FINAL ANALYSIS The Making and Unmaking Of a Psychoanalyst By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Addison-Wesley. 212 pp. $18.95
IN AUGUST, 1981, Jeffrey Masson, a former professor of Sanskrit and recent graduate of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute, achieved a notoriety usually reserved for delinquent movie stars. The unlikely occasion was a lecture he delivered to the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society in New Haven, and the vehicle, two articles on successive Tuesdays in The New York Times's science section.
Masson, who was the Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives in London, had presented a paper challenging the generally accepted idea that Freud had abandoned the "seduction hypothesis" in September, 1897. Freud, according to this view, had believed that his patients' neurotic symptoms could be traced to sexual abuse suffered in childhood, usually at the hands of adult males. Then in September, 1897, in a letter to his colleague and confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, he indicated that he had changed his mind. Now it seemed to him that the traumatic events his patients had recounted were "fantasies" arising out of their own unconscious wishes. Once Freud had shifted his emphasis from the external to the unconscious sources of neurotic disorders, the stage was set for him to arrive at the formulations which would be the building blocks of his major theories: the Oedipus complex and infantile sexuality, the revelatory importance of dreams, and the role of transference in treatment. Years later, Freud would describe his earlier belief in the reality of these traumas as "a mistaken idea . . . which might have been almost fatal to psychoanalysis."
Citing unpublished letters and annotations to which his position gave him access, Masson maintained, with some degree of plausibility, that Freud had actually continued to believe in the seduction hypothesis after his disclaimer. Masson went on to speculate that Freud had publicly repudiated his hypothesis not because the evidence had led him in that direction, but because he feared that his colleagues would ostracize him for presenting findings which attributed such ugly behavior to so many males of the upper classes.
Masson's paper and his subsequent comments -- he noted, among other things, that Freud's shift "from the real world of sadness, misery, and cruelty to the internal stage" of fantasy had led to "the present day sterility of psychoanalysis" -- were taken as a personal attack on Freud, and themselves, by his New Haven audience. When his views were presented in the pages of The New York Times, his publicity-shy colleagues were horrified. Kurt Eissler, Secretary of the Freud Archives and Masson's benefactor, and Anna Freud, who had granted Masson access to her father's papers, felt betrayed. He was discharged from his position, and his subsequent suit was settled out of court for $150,000, but the controversy continued. The next year, Janet Malcolm published in The New Yorker widely read articles about the dispute, and in 1984 Masson's own book on the "abandonment of the seduction hypothesis," The Assault on Truth, appeared.
At first, having made his theoretical point and uninterested in being a practicing analyst, Masson seemed inclined to let matters drop. Soon, however, he was back on the case, publishing A Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century and Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing. Now, with this autobiographical memoir, he takes on the entire analytic enterprise -- training as well as theory, the personalities of the practitioners as well as their practices. The result is wildly mixed, by turns irritating and devastating, incisive and obtuse, amusing and poignant.
The first half of the book presents Masson's experience as an analytic candidate at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute in the 1970s. He devotes some space to his own patients -- he is not convinced that he did any of them much good -- and to the seminars he was required to take. In his view these were at best well-intentioned but unhelpful, and at worst fatuous, reductionistic and dishonest. Masson complains, as others have before, about the mystification of the analyst's person, the hermeticism and foolishness of much analytic thinking, and the deadliness of the jargon. He notes analysts' slavish devotion to what they believe Freud said, and their "medicalization" of a profession that its founder tried to keep open to nonphysicians.
The focus of Masson's narrative interest, however, is his five-year-long, daily training analysis with one of the Institute's senior analysts, Dr. Irvine Schiffer.
Masson's Schiffer (neither he nor Masson's other subjects are permitted rejoinders) is arrogant and bombastic, simple-minded, sadistic, unethical and, at times, downright demented. His interpretations sound like Richard Pryor doing Mel Brooks taking off a psychoanalyst. When Masson suggests he may terminate the analysis, Schiffer threatens to ruin his patient's career by publicly labelling him paranoid.
Masson's analysis with Schiffer raises some interesting questions, about the process as well as the participants. As Masson correctly points out, there is something unsettling about a training analysis in which the analysand is asked to reveal his most disturbing and shameful secrets to someone who will exercise a significant influence over his professional future. Can you really allow yourself to be so distressed, as crazy as you sometimes are, with someone who you fear may decide you're too disturbed to be treating others? And if you have to trim and dissemble even on the analytic couch, what good is the treatment? SCHIFFER and Masson are interesting characters and their interaction is weird and darkly funny, but in many respects neither is a useful exemplar. Schiffer is simply not a typical analyst: He gives too much advice and too many interpretations, and insists on burdening his patient with overwhelming amounts of information about his own life. He lacks many of the analyst's more customary vices -- passivity, remoteness, rigidity and lack of sympathy -- as well as the virtues that may be found in the profession -- self-criticism, modesty and an intelligent concern for one's patients. Masson is equally atypical. Unlike other candidates, who are with few exceptions psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health professionals, he lacks the clinical experience that might have informed his choice of a vocation or sustained him during the indignities of his training: He had no experience before he became a candidate and only worked with a handful of patients during his entire "career" as an analyst. He stays with Schiffer not because the man is helping him, but because "my own sense of worth was somehow tied in with him."
This same unexamined narcissism pervades the second half of the book, in which Masson describes his falling out with the psychoanalytic "inner circle" which had, at Kurt Eissler's insistence, embraced him. Nasty portraits of (named) analysts who turned their backs on him emerge from a background of elegiac longing -- for the conversations with Kurt Eissler, for Anna Freud's approval, for comradeship with the very analysts he now vilifies. This section adds little of substance to Janet Malcolm's account, but it is nevertheless, and perhaps unintentionally, revealing. Masson courts people whose behavior he questions, and seems to promise fidelity to a faith he cannot share. There is disingenuousness here, and wishful self-deception, and pathos. In the end, both Masson and his elders are bitterly disappointed.
The final problem with The Final Analysis is that there is none. Masson seems to remain unaware of the neediness and greediness which marred his interest in psychoanalysis, and the self-deception which made his "unmaking" inevitable. This lack of self-awareness permits him to squander his considerable intelligence and scholarship on the kind of reductionistic critique for which he takes his analytic mentors to task. In settling for such an easy, self-justifying assault, he does a disservice to the profession he once idealized, to his readers -- and to himself. James S. Gordon practices psychiatry in Washington and is a clinical professor at The Georgetown University School of Medicine. His most recent book is "Stress Management."