False Consciousness

The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture
By E. Fuller Torrey
HarperCollins, 362 pp.

Harken now, pre-millennialists, to the sound of our postmodern times: an extended, agonizing, plangent creak, followed by the crash of majestic stonework. One by one, the titans are falling, pitching themselves to the ground in stately succession, like a domino cascade on Easter Island.

Pick an icon, any icon. Picasso, the apex of the century’s artistic genius? A brute, a misogynist, a hateful ogre. JFK, the shining liberal standard-bearer? A smirking fraud, a man without a shred of moral fibre. Marx, the champion of the oppressed? Face down in the dirt, his manifesto disgraced as a trajectory to totalitarianism.

And now, in E. Fuller Torrey’s withering broadside, it is the turn of Sigmund Freud, the colossus who claimed to dispel the gloom of the snakepit, to finally pierce with clarity the workings of the human psyche. In Torrey’s account, Freud stands revealed as just another gargantuan false idol, his insights as brittle as clay and the entire Freudian project shot through with a spine of corruption.

What’s next? Albert Einstein was an occultist? Albert Schweitzer was a closet fascist?

This is hardly the first time that Freud has come under attack. However, the most noteworthy recent assaults have come from inside the community of converts, such as Jeffrey Masson’s 1984 complaint that the master’s suppression of the seduction theory (his refusal to believe his female patients’ stories of childhood sexual abuse) was an act of cowardice. Torrey’s assault is of an entirely different order. He seeks not to repair Freudianism, but to obliterate it.

The enemy is not simply the cadre of smarmy psychoanalysts, with their up-market offices, their stoic rectitude and their insulting fees. The less-than-helpful profession is only the most visible manifestation of what Torrey takes to be the blight of Freudian thinking. The target is nothing less than the entirety of Freudian influence in North American intellectual life, a tapestry whose sinews have reached into everything from social work to child rearing, from prison reform to political analysis.

Freudian Fraud therefore rolls over its subject with the strategic calculation of a carpet bombing. The elaborate Freudian edifice, Torrey argues, is built on a central and ultimately doomed foundation: that it is nurture, not nature, that is the crucial determinant of human behavior; even more, that the adult psyche, with its tics and neuroses and buried anxieties, is the product of infantile experiences and trauma.

Such contentions have become a matter of fact, if not faith, for regiments of North American intellectuals. And indeed, Torrey, himself a psychiatrist and former special assistant to the director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, is at his best in the historical chapters, in showing how this quirky new theory, disparaged in its home town of Vienna, was transplanted to America and evolved into one of the 20th century’s background orthodoxies.

Its flowering in the New World, to be sure, was conjoined to a raft of progressive impulses. By Freudianism’s emphasis on nurture, its champions sought to counteract the vicious streak of racism that was prevalent in the U.S. and elsewhere at the time.

Through its concentration on sex, its proponents reacted against the stifling repression of a previous age. By its attention to formative experience, the movement sought to effect humane reform in borstal-like schools and emotionally cold families, in the gulag of the American prison system and the bedlam of its psychiatric wards.

But no matter that the original intentions were good, Torrey argues that the theory is scientifically baseless, a concatenation of self-confirming assertions (“Psychoanalysis,” wrote Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, “is the malady of which it considers itself the remedy”).

He grudgingly, and only belatedly, concedes that Freud bequeathed the concept of the unconscious to the 20th century, and that this is an insight of rare perception. But in his tally of the net effects of Freudianism in America, Torrey sees little else of worth and a good deal more that is downright evil.

In the penal system, Freudianism serves to simultaneously absolve the inmate of responsibility – he or she is the prisoner of childhood trauma – and to justify psychotherapeutic rehabilitation that would be comical were it not tragic. In child-rearing (and here Benjamin Spock is lacerated as the chief culprit), it has terrorized a generation of parents (for whom the slightest misstep might lead to junior’s lifelong traumatization) and spoiled a generation of children. And in its insistence that personal happiness is the holy grail of existence, Freudianism has spawned a host of self-indulgent, slack-jawed faddish therapies – EST, Gestalt, primal scream – that forthrightly encourage narcissism.

But it is in the arena of mental health that Torrey faults Freudianism most forcefully. The brute fact is that psychoanalysis is virtually useless in the treatment of any mental condition more serious than lifestyle dissatisfaction. While the psychiatric professions have become colonized by Freudianism, more than 200,000 mentally ill individuals shamble untreated among the ranks of the U.S. homeless.

Meticulously researched, superbly written and powerfully argued, Freudian Fraud won’t make many friends among the converted, but to everyone else it should come as something akin to shock therapy.eg

  • Montreal Gazette August 29, 1992