Psychoanalytic and Therapeutic Writing in the Classroom

by Jeffrey Berman

In an unusually pessimistic essay, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” published in 1939 (the year of his death), Freud called psychoanalysis one of the three “impossible professions,” along with education and government. “One can be sure beforehand,” Freud ruefully confesses, “of achieving unsatisfying results” (1964, 248). My own experience with psychoanalytic education, however, has been far more satisfying. Indeed, for over 50 years at the University of Albany, I’ve made the writing of psychoanalytic diaries and personal essays a highly successful keystone in my undergraduate teaching.

In the mid-1970s, I created the first course on literature and psychoanalysis in our English department. Its central feature was the weekly psychoanalytic diary entries in which students wrote about their dreams—the “royal road to the unconscious,” as Freud puts it (1953, 5: 608)—fantasies, and psychological conflicts. Students could be as personal as they wished in their diaries; no subject was off limits. I didn’t grade the diaries, but they were a fundamental requirement. Before returning the diaries the following week, I would read a few entries out loud, always anonymously and with no discussion—always honoring requests from students who didn’t want their diary entries read aloud. At the beginning of the semester, I got many such requests. But by the end of the semester almost all of them gave permission.

Indeed, the shared audition of these diary entries became revelatory for all of us. Students listened far more attentively to one another’s diaries than to what I had to say! At the end of the semester, in their anonymous class evaluations, students singled out the diary component as the best part of the course—the one in which they learned the most about themselves, their classmates, and psychoanalysis. They never realized, they said, how much they had in common with their fellow classmates, many of whom struggled with the same kinds of unconscious conflicts and other psychological and emotional challenges.

After teaching the course for several years, I decided to write a book about psychoanalytic diary writing. With the permission of the university’s Institutional Review Board (which oversees human-subject research on campus), I began asking students at the end of the semester, after they had received their final grades, if I could photocopy their diaries for possible use in my book. I promised students that if I used material from their diaries, I would notify them in advance how I intended to present and contextualize it. Students were able to make whatever alterations they wished to preserve their confidentiality. During the next few years, I accumulated thousands of diaries—so many, that organizing them for use in my book became an unexpected challenge.

I decided to devote a chapter to each of the major themes about which students wrote. For example, the chapter “Sins of the Fathers” explored how students wrote about their parents’ divorces; “Hunger Artists” focused on eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia; “Sexual Disclosures” revealed how students, mostly women, wrote about sexual assault, including date and stranger rape. There was also a chapter on “Suicide Survivors,” in which I myself felt painfully implicated. I’m a highly self-disclosing teacher and writer, and in my courses I often share with my students the two great tragedies in my life—the first being my college mentor’s suicide on Labor Day, 1968, when he actually telephoned me to say that he was in the process of killing himself. Research suggests that self-disclosure begets self-disclosure, and my discussion of my mentor’s suicide seems to embolden students to reveal how the dark legacy of suicide has touched their own lives.

Writing this book, Diaries to an English Professor (1994), was transformative for me. It was my third book, but the first in which I wrote about my students’ lives as well as my own, including the experience of my mentor’s suicide. Five years later, I wrote Surviving Literary Suicide (1999), a study of how teaching suicidal authors like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway impacts undergraduate and graduate students. Writing these highly personal books, and practicing in the classroom what I’ve called the pedagogy of self-disclosure, helped me acknowledge my vulnerability, just as it helped humanize me for my students.

I noticed that other aspects of my teaching style had also begun to change. In my writing courses, I gave students more freedom to choose their own essay topics, encouraging them to write about difficult personal issues. In my literature courses, I placed greater emphasis on how other people’s stories speak to our own experiences. I regularly spoke about how, after my mentor’s death, I became involved in suicide-prevention work. I also spoke frankly about what I’ve learned about suicide—particularly that it has little to do with courage or cowardice and everything to do with hopelessness and suffering. My experience teaching self-disclosive writing courses showed me that, if teachers remain empathetic and nonjudgmental, the classroom can become what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called a “holding environment” for volatile emotions. Of course, there are risks associated with such disclosive teaching, and in Risky Writing (2001) I discuss in detail the protocols I follow to minimize the possibility of harm and retraumatization.

I began teaching another course, “Writing About Love and Loss,” after the second great tragedy of my life: the death of my first wife, Barbara, to whom I’d been married for 35 years when she died from pancreatic cancer on April 5, 2004, at the age of 57. Here is an excerpt from the course description:

In this course we will focus on how writers use language to convey love and loss and the ways in which they seek consolation and hope through religion, nature, art, deeds, or memory. We will explore different kinds of love—love of God, family or friends, romantic partner, or self; we will also explore different kinds of loss—loss of religious faith, family or friends, romantic partner, health, or self-respect. I will not grade you on the content of your essays or on the degree of self-disclosure but only on the quality of your writing. Please note that this will be an emotionally charged course, and there may be times when some of us cry in class. How can one not cry when confronting the loss of a loved one? Tears indicate that we are responding emotionally as well as intellectually to loss; tears are usually a more accurate reflection of how we feel than words. The only requirement for the course is empathy: the ability to listen respectfully and nonjudgmentally to your classmates’ writings. The class will not be a “support group,” but we will be supportive of each other’s writing. Our aim is to write about the most important people in our lives while at the same time improving the quality of our writing.

Both the talking cure and the writing cure enable students to express their feelings in a safe, empathic classroom and to learn about their classmates’ experiences. Writing about one’s most overwhelming experiences can give order and meaning to otherwise unmanageable feelings. “How do I know what I think,” the novelist E. M. Forster asks in Aspects of the Novel, “till I see what I say?” (1927, 97). Although Forster’s insight is more about discovering thoughts than feelings, the two are inseparable. Emotions need to be understood, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, as “geological upheavals of thought” (2001, 90). Since Barbara’s death, I have written several books that focus on love and loss, including Dying to Teach (2007), Death in the Classroom (2009), Companionship in Grief (2010), Dying in Character (2012), Death Education in the Writing Classroom (2012), and Writing Widowhood (2015).

I found it not at all depressing to write these books, and others have told me that it is not depressing to read them. Writing has always been my lifeline to vitality, as it has been for many others. Writing enables us to acknowledge both positive and negative emotions, to process what we are thinking and feeling, to make connections between conscious and unconscious experience, and, perhaps most importantly, to remember. Barbara has now been gone for nearly twenty years, and my life with her often seems shadowy and unreal, almost as if it never existed. But when I re-read my memoir about her, she once again springs vividly to life.

Writing has also been therapeutic for many of my students. Several years ago, “Michael,” a member of the Honors College, took a writing course with me. He enjoyed it, and decided to take another writing course with me the following semester. Two weeks before the beginning of that semester, his brother drowned in a boating accident. When Michael told me about this tragedy, I suggested he could write about the impact of his brother’s death on himself and his family. Though he was a private person, he did so and shared his writings with myself and with his classmates; we were all deeply moved. After Michael’s graduation, his parents graciously made a donation to the English department in my name, large enough to endow an annual prize for the best essay related to grief and mental health by an English major.

I’ve often been invited to speak about my approach to writing pedagogy, and the most frequent question I get from other teachers is: Don’t you feel burdened by students’ problems? My answer is always the same: No! Students rarely ask me for advice about how to live their lives. When they do, I tell them how I have responded to similar situations. If a student asks me, for example, how long her grief at the loss of a beloved relative or friend will last, I often speak about the illusion of “closure.” Unlike Freud, who stated in his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia” that the living must “decathect” from the dead, divesting oneself of libidinal attachment to the dead so that it can be re-invested in some other person, I believe that attachment endures, without necessarily leading to what Freud calls “melancholia.” Klass, Silverman, and Nickman have described the “continuing bonds” through which “survivors hold the deceased in loving memory for long periods, often forever” (1996, 349). This certainly resonates with me: Barbara remains a central part of my life, even though I remarried twelve years ago and cherish the joy that Julie has brought back into my life.

As a near-octogenarian, I’ve lost many dear relatives, friends, and colleagues. But I try to keep their memories alive not only by thinking about them but also by writing about them. Regardless of whether one believes in an afterlife, “ghosts” do surround us, and we can live successfully with these ghosts in our professional and personal lives.

I believe that this post-Freudian attitude toward grief is one reason why students are so enthusiastic about the course “Love and Loss,” which affirms recovery and resilience. I never force students to write about a painful topic; they always have the option to write about a less intense subject. Only rarely do I suggest, tactfully, that a student might visit the Counseling Center for help. Writing about such experiences almost always promotes wellbeing, as Freud himself concedes. According to Joan Riviere, he once exclaimed to her: “Write it, write it, put it down in black and white; that’s the way to deal with it; you get it out of your system” (1958, 146). My only qualification is that writing does not get loss out of one’s system; rather, writing allows one to live with loss, demonstrating that psychoanalytically informed teaching methods aren’t “impossible” at all.


Works cited

Berman, Jeffrey. 1994. Diaries to an English Professor: Pain and Growth in the Classroom. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

—. 1999. Surviving Literary Suicide. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

—. 2001. Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

—. 2007. Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning. Albany: SUNY Press.

—. 2009. Death in the Classroom: Writing About Love and Loss. Albany: SUNY Press.

—. 2010. Companionship in Grief: Love and Loss in the Memoirs of C.S. Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

—. 2012a. Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

—. 2012b. Death Education in the Writing Classroom. New York: Routledge.

—. 2015. Writing Widowhood: The Landscapes of Bereavement. Albany: SUNY Press.

Forster, E. M. 1927. Aspects of the Novel. London: Edward Arnold.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953. The Interpretation of Dreams [1900]. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Tr.  James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, vols. 5-6.

—. 1957. “Mourning and Melancholia [1917].” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 14: 237-58.

—. 1964. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable [1937].” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 23: 209-53.

Klass, Dennis, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven Nickman, ed. 1996. Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2001. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Riviere, Joan. 1958. “A Character Trait of Freud’s.” In Psycho-Analysis and Contemporary Thought. Ed. John D. Sutherland. London: Hogarth Press, 145-49.

Winnicott, D. W. 1965. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. London: Hogarth Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *