Historical Overview

The year 1992 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated German judge Daniel Paul Schreber, missing by one year the centenary of the onset of his second psychiatric illness that culminated in the publication a decade later, 1903, of his still widely discussed book, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, or Reflections of a Nervous Patient, that achieved great fame in the English-speaking world under the mistranslated title Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

In late October of 1893 Paul Schreber, the President of the Third Senate of the Supreme Appeals Court of the Kingdom of Saxony (the Dresden Oberlandesgericht), began to suffer from intractable insomnia, depression and suicidal acts and at the urging of his wife Sabine, once again sought the help of Professor Paul Flechsig, Director of the Psychiatric Hospital of Leipzig University, who had successfully treated Schreber for a less severe depression eight years earlier. Thus began a series of events that led Schreber to a near nine year long hospitalization and ultimately to the writing of his famous book.

Schreber's book is not only a most glorious self-description ever written by a mental patient and his various hallucinations and delusions but also a dramatic story of an individual struggling with his psychological conflicts and a profound existential thinker who wrestles with such issues as sexual pleasure and the guilt over sexual pleasure, the nature of love, the relations between man and the divine, his victimization by psychiatry and psychiatry's moral responsibility toward the individual and society, and many other issues that are as important to us today as they were one hundred years ago.

As soon as Freud heard about Schreber's book from C.G. Jung in 1910 he fell instantly under its spell and proceeded to immortalize it in his essay Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia paranoides), published in 1911, the year of Schreber's death. Freud's interpreted Schreber's second illness as caused by insuperable conflicts aroused in Schreber by an overpowering erotic desires for his first psychiatrist, Professor Paul Flechsig of Leipzig University. Those desires, Freud held, were a revival of Schreber's childhood sexual emotions towards his father, according to the theory of the inverted Oedipus complex. This interpretation became the cornerstone of psychoanalytic approaches to schizophrenia for decades to come and was reaffirmed in countless publications.

Freud's interpretation continued to be regarded as valid even after the appearance in 1959 of a trail-blazing new theory of Schreber's illness by the American-Jewish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, W. G. Niederland, MD. After reading a book on child rearing written by Paul Schreber's father, Moritz Schreber, the famous Leipzig physician, orthopedist, physical therapist, and educationalist, Niederland concluded that Paul Schreber's illness was caused by his memories of the sadistic treatment he underwent as a child at the hands of his father Moritz. Niederland believed that Moritz Schreber's use of posture-improving devices and other educational methods was tantamount to sadistic tortures which were later relived by Schreber in the form of terrifying psychotic symptoms he called miracles. It is to Niederland's credit that his theory inspired an enormous secondary literature and is still a major reason for the continuing interest in Schreber. However, the celebrity for Niederland's ideas was reaped by another American psychiatrist, Morton Schatzman, MD, with his 1973 bestseller, Soul Murder/Persecution in the Family. Schatzman became an inspiration for Dutch sociology Professor Han Israels whose landmark historical, archival and bibliographic study of the Schreber family, Schreber: Father and Son, was published in the United States and in Germany in 1989, filling gaps left by Freud and Niederland. After Freud, Israëls was the first to question the sadistic view of Moritz Schreber. In 1989 was defended the voluminous dissertation on Schreber, De Waan Lezen, by the Belgian researcher Daniel Devreese.

In 1989 also appeared my first two papers on Schreber, presenting a new interpretation of Schreber and resuming a thread that first began in a brief discussion of Schreber in a 1982 paper on hallucinations, and in 1992 appeared my book, In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry, published by The Analytic Press. My book begins where others end. , ending five years of intensive study of Schreber's book, the secondary literature, and archival sources in Germany.

My book is an attempt at recreating Paul Schreber, a life, with particular emphasis of illuminating the circumstances and meanings of Paul Schreber's second illness, the heart and soul of his Memoirs. Up until now Schreber's symptoms were treated as if they occurred in a contextual vacuum, unrelated to the psychiatric and legal systems that dealt with him and decided his fate. To correct this I studied the history of psychiatry in Saxony, and in particular the history of academic psychiatry in Leipzig and the figure of the second chairman of the Department of Psychiatry there, world famous brain anatomist and psychiatrist Paul Flechsig; and institutional psychiatry in Dresden and the figure of the Superintendent of the famed Sonnenstein Asylum, Guido Weber. Knowing the rules by which the system operated, the philosophies of Flechsig and Weber as explained in their writings, one can understand how it happened that Schreber was held against his will in the asylum beyond the point of recovery from his melancholia.

Whereas Freud and Niederland read Schreber's Memoirs selectively, only as far as the book provided data for their preformed theories. During his lifetime and posthumously, in the literature inspired by Freud and Niederland, Paul Schreber has been misdescribed, misdiagnosed, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. Moreover, Schreber was also mistreated, his so-called delusion of soul murder was a correct description of the soul-killing practices of the psychiatrists and attendants who treated him in the various institutions. A few myths were dispelled:

  • that Schreber was either a paranoiac or a schizophrenic: he suffered from major depressive illness;
  • that Schreber had a homosexual conflict: he was a heterosexual man with heterosexual conflicts, manifesting as transvestitism and tanssexual fantasies;
  • that his illness was caused by his father's sadistic manipulations.

In 1993 I presented a poster, "Freud's Schreber: A Reappraisal," at the 38th International Psychoanalytic Congress in Amsterdam, the fourth time Schreber was on the program of the International Psychoanalytic Association following those of Freud himself in 1911, by Katan in 1949, and by Baumeyer in 1951. The text follows.