Daniel Paul Schreber, born in 1842, was a German magistrate. He also had severe and chronic schizophrenia and wrote books about his struggles with his illness.
His father was a doctor and author, who wrote on the topics of child-rearing, public health, and exercise, and it’s been theorized that Schreber’s mental health issues were the result of his father’s unusual perspective on parenting.
The other thing that Schreber is known for is his Memoirs of my Nervous Condition, in which he talks at length about his inner world.
Sigmund Freud read Schreber’s book and treated it as a case history, interpreting the work and its implications for the state of Schreber’s mind. That interpretation became the basis for Freud’s understanding of paranoid schizophrenia.
Freud’s case histories were usually put together from first-hand accounts of patients he was treating, but Freud never treated Schreber, nor was there reason to think that they ever consulted, according to Psychologist World.
Schreber was the second child of five, born to a comfortable family. His father was a well-known physician who became the director of a sanatorium in Leipzig. Schreber’s older brother, Gustav, studied law, and Schreber followed him in that pursuit. Both brothers ended up becoming judges.
Mental illness was present throughout the family. Their father, for all his renown, suffered from depression, and so did Gustav, who ultimately committed suicide in 1877.
According to his notes, Schreber had his first breakdown after trying to go into politics but failing to be elected. This resulted in his developing hypochondria and spending six months in a psychiatric hospital.
On his release, he was relatively normal for the next eight years, until being appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court of Appeals brought on a new set of symptoms. He began suffering from nightmares and insomnia, and developed some unusual sexual behaviors.
He attempted suicide and landed back in the hospital, where he stayed from 1894 to 1902. It was during this time that he wrote his Memoirs. After his release, he had five more good years; he and his wife even adopted a teenage daughter in 1906. The following year, however, his wife died and he returned to the hospital. He stayed there until his death in 1911.
In his Memoirs of my Nervous Condition, Schreber describes various thoughts and symptoms that he battled. He had sensory issues with light and sound — both often seeming overwhelming. He began to have “morbid fantasies,” thinking, for example, that he was suffering from some type of plague.
He could sit for extended periods of time in a “hallucinatory stupor.” He began having auditory hallucinations and delusions, including many ideas of a religious nature and believed he was talking directly with God. One of those ideas was that it was his responsibility to save the world, and the only way he could do it was to become a woman and create a new population that was fathered by God.
After reading Memoirs, Freud did an intensive analysis of Schreber based on the text. He was especially interested in what he saw as Schreber’s emasculation fantasies, and how they tied into his religious delusions.
Prior to his illness, Schreber had never been particularly religious. Freud concluded that Schreber had a “redeemer delusion,” and that his need to be emasculated was part of the religious role he had been assigned.
Freud further concluded that the assertion that he needed to become a woman was an expression of homosexual impulses felt toward his father and brother and that the voices he heard calling him “Miss Schreber” were due to guilt over those feelings. The voice of God that Schreber spoke with, Freud concluded, had to be transference of his feeling for his first therapist at the beginning of his illness.
Freud’s beliefs that schizophrenia was rooted in homosexual conflicts is far removed from our current understanding about the root causes of the disease; it may have even slowed the development of a more functional understanding of the condition. It’s also true that his ideas were shaped by his observations of certain patients who suffered from the condition and hardly allowed for a widespread analysis and comparison.
He did, however, make an admirable job of identifying those of Schreber’s symptoms which are characteristic of the disease: the paranoia, the hallucinations, and the delusions, especially those of a religious nature.
Even if his understanding been more accurate, and Freud had met with and treated Schreber directly, the sad truth is that little could have been done during that period of time to relieve Schreber’s symptoms. There was no real understanding of the neurochemical basis for the condition, let alone medications that could address it.
That doesn’t undervalue Freud’s contribution to existing ideas about the illness, though, nor does it take away from the brilliance and suffering of Daniel Schreber, whose book opened a door into a world that had previously been very hard for others to enter.