COVID-19 and Sigmund Freud
What Netflix can offer.
Posted Mar 31, 2020
As a psychoanalytically trained clinical psychologist, for me, it is a great relief to feel that it is once again socially acceptable to utter Freud’s name. In recent decades, his name has been vilified by many. It is as if a century of deep exploration into the human mind and emotional suffering that his theories inspired have been deleted, as though they never existed. But thanks to the current Netflix series by the title "Freud," his name has been resurrected among the Netflix intelligentsia.
Scanning several critiques of the series, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of negative criticism. I personally suspect that many of the reviewers hurling harsh assaults lack an appreciation of Victorian Vienna and of psychoanalytic theory. I also believe they are unlikely to have any real understanding of Dr. Sigmund Freud’s personal struggles.
Some of the series’ critics feel that "Freud" is an essentially worthless watch, except as a possible mild diversion from the stress of living under stay-at-home or quarantine order during this surreal and unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic. I do appreciate that if you are under a shelter-in-place order with three screaming children, a stressed-out spouse, and a dog barking in desperate need of a walk, any offering on Netflix would be preferable to giving into a compulsion for spraying disinfectant on random strangers in the supermarket or pondering over depraved uses for your kitchen knives.
"Freud," however, is so much more than the mildly entertaining, simple diversion that some critics have claimed. In my view, the series is a fantastic artistic rendering of some of the great truths and tragedies of human suffering resulting from mental illness and sadistic manipulation.
I asked a dear friend, who is both psychologically sophisticated and an accomplished artist, what she thought of "Freud." She stopped watching it after the first episode because she found it disturbing and a bit too horror-film scary. I encouraged her to muster her courage and attempt a plunge back into it, despite her misgivings.
The series indeed touches on many distressing elements, including boundary violations between doctor and patient, countertransference pitfalls, addiction, dissociation, nightmares, and tortured souls. It also deals with Freud’s courage in confronting erroneous outdated paradigms enshrined by the Victorian medical scientific establishment of that time. His fictionalized lost work in the series is presented in an intriguing way that could be a believable missing first stone on the road of his long, prolific, scientific journey.
Reflecting on our basic human animalistic impulses can make us feel extremely uncomfortable, yet it’s important to look at and acknowledge the dark, disturbing places within ourselves in order to rise above them. How can we confront subjects like ritualistic abuse, mind control, sexual trauma, and the occult without peering into the darkness? The darkness and its related impulses are what Freud’s psychoanalysis attempted to explore, understand, and overcome through inner exploration of unresolved trauma, catharsis, and insight. Deep exploration into the doldrums of the human psyche was seen as necessary for self-enlightenment and self-empowerment.
One of my most valued books is Sigmund Freud: His Life in Pictures and Works. It’s filled with historical photographs of Freud, his contemporaries, and the settings in which the history of inner mind exploration occurred. It contains pictures of all the founding players in the creation of psychoanalysis, players who are brought back to life with exceptional artistic license in Freud. The casting, performances, costumes, sets, and overall mood are extraordinary!
It reminded me of the intellectually exciting time in my doctoral clinical psychology program that was dominated by professors who were practicing psychoanalysts. This passion continued for me in many years of post-doctoral psychoanalytic studies. I was honored to attend the last seminar a professor (who had been a direct student of Freud) gave before his death, and to hear about the perils of Nazi-controlled Vienna that prompted his fleeing in the night for England from there to the United States.
Netflix’s "Freud," for me, captures the spirit of the famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis in a fascinating artistic interpretation of a life that impacted the world in an unparalleled way, particularly impacting the inner worlds of the many who have participated in psychoanalytic treatment and benefited from its methods of deep self-exploration. To the creators, I say bravo.
Turning to more current events and anxiety-provoking concerns, I invite you to read the scholarly works of John M. Barry and infectious disease expert Michael T. Osterholm. Knowledge is power and smart actions are critical to each of us doing our part to overcome the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Barry, John M. (2004). The Great Influenza. The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. New York: Penguin.
Freud, Ernst, Freud, Lucie, & Grubrich-Simitis (Eds) (1985). Sigmund Freud. His Life in Pictures and Words. New York: W. W. Norton.