Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”

Mention Freud and you’ll get some strong reactions. He’s known as a spelunker of the human soul, responsible for uncovering such veins of frisson as denial and projection, but also for questionable or damaging contributions such as penis envy and the Oedipus complex.

An informal poll of my peers I recently conducted on Facebook revealed his mixed reputation. One respondent said: “Brilliant and interesting philosopher of mind.” Another: “Gut response, mostly wrong about everything.” There was this accolade: “I don’t think you can look at the field of psychology without seeing him as a giant.” And this attack: “A horrible misogynist.” . . . Oh, and this: “Plus he was a real drug user, which is fun.”

“Freud,” by Frederick Crews (Metropolitan Books)

In a new biography, “Freud: The Making of an Illusion,” Frederick Crews depicts his subject as cruel, incurious, deceptive, and both fragile and vainglorious. Crews focuses on Freud’s early career, from 1884 to 1900, and the picture that emerges is of a trumped-up blowhard.

Freud’s life has been digested and redigested for decades, but Crews, an English professor and former psychoanalysis advocate, takes on this period because he says it’s been overlooked except by proselytizing partisans who distort the record. Plus, the complete set of Freud’s letters from this period to his fiance, Martha Bernays, has recently been released.

The driving force of the narrative is Freud’s yearning to become famous — for anything. In school, he was keenest on philosophy and entered medicine not out of interest or aptitude but for a living. His first stab at notoriety came with a useless cell-staining method he overhyped in scientific papers Crews describes as “crass propaganda.”

Next he turned to cocaine, which he expounded as a cure-all (and habitually injected). Freud tried to treat his friend’s morphine addiction with cocaine, rendering him doubly addicted, then fraudulently championed the fiasco as a string of successes with multiple patients. He even sold fake data to a cocaine manufacturer and pseudonymously published an academic article praising his own work.

Freud’s engagement with psychotherapy began in 1885 on an extended visit to a Parisian hospital. There he witnessed the treatment of “hysteria,” a grab bag of physical and psychological symptoms thought to be psychogenic — and distinctly feminine — and he took note of hypnosis as a method of inquiry. Essentially, the staff would knowingly or unknowingly induce women to act out, and punish them if they didn’t, using sedatives or clitoral cauterization. Apparently, Freud liked what he saw. He returned to Vienna and opened up shop.

Far from a passive listener, he insisted that patients had been sexually abused as children, and if they failed to recall anything, he would describe the episodes in detail. Many patients went away fuming — or laughing.

Freud’s claims skirted falsifiability, the quality of being testable, a bedrock of the scientific method. Resistance to his lurid suggestions, he argued, meant only that he was onto something; heads I win, tails you really do want to fellate your father. He also conspired to excommunicate any analyst from the movement who dared to subject his ideas to critical scrutiny. As Freud wrote to a close colleague, he was only “fantasizing, interpreting, and guessing” toward “bold but beautiful revelations.” He claimed: “I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador.”

As a result, he made claims about humanity based not on the evidence his patients presented but on hunches about his own hang-ups. He was apparently ashamed of his bisexuality, his masturbation and his molestation of his sister.

His ideas about sex and gender curdled his marriage to Martha. In letters, he called her unskilled, unpretty and deficient in personality. She asked for “a little respect.” He wrote, “If I have become unbearable recently, just ask yourself what made me so.” He tried to turn her against her mother, brother and friends — his rivals. After she bore him six children, he invited her sister to move in. Crews says Freud and his sister-in-law became secret lovers (she nearly died aborting his child), and he treated his wife as a maid and nanny.

Freud was not only a misogynist but also a misanthrope. He wrote a colleague: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience, most of them are trash.” He especially looked down on his patients. He told one colleague: “Patients only serve to provide us with a livelihood and material to learn from. We certainly cannot help them.” He surprised another colleague with this about his patients: “I could throttle every one of them.” The families of his (usually rich) clients called him a con man.

So Freud failed to help people, but his ideas have lasted, right? Turns out, for the most part they weren’t even his. He took the words “the unconscious” and “psychoanalysis” from his rival Pierre Janet’s “subconscious” and “psychological analysis,” describing ideas that go back much further. Throughout his career, Freud reliably rode his mentors’ coattails, then stabbed them in the back when they could carry him no further, publicly deriding them or erasing them from history.

One might wonder, then, about the origin of his appeal. His reputation comes not despite his profligate scholarship but because of it. He trumpeted his failures as successes, turned wild speculation into sweeping proclamation and, starting with 1899’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” produced what Crews calls “detective fiction” rather than clinical reports. Crews writes: “Freud would truly be breaking new ground in the ‘Interpretation,’ not as a scientist but as a literary artist.” Freud was a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Crews notes that a later case study provided an “invitation to the reader to share in forensic work that was both intellectually and sexually thrilling.”

In spreading word about the unconscious, despite offering some harmful ideas about it — calling gays perverts, masturbators evil and women conniving — did Freud incidentally help humanity? Crews doesn’t spend much time on legacy, except to suggest that Freud’s distraction from real scientific and therapeutic work set psychology and neuroscience back by decades.

The book can be rough going in some places, through no fault of the dedicated author. Rather the source material eschews penetrability and plausibility; Freud’s accounts became so tangled over the years as he avoided admitting error that I fear there’s no untangling them. Even so, “Freud” is a surprisingly fun read, as Crews gets in plenty of sharp jabs. He seems to find the most damning way to spin any admission or incident, leaving one to wonder about his own interpretive filters. Still, given the facts presented, it’s hard to imagine additional disclosures that would completely reverse the overall impression.

The notion of Freud as a great explorer, albeit with a wonky compass, persists. He’s shorthand for buried memories and impulses. Perhaps we’d be better off if his own buried treasure had stayed buried. Sometimes a fallacy is just a fallacy.


By Frederick Crews

Metropolitan. 746 pp. $40