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Psychoanalysis in America:
The Violent Years

by Steven Utley

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, differences of opinion over psychoanalytic theory caused Jung to break with Freud and found his own group. Because Freud regarded any attack on his ideas as a personal assault, acrimony, and worse, came to characterize relations between his adherents and Jung’s. Nowhere was this more evident than in the United States during the Prohibition Era. By the early 1920s, the split between Freudians and Jungians had set the stage for a turbulent era that has come down to us as The Spaz Age. The terminology of psychoanalysis, though little of its meaning, percolated into the public consciousness through the popular press; fast-living young people justified their postwar hedonism on the grounds that “repression” of the “libido” would lead to a “complex,” and who wanted that?

Conservative Americans, of course, deplored the general decline in morals and attributed it to the pernicious combined effects of jazz music, women’s suffrage, bootleggers, the theory of evolution — and the unsettling ideas advanced by both Freud and Jung and disseminated (albeit quite imperfectly comprehended) by writers for Sunday supplements and the like. President Warren G. Harding’s promise to take the nation “Back to Normalcy” spoke to a deeply felt revulsion against “abnormalcy”; he declared, “American is too in its right mind!” and his supporters rallied behind such slogans as “Plain Crazy Is Better Than Neurotic” and “Mother And I Are Just Good Friends.”

Nevertheless, throughout the decade, just as Americans who simply did not want to stay sober went to almost any lengths to avoid it, so, too, did those who desired the highly touted benefits of psychoanalysis show little particularity about how or from whom they obtained them. The results were often tragic. No one can say how many otherwise upright citizens drank so-called “bathtub gin” and went blind, or resorted to “psychotherapeutic” home remedies and went insane. It became fashionable in “fast” circles to claim knowledge of “a little place where a man might get a drink,” and in not-so-fast circles, to know where to go for counseling. “Speakeasies” and “speakfreelies” sprang up everywhere, and while F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that all one needed for a certain type of social success was to know where to go and what to say to get inside, confusion between the two sorts of illicit establishment resulted in exchanges such as this:

MAN OUTSIDE DOOR: Joe sent me.

MAN BEHIND DOOR: What really made you come here?

Chicago, located as it is just across the Great Lakes from Canadian warehouses bursting with bootlegged copies of The Journal of Psychoanalysis, became the main port of entry into the United States. The most notorious and, for a time, most successful of the Windy City's myriad purveyors of unlicensed psychoanalytic treatment was Alphonse Animus, to whom a newspaperman attributed the remark, “You can cure more neuroses with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

Although Animus had pursued a variety of careers before he capitalized on this new demand, his behavior had always been characterized by a will to power, sometimes manifested in overt hostility. His nickname, “Big Al,” was an indication of his tendency toward dominance. Within his immediate circle of associates, Animus sometimes led lively debates about the existence of the collective unconscious; these sessions generally ended with the beating to death of anyone who disagreed with him. He kept the mayor of Chicago, its police department, and the governor of Illinois in line with threats to publicize their innermost fears.

He also displayed markedly exhibitionistic tendencies: he leased an entire floor of suites at the best hotel in Chicago, owned the best cars, and, while maintaining that he was merely a health-care provider performing a vital public service, openly reveled in his immunity to peer review. Witnesses against him had a habit of becoming catatonic, and their depositions tended to be “mislaid.”

Often witnesses themselves were mislaid. “Squealers can’t help themselves,” Animus once explained, “so you have to take care of them.” One long-lost deposition has recently come to light; the following extract from a conversation alleged to have taken place between Animus and his chief acolyte, Frank “The Universalist” Nill, affords a glimpse of Big Al’s methodology.

ANIMUS: There’s a certain person I want you to have a session with. Help him understand his need to pay us to protect his self-image.

NILL: I’ll see to it.

ANIMUS: Yeah, and while you’re at it, talk to him about accepting the psychic collective. And did you take care of Compulsive Louie like I asked you to?

NILL: Yeah, Al. He was a driven man. As a matter of fact, last night he was driven right off the end of a pier.

ANIMUS: I bet he feels better now.

The witness who related this exchange never testified, as he suffered a fragmented personality and skull two days prior to a scheduled appearance before the review board.

As there was a Freudian as well as a Jungian faction in Chicago, each pushing its own ideas about psychoanalysis, conflict inevitably ensued. Animus’s counterpart in the opposing camp was “Bugs” Monad, who later adopted the nickname “Dysfunctional” when it was pointed out to him that “Bugs” was unscientific. (It is not known who told Monad to change his nickname, or what happened to that person afterward.) Animus and Monad vied for supremacy for five years, their rivalry culminating in openly aggressive behavior in 1929. One evening, while dining in his favorite restaurant, Animus narrowly avoided being riddled with anxiety when several of Monad’s associates accused him of wanting to kill his father and have sex with his mother. Big Al retaliated at once, and there ensued the most infamous spectacle of the Spaz Age, when the Animus gang surprised several of Monad’s men in a garage and reduced them to blubbering archetypes.

Animus did not have long to savor his triumph. The psychoanalysis racket had made him fabulously wealthy, but — evidently driven by guilt over his exorbitant hourly consulting fees — he had overcompensated by forgetting to pay any income tax. Although he retreated into denial at his trial, the Treasury Department mounted an airtight case against him, thanks to the efforts of a band of federal agents, the so-called Unfathomables, who could not be bribed, intimidated, or made to talk about what was bothering them. Big Al soon found himself in federal prison. Frank Nill took over, but things were never the same. Following the repeal of Prohibition, millions of Americans celebrated by seeking professional help with their drinking problems. Nill grew despondent, and Freudian revisionists speculate that his depressive decline was the inevitable consequence of an unrealized homoerotic fixation on Big Al. Upon his release from prison, Animus himself succumbed to a progressive mental disorder brought on by his attempts to harmonize the opposing elements of his personality.

Copyright © 2005 by Steven Utley

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