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Book and Media Reviews
October 17, 2007

The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days

Author Affiliations

Book and Media Reviews Section Editor: John L. Zeller, MD, PhD, Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2007;298(15):1805-1810. doi:10.1001/jama.298.15.1809

Given the lugubrious title of this book—plus the massive, already existing literature on Freud and psychoanalysis by both admirers and critics—I approached this new book with some trepidation. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days is a thoroughly engaging, solidly informed, and beautifully written book.

Its author, Mark Edmundson, is a multiply awarded professor of English at the University of Virginia. He has no formal credentials in psychoanalysis, but he teaches courses on Sigmund Freud because he considers Freud one of the most strikingly original and influential thinkers of the 20th century. He has clearly read both Freud and his contemporaries in depth and with admirable comprehension. His quotations are aptly chosen, fully referenced (in a separate section at the back of the book), and seamlessly integrated into the narrative line. His writing is so good and so totally free of off-putting professional jargon that it draws the reader irresistibly into Edmundson's portrayal of Freud's last 2 years, during which he fled from Vienna to London after Hitler's invasion of Austria. Freud had already begun to reconsider his earlier speculations about the death instinct and the aggressive drive. Now he addressed head-on the psychoanalytic origins and dynamics of political tyranny and religious fundamentalism: themes ubiquitous throughout history, omnipresent in his own life as an educated secular Jew, and exceedingly relevant to our own turbulent times.