Faith in Freud

December 01, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--In the current movie ''Addams Family Values,'' the great Joan Cusack plays a killer nanny, a Bluebeard in reverse, marrying and murdering rich men. As so often, she saves the movie.

What made this nanny so evil? Child abuse. Her parents gave her Malibu Barbie instead of Ballerina Barbie. This is a comic take on what has, in the news, been taking a tragic turn -- claims of child abuse remembered years later under the promptings of therapists.

The practice is enough to help tarnish the whole psychoanalytic enterprise. Freud himself is under fierce attack in books and articles (one, especially, in the last New York Review of Books). Time featured the controversy last week.

Diana Trilling, the wife of the great critic Lionel Trilling, just published her memoirs with a tale of horrendous psychoanalysts from whose serial ministrations she suffered. Yet she kept going back, her faith undimmed by each dud who cared for her. It makes faith in Lourdes cures look sophisticated.

Now we are told that the recent allegations of ''suppressed'' abuse are the result of late practitioners, who have drifted from the true message of Freud. The men who mistreated Diana Trilling are let off because they were early practitioners. Early or late, there is always some excuse.

But the naive question cannot be escaped any longer: What if Freud was just plain wrong? Not wrong on everything, of course. The unconscious, repression, the divided psyche -- all these undoubtedly exist. That was known long before Freud. He claimed, however, to be creating a science, with experimentally proved things that can be further experimented upon. He set up a mechanical-hydraulic metaphor as if it were a laboratory apparatus. The id, the ego, the superego -- these inventions he treated as if they were the retorts and flames of a chemist.

The odd thing is that Freud was said to introduce complexity into the picture of the human interior -- as if St. Augustine had never written. In fact, Freud's coup was to introduce simplicity, basic variations on the basic equipment: Oedipus complex, penis envy, death wish, etc. Shuffle a few cards in the deck, and you get a quick answer to everything. This flattening effect is seen in the psychobiographies that Freud helped inspire -- starting with his own laughable psychobiographies.

Freudian therapy worked precisely because of its simplicity. It gave people a schematic view of their problems that helped them cope. The same thing can be seen in the techniques of faith healers or mind-cure experts. As Mark Twain said of Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, the cures effected were real. The patient was given a psychic ploy to help deal with problems.

But belief in a system is needed for it to work. Given that, Lourdes will have a certain cure rate, just as Mary Baker Eddy did. But the cures begin to drop as faith dries up. That is what is happening with Freud.

Some people lament that fact. What will replace the therapy so many people felt dependent on? Diana Trilling no doubt kept up her hopes for coping with life by pursuing the myth of a perfect therapy somewhere around the corner. In that sense, the system worked for her. It kept her going, kept her getting out of bed in the morning.

The same can be said for most faith systems. And there are dangerous side effects of such beliefs -- as we are finding out in the manipulative abuse cases.

Needless to say, I do not deny the reality of child abuse, or its great extent. But suggesting long-forgotten abuse as a way to zTC help a potential adult with current problems -- as it may, in fact, do -- commits an injustice to those accused of the abuse, on legally untestable evidence.

Some say that the decline of Freudian thinking will throw us back into a Victorian naivete about sex. Fat chance. Freud was never the introducer of an awareness of the sexual underworld and the human mind. Ignorance of the past is one of those bad side effects of the Freudian legacy.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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