Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

Shrink Rap

City apartment buildings of a certain vintage have offices for doctors and other helping professionals that open directly onto the sidewalk, so there is no need to go through lobbies crowded with doormen, delivery men, and tenants fussing with grocery carts, dogs, and mail. This office belongs to a psychoanalyst; perhaps unsurprisingly it is on the West Side (where one block has so many psychoanalysts that it is known as the Mental Block), though shrinks in fact practice throughout the city.

There are a few obvious differences between the waiting rooms of doctors and those of psychoanalysts. Doctors employ schools of receptionists and secretaries to deal with patients, insurers, and the latest requirements of Uncle Sam. Shrinks work alone. The offices of doctors are crowded with fellow sufferers, coming and going, or mostly, like you, just sitting. Even when two or more psychoanalysts share a suite, the interval of the 50-minute hour, so long as their customers are staggered, means that they rarely see one another. Some doctors’ offices pipe in Muzak; the waiting rooms of psychoanalysts, never. (My wife had an older colleague, born and raised in Vienna, whose psychoanalyst husband, a violinist, was told by his mentor, a senior psychoanalyst, that he must learn the viola so that he and his colleagues, who already included two violinists and a cellist, could form a string quartet — but that is a different matter.) The reading material in the typical doctor’s office is picked for distraction and grazing: fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Time, and of course People. (I keep track of the stars of Hollywood via my visits to the doctor.) The offerings in the offices of shrinks, if there are any, tend to be more austere. My first psychoanalyst took The New Leader (that was a trip down memory lane — like a conservative subscribing to The Freeman). The waiting room of my second psychoanalyst had an aging copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Speaking of which, it is true that most psychoanalysts in the city are Jews. My first two were; so is my psychoanalyst wife; so are her colleagues and friends, who long ago became my friends. So strong is the correlation that my wife assumed that her analyst must have been Jewish, even though his first name was Siegfried. Only after his untimely death, when we attended his memorial service in a church, was the truth revealed. True, it was a barely denominational, Jesus-was-a-great-guy church, but still.

There was a time when psychoanalysis in America rode a high horse. The Nazis and World War II sent floods of mitteleuropäisch analysts to the United States. Post-war insurers were generous with reimbursements. Sigmund Freud, the all-father, had lived until 1939, writing up to the very end; his commandments were still hot off the tablets, and there were enough schisms among his apostles to add spice (in the Fifties, many an intellectual in the city spent time sitting in an orgone box). But after pride came the fall. The analytic community succumbed to arrogance and rigidity. An in-joke: A patient awaiting a transplant is offered the heart of a 25-year-old triathlete, killed in a motorcycle accident, or the heart of a 90-year-old, three-pack-a-day analyst at a famous psychoanalytic institute; he chooses the latter. ? It’s never been used.

Freud, feminists noted, had a penis — another black mark. Insurers wanted quicker results; pills promised them. The last mementos of the lost heyday are the psychoanalytic couches in New Yorker cartoons that do not take place in heaven or hell or on desert islands.

So gone is the golden age that psychoanalysis should appeal to a certain kind of lost-cause, Tory/reb winger for that reason alone. A better reason is the interest that psychoanalysis takes in the past. The quality of its interest lies midway on a spectrum that runs from Burke/Kirk to H. P. Lovecraft. To the traditionalist the past is the source of tried-and-true habit, deep-rooted affection, all those wardrobes that cloak our naked, shivering nature. To the devotee of horror/sci-fi the past is the dark womb of unshakeable curses and irreversible inbreeding with monstrous aliens. For the psychoanalyst the past is the source of what we love and how we love, which makes life worth living, but which also often (always?) comes with shortfalls and disappointments — else why would we need help now?

The big conservative objection to psychoanalysis has always been its presumed attitude toward the Big Guy. Freud was a village atheist, his village being fin-de-siècle Vienna. Even his most devoted remaining admirers hurry past Moses and Monotheism, the old man’s weird riff on his own religion: Moses was an Egyptian, hadn’t you heard? (Freud could have used a good analysis, by someone other than himself.) But, so what? The Almighty who presides serenely over plagues, tsunamis, and totalitarianism can absorb a little carping.

The waiting room of this psychoanalyst is done in neutral tones, like the first-class lounge in a small airport. No Eichmann in Jerusalem — perhaps I could have finished it. The office, when he takes me in, has more neutral tones, but there are some bright electric guitars hanging on the wall. A good sign: My first psychoanalyst’s office featured nothing; my second had a few plants straining for a window that looked over a dark back garden. This psychoanalyst is indeed Jewish, and he is wearing an ear stud. Once upon a time that would have meant that he was a pirate or gay, but now it just means that he is a cool guy (if Mike Huckabee were somewhat younger, he would sport one).

Preliminaries. Do I have Skype? Does he work on the phone? (The analytic couch now floats on the airwaves.) Fees? (Less than a suit, but no less than a really good shirt.) What do I want? I’m 60 years old, I don’t need to discover that some thoughts are unconscious, or that parents had sex lives. Let’s get to it.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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