Sunday Times, 19 June 2016
The life of Sir Clement Freud was that of an actor in search of a part. He was a celebrity chef, game show panellist, journalist, advertiser of dog food and politician. Only the last seemed to satisfy his need for significance; when elected he said he finally had “something solid about which to be famous”.
He was a certain type of mid-level celebrity — very British, very local, ubiquitous and familiar but always indefinable. He died in 2009, since when his name had gradually faded from view. Until last week. Once more his face — bearded, and jowly as a bloodhound — was everywhere, as he joined Rolf Harris, Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall in the swelling ranks of show-business paedophiles, another predator whose fame gave him access to his victims.
Three women have come forward to describe his behaviour and to destroy for ever the aura of gentle eccentricity on which his fame had rested. One victim, Vicky Hayes, says he groomed her and then, when she was 17, got her drunk and took her virginity. “His parting words to me were: ‘If you are pregnant, ring me.’ That was it . . . As if he had done this before.”
Sylvia Woosley was just 11 when Freud started abusing her. She was subsequently invited into his bed with his wife, the actress Jill Raymond. When Hayes was 14, he seized on her love of horses — he was a racing fan — to take her from her parents’ house to the racecourse. When she was 17, he even talked the parents into letting her stay overnight when she went with him to Newmarket to see the 1,000 Guineas.
Another victim wants to remain anonymous and has been given the pseudonym Joanne. She too was spotted by Freud at the age of 11 and says her mother “allowed” her to be groomed by him. In 1978, when Freud was a Liberal MP, she was, she says, brutally raped by him.
The pattern is familiar from the other cases. First, the target is spotted and groomed. The predator seizes opportunities and controls his victim, in effect making her complicit in the crime, perhaps through the fear of exposure.
His widow said she was “shocked, deeply saddened and profoundly sorry”. Most chillingly, it emerged that he had befriended the parents of Madeleine McCann in Praia da Luz, Portugal, where he had a villa, in the weeks after their daughter went missing.
Freud died in April 2009. His funeral was attended by Bono, Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Nicholas Parsons, Gordon Brown, George Osborne and David Steel. It’s hard to imagine them turning up after this. A predatory paedophile has few friends and no mourners.
Such exposures have become almost routine, but this one is different because of the name — Freud. Over the generations, misbehaviour and misunderstanding have made the family seem cursed.
They are a phenomenally gifted lot. Clement’s brother was the formidable artist Lucian; they were estranged because of some ancient Freud feud. His son, Matthew, is a hugely successful public relations man; his daughter, Emma, is a broadcaster and the partner of the film maker Richard Curtis; his niece Bella is a fashion designer; and her sister Esther is a writer.
But that entire cast of characters shrinks into merely local significance next to the intellectual and moral giant who was Clement’s grandfather. Sigmund Freud looms over our century as he loomed over the previous one. Clement seemed uneasy about the link.
“I suppose,” Clement once wrote, “that if your name is Freud, it is better to be related to Sigmund than not. It must be frustrating to have to keep denying family connection.”
A writer and thinker of genius, Sigmund was the greatest of all investigators of the human psyche. He was a psychologist by profession, but he was more like a great novelist in the intensity with which he watched human behaviour. Nothing was lost on him, especially the way in which the subconscious mind leaked out into the world, undermining our illusions of control.
His legacy is all around us: people talk of “Freudian slips”; they use “anal” to describe anybody who is obsessively neat; the subconscious is evoked daily; and after Sigmund Freud the name of Oedipus is heard when a man’s closeness to his mother is evoked. Above all, thanks to Freud, we are aware of the intense drama of childhood, of its effects in later life and ultimately of the perpetual war in the human mind between the forces of instinct and the demands of society. He would have had much to say about the sins of his grandson.
Sadly, he is for the moment as rejected as he is misunderstood. Psychoanalysis, the technique he invented for treating mental illness, is regarded by many as ineffective. His belief in dreams as “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” is no longer accepted.
That fastidious genius Vladimir Nabokov dismissed his work as the application of Greek myths to the genitals. (He was referring to the Oedipus conflict that Freud said afflicted men and the female equivalent that he thought might afflict women, which was later identified as the Electra complex by Carl Jung.)
He is in fact commonly regarded, if thought about at all, as a failure or simply as the man who thought about nothing but sex, preaching sexual liberation as some kind of cure-all. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Freud was adamant,” says the philosopher John Gray, “that no kind of civilised life is possible without the repression of desire and instinct. It’s true that he believed sexuality had been too much suppressed. But he never imagined that sexual impulses and fantasies could be given unchecked play.”
This used to be well understood, even in less exalted circles. At the end of her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, published in 1925, Anita Loos has Lorelei Lee — the character played in the 1953 film by Marilyn Monroe — go to a “Dr Froyd” in Vienna. He listens to Lee’s dizzy ramblings, concludes she has neither dreams to interpret nor inhibitions to untangle and finally tells her to “cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep”. Without inhibitions, Freud well knew, all is chaos.
“Untrammelled self-expression was [for him] the road to anarchy,” says Gray, “both in society and in the lives of individuals. Freud wasn’t a prophet of freedom but a modern Stoic moralist. That’s why he is so useful to us today — if only he is properly understood.”
Freud offered little hope to the world; he said his treatment was only an attempt to turn the suffering of the neurotic into normal unhappiness. But why should he, a man who witnessed the rise of the Nazis, offer hope? The family is Jewish, and four of his five sisters died in concentration camps. Freud himself only just escaped that fate. Thanks to his friend and later biographer, Ernest Jones, with his family he managed to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
He came to London to be honoured as one of the greatest figures of the age and to establish the Freud dynasty. Having endured, with stoic grace, never interrupting his work, cancer of the jaw, he died in London in September 1939, 20 days after Britain entered the Second World War and 19 days after his grandson Clement had become a British citizen. He had been in this country since 1933.
“He is no more a person now,” wrote the poet WH Auden of Sigmund after his death, “but a whole climate of opinion.” In the same poem he wrote: “He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told / the unhappy Present to recite the Past.” If you want to understand a genius, ask a genius.
His grandson Lucian is probably the greatest member of Sigmund’s British family. He was a superb draughtsman, but his mature style involved, among other things, a ruthless examination of the human form and all its fleshy imperfections that seemed to echo the fierceness of his grandfather’s gaze. “I paint people . . . how they happen to be,” Lucian said.
Some have suggested that his reclining and seated figures evoked the postures of Sigmund’s patients during psychoanalysis. Sigmund would certainly have been interested in Lucian’s mother fixation — the artist is said to have spent about 4,000 hours painting portraits of her.
Lucian’s profligate sex life, meanwhile, bears some similarities to Clement’s. Rumour suggests he had 40 children, though in reality the total seems to be 14: two from his first marriage, and the rest from a very long list of mistresses. He was also clearly attracted to younger women and was often coldly ruthless in his conquests. He once perplexed a sitter by breaking off painting to have sex in the bathroom with a female visitor. He returned, naked, to continue the portrait.
The centrality of unfettered sexuality to the lives of at least two Freuds is clear. Perhaps the popular myth that Sigmund was all about sex was true and it found expression in his descendants. Certainly Clement gave the impression that there was no need to hold back one’s impulses.
“If you resolve,” he wrote, “to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don’t actually live longer; it just seems longer.”
Perhaps a case can be made that the promiscuous satisfaction of Lucian’s appetites was the price to be paid for his art. “The paintings that really excite me,” he once said, “have an erotic element or side to them, irrespective of subject matter.” But everybody can agree that Clement should have controlled himself.
These are, however, special cases. The bigger picture of the Freud dynasty is much more interesting. Take Clement’s son, Matthew. He founded in 1985 and is now chairman of the enormously successful PR agency Freud Communications. Even in this there was an echo of his great-grandfather’s work — PR as we know it is based on the idea of a mass subconscious.
Edward Bernays was Sigmund’s nephew — twice over in fact, for his mother, Anna, was Sigmund’s sister and his father, Ely, was the brother of Sigmund’s wife. The Bernays family moved to America, where Edward became the founder of the modern craft of public relations and, more importantly, of political spin. His approach plainly owed everything to his uncle’s conception of the subconscious mind. But Bernays applied it to the masses, not individuals.
“The voice of the people,” he wrote, “expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.”
More noble was the life of another Sigmund grandson, Walter. He left Vienna for Britain in March 1938 with his father, Martin. They ended up being interned as enemy aliens in 1940; he was even deported to Australia, returning the following year, the internment rules having been reformed. He served nobly, ultimately in the Special Operations Executive, a very dangerous job. He parachuted behind enemy lines in Austria in 1945, having declined to change his obviously Jewish name in case of capture. “I want the Germans to know,” he explained, “a Freud is coming back.”
That courageous sentiment, and the brave truth-telling life of the family’s presiding genius Sigmund, is what should define the Freuds, not the jowly actor in search of a part, the predator in search of a victim. And they should certainly not be thought of as a family cursed either by sexual misbehaviour or by the crude view of sexuality mistakenly associated with the thought of Sigmund.
For the truth about Sigmund is that it was love, not sex, that was closest to the heart of his genius. “Psychoanalysis,” he wrote to Jung, “is in essence a cure through love.” And he listed work, love and taking responsibility as the most important things in life. Such honest commitments did not offer hope, or even happiness, but only some small portion of solace, because, as he also said: “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”