by Peter D. Kramer; New York, Eminent Lives, 2006, 224 pages, $21.95
Dr. Geller is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester.
If you would like to get to know Sigmund Freud but not invest an inordinate amount of time or energy in doing so, there is no better way to get to know him than by reading Peter Kramer's Freud. However, you should be prepared not to like Freud very much.
Kramer provides a readable, engaging biography of Sigmund Freud published by Eminent Lives. The book is just over 200 pages, and its small size means that one can almost fit Freud's entire life into one's pants pocket.
Kramer does a fine job of interweaving chronology and thematic elements so that the reader gets to know Freud much like one would get to know a new acquaintance. In the course of telling Freud's story, Kramer repeatedly returns to earlier events, interactions, thoughts, and conflicts to see how they inform his current development.
Kramer provides an understanding of some of Freud's basic approaches, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. For example, Kramer notes that Freud "sought unitary explanations for a broad range of conditions, an effort that, as it took hold in psychiatry, would result in a breakdown of disease categories." Or "Freud's method is … turning the particular into the general and the moderate into the extreme." Kramer repeatedly points out how Freud was guilty of "overreaching."
Kramer's biography of Freud also enlightens the reader about the people who surrounded Freud. About this group Kramer notes, "Freud's subalterns tended to be bright and erratic. Most had recurrent mood disorders, depression, or manic depression. Not only Jung, but a number of Freud's inner circle became involved with their patients." In fact, a subtitle of this biography might be "with boundary violations by everyone, everywhere."
Kramer is quite clear that Freud was manipulative, self-centered, and focused on the advancement of his theories with facile genuflections at the altar of truthfulness. Kramer notes, "Freud altered the sequence of events to enhance drama and make it appear his theories arose from the material rather than the reverse; for he was not beyond creating a symptom when he needed one." Freud was guilty of the suppression of evidence and of a "preference for theory over fact." What Kramer almost gleefully points out is that Freud could be mistaken about facts and theories but nonetheless wield enormous influence. Perhaps paradoxically, brilliance eclipsed reality.
Although many at psychoanalytic institutes continue to debate the minute nuances of Freud's writings, Kramer notes that Freud's social observation just might be the aspect of his work that has aged best. To underscore this thought, Kramer points out that Freud's conclusions have formed the basis for popular self-help endeavors for decades and show no sign of waning.
Throughout Freud, Kramer makes it clear that he admires the man, and his tone reveals genuine warmth for Freud. This comes through despite Kramer's repeatedly pointing out Freud's cornucopia of shortcomings. He describes Freud as "undeniably more devious and more self-aggrandizing than we had imagined." He indicates Freud "bullied his patients and misrepresented his results." He informs us that Freud "always indulged himself."
Kramer concludes that he feels saddened and depleted at the loss of a hero but perhaps affirmed by the notion that Freud, like any of us, is simply who he is. Perhaps we need not misconstrue as the embodiments of perfection those who lead us intellectually, or politically. I felt somewhat invigorated. I was moved by Kramer's biography to travel a few miles from my office in Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Clark University campus, where there is a life-size statue of Freud. I sat down next to Freud, peered over toward him, smiled, and simply said, "Thanks."