CONNECTIONS: Psychoanalysis comes to America (and Stockbridge)

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By Tuesday, Nov 29 Life In the Berkshires  5 Comments
Erik Erikson, for whom the Austen Riggs Center's Erikson Center for Education and Research is named.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

E. L. Doctorow wrote that, after Freud’s visit to America in 1909, no man could admit to loving his mother.

True or apocryphal, it was a way for Doctorow to describe how deeply Freudian theory seeped into the American ethos.

In 1913, the New York Times reported: “American receptivity to the idea of mental healing is unparalleled in the world.”

Nonetheless, as he sailed for America, Freud said, “We are bringing them the plague, and they don’t even know it.”

Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud.

Were his theories plague or panacea?

Freud came to America for the money and left as fast as he could. He wrote a friend: “Is it not sad that we are materially dependent on these savages?”

Freud claimed to dislike the popularization of his ideas, but his speeches in America were designed to appeal to the broadest audience. Freud wanted his theories accepted, so he described them in the simplest terms.

So what was Freud describing?

On March 2, 1913, a piece in the New York Times Magazine described Freud’s methods as “…psychoanalysis, which bears the same relation to mental and nervous diseases that the microscope does to pathology.”

An interesting analogy but, seven days earlier, the Times produced a wordier definition: “It is an analysis by a trained psychologist of the patient’s mental life, a probing into the deepest recesses and darkest corners of his mind, with the idea of bringing back to consciousness the repressions which are at the basis of his condition.”

Forget the trained psychologist – everyone in America became an amateur shrink. Forget if Freud liked us – we loved him. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker adopted the jargon. Anyone could say with impunity “you’re projecting or deflecting;” “you’re being defensive or paranoid.” It sounded great and they even knew what it meant – sort of.

Projecting was understood as assigning your feeling to another – for example, denying your own anger by attributing it to another. Deflecting was blaming another for what you did to avoid the consequences – for example, your foundation is self-dealing so you accuse someone else’s foundation of self-dealing or you accuse others of trying to rig something because you rigged it. Paranoia is the belief that you are being persecuted, and defensiveness is acting to protect yourself at the expense of the relationship or the truth – sort of.

Freud became a household name; his theories, unquestioned, permeated the culture. Freud was everywhere; he was invited to Hollywood. Freudian theory was everywhere; someone psychoanalyzed “Moby Dick.” Inevitably, our politicians were next.

It was a toss-up: psychoanalyzing our politicians or our politicians using Freudian theories to sway us. Then Freud himself got in the game, concluding that Americans, especially the rich and powerful, “channeled their sexuality into an unhealthy obsession with money.”

There it was: sex. Before his visit, Freud predicted strait-laced Americans would never embrace his ideas “once they discover the sexual core of our psychological theories.” He was wrong: in America, sex sells. It may be the basis for Freud gaining such popularity in the USA.

Reflecting on Freud’s prediction about strait-laced America, psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer wrote, “As with so much else, he was wrong about that, too.”

Too? What else was he wrong about?

Freud’s popularity receded, as did the usefulness of his theories. As they did, writers in the field exposed the scam. Freud lied.

“There is scant evidence, for example, that repressed impulses produce telltale symptoms, as Freud insisted. There is considerable evidence, though, that Freud claimed success for treatments that failed,” one expert wrote.

“In the famous case of Dora, he accused a young girl of lusting for her molester…[he made] ludicrous interpretations tailored to fit his theories and skewed accounts to justify himself and his ideas.”

In Kramer’s judgment and others’, “Freud was more devious and less original…and often wrong. Freud displayed bad character in the service of bad science.”

It was important to know if Freudian theory was plague or panacea because, while Freud loathed all things American (except our money), Americans loved all things Freudian.

Today, drugs are replacing psychotherapy as a treatment for many mental ills. A Columbia University study reported that one in 10 Americans is now on antidepressants. Yet some version of Freud’s talking cure — with or without the dogma  —is an accepted feature of American middle-class life.

American interest in understanding human behavior still runs deep. We ask “what just happened?” and want tools to better understand our motivations and ourselves. Is Freudian theory still part of that equation?

And what, you ask, is the Berkshire connection? The answer is the Austen Riggs Center. Riggs founded the center in Stockbridge in 1913, the same time the Times wrote about the profound impact of Freud on modern psychological thought. Two decades later, Erik Salomonson attended a school run by Freud’s daughter, Anna. She encouraged the boy to enter psychoanalysis. He did and was certified as a clinician. He changed his name to Erik Erikson. Like Freud, Erikson came to America. Unlike Freud, he liked it and stayed.  Erikson was at Austen Riggs from 1960 – 1970. He left a permanent mark on the Riggs Center in the form of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research.

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Fleming Rutledge, Alford says:

    About Freud: Carole Owens’ article is correct in giving a brief, condensed view of Freud’s influence and its waning in America, and the reference to Erik Erikson is a good reminder for all who are interested in the Berkshires. However, no capsule of Freud’s work should fail to mention his identification of the unconscious, which remains one of the most important discoveries in human history. The great novelists knew it instinctively; Marcel Proust is the most obvious example, and it is remarkable that he apparently knew nothing about his great contemporary. Many more people would benefit from understanding how the unconscious drives us unwittingly into our most grievous mistakes, but precisely because it is UNconscious, we must have skilled help to uncover it.

  2. Shawn Green says:

    “…you accuse others of trying to rig something because you rigged it.”


    1. John H Hart says:

      Is Shawn’s comment implying something that might reflect upon our… current President Elect?

  3. Aaron Beatty says:

    Enjoyable piece to read – thanks Carole Owens! Good to see the word “psychoanalysis” in an article title – while many of Freud’s ideas may be outdated or wrong, the attention to the unconscious, as Fleming pointed out in his comment, is so important.

  4. Norman Douglas says:

    “Scam” “Lied” says Carol Owens about Freud. One wonders what kind of training she has to make the judgement that he was a snake oil salesman. Nonsense. And she makes repeated statements about Freud’s only interest in coming to America was for the money. Does she say this because Freud was Jewish? Fred came to America because he was interested in spreading his ideas. It sounds like Ms. Owens may have listened to a psychologist or practitioner who is hostile to Freud’s ideas of which there are many. Especially those psychiatrists who find that writing prescriptions is infinitely more remunerative than talk therapy.

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