Behind Freud’s Couch

“[Sigmund Freud’s] couch is one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world. It has come to represent the practice of psychoanalysis. But it also represents the uncertain space that psychoanalysis occupies. Negatively defined, that space is neither medicine nor psychiatry, neither religious confession not artistic creation. Yet it involves aspects of all of those.

When Freud began his medical practice in Vienna in 1886, he initially used the conventional treatments of the time - electrotherapy, massage and therapeutic baths - all of them physical methods. Disappointment with those current therapies led him to seek more effective cures. [Jean-Martin] Charcot [1] had already alerted him to hypnotism and the effects on nervous disorders and in 1889 he visited [Ambroise-Auguste] Liébeault [2] and [Hippolyte] Bernheim [3] in Nancy to study their hypnotic treatments. For several years after that he used hypnosis on many of his patients. But the amazing cures it sometimes brought about were generally followed by relapses.

It was in 1891 that a grateful patient, Mrs Benvenisti, apparently gave Freud the couch as a gift. He was still only a medical doctor who happened to specialise in nervous disorders. At the time his mentor was Josef Breuer and they discussed the hysteric cases Freud was dealing with and which were to be published in Studies of Hysteria. It was the earliest of those cases, Breuer’s ‘Anna O’, who invented the ‘talking cure’: she had decided to dictate her own method of treatment to the doctor by relating the experiences that led to her sickness. Following her example, Freud found that by letting his own patients remember and speak of the trauma that had caused their condition he could effect a temporary alleviation of their trouble. This was to be termed the ‘cathartic method’.

Because blocked memories could not be forced, Freud later came to adopt a technique of getting round repression by ‘free association’ - letting the patient say whatever came to mind and then interpreting the unconscious messages and memories the words conveyed. Patients needs to be completely relaxed and so it become customary for them to lie on the couch as an aid to free association.

Two different accounts exist of why the therapist’s chair came to be positioned behind the patient. One was that a patient had once tried to make advances to the doctor: the other is simply as Freud told Hanns Sachs, ‘I cannot let myself be stared at for eight hours daily.’ The two accounts are not contradictory, since both refer in different ways to the same necessity of keeping an emotional distance between therapist and patient.” [4]

Bertha Pappenheim was born in Vienna in 1859. Her parents were wealthy, religious Jews and Bertha was always conscious that they would have preferred a son.

According to Marion Kaplan [5] “After her schooling, Pappenheim was supposed to train to become a leisured lady, waiting for the perfect marriage candidate to come by. She led a dull existence, often escaping into day dreams. She did some charity work, which was for her, like for many other girls and housewives of her class and society, the only acceptable diversion besides entertainment, reading, and embroidery. She would later urge other middle class girls who were bored or unhappy with their meaningless lives to demand vocational preparation and higher education, as well as to pursue social work.

Pappenheim first made history at the age of twenty-one as “Anna O.” Her relationship to Josef Breuer and the later discussions of her case by Sigmund Freud marked the beginning of the psychoanalytic age. [Pappenheim] treatment with Breuer, her “talking cure,” was the first known psychoanalytic therapeutic alliance. [6] 

[After her father fell seriously ill] she suffered from disturbances of sight and speech, paralysis, a split personality, the loss of her native language and its replacement with English, hallucinations and suicidal impulses. Breuer hypnotized her and encouraged her to explain how certain symptoms first appeared. As her memories revived, the symptoms disappeared. Patient and doctor shared the discovery of her surprising therapy. She called it “chimney sweeping” or “talking cure” and, with the doctor’s assistance, she actually treated herself. Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer, considered her the real discoverer of the cathartic method.”

Breuer’s wife grew jealous of the close emotional relationship developing between him and Pappenheim and so Breuer ended the treatment. It is thought that Pappenheim was transferring the love she felt for her father to her therapist and that in turn Breuer was experiencing an emotional attachment to his patient.

According to Schultz and Schultz [7] “Further examination of historical records revealed that...Pappenheim was not cured by Breuer’s cathartic treatments. Two weeks after Breuer stopped seeing her, she was institutionalized and spent hours sitting beneath a portrait of her father, talking of visiting his grave. She experienced hallucinations and convulsions, facial neuralgia, and recurring language difficulties. She became addicted to morphine, which Breuer had prescribed for facial pain.(...)

However, more recent data of history provide an alternate version. According to this account, Breuer’s treatment had been successful and [Pappenheim]’s later symptoms were very mild. This writer also suggests that the source of the information critical of Breuer, suggesting that [Pappenheim] had not been cured, was none other than Sigmund Freud himself.”

Bertha Pappenheim became a social worker and feminist, endorsing education for women....She died in 1936, not long after a strenuous interrogation by the Gestapo regarding an anti-Nazi remark she had allegedly made.”

To find to more about Freud’s couch I spoke to Bryony Davies, curator at the Freud Museum in London, which sits in the final home of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud.

Hamish MacPherson: The couch is such a well known image in Britain and America, and presumably many other places, but Freud’s couch that you have here is where it started....

Bryony Davies: Yes, well more or less, I mean it was in Freud’s study in Vienna to begin with, so it was actually given to him, the couch, as a gift from a patient or a former patient, the body of the couch itself. So it’s covered in a rug and it looks very nice, but the body was given as a gift in about 1891 and then Freud started using it in the way that we think of that image, as the analyst’s couch now. And it’s covered with a Qashqai rug. So it looks kind of luxurious and um, you know, very comfortable. I don’t think it’s that comfortable, but, you know, I mean it’s got pillows, it’s got cushions on it and it’s supposed to be quite a nice, safe, relaxing place to sit or to lie. So yeah, Freud was using it for many years in his, kind of consulting room in Vienna, which was also part of his home because it was all in one apartment, and then in 1938 they managed to bring it out of Austria when they fled to London and shipped it over here. So everything was set up here in more or less the same way as it was in Vienna. Obviously the architecture of the room is different, but they tried to kind of move things around so that it was, it was similar and yeah, so t’s got his chair, his kind of velvet-top chair just behind at the head of the couch. And he would sit there while people went through their analysis.

HM: So before that kind of couch would have just been used to just to relax on at home. Just been like a domestic furniture?

BD: Yeah I would have expected so. Before this particular couch, I don’t think Freud had any other similar furniture, you know. So that’s where that idea that you always see in movies and know someone lying on the couch, like in Woody Allen films; that’s pretty much where it came from.

HM: ...and there’s this, well, I don’t know how apocryphal it is but there’s this story that he asked his patients to lie down because he didn’t want to look at them all day...

BD: Yeah, that is a story. I mean I’ve heard and read that as well. I think it was less an idea of not wanting to look at someone but was quite exhausting to maintain eye contact and have a conversation with someone if you’re….You know, for the patient if they’re only there for an hour or something and they go. But if he has to do it all day, it’s a long face to face time. But I think also what maybe grew out of that is that people do find it easier to free associate words and talk about things when they’re not looking someone straight in the eye. So if you’re lying back and looking at the ceiling or looking around the room, it’s probably easier than having a eye contact in a conversation

HM: I can’t remember, what is on the ceiling. Is that, was that something that was paid attention to?

BD: Not really, no. I mean, in the study, now that it’s a museum, we’ve got the recessed lighting and it’s a proper light levels for the conservation of the object and stuff like that. But I mean when it was the Freud’s house, certainly in Vienna, it was just an average kind of domestic lighting. I mean there are other things around so there’s a rug, another like oriental rug on the wall next to the couch, so you kind of feel like you’re in a bit of a safe cushioned space, a rug here and then there’s a print above it. But it is, it is all quite domesticated because it was part of, of Freud’s home and his working space, but it’s definitely not the kind of, you know, clinical space that we think of today.

Image: Freud Museum

HM: And can you tell me, was it Fanny Moyer...I read that talking therapy came from?... He was previously using hypnotism and she just wanted to talk, about the issues or her case and...

BD: I don’t know that name actually.

HM: I think I’ve written it down somewhere... [8]

BD: Yeah, I mean, there certainly was one of Freud’s first patients, um, but you know, the whole idea of the talking cure grew out of interacting with patients. It wasn’t something that he thought up and thought “Ooh I’ll try that”. There was an early patient of his called Emma Eckstein who went on to do her own kind of practice in psychoanalysis, have her own theories and writings and that was certainly one of the first people who he worked with almost to kind of treat the problem rather than just tell it, you know, as a doctor might have sit there and tell you what to do. But it was more talking about the issues and it kind of grew out from that.

HM: Yeah. Yeah. I found that very surprising because I think now it feels like...or the popular image is of analyst who has certain sort of expertise and power. But this idea that they were like figuring it out with a patient is really interesting and they’re like, “Oh, this kind of works. So then how do I pull that out more?” I was also reading that the position of the chair was because Freud was deaf in one ear or partially deaf [so his better ear was closer to the patient] is that correct?

BD: Um, that is from later in life. I don’t actually know when that first started to affect him. I mean certainly when he was in this house, he was very old and very ill, he was already in his 80s and he only saw one or two select patients when he was here because he was so old. So that was certainly an issue later in life when he had that set up, but I’m not sure when that started.

HM: Okay. And then, and then upstairs in the museum, there’s [his daughter] Anna’s couch, I’m sort of thinking of it as mark II, like was she the first person to then...or maybe this Emma [Eckstein] ..the next person to use this format?

BD: Well, it kind of became an established tool, I’d almost say, you know, at that point where that was, that was the talking cure. Anna Freud really worked with children more than anything. And she had different practices so she wouldn’t necessarily just see, you know, a string of patients come in and that’s it. She had a children’s nursery, a clinic. She would study how they played, for example, how mealtimes worked with toddlers and children. But then she also had her practice as well. So this room that we’re in now is actually Anna Freud’s consulting room when this was the house before it came to the museum and she did have a couch and she had to have a slightly different type of chair to Sigmund Freud. But she would sit to one side and slightly behind and have that couch. So it certainly by the time she was using was kind of an established method of analysis.

HM: Had she been using that with children or is that more for adults?

BD: Um, well, I mean I don’t think it would have been small children, because it’s not really a natural thing for a child to do, you know, lying still for a long, long time and talk and you know, she was more working with them in the way that they naturally do things. So running around and playing and getting distracted and you know, testing things out. But she would use the couch for. Yeah, for older, older children.

HM: Do you, do you know, is this still how psychoanalysts use, do they still use the couch?

BD: Well, I believe so. I mean, I think it’s, it’s different for different people. I mean certainly a lot of psychoanalysts do. We had an exhibition here. I mean, I’m not trained in psychoanalysis myself but we had a couple of exhibitions here about the idea of the couch in psychoanalysis and a few years ago there was a photography art project and one of the artists went to lots of different psychoanalysts in, you know, whatever it was, 2013 or something and basically, you know, 21st century psychoanalyst in London and Berlin in Tel Aviv and New York, all around the world to see how they set up their consulting room. And yeah the vast majority of them did have couches, some kind of really trying to emulate Freud’s where it was an old fashioned Persian carpet or some kind of rug, lots of cushions. Others I’m definitely more kind of minimal and modern, but still the idea of lying down and being comfortable.

HM: Why, why do you think they were trying to kind of emulate the, the look of the original?

BD: Well, I think some people, if they are Freudians, you know, in their practice and they are fans of Freud, maybe they just like, you know, like the idea of making their space like that because, you know, as I say, some were definitely like a modern living room or a modern kind of study. But the ones who’ve got a Persian rug on the couch and antiquities around it just looks, it looks like they are emulating Freud because they’re a fan.

HM: Maybe. I’m asking you to speculate. Do you think it helps the patients? Maybe it confirms their expectations...

BD: Yeah it could do.. Patients in Freud’s time had a, had a real response to the way he had his space, you know, people would comment on it and there’s been anecdotal things and, and all of the patients that have been interviewed or written about it and you know, how it looks like you’re walking into a beautiful space, kind of like a museum space before it was ever a museum that, you know, these collections of amazing antiquities in statues from Egypt and vases from ancient Greece. And it has a kind of very kind of quiet, I don’t know the word I’m looking for is, but yeah, it has that kind of atmosphere that isn’t like walking into a say a Victorian-era parlor where it’s someone’s, you know, what was fashionable in the Victorian era or, or even, you know, in the 1910 or something.

HM: I think you said hallowed..

BD: Yeah it had that kind of atmosphere and people even now come to the museum, you know, some, some visitors and especially people, either from the field of psychoanalysis or maybe people who’ve been in analysis themselves for years and they have a very emotional reaction to being in the museum and seeing the couch and seeing the space. And we, I mean obviously that’s how it was kept for many, many years after Freud died. But we now, you know, the curtains are closed and the lights are quite low and it’s trying to keep it quite peaceful. People really do have an emotional kind of reaction to it. Not everyone of course, but some people. I think it depends on your personal experience in your life and then see the couch.

HM: Because people have maybe have had experiences, related experiences of analysis?

BD: I think so, yeah, I mean, and that’s what some of the feedbacks we have, you know, visitor feedback forms and some people say “this is amazingly emotional and moving for me. I’ve been in analysis for many, many years....” I think it’s that whole atmosphere and that’s also what, what we aim to do as a museum because it’s not just a blank space, you know, it’s not a purpose built white walled gallery where you can just put some things in it. It is a historic home, it’s a Grade Two listed building. It’s  the home where Freud and his family lived so as well as having all these artifacts and textiles and the things that we have to show to the public it’s maintaining the space as, as it was lifted for many, many years.

HM: Yeah. I mean I understand it’s been shifted to accommodate this kind of function. For example, this room is now an office but it isn’t just a couch in a cabinet of on a plinth because it’s in relation to all these other sort of textures and histories. Um, who’s the last person to lie on the couch? Do you know?

BD: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. Certainly since it’s been a the Freud Museum opened officially in 1986 and so the couch then became, you know, a museum object rather than just something in someone’s front room. I mean certainly no one should have since then, but I don’t know if people maybe have done. I mean before that Anna Freud lived the house up until she died in 1982. And you she kept that room very much as her father had left it. And it looked very much like it looks now obviously without the barriers and all that kind of stuff. But it wasn’t like you weren’t allowed in the room. I think they did go into the room. They did, you know, she took some of the antiquities for her study, read the books, you know, so it’s very likely that she and other family members and friends, everything just sat on the couch and used it. But I couldn’t say who the last person was but fingers crossed since it’s actually a museum object no one’s been on there recently.

HM: And what are the issues for maintaining these things?

BD: Well, it’s things like, using the couch, because people would like to touch it or sit on it or use it in their artworks or something. And we’ve got to be very careful about conservation. We had a conservation assessment on it a few years ago and there was quite a bit of work done on it to keep it stable because there’s always the worry about things deteriorating and fabric ripping and things like that. So we’ve done conservation on the couch and we’re always assessing the objects because there’s almost 2,000 objects just in the study because everything’s so jam packed on shelves and cabinets. So we’ve got to keep...I mean, kind of really mundane stuff is that we’ve got to keep the lighting at a level where visitors can come in and actually see things isn’t really too dark, but it’s also got to be below a certain kind of Ultra Violet lighting level. So it doesn’t actively damaged the objects, you know, monitor for pests. We monitor the temperature not fluctuating too much because there’s so many different types of material in the room. There’s terracotta things, there’s bronze, there’s stone, there’s wood, there’s paper. So we’ve got to keep everything at an even temperature light, all that.

And also, I mean, I’d say in more of a kind of curatorial way for visitors and stuff, we don’t want to have everything sealed off and behind glass because as I said it was a home, it was a family home and it was some where that people lived and wandered around and welcomed people. So there’s so many books on display in the, in the study, which was Freud’s personal library, so, you know, we don’t want to put them all behind glass because that would look, that would, that would be crazy that’s not how people did display books in their home. But again, you’ve got to think about temperature and security...we allow people to access the library in the archive, for research and stuff. But again, we’ve got to think about conservation needs. So there’s always a fine line, but we are aware that it’s a historic house as well as being a museum, a space for artists. So yeah, it’s, it’s a balancing act.

HM: Do you vacuum it?

BD: Yeah, we do. Yeah. We’ve got a museum vacuum which is basically a bit gentler than a Henry Hoover and it’s got a very fine mesh over it so you’re not going to accidentally suck up an object. It’s not continuous, but we’ll clean things every few months. Well I say clean. It’s, it’s more of hoovering and dusting and then if any actual serious cleaning of antiquities needs doing, we would ask a conservator, an expert in that to do it in a way that uses the right tools and chemicals or whatever. And obviously that costs money so sometimes we, we know how to fundraise for it or you know, get grant for it.

HM: And how do you monitor for bugs?

BD: We’ve got a little pest….what’d you call them? They’re like, kind of like the old folded cardboard things that are underneath furniture basically. And once a month we’ll go around and we’ll look and we’ll see if we caught anything.

HM: Like sticky traps.

BD: Yes sticky traps. And we’ve got moth traps as well where there’s fabric around. So it’s moth traps up high and the bug kind of insect stuff down down low. Luckily we’ve not actually had any problems with that, but then there’s also other things like silverfish in books and stuff like that. So it’s just kind of like a more kind of constant monitoring of certain certain materials.

HM: What’s your favourite aspect of the couch or the room? What’s the thing that interest you?

BD: I do really like researching the objects, you know, finding out more about them. And at the moment we are working on summer exhibition because this year marks the 80th anniversary of Freud and his family coming to London escaping the Nazi occupation. And what I always find fascinating is just how they brought everything with them. So it was 1938, it was after the Anschluss [9] and it was extremely difficult for anyone to get exit visas from the country. And they did manage to obviously get out and they also managed to pack up almost, I mean, almost all of, at the library of books. It’s about three quarters of the, the antiquities, even the furniture, the couch in itself, obviously the desk chair, everything that you see here and they managed to get it all out of Austria and bring it to London and set it all up. And Freud, you know, managed to have at least a few months here in this house where everything was set up as it had been in Austria. But I think it’s pretty remarkable. So I’m doing some, well, you know, a number of us here at the museum and doing some research on that at the moment because that’s kind of a head of our next exhibition.

HM: Can you say anything about why? Because I mean I imagine someone just fleeing with just a suitcase...

BD: Yeah, just with the coat on their back...Yeah, I mean it was, it was touch and go, there was absolutely no guarantee that it would happen this way. I mean, Freud was at that point, very well known throughout the world and he had fairly influential friends in Britain, in America, but one particular person, Marie Bonaparte was very wealthy and very well connected. She was Princess of Greece, she had homes in Paris and she was the driving force behind getting, securing exit visas, you know, lobbying the ambassadors for America, for Britain in Paris and getting it all working and paying a huge amount of money really, what the Nazis called ‘refugee tax’, which is basically just taking everyone’s money off them. So she paid this huge amount of money to the Nazis to get their exit visas. And in the same way I think just pulled a lot of strings to get, to get everything packed up, but they didn’t actually leave at the same time as all the furniture. Everything else was shipped over slightly later. So for a long time they didn’t think they’d bring anything with them really. There was one or two objects that Freud was very attached to that he managed to more or less smuggle out or have Marie Bonaparte smuggle out because he’d spent a good part of his adult life in that point, probably about 40 years building this collection. And he was really obsessed with it, you know, he said his two real obsessions were cigars and this collection and it was something that he really treasured. It wasn’t just some  bits and bobs that you’ve got knocking around. And so it was extremely important to him, but it was for a long time, unlikely that they’d managed to get it out. So as I say, Marie Bonaparte did most of the...not just the financing but a lot of the pestering people to get to get things done and yeah managed to ship everything out. I think at one point they were maybe going to America but they had family here in London already. So that, that makes sense. And yeah, a lot of, a lot of connections and obviously luck.

HM: Yeah. Finally I... I know you had an exhibition here about the image of the couch cartoons I think few years ago.

BD: Oh yes, the [cartoonist, Mel] Calman exhibition

HM: So I was just wondering why you think this image has such resonance or why it has stuck way beyond people’s direct experience of these situations.

BD: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because people who’ve never read Freud or been in analysis and set or any kind of therapy, I’m sure themselves are familiar with that image of, of someone lying on the couch. I think I lot of it...I mean, the fact that psychoanalysis really took off in America, well in particularly New York, in quite a big way like around mid [Twentieth] century and it was featured in films and maybe to a lesser extent novels, but that kind of visual image of someone lying on the couch, whether it was some kind of film noir-ish kind; Whirlpool and stuff like that in the fifties. And then obviously Woody Allen after that. I mean, again, this is just my opinion, but I think probably more than anything it was American pop culture kind of recognising it that then it became, and you know, often it was almost like a joke or it was kind of taking the mick out of that image, you know Woody Allen on the couch or New Yorker cartoons and, and you know, and that kind of thing. But I think that probably did more than classical Freudian theory or anything like that. The people even now might come to the Freud Museum and know about Freud using a couch for people to lie on and talk to you, but don’t necessarily know how it was all set up or, or look at this loads of things in this room and antiquities and the desk and the couch, they know. And I do think that’s kind of a pop culture thing and I mean in the shop, we sell mugs and cards and greeting cards and stuff and little books of New Yorker cartoons about being on the couch. And so it’s not entirely derogatory or anything. It’s just how it’s evolved through pop culture. And I think it’s just something that’s lodged in people’s minds.

HM: Like, I mean, I guess a lot of therapy now it’s like the two people will be sat...I mean, in my experience of it people are sort of sat next to each other. And if you have a cartoon of that it could be anything but If you see someone lying...if someone drew a stick figure of someone lying and of someone sat down next them you’d know...

BD: Yeah. No, no, definitely. I agree. Yeah. But if you’re just sitting in an office nowadays talking to you face to face at this. But yeah, on a couch that’s something people know instantly.

Image: Paul Schillinger

HM: All right. Is there anything else you think I should have asked you could’ve asked you that?

BD: I don’t know. I think so.

HM: What does it smell like?

BD: Um, no, no, it’s funny because actually not long ago, I was down in study doing something in like a school group came in and I heard one of them go”oh, it smells like a museum.” And I was like, “well it is a museum”, but it’s also quite interesting that people do think about that. Like what is certainly doesn’t smell kind of old and musty and old books or anything like that because as I say, it’s, it’s a space that’s thoroughly maintained all the time. You might have to go and have a sniff and see.

[I never did sniff it]

[1] Jean-Martin Charcot is known as ‘the founder of modern neurology’.

[2] Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault was a French physician and is considered the father of modern hypnotherapy.

[3] Hippolyte Bernheim was a French physician and neurologist known for his theory of suggestibility in relation to hypnotism. Bernheim and Liébeault founded the Nancy School of hypnosis.

[4] The Freud Museum (1988) 20 Maresfield Garden: A Guide to The Freud Museum p53-54.

[5]  Marion Kaplan (unknown) ‘Bertha Pappenheim 1859 – 1936’ in Jewish Women’s Archive

[6] Therapeutic alliance is the collaboration between patient and psychonalyist.

[7] Duane P Schultz and Sydeny Ellen Schultz (2011) A History of Modern Psychology. 10th Edition. University of South Florida. p297

[8] It was actually Fanny Moser. This very rich Swiss noblewoman, was one of the five women evaluated in Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, which led to his psychoanalytic theories. According to the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2005) “This intelligent but very anxious patient provided him, without his awareness, with a premonitory indication of the future therapeutic framework when she cried out: ‘Keep still!—Don’t say anything!—Don’t touch me!’ She made use of this incantatory remark on several occasions, whenever she was frightened by some particularly terrifying memory, but Freud, after ten days of therapy, decided to eliminate it through the use of suggestion, which he succeeded in doing.”

[9] The Anschluss was the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938

February 2018.