Terribly far-fetched, said the Wolf-Man

DR FREUD: A Life by Paul Ferris Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20
I ... came to understand that hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not from real occurrences." Freud wrote this to explain his rejection of his earlier Seduction Theory, which had located the key to neurosis as sexual molestation in childhood. He felt (no doubt correctly) that he had bullied many of his patients into "remembering" having been sexually abused. He therefore inverted the more empirically evident parent-to-child sexual impulses. Instead, on the basis of one of his dreams, he asserted the universal occurrence of the infant's "Oedipal tendencies" - a boy's incestuous desire for his mother and murderous jealousy of his father (with, later, a more or less parallel scenario for girl- children).

Thus, as Paul Ferris makes clear in his highly readable biography, he replaced one "key to neurosis" with another just as false - and yet more pernicious, in that it validated the cover-up of genuine, widespread childhood abuse. This particular flight into fantasy is symptomatic. How far psychoanalysis has aped its founder is shown by the psychoanalysts described by Janet Malcolm in her book In the Freud Archives. Even for ex-inmates of Auschwitz, they maintained (and they themselves were Jewish), fantasy and reality have equivalent validity.

Equally, though, Freudianism can declare fantasy to be reality. Freud was given to compulsive symbol-spinning. He would feverishly work out permutations of phone digits and hotel-room numbers to compute the date of his death. This tendency to magical thinking may have enabled him to empathise with his patients' obsessively ramifying associations. But it also encouraged an extraordinary folie a deux in which Freud proliferated the meanings of each patient's associations beyond her wildest dreams, and then insisted that the way he construed them represented her forgotten childhood reality. So a dream of seven wolves (by the eponymous Wolf-Man) denoted the dreamer's buried memory of seeing his mother penetrated from behind, and explains his nostalgie de la boue and excessive deference to men. "Terribly far-fetched," said the Wolf-Man himself.

Whether or not these (re)constructed latent memories were accurate was usually academic, precisely because, as Freud himself stressed, they were latent. Undoubtedly, too, many of Freud's patients benefited from his charismatic attention. However, flouting the scientific for a delusory mind-over-matter omnipotence sometimes had disastrous consequences. He misdiagnosed a 14-year-old's stomach tumour as hysteria, and she died. His construal of temporal lobe epilepsy as hysteria encouraged years of similar misdiagnosis. He read an unconscious wish to arouse his affection into the unfortunate Emma Eckstein's nose-bleeds, noting darkly that she bled three times within a month and each bleeding lasted for four days "which must have some significance". He got his friend Wilhelm Fliess to operate on her nose in the name of his crackpot theory linking nasal and sexual dysfunction, and, because Fliess left half a metre of gauze in the wound, Eckstein haemorrhaged so badly she nearly died.

Freud toyed with various global panaceas: Fliess's numerology and biorythmic theories, hypnosis, astrology and telepathy. For a time he insisted that cocaine was a world-redeeming cure-all, utilising mysterious mechanisms to reduce food-intake while enhancing the body's functioning - until he realised that through his recommendations a friend had become addicted to cocaine. Predictably, Freud had not bothered with empirical underpinning or any research into side-effects. He periodically aimed at a more biological basis for psychology. In Heath-Robinsonian diagrams of the human body, squiggles and arrows were supposed to indicate a "flow of electricity". Apparently if this electricity/energy becomes blocked by wearing a condom, masturbating, or whatever other inhibition of sexual activity currently preoccupied him, toxins accumulate and hysterical symptoms are manifested. Again this pseudo-scientific model, with its unacknowledged hydraulics metaphor, is totally ungrounded in fact and based purely on associative magic.

The Church of Freud has been unsettled by a good deal of hearsay recently. Jeffrey Masson and Peter Swales have unearthed letters and secrets, and, in the case of Swales, been as Freudian as Freud in symbolic sleuthing that claims to disinter an affair with his sister-in-law and other discreditable behaviour. More importantly, Richard Webster's masterly Why Freud Was Wrong provides a balanced, stringent debunking of Freudianism.

Paul Ferris benefits, not always avowedly, from these revelations and reversals. His biography is wonderfully enjoyable, though slighter and less scholarly then Peter Gay's, and employing Webster-type critique too shallowly. Not enough space is given to analysis of Freudian theory (Ferris hardly even mentions the id or superego), and not enough justice done to the charisma and drive that largely account for Freud's success. Ferris delineates Freud's prim, tormented sexuality fascinatingly and fairly. Perhaps, as he speculates, it was Freud's own sexual repression that led him to stress the importance of sex.

Yet, whatever the origin of his concern, Freud was surely courageous and far-sighted in paying attention to his patients' sexuality and to what they said, and in developing Schopenhauer's insight - that "the ego is not master in its own house". He called this one of the "three severe blows" science has dealt to human vanity (the others being Copernicus's heliocentrism and Darwin's biological reductionism). But perhaps his own greatest, and typically paradoxical, insight is that a healthy civilisation depends on the very repression from which its members, in order to be healthy, need to be liberated.