Freud’s Couch

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1889, Sigmund Freud was still relatively new in his field. He’s what we’d call a pre-Freudian Freud. He was 33 years old and he was working as an assistant to another psychiatrist and he hadn’t had any of his big ideas yet.

Ann Heppermann:
But he was about to.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Ann Hepperman.

Ann Heppermann:
Freud was mostly practicing hypnosis at the time. It was cutting edge, though still kind of a controversial treatment. So, one day Freud gets a new patient.

Michael Roth:
A very wealthy woman, Fanny Moser.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University and a Freud historian. Freud’s new patient was struggling from all kinds of ailments, hysteria, sleeplessness, pain, and odd tics.

Michael Roth:
Fanny Moser had lots of doctors.

Roman Mars:
So Fanny Moser would come in and Freud would have her lay down on the couch, just like he did with his other patients.

Voiceover:
“Your eyes are getting heavy.”

Ann Heppermann:
Freud wasn’t the only person using a couch during hypnosis, but he particularly needed it to get people into a more relaxed state.

Voiceover:
“Heavier and heavier. You’re breathing deeper and deeper.”

Michael Roth:
But he wasn’t a very good hypnotist. He was kind of a clumsy hypnotist.

Voiceover:
“You are hypnotized.” (high-pitched cartoon voice)

Ann Heppermann:
So once Moser was on the couch.

Michael Roth:
Freud would say, “You’re getting sleepy, you’re getting sleepy”, and she would say, “No, I’m not. I’m not sleepy at all”.

Roman Mars:
So while Fannie is laying there not getting sleepy, she talked. At first, Freud would interrupt her with his theories, but Fannie just wasn’t having it. She wanted to talk.

Michael Roth:
“First, let me tell you my stories.” And then a bing. The light goes on.

Roman Mars:
Freud has a revelation. If you just let patients talk and don’t say anything, they will let down their defenses and the unconscious will be revealed.

Michael Roth:
This is the moment when the pre-Freudian Freud becomes the Freudian Freud.

Ann Heppermann:
And the Freudian Freud’s new techniques and theories for therapy would come to be called ‘psychoanalysis’.

Roman Mars:
Most new theories in the world do not get assigned their own piece of furniture, but this one ultimately inexorably did. The couch. If psychoanalysis had a flag, oh, you know it would have a picture of a couch on it.

Ann Heppermann:
You can actually go visit Freud’s couch. It’s in his last home in London. Freud had the couch shipped from Vienna after fleeing the Nazis in 1938.

Roman Mars:
Good call Sigmund. Freud saw patients on his couch right up to his death, a year later. We sent our de facto London correspondent, the Allusionist, Helen Zaltzman, to check it out.

Helen Zaltzman:
“This is Helen Zaltzman reporting couch-side from Freud’s old study.”

Ann Heppermann:
Freud actually had a couple of couches, but the one we now associate with him was a gift from a patient, a Madame Benvenisti. She told Freud that if she was going to have her head examined, she might as well be comfortable.

Roman Mars:
Apparently, she found the couch Freud had at the time sorely lacking. So she got him a cozier one.

Helen Zaltzman:
“It’s really a very cozy looking couch. It’s not clinical looking at all; it looks like a great place to take a nap.”

Ann Heppermann:
Freud’s study is full of rugs and books and artifacts from other cultures. It has sort of an Indiana Jones vibe to it and his couch is in keeping with that. It’s a Divan-style sofa. Some people might call it a swooning couch and it’s covered in exotic red Persian carpets and piled with velvet pillows.

Helen Zaltzman:
“So you can’t actually tell what the couch beneath it is really like, whether it’s stained with the human experience.”

Ann Heppermann:
What’s underneath is a surprisingly plain Jane beige sofa. All clean lines and rectangular forms. It’s almost boring. The couch is what’s known as a Biedermeier sofa, a very popular style back when Freud got it in 1891. It was like something you’d find in a Viennese lady’s bedroom. Domestic. A piece of furniture designed for relaxing and dreaming.

Roman Mars:
But the more patients Freud saw on the couch, the more he wrote about those patients.

Ann Heppermann:
The more the couch became thought of as an essential instrument in Freudian psychoanalysis.

Arnold Richards:
The couch was central to the idea of getting to the unconscious.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s Dr. Arnold Richards, a psychoanalyst who practices on New York’s Upper East Side.

Roman Mars:
In traditional analysis, Richard says, the couch is a tool. A patient lies down on his or her back looking up at the ceiling.

Arnold Richards:
Just staring up, you’re staring into yourself. You’re looking inside rather than outside.

Ann Heppermann:
Traditional psychoanalysts believe the couch helps a patient relax and open up and understand their unconscious conflicts and inhibitions. Like-

Arnold Richards:
Why you can’t finish your paper, why you can’t work, what are your symptoms and what are your inhibitions, and you want to understand that. That’s what psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is about.

Ann Heppermann:
And some of these therapists believe that even the placement of the couch, like where it is in the room, makes a difference.

Arnold Richards:
I know there was one analyst who would put the couch in the middle of the room because he felt that the patient shouldn’t be close to a wall, that the wall would make them secure and he wanted the patient to be insecure. He wanted to promote the regression.

Roman Mars:
The analyst typically sits in a chair out of sight from the patient on the couch, and though some analysts believe this positioning helps the patient feel freer to open up, Freud may have had more selfish reasons. He once remarked, “I cannot put up with being stared at by other people for eight hours a day”.

Ann Heppermann:
In any case, when an object plays such a central role to the work that you do, choosing the right one becomes a big deal.

Arnold Richards:
It’s like a rite of passage. It’s like you’ve made it.

Roman Mars:
Which means good business for the guys making those couches.

Fred Brafman:
We had to have a separate factory just to make the couches because we also made sofas and club chairs.

Ann Heppermann:
Fred Brafman used to run Imperial Leather Furniture Company in Queens, New York. It’s a family-owned business that’s been selling psychoanalytic couches since the 1940s.

Roman Mars:
His father-in-law, Irving Levy, actually patented a version of a psychoanalytic couch he designed with his business partner.

Ann Heppermann:
Alicia Brafman says her father was extremely proud of it. Every time anybody walked into the store, he’d saunter up to them and say-

Alicia Brafman:
He would say, “we made Freud’s couches”, which of course they didn’t.

Roman Mars:
The couch they sold wasn’t Freud’s exotic, cozy pile of cushions.

Ann Heppermann:
Their psychoanalytic couches were like the one you’re probably thinking of – low to the ground, sleek.

Roman Mars:
Brafman sold these psychoanalytic couches all over the country and around the world for decades.

Ann Heppermann:
And the psychoanalysts buying them had some particular aesthetics.

Fred Brafman:
Most of them were being made in leather.

Ann Heppermann:
But tufting with buttons, a big no-no for nervous patients.

Fred Brafman:
They would pick at it because they were edgy, nervous and it would present the maintenance problem.

Ann Heppermann:
Basically constructing the perfect psychoanalytic couch is like building a sofa for Goldilocks.

Fred Brafman:
It can’t be too soft and it can’t be too hard. So we used to use a special spring and special cotton and horse hair-hog hair combination to make it, as they said, just right.

Ann Heppermann:
Fred’s business boomed in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. What some have called the ‘Golden Age of Psychoanalysis’.

Fred Brafman:
It was very good. It was a very good business.

Roman Mars:
But then, in the late 60s, things changed.

Ann Heppermann:
People started to experiment with alternative therapies and the first generation of antidepressants offered faster relief. Traditional psychoanalysis fell out of favor.

Roman Mars:
And you might be able to guess what happened to analytic couch sales.

Fred Brafman:
So now couches aren’t being used all that much. They sit up in club chairs or lounge chairs and they talk to the psychoanalyst.

Ann Heppermann:
And even within psychoanalytic circles, people became less certain that the couch was a good tool. Different schools of thought started cropping up.

Arnold Richards:
Whether or not you use the couch can determine what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what your theory is.

Ann Heppermann:
You could say that two camps formed in psychoanalysis.

Roman Mars:
Team couch, and team no couch.

Arnold Richards:
Some would say it’s easier to have a conversation sitting face-to-face. And some people, some analysts – psychoanalysts – insist on not using the couch. They said they prefer sitting up.

Ann Heppermann:
Richards hasn’t really chosen a team. In his office, there’s a couch and a chair.

Arnold Richards:
I do whatever seems to… What works best for the patient.

Roman Mars:
There may be a team couch and a team no couch, but even Freud wasn’t that dogmatic about it. He had patients he treated on the couch and some he didn’t, like the famous composer Gustav Mahler whom Freud treated while strolling around the park.

Ann Heppermann:
But here’s the thing, while Freud wasn’t dogmatic about using the couch, and while the use of the psychoanalytic couch has declined, you wouldn’t know it from popular culture.

Roman Mars:
The analytic couch has become shorthand for therapy, particularly in one place.

Bob Mankoff:
“Hi, I’m Bob Mankoff. I’m cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine.”

Ann Heppermann:
Bob Mankoff is surprisingly qualified to talk about this.”

Bob Mankoff:
“Well, I have a background in experimental psychology.

Roman Mars:
He wasn’t a psychoanalyst, exactly.

Bob Mankoff:
“I was in animal behaviorist so to put the little rats and pigeons on couches was extraordinarily difficult.”

Ann Heppermann:
Mankoff says the couch is fantastic as a symbol. It is just what a joke needs.

Bob Mankoff:
“I think the couch immediately establishes the power relationships here. The psychiatrist is in control. You are sort of helpless, childlike, lying on the couch.”

Roman Mars:
Even though real therapists aren’t using the couch all that much, cartoonists still need it.

Bob Mankoff:
“When we look at the cartoons now, we do see that they’re all on the couch.”

Roman Mars:
Of course, it’s not just The New Yorker. We’ve seen the couch all over popular culture like it’s hard to imagine Woody Allan without the couch.

Annie Hall:
“You’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for 15 years. You should smoke some of this. You’d be off the couch in no time.”

Roman Mars:
And then there’s the Sopranos.

Ann Heppermann:
Tony Soprano spends a lot of time with his therapist, and even though he’s always sitting in a chair, when the camera pans out, there is a very typical brown analytic couch in the background.

Roman Mars:
As if the set designer wanted to reassure our subconscious about what he was doing there.

Ann Heppermann:
And when I asked Mankoff to imagine having to make New Yorker therapy jokes without the couch as a device.

Bob Mankoff:
“Oh, don’t make me cry.”

Ann Heppermann:
“I’ve made Bob Mankoff cry. I would just like to-”

Bob Mankoff:
“I can’t lose the couch, can’t lose the couch. Not while I’m running this thing.”

Ann Heppermann:
Thousands of people have made pilgrimages to see Freud’s couch. It’s a relic to how Freud revolutionized how we understand the human mind.

Michael Roth:
The couch, especially Freud’s couch, it came to symbolize an invitation to open your mind, you know, to let someone see it inside.

Ann Heppermann:
That’s Freud scholar, Michael Roth, again.

Michael Roth:
It’s a reminder that we have the ability to reveal ourselves and that’s, it’s irresistible, right? I mean, it’s like a magic carpet. I can get on the couch and suddenly I’ll say things that reveal who I am, what I really love, because my whole life I’ve been pretending to love other things, but I get on the couch and suddenly I say, “My mother? She ruined my life!”

Michael Roth:
“Not my mother.”

Ann Heppermann:
“You should say that again. Make sure on mic.”

Michael Roth:
“Not my mother; if she hears this story she’d kill me.”

Roman Mars:
Michael Roth loves his mother, but if he didn’t, and does, it might be revealed on the couch. Freud has given us the id, the ego, the superego, the Freudian slip, a whole number of complexes. But beyond creating a vocabulary of the mind, he gave us a place to rest, to feel at ease, to share our desires, our inhibitions, our dreams. A place just to lie down and talk.

  1. Kevin Yeo

    After listening to this and a Planet Money podcast on computers vs humans performance when it comes to treating PTSD, I think there might be very good reasons for the analyst not to face the pateint. In the PM podcast the computer won because it did not show emotion or value judgement. The practice of sitting behind a patient may serve the same purpose, perhaps modern practices have lost this advantage by going couch less?

  2. There was a song in this episode featuring a Spanish woman and very melodic instruments somewhere in the middle. I think you might have replaced it with a new song as I can’t seem to trace it now. Could you let me know the title? Thanks and keep up the wonderful work!

  3. Marvin Milstein

    After recently watching the old BBC documentary called “The Century of Self” and seeing how Freud’s nephew systematically used his uncles insights into moving our nation from navigating each day based on our “feelings” and away from our “thinking” has pretty much brought me to the place where inspiring boring furniture is all I will attribute to Freud.

    We don’t even say anymore, “what do you think about this or that?” …we now say, “how do you feel about this or that?”…I don’t know about your feelings but mine lie, deceive and often betray…not exactly the bunch I think wise to look to for advice.

    But a fascinating story…thank you.

  4. sergio

    still waiting on the music used in this episode. I recognize the song used before you interview new yorker dude, but i can’t figure out who the artist is. it’s driving me bananas

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