Cut to the Feeling

Collage of a Victorian woman laying down
My misery needed company in order to change

By Natalie Adler

Art By María María Acha-Kutscher

For a long time, my ambition was to become bourgeois. I longed for leisure and beautiful things, but I wasn’t sure I was allowed to have either. I wanted to want more than a better boss and a new couch. I wanted a family who was curious about the world and who wasn’t constantly finding new ways to repeat the agonies of their ancestors.

There were two things I knew I could do to change things for myself: read, and move to New York City. I related that song that Lou Reed and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol after he died: “when you’re growing up in a small town / and you’re having a nervous breakdown / and you think you’ll never escape it / yourself or the place that you live.” (I’m not actually from a small town — I’m actually from a densely diverse township in New Jersey — but neither was Andy, he was from Pittsburgh.)

Whenever I am about to say something personal, I tend to swerve away, to find a movie or a song that could do a better job of explaining myself than I could. But that’s not the only reason my analyst, who doesn’t have the same references as I do, has trouble understanding me. She says I talk about my feelings at a tangent: a line that touches the outer sphere of my feelings at a single point and then continues on and away. “I want to cut to the feeling,” I say, getting away with something, because she doesn’t know I’m referencing Carly Rae Jepsen.

I hear that Freud is in style now. Quite literally, in the Style section of the New York Times: “Not Your Daddy’s Freud.” Their evidence includes Instagram memes, little magazines, and a general sense that everyone is doing it. I’ve come across Return to Freud pieces in the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Statesman, and the Financial Times. Parapraxis, a very smart magazine devoted to the cause, launched last year, and New York Magazine ran a party report about its launch. There’s also a very smart podcast, Ordinary Unhappiness, which takes its name from the stated goal of Freudian psychoanalysis: to transform hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. I prefer the Standard Edition translation, however: gemeines unhappiness, common unhappiness. Vulgar, yet shared.

A woman's back in the shadows

The first Return to Freud was perhaps Jacques Lacan’s proclamation in 1955, sixteen years after Freud’s death. “The meaning of the return to Freud,” he elucidated, “is a return to the meaning of Freud.” A real return to Freud would mean sitting with the vulnerability of a mind that isn’t the master of its own house or the reality that life tends towards death. So, perhaps it’s more accurate to say we have never returned to Freud.

That said, there are material explanations for this alleged renewed interest. The first is that we are living in an era of Covid disavowal, by which I don’t simply mean that the executive emergency is over even though people are still getting sick. I mean disavowal as a defense against the reality of a traumatic experience. As Jacqueline Rose asks in The Plague: Living Death in our Times, “What do you do with death and dying when they can no longer be pushed to the outer limits of your lived experience or dismissed from your conscious mind?” Some of us cannot bear to remember that we were afraid, and others, particularly fascist rulers (Trump, Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi), never lived in that reality at all. 

The second explanation for why we’re hearing about a Return to Freud is that the people most likely to be reading him in the 21st century — humanities grad students — can’t find decent work, so they’re media freelancing. I’m one of them.

Psychoanalysis has been an interest of mine since I was a teenager, even though I never did any kind of therapy myself. I wasn’t raised to tell strangers my business. But I loved reading Freud. I believed in the idea of the unconscious, that the ego wasn’t the master in its own house, that the words we used meant something, only we might not know what they meant. I believed in the repressed, that what was pushed down would come back, dark and different. I obsessed over the peculiar image of “the navel of the dream,” the limit of what could be gleaned from interpretation. Freud imagined there was a whole network of thoughts and wishes that branched out indefinitely from the knotted navel of the dream, which emerged from unconsciousness like a “mushroom out of its mycelium.” A belly button, a severed knot, an unknowable mushroom.

I loved Freud’s patients, all those girls. Their dreams were rich, Freud believed, because they were rich themselves. Their associations were more interesting to him because they were exposed to culture. Exposed is perhaps the operative word. They got pimped out by their dads and their mothers were the ghosts of their future selves. They overheard their governesses talk about sex and they keeled over like tulips. 

And honestly, I like Freud. I can’t help but feel affection for the guy who sometimes got it so spectacularly wrong that he had to write a whole book about it, and then later revise it, with footnotes, and still not realize how he laid himself bare. Freud’s biggest failures proved his biggest idea right: we don’t hear ourselves, and so we need someone else to listen.

I loved Freud’s patients, all those girls.

I picture Dora reading the fragment of an analysis of a case history (the title tells on itself) and shaking her head — this fucking guy, this idiot, this absolute asshole — and then lesbianly going about the rest of her day. She turned out as well as any Jewess on the wrong end of the 20th Century could expect. She was widowed early and still played bridge with Frau K. She made it to New York in 1939 (a fateful year: the outbreak of the second world war and the year of Freud’s death), but died six years later of the same cancer her mother had. 

I don’t like to think of her as Freud did, as the girl, an eternal victim frozen at the end of her adolescence. Maybe this is what we call projection.

If I had been alive at the time, I wouldn’t have been Freud’s patient. I might have been the improper governess, though. Or a servant who interrupted a hypnosis session and maybe saw something she shouldn’t have. Or a hysteric of the French variety, the marginal kind who got locked up for selling sex or for being too disabled to work at all. 

I lasted three years in a PhD program before starting therapy. For most of my peers, having “made a terrible life choice,” as Marge Simpson once sympathized, was enough of a reason to get a shrink. But I judged the people I knew who were going to analysis. They seemed to be interminable cases, narcissists who were in love with their own terrible life choices, who suffered from their overidentification with the life of the mind, and who thought their advisors were their parents. Often their real parents were, in fact, professors, or analysts themselves.

Classic ambivalence: I wanted what they had, I resented them for it, I would never want to be like them. 

Psychoanalysis, I decided, was for people who were already bourgeois subjects. Me, I just wanted to work hard and keep my head down. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I thought I was leveling up. Grad student stipends aren’t much, but it seemed like a joke to me that I was getting paid and given health insurance (but not dental) to write my little ideas about Freud and poetry. It seemed like a joke to some people back home, too, but not for the same reason: “What are you gonna do with a PhD in Literature?” “Become a professor,” I’d say. Obviously. Once, I asked my advisor if her family understood her work, and she laughed. No, no, they were all doctors and lawyers.  

So I didn’t start therapy until I had what I considered to be a real problem: papillary thyroid carcinoma, the kind that takes a long time to kill you and can often be nipped in the bud with a little surgery and radiation. It’s not that bad, I told everyone. It’s not like it was leukemia! 

That said, I started therapy not because I needed to deal with death encroaching on my consciousness, but because I couldn’t get dressed. I couldn’t regulate my body temperature. It was a hot summer, and the library where I needed to write my dissertation was very cold, and in my reeling hormonal state, I couldn’t figure out what to wear, and so I couldn’t leave my bedroom. This was a problem suited for my psychotherapist, to whom I was referred by campus psych services after my allotted ten free sessions, and who was trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). He suggested, reasonably, that I pack a sweater. I couldn’t explain to him why it wasn’t that easy, that there was also some kind of tight agony that clutched my throat. 

The link between CBT and capitalism has become common knowledge to the therapeutic left. As Brett Edelen, an English PhD student, explained in P. E. Moskowitz’s newsletter, Mental Hellth, CBT “individualizes these giant systemic issues. Whereas psychoanalysis at its best allows you to see the problem at the societal level.” Corey Robin, moreover, has compared U.S. health care to “hysterical misery” and the U.K.’s National Health Service to “ordinary unhappiness.”

Classic ambivalence: I wanted what they had, I resented them for it, I would never want to be like them. 

For me, therapy was strategy: How do I get out of the house? I eventually became psychically fit enough to bring a sweater to the library. But I still wasn’t well. What actually helped me was talking to a kind man once a week. CBT couldn’t help me with the material conditions of my life or help me realize I was unhappy. It could help me adjust to my unhappiness so I could get well enough to get my work done. 

In the end, I finished my PhD in five and a half years — a perfect grad student and a mediocre job candidate in an abysmal job market. After telling my family, for years, that I was going to become a professor with all that education (“Don’t think you’re smarter than me,” I hear my mother saying, “just because you went to college”), it was painful to have to tell them that I wasn’t going to be one after all. Around this time, my dad got laid off at 59. He wasn’t going to find a similar job, since he had no college education and too much experience. I had too much education and not enough experience, but we still found ourselves in the same place.

My analyst thinks I moved back to the city to be closer to my parents. At first, I bristled at this suggestion. New York was the first place I learned to feel free, and I wanted to get closer to that feeling after being so defeated after grad school. I could take a train to the Cloisters, to Avenue X, and no one would know where I was. It was where, when I was a kid, I thought culture was. Surely no one moved to New York City because of its proximity to Jersey. 

And there were material reasons. I needed a full time job with health insurance. I needed my medical bills on lock — everyone does, but the cancer really made that point nonnegotiable for me. I lept on the first decent job-job I found, out of academia. I moved back to the city.

My office, which was obviously once a janitor’s closet, had no windows, and I sat there for eight hours a day. I was working in communications, and I was spending all my time in a closet, in a hospital center for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which meant that there were a lot of kids who didn’t talk but who could scream. I liked the screamy days because it felt like a reasonable response to a world that didn’t care and wouldn’t listen. 

And I started having pelvic pain, which eventually got diagnosed as endometriosis — another aggravatingly bespoke medical condition. I was tired of being symptomatic. Literally. Pain is exhausting.

To be closer to my parents was not about geography. After all that grad school, I could analyze someone else’s poem but not my own dreams. I was miserable, but there was still one thing I hadn’t tried to deal with: hysterical misery.

Psychoanalysis treats people who suffer from finding themselves in the same place over and over again with no idea how they got there. This phenomenon can be literary (Freud on holiday inadvertently passing the same whore house no matter what street he turns down) or too on-the-nose to be realistic as literature (Dora succumbing to the same cancer as her mother).  

This is the bridge: “Take me to emotion / I want to go all the way / Show me devotion / And take me all the way.” Neither Carly Rae nor I can cut to the feeling alone. Only a relationship, and the work of devotion that is formed with consistency over time, can take me there.

I give my analyst my money and my time. I used to resent this power imbalance until I quit my job and went on Medicaid. Suddenly, going to analysis cost zero dollars, which freed something up in my brain. What was 45 minutes of her time worth: nothing? A $30 copay? Three hundred out-of-pocket?

Collage of a woman's sleeping face and a cartoon drawing

For the first few years (years!), I’d get frustrated when I wanted to talk about big picture problems like fascism and apathy and she asked me if I hate the fascist in myself, or if I was, myself, selfish and uncaring. Obviously not, I’d say. I’m the co-chair of the Bronx-Upper Manhattan chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America! How could I take her questions seriously when I didn’t know if she took my worldview seriously? Why does communism matter so much to you, she’d ask. What is a capitalist, to you? I’d sigh, and try. Someone who profits off my work. Someone who takes from you but won’t take care of you. Someone who occupies what is yours. 

Then came the two-week discrepancy between insurance coverage and I got a bill for a ton of money I didn’t have. My analyst used a week of our sessions so we could call my insurance provider together to complain. I listened to her get angry as we were punted from representative to representative — they were wasting our time. Time was my luxury all along, one I shared with my analyst.

Our relationship changed after that. It became easier to see us on the same side. 

We were in the struggle together! If my predisposition towards my analyst was to distrust, especially when she wanted me to read my anger towards systems as expressions of my repressed feelings towards my parents, my body, my sexuality, then experiencing the cruel apathy of the system together was enough solidarity to help me trust her a little bit.

Psychoanalysis requires some kind of belief in the collectivity of suffering. If the work of psychoanalysis is to “transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness,” as Freud hoped, then it is in this ordinary unhappiness that we can find something in common with the rest of the world. The hysterics could not live with the material conditions of their lives, and without any power (like the ability to unionize), they refused in the only way they could, with unruly bodily symptoms that articulated their agonies loudly enough to disrupt the ordinary, like protestors jamming Grand Central Station at rush hour.

The first step towards disrupting generations of suffering is seeing unhappiness not as a personal indulgence but a valid complaint. Psychoanalysis does not teach you to accept the material conditions of our life. If you’re miserable, you start by talking about it. The person you talk to has training, degrees, elite access to The Truth, boundaries. My analyst will not tell me her astrological sign. She’s smart for that one. I’m not supposed to identify with her — I’m supposed to be changed by talking to her. 

Lately, I’m spending less time trying to be the rich and interesting Viennese patient and talking more about myself and my family and the feeling of hundreds of years of unhappiness. What am I carrying around, and what is actually mine? How do I sort through the overdetermined events of my family’s past? Did my grandmother die of lung cancer at 64 because of the wear and tear alcoholism wrought on her body, or from the stress of not getting any help? Is the simple material explanation — she worked at a magnet factory and breathed in dust — separable from the emotional explanation — she was poor and she suffered? And what did this have to do with my own certainty that I was sick and I would suffer, indefinitely?

I used to think I knew what I was repressing, which is such a joke. But I wasn’t repressing content, I was repressing the feeling. Just as the danger of political repression is more than bans on words or ways of life, but the ability to feel alive, the danger of psychic repression is that it keeps you from being present in your own life. No one can ban being gay, for instance. But the state can make it so that the very idea of queer desire feels impossible. I didn’t realize everything I could not feel until I talked about around it, and then through it. 

I assumed I don’t deserve the time to really think about myself, to take myself seriously. I’m still struggling to believe that, but I’ve let go of one fantasy, that analysis is leisure time as opposed to work. My misreading of psychoanalysis was to see it as a bourgeois project of constructing individual narratives, but not relational world building; as individualism, but not the patient practice of rejecting misery, trusting someone else, and learning to tell the truth.

I call it a return to Freud.

Natalie Adler is an editor at Lux. Her first novel, Waiting on a Friend, is forthcoming in 2025.