Woody Allen's recent sexual imbroglio did psychoanalysis no favours - 20 years on the couch and he ends up like that? But there's worse. Sigmund Freud, big daddy of "talking therapies", is now reeling from a sustained and brutal attack in the pages of the New York Review of Books. "Outraged and horrified" was one of the milder descriptions of the feelings of the psychoanalytic community, which has bombarded the magazine with one of the biggest postbags it has ever seen.
The article comes from Frederick Crews, professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, who summarised the recent, devastating work of various Freudian revisionists. The figure that emerges from Crews's composite portrait is not the pioneering geographer of the unconscious but an altogether darker figure. A cultivated and sophisticated man, with great literary powers to be sure, but also a wilful opportunist, lacking an empirical approach and ethical scruples who did not hesitate to manipulate the evidence to suit his own ends.
A startling example of this, not found in any of the official literature but recently constructed from the rediscovery of some letters, is the little-known case of the Twenties analyst Horace Frink. Frink was married but, like many of Freud's circle, was having an affair with one of his patients - an heiress and married woman called Angelika Bijur. Freud's advice to Frink was that he and the heiress should divorce their partners and marry, lest his latent homosexuality become overt. Freud's interest was plain: "You are not yet aware of your fantasy of making me a rich man," he wrote to Frink, going on to discuss a large contribution to the Psychoanalytic Funds.
The couple took his advice and before long both their devastated and abandoned spouses were dead. Soon afterwards, Bijur sued for divorce from Frink, who declined into a psychotic depression and made repeated suicide bids. There is no sign that Freud felt any remorse about the advice he had given. Crews's point is that such ruthless self-interest was no aberration; that a similar focus on victory at all costs vitiates Freud's most famous cases, including those that provide the foundations of psychoanalytic thought.
There was, for example, the unfortunate Emma Eckstein, who was diagnosed as "bleeding for love" of Freud himself when she was actually bleeding because 18 inches of gauze had been left in the remains of her nose after a botched operation by Freud's friend and long-term correspondent Wilhelm Fliess. Or the case of "Dora", later identified as Ida Bauer, which for a long time was regarded in psychoanalytic circles as a "classical analysis of the structure and genesis of hysteria".
Bauer, a surprisingly independent 18-year-old, had a family background that by today's standards would have justified the intervention of social services. She had a syphilitic father who was having an affair with the wife of a family friend, Herr K, who in turn had made it plain that he wanted to have sex with Bauer. Her father was not averse to the prospect and when Bauer declared the whole situation intolerable he sent her off to Freud to be cured of tics, suicidal thoughts and insubordination.
Freud's response was to suggest that the reason for her hysteria and distress was that she was a latent homosexual who had fantasies of pregnancy and oral sex and memories of childhood masturbation. She was really in love with Herr K, he said, and in a phrase that was to ring through a million male enclaves for the rest of the century, declared that when she slapped Herr K's face, it "was by no means a final No".
But despite their failures, deception and immorality, these cases do not really threaten the principles of psychoanalysis. They could be dismissed by saying: "OK, Freud was not a very good clinician, but his theory and insights into the human mind were sound." And this is where Crews's account, drawing heavily on a recent book, Seductive Mirage: An exploration of the work of Sigmund Freud by Allen Esterson, breaks new ground. …