How Psychoanalysis Helped Me Rethink Police Brutality

by H. N.

This article addresses sensitive political matters regarding the Hong Kong/mainland China relationship. The author has decided to not provide their full name or contact information to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” “Five demands, not one less!” “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!” These chants of protestors penetrated me as I marched with a million peaceful demonstrators. I was initially hesitant to join in the cursing of the families of corrupted cops, wondering how spreading further hatred could be helpful at all. But the urgent cries for justice brought back images of police brutality; rage seemed to infiltrate and spur me, and I found myself, too, chanting fiercely the words of hatred: “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!”

It was the first day of 2020, during Hong Kong’s annual new year rally—six months since the commencement of anti-government protests. In June 2019, more than a million Hong Kong people rallied to protest the Hong Kong-China extradition bill. With the government’s refusal to meet the people’s demands and its escalation to police brutality, the protests, too, quickly escalated. What followed was a year of unrest filled with violence, anger, and injustice. The city’s peacefulness and orderliness had completely broken down, leaving it more divided than ever.

These days, it’s no longer surprising to see tear gas wafting across the city, civilians being pepper-sprayed, high-school students being arrested, or police kneeling on the necks of protestors, handcuffed face-down on the pavement with blood streaming from their faces. While the society is, sadly, growing accustomed to scenes of police brutality, there continue to be regular exclamations of unbelief: “How can they [the police] do that?” “Are they even human still?” Trying to make sense of such brutal behavior, many of us have resorted to the dehumanization of police officers.

Two weeks after the New Year’s demonstration, I was back at the University of Pennsylvania for the spring semester. I was enrolled in an exciting course taught by Drs. Lawrence Blum and Barbara Shapiro, called “Psychoanalytic and Anthropological Perspectives on Childhood,” in which we studied how internal psychic processes can give rise to different cultural behaviors, helping us make sense of some otherwise potentially mystifying ritual practices (e.g., female genital circumcision). The course, ultimately, taught me how psychoanalytic concepts can help us better comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible—to see the humanity in even the most unfamiliar and often disturbing social behaviors and customs. This was fascinating to me—but also, initially, threatening: if all human behaviors can be explained in human terms, then seeing certain people (e.g., the brutal police officers in Hong Kong) as other or less than human was no longer an option. I had to learn, instead, to keep pressing harder and harder on the question: What makes fellow a human being—a trained police officer, in particular—capable of such brutality?

According to Sigmund Freud, moral concepts are parts of the psychic structure called the “superego.” This is what we often call “conscience,” and it is shaped both by societal values and by an internalized image of an ideal self. The superego often acts against the “id,” the wholly unconscious part of the mind that relentlessly pursues the satisfaction of its every desire. The “ego,” according to Freud, serves to mediate conflicts between the “superego” and the “id.” Emotions of guilt and shame punish the ego for failing to live up to the superego’s strict standards and “repressing” the wild urges of the id.

Most of the police officers wear heavy gear and masks, and many of them remove the identification numbers from their uniforms, further concealing their identity from the public and making it much more difficult to hold them accountable for their actions. Thanks to my study of psychoanalysis, I understand now that this technique of concealment effaces an individual cop’s identity and, with it, their own sense of responsibility; they become part of a collective, anonymous mindset, which, potentially, enables them to dissociate, to detach themselves from any sense of personal responsibility or guilt they might otherwise feel. The moral demands of the superego (the image of an ideal self) may thus become far less pressing, freeing up some of the more selfish and even violent impulses associated with the id.

I have also come to understand that the use of dehumanizing language can actually help promote and facilitate police brutality. Some officers, including the police spokesperson, have referred to protestors as “cockroaches.” This is infuriating, and many see it as evidence of the deteriorating humanity of police officers themselves. And yet, psychoanalysis helps us to understand that the dehumanization of others is a very human act—it is a defense mechanism against guilt which further abets the justification of behaviors that are otherwise suppressed by the superego’s moral standard (Grand 1998). Ironically, the dehumanization of others as a way of coping (an undesirable way of coping, obviously) with some inner psychic conflicts is a very human characteristic.

I myself have also engaged in dehumanizing behavior by calling police officers “dogs.” I’ve done so because I’ve wanted to distance myself from the violent officers; by denying their humanity, I was trying to say: “I’m nothing like them.” However, in doing so, I was also disavowing our common humanity and the fact that I, too, sometimes experience (whether consciously or unconsciously) violent impulses. By opposing police brutality without seeking to understand the drives and motivations that lead to their intolerable actions, I’ve allowed myself to slip into a simplistic “self v. other” way of thinking, making it too easy for me to perceive all police as brutal, which does nothing to help overcome divisiveness and the violence it spawns.

To make the situation even more complex, we all tend, to some extent, to internalize societal stereotypes through a process sometimes called “introjection,” whereby our “sense of self [is] derived from the perceived experience of that self in the minds of others” (Altman, 63). Social media are full of dehumanizing images and descriptions of police. These images and descriptions are not only a condemnation of police brutality and a call for justice, but also a way of labelling all police as beasts, thereby promoting further disidentification and stereotyping. If introjections do actually happen—if people eventually come to believe and, as it were, become the definition of themselves in the minds of others—by constantly labelling police as morally reprehensible beings, we might ourselves be complicit in turning morally self-aware officers into brutal people.

Thinking in a more psychoanalytic way has thus made me a bit more humble—and prompted me to reflect more on the language I use and the social media posts that I share concerning police brutality. Especially during this time of unrest, we should stop dehumanizing one another and disengage from vindictive actions that serve only our worst impulses. At the end of the day, we do not want to create even more hatred and violence as we seek, rightly, to denounce police brutality and continue to work towards the goals of justice and freedom.

This way of understanding police brutality is by no means a justification of police brutality. I still strongly believe that shining a bright light on police brutality is a requirement of justice for all. Nonetheless, by understanding better, with the help of psychoanalytic concepts, what motivates police brutality—as well as our own aggressive impulses—we might find more peaceful and effective ways of combatting the prejudice, mistrust, and violence that threaten us all.


Works cited

Altman, Neil. 2006. “Whiteness.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75.1: 45-72.

Grand, Stanley. 1998. “Letter.” Journal of The American Psychoanalytic Association 46.2: 654-655.


War Neuroses on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus

by Michael McAndrew

The United States has been engaged in the “Long War” of post-9/11 conflicts for eighteen years. If that war were a person, it might be getting ready to go to college. Indeed, many of the almost three million veterans who have served in the post-9/11 conflicts are also returning to college—though many may be significantly older than eighteen, as they now begin or continue their college educations.

Despite steeply rising tuition, many veterans are able to make use of the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill to begin or return to school. Often, these student-veterans enter as undergraduates, with much, if not all of their tuition covered by the bill (and in many cases supplemented by the colleges and universities they attend). These students are older (perhaps much older, if they had longer terms of service) and have had very different life experiences, to put it mildly, than their fellow non-veteran students. There’s an awfully great difference between an incoming student fresh out of high school and an incoming student-veteran, who may have been deployed multiple times before the first day of, say, their Introduction to Psychology class.

Sigmund Freud spoke of education as being one of the three impossible professions (the other two being governance and psychoanalysis):

Here let us pause for a moment to assure the analyst, that he has our sincere sympathy in the very exacting demands he has to fulfill in carrying out his activities. It almost looks as if analysis were the third of those ‘impossible’ professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government. (248)

With all due respect to Freud, I would add a fourth impossible profession: war. In contemporary discourses of mental health, we often hear the word “crisis.” Two such crises are “the student mental health crisis,” unfolding chiefly on college campuses, and “the veterans’ mental health crisis,” which permeates civil society. What follows is my perspective on how these two crises intersect and how psychoanalysis might further illuminate and address that intersection.

Unfortunately, one of the best-known statistics about post-9/11 veterans is that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day. And that number is rising among younger veterans, including those who’ve returned to college. According to data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate of veterans aged 18-34 increased by 10% from 2015 to 2016, which translates into 45 deaths per 100,000 veterans—the highest of any age group of veterans today (Shane). This already urgent problem is further exacerbated by its intersection with the current campus mental health crisis: the American Psychological Association, via a National Survey of College Counselors, estimates that 52.7% of college students experience “hopelessness” and that 39.1% of students are “severely depressed” (2017). Overall, 94% of university counseling centers report that the number of students with “severe psychological problems” is increasing, and that 58.9% of students who visit their schools’ counseling centers are reporting anxiety-related disorders, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (Solomon). And, while the reported incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans varies from one service era to another, 11-20% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom have, according to the VA, reported symptoms of PTSD in a given year (Gradus).

Within the military (as in much of civil society), there is a pervasive culture of silence when it comes to mental health. Many service people, sadly accustomed to combat and sexual trauma, the violent deaths of close friends, suicidality, addiction, and profound alienation after their return from deployment, tend not to speak about such matters. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen are, in fact, taught not to speak of these things—not to each other and not to the “psych,” or psychologist or psychiatrist—because the wrong word could end one’s career and lead to a discharge under unfavorable terms. Given this culture of silence and mistrust, how might already overwhelmed college counseling centers better serve returning veterans?

Contemporary standards of care, including very-short-term behavioral counseling and over-reliance on medications, are in many cases inadequate. Indeed, the efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other “evidence-based” therapies has been questioned for years. According to Dr. Jonathan Shedler: “Research shows that ‘evidence-based’ therapies are weak treatments. Their benefits are trivial. Most patients do not get well. Even the trivial benefits do not last” (319). Shedler concludes that the data published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program (the first large-scale study of “evidence based” therapies, including manualized CBT and antidepressants) was misleading and that “the primary outcome measure in the NIMH study was [that] the difference between the CBT treatment group and the placebo control group was 1.2 points. The 1.2-point difference between the CBT and control group is trivial and clinically meaningless….[H]ow could there be such a mismatch between what we have been told versus what the study actually found?” (321).

Despite mounting evidence that psychodynamic psychotherapies are often far more effective than either CBT or antidepressants, their time- and cost-intensiveness are often regarded as prohibitive—even elitist. Yet, from Freud’s time to the present, psychoanalysts have made comprehensive efforts to overcome these barriers (both real and imagined) to effective treatment for all. These efforts need to be redoubled, including on college campuses.

Before I became a Lacanian psychoanalyst in formation, or attended a graduate counseling program, or had even heard of Freud, I myself was in the military. I spent four years in the U.S. Navy on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. After I was honorably discharged, I became a student-veteran and began to learn about the efforts that Freud and many other early analysts (Sándor Ferenczi in particular) made to open the doors of their consulting rooms to veterans of the First World War. It was, in fact, under Ferenczi that the psychoanalytic “hour” was reduced to 50 minutes, in order to accommodate larger numbers of those veterans suffering from “war neuroses.” Today, in campus-based mental health centers, there is a pervasive need to treat more complex cases of “civilian” students and student-veterans alike, and analytically informed approaches could and should be made more readily available. Larger numbers of seasoned analysts need to volunteer more of their time, and space and time need to be made for honest, inclusive conversations about mental health.

I also learned that, in many campus mental health clinics today, students are often forced to wait weeks, even months, for an initial consultation and that providers themselves are often overwhelmed by complex cases they’re not adequately trained or resourced to treat:

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of students seeking on-campus counseling shot up by 30 percent—more than five times the growth of overall college enrollment. The result: By 2018, 34 percent of school health centers reported wait times of up to three weeks or more—and these long wait times often lead to “no shows” or discourage students from scheduling an appointment in the first place per the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD). For students on those lists, the average wait time was 17 business days. But at some schools, it stretched to 34.7 days. (Bullock)

U.S. campuses are facing a major student mental health crisis; and many of the nearly 900,000 student-veterans on these campuses may require an even greater level of care. This care could be provided, if some basic steps were taken and some strategic partners enlisted. Throughout the U.S., there are many local psychoanalytic institutes, societies, reading groups, associations, and forums, many of which could, in partnership with university counseling centers, handle larger caseloads and more complex cases—including combat-related disorders that university counseling centers aren’t generally equipped to handle. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Colorado Analytic Forum and the Lacanian Forum of London both offered pro-bono services oriented toward essential employees and front-line professionals, including other mental health professionals. Similar initiatives could help address the mental health crisis of student-veterans, by making such partners stakeholders in sustained, comprehensive, campus-based mental health services.

Other institutional players could also pitch in. For example, Psychoanalytic Studies programs (such as those at Emory University, Hampshire College, NYU/Gallatin, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others) might be able to help facilitate campus-wide education and partnerships as well as to support university counselors in their efforts to meet the unique challenges of working with student-veterans. Student-veterans themselves could be instrumental in educating their peers, counsellors, and instructors about service- and combat-related disorders, while, in the process, helping each other—finally, healthily—to find their own way home.


Works cited

American Psychological Association. 2017. “Campus Mental Health.”

Bullock, Maggie. 2019. “It Can Take Weeks for College Students to Get the Mental Health Help They Ask For. That’s a Seriously Dangerous Delay.” Cosmopolitan, 15 October 2019.

Gradus, Jaimie L. 2007. “Epidemiology of PTSD.”

Department of Veterans Affairs. “How Common is PTSD in Veterans?”

Freud, Sigmund. 1964. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 23. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 209-53. Originally published as “Die Endliche und die Unendliche Analyse,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 23.2: 209-40.

Shane, Leo, III. 2018. “VA: Suicide rate for younger veterans increased by more than 10 percent.” Military Times, 26 September 2018.

Shedler, Jonathan. 2018. “Where Is the Evidence for Evidenced-Based Therapy?” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 41: 319-29.

Solomon, Samantha. 2019. “Facing the College Mental Health Crisis: The Need for More Faculty Training.” BestColleges, 12 July 2019.


Race and Psychoanalysis: Some Resources for Undergraduate Education and Counseling

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

Note: There are terrific posts by Kelli Fuery, Michael McAndrew, Hayley Ng, and others awaiting publication—please be on the lookout for them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, given our extraordinary present circumstances and—as educators, students, and clinicians—our need to adapt to them as we prepare for an uncertain new academic year, it seems important to jump the queue with this selected bibliography of resources—to which readers are welcome and encouraged to contribute in the “Comment” section.

Many of us will be spending the summer preparing to resume teaching in a world transformed, not only by Covid-19, but also by the revitalized struggle against systemic assaults on black bodies and minds. The psychic fallout of state-sponsored violence—including racially motivated police brutality and the extrajudicial murder of black men, women, and transgender folk—has scarcely begun to be calculated, much less adequately addressed, by the psychoanalytic community. How might those of us who teach psychoanalysis at the undergraduate level, or provide psychodynamic therapy to college students, do a better job of centering black lives—and matters of race even more broadly—in our classrooms and counseling facilities?

Some of us have already begun to do so, by drawing our students’ attention to both the historical and present-day relations of psychoanalytic theory and practice to matters of race. We teach them about the interwoven histories of psychoanalysis, Judaism, and antisemitism. We point out and try to account for the longstanding racial disparities in access both to psychoanalytic training and to psychoanalytic treatment. We reconfigure our syllabi better to reflect the burgeoning clinical and theoretical literature on race and psychoanalysis. And we critique the still all-too-prevalent view that psychoanalysis should remain aloof from politics and social justice. One of the most important lessons we have to teach our students is that, from its inception, psychoanalysis, at its best, has sought to engage with progressive political thought and to promote social justice.

Yet so much remains to be done—even just in the U.S. alone: Psychoanalytic institutes continue to focus chiefly on training and treating the relatively privileged and the overwhelmingly white. The medical establishment continues to link certain mental disorders to ethnicity and race, rather than to the societal harms that produce them. Racialist thinking continues to impede mourning for and by past and present generations of victims of American slavery and its traumatic sequelae. And white supremacism continues in myriad ways—from the most subtle to the most brazen—to block the decolonization of American minds. These and other failures are not irremediable. Nor do they devalue the extraordinary efforts of past and present educators, clinicians, and theorists to help psychoanalysis step up the pace and quality of its contributions to building a more just and unfettered world. But, if there were ever a time to bring more of this work into our undergraduate classrooms, where psychoanalytic ideas and their progressive potentials are so rarely discussed at all, that time would be now.

To that end, I’ve assembled a selection of resources for educators, clinicians, and students. This is, of course, just a small sampling of what’s available, so I’d like to invite all readers of this blog to use the comment-field to add further resources—particularly, resources that you yourself have used and about which you could, if you like, say just a bit, to give others a sense of why and how you’ve used them. I’d also like to invite readers to propose posts of their own that address specific, race-based issues in the realms of pedagogy, learning, and treatment. If you have an idea for a post, please contact the editor at

This select list of readings and viewings links titles to pdf copies, where available, or to other Web-based sources, including publishers’ Web sites, commercial vendors, and the PEP Web database (note: PEP Web requires an institutional or individual subscription). If you have a link to share, please send it to



Elizabeth AbelBarbara Christianand Helene Moglen, eds., Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)

Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Fakhry Davids, Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference (London: Red Globe Press, 2011)

David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019)

Patricia Gherovici and Christopher Christian, eds., Psychoanalysis in the Barrios: Race, Class, and the Unconscious (London: Routledge, 2019)

Christopher J. Lane, ed., The Psychoanalysis of Race (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

Michelle Anne Stephens, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014)

Antonio Viego, Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)



Farhad Dalal, “Racism: Processes of Detachment Dehumanization and Hate,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75 (2006): 131-161

David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 10 (2000): 667-700

Janice P. Gump, “Reality Matters: The Shadow of Trauma on African American Subjectivity,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 27 (2010): 42-54

Dorothy E. Holmes, “The Wrecking Effects of Race and Social Class on Self and Success,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75 (2006): 215–35

Kimberlyn Leary, “Racial Enactments in Dynamic Treatment,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 10 (2000): 639–53

—, “Racial Insult and Repair,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 17 (2007): 539-549

—, “Race as an Adaptive Challenge: Working with Diversity in the Clinical Consulting Room,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 29 (2012): 279-91

Dionne R. Powell, “Race, African Americans, and Psychoanalysis: Collective Silence in the Therapeutic Conversation,” JAPA 66 (2018): 1021-49

Avgi Saketopoulou, “Minding the Gap: Intersections Between Gender, Race, and Class in Work with Gender Variant Children” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 21 (2011): 192-209

Hortense J. Spillers, “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race,” Critical Inquiry 22 (1996): 710-34

Melanie Suchet, “A Relational Encounter with Race,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 14 (2004): 423–38

Kathleen Pogue White, “Surviving Hating and Being Hated: Some Personal Thoughts about Racism from a Psychoanalytic Perspective,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 38 (2002): 401-22

Alexandra Woods, “The Work Before Us: Whiteness and the Psychoanalytic Institute,” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2020)



Basia Winograd, dir., Black Psychoanalysts Speak (2014): a 60-munite documentary intended to raise awareness of the need for more openness and exploration of race in relation to psychoanalytic training, treatment, and institutional life, featuring interviews with C. Jama Adams, Janice Bennett, Kirkland Vaughans, Cleonie White, Kathleen Pogue White, and many others.

Basia Winograd, dir., Psychoanalysis in El Barrio (2016): a 50-minute documentary about Latinx psychoanalysts, their patients, and their communities in the U.S., featuring interviews with Ricardo Ainsle, Christopher Christian, Patricia Gherovici, Maria de Lourdes Mattei, Ernesto Mujica, and many others.


Psychoanalysis and the Pre-Med

by Harris Avgousti

As a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, I study biology and chemistry, and I plan to pursue a medical degree after graduation. Throughout my education, I’ve been very STEM-focused, doing research in radiation oncology, tutoring for organic chemistry and physics, and so on. But a recent course on psychoanalysis helped me begin thinking in new ways about what I’m learning now and how I might someday practice medicine.

In the fall 2018 semester, I enrolled in “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice,” with Professor Max Cavitch and Dr. Susan Adelman. To be honest, I took the course simply because it would fulfill my English requirement for medical school; but the experience proved to be a whole lot more. We studied the writings of many psychoanalytic thinkers—including Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan, and Mitchell, to name just a few—whose ideas continued to draw my rapt attention to what was, for me, an entirely new field.

Eight months later, I got my first glimpse of how some of these psychoanalytic ideas might be applied in the “real-world” setting of oncological research and patient care.

I was enrolled in the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Program for Educating Radiation Scientists, an intensive program for some of the best science students in the U.S. We were given the opportunity to shadow physicians at the Abramson Cancer Center, and I was assigned to Dr. Harding, whose main clinical focus was acute palliative radiotherapy. He treated patients with late-stage malignant disease, solely with the purpose of improving the quality of whatever life they had left. We spent most of our time analyzing CT/PET scans and making dosimetry calculations in order to figure out the best course of action. But the most enlightening part of each day was physician-patient interaction.

One day, Dr. Harding and I visited a couple in their late 50s. Dr. Harding greeted the patient and his wife soberly and showed them a CT scan of the man’s lungs; malignant tumors filled the image. The patient and his wife began to weep, and Dr. Harding whispered to me to grab a box of tissues from the room next door. Upon my return, the room remained silent for almost five minutes, as Dr. Harding gave the couple the time they needed to begin to process the terrible news. Then, when they were ready to talk, Dr. Harding did something I’d never seen before in any of my clinical shadowing experiences. He asked the couple questions that, seemingly, had nothing to do with their cancer diagnosis—questions like: “Are you content in life?”; “What is your daily routine like?”; and “How do you sleep at night?” I felt as though I’d been transported to a psychotherapeutic session from Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, one of the analytic memoirs we’d read in my psychoanalysis course. It was as if I were no longer watching an oncologist and patient, but an analyst and analysand. Some of the same subjective experiences I’d read about in the psychoanalytic literature were being given space to unfold, including what were very clearly transferential and counter-transferential communications between the patient and Dr. Harding—a dialogue that ended up helping to shape the further discussion of his diagnosis and treatment plan. After about 30 minutes, the couple left, and Dr. Harding started writing up his clinical notes in the Epic database (which allows physicians to upload highlights from patient appointments onto a central server for later access).

When I asked Dr. Harding if the interaction I’d witnessed was typical of his clinical routine, he answered with a very abrupt “no.” But, after a moment’s reflection, he said that merely sharing technical medical details isn’t always the best way to treat such a patient. He told me that talking with patients about their thoughts and feelings hadn’t been part of his formal medical training, but that he had discovered, through experience, how beneficial doing so could be. Then it hit me: Dr. Harding was employing his own version of what I’d previously studied as Freud’s “talking cure.” As a palliative care physician treating a late-stage cancer patient, he understood that his patients’ priorities were often very different from those of other patient-cohorts. For them, the most effective treatment might not always be the most efficient treatment. Instead, listening to the patient’s broad range of thoughts and feelings helped Dr. Harding better understand what his patient wanted and needed in order to live whatever life remained to him in the ways that mattered most to that particular patient.

This was actually the last time I shadowed Dr. Harding. Yet the experience has stayed with me. As I compile my applications for medical school, I’m frequently tasked with answering the question: “Why medicine?” Formerly, I would have talked about my passion for science—those late nights in the lab peering through my microscope at blood vessels in tumor samples. Now, however, my answer extends beyond the purely scientific. I see much more clearly now that the successful practice of medicine will require not only the knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physiology I’ve been pursuing so intensively, but also the knowledge of interpersonal dynamics I’ve begun to acquire from my study of psychoanalysis. The practice of medicine appeals to me now more than ever as a uniquely human science—a science not only of cells and disease processes, but also of the unique qualities of each patient’s subjective states.

Medicine is generally regarded as a very technical field—and it is. But I’ve come to see how crucial it can be to pay close and informed attention to the psychodynamic relationship between physician and patient, in order best to meet the demands of proper diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. I now believe that understanding each patient as a full human subject should be every medical doctor’s goal, and I’ve learned that psychoanalysis provides a powerful set of theories and techniques that I can use in my own pursuit of that goal. The intersection between psychoanalysis and medicine might not currently be at the forefront of modern clinical practice, but I hope my experience sheds light on what I hope will become a more and more common convergence of these fields, in medical schools, hospitals, and private consulting rooms. And, as a patient as well as a physician-in-training, I hope that each time any of us steps into a doctor’s office, we’ll be able to make, and reflect upon, the same sort of vital human connection that I witnessed in Dr. Harding’s consulting room.


When the “Enemy” Inside Meets the “Enemy” Outside: Therapy in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Keren Friedman-Peleg

Entering a bustling shopping mall on the west side of Manhattan after a beautiful walk on the High Line, I was struck by the sight of a large, multicolored mural (by the artist Jamilla Okubo). It featured a woman looking into a mirror, but, instead of seeing her face, she saw the words: “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot hurt you.” I was surprised and fascinated to find, in the middle of a vast urban shopping mall, a message addressing the intimate life of the passerby as a psychological being rather than merely a consumer. For days afterward I thought about its message and about the ubiquity of such pop-psychological encouragements to think of oneself as a vessel carrying an “inner self”—a notion that still has a great deal of currency in mainstream psychological thought: the notion that this “inner self” is the principal source of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; the place where secret, internal enemies accumulate and thrive, threatening to harm us and daring us to conquer them.

As I have with my students both in the U.S. and in Israel, I’d like, here, to focus on this notion as a way to stimulate conversations about psychological language and its role in our lives—as targets of advertising, as patients in therapists’ offices, as teachers in classrooms, and simply as human beings. I tell my students that, rather than being thought of solely as a scientific study of the inner self, psychoanalytic psychology should be understood as operating within various systems of meaning that are co-constructed by individuals and groups at particular points in time and in particular social and political circumstances. What systems of meaning, I ask them, might help generate this mural’s apparent message that we alone are responsible for protecting ourselves from external “enemies” by eliminating the “enemy within”?  What are the implications of such thinking for our experiences of the world’s injustices—so many of them based on distinctions of race, class, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional circumstance over which we have little or no control?

Often, in facilitating discussion of these questions, I’ve found it helpful to share with my students various case studies from the private confines of the consulting room, which I’ve gathered as an anthropologist studying trauma in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The story of Ibrahim is one of the most powerful I have in my pedagogical toolkit. An Arab-Bedouin psychologist I met while conducting fieldwork in Israel’s southern periphery, Ibrahim was born and raised in a state that defines itself, first and foremost, as a Jewish state, and which, for more than 70 years, has been in virtually continuous conflict with the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab states, all broadly perceived by many Israelis as the “enemy.” During an interview, Ibrahim shared with me his fractured sense of home and belonging: as a child his family had been forced by the Israeli government to move from an “unrecognized” Bedouin village in the northeastern Negev to a permanent, Israeli-created town, despite their strong reluctance to move. Years later, Ibrahim received his academic training at one of Israel’s leading universities, and, in recalling that period of his life, he described how hard it was it “to gain acceptance in the department of psychology at Ben-Gurion University. It was very homogeneous in terms of the students.” He told me that “people who look a certain way, from certain places—there was a particular stereotype of people who came from what we call ‘good areas’ [Jewish towns and cities in the same area of Israel’s south, most of them identified with the upper-middle class]. And in all of this I was the only Bedouin. I felt that there was a difference. [After all] the image of an ‘Arab Bedouin’ is very far from the image of a ‘psychologist.’”

As I explain to my students, in Ibrahim’s case it’s impossible to draw a clear line between the “enemy within” and the “enemy outside”—between the forces creating the challenging circumstances of his daily life, shaping his academic training and, ultimately, his professional identity, and some putatively separate “inner” self. Moreover, drawing such a line was no easier for Ibrahim’s patients. After he obtained his academic degree and professional credentials, Ibrahim took a position as a psychologist at an elementary school in the Jewish city of Be’er-Sheva in the south of Israel, near his Bedouin hometown of Rahat, where the threat of rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel had significantly impacted residents’ daily lives. There, enemies both “internal” and “external” abounded—and could not be sharply differentiated, as Ibrahim explained:

I had a Jewish patient, a young boy, and his mother called me, she was in such need, desperately in need of help, and right away, in the beginning of the conversation, I said “Hi, it’s Ibrahim speaking,” and I emphasized the [Arabic] accent, so she would know, so that the shock would not be in the room, that she would understand her son’s therapist is an Arab-Bedouin. In our first meeting, I asked [the boy]: “Can you describe for me what you feel right now?” And the boy said: “I’m afraid.” I asked him: “What are you most afraid of?” And he said: “Of Arabs.” I looked at him and didn’t know what to say. I’m an Arab, an Arab-Bedouin, his therapist is an Arab. Then the boy, he’s a very smart boy, asked me: “What’s your name?”—even though I guessed his mom had already told him my name, and maybe she had already told him that I’m Arab. But I answered his question directly, and I said: “My name is Ibrahim.” And the boy looked at me and asked: “Can I call you Avi?”

The Jewish boy’s question perfectly illustrates the intertwining of the outer world and his inner conflict, as well as the unique intermingling of Ibrahim’s personal identity as an Arab-Bedouin, a professional psychologist, and a symbol of the boy’s deepest fear. What the boy asked for was, in effect, help in breaking through the binary opposition that had long shaped daily life in Israel: between “Us” (the Jews) and “Them” (the Arabs). An individual named “Avi”—short for “Avraham,” a common Hebrew first name in Israel—fits easily into the category of “Us”: a friend, someone we can trust simply because we share similar religious roots, a common history, and a collective identity. In contrast, someone named “Ibrahim”—the Arabic version of the Hebrew name “Avraham”—would tend immediately to be identified with “Them”: those who can’t be trusted simply because they have different religious roots, a different history, and a different collective identity—in other words, the “enemy.” Well aware of the complex forces shaping the inner and outer worlds of himself and his patients, Ibrahim had emphasized his Arabic name and accent in order to minimize the surprise his Jewish patient might otherwise have experienced upon learning at the first session that his therapist—the “final figure of authority” to whom he must “tell all he knows in order to be told all he does not know” (Rieff, 332)—was Arab. As it turned out, the Jewish boy came up with a strategy of his own, couching Ibrahim’s Arab identity in a Jewish-sounding name.

In effect, the boy’s request helped him to tolerate the new situation of being with Ibrahim in the consulting room, blurring the distinctions between various perceived “enemy” forces. For the boy, the enemy outside shoots rockets from the Gaza strip towards his home in the Jewish town of Be’er-Sheva, and for Ibrahim, the enemy carries out oppressive policies against himself, his family, and his fellow Arab-Bedouin people. For the boy, the inner enemy is the traumatic fear of “Arabs”; for Ibrahim, it is the struggle involved in carrying out his mission as an Arab-Bedouin psychologist representing a Jewish-Israeli school, tasked with soothing the fear of a boy who identifies “Arabs” as the very source of that fear. These interactions meld the “inside” of the clinic and the “outside” world, where Jewish parents were raised and are now raising the boy who is afraid of “Arabs” and where Ibrahim was raised and is now raising his Arab-Bedouin children in a Jewish state.

Ibrahim agreed to the boy’s request to call him Avi, “so we could start to build something together, so we could start a process, some kind of a therapeutic process. And we did, we started. And after a couple of months, the boy suddenly said, in the middle of one of our sessions: ‘So, okay, from now on, I can call you Ibrahim.’” By accepting the boy’s request to call him by a Jewish name, then, Ibrahim not only created an atmosphere of sensitivity and empathy with his patient, but he also challenged Rieff’s strict, classical image of the analyst as a “final figure of authority,” fostering a more nuanced dynamic of power and trust between psychotherapist and patient.

Ibrahim’s story helps my students understand psychoanalytic psychology, not only as a tool for intrapsychic exploration and growth, but also as a field of knowledge-practices operating within a socio-political system of meaning. Contrasting the self-centered message of the Manhattan mural with the “thick description” of the interaction between Ibrahim and his patient allows students to reject the alluring simplicity of the binary opposition between “inner” and “outer” worlds. Ibrahim’s story gives students a sense of how psychotherapy actually works, by negotiating the complex relation of internal and external in the comparatively safe space of the consulting room.

Students also benefit from the ethnographic perspective I can share with them, helping them to “move” between the multiple, dynamic points of view of individual “social players” and to suspend, however briefly, the inclination to draw a sharp line between “good” and “bad” by acknowledging different forms of victimization and diverse experiences of violence and pain, and by exercising and expressing empathy for both Ibrahim and his patient. Ibrahim’s story helps students better understand the inevitable conflation of the intrapsychic and the interpersonal—especially under conditions of great socio-political stress—and also to understand that the clinic is part of the world, not isolated from it, and that both patient and therapist are full human subjects who both have discoveries to make about themselves and their places in the world, as well as in relation to one another. The story of Ibrahim and his young patient is not chiefly about an individual patient overcoming an “enemy within,” but, rather, about a psychosocial dialogue that takes place between therapist and patient, changing them both.

Work cited

Rieff, Philip. 1979. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Teaching Freud To Both Undergraduates and Analytic Candidates*

by Lawrence Blum, M.D.

Teaching Freud, for me, is always part of a larger project of teaching psychoanalysis. My inclination, perhaps informed by students’ impressions of Freud as a mere historical footnote, and psychoanalysis as a famous cadaver, has been to emphasize how fully alive Freud’s ideas are now, in our culture and in contemporary psychoanalysis. I offer an approach that honors Freud’s ideas by showing students not only how those ideas continue to influence us but also how other, more recent thinkers have helped transmit and transform them.

After many years of teaching psychoanalytic candidates, psychotherapy students, and trainees in the mental health disciplines—at both the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania—I have recently begun to teach undergraduates as well, as co-director of Penn’s undergraduate program in Psychoanalytic Studies. I was curious to learn what the experience would be like and what adjustments would be necessary. Overall, I’ve found the experience of teaching undergraduates surprisingly similar to teaching their elders. When teaching either mental health professionals or undergraduates, one is likely to have classes that are heterogeneous with regard to personal background, psychoanalytic knowledge, and, especially, aptitude for psychoanalytic learning. As an instructor, one faces the same tasks of trying to assess what “levels” the students are at, including how open or defensive they might be, and of trying to teach to multiple levels at once.

On the other hand, there are some matters that are more necessary to address with college students than with, say, analytic candidates. One of these is that, when learning psychoanalytic ideas, unlike many other subjects, the most serious obstacles are typically our own emotional reactions. Candidates are usually at least partly familiar with this difficulty, but for college students it needs to be discussed explicitly. For some students, what’s troubling might be aspects of sexual material; for others, murderous wishes; and, for yet others, the notion of cannibalistic fantasies. In these days of “trigger warnings” about supposedly offensive or harmful ideas in American college classrooms, I let the class know that we’ll be talking about aspects of human nature and human psychology that will provide ample opportunity for emotional and intellectual discomfort, as well as the opportunity to learn from that discomfort. At the same time, I let the class know that we’ll discuss these matters in a manner both as respectful and as direct as possible.

For some college students, the frank discussion of the usual domains of psychoanalysis (love, hate, sex, aggression, envy, intimacy, fantasy) is a new experience that may bring either anxiety or relief—and often both at once. In conducting an undergraduate seminar, my co-teachers and I do not want the class to veer toward group therapy or an encounter session, and we never oblige students to speak about things they’re uncomfortable with or that feel too personal. We are, however, pleased when students allow themselves to be introspective—more open to their own emotional experiences. In addition to being respectful of the differences in their personal feelings and cultural backgrounds, we also hope to learn from them. To foster an atmosphere of candor in which relatively open conversation is possible, we have found it useful to have everyone introduce themselves and to share something about their backgrounds and their interest in psychoanalysis. To break the ice, the instructors speak first. It’s important for psychoanalysts to recognize the differences between running a classroom and conducting therapy. Some principles are the same (e.g., not being inappropriately familiar or seductive), but, among other differences, the classroom calls for a greater degree of relaxation about self-disclosure and more involvement in guiding the discussion.

Crucially, various obstacles to psychoanalytic learning can themselves provide useful insights into psychoanalytic ideas. From early on, Freud was able to turn to advantage his awareness of resistances—in both himself and his patients. Interpreting his own “Irma” dream, Freud offered to his readers compelling but also carefully limited insights—a technique he would soon extend to clinical work with patients. The “surface” is also a good place to start with students, giving them opportunities to begin cautiously and then to extend and deepen their reflections as discussions unfold.

Freud’s analysis of dreams was central to his own analysis as well as to his development of psychoanalysis as both a science and a therapy. Dreams are not only a tried and true path to psychoanalysis (what Freud called the “royal road to the unconscious”), but also often a subject of great interest to undergraduates as they seek to understand their own minds. Thus, the Irma dream, the introductory dream in the book that introduces psychoanalysis, is for students a logical point of entry into the world of psychoanalytic thought.

Freud’s Irma dream follows a friend and colleague’s partly critical comments about the state of his patient Irma’s health, and, as Freud’s associations to his dream proceed, students quickly pick up on Freud’s accumulating self-accusations and self-exculpations. They easily recognize his competition with his fellow physicians. In my experience, most students find Freud’s inference that his dream represents a wish not to be blamed but to blame others relatively compelling. Questioning our students regarding Freud’s comment about the “navel” beyond which lies the unknown—and about his remark that, “Frankly, I had no desire to penetrate more deeply at this point” (113), about the elements he refrains from discussing further, about competition between the men, about the positions of the women, syringes, etc.—help them recognize the Oedipal and sexual aspects of the dream that Freud has left just beyond explicit commentary. This line of discussion then illuminates layers of defense, from what is more emotionally acceptable to what is less so. Simultaneously, it moves from material for which we have the most data to areas requiring a slightly greater degree of inference. In other words, the principles of moving from surface to depth, and also of moving from the observation of what is more certain to inquiry about what is less certain, are illustrated in the discussion. The Irma dream thus serves as a rich starting point for the discussion of many fundamental matters, including dreams, dream interpretation, psychoanalytic principles of conflict and compromise, clinical technique, and Freud’s early model of the mind.

I also like to pair Freud’s Irma chapter with Erik Erikson’s neglected classic, “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis” (1954). This long article, which many students (at all levels) find challenging, brilliantly extends the interpretation of the Irma dream begun by Freud. For students of the history of psychoanalysis, the pairing of Freud’s chapter and Erikson’s article brings into focus the first half-century of the development of psychoanalytic ideas, from the beginnings of the topographic model and id psychology through the structural model and the new powers of ego psychology. For students of clinical technique and dream interpretation, it provides a model of step-wise interpretation, from the surface—that which is most conscious and for which we have the most observable evidence—through “layers” that require greater degrees of inference and for which we have less manifest evidence. Erikson enriches the interpretation of the Irma dream by connecting it to roots in Freud’s childhood, including conflicts with his father and identifications with his mother, and by situating it in relation to Freud’s social position and the culture in which he lived. It also serves as a demonstration of the further development and application of Freud’s ideas through the mid-twentieth century.

Professor Greg Urban and I begin our undergraduate seminar on “Psychoanalysis and Anthropology” at the University of Pennsylvania with a kind of psychoanalytic exercise; rather than telling students about psychoanalytic ideas, we invite them to try to think psychoanalytically. We read aloud together the first few pages of Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice (1993). Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who traveled through the Amazon River basin learning about medicinal plants from indigenous experts, the shamans. The book opens with an anxiety dream of the author’s—“a terrifying dream,” in his words—that occurred shortly after his explorations began: “An enormous jaguar strode into my hut and stared deeply into my eyes, as if trying to divine my thoughts. Powerful muscles tensed in its back as it arched its body to spring. So vivid was the apparition that I awoke with a scream” (1). He asks his translator to tell the dream to the shaman, who had recently told him he would no longer teach him. The shaman breaks into a big smile and responds with a de facto transference interpretation: “That was me!” In the text that follows, Plotkin discusses, in sensually rich terms, the college lecture that introduced him to Amazonia, developmental conflicts in his adolescence, and the “sleepy swamps” surrounding his childhood home in New Orleans. The text reads like a set of associations to the dream, gradually moving from the present further and further back in time. In class, additional aspects of the dream, together with the students’ own associations, especially to the jungle, usually lead to the Garden of Eden, the search for hidden and forbidden knowledge, and typical conflicts about knowledge and sexuality. Students get a sense of both the method of psychoanalytic thinking and how it addresses personal history and ways of adapting to emotional challenges.

Beginning our course with the Plotkin exercise and the Irma dream quickly leads our students to new ways of understanding people, both as individuals and in groups. It gives them a set of ideas that cross disciplinary lines and resonate throughout the humanities and social sciences and even some of the natural sciences. Some students even become drawn toward careers in mental health fields. Whatever students’ career directions may be, our experience so far suggests that to varying degrees many students find in psychoanalytic ideas ways to truly expand their minds. They view themselves and others with more curiosity, complexity, and understanding, and—like learning to read or ride a bicycle—the accomplishment is enduring.


Works cited

Erikson, Eric. 1954. “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 2: 5-56.

Freud, Sigmund. 1958. “The Method of Interpreting Dreams: An Analysis of a Specimen Dream.” The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth. 96-121.

Plotkin, Mark. 1993. Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. New York: Viking.

* This post has been adapted from: Blum, Lawrence. 2018. “Teaching Freud, Teaching Psychoanalysis: From College Students to Professionals.” American Imago 75.2: 307-317. (Additional articles about teaching Freud can be found in this issue.)


Recovering Race

by Susan Adelman, Ph.D.

“I could have told you that,” said the student I’ll call “Jamila.”

In our course, “Introduction to Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” (the informal “core” course for the undergraduate minor in Psychoanalytic Studies at Penn), we were discussing the final pages of Avgi Saketopoulou’s wonderful essay, “Minding the Gap” (2011), about her rageful, wonderful, and gender-variant preadolescent African American patient, DeShawn—a child struggling mightily with her and even more profoundly with his own gender and racial identities. From DeShawn, Avgi comes to learn that “for black boys racial identification trumps gender anytime” (202). It was then that Jamila, one of our African American students, spoke up.

Jamila was polite and level in her intonation. But, underneath, I heard a piercing “Duh!” What was already obvious to her was not already obvious to me—and had not been even to Saketopoulou.

I’ve made many attempts to learn more about the realities of African American experience—to educate myself by reading books and watching films, by attending lectures, and by participating for several years in a multiracial analytic discussion group. Yet I clearly remained insufficiently sensitive and informed. Whereas Avgi’s words had struck me like a revelation, they had struck Jamila as a mere restatement of the obvious.

Class discussion continued, and questions came up as to whether or not there was some sort of racial exploitation going on between the Greek Cypriot psychotherapist and her African American patient. I became defensive. Avgi, I insisted, had been brave and committed in her work with DeShawn, who, at their initial meeting, had pulled out two handfuls of her hair and continued to act out, often in violent ways. Despite this unpromising beginning, I pointed out, Avgi  persevered and was ultimately able to work well with DeShawn—something I wasn’t at all sure I could have done under similar circumstances. After class, however, I realized I had perhaps shut down an important line of discussion regarding racial privilege. I felt awful, wrote to my co-teacher, Max Cavitch, and lost a night’s sleep.

What happened next helps demonstrate the value of team-teaching such a course. Max supported my inclination to send our students an email about my regret and self-reflection. I wrote to them about my belated recognition that I had been over-identifying with Avgi and that, as DeShawn says to Avgi at one point, I should have “shut up” and listened to what was being said by others in the class. In addition, Max contacted Avgi directly and got from her some follow-up information about DeShawn that we were permitted to share with our students. The next class meeting was extremely animated and engaged, with a great deal of participation (which, in our large class, with stadium seating, was unexpected and wonderful). Everyone was relieved to hear, via Saketopoulou, that DeShawn—now in late adolescence—was doing relatively well.

Still unhappily aware of my ignorance, I nevertheless wanted to share with our students my sense of how my own slip and recovery pertained to what we were teaching them about psychoanalysis as well as to its contemporary practice. If such a central component of identity as gender is, in some circumstances, less overdetermined than race, then how might we—as analysts as well as teachers—pay more adequate attention to race as well as to gender? Too many clinicians, alas, still indulge themselves in thinking that “social” factors are relatively superficial to their more traditional understanding of deep, unconscious dynamics. We wanted our students to understand that the “social,” including race and many other dimensions of identity as well, is a profound part of everyone’s conscious and unconscious functioning. But just how well did we ourselves really understand that?

Max and I discussed this question at length. In our first incarnation of the course—the one so brilliantly captured in Max’s first blog-post—we had deliberately included cross-cultural perspectives on psychoanalysis. The students watched Basia Winograd’s 2016 film, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, and viewed clips from her 2014 film, Black Psychoanalysts Speak. We told them about how psychoanalysis was being brought to China by American analysts who treat, teach, and supervise via the video-conferencing software, Zoom. (One group that supports this work is the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance. I myself have participated in this work as an Institute teacher, with half of my analytic students in the room and the other half on-screen, beamed in from the other side of the globe.) We had been mindful of cultural and racial difference in designing our syllabus. But we had, inevitably, brought our own blind spots to the course as well.

The similarly eclectic mix of this year’s class gives us a fresh chance to continue working these questions. We have over 40 students, ranging from first-year undergraduates to seniors, with concentrations including Cognitive Science, Biological Basis of Behavior, English, Business, Engineering, Music, and lots of as-yet-undecideds. The group’s demographics are similarly diverse.

How best to take advantage of this great variety of students to promote psychoanalytic learning? For one thing, we made room for a separate class that paired Winnicott’s 1949 article, “Hate in the Counter-Transference”, with Kathleen Pogue White’s searing 2002 essay, “Surviving Hating and Being Hated: Some Personal Thoughts About Racism from a Psychoanalytic Perspective”. Winnicott talks powerfully about how every baby needs to be able, sometimes, to hate their mother (or maternal figure) without causing the mother to withdraw or retaliate. This ability, he argues, helps a baby to move into a real relationship with a real, rather than an imagined, (m)other. White, in turn, writes powerfully about the hideous, racist voices that filled her own ears from an early age and how, ultimately, her analyst helped her tolerate and modify the crippling feelings they evoked. Ultimately, love—including transferential love—helped her conquer the voices of hatred. We hoped, by pairing these essays, to deepen everyone’s psychoanalytic understanding of the inter- as well as intra-subjective consequences of societal racism.

This helped us to revisit to Jamila’s implicit challenge. We need to teach our students, but we also need to learn from them—to learn together, and to be humble about all that we don’t know or fully appreciate about others’ lives. Jamila had reminded us that any relevant psychoanalytic teaching (or treatment) requires a willingness 1) to learn from students (and patients), who always have forms of knowledge and experience that differ—sometimes radically—from our own and 2) to participate with them in a basic truth of psychoanalytic engagement: that what psychoanalysts and teachers don’t know may create opportunities (if we can muster the honesty and courage to pursue them) for mutual teaching and learning—and that the candor of mutual engagement, with all its many forms of discomfort and awkwardness, is the best route intimacy and understanding, in both the classroom and the consulting room.

The ABCs of Polymorphous Perversity

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud declared war on childhood.

More accurately, Freud set out—in the first edition of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality—to dismantle widespread and tenacious 19th-century cultural fantasies about the “innocence” of children. As Dr. Susan Adelman and I explained to our students last week, in our team-taught course, “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice,” infants and prepubertal children, in particular, were, during the era of Freud’s own childhood, commonly idealized as “pure” beings, not yet tainted by erotic impulses. Earlier Calvinistic images of little devils steeped in “original sin” had largely been displaced by figures of tiny angels bathed in the refracted sunbeams of Romantic sentiment. “Heaven,” wrote William Wordsworth, “lies about us in our infancy” (525).

Nonsense, said Freud. Though they have no adult understanding of sexuality, infants are, from the get-go, squirmy bundles of erotogenic zones and undifferentiated libido. And this “polymorphously perverse disposition” (191), as Freud—non-judgmentally—put it, is every adult’s inheritance from the child they once were. That even the youngest children have sexual feelings is, as Freud pointed out to one of his colleagues, something “every nursemaid knows” (Jones, 350). Susan and I wanted our students to understand, first and foremost, that Freud had been very brave, not only to point out the obvious, but also to pursue his study of the obvious to its most surprising conclusions—brave enough to share his radical, non-judgmental story of human sexuality in all its variegated muckiness and splendor and to withstand the shocked and ignominious reactions of his contemporaries. After millennia of consternation and suppression, Freud, in 1905, finally, fully, and forever joined children’s history to the history of sexuality.

Susan and I were quick to acknowledge that a lot has changed since then—including ample correction and expansion of Freud’s earliest theories and many dramatic transformations in sexual (and gender-related) norms, practices, and identities. But we knew that Three Essays could still be unsettling reading, even for some of today’s youth. Asking students who are, most of them, not yet out of their teens—and thus still figuring out what sorts of sexual beings they might be—to discuss Three Essays meant leading them, as gently as we could, to the brink of some risky forms of self-discovery and self-exposure. The questions they raised tended to skirt the explicitly autobiographical but were clearly “about” themselves and their peers: “Why does Freud think that sexual object-choices can change, even later in life?” “Why does Freud think girls want to be boys?” “How can his use of the word ‘perversion’ really be non-judgmental?” “Is it true that everyone is bisexual?” “Do you believe what Freud says about sex and cruelty?”

Asking us what we, their teachers, believe was one way of letting us know they needed a certain amount of reassurance regarding their own sense of implication in what Freud says—for example, what he says about the link between sexuality and “cruelty,” or aggression, and the dimensions of “mastery” that are related to both. After all, our students include young men who don’t yet know quite how to manage their suddenly much larger, stronger bodies, or who might go to the gym to build up muscular armature as a defense against their own or others’ suspicions that they might be insufficiently manly or something other than heterosexual. They also include young women—socially conditioned, still, not to be aggressive, but who, just like their male counterparts, feel powerful, sometimes frightening, impulses, and who also know, sadly, how much more vulnerable they are than their male peers to common forms of sexual assault, including date-rape, on their own campus.

In Three Essays, Freud has some advice for teachers of children, including the late-adolescents in our introductory course on psychoanalysis: “The behavior of children at school, which confronts a teacher with plenty of puzzles, deserves in general to be brought into relation with their budding sexuality” (203). The challenge we face is always how best to help our students see this relation for themselves—how to reflect, in ways that are both informed and compassionate, on the erotic dimensions of their own physical, emotional, and intellectual experience of learning (including the “instinct for knowledge” Freud calls “epistemophilia” [194]). So we asked our students to meditate on this passage and to share with us their views on what it might mean to bring their classroom comportment “into relation with their budding sexuality.” In their responses, they talked a lot about “sublimation,” venturing that, at a fiercely competitive school like the University of Pennsylvania, students are having sex less frequently, or not at all, in order to “divert” their libido into their academic and professional pursuits. Others pointed out how the vagaries of law dramatize the contingency of childhood as a social construct: In Pennsylvania, they’re old enough to consent to sex but too young to order a beer at the local tavern. In one student’s home-state, 14-year-olds can be legally married but, if a 19-year-old male has sex with a 16-year-old female, he’ll be tried for statutory rape. And several spoke about finally being free, as students living away from home, to experiment with long-suppressed sexual urges and gender identities.

There were also plenty of students who spoke of their lingering skepticism regarding the truth of Freud’s universalizing pronouncements about infant and early childhood sexuality. Some of them remained not just unconvinced but defensive, which might be an indication that the idealization of early childhood and of the purity of child-parent relationships remains a powerful cultural force. We were careful not to push too hard against such skepticism. Instead, at the end of class, we asked them to listen again to Freud’s own frank, solicitous, and de-idealized erotic iconography of mother-and-child:

A child’s intercourse with anyone responsible for his care affords him an unending source of sexual excitation and satisfaction from his erotogenic zones. This is especially so since the person in charge of him, who, after all, is as a rule his mother, herself regards him with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object. A mother would probably be horrified if she were made aware that all her marks of affection were rousing her child’s sexual instinct and preparing for its later intensity. She regards what she does as asexual, ‘pure’ love, since, after all, she carefully avoids applying more excitations to the child’s genitals than are unavoidable in nursery care. As we know, however, the sexual instinct is not aroused only by direct excitation of the genital zone. What we call affection will unfailingly show its effects one day on the genital zones as well. Moreover, if the mother understood more of the high importance of the part played by instincts in mental life as a whole—in all its ethical and psychical achievements—she would spare herself any self-reproaches even after her enlightenment. She is only fulfilling her task in teaching the child to love. (222)

As the semester progresses, we told them, they will discover how Freud’s early theories—and his male-centric biases—have continued to be modified and corrected. But, we added, passages like this one also distinguish Freud’s still-vital contribution to our appreciation of the very real, very rich, and very human “perversity” of our entire erotic lives.


Works cited

Freud, Sigmund. 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth.

Jones, Ernest. 1953. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Volume 1: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries, 1856-1900. London: Hogarth.

Wordsworth, William. 1981. The Poems, Volume One. Ed. John O. Hayden. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Psychoanalysis in the Undergraduate Classroom: An Inaugural Post and Invitation to Join the Conversation

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

He was born in Greece, the land of Oedipus. A bright and eager neurochemistry major who was taking our course to fulfill a general humanities requirement, Ari (as I’ll call him) was handsome, athletic, good-natured, and presumptively straight. He listened intently as my co-instructor, Dr. Susan Adelman, explained Freud’s early notions of phallic striving and psychosexual development, in which the penis is the object of both boyish anxiety and girlish envy. In Freud’s preliminary view, Susan continued, a girl’s “penis envy” was transformed by a compensatory mechanism of displacement into desire for a baby. Ari raised his hand: “But who wouldn’t rather have a baby than a penis?”

In addition to being a good joke, Ari’s half-serious question is an excellent example of the sustained mood of intelligent playfulness that buoys and enriches our course on “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” at the University of Pennsylvania—not least because of the opportunities to reflect on the inevitable transferences and projections that occur in the classroom itself, as Ari himself clearly recognized. Because it satisfies a college-wide undergraduate humanities requirement and because it’s the “core” course in Penn’s undergraduate, six-course Minor in Psychoanalytic Studies, our students come from all sorts of different majors and programs: biology, fine arts, history, literature, neuroscience, nursing, political science, psychology, and more. This intellectual heterogeneity turns out to be a powerful advantage, not least by helping us to make the point that psychoanalysis is already in conversation with all of these disciplines and that, therefore, each student has something special—their own expertise—to contribute to our discussions of what is, to almost all of them, a brand-new field. Susan and I help them get acquainted with psychoanalysis, and they, in turn, teach us a thing or two. For example, Ari (the neurochemistry major) helped us understand the amygdala’s role in the experience of anxiety. Another student explained how Japanese pronouns reflected a cultural understanding of subjectivity and social relationships that cuts against the grain of many western psychoanalytic assumptions. A literature major shared a quote from Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, that seemed to anticipate Winnicott’s “false self” concept. And one of our history majors provided some vital context for Freud’s escape from Vienna after the Anschluss.

Indeed, Freud’s Jewishness has been an important point of connection for several students in the course, leading to discussions of other students’ religious backgrounds. And, not only is there a mix of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist students, but there is also a great diversity of classes, ethnicities, second (and third, and fourth!) languages, nationalities, races, and sexualities. When Susan and I wrote the initial syllabus, we included materials on gender-transition, comparative religion, African American analysts, teen suicide, lesbian autobiography, and the practice of psychotherapy from urban U.S. Latinx communities to the western provinces of China. But, before we met our new course’s enrollees, on the first day of classes, we had no way of predicting just how relevant the politics of identity would be to our remarkably heterogeneous group of students—or how gratified they would be to learn that (most) contemporary psychoanalysts take their real-world, post-adolescent struggles and questions very seriously.

Unfortunately, students at U.S. universities like ours have few opportunities to study psychoanalysis. There are occasional nods to Freud and Lacan (mostly in their literature courses), but psychology departments are evermore rigidly empiricist, and they tend to exclude psychoanalysis from their curricula chiefly because its theories and its efficacy as a treatment for psychological disorders can’t (so they persist in maintaining) be scientifically verified. Yet, unlike most of their psychology professors, many of the undergraduate students in our course already know about dopaminergic seeking systems, infantile recognition memories, oxytocin-driven attachments, the frontal lobe’s role in secondary process thinking, and the limbic system’s role in dreaming. In other words, their study of the brain—in our astonishing contemporary moment of neuroscientific breakthroughs (advances that Freud, a neurologist by training, predicted and keenly longed for)—has already equipped them with a sophisticated understanding of the physiological dimensions of the psychic processes for which psychoanalysis offers the richest and most accurate descriptions. The readings we assign by neuropsychoanalysts like Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms tend to make perfect sense to them, and many of them ask us: “Why don’t we ever hear about this stuff in our psychology courses?”

They should, obviously. But, whether or not psychology departments undergo the necessary paradigm shift, students should have more frequent opportunities to learn about a set of theories and treatment modalities that, every day, adds to our understanding of the human condition and contributes to the psychological well-being of millions—that, indeed, has helped as much as any field of critical inquiry to create the world we share. The desire to expand undergraduates’ knowledge of psychoanalysis motivates my work as one of the founding faculty members of Penn’s Psychoanalytic Studies program (now in its fifth year). We try always to team-teach our courses, pairing non-clinician scholars like myself with clinicians like Dr. Adelman, in order to model for our students the ongoing dialogue between the worlds of academia and clinical practice, as well as to highlight the transferential dynamics always at play in classroom and consulting room alike.

On a more-or-less monthly basis, subsequent “Psyche on Campus” blog-posts—authored by teachers and students from Penn and elsewhere—will have more to say about the topics, questions, challenges, and intersubjective encounters that engage teachers and students on all levels: personal, pedagogical, intellectual, cultural, and sociopolitical. And all readers of this blog—analysts, patients, students, teachers, scholars, and newcomers to psychoanalysis from all walks of life and all parts of the world—are encouraged to respond with comments, anecdotes, insights, and questions.

Finally, if you have an idea for a “Psyche on Campus” blog-post (800-1200 words) of your own, please contact the editor at: