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Monday, 15 October 2012

Book Review: In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm

Last week I wrote a short review of Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm. This week I finished reading another of Malcolm's books, In the Freud Archives. An enjoyable read,  finished in a couple of sittings, though I appreciate the book may not have broad appeal. It's about two Freud researchers, Jeffrey Masson and Peter Swales, and their encounter with the psychoanalytic establishment in the USA. It's a fascinating tale and high-class gossip!

The first researcher we meet is Jeffrey Masson, a professor of Sanskrit and unsuccessful therapist, who seduces the eminent psychoanalyst and long-time secretary of the Freud Archive at the Library of Congress, Dr K. R. Eissler. Very quickly Masson is appointed as Eissler's replacement and tasked with editing a complete edition of Freud's letters to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss. An excellent job Masson does too! 

But whilst working in the archive Masson looks for evidence supporting his view that Freud's initial understanding of the etiology of hysteria was correct, that his patients had indeed been sexually abused. He argues that Freud abandoned this 'seduction theory' because of the hostility of his fellow medical professionals. Wow! The whole basis of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus Complex and Freud's theory of childhood sexuality, questioned by the new keeper of Freud's archive. Masson published his views in a national newspaper and was subsequently removed from his post as secretary of the Freud archive. Masson promptly sued Eissler for $13 million, settling for $150,000. 

Of course it's not the sequence of events that's interesting but rather the personalities involved. Masson comes across as confident and charming, but above all - due to his frankness during interviews - narcissistic. And for that unwanted portrait Masson sued the author of the book - an unsuccessful court case that lasted ten years. Eissler comes across as totally devoted to his beloved Freud, but naive and easily duped. I'm reminded of the priest played by Richard Burton in the 1978 film Absolution: a pious man whose rigid beliefs are no defence against the wickedness of a murderous boy he teaches.

Masson went on to write two incendiary books: a hatchet job called The Assault on Truth about Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory; and Against Therapy which is an attack on the unethical practice and power crazed therapists Masson finds in every field of psychotherapy.

Another researcher graces the pages of this book. Peter Swales is a complex man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Freud and the origins of psychoanalysis. He calls himself a 'guerilla historian of psychoanalysis'. He too won the confidence of Eissler, who arranged for the Freud archive to gift him $4000 to enable him to continue his research. What Swales comes up with is the closely argued theory that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, that she became pregnant and that Freud arranged for a termination. So here we are again, Dr Eissler using the Archive's money to fund research intended to harm the reputation of Freud and psychoanalysis.

So for those Freud anoraks out there I can highly recommend Janet Malcolm's book. Beautifully written, full of wry humour and a nice partner to her other volume, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession..

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