They might as well have called us the People of the Couch.
No, I’m not talking about living room furniture. I mean the couch used by psychoanalysts in treating their patients. Ever since an atheist Jewish doctor in Vienna helped to reinvent Western civilization with his psychological theories more than a century ago, Jews have been disproportionately associated, both as practitioners and as patients, with Sigmund Freud’s science of the mind.
Perhaps because of the drama inherent in freeing a patient from the traumas of his or her past, psychoanalysis is tailor-made for the stage — as well as film and TV. Indeed, a spate of recent plays in New York are psychoanalytically-themed — they include Otho Eskin’s “Final Analysis” and Mark St. Germain’s long-running “Freud’s Last Session,” which has now been produced in six different countries, and Germain’s new play this season, “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Even as the popularity of psychoanalysis has declined precipitously in recent years, it has become a more popular theme in Jewish culture.
My interest in psychoanalysis is not a casual one. Throughout my childhood in Great Neck, my father was studying at a modern psychoanalytic institute in Manhattan; he turned even our Passover seders into discussions of psychoanalytic theory, as if the couches that we reclined on for the seder reminded him of the couch in his analyst’s office. In turn, I’ve spent much of my own life in analysis, which I’ve found to be as intellectually exhilarating as it has been emotionally rewarding.
When I moved to Manhattan in the early 1990s, I gravitated to the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where an iconoclastic British rabbi named Alan Miller, who was also a practicing psychoanalyst, conducted long but riveting Torah discussions every Saturday morning based on Freudian understandings of Judaism.
When I started graduate school in theater, I inferred that the preponderance of Jews on Broadway and in Hollywood had led to the use of psychoanalysis as a theme in pop culture, beginning with the 1941 Moss Hart musical, “Lady in the Dark,” starring Danny Kaye (who himself purportedly visited an analyst three times a day). Over time, it became commonplace to see neurotic Jews undergoing treatment in everything from Philip Roth’s pornographic 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the films of Woody Allen in the 1970s. In the 1999 Harold Ramis film, “Analyze This,” Billy Crystal played a Jewish shrink treating an Italian gangster, portrayed by Robert DeNiro. At the same time as most of Freud’s theories were being discredited, these portrayals of psychoanalysis turned it into a joke; they emphasized the hopeless maladjustments of American Jewish men.
Of course, there have been more serious treatments of psychoanalysis; think of Barbra Streisand playing a Jewish psychiatrist in the 1991 film “Prince of Tides,” or the recent Israeli turned HBO series “BeTipul” (In Treatment), in which each episode focused on a different patient visiting the same psychologist.
The new crop of plays about psychoanalysis also treats it, for the most part, with reverence. Then again, these new dramas are less about the therapy itself than about history — fin de siècle Vienna in the case of the first, the rise of Nazism in the second, and the personal history of a remarkable Holocaust survivor, who has spent her postwar life healing the psychic pain of people with sexual maladjustments, in the third. And they still make psychoanalytic theory seem remote from the lives of most people. So let me confess my own fantasy, which is that by putting psychoanalysis on center stage, its image will begin to be rehabilitated.
The viability of psychoanalysis has implications for our society. As our country’s health care system moves increasingly toward short-term behavioral psychotherapy rather than long-term analysis, patients’ deeper unconscious issues will continue to be swept under the rug. It may be costly, both in time and money, but psychoanalysis teaches humility; no man is a hero, it is said, to his valet or his psychoanalyst. I often wonder that if some of our disgraced public figures had been in psychoanalysis, they would have been less likely to commit their misdeeds.
Regardless of our level of influence in society, many of us could benefit from psychoanalysis. Perhaps the increased visibility of psychoanalysis in popular entertainment will inspire some of us to move from being couch potatoes to getting on the analyst’s couch. We would all be the better — and more self-aware — for it.
Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa).