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.

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,

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>