Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews

Profile Books (September 2017) ISBN:978 1 78125 712 8, A$54.99 (paperback), 746 pages.

Review ©Ann Skea 2018

I was drawn to this book by curiosity – the wish to know more about Freud and his work – and by surprise that a professor of English and a well–know literary critic should choose to write a hefty tome about a psychologist.

My own small knowledge of Freud and his work does not extend much beyond the widespread general discussion of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, the inadvertent revelation of subconscious thoughts exhibited in a so-called ‘Freudian slip’, and the common belief that Freudian analysis works on the assumption that every psychological problem has its origins in some form of sexual repression.

I have no preconceived view on the value of Freud’s work.

Crews begins his book by referring to ‘Freudolatory’ and ‘Freud bashing’, practices which he deems to be widespread amongst earlier assessments of the man he describes as ranking with “Shakespeare and Jesus of Nazareth for the amount of attention bestowed on him by scholars and commentators”. Crews’ own stated objective is to “examine the actual record of Freud’s doings and weigh that record by an appeal to consensual standards of judgement”. What exactly ‘consensual standards of judgement’ may be is not discussed, but although Crews does examine Freud’s work in detail, and presents many different professional assessments of it, good and bad, this book is very far from being as objective as he claims.

As well as offering his own personal opinions about Freud’s clinical methods, about the claims Freud made based on this work, and about the assessments of these claims by others, Crews also speculates on things which ‘may have’ happened , flavours his text with words like ‘quaint’ and ‘malicious’, accuses Freud of ‘wrenching’ symptoms into a desired diagnosis (p.311), invites the reader to imagine certain fictional scenarios (p.391), suggests that Freud might be labelled a sociopath (p.127), and, on page two of his preface, describes psychoanalysis as a “pseudoscience”.

The cover of the Australian edition of this book, on which the ‘E’ or ‘FREUD’ has been overwritten with a scrawled “A”, should have alerted me to this bias.

Clearly, from all the available evidence, Freud did exaggerate his connection with well–established and successful figures; he did make claims on the basis of insufficient or questionable evidence; he did manipulate his data and borrow from the work of others; and he was a misogynist. Yet put in the context of the society in which he worked, the fledgling nature of psychology in the treatment of mental problems, the prevailing opinions and mores of the time and place in which he lived, and what Crew himself describes as “the rivalrous psychoanalytical community”, Freud seems to have been no more devious than other ambitions members of that community. Crews’ discussion of Breuer’s collaboration with Freud is one example of that.

So, why did Freud become more famous than these other ambitious and rivalrous men? Because, Crews suggests, he modelled himself on his favourite author, Conan Doyle, fancied himself as “the Sherlock Holmes of the unconscious” and wrote his papers and case–histories as “cunningly plotted works” or “novellas” (p.383).

In fact, Crews does much the same in his own book, re–creating some of Freud’s more famous and interesting cases, describing scenes imaginatively and speculatively, reproducing “crisp dialogue” as used by Freud, supposing gossip and knowledge in a community on the basis of no evidence, and heading chapters and section of the book with jokey, ironic or damning titles: e.g.“Sigmund the Unready”, “Traumas on Demand”, and, for a chapter on Freud’s wealthy patients, “Tending the Goldfish”.

A great deal of research has clearly gone into Crews’ book and I did learn a lot from it about Freud’s life and work. But the more I read the book the more the tone annoyed me and looking back at Crews’ preface I see that I missed the early warning signs that Crews had a score to settle. There, he describes his own “na├»ve” participation in the “mass infatuation” of intellectuals who regarded Freud as “the most influential of twentieth–century sages” and who were (in Crews’ damning assessment of Freud) “spellbound by his self–portrayal as a lone explorer possessing courageous perseverance, deductive brilliance, tragic insight, and healing power”.

Now, it seems, Crews is disillusioned and angry, not just with Freud but with psychoanalysis, too. On the final page of his book he writes that “what Freud established in 1896… was little more than a brand name for a beta product”; that “Psychoanalysis, whatever it was, had to be depicted as marching ever forward” and that it was Freud’s “commercial mentality” which set him apart from “the ethical scientists and physicians of his era”.

No doubt, given the apparent prevalence of Freudolaters and Freud–bashers, Crews is unlikely to have had the last word on Freud.

© Ann Skea 2017. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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