The Memory Wars – Freud’s Legacy in Dispute

The Memory WarsCritical essays on Freudian psychoanalysis. The Memory Wars claims Freud doctored his data and produced unsound, pseudo-scientific theories. It rejects the entire structural basis of Freudian thought, and is especially critical of the ‘recovered memory’ movement.

By Frederick C. Crews. Publisher: Granta Books. Date: 1997 (First edition: New York Review Books, 1995).

This volume contains two essays by Frederick Crews attacking Freudian psychoanalysis and its aftermath in the so-called “recovered memory” movement. The first essay reviews a growing body of evidence indicating that Freud doctored his data and manipulated his colleagues in an effort to consolidate a cult-life following that would neither defy nor upstage him. The second essay challenges the scientific and therapeutic claims of the rapidly growing recovered-memory movement, maintaining that its social effects have been devestating. Crews traces that movement to a Freudian precedent – not just to Freud’s abandoned “seduction theory”, but also to the most essential assumptions of psychoanalysis itself. When the essays were first published in the “New York Review of Books”, therapists, patients, scholars and philosophers responded with numerous letters. Twenty-five of these were published, with Crews’s replies. Most are gathered in the book, together with a new introduction describing the genesis of his pieces, and an epilogue considers the debate and its reverberations. Frederick Crews is the author of “Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology and Critical Method”, “Skeptical Engagements” and “The Critics Beat It Away: American Fiction and the Academy”, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Book overview on


Wonderful spritely heresy from a former Freudian, a calisthenics for critical thinking. I first read Crews’ polemics when they were published in the New York Review of Books back in the 90s, and they were great shocking fun. Now I’m guessing most readers are more blasé. Freud’s “scientific” principles of psychoanalysis will eventually be studied with the same bemused delight we now take in the Byzantine debates of dancing microscopic angels, the pharmacology for treating humours and the cranial curves of phrenology. Crews was the comic at the outset. Still worth reading & weeping & gnashing your teeth before you break out laughing. The will to believe makes bumpkins of us all, until someone like Crews comes along banging a drum. Can I mix any more metaphors? (never write a review on Ambien, it comes out like this… what would Sigmund say?)

Reader review:


Frederick Crews really knows how to tap that deep reservoir of hostility found in modern Freudian psychoanalysts. In 1993 and 1994 FC wrote two essays in the New York Review of Books debunking Freud in the first, and tearing to shreds the recovered memory movement in the second.

These two essays and the letters in response to them have been put into the book The Memory Wars. As someone trained in experimental psychology you can guess my own personal bias in this matter. Crews discusses Freud’s botched cases; his frequent vacillation in theory formation; some of his sillier theories; and his serious interjection of personal bias into the formation of his beliefs. The main problem with the whole Freudian system is the total lack of scientific evidence supporting it. Freudian psychoanalysis is founded on anecdote and supported by anecdotes. To be fair, much current non-Freudian therapy is also based on anecdote. Indignant Freud followers write back, and their letters are indeed interesting (and often pompous).

The second half of the book takes on the recovered memory movement. It would be great to poke fun at this movement if it weren’t for the fact that it has caused so much damage to all parties involved. Symptoms checklists are published with the statement if you suffer from these symptoms you may be a victim of sexual abuse. Read the list and you will find that the majority of Americans will find that they have been abused. It’s all a patient seduction game with the intent to make big money. Hospitals have even set up units to treat such patients (Having worked in the psychiatric hospital industry I am well aware of the “product lines” that such facilities set up in order to fill beds). Crews does an excellent job of dissecting the memory movement, and once again we get to read the indignant responses.

Those who believe that psychological therapy should be based on sound scientific evidence will love this book. Those who have accepted Freudianism with a religious like faith will, of course, hate it. To me this whole subject is analogous to the evolution vs. creationist debate. It’s science versus pseudoscience. reviewer

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