Freudian FlameWars

The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute

Topics: Books,

On the surface, nothing looks less like the new media than The New York Review of Books: the endless articles set in long, gray columns of unrelieved type, the sparse graphics, the linear monomedia of the old-fashioned essay. But beginning two years ago, a raging controversy erupted in the pages of that venerable magazine, a debate that has resulted in Frederick Crews’ “The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute,” a book that looks and feels more like an online discussion than any volume of popular technohype.

Frederick Crews, literary critic and former chair of the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley, describes himself as “a one-time Freudian who had decided to help others resist the fallacies to which I had succumbed in the 1960s.” Crews became a full-fledged bete noir of the psychoanalytic establishment when the Review published “The Unknown Freud,” an essay reviewing several books about Freud and his brainchild, two years ago.

The magazine was flooded with letters of protest, to which Crews wrote detailed and defiant replies, occupying an unprecedented amount of space in the letters section for several issues. A year later, the Review came out with “The Revenge of the Repressed,” Crews’ scathing take on what he calls “recovered memory therapy,” or RMT, a therapeutic movement that claims to help patients restore repressed memories of (often horrific) childhood abuse. More angry letters and heated counterattacks followed. The two essays, the letters and the responses have been assembled in this book, sandwiched between an introduction and an afterward by Crews.

Crews himself observes that “The Memory Wars” is hardly the last word on the controversy over his articles, which he characterizes as “a multifaceted quarrel that continues to expand and evolve” — as apt a description of an online debate as any I’ve seen. The Internet has its notorious “holy wars” — certain arguments (about gun control, pornography and the relative merits of Mac and DOS operating systems, for example) guaranteed to generate a tremendous number of heated responses — and Crews’ writings on Freud and RMT certainly seems to be the Review’s equivalent.

Briefly, Crews argues that psychoanalysis is a spurious, ineffective pseudoscience, based on the fudged data of an unscrupulous and calculating founder and perpetuated by followers who mimic his craftiness in a “shell game whereby critics of Freudianism are always told that new breakthroughs render their strictures obsolete.” The recovered memory movement is the most recent, and most dangerous, mutation of Freud’s ideas, and just as much a piece of “legerdemain” as its forerunners.

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No wonder Freud’s (surprisingly, still numerous) advocates find Crews so aggravating. He is a formidable stylist — lucid, elegant and wielding an acid and damning wit. Freudians, not known for such strengths, tend to fulminate impotently in response to his assaults. He has also done what, in online parlance, is referred to as “the heavy lifting” — extensive and meticulous research — and when he describes Freud as behaving like “a petty generalissimo” or psychoanalysis as “a conceptual mystery house,” he can back it up with empirical ammo.

Yet there’s a whiff of crankishness around this enterprise, an obsessive note that Crews’ critics are quick to pick up on. They accuse him of intemperance, of anger, of blinding bitterness and symbolic “parricide.” (One critic even suggested that the NYRB articles were the result of a Review editor’s failed analysis.) There’s an Oedipal violence in this, they imply with lifted eyebrows, which must have truly maddened Crews. Crews, in turn, insists that in writing his denunciation he felt “cheerful and confident, as well as public-spirited,” like Ralph Nader going after General Motors.

Perhaps, but the debates about Freud and RMT have their own mystery house quality. Once inside, you can argue forever, in increasingly minute detail, about the scientific validity of the concept of repression (Crews’ primary target), the idea that the human mind can completely block a traumatic memory from consciousness, then later recover it accurately in therapy. Information is gathered and flung in the face of opponents, participants make lists of points and counterpoints, the rhetoric flares up and descends into ad hominem attacks.

In short, this way lies a flame war. And what’s interesting about a flame war isn’t the kindling it feeds on but the heat itself. Why are both Crews and his critics so worked up? Each side believes itself a valiant crusader for truth. Cynics point out that a whole, very lucrative profession is in question — and that Crews is getting an awful lot of attention.

But neither the hunger for justice nor crass self-interest explains how eagerly our culture has snapped up Freudian theories, or how vehemently some of us have contested them. Freud and the recovered memory movement promise us that every waking moment of our lives is locked away in a vault of unconscious memory, that in this vault lies the one memory that explains why we are so miserable and frustrated today, and that the doctor holds the key. Crews and other critics insist that memory starts bright and decays rapidly — the past holds no big surprises, the doctor no awesome powers.

Freud’s version makes a better story — the terrible secret, slowly unveiled in details that shiver with creepy meaning. No wonder this stuff is a staple of “Geraldo,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and Sam Shepard plays. What’s more, in Freud’s view, memory — what identity is made of in a world where other placemarkers have vanished — never dies, despite the vague fuzzy-mindedness, the nagging sense of loss that often colors our vision of our own past.

Freud’s account of the human mind is more juicily dramatic, but is it true? Crews argues that no hard scientific data supports most of the major premises of psychoanalysis, and some of them — penis envy and the primal scene spring immediately to mind — have always seemed like ludicrous projections of Freud’s own personality onto humanity in general. On the other hand, how coolly quantifiable can we expect any study of the mind and emotions to be? Crews damns all the corroborating evidence for psychoanalysis as hopelessly contaminated by the influence of the analysts who gathered it, but of course the analysts influenced their patients. They were, after all, charged with curing them.

If Freud, as Crews insists, has conned us, then he did it in the grand tradition of scamsters — by telling us something we wanted to hear. On the other hand, we also believed him because what he says often feels like the truth. Why that should be is a question “The Memory Wars” never gets around to answering.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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