Sigmund Says

Analysts expand their horizons by going beyond Father Freud

In 1909, after a six-day journey from Vienna with his associates Carl Jung and Sándor Ferenczi, Sigmund Freud arrived in New York Harbor and spent a week sightseeing in the city. He had traveled to America to give a series of lectures on his “talking cure” at Clark University in Massachusetts. Before heading north, he spent time walking in Central Park and visiting the tenements of the Lower East Side. He saw the amusement rides on Coney Island and marveled at the antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum. Though his physical presence in the city was short-lived, New York has become Freud’s cultural home in the United States 100 years later, the archetype of the neurotic, upper-middle-class Upper West Sider lying on the couch—perpetuated by everyone from Philip Roth to Woody Allen—is still how much of the public thinks of psychoanalysis. (“Tell me about your relationship with your mother…”) Several generations have been raised on the notion of psychoanalysis as New Yorker cartoon.

This is something that analytic institutions such as the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute must reckon with.

Inside NYPSI’s headquarters on the Upper East Side, the cream-colored walls and dark brown carpet give off a sterile, medical feel, like a photograph of a hospital lobby from decades past. Posters and busts of Freud adorn the space. NYPSI, the oldest analytic institution in the country, celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. The faculty members here have a reputation among fellow analysts as the most Freudian of Freudians, but they are nevertheless trying to keep up with changing times.

Sitting in an upstairs office was Maxine Gann, a Ph.D. who trained at the institute in the ’90s and was in the first class that was entirely female, and Roger Rahtz, M.D., the president of the board, who enrolled at the Institute in 1973.

The NYPSI, first known as the New York Psychoanalytic Society, was founded in 1911 by Dr. A.A. Brill, at the time Freud’s biggest champion in the U.S. and the person responsible for bringing the good doctor to America. It was here that Freud’s disciples such as Ernst Kris, Charles Brenner and Margaret Mahler began developing Freud’s theory in the United States.

“It’s not just about doing psychoanalysis anymore,” said Gann, speaking of the practice today. “Nobody so far as I know would raise an eyebrow if an analyst prescribed an antidepressant for a patient who was really in a bad way.”

“Among some,” Rahtz clarified.

“Well, at this instant.”

“To some degree,” he conceded.

“There’s a much broader, more open mindset,” Gann said. “I’ll tell people to lay down on the couch and ‘tell me more’ if I think that’s the best treatment for my patient. But I know people who say, ‘I wish my analyst would shut up.’”

Indeed, among analysts there is little consensus on how to keep Freud relevant, and like the rest of the field, the NYPSI is trying to expand and make room for methods other than classical Freudian analysis. Even so, they still have a reputation among the analytic community of being dogmatic. One analyst, a social worker with a Ph.D. in psychology who did an externship at the NYPSI a few years ago, described a class syllabus that had been reprinted since 1980, the date crossed out and a more current one put in its place.

Further adding to the difficulty of negotiating such a balance is that the discourse is taking place in a cultural milieu in which the figure of Freud is at best a looming historical presence, and at worst a punch line.

By the time the man who invented the “talking cure” was dying from cancer of the mouth, he was a public celebrity and revered in his field, though his controversial reputation, which persists today, was already in place. An unsigned editorial published in The New York Times two days after his passing at age 83 in 1939 questioned his clinical validity in the same breath that it championed him as a great thinker: “Whether he was a true scientist or not, Freud’s place is secure if for no other reason than that he broke down ancient taboos and cleared the way for a new approach to the mind.” The literary scholar Harold Bloom, writing in The Times in 1986, the centennial of Freud’s establishment of his private practice in Vienna, called Freud “The Greatest Modern Writer” while dismissing psychoanalysis as a kind of living fossil that “still survives among us, as an isolated and disputable therapy.” A 2008 report published in The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association said psychoanalytic theory thrived in English departments and in the arts—from film to television to theater—but was treated as “desiccated and dead” by psychology programs in universities. As Freud’s stature as a historical figure grows, analysts must treat him as something more than pop-culture fodder; he is also their field’s founder and its seminal thinker.

This task is increasingly important; today, Freud is more of a pop icon than ever. A recent nonfiction book about Freud’s cocaine use was a best-seller at the end of the summer. A star-studded blockbuster film, A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen as Freud recasts the father of analysis’s relationship with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient—herself a future analyst—Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley) as a sexed-up psychological thriller. It was a critical smash at its debut during this year’s New York Film Festival. The success of Freud’s Last Session—a modest but thrilling one-act play now in its second year of sold-out shows off-Broadway—should come as no surprise. To much of the public at large, Freud and his theories are dated oddities, stigmatized as disproved, even as they help sell innumerable books and movie tickets. Ask an analyst, however, and they’ll tell you Freudian analysis is alive and well—even if its form is unrecognizable to those familiar with the cliché of the couch-bound patient being asked by an old man to “hear more about that.” In the office of Lewis Aron, a Ph.D. and director of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis, there were two leather chairs, a long couch and a wispy line drawing of Freud hanging behind the reclining chair where Aron sat slouching as he spoke to The Observer. We entered the room and inspected the furniture and he told us to take a seat—not to lie down, mind you—on the couch.

“The mistake most people make is that the way they are defining analysis is how it was in the 1950s, in its heyday, which is really when it was first being defined. If they then look out in the world and wonder, ‘Is analysis alive or dying?’ … My feeling is that if you see psychoanalysis as something that’s alive and changing and growing,” he trailed off, the portrait of Freud frowning heavily over his shoulder.

“Maybe it’s not going to look like I expected it to look,” he added, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

One of the country’s preeminent programs in analysis, NYU postdoc was established in 1961 by Bernard Kalinkowitz; it was the first university program to give non-M.D. psychologists a way of formally training in psychoanalysis. It is known for using a progressive curriculum, incorporating—like many other institutions these days—various methods of psychology into the general spectrum of analysis. But Freud is still a complicated influence. Some students discussed an anxiety of being branded “too Freudian.” Last year, the program renamed the “Freudian” track the “contemporary Freudian” track.

In his office on the Upper West Side, Aron hosts reading groups that speak to this assimilation of various theoretical models into classical Freudian practice. A few weeks ago a group of five women joined Aron to discuss Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris, a book about Jean-Martin Charcot, with whom Freud studied hypnosis. The conversation turned to the issue of countertransference, or how much an analyst’s own individual take on the treatment should be brought into a session with a patient. It is a topic debated by everyone from classical analysts to relational psychologists to contemporary Freudians and more progressive analysts such as Aron.

“Freud defines psychoanalysis in contrast to suggestion,” he said. There was a brief silence and the conversation continued about Hustvedt’s book. Later one of the students in the class interrupted.

“You say we’re not supposed to be influencing our patients,” the student said. “Just by sitting and having an expression on our face, we do have influence.”

“I was being ironic,” Aron said.

Another student chimed in: “If we were so influential, wouldn’t we see dramatic improvements in our patients immediately? We’re not influential. We’re not.”

This line of conversation doesn’t have an end. The level of an analyst’s presence in a session has been a question since the beginning of psychoanalysis. Though Freud insisted that he be seated out of his patient’s view, he would go on walks with them. He would even feed them (admittedly, exceptions and not the rule). The persistence of the debate speaks to the difficulties of reconciling Freud’s ideas with what modern therapy has become.

“As an educator,” Aron said, “to call yourself an analyst or call yourself a psychologist in 2011 and not have a pretty good familiarity with Freud is just to be uneducated. It seems to me that it’s part of anybody’s good education. That doesn’t mean that people are identified as working in a Freudian tradition. Our Freudians are adapting Freud to modern life.”

Most Americans, in 2011, do not want to hear a theory—even a highly metaphorical one—that deep down they desire to kill their one parent in order to make love to the other. As Steven Ellman, of the contemporary Freudian faculty at NYU postdoc, put it, Americans have a “very narrow view of Freud,” one that is grounded predominantly in the Oedipus complex. Many of his writings, however, moved away from that.

Freud is not respected clinically, but for all his contentiousness, he’s an easier sell as a pop-culture figure than he is as a scientist. Dr. Alan Bass, a psychoanalyst and a first-generation student of Derrida (he translated four of his books), teaches Freud in both a clinical and an academic setting (at the New York Freudian Society and in the philosophy department of the New School, respectively). He said that with philosophy students he stresses how Freud’s theory is constructed and held together. With analysts in training, he emphasizes clinical principles—what a given theory has to do with the way one works with a patient.

“I would say Freud’s clinical reputation in my very particular view is mixed,” he said. “It contains clinical genius, it provided clinical tools that are indispensable but there are also major problems and blind spots in it at the same time. To be really responsible about Freud is to really come to grips with both sides.”

The play Freud’s Last Session, based on the best-selling book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., imagines an encounter between C.S. Lewis and Freud on the day England declared war on Germany, a few weeks before Freud’s death. The two are in Freud’s study in London; Freud provides the comic relief. He talks to a non-complacent dog. He says things like, “Psychoanalysis does not profess the absolutes of religion. Thank God.” As a recurring joke, he answers the phone with a drastically drawn-out Teutonic “Hey-looooo?” When Lewis enters the room for the first time and hesitates before the famous couch in the study, Freud sneers at him and tells him to sit in the chair by his desk. That got a big laugh from the crowd.

“From Day One, Freud was a huge magnet to pull people,” said Mark St. Germain, the production’s playwright of the audience-garnering subject.

Psychoanalysis changes along with culture, but Freud stays the same. Analysts and theorists continue to work with him, to build on his foundations, but to much of the American public he remains a cocaine-sniffing, whacky old man, the kind who speaks of an unseen other, buried deep inside us, who really just wants to play house with Mommy. His life’s work, of course, goes deeper than that, and what he created persists—but he remains, as one practicing Freudian called him, “a figure of levity.” For that, Freud is the great patriarch of mental health: both feared and respected, hated and idealized.

Near the beginning of St. Germain’s play, there is a moment that alludes to a scene from Freud’s childhood that is recounted in Peter Gay’s brilliant biography Freud: A Life for Our Time. His father, Jacob, a feckless wool merchant, was talking to his son about how much life had improved for Austria’s Jews. “When I was a young fellow,” he told Freud, “one Saturday I went for a walk in the streets in your birthplace, beautifully decked out, with a new fur cap on my head. Along comes a Christian, knocks off my cap into the muck with one blow, and shouts, ‘Jew, off the sidewalk!’” Freud asked his father what he did. He said: “I stepped into the road and picked up my cap.” “I don’t know which of them I detested more,” the dying Freud tells Lewis in the play.

It is the one indisputable fact that Freud got right: There’s no living down one’s parents.