The God of Psychoanalysis

The God of Psychoanalysis

by Simon Yisrael Feuerman
A psychotherapist shares the agonies and ecstasies of being in psychoanalytic group therapy and asks: Is psychoanalysis a religion after all?


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In The Beginning...

Twenty-five years ago, I was part of a psychoanalytic group that met once a week. A dozen or so mostly Jewish and mostly well-to-do urbanites and their psychoanalyst would sit together in a large room on the ground floor of a pre-war apartment building on the Upper West Side and talk to each other for 90 minutes.

Here, in the span of an hour and a half, marriages were made and broken, grand and passionate affairs were embarked upon only to be rescinded before they started, even plots to murder were hatched and committed—in fantasy only of course. Religions too were swapped and dumped with abandon and new ones were taken on with fervor.
In the span of an hour and a half, marriages were made and broken, grand and passionate affairs were embarked upon only to be rescinded before they started, even plots to murder were hatched and committed...

In the beginning I paid them no mind mostly, but was amused by the goings-on, almost as if it were street theater. What business did these things have with me? I was the son of a rabbi who had his troubles with his father, his god and women. Someone had suggested being part of this “theater troupe” would benefit me and so I went coughing into my fist.

The Forbidden Apple

Once, an astoundingly beautiful woman entered the group. She was the kind of woman that made men purple with passion and women green with envy. Blonde and lithe with legs that stretched to the Adirondacks, she was the classic femme fatale. And smart like a whip too.

She came to the group because she wanted to get married—and now, she said.

“Get her married,” the analyst gently commanded the group. 

There was a small hubbub. 

“Who do you want to marry?” asked one middle-aged matron.

“I can’t believe a girl like you would ever have a problem,” some Joe quipped.

“Is this a love problem?” another woman asked.

The beautiful young woman turned to the analyst: “This is what I mean! I attract attention, but I don’t get what I want.”

“I’ll marry you,” one good-looking but roguish man blurted out. 

What if one does actually fall in love in the group, I wondered? Is it like falling in love with your analyst—permitted to feel and talk about, but forbidden to act? It was as if psychoanalysis had taken a page from Genesis and said: Of all the fruit trees in the garden you may eat, but of this one….

I quickly learned that one had to take certain things on faith that certain restraints were for the best. If you were running away from religion to look for anarchy, psychoanalysis was not the place. 

“Why don’t you tell her how you feel?” the analyst suggested. “That would be far more helpful to her.”

“I love the way you look,” the man said abashedly. The comely young woman first rolled her eyes and then squirmed in her chair. “I don’t want to have this conversation. I feel totally uncomfortable.”

“You know,” the analyst said firmly, “it is your job to be uncomfortable—and to keep talking anyway.”
“You know,” the analyst said firmly, “it is your job to be uncomfortable—and to keep talking anyway.” 

“But I don’t want to,” she protested.

But others encouraged her. “You could drop the subject if you want to, but this is an opportunity to say anything you want,” another woman in the group told her. “Tell him and us exactly what you think and feel,” she urged.

The woman looked at the analyst and then at the group. “Okay,” she said hesitantly. “I don’t like him! And what’s more is that he’s going to give me all this syrupy talk and I am going to feel I have to give him something that I don’t want to. I am going to feel obligated to him. He reminds me of so many of the men I know. It’s like he just want to put his tongue down my throat…”

“Why live in the future?” the analyst interrupted. “Why not hear his words and then tell him how much you don’t like him? In fact, tell him how much you hate him.”

“Okay,” she said, now intrigued.

The man continued. “Is it my fault I like her?” he said, turning to the group as a whole. “She’s beautiful!”

“What’s beautiful about her?” the analyst asked. 

“Her face, her hair…” and then he trailed off. 

But the analyst would not let it go at that. He pushed further.

“What about her face, what about her hair? Is there anything else beautiful? Tell her for crying out loud. Tell the group, tell the entire New York City for that matter!”

“Yes,” said the man gathering strength from the group. “She has the most beautiful legs I have ever seen!”

“I agree with you there,” the analyst said. “Michelangelo could not have done a better job.” 

The woman no longer squirmed. She seemed to accept the group member’s words and even complimented him in return. The group breathed the breath of satisfaction. 

Nothing Human is Alien

There was a feeling in the group that nothing human is alien and having been raised in a culture of “holiness” and mild separateness, this was a balm to my soul. There was one area, though, where I did feel separate: I had no money and nearly everyone else in the group did. (I had a social work degree, but floundered in various low-paying and ill-suited jobs before I eventually studied psychoanalysis and started my own practice.) But being young, I laughed this off. It was unimportant, I thought, and I would scrape by. What was happening in the group was far more important than mere money concerns. Or so I reasoned.

Each week I attended the group it became more absorbing and relevant. In fact, no sooner did we finish with one person’s difficulties, than the group would move on to somebody else: here a person was dissatisfied with her work-life; there a man pined for the unavailable lost love; still another longed for an erotic connection. This cycle of needs, longings and wants reminded me of an infant. A moment of satisfaction follows a feeding, followed by sleep and then frustration. Were we tired, hungry, wet, in need of a shower or something?

Such was life. It was neither bad nor good, but simply what was. Irritations were voiced, gripes, complaints, yearnings, desires were expressed. Each was dealt with. Everyone tried their best with each other. We talked and listened and abided by all of the commandments most of the time. 

In the meantime, I made enormous progress with women. I became a different man.
That which my mother and father could not teach me about my worth as a man and my place in the world, my desirability—these precious things, the group taught me.
That which my mother and father could not teach me about my worth as a man and my place in the world, my desirability—these precious things, the group taught me. Save for one thing: my progress around money was stymied; the flow of financial nourishment was painfully uneven at best.

It’s not as if money wasn’t talked about in the group. In fact, one of the big psychoanalytic commandments was about payment: Thou shalt pay the analyst. Thou shalt pay him well and promptly. Always you must remember to pay. 

Most of us went along with it just fine, but one person in the group resisted once. “I’m sorry I missed our session, but I don’t feel I should have to pay for that. It was an emergency. I thought I was having a heart attack…Should I have to pay for that?”

“I should charge you double,” the analyst retorted. “Once for missing the appointment, second for despising yourself and the group so much that you didn’t even think to call us to let us know that you were having a heart attack.”

To me he often said sternly: “You make money intermittently because that is how you were nourished. You had an intermittently functioning mother and the world functions intermittently for you. You will need to say more about that in group in order for your life to get better.”

Yes, the analyst was brilliant; and daring. He wore $1500 sports jackets, $300 slacks and $500 shoes. In a field unfairly characterized by menschy but nebbishy stereotypes, (think Judd Hirsch) he was a massive force. In fact, he wasn’t afraid to enact each of the cardinal sins (especially greed). They were mostly in the service of life. He modeled for us that it’s not so bad to be bad, maybe it’s even good to be bad. And if he was greedy, what of it? A little bit of greed can be good. 

In many ways he was an excellent model for me. But besides that, the truth is that I loved this man terribly, though I didn’t know exactly why. He was not an easy man, nor was he easy to love.
The truth is that I loved this man terribly, though I didn’t know exactly why. He was not an easy man, nor was he easy to love.
Most often he was neutral to sympathetic, but beneath that he could be cold, brutal and unyielding, withholding words and warmth. “I am an analyst,” he would say, “not a social worker.” I sensed that though he justified his coldness and objective stance in the name of “analysis,” this also served as a cover. I was sure that he suffered and he could not metabolize his own pain. What’s more he suffered existentially, I imagined, just like me. I suspected that he too had come from the Jewish barrio. Perhaps beneath his glitz and glamour, the smells of chulent and potato kugel were not alien to his nostrils. Perhaps he too had once struggled over the Talmud and whether or not to run to the synagogue or away from it. When I asked him about this, he would slyly evade the question in the famous manner of nearly all analysts, but he did it in such a way that I knew and he knew that I knew too. 

"Have You Tried Being a Shoeshine Boy?"

People enter psychotherapy when they are in great pain and within a few sessions their symptoms start to abate, but not in psychoanalysis. Here, each of us seemed to be in it for the long haul—not for symptom relief, but for character maturation. For example, I remember one man had lost his job and he was attacking himself for not having yet found another. Bald, short and fat, he worked for one municipality or another in some kind of administrative role and he would recite his bleak story for the benefit of the group. He would come in with heavy sighs, sniff and complain: “I’ve been laid off. I’ve sent hundreds of resumes. I’m 58. No one wants me.”

Finally after several weeks of this, the analyst shouted out: “Have you tried being a shoeshine boy?” (He really did look like a shoeshine boy) “Really, I hear the city needs one. Why don’t you buy one of those kits and you could go on the subway…”

“You’re making fun of me…”

“I am making light of you. I am not making fun. I don’t take you nearly as seriously as you do,” my analyst would say.
“I am making light of you. I am not making fun. I don’t take you nearly as seriously as you do,” my analyst would say.

Within a few weeks he had found a good job. You would have thought he would have left the group, but far from it. He stayed, as many others did month after analytic month, year after analytic year, forking over good money. What was going on here in the church of psychoanalysis? What kept people coming?

I too kept coming even as it began to dawn on me that my karma of obtuse struggle and deprivation might continue regardless of how much I knew about mother and father or even how angry I got. Years went by and I had not even the slightest thought of leaving. I wondered if that made me a believer in psychoanalysis. Or perhaps, I thought, the opposite was true: Attending weekly sessions was a way of not having to believe–the same way that some might attend synagogue in order to not have to deal with G-d. Or maybe I stayed because of the love of the people in the group or perhaps the love of the analyst? These questions ran to the core of my being. What was I all about?

Even as I paid attention to these questions other thoughts came to me.
Everything that seemed both right and wrong with religion seemed both right and wrong about psychoanalysis.
Everything that seemed both right and wrong with religion seemed both right and wrong about psychoanalysis. For one thing, it was circular. When the analysis was working, and you made progress in life and you felt happy, that was great; when it wasn’t working, well, that meant more analysis and even more commitment. Your prayers have not been answered; well the answer is to pray more and harder.

“You haven’t helped me,” one woman would say. “I am still in the same stupid job and marriage for all these years.”

“Who you are you angry at?”

“All of you...”

“Who most of all?”

She turned and like the wicked witch of the East, pointed a finger at the analyst. 

“I pay you. My life is supposed to get better.” 

“What is better?”

“You know!”

The analyst turned to the group: “Does anyone here know what she means?” 

One woman piped up. “How are we supposed to know what you want? You don’t say anything from week-to-week. You sit in silence, stewing.”

“Why don’t you get rid of that bozo anyway?” another man shouted out.

“Because I love him…?”

“You love him? But you carp about him all the time.”

“He’s the misery I know.”

“Well, are we also the misery you know. You stay with us here in your misery and you don’t let us know minute-to-minute how you feel. You don’t connect with people, you pickle with them. We’re all pickling together with you…in a barrel of misery.”

She stammered and turned pale. “But I both love and hate everyone....”

“Why can’t you tell us?”

“I have terrible thoughts. Sex and violence….” 

“A person must put all of his thoughts and feelings into words…”

And so it went.

The Fall

After many years of faithful group attendance it would seem that I had gained immeasurably. I had found my way in love and work; I had my own thriving practice and had become “wise” to myself and my foibles. I was secure in the Edenic paradise of psychoanalysis and group. Many an energetic afternoon was spent in the womb-like feeling of a pre-war climate-controlled Upper West Side fortress. We listened to each other, yelled at each other, and got better, smarter and wiser.

But my family and expenses grew at a far greater pace than my income. I had never been sufficiently realistic about money and was mortgaged and borrowed to the hilt, all the while thinking magically that I would be saved by psychoanalysis.

While membership in the church of psychoanalysis had always been expensive (and worthwhile) it had become unmanageable. It was 2007 and just ahead of the spectacular mortgage crisis the bank had shut the spigot on my home equity line. I had nothing. The doctrine of “say everything” as a cure to all of life’s ills began to sound tinny. There were realities now to consider—forces like falling real estate prices, recession, that were impervious to even the formidable powers of psychoanalysis in general and to this psychoanalyst in particular who told me, “you should be here twice or three times a week in order to accomplish what you need!”
“You should be here twice or three times a week in order to accomplish what you need!”

There was something else too. Something I had to consider. In long relationships one has—in marriages, families, with groups, synagogues, communities, tribes and religions—there is often anger, even hatred, beneath the surface. While one devotedly participates, attends, pays dues, an equal and opposite negative feeling can form—something like what Jung described as the dark or shadow side.

In a flash, this side can get jarred loose from behind the veil—a fire that badly burns and can gut a 20 or even 50-year relationship in an instant. So that’s what you’ve been thinking and feeling about me all along!

Such a thing happened here too. They and the analyst saw my departure from the group as a “resistance”—something without real merit, perhaps even something that I was doing to them. I in turn felt they were in a small way responsible for my financial disaster. After all, had they not sweet-talked me (at least by my recollection) all these years with blandishments on the one hand and psychic fire and brimstone on the other? You need us or you will be forever damned! They, not surprisingly, would have none of it. We had words, terrible words. And these words devolved into name-calling. To the man I had admired and loved for more than a decade I spoke harsh truths.
“You’re a greedy man. You are running a psychoanalytic synagogue—a money-grubbing mill for your own benefit. You’re a disgrace to the profession,” I added for good measure.
“You’re a greedy man. You are running a psychoanalytic synagogue—a money-grubbing mill for your own benefit. You’re a disgrace to the profession,” I added for good measure.

The man whom I had loved and thought loved me became hostile and erupted like a volcano. “You’re a chazir,” he shouted at me, his slip of Yiddish a sign of his rage. “A pig, a pig!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “You are a disgrace to nineteen years of psychoanalysis.” I gave as good as I got, but I was stunned, traumatized. I paid him one last time and walked out, vowing never to return.

It might be hard for someone who has not experienced the intimacy of psychoanalytic treatment to understand the depth of my feelings of sadness, hurt and betrayal. It is like having biblical-sized curses hurled at you at gale force by your own father. Even as I relived that horrible moment in my mind a million times—of him screaming at me and calling me names—I would never pick up the phone again to call him. I would spit on his grave.

In the meantime, just as Adam became a lot more interesting and productive after having been cast out of the Garden of Eden, I too got to work in high fashion. I built a small empire of psychoanalytic groups in the height of economic Armageddon. Even as I grieved for my analyst, I clearly was able to prosper without him. I was ready to chalk up the relationship to another chimera—a false god.

But a few weeks ago I got a message. “You have proved your point. It’s been five and a half years. It’s time.”

I had thought that the relationship had been murdered, forever relegated to harsh dreams and a raw place in my mind. Words cannot always be retracted. Some things cannot be taken back.

Could it have been for five-and-a-half years we had no contact, but we actually were in communion with each other? How much does this resemble a life where God Himself seems absent and yet every once in a while we feel he has been with us in some form all along? Devout believer or atheist, these may be the very comforting and troubling facts of our existence. Psychoanalysis, like religion, calls us back with its rhythms and vibrations, its gentle waves of thought. How could I not answer its plaintive song?

Epilogue: My Return

The day of my return was as beautiful a fall day as there ever was–a day that made a case for life itself. Broadway of Manhattan’s Upper West Side was teeming with people and commercial purpose. I was early and took a walk. New York was like a big friendly courtyard. I stopped by one of the Korean flower market/delis for a handful of lavender orchids.

I walked past the corner of 79th where men sell 20-year-old copies of Playboy along with scarves and old paperbacks, a place where the smell of the subway in summer wafts up through the gratings. That particular corner is a strange nexus of half-hearted commerce that bleats along in a netherworld between handouts, thrift and light industry. 

At 3:25 I knocked on his door and walked past the threshold that I once swore I would never again cross. But here I was. I waited in the waiting room and at the concerted hour and minute we were, once again, analyst and patient, face-to-face.

He was taken aback by the sight of me, I could tell. I had gotten gray. In your late 40s it comes upon you suddenly, like an overnight frost. He was grayer too. Such is life. He was gentle and warm. “How are you? How have you been, you look well, more distinguished,” he put his hand on his chin, miming the growth of gray whiskers.

“Yes, well one becomes gray,” I said. “This can’t be helped. And of course, it’s been 5 and a half years.”

“Too long…”

I sat down.

“Something happened here that hurt you,” was how he began.

“Yes,” I said, and I began to tell him exactly how, but I interrupted myself. I had brought with me a letter—a letter that he had written me after our first meeting exactly 24 years ago. It was in his own handwriting on his letterhead.

“Here, I want you to see something.” I handed him the envelope.

Ever the analyst on guard for booby-traps—real, psychological, symbolic or imagined—he said, “what is it?” He hesitated to take hold of it.

“It’s a letter, from you, dated October 24, 1988. I’ve saved it for 24 years.”

It was a response to a letter that I had written him following our first meeting, which lasted not more than 16 minutes. A quarter of a century ago his office was cross-town, and I remember it was bathed in late afternoon sunlight. He wore a seer-sucker suit with pinstripes the color of the sky.

“What is the first memory of your mother?” he had presciently asked.

“I was two or three years old and standing at the edge of the railing of my crib and she was looking in on me.”

“If you are looking to get married or even to get along better with women, then this is the group for you,” he said. “The most beautiful and wonderful women in New York City are in my group.”

One could scarcely understand what it meant to me at that time to get help from a strong man with women. I needed to connect with women. That I knew, but I scarcely knew how. And I knew he would help me. Nevertheless, I was not quite ready to join the group for various reasons; I was, as he grasped instantly, and I later came to understand, ambivalent.

“Shall I encourage you, discourage you, or let you feel the freedom to be ambivalent for as long as you need to be?”

With that simple line I was hooked on psychoanalysis for a quarter of a century. Here I had come from a background of non-stop commandments, one had to, one must, one should—and now I could be deliciously ambivalent.

“What is the charge for today’s consultation?” I asked him then.

“No charge,” he said.

I took him up on his invitation to be ambivalent, but when I came home I wrote him a letter telling him of the freedom he deftly helped me to experience in his office. I would join him in a few months.

The letter he wrote me in response was now in his hands and carefully, he opened it.

“I too enjoyed our meeting,” he wrote. “It is good for you to take as much time as you need. I look forward to working with you in the right time. I have the idea I can help.”

He held his own letter with evident satisfaction.

“From the day I met you,” I continued, “I knew that you were one of the most significant people I would ever meet in my life.”

He smiled with even greater satisfaction.

We then talked about my understanding of what happened 5 years ago and how he hurt me. At first he seemed to resist, passing my reaction off to transference, but as I quoted his words back to him, he seemed to concede that he erred.

“You were vicious and brutal,” I said. “Was I after all these years, your father, one of your siblings (all of whom I knew)?”

“You were somebody from past, it’s true. Someone I did so much for who took every opportunity to throw it all back in my face.”

“19 years of treatment and I was him?

“I am afraid so.”

“Well, that explains a lot then. My words, my true heart-felt words, things that I told you about yourself then were internalized by you as an attack. But of course, they were said to you out of love—the very first time that I could love and say the truth. What you called a disgrace to psychoanalysis was actually my highest achievement. I was trying to find a way to work with you!”

At last he nodded. “I hurt you and I apologize.”
At last he nodded. “I hurt you and I apologize.”

“I accept,” I told him.

We spent more time catching up. He remembered every detail of my life and my family. It was a good meeting. Our minds were facing each other not just our bodies. I would be in touch soon to resume our work.

“That would be welcome,” he said.

It seemed deceptively easy. Is that all it took? Were a few minutes of talking and clarification to heal my wounds sufficient to restore our severed relationship?

Yes, it took one session and five-and-a-half years of pain, for both of us. (It was clear to me he had been in pain about it.)

“What will be the charge today?” I asked, with my check already pre-signed. (Modern analysts tend to raise their fees regularly so I anticipated a hefty hike.)

“There is no charge for today’s session,” he said. “It is an acknowledgment of our relationship.”

“It is touching that you acknowledge our relationship that way,” I told him.

We bade farewell. It was two days exactly before the Jewish New Year. “Shana tova,” he said. “A gut yahr,” I replied.

I had gone back to the analyst who hurt me. It wasn’t the first time that I had taken a risk for love, but it was one of those times love was well rewarded.

Psychoanalysis, like religion, calls us and calls us back with its promise to hold our hurts, our wounds, and our grievances. And some of us keep coming back almost as if we can’t help it. Perhaps this is as it should be. One doubts, one hates, one loves, but one forgives too and often one returns. During High Holidays, one is even permitted to return without having to know why and in psychoanalysis, my analyst, once said, it's Yom Kippur every day.

Copyright © 2013,, LLC
Simon Yisrael Feuerman Simon Yisrael Feuerman, PsyD., LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and a psychotherapist and is director of the New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies.