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Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture
by E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.
HarperCollins, 362 pages, $25

This book has its flaws, especially with regard to Freudian thought, but its contributions to our understanding of how Freudian concepts were used to transform American culture are important and largely unknown. E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist, focuses on the ways in which Freudian theory was used by intellectuals in America’s and political battles. He shows that the major social meaning of Freud for those who made him fashionable in this country was sexual liberation. Early enthusiasts for Freud spoke of the “dangers of sexual abstinence,” and psychoanalysts stated that “with a normal sexual life, there is no such thing as a neurotic.” Admirers also claimed Freud’s theory to be scientific: “If mothers and teachers would utilize psychoanalytic principles in their dealings with children, we could reduce nervous and mental diseases as much as we have smallpox and typhoid.”

From the beginning, Freud’s American supporters came almost exclusively from the political left. His name was associated with social reform, often of a radical nature—with such figures as Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Walter Lippmann. Sexual and social reform went hand in hand, even before World War I. (The common idea that the New Left of the 1960s—with its emphasis on sexual as well as political liberation—was a radical novelty clearly needs some revising. Free love and socialism have gone together like a horse and carriage since Marx and the Oneida Community.) Apparently sex can be a powerful motivator, driving people into fundamental opposition to the social norms of their society. And conversely, from the start leftists used Freud as a club to break down traditional sexual and social relationships and their associated values.

Torrey takes up the use of Freud’s thought in the intense political conflict among communists, socialists, and liberals, on the left, and fascists, racists, and eugenicists, on the right. The left brought Freud into the great nature-nurture debate, in demonstration of the idea that sexuality is primarily the result of early childhood experience. This has been an odd role for Freud—with his biological bias—to play. After all, the “Oedipus Complex” and Freud’s lying out of the “psychosexual stages” were rooted in biology, not experience. Never mind: Freud was understood to be a friend of the left.

The most eye-opening chapter of the book is “The Sexual Politics of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.” In it, Torrey shows that the personal sexual preoccupations of the Founding Mothers of social anthropology—Benedict with lesbianism and Mead with free love and bisexuality—so distorted their anthropological research as to make it scientifically worthless. (The Founding Father of the field, Franz Boaz, was also an intellectual father figure for both Mead and Benedict.)

In Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead popularized the idea of sexual freedom, especially for the young, claiming that the Samoans had a wonderful, relaxed, non-neurotic, free-love sex life, that they were unaffected by sexual jealousy and were tolerant of extramarital liaisons, etc. (The facts are now known to be quite different.) Further, she argued that it was this tolerance that led to their happiness and lack of sexual neurosis. While Mead was working on this book, she was herself engaged in extramarital affairs, both lesbian and heterosexual. Her recent critics, prominent among them Derek Freeman, have provided evidence that her anthropology was a disguised rationalization of her own behavior—a behavior she wanted the rest of society to adopt. Similar emphases on the plastic or environmentally determined nature of sexual behavior and of sex roles are found in Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, and in other works by both anthropologists.

Torrey describes their scientific contributions as having little value since, “Both women viewed the cultures they studied through prisms tinged with political and personal concerns; as a result, certain features of the cultures became distorted, producing a panoply of peoples who are fundamentally fictitious. Utilized as political treatises, however, their books were effective, for they helped shift the nature-nurture debate toward nurture.” Torrey, who writes as a liberal on sexual matters, backs off from censuring Benedict and Mead—and Boas, their mentor, who prided himself on being an objective scientist—and writes, “Such criticisms are valid insofar as the publications of Mead and Benedict are viewed as anthropological works. If they are instead viewed as political efforts to combat racism and promote tolerance for homosexuals, lesbians, and others who are different, then [these books] are seen in a different light.” In short, as science these books are serious frauds, but as political tracts—which no one takes them to be—they are fine!

All this means—to put it bluntly—that much of modern social anthropology is liberal sexual politics masquerading as science. The continued cover-up of this scandal by so many anthropologists makes politicians like Richard Nixon look like Honest Abe. (Incidentally, for an even more devastating analysis of the relation between Margaret Mead’s sexual agenda and her scientific pretentions—as well as those of Alfred Kinsey—I refer the reader to two outstanding articles by E. Michael Jones in Fidelity magazine.)

Later chapters of the book focus on Freud’s influence, again distorted, on our child-rearing practices; and on his impact on America’s prison reform movement: here Freud was used—misused—to remove the concept of responsibility from criminal behavior. Karl Menninger, a champion of Freudian thought (and author of the book The Crime of Punishment), declared, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.”

Near the end, Torrey examines the scientific support for Freud’s theories. He points out that research has reliably failed to substantiate Freudian concepts. Here, Torrey could have been much more thorough. He does not mention Adolf Grünbaum’s powerful critique of psychoanalysis as being fundamentally unscientific, or point out that there is no evidence that sexual abstinence causes psychological harm. Nor does Torrey mention that many major analysts today see psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic theory, closely related to literary theory and to the humanities. The point here—and it could have received even more emphasis—is that the linking of Freud to science was done primarily for ideological reasons. In a last chapter, Torrey contrasts the common psychological interpretation of personality as due to early childhood experience with new genetic evidence. The author is making an important point: recent research demonstrates that genetic and biological factors are significant in forming our personality. By contrast, researchers have had a hard time showing effects of early experience on our later personality. Extreme childhood trauma does have some effects, but things like weaning, toilet-training, and the like seem to be essentially trivial.

The major weakness in Torrey’s book is that he holds Freud responsible for how Americans misused him. In general this is not fair to Freud; there are enough reasons to criticize Freud without accusing him of sins he did not commit. As to why American intellectuals were so bent on the “triumph of the therapeutic” and why the country succumbed so thoroughly to “psychological” interpretations, these questions remain to be explained by a social analysis deeper than that provided by Torrey.

But whatever its weaknesses, this book constitutes another significant critique of Freud as a modernist idol. As we look back at the pantheon of such idols, we see that Marx has undergone a meltdown; Darwin, like Freud, is crumbling; even Nietzsche with his nihilism and Dewey with his progressive education—and both with their cult of individualism—are looking shaky. In the 1970s, a neoconservative was a liberal mugged by reality; in the 1980s, a liberal with a teenaged daughter. In the 1990s, a neoconservative may well be a liberal who learns that “social science” is neither.

Paul C. Vitz is Professor of Psychology at New York University.

Image by Christie's via Creative Commons

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