Special To The Jewish Week
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
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 discussio. 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
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
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
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).