Angry Outbursts and Erotic Insinuation: What Freud Was Really Like

The father of psychoanalysis insisted that his students maintain neutrality vis-a-vis their own patients, but he himself tended to be impulsive and often crossed the line with his analysands

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Freud, with his beloved dog.
Freud, with his beloved dog. Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

About a century ago, six people took time off from their jobs, left behind their familiar surroundings and moved temporarily into a hotel in Vienna. They brought large sums of money with them, not only to cover their daily expenses but also to pay for a pioneering, breakthrough process in which they were to take part. For periods of a few weeks or a few months, and in some cases of a few years (with breaks), they proceeded every day to the house at Berggasse 19 for treatment by Sigmund Freud. These treatments spanned Freud’s active years as a psychoanalyst, from the early 20th century and until the year before he died, which was 1938.

“The feeling they had was of sharing in a historic turning point, the birth of a new discipline and the emergence of an innovative research and treatment field,” Anat Tzur Mahalel, author of “Reading Freud’s Patients: Memoir, Narrative and the Analysand” (Routledge; 2020), tells Haaretz in an interview marking the publication of the book’s Hebrew version. The six were among the first who, with the help of the father of psychoanalysis, delved into the recesses of the human psyche in an attempt to understand such phenomena as dreams, faux pas (slips of the tongue and of the pen) and neurotic symptoms. Thereafter they all published memoirs in which they recounted their impressions of their encounters with Freud.

Dr. Tzur Mahalel, a clinical psychologist – who is about to undergo training at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society and is a research assistant in the field of German history and society at the University of Haifa – perused the memoirs of the six analysands, and provides an account and an examination of their experiences on their intimate journeys. Four of the six were American psychiatrists who underwent the analysis as part of their professional training; another was the Russian-born protagonist of a canonical Freud case; and the sixth, the only woman of the group, was an American poet. Their accounts offer a closer acquaintance with Freud – the psychoanalyst and the person – and with his virtues and his faults.

Between October 1934 and January 1935, Joseph Wortis, a Jewish physician from Brooklyn, underwent treatment with Freud. Their first encounter had taken place two years earlier, when Wortis was a student in Vienna and sought a meeting with Freud for a professional conversation. “I had written a note to him, telling him how much helpful stimulus I had from his books and how much I would have liked to meet him before I left [Vienna],” Wortis noted in his memoir. Freud’s reply was disappointing: “Thank you for the friendly note, and for your willingness to forgo a visit,” he wrote the American.

Freud as depicted by Wortis is irascible, disconnected, conservative, greedy and sensitive to criticism, and “seems to take no special pains to act with hospitality or reassurance, but had instead needlessly disturbed our friendly association by what seems to me to be an over-emphasis on money matters.”

Wortis recounts how Freud reprimanded him after he raised for discussion the nature of the therapist-patient relations they shared. When he asked Freud what his attitude toward him was, the psychoanalyst stuck to his position that Wortis’ interest in him and in how fond Freud was of him were not germane to the analysis. Moreover, Freud also told Wortis that he was suffering from “narcissistic conceit.”

Freud’s hostile attitude, as reflected in Wortis’ writing, reached a peak when the latter told the analyst that he, Wortis, had been subjected to too much criticism in the course of his treatment. “I had forewarned you at the outset that a neurosis can be revived in an analysis,” Freud tells him. “But the interesting thing is how you turn everything into a judgment on you, as if that were the only thing that mattered.” To which Wortis replies, “I don’t like to lower my opinion of myself, without getting something in return.” Freud’s retort: “That is not a scientific attitude.”

Toward the end of the therapy, Wortis mentioned the distress he felt to Freud directly. “Sometimes in the course of this analysis I have become so remorseful, so self-reproachful and self-concerned that I was no good for anything,” he laments, adding, “It was not so much your criticisms I minded, as the feeling that I was not liked.”

But when Wortis stressed the importance of a patient’s positive feelings for the therapist during the treatment, Freud replied: “The psychoanalytic cure consists in bringing unconscious material to consciousness; to this end, the positive transference [feelings and attitudes of fondness that contribute to the success of the therapy] is used, but only as a means to an end.”

An entire section in Wortis’ account is devoted to an interpretation suggested by Freud of a dream that he’d had: Freud saw it as the expression of his patient’s desire to skip sessions with him – in order to save money.

Anat Tzur Mahalel.Credit: Rami Shllush

“This is followed by a sarcastic description of Freud insisting on this interpretation, in response to Wortis’ alleged confusion,” Tzur Mahalel writes, “and finally by Freud, still convinced of his own interpretation, turning to Wortis and checking again with him whether he has sufficient funds.”

Freud himself acknowledged the failure of the analysis and told Wortis, “up to now I have not been able to tell you anything you didn’t know yourself.” The two were also at odds over certain theoretical aspects of psychoanalysis that Wortis was critical of. In Tzur Mahalel’s book, Freud is described as becoming irate at this and even losing his temper at his patient. “I have told you the truth to the point of rudeness. It is people like you who are responsible for all the theories that are floating around, and confusing the scientific world,” Freud railed at Wortis, for having dared to challenge the practice of psychoanalysis, and for “feel[ing] free to air your opinions in spite of your ignorance.”

On another occasion he hurled more barbs at Wortis: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for acting that way, grumbling and growling for three days because I said this or that to you… You ought to understand that I am not interested in passing judgment on you… You are not here to get things out of me, wise words and the like; all that has nothing to do with the analysis.”

A rather heartrending example of the humiliation Wortis experienced at the hands of Freud relates to the latter’s dog, which was in the room for some of their sessions. Wortis describes how he felt that Freud and the dog were hovering over him as he lay helpless on the sofa, and that he felt he was competing with the dog for Freud’s attention. “Freud’s dog, the handsome chow, was in the hall when I came in, and the maid told me it is the professor’s great favorite. ‘The Herr Professor is very much attached to it,’ she said; ‘when the dog doesn’t eat, the Herr Professor is unhappy.’ The dog and I were both admitted at the same time,” he writes.

Absent voices

Freud never underwent an analytical process in the conventional sense of lying on the couch in the presence of a therapist. His analytical process took place through writing.

Tzur Mahalel

The background to Tzur Mahalel’s decision to spotlight the six patients’ memoirs is her desire to correct what she sees as a historical blind spot. “Their voice is absent,” she says, perforce becoming “muted” because they were excluded from psychoanalytic literature in general and in some cases completely forgotten. “The open and declared aim of psychoanalysis has always been to bring forth the voice of the analysand,” she adds. In light of this, therefore, we are left to wonder why the voices of patients have often been silenced and why we know them only through the “case studies” recorded by therapists.

However, this was not necessarily deliberate: “It was not done consciously and there was no wish here to silence the analysands,” she says. “But in practice the voice of the writing analysand was not heard and did not receive the representation it deserved.”

Freud himself “never underwent an analytical process in the conventional sense of lying on the couch in the presence of a therapist. His analytical process took place through writing, and he was indeed a very prolific writer,” Tzur Mahalel observes. In this sense, the accounts written by his patients about their therapy constitutes a renewed and delayed encounter between them and their renowned therapist, one that is now taking place in the realm of literature – posthumously.

An almost opposite impression of Freud than that presented by Wortis arises from the memoir by Smiley Blanton, an American psychiatrist who was analyzed by Freud and later established a psychotherapeutic clinic under the auspices of a church in New York City (the Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center). “At all times he seemed in close touch with what I was saying. I felt he was interested, that he was taking in what I was giving him. There was none of that cold detachment which I had imagined was the attitude an analyst is supposed to take,” Blanton writes about Freud.

Blanton was also the recipient of a rare and exceptional gesture on Freud’s part. “He impulsively held out his hand, which I grasped. It was a genuine show of feeling on his part, unusual and spontaneous,” Blanton writes. For her part, Tzur Mahalel sees this as intriguing evidence of “Freud’s need for recognition and love from his patients.”

Freud.Credit: AP

Dogs also came up in connection with Blanton, who told Freud that his (Blanton’s) love for dogs was in part “compensation for not having children.” To which Freud replied that in regard to feelings for dogs, as distinct from feelings for children, “There is no ambivalence, no element of hostility.” In contrast to Wortis, Blanton took a positive approach to the presence of a dog during the session with Freud. “As I sat on the couch, his dog came in, and I petted his head” – and Freud said, “He has come to see you.”

The distinct viewpoint of Freud reflected in the memoirs of these select patients provides an intriguing glimpse at his working methods. When one of the analysands, an American psychiatrist named John Dorsey, asked Freud why he did not take a “more active role in [his] psychoanalysis,” the answer came by way of an allegory: “The Japanese gardener who was reproached, after being hired, for sitting for several days and doing no work, rejoined that he was working, the first step in building the garden being to take in the landscape.”

Tzur Mahalel makes a connection between these recollections and other comments by Freud, such as, “Before I can say anything to you I must know a great deal about you,” and she also notes the attention Freud paid to what he described as “studying whatever is present for the time being on the surface of the patient’s mind.”

Freud invoked another allegory in response to Dorsey’s “repeated question about the duration of the analysis”: “When [a] traveler came upon Aesop who was laboring on the road – breaking up stone – and asked him how long it was to the next town, say, to Megara, Aesop responded, ‘Go.’ Angrily the traveler turned away and resumed his going. ‘Three-quarters of an hour,’ called Aesop after him. The wayfarer asked, ‘Why didn’t you say so in the first place?’ Aesop explained, ‘I wanted to see just how you went, so that I could decide upon it.’”

Tzur Mahalel explains that Freud thus presented his disinclination to set a termination date for the analysis – “not as avoidance but as a generous examination of the analysand’s distinct steps and pace.”

Freud gossiped with patients, joked with them, told them about himself and displayed a personal interest in them. “He was never a blank page,” Tzur Mahalel says.

Yet another allegory was provided by Freud, as recounted in the memoirs of his most famous patient, Sergei Pankejeff, aka “The Wolf Man.” The issue at hand: whether the successful conclusion of the analysis would constitute a guarantee that the patient had recovered. “Freud compared this situation with the purchase of a travel ticket. This ticket only makes the journey possible; it does not take its place,” Pankejeff writes. In other words, after the analysis, “the patient has been placed in a position in which he can get well; before analysis this was not possible.”

The experience of Freud’s patient Hilda Doolittle, the American poet who wrote under the initials “H.D.,” might be seen as a crossing of forbidden boundaries by Freud, at least according to today’s terms of reference. She came to Freud for treatment after the death of her father and the breakup of her marriage. During the analysis she received “enigmatic messages” from Freud, as Tzur Mahalel notes. They heightened her “helplessness and confusion in his presence,” she writes in her book, and also bore an “erotic potential.” An obvious example occurred when Freud pounded the back of the armchair with his fists in the midst of the analysis and declared, “The trouble is – I am an old man – you do not think it worth your while to love me” (emphasis in the original by Doolittle).

The analysand describes being overwhelmed: “The impact of his words was too dreadful – I simply felt nothing at all. I said nothing. What did he expect me to say? Exactly it was as if the Supreme Being had hammered with his fist on the back of the couch where I had been lying. Why, anyway, did he do that?” Doolittle also writes that Freud ignored her distress. On one occasion she relates, “I am really somewhat shattered. But there is no answering flareback.”

“From a contemporary viewpoint, Freud as an analyst comes across, through the patients’ gaze, as a multifaceted personality, with numerous dimensions, shades and contradictions. He sometimes seems warm and human, at other times distant and overly indifferent, and then again as direct to the point of impulsivity,” Tzur Mahalel sums up in the interview. “Through the historical viewpoint provided by the analysand-writers what stands out is Freud’s pioneering and the new horizons he offers for observing the psyche. That said, his therapeutic technique seems to us today to lack a subtlety and complexity that were added to it over the years.”

From reading the patient’s memoirs, Tzur Mahalel learned that Freud as a therapist did not abide by the rules which he himself laid down. Though he urged psychotherapist-colleagues “to preserve a stance characterized by abstinence and neutrality,” and “to remain obtuse to the patients and, like a mirror, not to show anything but what is shown to them” – a different picture arises from reading his patients’ memoirs. He gossiped with them, joked with them, told them about himself and displayed a personal interest in them. “He was a completely different therapist. He gave the patients gifts, shared with them his inner and exterior world, sometimes was warm and at other times reserved, but he was never a blank page,” Tzur Mahalel says.

The author says she admires Freud, recognizes that “he changed the face of culture,” and sees him as “the ultimate father figure of psychoanalysis.” But writing her book, which presents different aspects of his personality, also helped her “extricate myself from that place,” as she puts it, and to see him as a human figure with virtues and shortcomings.

That process has ultimately deepened her appreciation for him, as occurs with children who initially admire their parents and see them as omnipotent, and subsequently understand that they too are flesh and blood.

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