Friday, April 4, 2014

History is Fun!

Here's a little article I worked on last year that didn't get picked up for publication:

FIVE HISTORIC FIGURES WHO BEHAVED BADLY

(Part One of Five)

Humanity has a notoriously nasty habit of glossing over the bad things that might upset them when concerning heroic historic figures. We seem to forget that they were human and had as many faults as they did graces. Every grade school kid learns how Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s early founders and left a legacy of wisdom and innovate invention that changed the country for the better but don’t know he was also a crusty old lecher riddled with sexual disease. In 1492 Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue but he also systematically wiped out the natives in search for gold. Let’s take a look at some other well known figures who were less than stellar human beings:

5. Sigmund Freud

Founder of modern psychoanalysis, cocaine advocate and unintentionally made his patients worse.

The Good

Mental illness has always been a touchy subject. It wasn’t that long ago that standard procedure for dealing with it was to chain mentally ill relations to a wall or confine them to the attic a la Jane Eyre.

Sigmund Freud changed all that. During his lifetime he paved the foundation for modern mental health and became the founder of psychoanalysis. Yup, he was the guy who figured sex was the root of our all problems and little boys want to diddle their mothers. So his theories aren’t perfect but it was a damn sight better than hooking patients up to a car battery and assuming the electric shock would do anything other than light up their addled heads like a Christmas tree.

The (inadvertent) Bad

The problem with any new science is how very little we actually comprehend, at least at the beginning. With barely a century into really understanding how the mind works we still don’t know what the hell we’re doing so it stands to reason that Freud made a lot of mistakes in his earliest attempts to understand.

During the Victorian Era there was an epidemic by the name of Female Hysteria in which symptoms ranged from anywhere to faintness and nervous disposition all the way to water retention and muscle spasms. In Freud’s famous case of Anna O his patient was described to have paralysis of the extremities in the right side of her body, disturbance of hearing and language and lapse of consciousness and hallucinations.

Today we would recognize this as a neurological dysfunction or possibly epilepsy but to a scientifically minded Victorian treatment included ‘disposing’ the products of Anna’s ‘bad self’ through the talking cure. That or copious amounts of cod oil.(What was it with cod oil?) Now, the idea of talking through whatever is troubling your mind was actually a revolutionary psychological idea that Freud came up with. It’s just that in this case it was worthless as Anna O’s symptoms were not psychological but physiological. So it was kind of like trying to fix a broken computer by smacking it with a mackerel.

The other problem is applying a one-size-fits-all approach to his patients. There were a number of women who came to him with physical symptoms that, again, by today’s standards we can see were neurological; olfactory hallucinations, nervous ticks, repetitive noises. When Freud frustratingly was unable to cure them by hypnosis, talking on the couch or discovering hidden traumas he declared that they were deliberately hiding things from him and applied the ‘pressure technique’ which was kinda like Chinese water torture. He would press his fingers into the patient’s forehead and asked them to report whatever image popped into their heads. One assumes the patients just made things up to get him to stop. When all else failed he made shit up like with Elisabeth von R. in which, after failing to find a cure through all other methods, Freud claimed she was in love with her brother-in-law and declared her cured.

The Ugly

Like most scientists Freud liked to experiment with the latest wonder drugs and, like a lot of scientists, he didn’t really take into account long-term effects. Cocaine was widely used from everything from Coca Cola to minor surgery to, shall we say, recreational use. With the genuine intent to help he told colleague and friend von Fleischl-Marxow that, honestly, cocaine would help beat his morphine addiction. Trying to combat morphine addiction by introducing cocaine into your system is a little bit like trying to put out a fire with gasoline laced thermite. To Freud’s dismay his advice went over like a lead balloon and Marxow died a drug addled death.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhfreu.html (General biography of Freud’s life and his interest and study of neurophysiology)

http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/22/sigmund-freuds-cocaine-problem/ (Freud’s use of cocaine and his inadvertent bad advice to close friend to combat morphine addiction with cocaine)

http://www.richardwebster.net/freudandcharcot.html (Freud’s professional career, the vague symptoms of hysteria and his treatment of hysteria in which he didn’t really cure anyone)

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