French mind-doctors over the edge

21st September 2005, Comments 0 comments

France is one of the last great bastions of the Freudians. Hugh Schofield explains why and how a new book, critical of Freud and his hold on French mental health, has sparked a fierce backlash among French psychiatrists against 'Anglo-Saxon'-style therapy.

An incendiary war of words has erupted among French psychiatrists after the publication of a 'Black Book' that lambastes the teachings of Sigmund Freud and blames his followers for setting back mental-health care in France by several decades.

'The Black Book' says Freud has hurt the French

In a country that is one of the last redoubts in the world of pure Freudian psychoanalysis, the book has had the effect of an electroshock on many in the white-coat establishment who accuse the authors of grovelling to the "Anglo-Saxon" trend towards behaviour-based mental therapy.

Such is the strength of feeling that the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which published extracts of the 800-page work in a cover feature last month, was bombarded with letters charging it with "fascist rhetoric" and leading a "Communist-style" propaganda campaign.

One leading psychoanalyst described the book as a "fanatical charge-sheet placed firmly in the camp of the revisionists," while another accused the authors of the crime of "scientism" -- an excessive belief in the power of science.

The Black Book

'The Black Book of Psychoanalysis -- How to Live, Think and Get on Better without Freud' (French title: 'Le livre noir de la psych-analyse : Vivre, penser et aller mieux sans Freud') follows a critical path that is well-trodden in the US and Britain, where experts have long since questioned the veracity of Freud's case-studies as well as the validity of his ideas.

What makes the work inflammatory is France's rare and enduring attachment to the bearded Viennese.

By contrast in most of the rest of the world, the theory of the unconscious has for years been relegated to a bit-player in the fight against depression, phobias and other mental ailments -- superseded by breakthroughs in neurological science and the proven success of so-called cognitive-behaviour therapy.

*sidebar1*The authors of the 'Black Book' -- some 40 experts from 10 countries -- trace the Freudian domination of France back to May 1968 when followers of the master and his French disciple Jacques Lacan used the all-pervading spirit of revolt to take control over the psychiatric establishment.

How Freud has hurt the French

Since then -- the authors claim -- the effect has been entirely and needlessly nefarious. If today France is the world's biggest consumer of anti-depressants and tranquillisers, it is the result of the failures of the couch-and-notebook school of therapy and the lack of any alternative, they say.

A visual analysis of Freudianism by artist Jose Perez

A large section of the book entitled "Victims of Psychoanalysis" contains accounts from French mothers of autistic children -- furious at being blamed for 'failing to bond'. For many years Freudian theory had it that autism was caused by the mother's 'unconscious wish that the child should not exist'.

In one of the most hotly contested passages a Swiss doctor accuses the French mental health authorities of being responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 heroine addicts up to the mid-1990s for refusing to countenance treatment with substitutes such as methadone.

"The total control of the psychoanalysts over the domain of addiction in the 1970s and 1980s led to a veritable ideological imperialism," writes Swiss expert Jean-Jacques Deglon.

And the power of the Freudians continues to move in sinister ways, according to the book. Only last year they persuaded the health ministry to suppress a report from the National Medical Research Institute (INSERM) which -- in common with British, US and World Health Organisation studies -- attested to the effectiveness of cognitive-behaviour therapy.

"I managed to fulfil the dream of every French intellectual -- to have a book banned by a right-wing government," says one of the INSERM report's authors Jean Cottraux.

For the critics Freudian psychoanalysis is not a science but a hermetic cult "immunised against proof" that has inflicted untold damage on the nation's mental health by opposing treatments that are known to work and by enforcing a politically correct 'pensée unique' in clinics across the country.

The backlash

But the Freudians are not taking it lying down.

The original couch

They see the book as a clear attempt to undermine their work and introduce new-fangled American theories into France.

Treatments such as cognitive-behaviour therapy -- they say -- are superficial and dehumanising because they do no more than condition the patient to overcome his symptoms and render him 'productive' again.

By contrast Freud recognises human complexity, an idea that carries great appeal for the French.

"The individual is always alone. Freudian theories give him a white stick with which to move forward in thought, in a search for his own story," says Alain de Mijolla, a leading historian of psychoanalysis.

Copyright AFP and Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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