Sergei Pankejeff: Who Was the Wolf Man?

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

Wolf Man
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Sergei 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 Odessa.

In 1906, his older sister Anna died by suicide, and Pankejeff began experiencing symptoms of depression. In 1907, his father also died by suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Soon after, Pankejeff began seeking treatment for his own depression. In 1910, Pankejeff went to Vienna to be treated by Freud. The first partial description of the case was published in 1913 in The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales. The full case was discussed in 1918 under the title From the History of an Infantile Neurosis.

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's Analysis of the Wolf Man

Freud believed that the dream was the result of Pankejeff having witnessed 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 four years 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 was contradicted by the Wolf Man himself, Sergei Pankejeff. In an interview with Karin Obholzer, a journalist who tracked him down in Vienna in the 1970s, he explained that he saw Freud's interpretation of his dream as "terribly far-fetched."

Pankejeff believed that "the whole thing is improbable," since families like his often had young children sleep in their nanny's bedroom, not with their parents.

As for Freud "curing" him, Pankejeff refuted the claim, saying that he resented being "propaganda" and "a showpiece for psychoanalysis." According to Pankejeff, "That was the theory, that Freud had cured me '100%'. It's all false."

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Umansky O. The Wolf Man's Russia. American Imago. 2019;76(4):465-483.

  2. Grigg R. Treating the Wolf Man as a case of ordinary psychosis. Culture/Clinic. 2013;1:86-98. doi:10.5749/cultclin.1.2013.0086

Additional Reading
  • Goleman D. As a therapist, Freud fell short, scholars find. The New York Times. Published March 6, 1990. 

  • Obholzer K. Wolfman: Conversations with Freud's Patient Sixty Years Later. Shaw M, trans. Continuum International Publication Group; 1982.

  • Freud, S. From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. 1918. 

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.