The Doctor Is In Libarary of Congress' long-awaited Sigmund Freud exhibit, analyzed and adjusted to appease the critics, finally opens and releases deep emotions in D.C.

October 15, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the dark hall at the Library of Congress, the curator's staff members gingerly take hold of the death mask of "Wolf Man," a plaster casting of one of Sigmund Freud's most famous patients.

Studying how a small spotlight hits the narrow eyes and stubby mustache of the deranged man's final pose, the assistants position it forward and back, struggling to keep the mask from getting lost in the darkness of the case.

But as the largest-ever exhibit on Freud's life's work is unveiled today at the library's Great Hall, it is really his ideas, not his artifacts, that are doing battle with the shadows. Dismissed by Prozac advocates, accused of malpractice by academic researchers, abandoned by former psychoanalytic followers and deemed dangerous by feminists, the famed Doktor's legacy has sat awkwardly in the light of public opinion for years now.

Yet here on display is the kilim rug on which patients free-associated their way into history, as Freud spun theories about castration anxiety and the like. Here is the audiotape of Freud in a BBC interview, defending himself against people who "thought my theories unsavory." Here is the snapshot of Freud and his mother standing by the grave of his dead father, an apt image if ever there was one for the man who gave us the Oedipus complex.

One thing seems clear: Freud, and the memory of him, will not be repressed.

The exhibit sidesteps the question of whether Freud had the right idea, and instead shows that the grandfather of psychoanalysis became a figure of intrigue in 20th century culture. Freud is "the Frude Dude" in the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and the subject of an Ira Gershwin song. Ideas popularized by Freud that once spawned "Psychoanalysis," a 1950s comic book with a therapist action hero who battles neuroses, still generate analyst-worship movies today like "Good Will Hunting" (boy meets girl, boy gets therapy, boy gets girl).

But, as one expert noted, now is also the time of "As Good As It Gets" (boy meets girl, boy gets medication, boy gets girl). Pharmaceutical use to treat depression is skyrocketing -- U.S. anti-depressant sales reached more than $6 billion this year. It would seem Freud, who mined personal histories for his psycho-sexual theories, might finally be buried as a result.

Instead, a curious backlash has occurred. To some, to be pro-Freud is to believe the human psyche is a complex mystery instead of an easily calibrated chemical formula. Freud has come to symbolize the argument that inner conflict requires more than simply the right pill for a cure. After all, defenders say, talking, not medicating, was at the root of Freud's therapy.

"Personal history is central to Freud, and it's a much richer explanatory scheme than that people are simply transparent reflections of their environments or biology," says Thomas Parisi, who is writing a defense of Freud and heads the psychology department at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.

Anti-Freudians counter that even in death, Freud is still winning the PR battle. "When we think of psychotherapy we think of Freud. But it's ironic because psychotherapy aims at being supportive of the patient and helping the patient cope -- it's fundamentally opposed to Freud's concept, which was to break down the patient's idea of what was the matter with her or him to get to the infantile material," says Frederick C. Crews, author of "Unauthorized Freud," a new book critical of the doctor's legacy.

Freud felt that all human beings are born with sexual and aggressive desires that are overwhelming and ultimately repressed. Instead of empathizing, the therapist was supposed to act as a blank slate on which patients projected their feelings, and only the therapist was deemed qualified to interpret those thoughts. Today, this uneven relationship prompts even some Freud defenders to admit they would never seek out traditional Freudian analysis for themselves (only about 5 percent of therapists practice it now).

Current therapy is far more empathetic. In cognitive behavioral therapy, patients focus on how to fix immediate problems by working with their analysts to adapt the way they approach their lives. In interpersonal therapy, patients seek out the roots of a personal problem by analyzing early childhood conflict and the relationship patterns that followed.

As for Freud, his particular techniques -- from dream interpretation to hypnosis -- come in and out of vogue. But his reputation has been on a clear downward spiral for the last 15 years. Aside from feminists who deem Freud's phallocentric view of the universe absurd, researchers have blasted Freud for everything from encouraging a wealthy patient to give money to a psychoanalysis fund to urging two married patients to leave their spouses for each other.

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