What Do We Want? Don't Ask Freud!

By Fields, Suzanne | Insight on the News, November 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

What Do We Want? Don't Ask Freud!


Fields, Suzanne, Insight on the News


One of the bumper-sticker slogans of the sixties, mocking the power of shrinks in the psychological society then in full flower, was this one: "Support Mental Health or I'll Kill You" In those days, psychoanalysis still was in the money, supported amply by health-insurance policies long before Prozac was a gleam in a psychiatrist's eye.

Sigmund Freud was still Freud the Father, whose minions of post-Freudians treated not only neurotics but also tried their talking cures on psychotics. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was a popular book by Joanne Greenberg, whose semifictionalized account of her own psychoses describes her successful treatment with Frieda Fromm-Reichman, a psychoanalyst working at Chestnut Lodge, a mental hospital in the suburbs of Washington where celebrities such as Judy Garland used to come to take the talking cure. (Chestnut Lodge was the Betty Ford Clinic of the 1940s and 1950s.)

But even before the proliferation of antidepressant drugs, it was fairly clear that psychoanalysis could do little for those who suffered severe mental illness. As drugs became more sophisticated, doctors began to prescribe them along with talking therapy. But patients needed a medical Mary Poppins to help the medicine go down. When the drugs had unpleasant side effects, patients stopped taking them and suffered major relapses.

Somehow Freud was the focus for omniscient blame, for the despair that accompanied therapeutic failures. He became the totem that everybody liked to stick pins in, a villain as much for what he said as for what he failed to confront. Leading the charge of anti-Freudians were feminists who rejected his idea that "anatomy is destiny."

If Freud's first name had been Phyllis instead of Sigmund, writes Gloria Steinem, the male's lack of a womb might have been cited as proof that men are "anatomically inferior and terminally envious." But Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst, had charted this territory before, citing "womb envy" as compelling men to be aggressive and patriarchal as they compensate for feelings of inferiority resulting from not being able to give birth.

Freud's personal inferiority was dissected as though he were a patient etherized upon a table. He was exposed for moral weakness in his personal life as well as scientific charlatanism in his treatment strategies. Yet despite what pollsters would label as "high negatives," Freud's influence continues to permeate our secular society, with many of his ideas and symbolic terms acting as a Rosetta stone to explain jokes and everyday slips of the tongue, as well as providing provocative and profound insights into fashionable arts and literature. …

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