Life of a Controversial Psychoanalyst

Published: 09th October 2014 06:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th October 2014 06:20 AM   |  A+A-

Sigmund-Freud.jpgDr Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, is a name we are all familiar with. He was brilliant and controversial. His radical ideas on why human beings behave the way they do were game changers in modern  psychology.

When he died in 1939, it is believed that his death may have been a physician-assisted suicide. In 1939 Freud was a frail old man, suffering agonising pain from terminal, inoperable mouth cancer. On September 21, 1939, Freud could not tolerate the pain any longer and reached out to his friend and doctor, Max Schur.  He reminded him of his promise to not “torment me unnecessarily”. Every day had become pure torture and hanging on to life made no sense. Max Schur took permission from Freud’s daughter and injected the first of three heavy morphine doses. Freud slipped into a coma and never woke up. His cancer was triggered by his chain smoking habits, which had led to over 30 cancer surgeries.

Freud became addicted to tobacco after he got his first taste of cigarettes in his twenties. He soon graduated to cigars, often smoking more than 20 of them in a day. He ignored his doctor’s warnings about his tobacco addiction. In fact, he believed that the habit enhanced his productivity and creativity. In 1923 a cancerous tumour was detected in his mouth and his doctors were left with no alternative but to remove a large part of his jaw. Unfortunately, the surgery did not free him of his cancer and over the next 16 years, he underwent 16 additional surgeries and a large prosthesis was inserted to separate his sinus and jaw. But Freud did not learn his lesson and continued to smoke.

Smoking was not Freud’s only bad habit. He thought that cocaine was a miracle drug. In the 1880s, he became intrigued by a little-known, legal drug called cocaine that was used by a German military doctor to rejuvenate exhausted troops. Cocaine was at that time not as infamous as it is today. Freud started experimenting with this drug and discovered that his digestion and spirits improved after drinking water laced with dissolved cocaine. He distributed doses to his friends and future wife and was lyrical about the drug’s therapeutic benefits in an 1884 paper Über Coca, which he called “a song of praise to this magical substance.” However, when Freud gave cocaine to a close friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, to wean him from his morphine addiction and relieve his chronic pain, his friend instead developed a cocaine addiction. News started filtering in of other addictions and overdose deaths. Although Freud stopped advocating cocaine’s medical benefits to others, he could not bring himself to give up this magic drug and continued to use the cocaine intermittently for migraines, nasal inflammations and depression until the mid-1890s. By 1925 Freud’s name spread far and wide and he had become a sensation to such an extent that that movie producer Samuel Goldwyn offered the Viennese psychoanalyst, whom he called the “greatest love specialist in the world,” $100,000 to write or consult on a film script about “the great love stories of history”. In spite of this eye-popping offer (this was big money in those days) Freud turned it down as he did a $25,000 offer the year before from the publisher of the Chicago Tribune to psychoanalyse the famed criminals Leopold and Loeb as they awaited their sensational murder trial.

history.jpgFreud’s The Interpretation of Dreams  is his most famous work. Ironically, it was initially a commercial failure. Freud considered this book his most significant work but it produced hardly a ripple when it was published in 1899.

Freud began to use hypnotism when he opened his medical practice in Vienna in 1886. He found it easier to put patients into trances if they were reclining on a couch. When he began to employ his “talking cure” in his psychoanalysis, he told his patients recline on a Persian rug covered couch— the rug was a gift from a patient, Madame Benvenisti — while he took notes in an out-of-sight chair.

However, the Nazis were not enthused by the bearded Viennese and burned his books and drove him from Austria. Although an atheist, Freud was born into a Jewish family and became a particular target of the Nazis when they rose to power. When his books were burnt by the Nazis in 1933, Freud hit back with a sardonic remark, “What progress we are making! In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me, now they are content with burning my books.” After Austria was annexed by Germany, the Gestapo raided his apartment, detained and interrogated his daughter, Anna. With the assistance of his friend and patient Princess Marie Bonaparte, a reluctant Freud fled to Paris and then London with his wife and Anna.

Freud died weeks after the launch of World War II. Following his death, his ashes were placed in an ancient Greek urn given to him by Bonaparte. After his wife Martha’s death in 1951, her ashes were added to the vase, which is stored at London’s Golders Green Crematorium. In January 2014, thieves unsuccessfully attempted to steal his ashes and severely damaged the 2,300-year-old urn in the process.

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