It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934.
Freud Museum London

It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

There was a time in Manhattan when virtually everyone I knew was in Freud-based therapy.  So people would have trouble getting through August, because that was when their shrinks were vacationing on the beaches of Long Island.  During the whole month, people couldn’t get their lives validated!

Though I’d read a little Freud in college, I shied away from deeper study because I knew I might find his portrayal of women demoralizing.

It was not till I was putting together the reading list for a course I introduced at Stony Brook, “Philosophic Foundations of Feminism,” that I first read one of Freud’s case studies.  Since I’d listed Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria as required reading, of course I had to read it too.

So what was Dora’s problem, and how was the great man going to cure it?  Dora was a young girl who confided to Sigmund Freud, her doctor, that one of her father’s bearded, middle-aged friends had tried to force a bristly kiss on her, from which she had felt nauseated.

Freud’s diagnosis?  He wrote that the displacement of sexual feeling from the genitals to the throat was a clear symptom of hysteria.

Of hysteria?  Holy moly!  It was a clear symptom of good taste, I thought, as I repressed my own impulse to toss my cookies.

This topic is on my mind because I’ve been reading Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, a book that includes the author’s candid summary of recent research on Freud’s life and work.  I’ll just mention a few of the items described by Lebrecht.

Early in his career, Freud was treating patients who had leaky bladders or difficulties in sexual performance by inserting a generator wire into their urethras, producing electric shocks there when he threw a switch.  It did not cure his hapless patients but … what the heck!  Worth a shot, he must have thought.

To relieve another patient’s premenstrual tension and tendency to masturbate overmuch, Freud referred her to a quack doctor in Berlin who treated this kind of thing by operating on the nose.  The doctor inadvertently left a piece of gauze in the patient’s nose.  It led to infection and permanently disfigured her face.  (Boy, that’ll cure the tendency to masturbate!)

Another of his patients (whom Freud nicknamed the “Wolf Man” in his report of the case) said, in after years: “If Freud was so great … why do I still feel so rotten?”

At that time, my colleague at Stony Brook, philosopher Edward Erwin, had already done a fair bit of investigating of the Freud claims.  He shared an essay with me, summarizing the rigorous studies of Freud’s results that were then available.  The summary claimed that the results of psychoanalysis were not superior to effects gained by other treatments or by no treatment at all.

It wasn’t August, so I could take Ed Erwin’s essay to my shrink right away, fully expecting him to expose the methodological flaws of that study.

As it turned out, my shrink was well aware of such objections and seemed quite prepared to counter them.

What he laid out by way of counter-argument was a pastiche of evasions.  It happens that I can tell a bad argument when I hear one.

Accordingly, I quit him.

Years later, Ed Erwin told me that I was one of the few philosophers he knew who had actually changed her assumptions  — and the actions based on them — when the evidence did not support them!

A few days before reading Ed’s article, I had dropped in on some friends from the counter-culture.  In the group was a long-haired poet named Peter who was totally laid back and nonjudgmental.  You could do your thing.  It didn’t matter.  Whatever.  He was like a man without bones.  That flexible.

On impulse, I described the sessions with my shrink to the poet.  Peter listened, nodding in his totally accepting way, till I mentioned one detail that shocked him visibly.  Just to make sure he’d heard me aright, he said, leaning forward with a look of disbelief,

You mean you’re PAYING him?”

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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