In May 1927 a wealthy New Yorker wrote a check for five thousand dollars and handed it to his psychoanalyst to personally give to Sigmund Freud in Vienna. The man felt that the treatment he received had been so valuable for him and his family that he wanted to do whatever he could to ensure that “the new psychology” would continue to thrive. “Those of us who have money owe it to the culture of the world to see that Freud is supplied with all necessary funds to continue his scientific investigations and educate those who will carry on psychoanalysis in the future,” the anonymous donor said in 1927. He was just one of many satisfied customers of this new, very controversial form of psychiatry.
While the rich man’s act of generosity was unusual, it reflected the sheer passion that surrounded psychoanalysis in the 1920s as it took America by storm. “What can be more dramatic than to call up from the vasty deep of our submerged selves some hitherto forgotten and unpleasant incident of the past, now grown into a monster, and to be able to slay it with a password?” asked Thomas Mason in 1923, capturing much of the public’s fascination with psychoanalysis. By applying the ordinary methods of science–observation, recording, discovery, and hypotheses–to an individual’s behavior, psychoanalysts set themselves off from the mystics (and, later, phrenologists) of the past who had also believed there was a realer reality than was readily apparent. In a way, however, psychoanalysis acted as a reminder of man’s past, concerned not with his civilized achievements but with his primitive needs, that is, sex and hunger. In an increasingly modern, complex age filled with more and more machines and bigger and bigger cities, psychoanalysis focused on the animal within, this “shock of the old” perhaps more shocking than any “shock of the new.”
–Lawrence R. Samuel