Biographical and Historical Background to Freud’s Schreber Case

The following was presented to the Lacan Circle of Melbourne in March, 2012. It may be of benefit to anybody who wishes to study the case:


The purpose of my discussion today will not be to provide a summary of Freud’s case study of Schreber, but rather, to find Schreber’s place within Freud’s work, and within psychoanalysis more generally. I shall do this by examining the background to Schreber’s memoirs, and then by elaborating upon the context of Freud’s case study. Time permitting, I shall look at the ongoing implications of the Schreber case, particularly from a Lacanian perspective.


In 1842, Daniel Paul Schreber was born to Moritz and Pauline, in Leipzig, Saxony (Lothane, 1989). In contrast to Freud’s other major case histories, we know relatively little of Schreber’s childhood, or even his adult life prior to his illness. Schreber’s own account of his views on his family constitute the censored third chapter of his Memoirs, deemed unfit for publication. Moritz, the elder Schreber, was a physician, author and pedagogue, particularly interested in the upbringing. After his death, a Schreber movement emerged to perpetuate his ideas, and allotment gardens for the recreation of children (known as ‘Schrebergartens) bear his name to this day.

Moritz Schreber wrote over thirty books on child rearing, and founded an Orthopaedic Institute. The aim of the elder Schreber’s teaching seems to have been to instill a sense of discipline in children in the first few years of life. To that end, he prescribed elaborate methods by which children could be taught and disciplined, and illustrated his works with pictures of devices, to be used to keep a child in the correct posture during various activities. The sadistic nature of the pedagogical regime, with its grim fanaticism against children’s ‘crude nature’, (and masturbation, in particular), has led a number of commenters to ask whether, and to what extent the father’s ideology is implicated in the son’s aetiology. Some have taken it for granted that the elder Schreber’s methods constituted a trauma, against which the ‘delusional formation’ is a kind of attempt at recovery. Indeed, some of the younger Schreber’s hallucinations and delusions have clear correlates in the devices championed by his father. Nonetheless, much of this is mere speculation, as the facts of Schreber’s early life are largely unknown. I shall sketch out some verifiable details.


–          The little we know of Schreber’s childhood derives largely from Schreber’s own accounts, of which only minimal details were made public. In addition, a letter from one of Schreber’s sister, Anna was kept on file at a hospital. Another sister (Klara) also wrote several letters to the Sonnenstein County Asylum.

–          Schreber was one of 5 children, with a brother, Daniel Gustav, and three sisters.

–          The letter from Anna provides one of the few references to Schreber’s mother (Niederland, 1963): ‘Father discussed with our mother everything and anything; she took part in all his ideas, plans, and projects, she read the galley proofs of his writings with him, and was his faithful, close companion in everything’.  It is, of course, impossible to verify the accuracy of Anna’s observations here, but they suggest that the father’s manuscripts, orthopaedic projects and devices were developed in collaboration with the mother.

–          Anna described the Schreber household as ‘oriented towards God’, a god present at all times, not merely in their daily prayers, but in all of the family’s activities. She adds that ‘All this was finished with the sudden death of our beloved father…the childhood paradise was destroyed’. (Niederland, 1963).

–          Another sister – Klara Klause – wrote of Schreber in 1900, upon his release from hospital, that Schreber’s ‘hasty, restless and nervous manner’ were noticeable even during his youth (Baumeyer, 1956).

–          Little is known about the other sister, Sidonie, other than the she remained unmarried and was ‘mentally no longer quite right’ by the end of her life (Baumeyer, 1956).

The elder Schreber

–          Dr Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber was, in his own day, described as ‘a physician, teacher, nutritionist, anthropologist, therapeutic gymnast and athlete, and above all, a man of action, of tremendous enthusiasm and endurance’ (Niederland, 1959b).

–          The essence of Dr Schreber’s system was that parents and educators should use ‘the maximum of pressure and coercion during the earliest years of the child’s life’ (Niederland, 1959b). Dr Schreber was preoccupied with discipline, order, cleanliness, posture, muscle-building, and opposition to masturbation during childhood and adolescence. The child’s progress (and failures) were to be regularly reviewed before the entire family, and, when punished, the child must ‘stretch out its hand to the executor of the punishment’ to prevent ‘against the possibility of spite and bitterness’.

–          One brief note from Sonnenstein Asylum, where by younger Schreber was admitted, said that the father ‘suffered from compulsive manifestations with murderous impulses’ (Niederland, 1959b).

–          In either 1858 or 1859, Dr Schreber suffered an injured when an iron ladder fell on his head in his gymnasium, in which he did his usual calisthenics. He never recovered from a series of vaguely recorded symptoms, described as a ‘chronic head conditions’ which could have actually been a ‘severe nervous breakdown’. The onset of his condition was age 51, with his death arriving at 53 due to a perforation in the intestinal tract near the appendix.

–          The younger Schreber complained of similar symptoms, and at a very similar age. At 51, he complained of ‘softening of the head’, and by 53, he attempted suicide.

–          Many of the younger Schreber’s hallucinations and physical sensations have direct correlates with either the father’s machines (such as the ‘coccyx miracle’, linked to a device to ensure correct posture when sitting) to ‘putrefaction’ and ‘obstruction’ of the gut and abdomen, possibly linking him via identification with the dead and dying father.

The brother

–          The eldest of the Schreber children, Daniel Gustav, became head of the family in 1861 after the father’s sudden death. He himself was likely to have been psychotic, and died by his own hand at the age of 38 (Niederland, 1963), a few weeks after being promoted to a judge (Gerichtstrat). He was unmarried, and died by a sunshot wound, with ‘melancholia’ ascribed as the cause of the event in obituaries.

–          Similarly, Schreber’s breakdown occurred after a roughly comparable promotion, and his account of reading his own death notice in his memoirs may be an instance of identification with the deceased brother, who may already have been linked from birth by virtue of their similar names.


–          What can be learned of the marriage between Schreber and his wife derives largely from letters from the latter to the former. Schreber’s wife wrote a number of letters to the relevant authorities, expressing concerns about her ability to ensure her husband’s safety if he were to be released into her care. Schreber, for his part, seems to have been eager to persuade his wife of the validity of his belief-system, amongst his numerous efforts to secure discharge from the hospital.

–          The couple had had two miscarriages or stillborns by 1884, the time of Schreber’s first breakdown, and are known to have taken in a 13-year old girl as a foster child in the early 1900s.

–          One commenter (i.e. Baumeyer, 1956) describes Schreber’s wife’s, nee Ottilie Sabine Behr as having a ‘primitive’ and ‘almost childlike’ style of writing. Whilst Ottilie was not impoverished, she was born into a family who were connected with the theater, and whose wealth and prestige were far les than the Schreber’s. Needless to say, the marriage was not approved of by Schreber’s father.


–          In 1884, just prior to his first hospitalization, Schreber ran as a candidate for the Reichstag. Several commentators have noted that this was likely to have been a rebellious move against a kind of father-figure, namely, Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ of Germany, who at the time was dissolving the Reichstag at will (Niederland, 1951).

–          Despite professing to progressive ideals, Schreber lost overwhelmingly to a socialist candidate (Lothane, 1989).

–          His stint in hospital was a comparatively short one, however, and Schreber sooned resumed his legal work.


–          In late 1893, after years of working as a judge at a relatively local level, Schreber was informed of his promotion to President of the Senate. This is the major event preceding his second and chronic breakdown.

–          Whilst being amply qualified for the role, several commentators have noted that Schreber’s new colleagues were men a generation older than him, and possible father figures.

–          The status of his promotion would have endowed him with a ‘lasting and practically irreversible life status’, with refusal constituting something akin to lèse majesté, since his promotion was made by the King of Saxony. As one researcher put it (Niederland, 1959): ‘Illness…was the only way out, and with a lifelong position of this kind as a permanent threat before the patient, it could not be of short duration’.

In hospital

–          Schreber’s first breakdown occurred in October 1884, when he was 44, and had, a few weeks earlier, failed in his candidacy for the Reichstag. The official diagnosis was ‘hypochondria’. Schreber himself attributed his condition to ‘mental over-exertion’ (Schreber, 1955) following his unsuccessful election.

–          One researcher (Baumeyer, 1956) collated what remained of the clinical files kept during Schreber’s admissions to three different hospitals. These expand upon a good deal of the material in the memoirs. We know, for instance, that Schreber was particularly interested in conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and believed that he needed to convert to the former in order to ‘escape persecution’.

–          The notes provide some idea of Schreber’s state from an outsider’s perspective. See, for instance, an entry for December, 1895: ‘Still excited. Yet he allows himself to converse on indifferent matters. Plays the piano, chess, and reads again. Refuses to talk about his delusional phantasies; he screams loudly at night and bellows out of the window repeating insulting words, or “I am Schreber, the President of the Senate”’.

–          In October 1899, Schreber is preoccupied with ‘feminine pursuits’, such as sewing, and ‘decorating with gaily coloured ribbons’.

–          It is curious that Schreber, for his part, seems somewhat familiar with the psychiatry of his time, to the extent that he cites Kraepelin several times in his memoirs. Such knowledge may have been a necessity in his pursuit of liberty from the asylum.

–          Schreber died in hospital in 1911, a few months after the publication of Freud’s case study.


Freud (1911) published his views on the Schreber memoirs in 1911. At the time, many of the key people associated with the case – Flechsig, Dr Schreber’s children, not to mention Schreber himself – were still alive, and Freud thus felt compelled to proceed with ‘restraint’.

Freud, famously, dealt more with neurotics than psychotics. He was introduced to Schreber’s memoirs, published in 1903, by Jung, who was of the Zurich school, and more at home with psychoses. Freud (1910) wrote to Jung in October, 1910:

First an analysis of our dear and ingenious friend Schreber. Because one can guess a good deal in reading the book. (I don’t remember if I have already written to you about it.) First the father complex: Obviously Flechsig–father–God-sun form a series. The “middle” Flechsig points to a brother who like the father was already “blessed,” that is, dead, at the time of the illness. The forecourts of heaven or “anterior realms of God” (breasts!) are the women of the family, the “posterior realms of God” (buttocks!) are the father and his sublimation, God. There is no mention of any “soul-murder” in Manfred, but there is of—incest with a sister. The castration complex is only too evident. Don’t forget that Schreber’s father was—a doctor. As such, he performed miracles, he miracled. In other words, the delightful characterization of God—that he knows how to deal only with corpses and has no idea of living people—and the absurd miracles that are performed on hi are a bitter satire on his father’s medical art. In other words, the same use of absurdity as in dreams. The enormous significance of homosexuality for paranoia is confirmed by the central emasculation fantasy, etc. etc

Around the same time, Freud (1910) wrote to Karl Abraham that he had worked out his ideas on the Schreber case during a recent trip to Palermo. His aim, he said, was to unravel the ‘riddle of paranoia’ through an examination of Schreber, guided by Abraham’s work on ‘psycho-sexual differences between hysteria and dementia præcox’, or neurosis and psychosis. In contrast to the Wolfman case, Freud had not yet broken with Jung and Adler by this time, and his references to them throughout the text are favourable.

The Schreber case was Freud’s most detailed examination of psychosis, a category he thought ‘impracticable’ for psychoanalysis, due to its ‘lack of therapeutic results (Freud, 1925, p. 60). Significantly, the Schreber case marked the beginnings of Freud’s foray into metapsychology, in which he elaborated narcissism, the unconscious, and primary processes. Fundamentally, Freud saw neurosis and psychosis as two differing responses to the same kinds of problems. Freud initially thought that there must be a ‘mechanism’ which is ‘analogous to repression’ in which the ‘ego detaches itself from the external world’ (Freud, 1924, p. 153). Psychosis at this stage is always a kind of failed relation to the ‘outside’ world. Subsequently, Freud identified the ‘mechanism’ as Verleugnung, usually translated as ‘disavowal’ (Freud 1924b, p. 184).

There is a lack of theorisation here on Freud’s part, however, as Freud assigns the same mechanism to the fetishist, who denies or disavows the evidence of his senses regarding sexual difference. In Lacanian terms, there is no mechanism distinguishing between psychosis and perversion.


Whilst memoirs of madness are more or less an established subset of the genre, Schreber’s remain the most famous and controversial. Whilst many psychoanalysts added evidence to Freud’s basic theses, there were also critics. Because time is short, I’ll mention three authors briefly.

First, Melanie Klein ought to be raised in connection with the Schreber case. Though her reading of Freud’s study is slighter than Lacan’s, it greatly influenced her views on the development of the ego, and particularly, the paranoid-schizoid position of the infant (Klein, 1946).

Second, Deleuze and Guattari (1972) make much use of Schreber in their famous work, Anti-Oedipus. Schreber is the exemplar of the ‘body without organs’. More significantly, and in line with many other commentators, Deleuze and Guattari take issue with Freud’s failure to take into account Dr Schreber’s ‘sadistico-paranoiac machines’. Readings of Schreber after Freud have tended to emphasise the traumatic (or traumatogenic) nature of Schreberian aetiology. There is some obvious merit to these readings; after all, both Schreber boys suffered psychosis, adding weight to the notion that something sinister, perhaps even proto-fascist, was afoot in the father’s pedagogy.

We are then back to an old thesis, namely, that madness is the appropriate response to a mad (not to mention cruel and rigidly sadistic) world. It is precisely from this position that Lacan’s entry into the world of psychosis began, in the 1930s, with both Aimee and the Papin sisters. In the case of the latter, Lacan’s argued against the popular notion that the grisly murders of the two psychotic sisters could be explained solely (or even primarily) by way of their social circumstances, unfavourable as these were. In this, he restored singularity to the psychotic’s condition.

This is illustrated best in Lacan’s detailed readings of  the Schreber case, to be found in Seminar III, and in the Écrits, under the title of ‘On a question prior to any possible treatment of psychosis’. This latter essay is especially important for its departure from Freud, which is to say, Lacan explores the notion of hallucination as perceptual failure (to put it rather simply), as well as imposition of Verwerfung in place of Freud’s Verleugnung.

Lacan is able to take Schreber as the paradigmatic case of psychosis by situating foreclosure of the paternal metaphor as the sine qua non of psychotic disorders. Systematically, Lacan shows how the failure of Schreber to signify the symbolic father, the father of the Law, is the clue to his condition. This is an important paper, not merely for studies on Schreber, but for understanding Lacan’s entire clinic, and I hope that somebody can expound on it at greater length later in the year.


Baumeyer, F. (1956). The Schreber case. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 37,        61-74.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia.    London: Athlone.

Freud, S. (1910). Letter from Sigmund Freud to C. G. Jung, October 31, 1910. The           Freud/Jung Letters: The Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and C. G.            Jung, 365-369.

Freud, S. (1910). Letter from Sigmund Freud to Karl Abraham, December 18, 1910. The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham 1907-1925, 122-        123

Freud, S. (1911). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of           paranoia (dementia paranoids). Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological             Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XII. (trans. J. Strachey). London: Vintage. pp. 3-    82.

Freud, S. (1924). Neurosis and psychosis. Standard Edition of the Complete            Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XIX. (trans. J. Strachey). London:           Vintage. pp. 149-153.

Freud, S. (1924b). The loss of reality in neurosis and psychosis. Standard Edition of the     Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XIX. (trans. J. Strachey).        London: Vintage. pp. 181-187.

Freud, S. (1925). An autobiographical study. Standard Edition of the Complete      Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XX. (trans. J. Strachey). London:            Vintage. pp. 1-70.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. Envy and Gratitude and other        works, 1946-1963.London: Vintage.

Lothane, Z. (1989). Schreber, Freud, Flechsig, and Weber Revisited: An Inquiry into        Methods of Interpretation. Psychoanalytic Review, 76, 203-262.

Niederland, W. G. (1959). Three notes on the Schreber case. The Psychoanalytic    Quarterly, 20, 579-591.

Nioederland, W. G. (1959b). Schreber: Father and son. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly,       28, 151-169.

Niederland, W. G. (1963). Further data and memorabilia pertaining to the Schreber           case. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44, 201-207.

Schreber, D. P. (1955). Memoirs of my nervous illness. (Trans. I. Macalpine & R. A.           Hunter). New York, NY: New York Review of Books.


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