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.
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.
. by Lawrence D. Blum
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.
“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.
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).
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?”