A review of An Outline of Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud

I won’t pretend that I had an unbiased view of Freud coming into this. I suspect that anyone who has any passing familiarity with the concept of penis envy has at least for a moment pondered the possibility that Freud was a raving idiot. But I also spent a bit of time recently exploring the subject of repressed and recovered memories, which 1) Freud seems to have invented whole cloth, and 2) have no scientific support whatsoever.

I want to have an open mind when reading his work, but he eliminates that possibility with the inscription on page one of this book:

The teachings of psychoanalysis are based upon an incalculable number of observations and experiences, and no one who has no repeated those observations upon himself or upon others is in a position to arrive at an independent judgement of it.

This is the assertion of an intellectual coward. What a comfortable little cocoon he creates for himself with this statement, insulating himself from criticism or scrutiny while he spins outlandish yarns and presents them as fact. The book doesn’t really improve from there.

The book is mercifully short, and walks through the key elements of Freud’s approach to conducting psychoanalysis and treating patients. He walks the reader through his view of the structure of the mind, the instincts that drive us, development of sexual function, and the interpretation of dreams.

The core of Freud’s view of the human mind is a tripartate structure consisting of the id, the ego, and the superego. The Id is with you from birth and consists of primal drives. The Ego is the rational mind that tries to navigate through the world, and incidentally tries to deal with all of the id’s needs. And finally there’s the Superego, which is essentially the social consience, morality, the common good, and so forth. According to Freud’s construction, the id and the superego and largely at odds, and the ego acts as a mediator between the two, trying and generally failing to address the needs of both.

Freud identifies the two human instincts that our actions all spring from, and that are essentially the primal drives of the Id. There’s the Destructive Instinct, which is just what it sounds like, and Eros, which is about just sex but love and caring. I think the gyst of it is that the Destructive instinct tears things apart and Eros brings things together in harmony. I guess that’s a tidy set up, but one isn’t reassured when Freud mentions in his lead-in, “After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts.”

We have decided to assume is pretty much everything you need to know about the rigor that goes into Freud’s thinking. I’m unqualified for an independent judgement, of course, but it strikes me that Freud is in the business of just making shit up.

But the structure of the mind leads to the subject of repression, and the work that the ego does to tamp down the traumatic, and how this leads to neuroses and other problems. Patients, accfording to Freud, may be unaware of their traumatic past, but only by uncovering it can they be relieved of the burden it places on them, and move past its neurotic manifestations. And because of this Freud spent countless hours with his patients trying to uncover and process repressed memories. And because of the weight of his theories, this remains a practice of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists, saving patients from the repercussions of their own repressed memories.

But here’s the fun thing: there’s no such thing as a repressed memory. Following a spate of recovered and recanted memories of abuse in the 1990s, the research community has been highly focused on the question of repressed memories. And all findings point to the brain having no mechanism whatsoever for repressing memories. But, guess what, the brain is more than capable of fabricating false memories, guided by a trusted authority figure such as a therapist.

And when I say that’s the fun thing, what I actually mean is that Freud perpetrated a fraud on the world, and has caused untold suffering among patients grappling with their own repressed memories.

He goes on to talk about the development of sexual function, which includes all the nonsense about the little kid becoming aware of penises, and who has or doesn’t have one, which naturally leads to fears of castration, desire to kill your father, and have sex with your mother. Naturally.

Finally he talks about the interpretation of dreams, but I honestly don’t have the energy to describe how stupid the whole thing is. Since there is no possible way someone could disprove his theories about what dreams mean, this gives him plenty of room to stretch out and really lay on the bullshit.

I went into this book with a high degree of skepticism about Freud and what he did in his work, and what he contributed to humanity with his theories. And I’m afraid I found exactly what I expected, the confident and fact-free assertions of a man profoundly convinced of his own rightness. The fact that he is so convinced doesn’t relieve him of responsibility for the mistakes he made about how the mind works or the trauma this has caused over the years.

Seriously, fuck this guy.

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