Not Your Daddy’s Freud
In the fall of 2020, Ilan Zechory stepped down as president of Genius, the annotation site he founded with two friends from Yale. After more than a decade at the start-up, he could have been forgiven for taking a break.
Now Mr. Zechory is hard at work again, though not running another zeitgeisty digital media site. Instead, the 39-year-old is training to be a psychoanalyst.
Five days a week from an office on the Upper West Side, Mr. Zechory helps his 20 or so patients — some of them supine, in the classic style — plumb the depths of their unconscious minds. Having gained an appreciation for the method during his own multiyear analysis, Mr. Zechory loves his new role.
“For the first time in my life I feel at peace with work, and have stopped dreaming about what else I should be doing with my days,” he said.
Mr. Zechory is part of what may be a larger psychoanalytic moment. Around the country, on divans and in training institutes, on Instagram meme accounts and in small magazines, young (or at least young-ish) people are rediscovering the talking cure, along with the ideas of the Viennese doctor who developed it at the turn of the 20th century.
After several decades at the margins of American healthcare — and 100 years after he published his last major theoretical work — Sigmund Freud is enjoying something of a comeback.
Look and listen carefully these days, and you’ll find Herr Doktor. For instance, the Instagram account freud.intensifies has more than a million followers and posts memes like a portrait of Freud overlaid with the text “Every time you call your boyfriend ‘Daddy,’ Sigmund Freud’s ghost becomes a little stronger.” In an April 2022 TikTok, which has been watched nearly five million times, a young man extols Freud: “Fast forward a hundred years, and he ain’t miss yet!”
The magazine Parapraxis, which was started last year to “inquire into and uncover the psychosocial dimension of our lives,” has attracted a progressive “new psychoanalysis crowd.” The forthcoming film “Freud’s Last Session,” starring Anthony Hopkins, is currently filming in a reconstruction of Freud’s famous Hampstead study, complete with antiquities. The Showtime series “Couples Therapy” documents several patients who see Orna Guralnik, a New York psychoanalyst and psychologist. “Know Your Enemy,” an au courant lefty podcast, has devoted multiple episodes to discussions of Freud, who has become a frequent topic of conversation among the show’s hosts.
And Opulent Tips, an influential fashion Substack, referred in January to a “Freudian-core” aesthetic inspired by “the freaky underbelly of the 1950s,” psychoanalysis’ so-called golden age in the United States: “Looking the part. A crisp and correct surface with strange feelings boiling just beneath.”
Plus, any culture that has just produced “MILF Manor” is going through something Freudian.
‘You’re Working With People’s Fantasies’
In her 1981 book about psychoanalysis, “The Impossible Profession,” Janet Malcolm interviews a pseudonymous analyst. “The insights of psychoanalysis are never taken for granted from one generation to the next,” he says. “Each generation has to make the original discoveries afresh!”
Like anything formative from long in the past, Freud never totally disappeared. Some of his concepts, like denial and libido, are so deeply embedded in popular culture that we no longer even think of them as Freudian. And no young century that has canonized “The Sopranos,” which featured many sessions of Tony’s psychotherapy with Dr. Melfi, as well as episode-long dream sequences, could be completely devoid of “golden Siggie,” as Freud’s mother reportedly called him.
But today, the interest is more literal.
According to a spokesperson, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the country’s main professional organization for psychoanalysts, doesn’t keep data on the number of new analysts — though its 3000 members, in comparison to the 106,000 licensed psychologists in the United States, give a sense of the field’s niche status. But several prominent training institutes say applications are on the rise. And the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) says the number of sessions performed by its in-house clinic has roughly doubled since 2017, a sign that more people are seeking analytic treatment.
Violet Lucca, 37, the vice president of digital at Harper’s Magazine, started analysis recently for two reasons. First, she is working on a book about the director David Cronenberg, whose interest in psychoanalysis yielded the 2011 film “A Dangerous Method,” which dramatizes the relationship between Freud and his most famous follower, Carl Jung. Ms. Lucca thought going through analysis herself would be creatively useful. Second, in the last five years Ms. Lucca has dealt with the death of her mother, who she said was schizophrenic, as well as the end of a long relationship.
“I’m overdue,” she said. (Ms. Lucca’s analyst is Griffin Hansbury, who writes the widely read blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York under the pseudonym Jeremiah Moss.)
Ms. Lucca said she hopes to become a little happier.
That could take a while. According to a 2022 paper in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, a typical analysis lasts three to seven years.
But it’s the length and depth of that conversation that drew Yelena Akhtiorskaya to analytic training. An acclaimed novelist (The New York Times called her debut, “Panic in a Suitcase,” “brilliant and often funny”), Ms. Akhtiorskaya, 37, found her financial prospects as a full-time writer dim. (According to Tessa Peteete Ivers, chief operating officer of IPTAR, a first-year analyst could expect to make between $75,000 and $120,000 a year.)
So, inspired by an uncle who was a poet and an analyst, she decided in 2017 to get her license in psychoanalysis.
“As a literary person, what could be better than discussing dreams and symbols and delving as deep as possible four days a week?” she said. “I don’t see why everyone isn’t doing it. You are your own boss. You make your own hours. And you’re working with people’s fantasies.”
Ms. Akhtiorskaya is part of a new cohort of people from creative backgrounds embarking on psychoanalytic training, a career change that would have been unthinkable in the heyday of the practice. The European émigrés who helped popularize analysis in the United States tethered themselves to the American medical establishment as a way of lending their method institutional legitimacy. For years, only psychiatrists — medical doctors — could receive analytic training.
Much of the field came to resemble, as Ms. Malcolm wrote, “a hidden, almost secret byway traveled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades.” In this atmosphere, some wildly sexist, homophobic, and racist ideas, such as the notion that racial minorities were unanalyzable, flourished.
“Our politics of exclusivity have done us a disservice,” said Kerry Sulkowicz, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
In 1988, a lawsuit opened up analytic training to social workers and psychologists. (In 2010, New York state began allowing people without mental-health training to pursue licenses in psychoanalysis.) But by then the field was already in a period of steep decline. The advent of modern psychopharmacology and the rise of short-term cognitive behavioral therapy made Freud’s clinical legacy seem to many fuzzy, or worse, quaint.
(CBT, pioneered in the 1960s by an erstwhile Freudian psychiatrist named Aaron Beck, is considered the gold standard in treating anxiety and depression by many mental health professionals, with the strongest empirical support.)
Analysis is also notoriously expensive and time-consuming; a senior analyst in Manhattan might charge $400 an hour, which, on the suggested four-to-five day a week schedule, could easily work out to an $80,000 dollar yearly expense that is only partly reimbursed by insurance. But many analysts work on a sliding scale, and some of the training institutes offer therapy for rates as low as $10 an hour.
The goals of analysis are in one sense modest — Freud wrote, “much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness” — but its claims about the operations of the mind are vast, and have drawn enormous skepticism. Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, famously criticized psychoanalysis as non-falsifiable, and therefore unscientific; Frederick Crews, an emeritus professor of literature at the University of California, Berkeley, made it the mission of much of his career to argue that Freudianism was so unempirical that it wasn’t even a suitable basis for literary criticism.
“Freud’s writings are full of ambiguities, so anyone who wants to find either positive or despairing implication in them can do so,” Professor Crews said. “When propositions contradict each other, I regard that as a fatal problem. If you’re just a casual reader and you come across sentences that you like, perhaps that suffices for you.”
But some high-profile research has raised doubts about the science behind selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of medications frequently prescribed to treat depression and anxiety. And a younger generation has grown at least a bit skeptical about the way insurance companies and venture-backed mental health startups seem to favor cognitive-behavioral therapy, perhaps paving the way for this renewed interest in less symptom-focused forms of treatment.
Indeed, the idea that there are no magic bullets for mental health is part of what drew Mr. Zechory — the ex-start-up boss — to analytic training.
“I always had a sense that there is no free lunch, psychologically,” he said.
‘There’s an Inward Turn Now’
Analysis, which is focused on excavating highly personal narratives of meaning over long periods of time, may seem like an odd fit in a culture that often embraces broad structural explanations for social traumas.
But Freud’s ideas, according to a group of social-justice-oriented analysts, offer a way of understanding the unarticulated forces that create the social world and shape one’s place within it.
“C.B.T. may help you with your panic attack today,” said Dr. Beverly Stoute, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Atlanta, referring to cognitive behavioral therapy. “But after you recover from your panic attack, you realize, ‘Damn, this world is crazy.’”
Dr. Stoute, who is Black, is a co-chairwoman of the Holmes Commission, convened in 2020 by the American Psychoanalytic Association to investigate systemic racism within institutional analysis in the United States. (Dr. Stoute estimates there are somewhere between 40 and 50 Black psychoanalysts in the US.) The commission, along with work by the group Black Psychoanalysts Speak, and an influential 2016 documentary called Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, have argued that analysis is a powerful tool for addressing buried racial and class trauma.
“Psychoanalysis is the study of how we maintain not knowing what we know,” said Matthew Steinfeld, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. “And America is organized around not remembering what happened here.”
Sam Adler-Bell, 32, a writer and the co-host of the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, started reading Freud during the pandemic, as Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign foundered. He thinks that the left looks for Freudian explanations during times of defeat.
“There’s an inward turn now,” Mr. Adler-Bell said. “Maybe this purely materialist analysis of people’s motivations doesn’t give us what we need to make sense of the moment.”
Nico Fuentes, a 32-year-old student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, came to analysis three years ago, feeling emotionally stuck. She said she was turned off by the C.B.T. workbooks friends recommended, with their narrow focus on treating symptoms and quick diagnostics.
Ms. Fuentes was drawn instead to the intensity of traditional psychoanalysis. Her experience has left her convinced that the treatment has universal value.
“I am not bourgeois,” she said. “I’m a working class, trans woman of color who began in analysis with very little understanding of analysis. “But,” Ms. Fuentes argued, despite the longstanding perception to the contrary, “there is nothing fancy about psychoanalysis,” just two people in a room, talking.
Then there’s the matter of how we remember Freud himself. After decades of lacerating criticism over the sexism of concepts like penis envy and the theory that homosexuality resulted from abnormal Oedipal development, Freud came to symbolize for many the white, domineering, and pseudoscientific legacy of analysis.
“I originally read Freud as a teenager and thought, this is amazing,” said Dr. Guralnik, of “Couples Therapy.” “Then I came into all sorts of deep feminist critiques of Freud and started thinking, this is a whole bunch of patriarchal garbage. But having read a lot more and having come to realize that you have to see Freud in the context of his time, I came out on the other side. There are all kinds of Freuds. And you kind of pick and choose what Freud you want to have.”
That people see what they want in Freud is fitting: The first psychoanalyst is still, more than 80 years after his death, a transference figure. As Sophie Kemp pointed out earlier this year in a piece for Dirt, the appeal of the Freudaissance for certain “downtown gamines obsessed with daddy” may be precisely that he has a retrograde and sexist image.
But some of the new vogue for Freud emphasizes his status a racial minority in his native Austria, whose views on, for example, homosexuality, were nuanced and ahead of their time. A TikTok user recently discovered the famous 1935 letter in which Freud reassures the concerned American mother of a gay son that “homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation.”
“I don’t know how the idea that Freud hated gay people got started,” the fresh-faced TikTok user concluded, “But he did not. He absolutely did not.” (“the more you know #freud #psychology #lgbt,” he added in a caption.)
“When I actually read him, the things he was writing in the late 19th century are so much more progressive than most of America is now,” said Ms. Akhtiorskaya. “To say that we’re all polymorphously perverse, that we all have bisexual fantasies. It’s modern.”
And as for the charge that psychoanalysis isn’t results-oriented, try explaining that to the moneymakers, who seem to see a return on the investment. One of the treatments Mr. Zechory offers is a hybrid therapy-coaching practice. His clientele: Start-up founders.
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