On the Couch: Writ­ers Ana­lyze Sig­mund Freud

  • Review
By – June 14, 2024

This rich col­lec­tion of essays by twen­ty-five writ­ers — includ­ing Adam Gop­nik, Daphne Merkin, André Aci­man, Cólm Tóibín, and Riv­ka Galchen — is inspired by the writ­ings and cul­tur­al lega­cy of Sig­mund Freud. Com­piled by Andrew Blauner, On the Couch appears at a moment when Freud’s core ideas regard­ing the uncon­scious, child­hood sex­u­al­i­ty, ways of mourn­ing, and the death dri­ve are under­go­ing seri­ous reevaluation. 

In the spir­it of the talk­ing cure” — the ear­ly term for the process of psy­cho­analy­sis — many of the con­trib­u­tors describe their own per­son­al encoun­ters with Freud, which often took place in an aca­d­e­m­ic or ther­a­peu­tic set­ting. In some cas­es, those encoun­ters proved deeply prob­lem­at­ic. In Penis Envy,” Jen­nifer Finney Boy­lan dis­cuss­es therapy’s fail­ure to help her as she embraced her trans­gen­der identity. 

By con­trast, for David Michaelis, the ther­a­peu­tic process was pro­found­ly help­ful. In an essay called My Oedi­pus Com­plex,” Michaelis shares his secret desire for his moth­er, stirred, he the­o­rizes, by her habit of nude sun­bathing” in his youth. Michaelis recounts his still-trou­bling mem­o­ries with two ther­a­pists. The first was a stern, clas­si­cal­ly trained, Europe-born ana­lyst; the sec­ond was this same psychiatrist’s shrewder, more help­ful daugh­ter. Look­ing back after years of talk­ing in the safe space of the daughter’s office, Michaelis con­cludes that ther­a­py gave me relief — a kind of mora­to­ri­um on time itself, with a use­ful tilt toward the future.” His expe­ri­ence high­lights the latent pow­er of talk ther­a­py to help peo­ple move on.

Anoth­er group of nar­ra­tives — those by Casey Schwartz, Daphne Merkin, and Susie Boyt (Freud’s great-grand­daugh­ter) — relate sto­ries of phys­i­cal and imag­ined pil­grim­age to the Freud Muse­um, locat­ed in leafy North Lon­don. It was there that Freud lived his last years, after escap­ing Nazi-occu­pied Vien­na on June 4, 1938. The muse­um recre­ates Freud’s leg­endary office, show­cas­ing his ana­lyt­ic couch and his col­lec­tion of ancient, exact­ing­ly arranged fig­urines. Upstairs, vis­i­tors can view the liv­ing quar­ters and office of Anna Freud, his devot­ed daugh­ter and the famous child analyst.

In Search­ing for Martha Freud,” Daphne Merkin spec­u­lates on the impact Freud’s wife may have had on her husband’s psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic the­o­ries, a ques­tion that most Freud biog­ra­phers do not con­sid­er. Merkin is fas­ci­nat­ed by what she calls the couple’s diver­gent atti­tudes toward Judaism” — a ten­sion, she sur­mis­es, that remained a source of under­ground con­flict.” After Freud’s death in 1939, Martha began to light Shab­bat can­dles, a rit­u­al prac­tice that her reli­gious­ly agnos­tic hus­band had for­bid­den. For Merkin, Martha Freud looms as an under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed fig­ure in the his­to­ry of psychoanalysis.

In per­haps the most mov­ing of the pil­grim­age” essays, A Night at the Freud Muse­um,” Susie Boyt sleeps uneasi­ly in Anna Freud’s bed as she tries to imag­ine Freud’s final months. Sur­round­ed by the smells, tex­tures, and arti­facts of her great-grandfather’s house, Boyt tries to think about what it would be like to lose your home, your state, your patients, your sib­lings, the city where your moth­er tongue is spo­ken, half your books, and many oth­er aspects of your iden­ti­ty at eighty-two.”

The most Freud-inspired, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly informed essay in the col­lec­tion is Michael S. Roth’s Play­ing the Game.” Roth engages with Freud’s the­o­ries about the death instinct, the chal­lenge of mourn­ing, and the nec­es­sary process of work­ing through depres­sion in the wake of loss. Change and loss are fun­da­men­tal­ly entan­gled, for Freud,” Roth explains. His deep read­ing of Freud’s Mourn­ing and Melan­cho­lia” (1917), draft­ed in the after­math of World War I, reveals the rel­e­vance of Freudi­an ideas for our own time, which is marked by the return of buried hatreds.

Col­lec­tive­ly, this live­ly col­lec­tion of essays con­firms Freud’s con­tin­ued importance.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions