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Freud, Master of the Suppressed, Did a Little of His Own Suppression

October 8, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud's famous case histories are perhaps best known for the Oedipal issues involved and the suppressed sexuality the pioneering psychoanalyst said he found in all of his patients, some of which was revealed through interpreting their dreams. But psychiatrist Dr. Harold Blum, who is director of the Sigmund Freud Archives and the former editor in chief of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, recently offered evidence of another theme found "in every single one" of the therapy cases: anti-Semitism.

Blum noted that in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, where Freud spent most of his life, Jews were the subject of jokes, slurs and stereotypes, and were depicted in unflattering ways, such as with horns and crooked noses. Freud, he argued, recognized that his patients were shamed and conflicted about their Jewishness, and desired to fit into society. In addition, Blum suggested, the pervasiveness of anti-Semitic sentiments in Vienna caused Freud to keep relevant Jewish information out of his published work.

Blum pointed out that it is only when examining the cases' footnotes, as well as Freud's life and personal correspondence, that a deeper understanding arises as to why anti-Semitism was "consciously avoided" in his work -- even though it played a "significant" role in not only the lives of his patients, but also in Freud's efforts to be recognized by the Viennese and European medical communities.

Blum presented his findings during a program titled "Anti-Semitism in the Freud Case Histories," which was co-sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania and the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, and held on Sept. 24. About 100 people gathered in Steinhardt Hall on the college campus for the event that was hosted by Penn Hillel and the Jewish studies program.

The talk was part of the ongoing interdisciplinary series, "Freud, Franklin and Beyond: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Mental Health and Society," a new collaboration between Penn and the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, the goal of which is to discuss new ideas regarding the approaches to mental health, and how the psychological establishment and society deal with them.

Blum reviewed several of the more well-known of Freud's cases: Anna O., Dora, Little Hans, the Rat Man and the Wolf Man. (Freud used pseudonyms in his published case histories, although the true identities of some of his patients were eventually disclosed.) Blum then provided additional background information on each of these patients to fill in the gaps Freud withheld from publication; these included anti-Jewish experiences the patients had witnessed or suffered.

The point of Blum's presentation was to stress that Freud intentionally left out anti-Semitic-related information, and instead focused solely on what he called unconscious sexual material so that his findings might be validated by a broader range of people than just Viennese Jews. Because of the anti-Semitic climate in Europe at the time, said Blum, Freud felt his findings would have been overlooked if it were seen to be Jewish-focused. The scholar added that, whenever discussing the case histories, it is important to note the repressed Jewish-based memories of Freud's patients, which Blum called "blind spots."

To provide further insight into the presence of anti-Semitism in the cases, Benjamin Nathans, the Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed Blum's presentation and gave the audience a further historical overview of Vienna, as well as the continent as a whole, in Freud's time.

Anti-Semitism was so pervasive in Vienna then that "people got used to it, just like the air you breathe," commented Nathans, who is an expert on European anti-Semitism.

He explained that society's hatred toward the Jew became so commonplace that Freud and his Jewish patients began to internalize these sentiments. Even the nicknames the psychoanalyst assigned his patients have their roots imbedded in prejudice; for example, he pointed out that a rat was a common ethnic stereotype, implying that Jews were subhuman vermin.

The historian also tied Freud's "silencing" of Jewish overtones with the case of Anne Frank's diary. The well-read book the public has come to know and love is actually an abridged version, he pointed out, as certain details were intentionally extracted from the published version "to make it more relevant to the public at large." Nathans noted that this editing was largely done by Anne's own father, Otto Frank, whereas "Freud self-censored," such as by omitting Yiddish words and references from the published cases.

Freud's letters show us, added Nathans, that he did think about anti-Semitism and its influences. Echoing Blum's earlier comments, the historian noted that Freud was eager to supply his groundbreaking casework as serious science to the larger medical community; mindful of the fact that the Vienna psychoanalytic community was almost entirely comprised of Jews, he wanted to keep the emerging world of "psychoanalysis from becoming a Jewish national affair." 

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