The Memory Wars

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The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute
The Memory Wars.jpg
Cover of the first edition, featuring an illustration by David Levine
Author Frederick Crews, et al.
Country United States
Language English
Subjects Sigmund Freud
Recovered-memory therapy
Publisher The New York Review of Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 299
ISBN 978-0940322073

The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute is a 1995 book about Sigmund Freud and recovered memory therapy by the critic Frederick Crews, writing with Harold P. Blum, Marcia Cavell, Morris Eagle, Matthew Erdelyi, Allen Esterson, Robert R. Holt, James Hopkins, Lester Luborsky, David D. Olds, Mortimer Ostow, Bernard L. Pacella, Herbert S. Peyser, Charlotte Krause Prozan, Theresa Reid, James L. Rice, Jean Schimek, Marian Tolpin, and a contributor using the pseudonym "Penelope".[1]

The book, which reprints articles critical of Freud and recovered memory therapy from The New York Review of Books that have been seen as turning points in the popular reception of Freud and psychoanalysis, had a mixed reception. Some commentators credited Crews with discrediting Freud's theories, but others criticized The Memory Wars to failing to resolve the issues it explored.


The result of a controversy in The New York Review of Books,[2] The Memory Wars contains essays and letters to the editor that first appeared in the Review in 1993 and 1994.[3] When the Review published "The Unknown Freud", an essay reviewing several books about Freud and psychoanalysis, it received many letters of protest, to which Crews replied.[2] One year later, the Review published "The Revenge of the Repressed", a critique of "recovered memory therapy", whose practitioners claim to help patients restore repressed, sometimes horrific, memories of child abuse. More letters criticizing Crews were published, and Crews replied to them also. In addition to "The Unknown Freud" and "The Revenge of the Repressed", the letters in response and Crews's replies to them, The Memory Wars contains an introduction and an afterword by Crews.[2] He argues that Freud was not only unscientific in his methods, but a charlatan who browbeat his patients, falsified his findings, tyrannized his followers, and cheated on his wife.[4]

Crews's position was summarized as, "psychoanalysis is a spurious, ineffective pseudoscience, based on the fudged data of an unscrupulous and calculating founder and perpetuated by followers who mimic his craftiness in a 'shell game whereby critics of Freudianism are always told that new breakthroughs render their strictures obsolete.'" Crews sees the recovered memory movement as the most recent, and most dangerous, development of Freud’s ideas.[2]


Mainstream media[edit]

The Memory Wars received a positive review from Nicci Gerrard in New Statesman,[5] mixed reviews from Laura Miller in and Elizabeth Gleick in Time magazine,[2][6] and a negative review from the anthropologist Marilyn Ivy in The Nation.[7] The book was also reviewed by Genevieve Stuttaford in Publishers Weekly,[8] Richard Webster in The Times Literary Supplement,[9] and the biographer Paul Ferris in The Spectator,[10] as well as receiving a review in The Economist.[11] In The New York Times Book Review, the book received a mixed review from Vivian Dent,[12] and a review from Sarah Boxer.[13]

Gerrard wrote that Crews discredited Freud.[5] Miller compared the book to "an online discussion", and described Crews's discussion of recovered memory therapy as "scathing" and called him a "formidable stylist ... lucid, elegant and wielding an acid and damning wit." She credited Crews with supporting his objections to Freud's personal qualities and theories empirically with "extensive and meticulous research." However, she also wrote that Crews's work could seem crankish and obsessive, and noted that Crews's critics were "quick to pick up on" this, and observed that debate about the scientific validity of the concept of repression could continue interminably, like an internet "flame war". She wrote that while Crews argued that the major premises of psychoanalysis are unsupported by scientific data, it was debatable how "coolly quantifiable" study of the mind and the emotions could be. She suggested that Freud's view of memory made for a "better story" than Crews's, and argued that what Freud "says often feels like the truth", and that Crews did not explain this.[2]

Gleick considered The Memory Wars an "impressive dissection of Freud and the recovered memory movement". However, while she wrote that, "Crews demolishes Freud neatly, and his insistence that we rely on empirical evidence is perfectly reasonable", she added that "such evidence often does not exist when it comes to the emotional realm" or where "long-ago child abuse" was concerned. She also suggested that because he considered Freud a charlatan and rejected psychoanalysis, Crews had to "dismiss the more interesting questions: What do our society's obsessions with child abuse, or Satanic rituals, or aliens, really mean?"[6]

Ivy described the New York Review essays that Crews reprinted as "cranky", and criticized Crews for oversimplifying the issues involved in the debates over recovered memory and sexual abuse, and failing to account for the social context that made the concern with ritual abuse possible. Ivy considered Crews's claim that psychoanalysis is unscientific familiar and unoriginal and wrote that his, "Popperian valorization of science makes him uncomfortable indeed with ambiguity, not to mention undecidability."[7]

Dent wrote that The Memory Wars "provides an example of how people can absorb volumes of identical evidence without changing utterly divergent opinions". While she wrote that the book raised issues "vital to an appraisal of contemporary psychotherapy", such as the reliability of memory, the validity of the concept of repression, and the effects of therapies aimed at recovering memories, "true dialogue on these questions never emerges", and that the book "the book presents a mass of conflicting statements" from experts.[12]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

Brett Kahr gave The Memory Wars a negative review in Psychoanalytic Studies, calling it a "vicious piece of rhetoric", and arguing that Crews's arguments against psychoanalysis were based on "scant solid data" and employed "the most purple prose I have read in many years". He also accused Crews of ignorance.[14]

The book was also reviewed by Peter L. Rudnytsky in American Imago.[15]

Evaluations in books[edit]

Webster, writing in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995), described The Memory Wars as one of the most trenchant and significant contributions to the debate on recovered memory therapy.[16] The philosopher Todd Dufresne suggested that The Memory Wars may be the book for which Crews is best known, and that the articles Crews reprinted were turning points in the popular reception of Freud and psychoanalysis.[3] One of these essays, "The Unknown Freud", was described by José Brunner as the opening salvo in the "Freud Wars", a long-running debate over Freud's reputation, work and impact.[17] Ritchie Robertson described The Memory Wars as representing "the more polemical version of anti-Freudian criticism". The philosopher Jonathan Lear responded to Crews in an article published in Open Minded: Working out the Logic of the Soul (1998).[4]

The psychologist Louis Breger described Crews as one of Freud's most dismissive critics. Breger considered some of Crews' points are valuable, but maintained that Crews, like some other critics of Freud, too frequently jumps "from valid criticisms of some part of Freud's work to a condemnation of the whole."[18]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Crews 1995, p. iii.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Miller 1995.
  3. ^ a b Dufresne 2007, p. 70.
  4. ^ a b Robertson 1999, p. xxx.
  5. ^ a b Gerrard 1997, p. 46.
  6. ^ a b Gleick 1997, p. 44.
  7. ^ a b Ivy 1995, pp. 832–836.
  8. ^ Stuttaford 1995, p. 72.
  9. ^ Webster 1997, p. 10.
  10. ^ Ferris 1997, p. 49.
  11. ^ The Economist 1995, pp. 14–15.
  12. ^ a b Dent 1995, p. 56.
  13. ^ Boxer 1997, p. 12.
  14. ^ Kahr 1999, pp. 454–455.
  15. ^ Rudnytsky 1999, p. 285.
  16. ^ Webster 2005, p. 528.
  17. ^ Brunner 2003, p. xxii.
  18. ^ Breger 2000, p. 377.


  • Boxer, Sarah (1997). "Flogging Freud". The New York Times Book Review (August 10, 1997).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Dent, Vivan (1995). "The memory wars (Book Review)". The New York Times Book Review (November 12, 1995).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Ferris, Paul (1997). "A flawed prophet". The Spectator. 278 (8813).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Gerrard, Nicci (1997). "Demolition job". New Statesman. 126 (4337).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Gleick, Elizabeth (1997). "All in the head". Time. 150 (1).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Ivy, Marilyn (1995). "Memory, Silence and Satan". The Nation. 261 (2).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Kahr, Brett (1999). "The Memory Wars (Book)". Psychoanalytic Studies. 1 (4).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Rudnytsky, Peter L. (1999). "Wrecking Crews". American Imago. 56 (3).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Stuttaford, Genevieve (1995). "Wrecking Crews". Publishers Weekly. 242 (41).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Webster, Richard (1997). "The bewildered visionary". The Times Literary Supplement (4911).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • "The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute / Wittgenstein Reads Freud / A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis". The Economist. 337 (7945). 1995.   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
Online articles