President Roth Discusses the History of Freud’s Couch

Seventy-five years after Sigmund Freud’s death, the father of psychoanalysis’ couch has remained a powerful symbol in our culture. The public radio show 99% Invisible interviewed President Michael Roth, a Freud historian, for an episode exploring the history and cultural significance of Freud’s couch.

Freud, and others of his time, used a couch as part of hypnosis–a cutting edge but controversial treatment. One of Freud’s patients, a wealthy woman named Franny Moser who was struggling from multiple ailments, proved difficult to hypnotize.

“He wasn’t a very good hypnotist. He was kind of a clumsy hypnotist,” explained Roth. “Freud would say, ‘You’re getting sleepy, you’re getting sleepy,’ and she’d say, ‘No I’m not! I’m not sleepy at all.'” Instead of getting sleepy, Moser would talk. At first, Freud tried to interrupt her with his theories, but she insisted on talking.

Then, Roth said, Freud realized that if he just let patients talk and didn’t say anything, they would let down their defenses, revealing their unconscious.

“This is the moment when the pre-Freudian Freud becomes the Freudian Freud,” Roth said. These new techniques and theories for therapy would come to be called psychoanalysis.

“The couch, especially Freud’s couch, it came to symbolize an invitation to open your mind, to let someone see inside,” Roth said. “It’s a reminder that we have the ability to reveal ourselves. And it’s irresistible, right? It’s like a magic carpet. I can get on the couch and suddenly I’ll say things that reveal what I really love…when my whole life I’ve been pretending to love other things.”