Letters from our readers.
Sept. 4 1998 3:30 AM

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Authorized Freud

Some notes regarding the Katha Pollitt-Andrew Sullivan dialogue in "The Book Club" about my new anthology Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend:

1. One of the few points on which these commentators fully agree is that I am a village atheist. They are, however, sadly mistaken. I was born and raised in Philadelphia.

2. It is true, alas, as Sullivan observes, that I am not "in command of my senses" and that, in fact, I am an outright "maniac." I must also concede that my articles on Freud and the recovered memory movement in the New York Review of Books--articles that Sullivan hasn't read--were, as he judges, "tirades." But from now on, by virtue of studying Sullivan's own understated prose, I hope to cultivate a more rational and deliberate manner.


3. "Does Crews need to see a shrink?" Sullivan is not the first reader to have posed this profound diagnostic question. Indeed, it has been the standard retort--pioneered by no less an authority than Freud himself--that Freudians throw back at those who challenge the empirical credentials of psychoanalysis. See the concluding chapter of my book The Memory Wars (1995).

4. It is less than cogent to view the historical Freud through the lens of one's own contemporary psychotherapeutic involvement. Nor it is helpful to lump psychoanalysis and psychotherapy together, as Sullivan does. I have never attacked psychotherapy, by which I mean the general enterprise of helping people talk through their anxieties and face the difficulties in their immediate circumstances. The target of my skepticism has been psychodynamic therapy, whereby the patient's manifestly perceived problems, beliefs, and feelings are treated as mere "compromise formations" tossed to the surface by deep turmoil that can only be resolved by dredging for repressed memories, Oedipal cravings, and the like. If I am to be deemed a maniac, let's at least try to state correctly what it is I've been raving about.

5. Nearly everyone who is ignorant of the critical literature assumes that Freud made some genuine discoveries, but the list varies according to taste. Sullivan, for example, is quite sure that Freud was right about repression, resistance, transference, the Oedipus complex, dream interpretation, and (God help us!) "the probable origins of homosexuality." Thus, when Sullivan found me asserting what nearly any research professor of psychology could have told him--that not one distinctively Freudian concept or hypothesis has survived independent scrutiny--he gave a horrified glance at my chapter titles, abandoned Unauthorized Freud, and pronounced me insane. If he had kept on reading, as Pollitt did, he would have encountered reasoned arguments by philosophers and historians challenging each and every Freudian notion that he considers self-evident.

6. Pollitt and Sullivan alike deem me insensitive to the depth and complexity of the psyche, and Sullivan warmly endorses psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear's admonition that we dare not reject Freud lest those qualities drop out of sight. But neither Pollitt nor Sullivan nor Lear understands that psychoanalysis has been a means of simplifying the mind by presuming sexual and aggressive motives to be invariably primary and by invoking deterministic "mechanisms" that always lead to a few banal and arbitrary causative factors. As my introduction points out, psychoanalysis would be helpless to address the intricacy of Freud's own devious and supersubtle mind. Only when we have grasped the full extent of the Freudian intellectual fiasco--it is adumbrated in my book but exhaustively explored in Malcolm Macmillan's Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (1997)--will we be able to talk about motives with an adequate respect for their actual variety and volatility.


7. Finally, Pollitt and Sullivan are disappointed that UnauthorizedFreud doesn't pay homage to Freud's cultural importance in our century. True--but I fully grant that importance. Quite simply, my book asks whether it was attained with or without the benefit of accurate clinical observation, defensible drawing of inferences, and encouraging therapeutic results. The answer is: without them. Once that fact has sunk in, a cultural historian can assess the true magnitude of the problem that Unauthorized Freud only glancingly treats: how 20th century secular intellectuals, not excepting journalists in therapy, could have been so thoroughly bamboozled.

--Frederick CrewsBerkeley, Calif.

"High and Mighty": A Low Blow

About Seth Stevenson's July 23 article "High and Mighty": The Partnership for a Drug-Free America has never claimed that "all drug use leads to disaster." Our advertising is based on a breadth of research from which we develop specific campaigns depending on the drug and the demographic we're targeting. There's a huge difference, for example, between smoking marijuana and smoking heroin and between communicating to an 8-year-old or a 14-year-old. Take a look: Our advertising does not--and never has--treated all drugs equally.


Stevenson's article shows a fundamental lack of understanding about what our campaign entails. Had he contacted us, we would have been happy to discuss our advertising as well as our research. We would still be open to such a discussion.

We welcome scrutiny into our advertising campaign and our organization, but here's one suggestion: How about waiting for some results before deciding this can't possibly work, and how about reading the existing research that shows it can ("The Impact of Anti-Drug Advertising," Johns Hopkins University; "Does Anti-Drug Advertising Work," New York University's Stern School of Business)? Advertising will not solve the drug problem, but done right it can vastly improve the chances for children and teens to stay off drugs.

--Leigh LeventhalAssistant director, public affairsPartnership for a Drug-Free AmericaNew York City

Culture Wars


Jacob Weisberg's Aug. 20 "The Browser" on uncritical movie critics is wrong, I think, to suggest that mainstream critics should ignore blockbusters or dismiss them in a paragraph. Most readers of mass circulation newspapers and magazines are intensely interested in such titles, and I find my reviews of movies such as Godzilla, Armageddon, The Lost World, Starship Troopers, Lost in Space, Halloween H20, BASEketball, Air Force One, etc., to be invaluable opportunities to help open their eyes to the clichés and stupidities being retailed by the filmmakers. He is wrong, too, to say of my favorable review of The Negotiator that I overpraised it in a "cringe-making way." I did indeed say it "really hums along," in the second sentence of an opening paragraph which, if he had quoted it all, would have destroyed his point. I invite any Slate reader to examine my entire review and decide if it supports Weisberg's generalizations.

The technique of generalizing from an exception to the rule is an effective but not honorable journalistic practice. If Weisberg will take a closer look he will find I have given negative reviews to most of the big-budget blockbusters of recent years, and that I review more foreign, art, documentary, and indeed films (like Pi and Taste of Cherry) in a month than Slate does in a year.

Weisberg's technique is to selectively choose those titles from each critic that illustrate his point, while remaining deliberately oblivious to reviews by the same critic that would weaken it. The article works only if Slate readers take him at his word, for example, that Gene Siskel gave Armageddon a "rave" (he did not). And it is not fair to criticize Janet Maslin for praising Lethal Weapon 4 while suppressing the information that I, for example, disliked it, because that would not help his case--just as the information that Maslin disliked many of the other films he mentions would also not serve his thesis. If you are going to criticize critics, you have to be a better critic than he is in this essentially unresearched piece, which is excellent only as an example of the off the top of the head thumb-sucker genre.

--Roger EbertChicago Sun-TimesChicago

Jacob Weisberg replies:

Readers can decide for themselves whether Ebert overpraises The Negotiator by clicking here to read his three and a half star review. Siskel gave Armageddon a "thumbs up" and named it his "flick of the week" on Sneak Previews.

Gender Impolitics

About Robert Wright's Aug. 19 "Earthling": Watching feminist leaders wriggle, squirm, and say nothing about Clinton's violation of everything they are supposed to stand for undermines any theory that female politicians--elected or otherwise--are any more principled than men. Politicians are another, lesser, species--and their differences from everyone else transcend gender.

--Glenn H. ReynoldsKnoxville, Tenn.

Easy on Breakfast

Lucianne Goldberg at "The Breakfast Table" last week was too much. Did you forget to send me the e-mail about your buyout by Vanity Fair? Is name recognition now the primary requirement for publication?

--Andrew BermanSeattle

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