Sigmund Says: Analysts Expand Their Horizon By Going Beyond Father Freud

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” (in his headline, no less) 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 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 Knightly) as a sexed-up psychological thriller. It recently became a critical smash at its debut during the 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 N.Y.U. 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 he 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, N.Y.U. 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, Dr. Aron hosts reading groups that speak to this assimilation of various theoretical models into classical Freudian practice (his forthcoming book is called Towards a Progressive Psychoanalysis). A few weeks ago a group of five women joined Mr. 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 like Professor Aron.

“Freud defines psychoanalysis in contrast to suggestion,” he said. There was a brief silence and the conversation continued about Ms. 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,” Dr. 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 the Great Man’s ideas with what modern therapy has become.

Dr. Aron defines Freudian analysis in broad terms with many subsets—a belief in the unconscious (or, as another professor put it, “Anyone who is middle class and has gone to college is a Freudian”).

“As an educator,” Professor 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. Nobody’s practicing the way he practiced in Vienna. It doesn’t make any sense.”

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 N.Y.U. 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.

“Narcissism,” Dr. Ellman said, “something that shouldn’t be unknown in New York society, was a major aspect of his theory.”
No matter. Was Freud a coke addict? Did he have a love affair with his sister-in-law? And besides the torrid details of his biography, there is the much-documented misogyny, his often laughable treatment of homosexuality in his writing and his inability to say when he is wrong. Arnold Rothstein, director of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training at N.Y.U. Medical Center, has noted in his own work when Freud reaches the limits of psychology, he blames it on biology.

Freud is not respected clinically, but for all his contentiousness, he’s an easier sell as a pop culture figure than he is 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.”

This is a time of 140-character rants and news updated by the half-minute, all of it breaking. The NYPSI’s Dr. Gann put it succinctly: “the zeitgeist runs counter to what an analytic perspective and process necessitates.”


  1. Mine's A Newt says:

    The founder of psychology, as a scientific discipline, was Victor Kraeppelin, a psychiatrist who actually observed patients, noted and categorised symptoms, trying to describe what was actually present before making up theories about it. Because he was a scientist, who published objective and falsifiable work, there is no cult around his name, and most of his work has been superseded by by later psychologists. It’s an honourable position to be in.   

    Psychoanalysis was a business and a cult, and it had nothing in common with science. It’s to psychology what astrology is to astronomy: a pre-scientific precursor, of historical interest at best. 
    Still, while there are still clients who will pay for psychoanalytic sessions, then psychoanalysis will survive, and psychoanalysts will need to know somthing about Freud, of only his business practices. 

    But psychologists? No, they don’t need to study Freud or psychoanalysis at all. 

    There’s a reason Freud mainly clogs up literature rather than psychology courses these days. It’s that the more people know of him, the less seriously he’s taken. And even humanities courses are wising up, and moving on.    

    1. Bkerr says:

      Name one law found by any current psychological research.

      Psychotherapy is an art and all the better for it.

      1. Mine's A Newt says:

        Scientists haven’t really been in the law-announcing business for the last hundred years or so. Scientists make observations, develop theories and hypotheses. They then publish the results, including how they got them, so that other people can test their work. 
        For example, you could look up Volume 43, issue 3 of The International Journal of Psychology, which has some interesting empirical stuff on how people’s perception of their life partner predicts their reaction to stress. Alternatively, a friend of mine is doing research with prisoners (so far unpublished), to see if violent offenders differ from the rest of us in their ability to recognise emotional expressions in others. What he finds won’t be a “law”. It’ll just be a “finding”, which we hope will be useful in reducing violent offences. So that’s the sort of thing that science does. It has nothing in common with the sort of arm-waving Freud did, or with psychoanalysis. “Psychotherapy”, which is not the same thing as “psychoanalysis” (good word-switch, though), is indeed an art. Medical practice is also an art. But it has to be informed by good science. A doctor whose practice is informed by pseudoscience like homeopathy or cancer quackery runs the risk of killing people. Similarly, psychotherapy is an art that needs to be informed by valid science. A practitioner “informed” by psychoanalytic doctrines is useful mainly for lightening the wallets of rich and gullible people, who can afford endless sessions with an expensive friend. Worse, he or she may do harm by steering people who need actual intervention away from more useful therapies. 

      2. “Name one law found by any current psychological research.”

        How about the law of “rich educated people will  pay big bucks to have their palms, I mean minds, read.”

    2. No-one says:

      Do you mean Emil Kraeplin?

      1. Mine's A Newt says:

        Yeah. I named him from memory, shame on me, and got it wrong. Ironic, since I was saying he should be better known. It’s Emil Kraepelin. 

        Almost everything he did has been superseded, with his category of “schizophrenia” among the last things to go. But he, and not Freud, is the original giant whose shoulders we stand on, so we can see further. 

  2. Anonymous says:

    Recent development in neurosciences   stress    Freud  `s method  to explore the unconscious mind.Freud himself  admitted that future progress of  psychoanalysis is depend on new researches in neurosciences .We must  know that Freud was  neuroscientist.He was also knew  we can only explored the causes of  neurotic, to cure them completely  is impossible.  We must remember his contribution to  explored the causes of neurotic is also immortal. He was first  scientist who gave scientific foundation to psychology.Any curious  man can learn from  his technique to explore his  his unconscious mind.I think this a great contribution he given to mankind.

  3. Hazard27 says:

    If Dr. Maxine Gunn asked me to “lay” down on the couch, I’d  have flinched at her making such a grossly sexist  move on an impatient patient.  I’d nervously ask her if I should “lie” her fee on her hands. My only encounter with a shrink in my 84 years was to control bipolar disorder. One prescription of Lithium and I was sane again, or at least as semicrazilly under control as I always been at my best. Give me a good drug anytime to avoid enduring a googly-eyed “wise man” pretending to be profound. Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany.

  4. Nilesh Salpe says:

    Sigmund Freud had founded branch of physiology in which psycho-analysis was centerpiece .But after his such a laudable work there is onus on successors to modify ,adapt and make more theory more congruent with need of contemporary culture and people .If they stick to fact that Freud had done this and that wrong in his conclusions then go ahead and correct them which would evolve our knowledge about how our mind works.Just grousing about his foibles and work would be fruitless. Freud had shown us the way …how to walk on it or even to find new shortest one is onus on Neo-Freudians . — NILESH SALPE

  5. Nilesh Salpe says:

    Sigmund Freud  had founded branch of physiology in which psycho-analysis was centerpiece .But after his such a laudable work there is onus on successors to modify ,adapt  and make more theory more congruent with need of contemporary culture  and people .If they stick to fact that Freud had done this and that  wrong in his conclusions then go ahead and correct them which would evolve our knowledge about how our mind works.Just grousing about his foibles and  work would be fruitless. Freud had shown us  the way …how to walk on it or even to find new shortest one is onus on Neo-Freudians .                 — NILESH SALPE

  6. Anonymous says:

    Freud was a fraud on the scientific method. He is now billed as a “philosopher”. Phychoanalysis is cultish – just like Freud practiced it.

    1. MJ says:

      What great contribution have you made to society besides this glib, reductive one line dismissal of something you have clearly little real knowledge of? It’s easy to mock, not so easy to found a whole new way of seeing the mind. 

      1. Anonymous says:

        “New way of seeing the mind” below the belt and through a cloud of cocaine?

  7. Psychoanalysis and Freudian theories have almost no impact on the clinical practice of psychiatry.  His influence has been cultural, not scientific, as generations of the gullible believe in the poppycock he peddled such as the Oedipus complex, oral and anal phases, etc.  There’s no scientific evidence for this garbage, and Freud’s impact has been entirely negligible in areas such as psychosis and substance abuse.

    Why do otherwise smart people waste their time with this charlatan’s fairy tales and just-so stories ?

  8. We shouldn´t be so down on Freud! A lot of terms and disorders in psychiatry don`t need Freud in order to study them, nor is necesary to read alls his work to be a good psychotherapist nowdays!  But some concepts of Freud still are of use nowdays though with some modification, such as defense mechanisms, trauma, transference, intrapsychic conflict, relationships with parents, grief! Freud is still important if one wants to study the mind in more depth, perhaps more as a historical footnote, yes, but even to these day we are discussing and trying to answer the same questions that Aristotle and Plato had, so it does no harm to familiarize a little bit with Freud! And if you are writer, come on, conflict with father is at centerpiece of all great stories, look at Star Wars!

  9. Freud was right about one thing.  Most people are… Boing!

  10. You don’t need Freud when you have drugs. I think Freud’s cocaine habit, in this sense, was more influential than his theorizing, at least in the long run.
    Feeling depressed? Big pharma has this or that drug for you for this or that malady, which has so-and-so side-effects, which will require the taking of such-and-such drugs.

    Same with spirituality. It used to take commitment and devotion to long sessions of prayer and/or meditation, etc.  But with drugs like Ecstasy, you have instant  transcendence on the dance floor at a Rave concert.
    Soma, soma, soma. Huxley saw the future.

  11. You know what would have been interesting?  Sigmund Freud vs Hal computer.

  12. It must be said, Freudianism was essentially a Jewish cult, and Jews were drawn to it for two reasons.
    Secular Jews, having given up the Old religion, needed a new faith to explain everything.
    Psychoanalysis also gave Jews a sense of power. By claiming to know more about their patients’ minds/emotions/motives than the patients themselves did,  Jewish psychoanalysists hoped to gain power over other people. Since the sort of people who sought psychoanalysis tended to be the rich elites, psychoanalysists could take over the minds of the most powerful and influential people in the modern world.
    If Marxist Jews sought to lead the masses, Freudian Jews sought to mind-control and lead the elites.