Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Earlier this year, Overlook published The Escape of Sigmund Freud, the "very quirky, highly entertaining" (Jewish Book World) story of Freud's final years in Vienna and his flight from the rise of the Nazis. In this video, author David Cohen explains how he first stumbled onto Freud's remarkable story and introduces Anton Sauerwald, the unlikely Nazi who helped save Professor Freud's life.

Although he only visited the United States once during his lifetime and openly disdained the country, Americans have always been deeply fascinated by Sigmund Freud and his groundbreaking contributions to modern psychology. In this original essay, "The Special Relationship as Freud's Nephew Saw It," David Cohen looks at the legacy of Freud's work on his nephew Edward Bernays, whose work in the early field of public relations looked at British perceptions of America during the 20th century.

The Special Relationship as Freud's Nephew Saw It

Those of us who buff Freud sometimes wonder if his family’s laundry list is among the 19 boxes of documents in the Library of Congress which are closed in perpetuity. Any laundry list would note that the sheets of his bed were very dirty, as Freud’s wife had to warn a new maid—the professor’s side flecked with fecal matter. Freud himself occasionally referred to analysis as the study of ‘shittology’.

I wasn’t after missing laundry lists when I was in the library of the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London. There, I came upon a typescript written paper by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays has had nearly as much influence on our culture as his more famous uncle. Bernays is credited with having invented public relations. One of his first clients was Caruso, and Bernays then worked for Woodrow Wilson. He wrote “Crystallizing Public Opinion.” Basing himself partly on his uncle’s work he said, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

Bernays lived until in 1995 and sadly no one seems to have interviewed him towards the end of his life when he was the last person alive who had known Freud well. Bernays sometimes came to England where his cousin Anna Freud was living. On one of these visits, he had a commission from some British government department.  He was asked to carry out a study of how the British perceived Americans, and especially Americans who were in England. Bernays never said how many people he had interviewed so his study was hardly scientific but he was very shrewd and his findings offer a sharp insight on the so-called “special relationship” after Suez.

As we have just celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee here, one of Bernays’ conclusions seems timely. His British sample thought reporters on American papers “are brash and rude and the Queen should not be subjected to them.” Clearly in the late 1950s, the American press did not adore the Queen.

The all swaggering Yanks, Bernays’ sample said, “don’t adapt themselves to British customs. They demanded cold beer, ice water and ice cream which was hardly that exotic in late 1950s England.” Worse, “Americans disparage British ways of life.”

The British did not think Americans were the strong silent type either. Many of the British respondents thought Americans were “brash and noisy” and talked far too much for the stiff upper lip sort. The Americans were seen as “provincial, nouveau riche and uncultured.” Oh, and self satisfied.

As if that was not damning enough, the average Brit, Bernays found, believed that American were given to mass hysteria and that once they were over the pond “they shed morality when away from home.”

The British were not flattering about Americans as parents or American children. American adults were always involved in “scandals, divorces and indiscretions.” The phrase struck me as I’ve been studying how the children of the British royals were brought up. Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, believed she was having conversations with Christ and the Buddha and spent four years in asylums run by devotees of Freud. Her nine year old son was sent to live with the Mountbattens whose behaviour was scandalous. George Mountbatten had married Nada, the great great granddaughter of the Russian poet Pushkin. She was bisexual and her lovers included Gloria Vanderbilt. The New York Daily News reported that Nada was “a cocktail crazed dancing mother, a devotee of sex erotica and the mistress of a German prince.” It hinted she was a lesbian when she was not in bed with her German and concluded, “it was a blistering tale no skin lotion could soothe.” Nada wanted to fly to New York to help her lover when Gloria was involved in a custody case, but King George V stopped her.   

American children “are not controlled and behave badly” was the general consensus. They were always chewing bubble gum was an especially sore point. In general American youth was “not controlled and behaved badly.” And it always wore blue jeans.

The British felt that being exposed to Americans corrupted their own youth. “English girls imitate Hollywood sexiness, sex immorality and bad manners.”

I wonder how different it is now but one point is striking. Bernays’ sample did not condemn Americans for being religious. Today Britain is so sceptical of religion that it will be something of a struggle to replace Rowan Williams with an archbishop who actually believes in God. Bernays’ study should be replicated when London hosts the Olympics.

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