Was Freud a fraud?

Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews

Unknown.jpegOn the cover of the UK edition of FREUD: The Making of an Illusion the E in the middle of Freud is struck out and replaced with an A. The word now reads FRAUD. This idea is repeated in the subtitle with the word Illusion.

There has long been a fashion for Freud-bashing, one which has been pretty evenly balanced by Freud-adulation. It is like attitudes to Ulysses by James Joyce. Love or hate – there is no middle way. Frederick Crews is set to make hatred reign. His book is described in the blurb as the ‘last word’ on Freud. Literally untrue though this is, Crews himself ruefully presents it as his final work on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) citing as evidence his own age, 84 – a year older than his adversary when he died.

Frederick Crews and Susie Orbach. Image: the Guardian.

Since writing the book, nevertheless, he has found time for an email debate with psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach. She says he is throwing the baby out with the bath water whilst he responds that this baby is a destroyer of men and women.

Crews who is a professor emeritus of English at University of California, Berkley, has written a number of books critiquing Freud but these 700 pages draw in part on documents which have been made available only recently. It seems, and this is one of Crews’s objections, that many materials had been embargoed by professional and personal heirs eager to maintain a falsely positive view of their hero.images.jpeg Crews thinks that all extant details are now finally exposed to the sceptical critic’s eye and he nominates himself expert enough to write the ‘last word’ on Freud. Crews does not think that any of Freud’s claims can be substantiated. Instead Crews suggests Freudian concepts have led only to ‘noxious consequences’. He cites, as an obvious example, Freud’s view that women are intrinsically inferior to men but this idea is only the tip of the iceberg of damage wrought on other people.

It’s a vicious attack made more extreme by Crews’s righteous anger at what he regards as Freud’s purposeful obfuscation and deceit. He thinks Freud was a plagiarist and that this ‘was a question not of occasional borrowing, and still less of openly shared endeavour, but of chronic dishonesty and the malicious sabotage of others’ reputations’.

Crews positions his own methods in binary opposition to Freud’s, choosing ‘just to display the actual record of Freud’s doings and to weigh that record by an appeal to consensual standards of judgment’.

As an academic Crews is qualified to address the evidence but he fears that practitioners of psychoanalysis are still electing to hang on to a Freudian context in their work. Crews wants them to make the effort to study and teach more scientific theorists thus reducing Freud to the status of a thief and thereby promoting in his place those from whom he stole, such as Paul Dubois (1848-1914) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947).

Letter to Martha. 1883.  Holograph: Library of Congress.

Crews suggests that the key to Freud as a man and doctor is to be found between the years 1884 and 1900. These were the years from his late 20s to his early 40s. One of the previously untapped sources for Crews’s analysis was the entire set of 1,539 Brautbriefe, or engagement letters, exchanged by Freud and his fiancée, Martha Bernays, in the four long years of their engagement up to their marriage in 1886. Only 97 of these letters had previously been in the public domain.

Just as earlier biographers have hidden or ‘redacted’ these letters Crews has probably been at pains to discover and publish the most unstable and neurotic sounding excerpts. But, even taking into account gender relations of the period it is extraordinary to read Freud’s demands of submission to his every whim.

Other unattractive traits of character, to add to misogyny, are hypochondria and Freud’s preferred cure, frequent cocaine use. The personal use of the drug helped Freud with his depression and lack of confidence whilst professionally he was enthusiastic about it as a non-addictive painkiller.


According to Clews, Freud’s literature review, On Coca published in 1884 and the result of a mere four months study of cocaine, its uses and benefits, was lacking in rigour. Clews seems to suspect that the essay was put together during a cocaine-fuelled euphoria in which he thought the drug would prove his break-through to fame.

In this careless frame of mind Freud introduced cocaine to his dear friend and mentor Ernst Flieschl. He was hoping to release him from his addiction to morphine. As a doctor himself Flieschl had been injecting himself sub-cutaneously with morphine to alleviate the pain from an amputated thumb. Unfortunately the result of this advice was that, as Clews puts it, Freud turned Flieschl into a double addict.

Freud and Flieschl.

In spite of observing, at close quarters, his friend’s deterioration, Freud continued to advocate the treatment – at first as injections – and later, when it was obvious to all that cocaine was highly addictive, orally in a solution. Again Clews suggests that these claims could only seem feasible if Freud’s judgment was marred by the effects of cocaine.

In 1885 Freud published his Contribution to Knowledge of the Effect of Cocaine in which he outlined a series of experiments which he had carried out on himself. Of this essay Clews writes, ‘the aspiring physiologist thus declared, in the space of a few lines, that he both did and didn’t try his experiments on other parties, who both were and weren’t capable of matching his own reactions’.

Freud’s 1887 article Remarks on Cocaine Addiction and Fear of Cocaine is for Clews ‘deplorable’ in that he, Freud, ‘sold faked results for the use of advertising copy and published, under an assumed name, a high estimation of his own knowledge and research’. It easy to see why Freud’s contribution to science was rejected in all respects by the 1970s. But his reputation as the father of psychoanalysis lives on.

Freud’s London study in 1938.  A framed portrait of Flieschl hangs on the wall.

Freud completed his career as a medical researcher having broadcast, at best confusion among those considering the future of cocaine, and at worst ideas which would trap many in addiction and expose others to false hope of rehabilitation. The best outcome for cocaine use at that time was as a local anaesthetic, pioneered successfully by Freud’s colleague Carl Koller. The worst was its maturation as a recreational drug.

The remainder of Freud: The Making of an Illusion concentrates on Freud’s development as a psychoanalyst and a paterfamilias. This stage of his career began with a five month trip to Paris in the summer of 1885 funded by a small grant which was embellished by a loan from the wretched Fleischl. In one of his letters to Martha her fiancé doubted that this would need to be repaid as its donor might not live to see his return to Vienna.

B-86_SF_mit_Familie _und_Tante_Minna.jpg
Freud with his wife, sister-in-law and children. 1898. Image: Freud Foundation.

Crews’s biography of Sigmund Freud, each chapter of which ends in a condemnatory summary of his subject’s actions, is hard to believe. The evidence, however, is overwhelming and must be exposed.

Behaviours rewarded early in manhood by a dearth of scrupulous peer rebuttals continued throughout Freud’s career. Because of lack of challenge Freud was encouraged to repeat his habits of ‘chronic dishonesty’ and malicious destruction of the ‘reputations of others’. The inheritors of their master’s papers must also be brought to account for the harm that has been done to patients in the name of fraudulent Freud.

Works cited

Crews, F. Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Profile Books. 2017.

Crews, F. and Orbach. S. ‘How we feel about Freud’.  The Guardian. 20 Aug. 2017. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner published on 2nd December 2017.  Reproduced here by permission of the Editor.


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I am a Londoner living in the centre of Cork City and studying for an MA in Irish Writing and Film at University College Cork. Even though I have lived more of my life in London than elsewhere, and even though I love London with an indescribable passion, I am falling in love with Cork as well. It is such a cornucopia of Irish culture; scarcely a week goes by without something interesting happening. That is why this blog is called Corkucopia. I want to celebrate the city as well as Irish Writing and Film and, indeed, Irishness itself.

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