Psych or Fad: Freud's Slip on Penis Envy, among other things

From: Vita-More, Natasha (
Date: Mon May 15 2000 - 12:42:07 MDT

I love a good Freudian slip, whether its my own (embarrassing, sometimes) or
someone else's (so that's what he/she really meant). I't like falling on a
banana peel. (I wonder if "fslex" was a slip in the URL: -:)) Mostly, my own lapsus linguae or
lapsus calami are casued by faulty brain connections. Here's a piece I was
amused by:

Freud Slips as an Icon of Science (by Usha Lee McFarling)

Once the dominant figure in efforts to understand the mind, the father of
psychoanalysis has been proved wrong in nearly all of his notions.
No scientific figure has permeated the American consciousness--and perhaps
its unconscious--more than Sigmund Freud. From Freudian slips to defense
mechanisms to the cigars he made more notorious than Monica Lewinsky ever
could, Freud's ideas are everywhere. They've shaped the way we see the
mind, altered the way we interpret literature and brought talk therapy to
the world at large. They've also leaked far outside academic circles,
infiltrating the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen and even "The

But there's a slight problem. Unlike Einstein and Darwin, whose
groundbreaking ideas have survived for decades, the emerging consensus among
scientists, including psychiatrists, about Freud is that he was wrong. About
almost everything.

Penis envy hasn't fared well. Ditto for castration anxiety, latent
homosexuality and Oedipal complexes as deep motivating factors in behavior.

The list goes on: Freud's understanding of women's sexuality has been
eviscerated by feminists. And the notion that dreams are a "royal road" to
the unconscious has been largely put to rest by research on rapid eye
movement, or REM, sleep.

"The scientific literature is clear," said Frank Sulloway, author of "Freud:
Biologist of the Mind" and visiting professor in the department of
psychology at UC Berkeley. "Freud was wrong in almost every important
Although many psychoanalysts argue that updated versions of Freud's thinking
are still relevant to understanding--and aiding--the human mind today,
Freud's legacy has largely migrated from the scientific realm to the
cultural. Today his texts are more likely to be read in English departments
than in medical schools.

Michael Roth, curator of an exhibit on Freud now at the Skirball Cultural
Center in the Sepulveda Pass (LA), thinks Freud's allure may stem simply
from the topics he chose to address.

There's sex. Aggression. Sex. Childhood fantasies. Sex. Traumatic events.
Sex. Inner needs. Sex. Dreams. Oh, and sex.

All the anxiety and conflict over Freud seem to have manifested themselves
in a battle between Freudians and doubters that long delayed the opening of
the exhibit. It was an Oedipal clash of egos and superegos; and id ain't
over yet.

The exhibit--which runs through July 25--focuses largely on Freud's cultural
influence and says almost nothing about science.

It's not likely that Freud would have been flattered by his very American
incorporation into the cultural mainstream. The good Viennese doctor pops up
in "The Flintstones," "Popeye," even "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."
In one "Simpsons" episode, Homer suggests that Marge should repress her
anxieties, "so she'll never annoy us again."
But "Freud started in science. He was 100% identified in science. That's
what he cared about," Sulloway said. "If all [that proponents] can salvage
is his cultural influence, it's actually pretty tragic."

It's not only Freud's theories that have taken a hit. The man himself has
been battered by a slew of critics--so many that they are referred to as a
"Freud industry." They have unearthed verrrry interesting evidence
suggesting that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law, arranged amorous
affairs for one of his patients, abused cocaine, denied a patient's valid
claim of childhood sexual abuse, and napped and wrote correspondence during
therapeutic sessions with patients.

Freud's proudest legacy--psychoanalysis--hasn't done much better.
Psychoanalysis, which can be a years-long, four-day-a-week process that
seeks to unveil how dreams, the past and a person's unconscious thoughts
shape current behavior, is under siege. It's been largely replaced by
antidepressants and shorter, less costly forms of treatment such as
short-term psychotherapy.

"Psychoanalysis," said Edward Shorter, a University of Toronto historian of
medicine, is "a dinosaur ideology of the 19th century staggering toward the
tar pit." Yet like much else in the tangled story of Freud legend,
psychoanalysis remains an area of vicious debate.

Proponents, including many patients, say it can offer great and lasting
help. Critics such as Shorter say the field has been responsible for the
suicides of many severely mentally ill patients who required medication and
hospitalization more than sessions on the couch.

Freud Still Stirs Passions
So if Freud was so wrong, if his methods remain dubious and if he was a poor
and possibly unethical practitioner, we are left with a most Freudian
question: Why is he so irrepressible? Despite his having been proclaimed
dead dozens of times since his actual death in 1939, Freud continues to
inflame, inspire and provoke intellectual schisms that border on open
warfare. Consider the history of the current exhibit at the Skirball.

Conceived by the Library of Congress in 1993, "Freud: Conflict and Culture"
was nearly stopped in its tracks, and its Washington, D.C., debut was
delayed five years. Its foremost enemy was Freud critic Peter Swales, who
circulated a petition of protest.

Swales, a onetime Rolling Stones concert promoter who started a second
career by unearthing unsavory details of Freud's personal life, complained
that the exhibit would be a "Freudfest"--a chance for the doctor's thinning
ranks of psychoanalytical disciples to dust off his fading legacy.

At the time, another Freud critic, Frederick Crews, a retired UC Berkeley
professor of English, said the motive behind the exhibit "was to polish up
the tarnished image of a business that's heading into Chapter 11."
The psychoanalytic community, led by the Long Island psychoanalyst who is
director of the Freud archives, Dr. Harold Blum, responded with a
classically Freudian argument: Critics were unconsciously resisting the
truth because Freud's ideas were too threatening.

In analyzing the critics, the Freudians did have plenty of ammunition.
Swales once longed to be director of the Freud archives. And, like a vocal
ex-smoker, Crews spent years in training to become a psychoanalyst before
vehemently renouncing the field.

Even nuanced personal details became cannon fodder. Roth, the exhibit's
curator, was suspect simply because the father of his ex-wife is a noted
Freud critic.
"The level of nastiness, even for academia, is pretty extreme, " said Roth,
assistant director of the Getty Research Institute.

'Even Critics Psychoanalyze Freud'

To his proponents, Freud's ideas--a way to look at inner desires and hidden
motivation--are so important and commonplace that they are taken for

"Even the critics psychoanalyze Freud, which is an ironic homage," said
James Hansell, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst on the faculty of
the University of Michigan and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute.
Many psychoanalysts argue that, although many of Freud's theories have
foundered, no one else has come close to providing answers about human
nature that are as satisfying.

The steady stream of scientific findings emerging from the labs of
neuroscientists--from imaging machines flickering with pictures of the brain
at work to the understanding of subtle chemicals that whisper messages
across neurons--has done little to provide a full understanding of human

Some of those findings are disturbing, particularly the idea that our inner
selves can be boiled down to a chemical recipe that can be tweaked and
improved with pinches of lithium salts and dashes of serotonin blockers.
Today's reductionist, biological, Prozac-laden approach to the mind offers
limited understanding, Hansell said.
"The violence, the political scandal we see--all those things seem to cry
out for a deeper explanation," he said. "We don't seem to have the tools to
deal with it without in-depth psychology, including psychoanalysis."
For Roth, Freud's answers may be suspect, but the questions he asked--about
what we do and why we do it--continue to fascinate.

Nevertheless, even Freud's broad cultural reach may be shrinking. In World
War II-era films such as Hitchcock's "Spellbound," psychoanalysts were often
portrayed as imposing, scholarly figures. Since then, portrayals of analysts
in film and television have become more comic, and sometimes mocking.

The "Frasier"-filled '90s "might represent the era of the cinema's greatest
ridicule of the therapist," said Ann E. Kaplan, an English professor at the
State University of New York at Stonybrook and expert on psychoanalysis and
film, in an essay that accompanies the Skirball exhibit.

Even the New Yorker, long the home of cartoons with a psychoanalytic bent,
has depicted a practitioner holding this humbling sign: "Will Psychoanalyze
for Food."

Freudian references that do emerge today must compete with rival
psychopharmacological visions. Take two Oscar-nominated motion pictures from

"Good Will Hunting" is a classic neo-Freudian tale, in which Matt Damon's
character works with analyst Robin Williams, sees his life in a new way and,
said Roth, "gets a pretty girlfriend."

In "As Good as It Gets," though, Jack Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive
character is decidedly post-Freudian as he turns to pharmaceutical help.
Roth said the message is: "Take your medicine and you get a pretty
Which vision will rule the future? Roth's 13-year-old son may be as good a
harbinger as any. He's never made a Freudian joke, reported his father. Yet
he frequently spouts lines like: "Did you forget your medication today?"
Perhaps more ominous to keepers of the Freudian flame is that so much of the
controversy that surrounded Freud and the exhibit in the early '90s has
ebbed in the last couple of years. As the exhibit traveled from Washington
to New York, Vienna and Los Angeles, it inspired little of the furor that
Freudians have long claimed as proof of Freud's continued importance.

His biographer, Sulloway, has moved on to his own work extending Darwin's
ideas to examine how personalities form.

After giving a few lectures on Freud to celebrate the opening of the exhibit
here, Roth has returned to his main focus, examining how society interprets
the past. He will soon become head of the Bay Area's California College of
Arts and Crafts.

Even longtime Freud critic Crews has unlaced his boxing gloves. When
contacted for this article, he said: "I don't want to talk about Freud. It's
just so fruitless at this point."

Natasha Vita-More

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