Young Freud—Academic Huckster and Hoaxster


Reviewing Frederick Crews’ new biography for the Washington Post, Matthew Hutson titles his review “Young Freud, Cruel, Incurious, Deceptive, and in Search of Fame.” Regardless of what one thinks of Freud’s contributions to human thought, science, and the discipline of psychology, the biography paints a portrait of a young man who might not have survived in today’s more formalized academic environment—or, perhaps, if one is convinced that we often mistake formalization for rigor, he might have thrived all the more, to the considerable consternation of his more scrupulous colleagues.

Hutson writes:

Crews focuses on Freud’s early career, from 1884 to 1900, and the picture that emerges is of a trumped-up blowhard. . . .

The driving force of the narrative is Freud’s yearning to become famous—for anything. In school, he was keenest on philosophy and entered medicine not out of interest or aptitude but for a living. His first stab at notoriety came with a useless cell-staining method he overhyped in scientific papers Crews describes as “crass propaganda.”

Next he turned to cocaine, which he expounded as a cure-all (and habitually injected). Freud tried to treat his friend’s morphine addiction with cocaine, rendering him doubly addicted, then fraudulently championed the fiasco as a string of successes with multiple patients. He even sold fake data to a cocaine manufacturer and pseudonymously published an academic article praising his own work.

Freud’s engagement with psychotherapy began in 1885 on an extended visit to a Parisian hospital. There he witnessed the treatment of “hysteria,” a grab bag of physical and psychological symptoms thought to be psychogenic—and distinctly feminine—and he took note of hypnosis as a method of inquiry. Essentially, the staff would knowingly or unknowingly induce women to act out, and punish them if they didn’t, using sedatives or clitoral cauterization.

Apparently, Freud liked what he saw. He returned to Vienna and opened up shop.

Far from a passive listener, he insisted that patients had been sexually abused as children, and if they failed to recall anything, he would describe the episodes in detail. Many patients went away fuming—or laughing.

Freud’s claims skirted falsifiability, the quality of being testable, a bedrock of the scientific method. Resistance to his lurid suggestions, he argued, meant only that he was onto something; heads I win, tails you really do want to fellate your father. He also conspired to excommunicate any analyst from the movement who dared to subject his ideas to critical scrutiny. As Freud wrote to a close colleague, he was only “fantasizing, interpreting, and guessing” toward “bold but beautiful revelations.” He claimed: “I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador.”

Hutson highlights the evidence that Crews presents of Freud’s attribution of his own neuroses to everyone else, his rampant misogyny, most notably evident in his marriage—revealed through very recently released correspondence between him and his wife—and his underlying misanthropy.

Hutson then asks and answers the rather obvious rhetorical question that would follow from such revelations:

So Freud failed to help people, but his ideas have lasted, right? Turns out, for the most part they weren’t even his. He took the words “the unconscious” and “psychoanalysis” from his rival Pierre Janet’s “subconscious” and “psychological analysis,” describing ideas that go back much further. Throughout his career, Freud reliably rode his mentors’ coattails, then stabbed them in the back when they could carry him no further, publicly deriding them or erasing them from history.

One might wonder, then, about the origin of his appeal. His reputation comes not despite his profligate scholarship but because of it. He trumpeted his failures as successes, turned wild speculation into sweeping proclamation and, starting with 1899’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” produced what Crews calls “detective fiction” rather than clinical reports.

Crews writes: “Freud would truly be breaking new ground in the ‘Interpretation,’ not as a scientist but as a literary artist.” Freud was a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Crews notes that a later case study provided an “invitation to the reader to share in forensic work that was both intellectually and sexually thrilling.”


Hutson’s complete review is available at:


3 thoughts on “Young Freud—Academic Huckster and Hoaxster

    • I was planning to post a reply with equivalently lengthy excerpts from the Times review, but in addition to seconding this call to read that review, I’ll try to limit myself to a few sentences:

      “There is value in Crews’s having synthesized the full roster of Freud’s blunders between 1884 and 1900, the period his book concentrates on. . . . The usefulness of the aggregation would have been greater had Crews presented his story with more of that objectivity he finds so damningly absent in Freud. . . .

      “Crews is so invested in denying Freud primacy for any of the ideas associated with psychoanalysis that have retained a jot of credibility, and offers such a paucity of larger sociohistorical context for a study of this scale, that in reading his account it is easy to imagine humanity’s understanding of sexuality and psychology as such was advancing quite admirably until Freud came along and thrust us all into the lurid dungeon of his own ugly obsessions. . . .

      “How much less today are we bound to the kind of binary choice this book implies we must make, between counting ourselves among the believers in the “illusion” of Freud or as enlightened adversaries to every manifestation of Freudian thought? Where to even begin enumerating the wealth of fruitful work — some of it highly critical — that continues to emerge from real engagement with Freud’s ideas? . . .

      “The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? . . .”

      And lastly, there’s this gem:

      “Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.”

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