As an empiricist I long ago took against Freud, who was undoubtedly a profound thinker but one far more interested in the glamorous side of his investigations than in the dour, tough stuff that might have established the soundness or otherwise of his conclusions. Like Freud, the best scientists are capable of dazzlingly adventurous leaps of the imagination and grand theories: physics, after all has a Theory of Everything, which seems pretty ambitious. Unlike Freud, though, science is committed to put interesting ideas to the test. Only in that way will incorrect notions meet with the fate they deserve: rejection.

Since his death, some of Freud’s ideas, such as the “weak or absent father” theory of homosexuality, have been developed into testable hypotheses and found wanting. The great man’s many distinguished detractors have included Nabokov, who famously dismissed the founder of “the talking cure” as “the Viennese quack”. For a sustained, devastating exposure of Freud’s “well-documented conceptual errors, relentless apriorism, disregard for counterexamples, bullying investigative manner, shortcuts of reasoning, rhetorical dodges, and all-around chronic untruthfulness”, in the words of reviewer Francine Prose, we can turn to Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, edited by Frederick Crews.

Despite such onslaughts, the tenets of psychoanalysis developed by Freud, as elaborated and refined by his disciples, still have their adherents. Dodgy concepts including the tripartite development of infantile sexuality (oral, anal and genital stages) and the Oedipus Complex, which at least had the virtue of acknowledging the vital significance of sexuality from birth onwards, have been quietly sidelined in favour of equally unproven but less controversial ideas: modern analysts tend to talk about developmental traumas in terms of object relations theory, which does not put sex at centre-stage. Just as important as the theory, too, has been the mind-set of those who have been attracted to following in the old charlatan’s wake. I called them disciples, and indeed they have been a church: sexually conservative, orthodox psychoanalysis has been heavily hetero-normative until recent times, just like the major authoritarian, patriarchal, monotheistic religions, seeing homosexuality as a perversion.

And insofar as they have deigned to mention the subject in print, which has been not as much as might be expected, psychoanalysts have excoriated paedophilia in extravagantly florid terms. A relatively recent example of this is On Paedophilia, by Cosimo Schinaia, which I am presently in the middle of. A fascinating picture is emerging, in which the therapists come across as certifiably paranoid, raging against the sadistic persecutions they are made to suffer by their intelligent and devastatingly scornful paedophilic patients! Translated from the original Italian, the book tells us about a working group of psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrists and psychologists in Italy, coordinated by the author, who pool their experiences of working with jailed paedophiles and others referred by the courts. In Italy, perhaps, such work is not left, as it largely is in the Anglophone countries, to the robust, no-nonsense, just-do-as-you’re-told, approach of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

It is easy to satirise these shrinks. They seem to come straight out of a Woody Allen movie, railing against their patients and then – what joy of joys, what schadenfreude! – falling out among themselves in a melodramatic storm in a teacup, a mini-maelstrom of neurotic, self-imposed anguish and anger, torment and trauma!

Yes, it is easy to make fun, and perhaps I will do so again if I review the book properly once I have finished it: there is certainly plenty more to talk about. For the moment, though, I feel it is worth focusing on the surprisingly positive potential of psychoanalysis. For those who can bring themselves to believe in it, as with those who believe in a religion, there are benefits, and they work best for true and sincere believers.

You may be surprised to hear that I have just mentioned one of those benefits: the falling out. Well, not the quarrelling as such, but the fact that Schinaia candidly admitted it had happened. The great thing about this is the honesty: analysts aim to examine their own feelings as well as those of the people they analyse: the dynamics of the psychological relationship between the analyst and the analysand are laid bare. They probe not only “transference” – the theorised redirection of a patient’s feelings for a significant other person, such as their father, to the therapist – but also “countertransference”, which recognises the therapist’s feelings towards a patient, which will never be entirely detached and objective. It is an enquiry which acknowledges that the therapist has unconscious feelings and vulnerabilities, just like the patient; and this acknowledgement binds the two together in their shared humanity. This sure beats the divisive effect of CBT, which separates the therapist as a never-wrong authoritarian from his inferior and always error-prone “client”.

Psychoanalysis can only ever be as good as its individual practitioners, of course. The bullies and fools among them will achieve nothing. This still beats CBT, though, which is positively designed to be administered by bullies and fools. They may not all be stupid but they might as well be. This is because they are required to stick rigidly and mechanically to a manual-based programme and procedures.

The English edition of Schinaia’s book carries a foreword by Donald Campbell, a past president of the British Psychoanalytical Association. Despite his eminence, Campbell’s rabid contribution appears to put him firmly among the bullies and fools. I mention him here, though, because he was an analyst at the Portman Clinic, London, now part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Both clinics, Portman and Tavistock, have a psychoanalytic orientation and have attracted many big names, ranging from John Bowlby,  the esteemed pioneer of attachment theory, to Valerie Sinason, the lunatic proponent of Satanic abuse. So, in quality terms it’s the ultimate mixed bag! The Portman has long been into forensic work with paedophiles but the numbers are tiny: CBT dominates the game.

One of the leading Tavistock figures in the latter part of the last century was Charles Rycroft, author of A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (1968) and Psychoanalysis and Beyond (1985). His most significant role in life, though, (well to me at least!) was to give a less than enthusiastic review of my book Paedophilia the Radical Case, in the Times Literary Supplement. So far so bad, but he was at least a genuine radical, unafraid to challenge conservative colleagues, and even Bolshie in the most literal sense, having been a member of the Communist Party prior to disillusionment over Stalin. He was also a long-time colleague at the Tavistock of R.D. Laing, such a toweringly rebellious character he was known for his school of “anti-psychiatry”, promoting the view that psychiatric treatments are often more damaging than helpful.

It was a MAP, Ben Capel, author of Notes from Another Country, who alerted me a couple of years ago to the fact that radicalism is still an interesting feature of the Freudian tradition, if very much a minority one. Everyone can access it in published works and for the lucky few who encounter an inspired analyst it may even reach them through good therapy.

One such writer/analyst whose name crops up quite a bit in Notes from Another Country is Adam Phillips. A marvellous essay of his appeared recently in the London Review of Books, called “Against self-criticism”. It is an examination of our internal policeman: conscience. Excitingly, he invites us to revolt against its more unreasonable constraints. We know that in society not all laws are good ones, and so it is in our own heads. Conscience is an internalisation of the moral imperatives we grew up with: it is the morality imposed on us by (usually) our parents’ expectations. Allowing ourselves to be utterly bound by it is to make ourselves a slave to the morality of others when we should be thinking for ourselves.

Phillips approaches conscience as Freud did, through Hamlet. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud used Hamlet as a way of understanding what Phillips calls “the obscene severities of conscience”. Hamlet was illuminating for Freud because “it showed him how conscience worked, and how psychoanalytic interpretation worked, and how psychoanalysis could itself become part of the voice of conscience”. Note, here, this psychoanalyst’s implied criticism of conservative psychoanalysis.

The fateful character flaw of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, is his indecision. Honour requires him to avenge the death (by suspected poisoning) of his father, the rightful king. The old king’s throne has been usurped by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother. But Hamlet hesitates. Conscience holds him back. Freud concludes that Hamlet has an Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt prevents him from murdering Claudius, who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do. The loathing which should drive Hamlet on to revenge, Freud wrote, “is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.” Hamlet, in Freud’s view, turns the murderous aggression he feels towards Claudius against himself. Freud uses Hamlet to say that conscience is a form of character assassination, whereby we continually mutilate and deform our own character. As Phillips puts it, “We know almost nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves.”

Adams says conscience is:

“…moralistic rather than moral. Like a malign parent it harms in the guise of protecting; it exploits in the guise of providing good guidance. In the name of health and safety it creates a life of terror and self-estrangement. There is a great difference between not doing something out of fear of punishment, and not doing something because one believes it is wrong. Guilt isn’t necessarily a good clue as to what one values; it is only a good clue about what (or whom) one fears. Not doing something because one will feel guilty if one does it is not necessarily a good reason not to do it. Morality born of intimidation is immoral. Psychoanalysis was Freud’s attempt to say something new about the police.”

The implication for MAPs brought up to regard sexuality as a furtive thing, a guilty pleasure to which children should not be exposed, is obvious. We (and this definitely includes me personally) all too commonly find conscience an unreasonable burden, an unwanted legacy from our parents. It’s the white elephant in the backroom of our minds: try to ignore it as we may, it never leaves us. What radical psychoanalysis may be able to do, though, is to challenge its validity by showing us precisely why we do not need to have a bad conscience over our refusal to be bullied by the dictates of conscience, provided we have a principled alternative – as many of us do.

Crews, F. (ed.) Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend Viking, 1998

Phillips, A. “Against Self-Criticism”, London Review of Books, Vol. 37 No. 5,  5 March 2015 pages 13-16

Rycroft, C. “Sensuality from the start”, Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 1980

Schinaia, C. On Paedophilia, Karnac, 2010



Ed Miliband was leader of the British Labour party until it suffered an unexpectedly heavy defeat in the general election last week, whereupon he fell on his sword. One criticism now being levelled at his leadership is that he was too intellectual, a theorist out of touch with the people. He unrealistically tried to convert the voters to his views rather than embrace theirs.

But what if Ed’s views were right and those of the voters were wrong? Everyone agrees he is a clever man, a deeper thinker than most of his opponents, so there is every chance his analysis was far superior to that of the average voter, whose understanding of economics, for instance, is woefully deficient. If they hear the name Keynes they probably think it’s a reference to the sticks teachers used to beat kids with.

Shouldn’t leadership, in a democracy, be about teaching the electorate rather than just pandering to their ignorance? On issues from climate change to child sexuality, it is vital that the public is somehow compelled to listen and learn occasionally. Otherwise we are doomed.