The Secret Ring

The ring of the title refers to both the circle of Freud’s most loyal followers and the ring each wore as a member of this Secret Committee. Though pledged to mutual support in promulgating Freudian orthodoxy, the Committee could not withstand the pressures of personal and professional rivalry. Partly this was inevitable as the analysts set up practice in distant cities. However, Freud, obsessed with safeguarding his reputation and fearful of both traitors and successors, encouraged his followers to look for enemies everywhere. This resulted in much internecine and infantile squabbling about technique, the training of analysts, and the length of analysis.

Grosskurth, focusing more on personal politics than on Freud’s achievements, draws a very unflattering portrait of the founder of psychoanalysis. A withholding father-figure, he was rigid and manipulative, incapable of friendship with colleagues or empathy for his patients. While demanding total loyalty, he rarely allowed the motives of his own behavior to be questioned and felt threatened by any hinderance, even the diseases of his followers.

The early history of the psychoanalytical movement is byzantine in its tangle of personal conflicts and maneuverings for Freud’s favor, so this account is necessarily sketchy. Unfortunately, by relying so heavily on their correspondence with each other, Grosskurth provides an extremely claustrophobic view of the main characters, locked in petty quarreling. And occasionally she makes too easy use of jargon, citing unexamined “neuroses,” for instance, to explain various events. Anyone interested in Freud, however, will be fascinated by the story of the emotional turmoil that plagued those who thought themselves wise and well enough to heal the inner wounds of their fellow men.