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FreudReview - Freud
In His Time and Ours
by Élisabeth Roudinesco
Harvard University Press, 2016
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D.
May 23rd 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 21)


This is a translation of a book published in Paris in 2014. The author defines her argument as follows: "...what Freud thought he was discovering was at bottom nothing but the product of a society, a familial environment, and a political situation whose signification he interpreted masterfully so as to ascribe it to the work of the unconscious"   (p.   4). The book fails to develop  this  interesting and radical view, and the author is probably less than equal to the task.

      The author's aim is to present Freud's ideas and actions  in broader context, but the book fails to present a coherent picture, as the reader is lost is an ocean of revealing details and digressions, marked by errors and real lacunae in knowledge. Roudinesco did not work with the original documents, because, as she admitted in an interview she doesn't read English, and barely reads German. On p. 563 of this book she thanks "Anthony Ballenato, who did a great deal of research in English on the Internet for this book". Doing secondary and derivative work should not  be fatal if the knowledge is sound, but this isn't the case. The author fails time and again to master the material.

      Thus, Roudinesco emphasizes the Jewish cultural background affecting Freud and tries to appear knowledgeable, but actually proves her ignorance. She claims that Hasidism is "...another component of the Enlightenment that tried to revalorize Jewish spirituality" (p. 9). Such as portrayal is simply absurd. Hassidism had nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Freud is described as "...a Jew of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment" (p. 112). This shows total ignorance about the Haskalah, which was not about secularization, but about Jewish revitalization. It aimed at preserving a distinct Jewish community and culture, based on the revival of Hebrew, and was one of the sources of active Zionism (Feiner, 2004). Freud denied any knowledge of Hebrew, even though Roudinseco claims that he understood the language, and was opposed to any form of Jewish nationalism, as Roudinseco herself demonstrates.

         What the book does well is to provide us with a catalogue of Freud's  errors, transgressions, and failures, of which there are two kinds, those committed on the written page, with less harm done, such as the failures in biographical interpretation of Leonardo and Woodrow Wilson, and those inflicted on real people. Freud's creativity, confidence, and tendency to interpret every tiny bit of human behavior, as described by Roudinesco, naturally led to major blunders. There were ethical problems, together with many errors in judgment and a lack of expertise in psychiatry. As Roudinesco puts it, Freud was a  "mediocre clinician of mental   illness"   (p. 139). She ridicules his gullibility in the consulting room and elsewhere, such as indulging crackpot ideas about Shakespeare's doubles.

       Freud's early career is described in the book as a series of misinterpretation, mistakes, or fabrications. Freud's reports about Anna O. and her symptoms are judged to be unreliable or invented, and the well-known episode of the "seduction theory" is mercilessly depicted, while Roudinesco chooses to ignore the contributions of  Allen Esterson on this topic.

         One chapter in Freud's early career was his attachment to Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), which led to "one of the most bizarre acts of medical malpractice" (Launer, 2016, p. 59).  Fliess was an otolaryngologist from Berlin, who, like some specialists, regarded the parts of the human anatomy he knew best as crucial to human health and functioning. In 1892, he proposed a "nasal reflex neurosis", which affects the genitals, and Freud let Fliess operate on his nose, to relieve his neurotic state. Early in 1895, Fliess performed  nasal surgery on one of Freud's first analytic patients, Emma Eckstein (1865-1924). Following the operation, Emma came close to death, as a result of what Freud himself described "at least half a meter of gauze" left in her nose by Fliess. The post-surgical complications were interpreted by Freud as "hysterical".  Eckstein remained disfigured for life, but became a psychoanalyst, and the whole episode became public only in 1966.  In Roudinesco's telling it is Emma that travels to Berlin for the operation, which took place in Vienna, one of  many annoying errors.

        Another shocking incident, reflecting more than poor judgment occurred in 1921, and involved Horace Frink (1883-1936), whom Freud  had chosen to lead psychoanalysis in the United States  (Zitrin, 2012). In reality, Frink was unstable, suffering from a bipolar disorder. A married man, he had an affair with a (married) former patient, and came to Vienna to ask for Freud's advice on whether he should marry her. The mistress also came to Freud, who told her that she must marry Frink to save him from homosexuality. In November 1921, Freud sent Frink what Roudinesco calls "a foolish letter" (p. 272), which became public in 1985.

     "My compliments to Mrs. B and my request that she should rather not repeat to foreign people I had advised her to marry you on the threat of a nervous breakdown. It gives them a false idea of the kind of advice that is compatible with analysis and is very likely to be used against analysis. I am sure if she consents to marry you it is on account of her love for you and not out of respect for my prediction. Your complaint that you cannot grasp your homosexuality implies that you are not yet aware of your phantasy of making me a rich man. If matters turn out all right let us change this imaginary  gift into a real contribution to the psychoanalytic funds" (Zitrin,  p. 1083). Roudinesco produces a slightly different version of the letter, which includes the sentence: "May I suggest to you that your idea that she lost part of her beauty could be transformed by the idea of acquiring part of her fortune"  (p. 272). No comments necessary. Roudinesco tries to make some excuses for Freud's incredible letter, but her treatment of this incident is the exception, possibly because it is so unbelievable. In all other cases of Freudian misbehavior, she displays no charity in elucidating every flaw.

          Many of the incestuous goings on in psychoanalysis have been discussed before, and Roudinesco reports them faithfully. Thus, we learn that  Anna Freud was analyzed by her father  in 1918-1920 and 1922-24, and then analyzed her own adopted children in turn. Karl Abraham analyzed his daughter Hilda, who later became a psychoanalyst.  

          Roudinesco presents a minority view on one aspect of Freud's life, namely sex. She believes that he stopped having sex at age 40, and converted libidinal energy into theoretical creativity. Other observers have suggested that he was able to expend some libidinal energy with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, and still possess boundless creative thinking. The matter may seem of limited importance, but has been bruited about for decades. The discovery of an 1898 receipt from a Swiss inn, in which Sigmund Freud signed for "Dr. Sigmund Freud and wife", while his wife was staying in Vienna and  Minna was at the inn, was considered  sufficiently important to be reported on page one of the New York Times on December 24, 2006.

       Freud authored numerous publications dealing with religion and made many comments about the subject, starting in the 1890s (Beit-Hallahmi 1996), but Roudinesco is not aware of that. Here is how she introduces the subject: "After fighting to defend lay psychoanalysis against the doctors, Freud set out to attack religion" (p. 324). So, according to Roudinesco, this happened in 1927, but if attacking religion is what Freud intended, he started it in 1896 (Freud, 1896), if not earlier, and his ideas were quite consistent over the years. Roudinesco superficially discusses only three publications, and devotes most space to Moses and Monotheism, a strange work in which Freud seemed to have forgotten everything he knew about mythology. Otto Rank in 1914   listed the Moses story as one example of the many Oedipal myths about the birth of heroes (Rank, 1914). Freud wrote the preface to Rank's book, but later on decided that all the Biblical stories about Moses were somehow historical. Attempts to prove the historicity of Moses have been just as successful as the attempts to prove the historicity of Adam or Jesus.

      The book's publisher has apparently skimped on proofreading and editing, and so Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, becomes Karl Luger. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the father of Daniel Paul Schreber, known for his "dark pedagogy", is introduced to the reader twice ( p. 74, p. 145).  The book contains 12 pages of "Freud in French", which may be useful for readers of the original book in French, but not to readers of English.  Roudinesco claims to have uncovered 160 of Freud's patients, but the list in the book (pp. 555-558) contains only 125 cases, many of whom were analysts in training. 

       The translation leaves much to be desired, resulting in clumsy phrasing. We are being told that as a child, Freud looked at his mother "... as a virile and sexually desirable women" (p. 15). Something is missing, and indeed the original reads "Freud la regardait dans son enfance comme une femme à la fois virile et sexuellement desirable"   (p. 25). The author uses the expression "law of the father" several times throughout the book, without explanation. It's a Lacanian term, whose meaning is far from clear to mere mortals. The book repeatedly confuses psychology and psychiatry, which are not the same.

       Roudinesco's irritating ignorance is displayed when she describes Adolf Grünbaum  as part of "the revisionist American camp"  (p. 425). Grünbaum is a leading philosopher of science, who came to Freud's writings late in life, and criticized his failure to provide evidence for his clinical claims. At the same time, he found some of Freud's ideas about religion praiseworthy (Beit-Hallahmi, 2010).

        The book is not only about Sigmund Freud the man, but also about the history of the psychoanalytic movement. What was this movement about?  The movement formed because Freud's ideas appeared  attractive and plausible to the emerging cosmopolitan intelligentsia,  "...members of the well-educated class of the Belle Époque...[D]evoted to self-seeking, the cult of art, and the values of free-market capitalism"  (p. 100).   They were predominantly secularized Jews, the carriers of modernity since 1800. Roudineasco emphasizes the Jewish descent of psychoanalysts and their clients, which at some point became a matter of life and death.

       While Roudinesco exposes all of Freud's sins, failures, and deficiencies, she still refers to him as " of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century"  (p. 60). The secret of Freud's ability to persuade, teach, and charm his audience  will  not be found in any biographical accounts, which rely on letters, diaries, and unreliable recollections. To appreciate his powerful rhetoric, which was not only persuasive but seductive, you will simply have to turn to his original writings.



Beit Hallahmi, B. (1996).  Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,

Beit-Hallahmi, B. (ed.) (2010).  Psychoanalysis and Theism: Critical Reflections on the Grünbaum  Thesis. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

Feiner, S. (2004). The Jewish Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Freud, S. (1896). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses  of defense. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 3, 158-185. London: The Hogarth Press.

Launer,  J.  (2016). The case of Emma Eckstein. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 92, 59-60.

Rank, O. (1914).  The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. New York: Nervous and Mental Diseases Publishing Co.

 Zitrin, A. (2012). Why Did Freud Do It? : A Puzzling Episode in the History of Psychoanalysis. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200, 1080-1087.



© 2017 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi



Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has written about personality, identity, and religion. His most recent book is Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity (2015).


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