Happy Birthday, Sigmund

My parents both studied Psychology as undergraduates in the 1970s. When my mother told her father she was majoring in Psychology, he asked, “What are you going to do? Sell Psychology?” That anecdote has nothing to do with my point, but makes me smile. My point is that my parents both studied Psychology as undergraduates in the 1970s when Freudian analysis was the “it” mode of psychotherapy.

Flash-forward thirty-something years later when, at age sixteen, I was perusing the bookshelves in our basement and found their combined collection of $2 paperbacks of Freud’s works. I felt like Ariel in The Little Mermaid: “Look at this trove! Treasures untold!”

The timing was somewhat fortuitous because suddenly, Freud was everywhere. I was about to study Oedipus Rex in English class. When reading Federico García Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba in AP Spanish Literature, I struggled to adequately translate my thoughts, but was ultimately able to smugly announce that la caña de Bernarda es un símbolo fálico. One day in History, my teacher told one of the popular boys to stop playing with his lacrosse stick; I loudly offered, “Well, you know what Freud would say.”

Fun sidebar: Two years later, my teacher fictionalized that bit of snark in his novel, a thinly veiled critique of my high school and the NYC prep school scene in general. It didn’t help that his novelized doppelgänger pervs on the female student who uses Freud to imply that a male student is overcompensating for having a small penis. (Let’s pretend not to notice that the character’s name is Caitlyn, okay?)

In retrospect, the timing of my discovery was quite unfortunate; there’s no better way for a sixteen-year-old girl to further alienate herself than by being a pretentious little shit.

I changed my AIM screen-name to metafreudian because–and I thought this next bit was really clever–my love of Freud was Freudian. I bought any paraphernalia I could get my hands on including, but not limited to, a plush, an action figure (replete with cigar), Freudian slip sticky notesa t-shirt that quipped Sigmund Freud: There Egos Again!, and–wait for it–Freudian slippers. During my senior year, I took a self-directed Art History course and chose to study art and psychoanalysis; for one of my projects, I wrote a one-act play based on Freud’s case study of Leonardo da Vinci.

I mentioned I wasn’t well liked in high school, right?

During my first literary theory course in college, I read The Uncanny, which was a revelation wrapped up in deeply personal relief because it validated a somewhat idiosyncratic fear of mine. It is a ridiculous, stupid phobia that I blame on my paternal grandmother: The thing that scares me more than anything in this world is Pinocchio.

When I was eight years old, my father paid the person in the Pinocchio costume at Disney World to NOT come to our table during a meet-the-characters-breakfast. He followed the bribe by reassuring me that it’s okay because Pinocchio is made of wood, so if that creepy puppet-boy makes even one move toward you, I will light him on fire before he can say “Jiminy Cricket.” That anecdote highlights what is probably the epitome of my father’s effectiveness as a parent.

But Freud agrees! With my feelings about Pinocchio, not my dad’s questionable, albeit badass, handling of my phobia. “Uncertainty whether an object is living or inanimate” is an absolutely okay reason to be creeped the fuck out.

And, rest assured, Pinocchio still creeps me the fuck out. Even allusions to lying and noses growing in pop culture make me deeply uncomfortable. The third season finale of Gilmore Girls is titled, “Those Are Strings, Pinocchio,” and I swear even though I love Gilmore Girls as much as one can love a brilliant television series, it pains me to click that episode on Netflix during every rewatch. About a year ago, I was sitting at a table in the cafe of a local independent bookstore. I looked up to see Pinocchio staring at me from a revolving display of Little Golden Books titles based on Disney movies. I physically recoiled, took a few calming breaths, shakily stood up, and turned the display around so I didn’t have to (literally) face my fear.

I mentioned my phobia in passing on a first date a very long time ago; the date in question told a stupid joke about an erection and a Pinocchio tattoo. There was no second date. At the time, I was adamant that it wasn’t because he wouldn’t let this stupid fear slide, but because the joke was lame and predictable. In hindsight, it was probably because I was mortified by the realization that one (like Freud) could interpret my fear of Pinocchio in all his phallically-nosed glory as indicative of a fear of penises. If you want to know how I really feel about penises, you should just listen to my podcast.

When I first studied psychology as an undergrad, I was mostly relieved to learn that mental health practitioners no longer consider the majority of Freud’s theories to be viable psychotherapeutic tools. Although I had planned to pursue a double major in Psychology and English, I dropped the former when I discovered my school’s department was more neuroscience than neuroses. To my delight, though, many of Freud’s essays were still very much a part of the literary and critical theory curricula, so I wasn’t too heartbroken by my major of English and American literature. And, one of the best perks of studying literature as an undergraduate was that when I pointed out phallic imagery in a text, my classmates didn’t roll their eyes as much as grumble about not finding it first.