Berkeley professor rescues tell-all bio

We know a good deal about Sigmund Freud’s life because of many excellent biographies. Among these are the three-volume set by Ernest Jones and the more recent comprehensive story of Freud’s life by Peter Gay. Former patients and students also wrote extensively about their experiences with Freud. He himself wrote a couple of autobiographical essays.

But a special vantage point comes from “Recollecting Freud” by Isidor Sadger, one of Freud’s first students and, later, a minor figure in psychoanalytic circles.

Sadger first published his biography of Freud in 1930 in Vienna. It immediately disappeared, perhaps sent to perdition as a consequence of the condemnation it received from “official” biographer Jones, who was determined to suppress any written criticism of Freud or psychoanalysis. Jones’ biography makes no mention of Sadger’s book.

In 2002, Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, was doing research for a psychoanalytic study of Orthodox Jewish character. In reviewing the literature, he ran across a paper on the subject by Sadger and also found reference to Sadger’s biography of Freud. The only copy he could find was in a Japanese library, where he arranged for a student of his to make a photocopy of the book and for another student to translate it. Since Sadger knew Freud for 35 years, Dundes decided that Sadger’s “take on Freud is worth making available.” (Dundes died just a few weeks before the book was published.)

Readers of the book will learn quickly why Jones disliked it. Sadger prefaces his 10 chapters on Freud by asserting that he was determined “to show the whole of Freud in all of his extraordinary genius as well as in his mistakes.” Much of what Sadger wrote is indeed positive, as he labels Freud a “genius,” but also calls Freud “petty, carping, and cranky.” Worse than that, he says Freud “was a terrible sadist” who “had the mood of a hysterical woman.” On the other hand, Freud had “great intelligence” and “organizational energy; he was a “born leader” with a “deep knowledge of humanity” and “unerring judgment.” This mixture of praise and criticism permeates the book.

One especially interesting chapter deals with “Freud and Judaism.” Sadger, himself a Jew, disputes the view that Freud “had stood with his own people, through all times.” He points out that while most of Freud’s disciples were Jews, one “Christian follower was liked far more than ten of his Jewish ones.”

Sadger denies Freud’s claim that “he had always felt like a Jew,” contending that “he would have liked best to have been a German.” Sadger concludes this critique with an unfavorable contrast — Freud’s Jewish identification with that of Albert Einstein — and then says “no chapter of this little book was as hard for me to write as this one.”

Sadger sums up his appraisal of Freud by stating that “posterity will place him amongst the ranks of Newton and Copernicus,” obviously struggling to accentuate the positive. What shines through in this fascinating, readable biography is Sadger’s profound ambivalence. We are indebted to Dundes for rescuing from oblivion this useful aid to understanding Freud.

“Recollecting Freud” by Isidor Sadger, edited by Alan Dundes (196 pages, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95).