Writing a biography of Sigmund Freud

26 September 2016


By Alistair Ross

Alistair Ross is both Fellow and Dean of Kellogg College. He is Director of Psychodynamic Studies, and Associate Professor in Psychotherapy at the Department for Continuing Education. In this post, Alistair explains the background to his decision to write his latest book, Sigmund Freud: pocket GIANTS, The History Press, August 2016.

Freud is famous. Nearly everybody has heard of him, although the medical students I was teaching in Malawi earlier this year had yet to encounter him.

So given the vast mountain of books written about Freud, why another one? Three reasons.

One, I like a challenge.

Two, I had the time. Following a painful fall off a mountain two years ago I was at home recuperating from seven fractures (ankle, wrist, both fibulas), multiple cracked ribs, torn knee ligaments and a head wound, which when bandaged made me look like Mr Bump. My body was pretty broken but surprisingly my mind intact. One friend said that the MRI scan was not to check for a brain injury but to see if I had one at all. I had run out of boxed sets to watch, mainly Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad (although this made me too anxious and I gave up). The draft of the book was written over that summer before I returned to work.

Three, I have been reading books on Freud since the 1980s, during which time I have acquired an extensive knowledge of the field. I knew that nobody was likely to surpass Peter Gay’s definitive biography, Freud: A Life for our Times (1988, Dent), but at over 900 pages, there was room for a ‘little’ biography. Think Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. So when I was asked if I would be interested in writing a ‘short, opinionated biography’ on Freud, as part of a series on great historical figures, I immediately said ‘yes’.

It was an enjoyable task but writing a brief text entails specific difficulties and a great deal of hard work.

Firstly, what to leave in or take out? I took encouragement from the novelist, Alice Jolly, who said at a Creative Writing lecture given at Kellogg, that the role of a writer is to take the reader down a corridor, open doors to many rooms, enabling them to catch a glimpse of what is inside, before closing them again in order to take the reader on the journey you want for them.

Secondly, there are many issues in Freud’s life that are complex and the academic answer is to offer a range of alternatives. In 20,000 words, I had to come off the fence and state what I believed the case to be.

Thirdly, how I interpret aspects of Freud’s life also says something revealing about me. So my book on Freud is my personal take on him and I know not everyone will agree. I am sure reviewers will all too painfully point this out.

Fourthly, it is always a challenge to write at an introductory level, for people new to the subject. Many people know the name Freud, but little about his life. The story of his life is important as I believe we find the roots of his profound thinking within it, and it is a story well worth telling again and again for each new generation.

Fifthly, I needed a good editor and reader. A psychoanalytic colleague helped me greatly by pointing out things I had misunderstood in my desire to reduce complex therapies into simple, accessible statements. Sometimes something got lost in the distillation. As I am not the most grammatical of writers, or someone who has an eye for detail, it was so helpful, if not challenging, to have someone tell me I needed to re-write some pages.

I was delighted Ruby Wax liked the book. I am pleased, too, that it contains things not said by Peter Gay, and offers a fresh perspective on why Freud remains a giant figure for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It took me longer than I thought and so I needed encouragement along the way. Life and biography mingle in unexpected ways. A friend who agreed to read the chapters as I wrote them was, shortly afterwards, diagnosed with a brain tumour. Sadly Mary never got to read the final version. It is a simple reminder that whether anyone ever writes a biography about us or not, we have only one life, so let’s live it.