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Peter Swales, Malcolm’s Uncalled Witness: A profile of Peter Swales

The New York Observer, May 24, 1993

On a recent morning, as New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm and psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson squared off in a San Francisco courtroom to determine the fate of his decade-old, $10 million libel suit against her and the magazine, Peter J. Swales sat at a table at Jerry’s in SoHo, chain-smoking Rothmans and scribbling at a thick manuscript. Mr. Swales is the guerilla historian of psychoanalysis and former assistant to the Rolling Stones who figures prominently in Ms. Malcolm’s In The Freud Archives, the 1984 book (which originated as two articles in The New Yorker) that provoked Mr. Masson’s libel suit. The manuscript was an 18-page, single-spaced critique of the Masson-Malcolm affair that Mr. Swales prepared, unbidden, when The Observer contacted him about the case.

Though not involved in the trial, Mr. Swales has eagerly cast himself in the role of expert commentator. He makes no claims to being unbiased, however. It was Mr. Swales, after all, who denounced his colleague Mr. Masson and precipitated his dismissal as the Sigmund Freud Archives’ projects director in 1981. In The Freud Archives is in part the story of the two men’s falling-out. “Although Masson is nothing more than a gold-digging malcontent,” Mr. Swales said, “one has to admire his persistence in dragging this before the court. But of course, one must also remember that he’s got nothing better to do with his time these days.”

Mr. Swales is more sympathetic to Ms. Malcolm, whom he Considers a friend, having spent months being interviewed by her for her book. But when Mr. Swales tried to offer his Services as a witness at the trial, Gary Bostwick, Ms. Malcolm’s attorney, didn’t return his call. Not that everything Mr. Swales might have to say about Ms. Malcolm would be positive. According to him, Ms. Malcolm reneged on a promise to show him the quotes she planned to use in her book. Mr. Masson has said that Ms Malcolm reneged on a similar agreement with him, both charges that Ms. Malcolm denies.

Clearly, the case still obsesses him. Preternaturally youthful for a man of 44, with a puckish, animated style, Mc Swales functions on intellectual overdrive, fueled by large amounts of caffeine and nicotine His quotes do not need to be doctored He actually talks like a character from an old-style New Yorker profile. He speaks in perfect paragraphs of pointed, coherent, flawlessly constructed prose. An exaggerated pause represents a comma; a dip of the head followed by quickened syntax indicates a parenthetical remark; an extra lilt in his melodious Pembrokeshire accent, followed by silence, functions as a period.

Invective is his specialty. “I am hopelessly inept when it comes to the art of repression,” he said. “I’m incapable of self-censorship.”

Mc Swales on book reviewers: “Impotent parasites who rush to masturbate on seeing others actually getting down to doing it and, as such, rate lower than vermin.” On Yale professor and Freud biographer Peter Gay: “He has set back Freud studies by a quarter of a century. His scholarship is shoddy, shabby and deceitful.” On The New Yorker: “A New Yorker journalist would sell his mother into slavery if by doing so he got a chance to pirouette across the public stage for a few months.”

Mr. Swales considers Ms. Malcolm to be a cut above the run-of-the-mill New Yorker journalist. “She is a brilliant woman, very sharp, witty. I found her to be, in principle, an honest character.”

And in a letter to Sophie Freud, Sigmund Freud’s granddaughter, he wrote “I would have liked to have had a one-night stand with [Ms. Malcolm] in the hope of discovering just who she really is and what makes her tick,” adding, “I rather liked the paranoid Machiavellian eccentric punkish image that she had thrust upon me [in the book].”

In his 18-page critique, Mr. Swales argues that it was Ms. Malcolm’s artful literary technique, rather than any particular quotes of Mr. Masson that lent In the Freud Archives its truthfulness and that what she left out was as crucial to the book’s success as what she put in. “Had Malcolm quoted certain of the more blatantly deceitful or bombastic things Masson had said, her depiction of him would have fallen flat-he would have come across like yet one more slimeball-cum-self-proclaimed Messiah (a bit like Buttafuoco-meets-Koresh, except that Masson was a wannabe cult leader without a cult),” Mr. Swales writes. “Malcolm’s portrait possessed an astonishing–shocking!–degree of verisimilitude.”

Newsweek: ‘Oedipal Ingrates?’

Mr. Masson and Mr. Swales were once considered odd collaborators in the battle against orthodox Freudians—Mr. Masson by claiming that Freud had discounted his patients’ stories of childhood sexual abuse, and Mr. Swales by, among other things, his belief that Freud had carried on an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. “Freud was enormously vain,” Mr. Swales said, “and in his vanity, he convinced himself that he had hit gold with his discovery that childhood sexual trauma was the indispensable cause of certain psychoneuroses. But he was totally deluded. My God, he was a shameless bastard!”

In a 1981 article about the enfants terribles of psychoanalysis, Newsweek posed the question: “Masson, Swales: Impetuous Dissenters or Oedipal Ingrates?”

In the Freud Archives tells the story of how Mr. Swales, when he was working on a book in the archives, began to feel that Mr. Masson was taking advantage of his research. He alerted Kurt Eissler, the Freud Archives’ founder, to the fact that Mr. Masson was abusing his curatorial prerogatives, thus setting off the chain of events that resulted in Mr. Masson’s dismissal.

Mr. Swales was born in 1948 in Wales, where his father still owns a music store. He left home at 17, and very nearly became a piano tuner. After working for two years marketing records for EMI in London, he was hired as an assistant by the Rolling Stones, a job he held for nearly two years.

During this time, Mr. Swales began to read deeply in philosophy, psychology and mysticism. In 1972, he moved to New York, where he joined a publishing firm that was collecting Freud’s early scientific papers on cocaine. In the late 70’s, Mr. Swales began intensive research into Freud’s early years, ferreting out the identity of the patients Freud had protected with pseudonyms. Indeed, Mr. Swales was becoming one of the world’s most successful sleuths in Freud scholarship, and his reputation brought him to the attention of Mr. Masson, Dr. Eissler and eventually, Ms. Malcolm. Mr. Swales still gives well attended annual lectures on the History of Psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic.

“He is a scholar of total integrity and dedication. He has changed the face of Freud scholarship,” said Dr Nathan Kravis, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical College. “You come away from his talks with an altered vision of Freud the man.”

But Mr. Swales has not led a life of quiet bookishness. “I am a man who is at home in the 19th century in the sense that I am unstintingly polite and peace-loving until the point at which civil relations begin to break down and people start lying and cheating. That is when war breaks out and I act like America did in Kuwait-I attack massively right then and there. Pretty much anything goes.”

Most often, Mr. Swales wages his battles through epistolary means. His letters are legendary, their dense, ornate prose often running for thousands of words at a time. Although Mr. Swales has published only a few essays, it is his letters-copies of which are widely circulated-that have made him famous.

Among his most publicized conflicts was the war Mr. Swales waged against Freud biographer and Yale professor Peter Gay for having committed what Mr. Swales considered intellectual fraud. In the September 1981 issue of Harper’s magazine, Mr. Gay published what he claimed was a “forgotten,” unsigned review of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams from an obscure Austrian medical journal. In fact, in 1988 Mr. Gay admitted that the review was a hoax and that he had written it himself. Incensed, Mr. Swales wrote an open letter to then Yale president Benno Schmidt calling Mr. Gay “a consummate villain” and suggested that he be fired. (Sixteen other scholars also signed a petition over the incident.)

Marilyn on the Couch

Mr. Swales has been under contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux since 1982 to write a biography of Wilhelm Fliess, Freud’s closest colleague and a leading proponent of the theory that neurological and sexual disorders were a result of nasal dysfunctions. He is also working on a number of other books, including a study of Marilyn Monroe, called Freud’s Last Patient: Marilyn Monroe and Her Tragic Odyssey From Couch to Couch. “It started because of the curiosity I had about two things: the fact that one-quarter of Marilyn’s estate goes to the Anna Freud clinic, and the report I found in Freud’s maid’s memoirs that Monroe consulted Anna Freud in 1956,” Mr. Swales said.

In addition to this, Mr. Swales has just begun a book about the psychiatric experiences of novelist William S. Burroughs, beginning with his confinement in the Payne Whitney Clinic for a month in 1940. “During hypno- and narco-analysis, he had these episodes he called ‘routines’ in which he would become a Chinese peasant on the Yangtse, or a redneck farmer in Texas, or a Hungarian dowager duchess,” Mr. Swales said. Mr. Burroughs is cooperating with the book and has given Mr. Swales access to his Payne Whitney medical file, which includes notes from his psychoanalysis.

‘We Are Bringing Them the Plague’

Meanwhile, as the world focuses its attention on the Masson-Malcolm trial in San Francisco, Mr. Swales is reviving his Freud-bashing career by hosting a British television documentary titled “Bad Ideas of the 20th Century.” Ordering another espresso and lighting a cigarette, Mr. Swales settled down to think cinematically, describing the psychoanalytic tour of New York the film will contain. “It will open with vintage footage of a steamship passing by the Statue of Liberty bringing Freud and Jung to New York in 1909. When they get to America, Freud announces, ‘We are bringing them the plague,’ which is probably apocryphal, but is such a wonderful quote. Then we’ll have helicopter shots of important psychoanalytic locations in the city: the New York Psychoanalytic Society, several famous analysts’ offices, the building on Central Park West where Marilyn Monroe lived, and where, oh so appropriately, the grande dame of therapy, Mia Farrow, lives today.”

He continued “What I find so interesting about Central Park is how beautifully fake it is, much like Freud’s highly artificial, rarefied conception of the mind. Freud and Jung spent hours strolling around it while in America, and now there are all these analysts clustered around the park as well-I guess, to complete the picture, you could even equate the reservoir with the id.”

In his 18-page memo, Mr. Swales writes that Ms. “Malcolm grotesquely misrepresents and trivializes the very thrust of my interest and concern.” But it is clear to him who the villain is: “How could [Mr. Masson] be ‘defamed’ by a few (alleged) misquotations, when the truth, as both told and not told was a hundred times worse?”