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 U.S. One hundred 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 like 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 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 States and the person responsible for bringing the good doctor to America. It was here that Freud’s disciples like 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 Dr. 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,” Dr. Rahtz clarified.
“Well, at this instant.”
“To some degree,” he conceded.
“There’s a much broader, more open mind-set,” Dr. 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.