Earlier this month, the world’s most prominent religious figure made international headlines when Pope Francis acknowledged that, in his early forties, he had regularly visited a Freudian psychoanalyst for several months. Now 80, the Pontiff wouldn’t reveal the reason for what, statistically at least, would appear to be a midlife crisis, but his position and celebrity made this a high-profile story.
|The Facultad de Medicina at the Universidad de Buenos Aires is a hotbed of Freudianism.|
For many, there’s still a stigma associated with psychoanalysis, and the Catholic Church was slow to accept the idea. Still, while New Yorkers may stereotypically chatter about their therapists, the porteños of Buenos Aires can match or surpass them—in the Argentine capital, psychoanalysis and other therapies are not for the upper and upper-middle classes alone. Once, during registration time at the Universidad de Buenos Aires medical school, I saw a flurry of flyers offering psychoanalysis and psychotherapy with UBA professionals—the first session free—for individuals, couples, and groups. Subte handouts may declare that “Asking for help is the start of solving the problem” and tempt commuters with “unlimited sessions.”
Francis had his therapy during the dictatorship of the “Proceso” but, at the turn of the century, the therapy obsession was at least partly a function of economic crisis, and even the former corralito banking restrictions have been interpreted in this context. In an early 2002 interview with National Public Radio’s Martin Kaste, a Freudian psychiatrist argued that “Money has a certain symbolic equivalence to the penis. People put their money in the bank, but at the moment they want to withdraw it they lose their money, so this produces a castration anxiety.”
|"Tango therapy" may be an option - Francis was a dancer in his youth.|
Another claimed that “sexual desire has also been caught in the corralito—men worry about lack of desire and premature ejaculation, and women are unable to have orgasms.” The 2002 Festival de Tango even included a session on Tango de Autoayuda (Self-Help Tango). Meanwhile, angry real-estate brokers picketed the residence of caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde—himself a former realtor—but not necessarily in hope of any relief for a frozen real-estate market. Rather, proclaimed one protestor, “This turned into our therapy, a place to set our anguish free.”
|Clients purchase their meds at Farmacia Villa Freud.|
Therapy, though, is not just a function of recent times; it began with the 1930s arrival of Jewish refugees from Europe. Historian Mariano Ben Plotkin has chronicled this tale in Freud in the Pampas: the Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina (Stanford University Press, 2001). Many of Buenos Aires’s thousands of shrinks practice in Palermo’s so-called Villa Freud, where their clients can top off their meds at the Farmacia Villa Freud. One online magazine specializes in listings for professional office rentals, and even acting classes are often exercises in therapy.
|In 2002, the Centro Cultural Borges paid Freud a month-long homage.|
Institutions add to the therapeutic ambience. The Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina once organized a month-long exhibition on “Psychoanalysis, Culture and Crisis” at the Centro Cultural Borges. The Museo de Psicología Experimental Horacio Piñeiro recounts the experimental efforts of an early-20th-century pioneer. Villa Freud’s everyday literary locus is Librería Paidós, an inconspicuous bookstore in a small shopping gallery, but the annual Feria del Libro always shows the latest in psychoanalytic scholarship.
|Amateur and professional Freudians crowd the display at Buenos Aires's 2016 book fair.|
In Argentine cinema, therapy is no less common than in Woody Allen films—in Rodolfo Durán’s 2007 comedy Terapias Alternativas (Alternative Therapies), an apathetic loner psychoanalyst winds up unexpectedly caring for his own son by a brief relationship and simultaneously sharing accommodations with a suicidal patient. Woody himself is a great favorite, for that matter; he once even suggested he might film in Buenos Aires.
|"Help Me, Dr. Freud!" - a stage play in downtown Buenos Aires.|
Not that long ago, a hit play on Avenida Corrientes went by the title Therapy…If Only Freud Could See This, but such matters are not always humorous. In the summer of 2010, after junior lightweight boxer Rodrigo “The Hyena” Barrios killed a pregnant woman in a Mar del Plata hit-and-run, he took several hours to surrender to police, apparently to avoid alcohol and drug tests. In the ensuing days, he managed to remain free on bail as he underwent “psychological testing,” but he is currently in prison.
|A year ago in May, the Argentine Psychoanalytic Congress held its annual meetings in Recoleta.|
Where the Pope fits into this context is open to speculation. Might it be that, in his midlife crisis, he harbored doubts about the existence of a supernatural being for which there is no empirical evidence? Freud, after all, dismissed theistic beliefs as a collective neurosis.