11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Freud in America! 100 years Ago This Month

This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of Sigmund Freud's only visit to America. He lectured at Clark University in Worcester, M.A. on the "Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis," accompanied by Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi. An enthusiastic invitation from a foreign university was welcome, especially since Freud's views on psychology, sexuality and the "talking cure" were not yet finding a receptive audience in Europe. But even the ambitious Freud did not relish the idea of making the long voyage to a country that he regarded with a mixture of fear and condescension. Even if he was being offered an honorary degree!

Whatever nervousness Freud felt before arriving at Clark University, once he stepped to the podium, by most accounts, he performed brilliantly. The five extemporaneous lectures he gave on the key concepts of psychoanalysis were informal and sophisticated, accessible and nuanced. Luminaries in the fields of psychology and neurology made the trek from Boston and New York. Though Freud delivered his talks in German, the hall was packed, and newspapers covered the story. The audience seemed intensely curious, but there was a mixture of enthusiasm and criticism. Psychoanalysis had arrived in America, and despite the criticism, the "talking cure" was here to stay. Probably no one at that time anticipated that the US would become its primary residence through much of the twentieth century.

The subject of the first of Freud's five lectures was a simple as it was revolutionary: symptoms have a meaning rooted in a person's history. The apparently nonsensical behavior of people suffering mental distress was a language in need of translation, and when we discovered the historical meaning embedded in the symptoms, there was a chance of self-understanding and relief. If the symptoms were indeed an expression of the patient's painful past, why were they expressed in such a dense code? This was the subject of the next two lectures, in which Freud explored his idea of repression: our mind's mechanism for distancing ourselves from desires that we are afraid to acknowledge. Mental events not only happen because of neuro-chemical causes, according to Freud, they occur for reasons that have a meaning in our life stories. When we can't face that meaning directly, we act it out in disguised forms. Why is that? In his fourth lecture Freud described his theories of the development of sexuality, for it was in our complex erotic lives that he saw the seeds of most neurotic pain. In his final lecture, the founder of psychoanalysis explained how patients replay their illnesses in their relationship to the analyst, and in so doing have an opportunity to come to terms with their conflicts in hopes of breaking free from some of their self-inflicted misery.

Even if in 1909 Freud's views were greeted with controversy, something about his notions of hidden meanings and sexual repression has always captured the imagination of a significant number of Americans looking for a way to understand why we cause ourselves pain. "What are you getting out of your suffering," Freud asked, and we have been asking it ever since -- despite the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry in more recent years to convince us that our psychological distress is not about us as persons but about the failure of our bodies as machines.

Freud came to Clark University 100 years ago to tell us that we should try to translate the bizarre signs of our psychological distress into life stories with which we could live. Easing a little of our counterproductive repressions, he suggested, might allow us to live more self-consciously, more freely. It's still a message worth hearing if we believe that acknowledging our complex memories and desires can give meaning and direction to our lives.