William A McRae, The Psychology of Nervousness: The Mind In Conflict, OUP, 1942.

In The Psychology of Nervousness McRae sets out to write ‘the story of our inner judge and jury whose task it is to mete out punishment when we fail to live up to our ideals’.   It was part of McRae’s intention to take psychoanalysis out of the doctor’s consulting room, away from a small and elite ‘avant garde‘. Ordinary people he inferred needed to know about the complexities of the mind the unconscious.  McRae wanted to show people that understanding the motives that led to certain behaviours could and would help alleviate emotional suffering. He wanted people to rethink notions of behaviour as an outcome of ‘moral’ lessons beaten into them in childhood. The book addresses the complex matter of destructive anxiety; how envy, rage and jealousy amongst other things may undermine one’s relationship to self and another.   It is one of the first of its kind in Australia, one of McRae’s three plain language introductions to psychoanalytic theory and treatment published between 1941 and 1945.

McRae does not pretend to be a theorist. He is an educator. He drew on the work of Freud and Alfred Adler and used illustrations from his clinical practice in Perth to develop his points. His ‘patients’ were people like his readers, parents, couples, working men and women, adolescents and children. Some were returned soldiers suffering from war trauma.  All behaviour has meaning, he stated. It was a matter of searching for its motives and to accept that much was unconscious. ‘Just as nine-tenths of an iceberg is beneath the surface of the ocean, so an equally large part of our minds functions beneath the level of everyday consciousness’. Behaviour is not an outcome of moral success or failure, he argued but an expression of the instinctive forces within the self mediated by parental figures from infancy. This recognition, helped along by psychological research was ‘gradually teaching men to appreciate how the instinctive forces in the mind, functioning through his feelings, determine his behaviour to a large extent’. It is also a glimpse into notions of  respectability, good behaviour and the emotional effort required to conform to the Australian society at that time.

Although McRae does not cite group theory as such he was firmly of the opinion that the individual is shaped by the group. As the child grows from infancy to adulthood instinctive forces are tamed, primitive forces, civilised..

Today, a person who is afraid dares not try to run away in many instances, simply because he fears more the rebuke of his friends who may call him a coward. Often he cannot give way to his burning resentment, for society may not countenance the form of revenge which he contemplates. Likewise when he craves to express the hunger of the reproductive forces within himself, he must learn control, for the rules of society are more powerful than the instinctive urges of the individual.

Social Darwinist ideas underpin the text: McRae describes how humans banded into clans, groups, communities, society to combat nature and thus enable the development of the civilised mind.

Just as a small child has to learn the art of co-operating with others in the home, so primitive man had to gradually educate himself to work with the group. Just as the child is completely selfish, and instinctively brushes aside the wishes of others, so primitive man, in the childhood of the race, acted in the same way. Through discipline and punishment, the child learns to obey the voice of its parents; primitive man, through the laws of the group, was forced to heed the rule of the majority. The power of thinking, however, came to his rescue.

The ability to think separates [humans] from the jungle past. Even so, he continues,  destructive forces – desires to rape, kill and go to war – may break their bonds in some individuals and social groups. ‘Man will not realise that at heart he is still a cave man’. It is a struggle for all of us.

The first chapter, ‘Guilt Feelings and the Need For Punishment’ takes us into the heart of the matter – and a fundamental precept of psychodynamic therapy.  It is hard to convey the understanding, yet so simple when it is understood, McRae says, ‘that the character of the individual is formed in the first few years of life,and that ever afterwards his behaviour is dictated and directed by this underlying style or pattern’.

McRae is particularly interested in Adler’s theory of the Inferiority Complex. For him it seems, the inferiority complex explains much.It is formed in the early interactions between parent and child – a point reiterated throughout his book. In a typical passage McRae writes

The style or pattern of life, formed in the first five or six years of a child’s life is extremely important, because this style of life is an unconscious one in later years. If a feeling of inferiority has resulted from the training the child has received during these years, that feeling will be embedded in the unconscious in later life, and the child will be heir to all those psychological ills that plague sufferers from Inferiority Complexes. Allied with the feelings of inferiority are usually feelings of fear and guilt, also unconscious – a fear of the world, which the owner has never been allowed to face with a feeling of courage or adequacy, and a feeling of guilt that is, perhaps, the natural enough consequence of a lack of love for strict parents, or the envy of others more fortunate.  

Repressed feelings of fear and guilt…are potent factors in self destruction, he continued. ‘Inferiority Complexes, with their attendant unconscious fears and guilt, are also self destructive’. A chapter on dreams summarises Freud’s theory of the unconscious – about wishes, desires fantasies and symbolization before proceeding to look at unconscious processes in marriage as couple navigate the birth of children, parenthood and the cycle of life.

McRae, however, seems to have all the answers – his version of psychoanalytic theory and dream interpretation is somewhat reductive – along the lines of ‘this means this and that is equal to that. Even if he is trying to get his readers to think afresh about behavior and experience, beyond conscious apprehension.

In analytical work I find that many women feel that the change of life has robbed them of the very essence of womanhood, for few of them are well enough adjusted to realise that their period of usefulness is by no means over when they are no longer able to bear children. Psychologically, this accounts for many of the difficulties which many women experience when the change of life looms ahead of them, for these conflicts set up sorts of nervous reactions. Such women unconsciously resent the passage of time, and often nervous anxieties produce sleeplessness, which may be related to a fear of growing old and dying. This explains what adolescent daughters often find their mothers so trying, for their young charm and freshness intensify the mother’s jealousy, which is unconscious, but finds apparently legitimate reasons to express itself. 

Reception of The Psychology of Nervousness was  lukewarm. It was noted in the press across Australia  particularly in Western Australia. It was  warmly recommended to readers by the editor of the ‘problem page’ in Perth’s Daily News. The editors of the Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton, far north Queensland was somewhat more direct.  The Psychology of Nervousness was ‘the least convincing’ of McRae’s three books on everyday psychology, they wrote.

The general reader is rightly cautious about disagreeing with experienced opinion in such matters as this book deals with, but he will be hard put to find support from his own knowledge for many of the claims this writer makes. The manifestations of the unconscious mind seem altogether too wayward and remote, and while it may be granted that the unconscious mind, at times, works in anything but a logical way and is a latent influence exerting great effect on an individual’s life, the layman feels that psychologists tend to resort too frequently to the unconscious mind for explanation of certain types of human behaviour. The reason quite often may he a purely physiological one or at least a combination of body chemistry and mind. It may all amount to a question of first cause and that is a great field for argument.

Perhaps McRae’s analysis too reductive  for them.

The general reader falls into this line of thought when he reads that if a child is thrashed for stealing he thenceforward unconsciously looks for and feels the need of punishment whenever he commits theft again. Again: “There have been few “perfect crimes’ because the culprit usually leaves a clue which proves his undoing. He unconsciously desires punishment, so makes a little error in order to be detected.” This seems to endow people with an extraordinarily high ethical sense and to discount the force of self preservation.

Perhaps, the editors suggested, it was better to let things lie even if they were interested in McRae’s chapter on shell-shock and war neurosis and hysterical conversion symptoms.

One valuable advance in psychology has been the demonstration of how internal conflict can affect the organs of the body and produce disease. Mc Rae’s observations on the subject are highly interesting. We can understand that when a conflict is solved the Individual finds life more harmonious and that he gains in physical and mental health but conflicts seem to he part of the price of man’s existence and they must have had considerable influence on the progress of the world. How much do art and science owe to discords of mind?

McRae had faced such objections before. In his final chapter he stands by his position.

I do not require that it should completely satisfy the philosopher and the aesthete. I know that it works, that it heals the sick and comforts the weary, and that, because of this, must be right. If its concepts offend some, the answer that I give them is not an elaborate justification, but a simple indication of someone who has been cured, someone who has been made happier.

He then describes what is involved in an analysis… explaining the notion of the transference, free associations, dreaming and the negative transference – and matters concerning length of treatment, and the costs.

Sadly William McRae does not make the gallery of psychoanalytic pioneers, the subjects of the exhibition, Inner Worlds, held at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra during 2011.  I wonder though, how many people struggling with their particular daemons and personal pains found something of relevance, and direction in his books? How many people sought treatment as a result?  A year later in 1943 Mcrae’s public lecture series on psychoanalysis for the University of Western Australia drew an enrolment of 297…