Oedipal wrecks: has a century of Freud bred a country of narcissists?
Has a century of Freud bred a country of narcissists?
A few decades ago, Freudian theory was only sold at expensive Central Park West psychoanalytic boutiques to customers like Mabel Dodge and Marshall Field III. Like most luxuries in America, however, it has been repackaged and is now available at McFreud outlets everywhere.
If you somehow made it through college without being exposed to the theories of Sigmund Freud, you will almost certainly be confronted with them shortly thereafter: You will be one, or you will know one, of the 10 million Americans who seek help from psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric social workers every year. Yet those Americans are merely the most easily apparent portion of the counseling and psychotherapy iceberg. Millions more-nobody knows precisely how many-seek help from a variety of marriage counselors, family therapists, pastoral counselors, failed encyclopedia salesmen, enterprising bartenders, and self-appointed gurus who range from caring and competent to, as Shakespeare would say, rascals and knaves.
Although an increasing proportion of counseling and psychotherapy is not explicitly Freudian, most of it defers to the Viennese doctor indirectly. For the common denominator of virtually all counseling and psychotherapy is the Freudian assumption that intrapersonal and interpersonal problems-shyness, difficulty making a commitment, depression, anxiety, obsessiveness, slovenliness, substance abuse, eating disorders, loneliness, the inability to find meaning in life-originate in childhood experiences, especially in one's relations with parents. Thus solving those problems involves a painstaking, guided tour through one's childhood memories.
Take codependence counseling, the latest in a long line of therapy fads in America. Pia Mellody, a movement leader, explains that codependence is caused by parental "abuse" of children, also called "dysfunctional parenting," and further defined as "any experience that was less-than-nurturing or shaming." The treatment for problems of codependence is quintessentially Freudian: "Recovery involves reviewing your past to identify formative experiences in your early life that were less-than-nurturing or abusive."
Freudian theory has invaded our thinking to such a degree that we are barely aware of its existence. For instance, in 1990, Kitty Dukakis published an autobiography and traveled the talk show circuit explaining how her addiction to alcohol and drugs had been caused by her mother's rejection.
Yet this steady diffusion has transpired despite a large body of research on psychotherapy during the last three decades that has generally concluded that the particular brand of psychotherapy that Freud promoted-psychoanalysis-has proven to be no more or less effective than other brands of psychotherapy. As psychologists Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg, in an exhaustive review of research on the efficacy of psychoanalysis, concluded, "There is very little evidence in the experimental literature even suggesting that the results of therapies called psychoanalysis' are in any way different from the results obtained by treatments given other labels." Nonetheless, in no other nation in the world have Freudian counseling and psychotherapy become so much a part of the culture as in America. And this American anomaly has implications-including disturbing ones-that cry out for examination.
To be sure, America's embrace of Freud has done some good. His popularity has promoted a more inner-directed culture in which intra-personal feelings and interpersonal relations are accorded greater importance than the mere accumulation of material possessions. Many Americans will argue that the pursuit of psychic nirvana itself has greatly enhanced the quality of their lives. And Freud's theory has surely encouraged the growth of humanistic and egalitarian thought in America. Although Freud personally valued neither of these attitudes very highly, his theory evolved, in some liberals' hands, into a call for social reform. In a 1960 essay, critic Walter Kaufmann, comparing Freud to Abraham Lincoln, articulated this reformist subtext. "Like no man before him, [Freud] lent substance to the notion that all men are brothers. Criminals and madmen are not devils in disguise, but men and women who have problems similar to our own; and there, but for one experience or another, go you and l."
Yet, while Freud's theory and its ensuing movement have made important contributions to American thought and culture, they have also brought liabilities, chief among them the promotion of irresponsibility. This evolved perhaps logically from the belief that individuals are governed by powerful unconscious forces, arising from early childhood experiences, which thereby usurp their freedom of action. That conviction has led, in the words of one writer, to "the golden age of exoneration."
Today, the Freudian paradigm is so intertwined with liberalism and humanism in America that to doubt the former is to implicitly denigrate the latter. But in the areas of childrearing, mental health, and criminal justice, the denial of personal responsibility has had a grimly unhumanistic effect. Freudian men and women are seen increasingly as puppets of their psyches, governed primarily by the edicts of their egos. The corollary to don't-blame-me is blame-my-parents. In the Freudian schema, mother, father, family, social circumstance, and culture become the causal agents for whatever is wrong. The ripple of personal irresponsibility spreads outward until the very terms "good" and "bad" seem to lose their meaning. In fact, the only thing that does seem to have true meaning is the search for the truth about one's self.
There have always been self-centered individuals, but twentieth-century America may be the first place in which their quest for self and happiness has been equated with the greater good. In The Culture of Narcissism, historian Christopher Lasch observed, "In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody-in the guise of personal `growth' and `awareness' the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment."' Lasch himself, however, relied heavily on Freudian theory for his formulations of narcissism. Like countless other critics, he failed to understand that a major contributor to the narcissism he described was one Sigmund Freud.
Who was this great man of psychoanalysis? If you had asked that question at a Viennese gathering in 1895, your companions would probably have laughed. Freud, then a 39-year-old physician with a private practice specializing in cases of neurosis, was the man who saw sex in everything," one of Freud's colleagues recalled. "It was considered bad taste to bring up Freud's name in the presence of ladies. They would blush when his name was mentioned."
While Freud did not actually see "sex in everything," he did believe that sexual abuse of children and sexual repression were the causes of anxiety neurosis, phobias, obsessions, hysteria, and neurasthenia. In 1895-a critical year in the doctor's thinking-he specifically singled out voluntary or involuntary abstinence, sexual intercourse with incomplete gratification, [and] coitus interruptus" as pathological factors. A decade later, he would broaden his theory to indict sexual problems as the cause of all neuroses. In a statement widely quoted by his followers, Freud asserted that "no neurosis is possible with a normal vita sexualis"-the logical implication being that neurosis would be far less common if people's sexual lives were less inhibited and repressed.
But back in 1895, Freud was still figuring things out-deeply engaged in active research on the relationship between sexual function and neurosis with his collaborator and close friend Wilhelm Fliess. Fliess was a Berlin-based ear, nose, and throat specialist who believed that "the misuse of the sexual function"-especially masturbation, coitus interruptus, and the use of condoms-caused damage to the nervous system and also to tissues in the nose. Fliess had localized specific "genital spots" in the nose and believed that neurosis caused by the misuse of the sexual organs could be treated by applying cocaine to those spots or by electrically cauterizing them.
Freud shared Fliess's enthusiasm about cocaine before it was shown to be addictive. Besides taking it regularly himself, he gave the narcotic to his fiancee and sisters. He called it "a magical drug," noting that it produced "the most gorgeous excitement" and "exhilaration and lasting euphoria." But more significantly, in his professional work, he also shared Fliess's fascination with the nose. Freud believed that many physical and mental symptoms were caused by a "nasal reflex" that originated in the genitalia, went to the nose, and then was transmitted to other organs.
The most significant case on which Freud and Fliess collaborated in 1895 was that of Emma Eckstein, a young woman who had come to Freud with stomach ailments and menstrual problems." Suspecting that the woman's problems were caused by masturbation, which was mediated through the nasal reflex to her stomach and uterus, Freud summoned Fliess to Vienna to operate on Eckstein's nose. After Fliess returned to Berlin, Eckstein began hemorrhaging profusely and dangerously from the nose; a Viennese surgeon had to be called in. The surgeon removed "at least half a meter of gauze" that Fliess had inadvertently left in the nasal cavity. Several additional surgical procedures were necessary to stop the intermittent hemorrhages; as a consequence of the procedures, the surgeon recalled, "her face was disfigured-the bone was chiseled away and on one side caved in." Freud initially believed that the hemorrhages were a consequence of the surgery but later concluded that they were "hysterical in nature, the result of sexual longing."
Emma Eckstein's inauspicious outcome did not shake Freud's confidence in the nasal reflex. Nevertheless, he continued to look for the deeper sexual origins of mental disorders. On October 15, 1895, Freud excitedly wrote to Fliess that he had discovered the "great clinical secret" that "hysteria is the consequence of a presexual sexual shock," and "obsessional neurosis is the consequence of a presexual sexual-pleasure which is later transformed into [self-] reproach. `Presexual' means, actually, before puberty, before the release of sexual substances; the relevant events become effective only as memories." So certain was Freud of his theories that he wrote Fliess again the following day, announcing, "I consider the two neuroses essentially conquered."
These letters constitute one of the earliest expressions of Freud's theory of infantile sexuality, which was to become the essence of his theory of human behavior. Freud believed that traumatic events related to sexual development permanently shape one's personality traits. In subsequent years Freud divided his "presexual" period into oral, anal, and genital stages of development and focused especially on the Oedipal conflict in which, Freud claimed, little boys want to incestuously possess their mothers and kill their fathers. Such thoughts were said to overwhelm a child's psyche and lead to repression and later neurosis. By using dreams and other techniques to explore the unconscious, Freud hoped to uncover repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma that he believed to be the cause of neurosis.
In the years after Freud, his followers have argued about precisely when in childhood the putative traumas occur (some psychoanalysts have theorized that they even occur in utero), what part of the psyche is most damaged, and what techniques are most effective in psychotherapy to overcome the repression and make the unconscious conscious. Despite such disputes, the discussions of Freudian theory have continued to focus on the importance of sexual traumas in early childhood. Freud emphasized this in a 1905 essay in which he stated, "My views concerning the etiology of the psychoneuroses have never yet caused me to disavow or abandon two points of view: namely, the importance of sexuality and of infantilism."
Before long, armed with this contention and undeterred by Freud's strange career, his disciples-in childcare, in prisons, in mental health-were off and running.
Honey, I shrunk the kids
No single individual has done more to disseminate the theory of Sigmund Freud in America than Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care is said to follow only the Bible and all of Shakespeare's works as the all-time bestselling book in the English language. In many respects, the guide, first published in 1946, has been invaluable to American parents. Opening with the words, "Trust yourself-you know more than you think you do," it is both useful and reassuring. It is also fundamentally Freudian, which is precisely what Spock intended it to be. "The theoretical underpinning of the whole book is Freudian," he later acknowledged. Thus, he persuaded two generations of American mothers that nursing, weaning, tickling, playing, toilet training, and other activities inherent in childraising are not the innocuous behaviors they appear to be at first glance. Such activities, according to Spock, are really psychic minefields that determine a child's lifelong personality traits; maternal missteps on such terrain can result in disabling and irrevocable oral, anal, or Oedipal scars.
In retrospect, it is surprising that it took so long for Freud's theory to become incorporated into American childrearing practice. Freud himself had noted the implications of his theory for child-rearing, and many of his early followers, especially his daughter Anna, urged that Freudian principles be used for the process by which "unrestrained, greedy, and cruel little savages" are turned into "well-behaved, socially adapted, civilized beings." The key to childrearing, said Anna Freud, is the realization "that children, no less than adults themselves, are dominated by their sexual impulses and aggressive strivings."
Spock became a devout believer in that view after his first psychoanalysis. But being scientifically oriented, the doctor later attempted to prove what he had come to believe in his heart. In 1959, with a $30,000 foundation grant, he recruited 21 families who were expecting their first child to participate in probably the most ambitious study ever undertaken to prove that childrearing based on Freud's theory can ameliorate developmental problems.
Each family was counseled twice a month for six years by one of eleven top-level faculty members from the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Spock was working at the time. Psychoanalytically oriented, the faculty members included several who had been trained by Anna Freud. Spock's hypothesis was that "with such skilled counselors consulting with each family a full hour every other week, we could prevent difficulties" in such areas as breast feeding, thumb sucking, toilet training, and sibling rivalry. The children were then followed up for at least 13 years.
The results of the study should have been a stunning blow to Spock's faith. Despite the intense counseling, he acknowledged, "the children in the study had just as many problems as any other children." One child "was still wetting the bed at 12 years in spite of all the psychiatric and pediatric ingenuity expended on his case for nine of those years." Spock further noted that it was virtually impossible to predict which children would have problems later in childhood based on early experiences with their parents. "We all found that our predictors were no damn good." The study, in short, had completely negative results, but little of the data was ever published. Instead, Spock continued to promote Freud's theory on scientific grounds. In a recent interview Spock reiterated, without irony, "The whole Oedipal situation is proven again and again."
After Baby and Child Care's enormous success, Spock increasingly invoked Freud's theories in popular magazines, foremost among them Redbook, for which he began a monthly column in 1963. The columns were punctuated with expressions such as "psychoanalysis may show," "psychoanalysis reveals," "child psychoanalysts have reported," and "there's lots of psychoanalytic evidence." For example, with regard to masturbation, Spock warned that "psychoanalysts believe that many worries about bodily inadequacy start from unnecessarily stem warnings about masturbation."
But it was the Oedipal conflict that appeared to preoccupy Spock the most, and he wrote about it regularly. It was "that crucial stage of early sexual development, roughly between three and five years of age.... A boy decides that his mother is the most attractive woman in the world and that he wants to marry her and have a baby with her... The little boy gradually becomes aware that he has a powerful rival for his mother's love in his father.... The analysis of boys' drawings and dramatic play and dreams shows that they feel particularly rivalrous and resentful about their fathers' much larger penises. . . . At times boys feel like doing something drastic to their fathers' penises. This hostility brings feelings of guilt."
This period, Spock advised, is crucial to children's emotional development, and if it is not managed skillfully, all kinds of untoward consequences may ensue, including "excitability, overactivity, sleeplessness, frequent masturbation, school failure, difficulties in parental management, and sexual behavior of which the parents disapprove."
Spock offered practical advice to parents on how to navigate the treacherous sexual shoals of the Oedipal period. For example, he counseled, "It's wise to make the rule Don't ever let a child sleep in your bed."' He also argued strongly against allowing children to see parents nude; a small boy, said Spock, "is apt to be upset.... [T]he marked discrepancy in size of genitals arouses resentment." When worse came to worst, Spock never hesitated to recommend psychiatric care-and specifically psychoanalysis-for any child who seemed to be having problems. For school children "who run into study blocks despite high motivation and intelligence, the first step is to discuss the situation with the school personnel and get their recommendations. This often includes psychiatric consultation. The psychiatrist usually advises psychoanalysis or a less intensive but prolonged course of psychotherapy."
Spock thus laid the groundwork for the widespread contemporary exploitation of child counseling and psychotherapy-an expensive, exhaustive, guilt-ridden practice that his own study had wholly discounted. Yet he wasn't alone in his efforts. If kids weren't getting watered-down Freud from their Spock-reading parents, chances were they were getting it from their schools.
The incorporation of Freudian theory into education had been proposed from the earliest days of the theory's arrival in America. At Columbia Teacher's College in the first half of the century, it was recommended that academic credit be given for personal psychoanalysis. But the consequences of this infusion of Freudian theory into education were not truly felt until after World War II. Guidance counselors, who had once advised students on vocations and colleges, instead began concentrating on counseling students about their personal problems. By the mid-seventies, it was estimated that there were more than 60,000 school guidance counselors and 7,000 school psychologists in the United States. The assumptions of these school counselors and psychologists were predominantly Freudian; as the director of school mental health in Pittsburgh phrased it, "Schools are our community mental health centers."
The opportunity costs of that approach are clear. School psychologists, who had once tested students to identify cognitive problems and then recommended remedial courses, evolved instead into amateur psychotherapists. Yet, as the phenomenon of parents enrolling five-year-olds in psychoanalysis amply suggests, perhaps the most fundamental consequence of Freud's influence on child-rearing has been two generations of parental guilt. Such guilt permeates the American consciousness to a degree probably unparalleled elsewhere in the world. It is as if the sins of the children have been visited on their parents, a reversal of the biblical order of things. Such guilt creates in its turn the need for expiation and atonement, which many parents seek through psychotherapy. Thus, Freudian theory has both effectively created a need and furnished a product to fulfill that need-a merchandising stratagem as elegant in its simplicity as in its profitability.
But what does that product do for the children? Isaac Rosenfeld, a prominent Chicago intellectual in the fifties, captured the era of permissive child-rearing in a vignette. Speaking of his academic friends, who had raised their children according to "Spock and Gesell with an assist from Bruno Bettleheim," he said, "One sure way of telling whether you are visiting an academic or nonacademic household is by the behavior of the children, and the extent to which you can make yourself heard above their clatter. If it is still possible to conduct a conversation, you are in a nonacademic household."
The psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud was incorporated into America's jails and prisons much more quickly than it was welcomed into its nurseries. Whereas childrearing had to wait for Spock's post-World War II writings to become Freudianized, criminology and corrections accepted Freud's ideas as they arrived from Europe even before World War 1. Since then, American thinking about criminal behavior has become so infused with psychoanalytic pigment that it is difficult to visualize what it looked like in its natural state. But clearly, Freudian theory has dramatically affected American criminology and corrections in three important areas: the concept of responsibility, the idea of crime prevention, and the use of punishment.
It had long been accepted under English law that individuals whose criminal actions had been the result of insanity or other brain diseases should not be held fully responsible, but it was the influence of Freudian ideology that led to the extension of this concept to other prisoners-sane, capable, prisoners, but, in Freudian terms, inculpable ones. Perhaps the most aggressive proponent of this view was Dr. Karl Menninger, a psychiatrist who became to corrections what Spock would be to childrearing-the popular evangelist of psychoanalytic scripture.
Like Spock, Menninger came to Freud, not in the laboratory, but on the couch, while undertaking a brief trial of psychoanalysis as part of his psychiatric training. After graduating and setting up a clinic for the mentally ill in Chicago, he became even more interested in Freud. In 1931 and 1932, he undertook a formal psychoanalysis in Chicago; in 1934, he visited Vienna and met Sigmund Freud personally. "Freud did not treat me very nicely, as you know," he wrote to a colleague afterward, "but nonetheless I think his ideas, his grasp, his formulations are so infinitely ahead of anything else that has been proposed that I have nailed my banner on his mast, and I'll defend it against assault for the rest of my life." Karl Menninger became, in his own estimation, "more Freudian than Freud."
What Menninger derived from his personal psycho-analyses and his study of Freud was a single overriding belief about all human behavior, including criminal behavior. Menninger believed that mothers are the cause of virtually all psychopathology. As he argued in two remarkably misogynistic Atlantic Monthly articles in 1939, the roots of crime can be traced to "the childhood experience of having been frustrated too considerably and too rapidly" by mothers. This experience of frustration leads in turn to "the hate that burns in the child's heart."
As Menninger later explained in Harper @, "The offenders who are chucked into our county and state and federal prisons are not anyone's beloved children; they are usually unloved children, grown-up physically but still hungry for human concern which they never got or never get in normal ways. So they pursue it in abnormal ways-abnormal, that is, from our standpoint." To punish such offenders is therefore not only illogical, but it is also unfair. As Menninger summarized it: "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." Instead of the "medieval stupidities" of the traditional legal corrections system, then, what was needed was treatment. The future of the American prison system," Menninger concluded, "is in the hands of the psychiatrists and their allies, the social workers."
For the next 50 years, until his death in 1990, Karl Menninger continued to be the principal voice urging the psychiatrization of criminals, his influence as Freud's ambassador to the nation's jails and prisons increasing as his clinic became more widely known. By 1950, Newsweek labeled the Menninger Clinic "the world's best-known psychiatric center." When Menninger's The Crime of Punishment was published in 1968, the New York Times called it "a thunderous, plain-speaking indictment of traditional law enforcement," while Life, labeling it "a model of rationalism," proclaimed: "Read this book and weep-and pray that Karl Menninger may be heard in our chambers of injustice and the pesthouses we call penitentiaries."
Of course, by that time, Menninger's message was already beginning to be heard, in both the prisons and the courts. In 1954, at the height of postwar psychoanalytic ascendence, Judge David Bazelon handed down what was known as the Durham decision in the District of Columbia-a decision Menninger called "more revolutionary in its total effect than the Supreme Court decision regarding segregation." Bazelon's assertion-"Our traditions also require that, where such [criminal] acts stem from and are the product of mental disease or defect as these terms are used herein, moral blame shall not attach and hence there will not be criminal responsibility"-was a completely logical extension of Freudian thinking about criminal behavior. Its impact was to be far-reaching.
Under psychoanalytic theory, "the product of mental disease or defect" can be extended to virtually every criminal act. It is not surprising, therefore, that Durham and its subsequent variations extending the insanity defense have spawned an imbroglio in American courts.
According to one study, acquittals on grounds of insanity increased fivefold between 1965 and 1976; the average length of confinement for murderers found not guilty by reason of insanity was only eight months. Insanity, in the broad Freudian sense, became increasingly relied on as a defense for crimes, with defense lawyers and psychiatrists becoming ever more creative. In their descriptions, seemingly innocuous childhood experiences became malignant antecedents of crimes. In the 1969 trial of Sirhan Sirhan, who was accused of killing Robert Kennedy, defense psychiatrists introduced testimony about Sirhan's hatred of his father.
Another well-publicized example of courtroom Freud was the trial of Richard Herrin, a Yale graduate who in 1977 brutally hammered his girlfriend to death when she tried to break off their relationship. Herrin acknowledged having had a "plan" to murder her, searching the house for a proper weapon, and concealing the weapon under a towel in case the victim's family, sleeping in adjacent rooms, happened to see him in the hall. And, although this fact was not revealed at the trial, Herrin also admitted purchasing a book a few days prior to the crime about the use of the insanity defense in a murder trial. Nevertheless, Herrin's lawyer claimed that his client was experiencing an "extreme emotional disturbance" at the time of the crime and that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. In addition, argued defense psychiatrists, sundry childhood events had led Herrin to "an intense fear of abandonment by his loved ones," so that when Herrin was confronted by a girlfriend who wanted to end their relationship, he murdered her. The jury found Herrin guilty only of manslaughter because of his "extreme emotional disturbance."
As for those criminals who don't get off by pleading such sorts of mental distress, their stay in prison is likely to be influenced by Freudian theory. Probably the best known recent failure of prison "treatment" is Willie Horton. Convicted in Massachusetts in 1975 of fatally stabbing a gas station attendant 19 times and then dumping his body in a trash barrel, Horton was sentenced to life in prison without parole. But at the time, Massachusetts ranked behind only California in its enthusiasm for the psychotherapeutic "treatment" of prisoners. Thus, despite a history of drug use while in prison, Horton was recommended for unsupervised furloughs in 1986 by his "caseworker." What happened next was not uncommon, but it did make one rape victim, one presidential candidate, and the Democratic Party particularly prominent victims of the Freudian theory of corrections-a rehabilitation theory that studies have repeatedly rejected.
Over the past 35 years, Maryland's Patuxent Institution has embodied the goal of rehabilitation, rather than punishment, as thoroughly as any penal institution in the United States. After Patuxent's creation in 1955, its 500 inmates, who were carefully selected from applicants residing in other Maryland state prisons, were "treated with both individual and group psychotherapy to help them understand the roots of their criminal behavior." All inmates were eligible for home furloughs, work releases, and parole from the day they arrived; the determining factor was not how much time the prisoner had served, but rather how quickly he acquired insight into his behavior and was thereby "cured." Under these guidelines, individuals sentenced to life imprisonment were released from Patuxent after an average of eight years, compared to 20 years in other Maryland state prisons.
Despite Patuxent's decades of operation, until recently there was virtually no published research data on the prison's effectiveness, although it was claimed that the recidivism rate of its released prisoners was far lower than the rates at other Maryland prisons (an assertion that had to be weighed against the fact that Patuxent had selected for admission only those prisoners deemed to be good rehabilitation risks). In 1991, however, the results of a comprehensive study were released, showing that "former Patuxent inmates are just as likely to be rearrested as are people released from other state prisons included in the study." The counseling programs were said to "have no discernible effect on prisoner recidivism."
The Patuxent findings were not unique. After looking at "the effect of individual psychotherapy upon recidivism" in 13 different studies, another set of researchers concluded in 1975 that "no clearly positive or negative general statement can be made." When the type of psychotherapy was taken into account, however, it was found that "pragmatically oriented therapy," which "focused on personal, vocational, and social issues," was "more successful than psychoanalytically oriented therapy in reducing recidivism." The study concluded that "treatment" of offenders "is likely to be unsuccessful and perhaps even harmful, if it is administered to nonamenable, younger offenders by unenthusiastic therapists with a psychoanalytic orientation." Additional studies have since confirmed these conclusions, but so entrenched is the Freud influence that states continue to view analysis as redemptive. Nevertheless, after decades spent sending prisoners into Freudian-inspired psychotherapy, the recidivism rate at all U.S. prisons is about the same as it was in 1920.
Another place where Freudian theory has promoted the misallocation of energy and resources is the field of mental illness, where the vast majority of the nation's 200,000 psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers spend their time doing counseling and psychotherapy based, directly or indirectly, on Freudian theory. This mental health trend, already apparent by the fifties among the educated elite, first began to trickle down during Johnson's War on Poverty, under the auspices of Community Mental Health Centers (CMHCs). Although those centers were represented to Congress as a new treatment system for the mentally ill, the program was subverted from its inception by followers of Freud, who saw it as an opportunity to put their beliefs into action. Dr. William Menninger, Karl's brother and one of the architects of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), had stated clearly that Freudian theory serves as the only logical basis for preventive psychiatry a valid mental hygiene."
From its beginning, the federally funded CMHC program was used to attempt to implement the Freudian theory of human behavior on a mass scale. Dr. Robert Felix, NIMH director when the CMHC legislation was passed, urged his colleagues to combine psychoanalysis and public health, as he himself had done, and become involved with "education, social work, industry, the churches, recreation, the courts" so that "mental health services" would be "fully integrated into, and a regular and continuing part of, the total social environment." Felix's vision of a government-sponsored mental health utopia was shared by other NIMH psychiatrists. Dr. Stanley Yolles, who succeeded Felix as NIMH's director in 1964, was especially emphatic about the responsibility of psychiatrists to combat poverty: "The conditions of poverty, since they constitute a breeding ground for mental disease, require the professional involvement of the modem psychiatrist."
In fact, there was then, and still is, no evidence that poverty causes mental diseases other than in rare cases in which severe malnutrition leads to pellagra. Nevertheless, Freudian theory became implicit government policy; the "prevention of mental illness" and the "promotion of mental health" were to be carried out by federally funded psychiatrists in federally funded offices with their utopian plans typed on official government stationery.
It is hardly surprising that the grandiose expectations for community mental health centers came to naught. By the early seventies, most CMHCs had ceased trying to force society to conform to Freudian specifications and reverted back to being traditional mental health outpatient clinics, providing counseling and psychotherapy to individual patients. But, as tens of thousands of today's middle-class "codependents" can attest, talking to your therapist about your mother continues to be a national pastime, with or without federal assistance. And it continues to usurp an extraordinarily large share of professional resources that should be going to the seriously mentally ill.
The losers in this misallocation of resources have been individuals with serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. Such individuals are poor candidates for Freudian-inspired counseling and psychotherapy both because their brain diseases often preclude logical thinking and because such counseling and psychotherapy are ineffective modes of treatment for these diseases. Individuals with serious mental illnesses require medication and rehabilitation rather than discussions about early childhood.
Freud himself virtually ignored patients with serious mental illnesses, writing, "I do not like these patients." But Freud's followers have not heeded that advice. One indirect consequence is the sad spectacle of approximately 200,000 untreated mentally ill individuals among the nation's homeless population, despite the fact that America has more mental health professionals than any other country. This scene is one more legacy of Freudian America.
America's Freudian slip
Still, the greatest thing we've lost through our infatuation with Freud may be less visible than the undisciplined child, guilty parent, recidivist prisoner, or untreated person with schizophrenia on the corner. It's the loss of concerned and activism-oriented individuals whose energy has been diverted toward psychotherapy and away from social change. This is seen most prominently in social work, where practitioners were once on the forefront of efforts to improve society by combatting poverty and improving working conditions; in recent decades, social workers have become almost exclusively psychotherapists, tinkering with individual egos rather than trying to transform social systems. But the opportunity cost is also evident among countless thousands of people, whatever the profession, whose proclivity toward social reform has been diverted to a quest for self-awareness.
Sociologist Philip Rieff has noted a strange "indifference to politics of many educated Americans of liberal political persuasion who have been instructed by Freudianism." And that fact is hardly surprising. Despite the historical association of Freudian theory with social reform in America-an association that drew humanists like Michael Harrington into analysis -the two are, in practice, antithetical. Freudian theory, inherently passive and self-absorbed, assumes that change must begin within individuals rather than within social structures. An individual who is a reformer and who undertakes psychoanalysis quickly learns that protestations against social inequalities are mere displacements of anger against one's father, another manifestation of neurosis.
For social activists, the analysis of unconscious motives for wanting to improve the world has frequently transformed zeal into pabulum. Consider reformer Jerry Rubin, who, following his opposition to the Vietnam war, "experienced est, gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolling, massage., jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy, and More House-a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness." A parallel phenomenon can also be seen in thousands of other young, socially conscious potential reformers who, once they begin Freudian-inspired psychotherapy, embark on an endless rotation around their psychic navels and disappear forever from the political scene.
The loss of these individuals from the struggle for social change has been one of the most damaging effects of Freudian theory on our culture-Aamage perpetrated doggedly despite so much evidence that Freud's analytical solution doesn't work. Analyzed children don't grow up healthier; prisoners aren't reformed; mental illness is not cured; social injustice endures. Meanwhile, the freedom to blame parents and childhood experiences seems as American as the freedom of speech.
One cannot help but wonder what would happen to America if the billions of dollars now spent on analysis were devoted instead to treating the real causes of crime, mental illness, and social inequity. Nor can one avoid imagining how much would change if millions of people spent the same hours they now spend digging in the garden of childhood working instead in community service, volunteering their time for the benefit of others. Perhaps those perpetually analyzed, codependent, and confused Americans would eventually come to realize that our highest cultural ideal should not be finding oneself, but hearing and helping others. And then, perhaps, we'll have the collective might to do what we should've done long ago: topple Freud's insidious suzerainty of self.
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|Author:||Torrey, E. Fuller|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1992|
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