In Treatment

No matter the titillation factor, Sigmund Freud’s Dora demands a lot from readers. The HBO television show In Treatment may just be the perfect companion, a full-fleshed prompt to read between the lines of the much earlier work.

Psychotherapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), the show’s protagonist and reigning shrink, is certainly better looking than “Sigi” and his couch a whole lot more conventional, but Dr. Paul’s comfortably pervasive on-screen presence also serves to remind Freud’s readers that, even if Dora abruptly quit treatment after just eleven weeks, something about the cigar-sucking father of psychoanalysis first kept her coming back, week after week, within that same period.

Like Freud’s famed case study, In Treatment consists of abbreviated snapshots of the conversation-that-isn’t-quite-one. More significantly, it finds drama in engaging the most basic questions about the “talking cure”: What exactly is it, anyway? And: Does it work?

In the third, and final, season of the American series – a departure from the original Israeli version, BeTipul – Paul makes one of his last direct attempts to sum up just what it is he does. He tells a patient:

My job is to help you discover what you think of yourself and if you’re displeased with what you discover, to help you change that.

Over the course of the entire series, however, Paul expresses serious concerns as to whether his work has a clear purpose or even any value at all. In the week before he made the preceding statement, he’d spoken with considerably more cynicism to his own therapist:

It’s all a crock of shit anyway. It’s all designed to give power and thrills to the Sphinx-like doctor at the expense of the humiliated patient.

In attacking their shared profession, Paul incidentally articulates enduring criticisms directed at Freud himself. It’s easy to read Dora and view Freud as the “Sphinx-like doctor” and Dora as the “humiliated patient.” Likewise, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that Paul also invokes Freud’s specter when he describes his therapist as “smug,” “judging,” “superior” and “remote, like a Freudian ice queen, convinced I’m some kind of cripple.”

Surely we can imagine Dora appropriating these words for herself and, in therapy, she’d have been free to use them; they might even have been correct – though not necessarily therapeutic. Sociologist Philip Rieff makes this informative distinction in his 1962 introduction to Dora:

[Dora’s] own understanding of life had in no way given her any power to change it; precisely that power to change life was Freud’s test of truth. His truth was, therefore, superior to Dora’s.

In other words, patients go to doctor’s to avail themselves of a treatment (or cure) that they themselves have been unable to furnish; if doctors are to help, their truths must be superior.

Of course, we have little way of knowing if Freud’s own truths were, in this case, superior, if his interpretation (what Rieff defines secondarily as “indoctrination”) of Dora’s “hysteria” actually changed her life for the better, but the principle stands and the intended purpose of psychoanalysis becomes that much clearer.

We can see that same principle enacted in session after session of In Treatment, and we can also see the way therapy, more than just a treatment, has always been a kind of laboratory for human conversation, its everyday uses, evolving borders and unexplored frontiers. At one point, Paul tells his therapist that he has lost faith in people’s capacity to listen:

There was a time, a time I used to believe that you could say something clearly and the other person would hear it, digest it, respond. I don’t think I believe that anymore. Maybe any serious communication between two people is useless. Even without outright lying, people only hear what they really want to hear or what they’re capable of hearing, which often has very little resemblance to what was actually said.

It is possible to see from the show why Paul might feel this way, but it’s also possible to recognize that even he can’t possibly believe what he’s saying.

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