Dr. Freud Goes to Washington

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, November 28, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Dr. Freud Goes to Washington


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Debate over psychoanalysis takes an exhibitionistic turn

Sigmund Freud is back, once again immersed in the hidden motives, hysterical behavior, and power plays of affluent adults seemingly haunted by a host of unconscious childhood conflicts. The founder of psychoanalysis is rubbing shoulders with the political elite of Washington, D.C.

True, Freud died 60 years ago. But his intellectual legacy now stalks the stately halls of the Library of Congress in a much anticipated exhibit running through Jan. 16. Across the street looms the U.S. Capitol building, where legislators are considering whether to impeach the president.

It's a fitting setting for Freud, one of the most influential and controversial figures of the past century. He's the man who first made it possible to speak of sex and cigars in the same breath, who championed free association and fees for its interpretation, and who transformed Oedipus from a myth to a complex. He has a line of slips--that have nothing to do with lingerie--named after him, he launched the enduring genre of New Yorker cartoons featuring therapists and patients, and he inspired Woody Allen's success in movies, if not in his personal life.

Freud and his ideas have always attracted passionate backers and belittlers. Although no longer the dominant form of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis brought attention to themes that still inspire therapists and psychological research. Modern psychoanalysts, a diverse lot of therapists who form several warring camps, view the exhibit as a ratification both of major themes in Freud's work and of the clinical usefulness of psychoanalysis and related talk therapies.

The current group of detractors includes experimental psychologists, whose field also features abundant theoretical strife. They see the new Library of Congress exhibit as an opportunity to stage a public dethroning, if not impeachment, of the imperial Freud. Once the emperor of the unconscious goes into exile, the critics hope to raze what they consider to be a rotting psychoanalytic palace built on a swamp of repression and dream interpretation.

While the psychoanalysts diagnose Freud's critics as misguided, they reserve their deepest hostility for managed health care, in which cost controls often limit treatments for mental ailments to drugs and brief psychotherapy.

The Freud exhibit got off to as shaky a start as a psychoanalyst trying to launch a practice in a health maintenance organization. In 1995, about a year after work on the project began, nearly 50 scholars signed a petition claiming that the show's planning committee was unfairly stacked with psychoanalysis supporters. Many, but not all, of the petition's signers had published works critical of Freud.

Later that year, the library decided to postpone the exhibit's planned opening in 1996. Many observers attributed that move to a mix of petition-inspired intimidation and fear of further public controversy.

That assumption was incorrect, says the Freud exhibit's curator, cultural historian Michael S. Roth of the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles. The delay occurred because of a more than $300,000 funding shortfall, which Roth does not blame on Freud critics, several of whom were cooperative and advised him behind the scenes. Controversy stemming from the postponement greatly aided subsequent fundraising efforts, he adds.

Roth sees the final product as an homage to Freud's pervasive influence on Western culture, regardless of the ongoing debates about his work's merit. "This exhibition is neither and apology for nor a criticism of Freud," he says. "It's intended as a historical account of Freud's ideas and the ways in which many portions of our culture have incorporated those ideas for their own ends."

Freud's thinking covered a wide range of topics and underwent major shifts during his lifetime.

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