March 30, 2000
American as Apple Pie
Like it or not, we are all Freudians in America. We may not be as deterministic in the way we see the world. We may not even have read a word of his. But most of us probably have spoken about a Freudian slip, or inquired innocently about the unconscious and the meaning of a dream, or referred in passing to our own or someone else's Oedipus complex.
Freud is at the very center -- he would have loathed this -- of both our high and popular culture. We interpret Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" from a Freudian perspective; look at Dali's ticking clocks knowingly; sit solemnly through "Spellbound"; and laugh at Freud's appearance on "The Simpsons." He's one of our very own.
You may be surprised to learn that Freud, for all his popularity here, disliked America. He was a European Jew, born in the anti-Semitic Austro-Hungarian empire in 1856. He worked and lived much of his life in Vienna. Most of his early psychoanalytic disciples were also European and Jewish. But because they were European Jews, they found their way to America. (Freud, however, chose Great Britain in the last year of his life, dying there in 1939.) First, America enabled them to survive; and, second, it was here that psychoanalysts found an eagerly receptive and loyal following.
In the beginning, the numbers were small. Analysis appealed to some upper-class nonconformists; to a few wealthy German-American Jews; to critics, writers and artists who embraced Freudian theory in order to interpret literature and art; and of course to the new, insecure Hollywood set.
By mid-century, psychoanalysis in the United States had become chic and had begun to filter down to the professional and upper middle classes in America. Trouble in a marriage? Consult a therapist. Difficulty with social relations; adapting to the competitive modern world; raising an unhappy child? The solution was at hand: some form of therapy. Even corporations turned to therapists, whether it had to do with hiring practices or T-Groups for executives. Therapy (and Freud) became the national panacea.
If Freud had not existed, American Jews probably would have invented him. Therapy seemed like the necessary certificate for access to a particular style, a particular knowing world. It was almost a custom-made fit for a people struggling with identity concerns, namely the problem of being a Jew in America.
It's not surprising that a disproportionate number of patients and therapists were Jewish. Freud himself was a Jew, albeit an agnostic, and experienced the effects of anti-Semitism in Vienna: It took him 17 years after finishing medical school to gain a hospital and teaching appointment. It was only because of his fame and age, and support from patrons, that he was permitted to leave a Gestapo interrogation and depart for England. His sisters were not as fortunate.
And look at the turn the treatment took. Talk. Talk. Talk. The words all charged: filled with emotion, with aggression; with guilt. Often they were freighted with self-love, other times with self-loathing. Endlessly referring back to self, to parents, to how we come across to others. And always the notion of change. Change meaning betterment. A way of adapting, almost designed for us. A way to remain essentially Jewish, but to become American as well.
Woody Allen is the lifelong Freudian patient and Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" the quintessential Freudian novel, depicting the primal Oedipal struggle between a young Jewish man and his controlling mother. His solution for breaking away from his Jewish family and becoming an American man? Seduce a different blue-eyed, blonde non-Jewish woman in each state of the union. But the book's closing line offers a tip of the hat to Freud. "So (said the doctor). Now vee may perhaps to begin."
My First Encounters with Freud
I have my own memories of Freud, before I ever read a word he had written. It became apparent to me in my youth that most of the women I fancied sooner or later went into therapy, usually with a Freudian, which perhaps says more about me than about them. Invariably, as they made progress and became more settled, I lost interest.
We each assumed it was therapy at work. Today, I suspect it simply had to do with them growing older, slipping away from home, becoming more adult. At one point I remember a young woman I adored telling me that she had visited a Freudian psychiatrist and was starting treatment. She would obviously be telling her analyst about us, she said.
Foolishly, and before I could catch the words, I blurted out, don't -- meaning don't enter therapy. You'll come out just like everyone else. I regretted the words the instant they left my lips. But it was too late. Six months later we had broken up. Oh, well. Freud was still a marvelous writer. And all his books waiting to be read were still ahead of me. -- Gene Lichtenstein