedipus Complex and the core concept of the sexual drive inherent in all humans. His experimentation with cocaine has poured into mainstream culture. But the main problem with dismissing Freud outright is the lack of understanding of the value of psychoanalysis. At its core, psychoanalysis is a talking cure (coined by Josef Breur in 1895). Patients are able to therapeutically process emotion, content, disturbances and conflicts. The contemporary relational psychoanalyst Susie Orbach said “Psychoanalysis is the study of human subjectivity. It is a clinical practice. It theorises the vicissitudes of human attachment, of the psychological development of mind and body that occur within a relational, cultural field.” She is correct. Furthermore, psychoanalysis proper is rarely practiced today because of the “need” for brief, concrete and managed mental health treatment.
Swept up in the Freudian revisionism is a more common problem, which is the dismissal of the magnitude his ideas have had on the field of psychology for 100 years. Freud’s groundbreaking understanding of transference and countertransference, along with his working model of the mind, are still understood and used today. Psychiatric assessments refer to “attitude toward writer,” which can be linked to a patient’s transferential projection onto the therapist. Because of Freud, we now understand the omnipotence of defense mechanisms and the unconscious motives of our drives.
Freud normalized sexuality for men and women. The ability to relate sexuality to early childhood experiences is a sensitive issue, but one that needs exploration in the therapeutic setting. Today, we have a greater appreciation for attachment theory, psychosocial development and the ego because of Sigmund Freud. The problem with the argument that Freud’s work was not empirical rests on the idea that therapy is strictly a science. Cognitive behavioral approaches, along with other standardized modalities are ubiquitous, but their long-term efficacy remains unknown. Behavioral interventions negate defense mechanisms, unconscious conflicts, inhibition, drive and attachment.
The mind is still a largely unknown construct. Psychoanalysis has allowed therapists, physicians and lay people to inch closer to understanding its processes. Replacing this with psychopharmacology and shallow methodologies of treatment that rely on labels and symptoms fails to grasp the rewards of the subjective therapeutic experience.