Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse, victim blaming, mentions of PTSD.
While scrolling Twitter in my lunch hour on Friday, I came across a press release regarding an upcoming Netflix project – an Austrian production simply named Freud. In it, a young, starting out version of the famous psychologist becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer, joining forces with the police while using his unique outlook to assist the investigation and and and and —
Sorry, I was rolling my eyes so hard it briefly became hard to type.
The fascination with crime media has been well documented since the Victorian times, and yes, criminal profiling using psychology is a well tapped facet of that medium. After all, the program Criminal Minds was recently renewed for a 14th season and Hannibal was painfully short at only three seasons (as many Brian Fuller works are). In fact, only this year was the release of The Alienist, which has a suspiciously similar premise to Freud – a psychologist is recruited by the police to hunt a serial killer. So what is it about Freud that has me rolling my eyes?
Well, for one thing, part of the problem with basing a tale around Freud’s work is that he is massively discredited within the modern psychology field. When his work is taught, it is in the context of the subject’s history, and not its application to modern practices. As the joke told by many goes, any time a psychiatrist, criminal profiler or other psyche based expert in a book or film cites Freud with total sincerity, you know that no one in real life with any kind of Psychology qualification was involved in the work.
Unfortunately, regardless of this, the concept of a Freudian analysis prevails in many other areas of study — such as literature — unnecessarily boiling many works down into oversimplified messes filled with both yonic and phallic symbols. I once bemoaned how incredible it was that such analysis was capable of making fear and horror boring. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.
“But I wouldn’t be writing about all this if Freud’s only sin was to be boring — as we all know, many a piece of media has been made celebrating long dead mediocre men.”
But I wouldn’t be writing about all this if Freud’s only sin was to be boring — as we all know, many a piece of media has been made celebrating long dead mediocre men. No, my true issue with the matter is that is can be alleged that Freud was far more responsible for potentially covering up crime than revealing it.
Freud’s theories of the Oedipus and Electra complex are fairly well known — the (now oft ridiculed) theories that developing children lust over their parent of the opposite sex. However, before this, Freud had speculated that many of his patients had been the victims of sexual abuse while in their infancy; crafting the rather nauseating title of the “Seduction theory” to refer to what would in fact these days, one would at least hope, be referred to as molestation and assault. The Seduction theory caused an outcry in genteel society when it was originally released, with Freud directly at the centre of the storm. It didn’t help that the wealthy fathers of his patients/subjects were technically Freud’s patrons, since very few women would have the assets to pay for treatment themselves.
Many people over the years have argued that it’s not a coincidence that within a year of the Seduction Theory’s publication, Freud recanted it, and replaced it instead with the Electra complex, arguing that women who had come to Freud with tales of being abused by their fathers had merely been reporting on their fantasies of such events. That’s right, Freud pivoted from claiming that women had been abused to that women wanted to be abused. Freud had become the original victim blamer. If you need to take a moment to look at a kitten video, I understand. I do too.
To make matters worse, Freud’s change of tune caused further harm. Nowadays, it’s generally presumed that the primary causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — divided by gender presentation at least — are military combat for men and boys, and sexual assault for women and girls. A touch over simplified, but they do make the point about the threats apparent in the world. The problem is; the mental anguish suffered by women in Freud’s era was classed as “hysteria”, and Freud’s reporting of the Electra complex didn’t help that at all.
“Had Freud not been so dismissive of his patient’s original testimony, many lives and wellbeings could have been saved, far quicker.”
What we would now consider PTSD was dismissed as a gendered result of women being the “weaker sex”, meaning that come the midpoint of the 19th century — when many of the men returning from the biggest wars the world had ever seen began to exhibit similar symptoms to those hysterical women, they were ignored, mocked and stigmatised. Many men were shot for “cowardice”, or deliberately maimed themselves to be sent home. Eventually the term “shellshock” would be coined, and in time it would become what we now understand as PTSD. But it can definitely be argued that, had Freud not been so dismissive of his patient’s original testimony, many lives and wellbeings could have been saved, far quicker.
Apparently, Freud was a big fan of detective fiction, especially Sherlock Holmes, which means he would no doubt be thrilled at the possibility of being turned into some “great detective”. I can’t help but feel he may have misunderstood the morals of many of the stories of the era, in which a plucky young heroine does whatever is necessary to escape her abusers. Whitewashing of history and historical figures is sadly common in media, but in this case, my recommendation? Just watch The Alienist.