All that is left are his mistakes
Encoding Freud’s biography and problematique.
Muskaan Palod, Managing Editor
Illustration by Anna Abraham
I say psychology and the first name that shall pop in your head is Freud. Sigmund Freud is the one personality that is associated with knowing all the kinks of human behaviour. He continues to be one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. His theories shaped all of modern psychology as we study it today, some in sync with his opinions while some in opposition.
He is the butt of many jokes and puns. Hardly a day goes by without mentioning his research and legacy. We use the terms he spinned very casually today like, ‘freudian slip’, ‘defense mechanism’, ‘electra-complex’, ‘repression’, ‘libido’, and ‘displacement’, among many others. This is why we need to talk about Freud.
However, there is no denying the major contribution he has made in the field. He covered a wide range of themes: childhood, personality, memory, sexuality and psycho-therapy. He is the butt of many jokes and puns. Hardly a day goes by without mentioning his research and legacy. We use the terms he spun very casually today like, ‘freudian slip’, ‘defense mechanism’, ‘electra-complex’, ‘repression’, ‘libido’, and ‘displacement’, among many others. This is why we need to talk about Freud.
He remains controversial for two reasons.
First, he broke down everything - from physical illnesses to even the slightest of dysfunctionalities in human behaviour to stem from childhood. He was the first to propose the concept of an unconscious mind, a reservoir of repressed emotions and feelings. This reservoir is outside the realm of consciousness and dictates everything we do as a driving force behind any and every action. He also explained the psychosexual development. This is one of the most debatable and shocking findings he ever wrote about. According to Freud, children had sexual desires fixated at specific erogenous zones. These desires are fulfilled by the opposite sex parent. This must be resolved, or it leads to problems in future relationships and coping. Hence came the evolutionised term “daddy and mommy issues”. Freud also had a technique to interpret dreams scientifically. All of his theories were icky to say the least and highly scandalising.
Second, his own life is not talked about enough. He not only had a difficult childhood but went on to make his own daughter a participant in all of his studies. He endorsed the use of cocaine and was a rigid homophobic. A lot of his biographical life remains under wraps. Question is, how far did all these factors not confound the reliability of his scientific theories? He had a lot of biases and social variables which are bound to have interfered with his studies.
Nevertheless, an entire school of thought emerged from the concepts introduced by him. Psychotherapy developed greatly as a discourse thanks to inputs from great scientific thinking. Pause. Was it really scientific though? Freud's theory is good at explaining a lot of human behaviour but not as good at predicting behavior (which is one of the goals of science). For this reason, Freud's theory is unfalsifiable - it can neither be proved true or refuted.
If we consider Freud’s own theory about unresolved trauma being stored in the unconscious reflecting later in life, he himself comes under that radar. He had a particularly difficult childhood, whether or not it was traumatic in effect is debatable.
If we consider Freud’s own theory about unresolved trauma being stored in the unconscious reflecting later in life, he himself comes under that radar. He had a particularly difficult childhood, whether or not it was traumatic in effect is debatable. He was the child of his father’s third wife. Freud’s father, Jacob, had lost his previous wives to tragic deaths. In fact, even after Freud was born the family saw another premature death when one of their other children died. Freud was actually the eldest of eight siblings. A lot of psychologists believe that this string of deaths may have affected his childhood. Also the fact that he grew up with a depressed, inattentive mother could have factored in the insufficiency of maternal love while growing up. This can be associated with a fear stemming from maternal absence and loss. It is bound to have provoked anxiety for Freud to confront in his own self-analysis. This can explain why Freud would come up with the whole explanation around the Oedipal complex (a theory which suggests that a male child harbours sexual desires for the female parent and without resolving this issue, they grow up to develop intimacy issues among other dysfunctionalities). It is a rather unknown fact that his own mother is allegedly reported to have molested all her children. There was serious generational trauma visible in various ways. It seems like this theory was comforting for Freud than to have accepted the fact that he was traumatised with respect to his childhood.
Freud had highly problematic (from a feminist standpoint) opinions about women. It was rather offensive even in that time period where feminism was just starting as a discourse to be explored. "Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own," he wrote in a 1925 paper entitled "The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes." Freud being the man of his own era, was against women’s emancipation. He believed women’s value derived from their reproductive functions alone. “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'” Freud once mused in "Sigmund Freud: Life and Work” by Ernest Jones. Another theory which is often regarded as condescending to say the least is the narrative around penis-envy. According to Freud, girls like their father better because they despise their mothers for having kept them devoid from a ‘penis’. He viewed homosexuality as a developmental glitch. His own daughter was taken in by him, to ‘cure her hysteria’.
He was also a defender of child molestation. He went as far as commenting that sexual abuse was just a fantasized version in the ‘pretentious victims’ mind. He presented a theory saying it was not the fault of an adult preying on a child, but the child who was lusting off to seek sexual pleasure since their needs were not addressed by parents. I haven’t read a more classic case of gaslighting.
He was also an avid user of cocaine. He thought it was therapeutic and recreational. In fact, he was so fond of the drug that he actively distributed it among his friends and associates. He was a regular smoker. He had multiple surgeries for his mouth cancer.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that a lot of his scholarly work is kept under the wraps, prohibited from public access for this very reason. It is speculated that there are over 75000 documents currently known to have been kept in secret. I wonder why! His clinical methods don't match up to the ethical standards of the present times.
He is also known to have misrepresented a lot of his famous-patient cases. He showed them to have been cured when in reality, his ways had worsened their condition. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that a lot of his scholarly work is kept under the wraps, prohibited from public access for this very reason. It is speculated that there are over 75000 documents currently known to have been kept in secret. I wonder why! His clinical methods don't match up to the ethical standards of the present times. While we turn to psychoanalysis, it is important to note the foundational theories the developers of this discourse base their work on. What effects these theories might have on the treatment of those in need? This is when we need to re-think how important a certain sense of advocacy is in the mental health industry. For instance, you cannot be a smoker yourself and counsel people about wanting to be free of nicotine and its influences, since it's bound to have an influence on your own psyche.
All that is left are his mistakes. All that was right is assimilated into modern psychology and all that is rejected, remains! For instance we all have a friend who is overly organised and always stays irritated. In common lingo, we say “yeah, they are anal”. It comes from Freudian theories of psychosexual development. It is highly derogatory yet casually slipped into conversations.
Why do we continue to study him if he has been such a problematic thinker of all times? I think while we study what we put in effect, it is important to also provide access to information that puts light on the various ways he was wrong. He was problematic, but only in interesting ways. These observations help us develop modern-day theories while making an attempt to steer clear of his mistakes. Before him, the mind wasn’t thought of scientifically but philosophically. He disputed this, he said the mind was fragmented and very complex in its appraisal of stimulus. Freud did not present himself as a social theorist, but as a scientist. I think it is safe to say he repressed his own inconvenient facts. It is time we introduce further Freudian thinkers instead of Freud himself. It might be highly radical but in times where we are putting our foot forward to politicise the personal, the fact that a sexist, homophobic and a defender of child molestation is put on a pedestal is seriously alarming. We continue to consume his work without realising what we are consuming. It speaks volumes not only of his own flawed standpoint but also where we stand as a community.
Suriana. (2017). 7 disturbing facts about Sigmund Freud. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@suriana/7-disturbing-facts-about-sigmund-freud-4a8c586c780f#:~:text=Initially%20he%20proposed%20that%20most,fantasies%20and%20completely%20made%20up.
Breger. (2000). Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision—An Analytical Biography. Retrieved from: https://sci-hub.tw/https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2001.55.3.431
Cherry, K. (2020). Freud's Perspective on Women. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/how-sigmund-freud-viewed-women-2795859
Cherry, K. (2019). The Life, Work, and Theories of Sigmund Freud. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/sigmund-freud-his-life-work-and-theories-2795860#a-closer-look-at-freuds-life