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Who Was the Wolf Man?

The Wolf Man, a.k.a. Sergei Pankejeff, Was One of Freud's Most Famous Patients

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Wolf Man

Wolf Man, aka Sergei Pankejeff

Wolf Man's Real Name

Sergei Pankejeff

Born

December 24, 1886

Died

May 7, 1979

Who Was the Wolf Man?

Pankejeff was a patient of Sigmund Freud who gave him the case name "Wolf Man" to protect his identity. Pankejeff was born to a wealthy family from St. Petersburg. In 1906, his older sister Anna committed suicide and Pankejeff began experiencing symptoms of depression. In 1907, his father also committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Soon after, Pankejeff began seeking treatment for his own depression.

In 1910, Pankejeff went to Vienna to seek treatment from Freud. The first description of the case was published in 1918 under the title "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (Aus der Geschichte einer infantilen Neurose). Much of Freud's analysis centered on a dream that Pankejeff had as a young child:

"I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again" (Freud, 1918).

Freud's Analysis of the Wolf Man

Freud believed that the dream was the result of Pankejeff having witness his parents having sex. The case of the "Wolf Man" played an important role in Freud's development of his theory of psychosexual development. After a year of treatment, Freud declared Pankejeff "cured" and the man returned to Russia.

Despite Freud's assessment that the problem had been resolved, Pankejeff continued to seek psychoanalysis, often from followers of Freud, until his death in 1979. Pankejeff's assessment of the success of his treatment was far less optimistic than Freud's. Prior to his death, he was interviewed by an Australian journalist and said, "the whole thing looks like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as when I came to Freud, and Freud is no more."

Criticism of Freud's Analysis

Psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman criticized Freud's analysis and treatment of Pankejeff in The New York Times, writing:

"Freud's key intervention with the Wolf Man rested on a nightmare in which he was lying in bed and saw some white wolves sitting on a tree in front of the open window. Freud deduced that the dream symbolized a trauma: that the Wolf Man, as a toddler, had witnessed his parents having intercourse. Freud's version of the supposed trauma, however, was contradicted by the Wolf Man himself, Sergej Pankejeff, in an interview with Karin Obholzer, a journalist who tracked him down in Vienna in the 1970s.

"Mr. Pankejeff saw Freud's interpretation of his dream as 'terribly far-fetched.' Mr. Pankejeff said, 'The whole thing is improbable,' since in families of his milieu young children slept in their nanny's bedroom, not with their parents.

"Mr. Pankejeff also disputed Freud's claim that he had been cured, and said he resented being 'propaganda' and 'a showpiece for psychoanalysis.' Mr. Pankejeff said, 'That was the theory, that Freud had cured me 100 percent.' However, 'It's all false.' "

References:

Freud, S. (1918). From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, reprinted in Peter Gay (1995) The Freud Reader. London: Vintage.

Goleman, D. (1990). As a therapist, Freud fell short, scholars find. The New York Times. Found online at http://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/06/science/as-a-therapist-freud-fell-short-scholars-find.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

Library of Congress. (2010). Sigmund Freud: Conflict and culture. Found online at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/freud/

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