Review – Élisabeth Roudinesco, Freud: In His Time and Ours (Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press, 2016) Translated by Catherine Porter


Michal Shapira, Tel Aviv University

More than 75 years after the death of Sigmund Freud, we know much about the life of the Jewish founder of psychoanalysis. This is due to the immense number of records about him which are available to researchers in all fields. Beyond his published works, Freud left numerous notes, diaries, files and annotations in his library in the Freud Museum in London. Additional materials are found at his former home-turned-museum in Vienna. Freud also wrote more than 20,000 letters; about half of these have been published in English and other languages. We also have a collection of interviews gathered in the 1950s by his follower Kurt R. Eisssler, as well as texts concerning 170 patients. To this we should add the vast amount of work written on Freud and his circle by historians, psychoanalysts, critical theorists, gender scholars, and others. Of course, we also have biographies on Freud; in fact, more than 30 of them—the first was published by his disciple Fritz Wittels as early as 1934. Perhaps better-known and much more widely read is the 1950s landmark, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, an exhaustive, three-volume biography by the British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. Also familiar is the 1988 best-selling biography by American historian Peter Gay, titled Freud: A Life for Our time. Accounts critical of Freud, such as the one published in 2017 by Frederick Crews titled Freud: The Making of an Illusion, still have the ability to create controversy in the pages of the New York Times, The Guardian or The New York Review of Books—a recent if small testament perhaps to how Freud remains one of the most influential modern thinkers, even early in the 21st century.

With the title Freud: In His Time and Ours—echoing Gay’s book—Élisabeth Roudinesco offers a significant, refreshing biography of Freud. In fact, although much is already known about him, there is still more to discover. This is especially true with the long-due opening of Freud’s personal documents, which had previously been unavailable, locked away in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. by Eissler who had followed the wishes of Anna Freud and restricted scholarly access. Freud’s works came into the public domain in 2010, and since then his archives have been mostly accessible in the manuscript department after years of fierce battles. Furthermore, digitization of The Sigmund Freud Collection now online at the Library of Congress website is sure to make Freud’s work and legacy even more widely available, both to researchers and the broader public (see

Roudinesco reminds us how all-consuming it is to spend time with these many texts, placed as they are in different sites of research, and how hard it is to integrate them into a critical and contextual account of Freud’s life. This is especially true as Freud worked during a time of enormous change: he initiated his project at the fin de siècle and his work matured during the First World War, the Golden Twenties and with the rise of dictatorial regimes. Ernest Jones’ biography presented Sigmund Freud as a great man of science and a lonely genius in the making. Though he wrote it as a close follower of Freud, the biography is not hagiographic as is often assumed; Jones did not exclude the unfavorable and controversial elements of Freud’s life, such as his use of cocaine or the radical changes in his theories over time. Peter Gay’s immensely readable and incredibly useful biography provides a good conceptual framework for understanding psychoanalysis; overall it offers a genial account of the man while following closely the immediate, but less so (to my taste) the broader, contexts of his life.  Gay presented Freud as siding with reason and rationality at a time when these were sorely challenged. Roudinesco’s biography, perhaps more than those of Jones and Gay, discusses at length the neglected and more personal sides of Freud’s life and the rocky development of his thought. Importantly, she pays more attention to the fact that though Freud was in many ways conservative in his politics and habits, he harbored a deep ambivalence towards rationality, and his theories had a subversive and radical edge. Furthermore, Roudinesco tells the story of the famous man alongside the stories of his patients. She follows the reverberation of Freud’s legacy across time in different societies and geographies.

Her book is divided into four parts that pay less attention than Gay to developing an overarching thesis. Part one positions Freud squarely within his Jewish background in an anti-Semitic society and tells the familiar story of his youth and the invention of psychoanalysis. Part two looks at the development of the analytic movement and the rivalries among disciples and dissidents. Part three addresses competing views of the Enlightenment and gender matters in relation to Freud’s life and work, and part four focuses on Freud’s final years, facing Hitler, Nazism and life as a refugee. Throughout this biography, Roudinesco aims to place psychoanalysis within the different cultures and societies in which it developed. As she states: “Freud always thought that what he was discovering in the unconscious foreshadowed what was happening to people in reality. I have chosen to reverse this proposition and show that what Freud thought he was discovering was at bottom nothing but the product of a society, a familial environment, and a political situation whose significance he interpreted masterfully so as to ascribe it to the work of the unconscious” (p. 4). Roudinesco tries to situate the man and his work as immersed in historical time intermingled with events great and small, the private and the public life, love, friendships and dialogues that extended over time.

Her background as a historian (who studied the history of psychoanalysis in France and published a biography of Jacques Lacan and his circle) and as a psychoanalyst in her own right comes in handy.  What Roudinesco adds to the study of Freud is a more philosophical reading of his work. This is therefore a fresh account that draws on many sources that were not available in previous biographies of Freud. Roudinesco also mentions the importance of writing a biography of Freud from her position as a French scholar, as the terrain was dominated by historians writing from England or the US. What motivated her, she states, is that “after decades of hagiography, hatred, scholarly studies, innovative interpretations and abusive declarations, after multiple returns to his texts punctuating the history of the second half of the twentieth century, we have great difficulty in knowing who Freud really was, so thoroughly have the commentaries, fantasies, legends, and rumors masked the reality of this thinker, in his time and in ours” (p. 2). Despite the fact that some today still enjoy the scholarly unproductive act of “Freud bashing,” not all with agree with this last statement by Roudinesco. It is a pity that recent fine and detailed historical works written in English (such as those by the late John Forrester and Laura Cameron or Katja Guenther) are not integrated into her account. But Roudinesco is herself aware of the fact that every era and every country have their “own Freud” and so her book is a welcome addition, recovering his thought and influence in ways that surely invite further detailed studies of his legacy, followers, patients and his exceptionally diverse impact in different locales and times.


Michal Shapira teaches History and Gender Studies at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain” (Cambridge University Press, 2013; paperback 2015)


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