Mama’s Boy: Joel Whitebook on Sigmund Freud’s Enduring Influence

Joel Whitebook
Joel Whitebook

Although some of his theories are still hotly debated, Sigmund Freud, (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) is widely regarded as a trailblazer in the realm of psychiatry and psychology. The Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, who was allegedly the first to offer a comprehensive explanation of how human behavior is determined by the conscious and unconscious forces, is regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis.

Philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook is the former Director of Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program. He is the author of Freud, An Intellectual Biography.

Photo by Giancarlo Biagi © 2017

Q: You recently published a book on Sigmund Freud titled Freud: An Intellectual Biography. What was your reason for adding yet another book to the already healthy pile of excellent biographies on Freud?

A:  An obvious question, and one I asked myself. Indeed, when I was invited to write the study for Cambridge University Press the first thought that occurred to me was, “Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?” 

Though I had been teaching and writing about Freud for the better part of three decades, I hadn’t undertaken a systematic reading of The Standard Edition since I was a graduate student and psychoanalytic candidate. Likewise, I had regularly perused the biographical publications and the contributions from the relatively new field of Freud Studies that had emerged during that period, but I hadn’t systematically followed them. 

I, therefore, undertook a thorough re-reading of Freud’s texts. When I did, something virtually leaped off the page: the absence of the mother.  The figure of the mother—especially the early pre-Oedipal mother—is largely missing from Freud’s self-analysis, his case histories, which constitute a series of polemics attempting to demonstrate the centrality of “the father complex,” his theory of development, and his thoroughly patriarchal theories of religion and civilization.

Moreover, the fact of the missing mother is if not entirely ignored, at least radically marginalized in Ernest Jones and Peter Gay’s standard biographies. Why this is the case is something that I had to examine in my study. And that it is the case meant that a new biography was in order.

I do not mean to imply that the figure of the mother is absent from Freud’s thinking. On the contrary, as the feminist literary theorist Madelon Sprengnether has observed, she is everywhere and nowhere, haunting his works like a “ghost.” One of the central tasks of my investigations was, therefore, to draw the missing mother out of the interstices and shadows of Freud’s thinking and to analyze her significance for his life and work.

Once the fact of the missing mother became apparent, another task immediately presented itself, namely, to account for her absence. Here the more recent biographical literature and historical research in Freud Studies proved enormously helpful. Much of it focused on the first three years of Freud’s life in Freiberg before the family moved to Vienna, a period that had received inadequate attention. And, most importantly, the new material tended to contradict the received narrative of Freud’s early life—a narrative that had originally been promulgated by Freud himself, and was largely taken over by his insufficiently critical followers. Whereas Freud presented an idealized picture of his early experience in the Moravian town—and especially of his relationship with his beautiful young mother, who called him “my golden Sigy”—it turns out that his first three years, especially his relationship with his mother, were quite traumatic. My thesis is that the way he dealt with that trauma, namely, through denial, splitting, and becoming “a premature adult,” helps to explain not only the fact of the missing mother, but also many of the features of his personality and of his theory.

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