A Freudian’s Dream

Put down those pills and find yourself a comfortable couch. Psychotherapy is back.


| November-December 2011



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Ellen Weinstein / www.ellenweinstein.com

Gary Shteyngart has written three best-selling novels and been hailed by critics as one of today’s most gifted young authors. But ask Shteyngart about his life a decade ago and he sums it up in two words: “major dysfunction.”

Shteyngart was just 7 when his parents transplanted themselves from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to New York City. Theirs was the ever-better immigrant experience. Gary’s was not. Quiet, frail, frequently bedridden with asthma, Shteyngart was sent to a Hebrew school where he was incessantly teased about his wardrobe (he had two shirts), his heavy accent, and his preference for Russian food. He had few friends, frequently worried about dying, and felt neither Russian nor American.

The isolation and alienation followed him to college in the Midwest and back to New York, where he worked for tiny nonprofit organizations. Although Shteyngart was spending hours a day writing, he had a paralyzing fear of sharing his work with publishers. (His wildly comic first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was published only after he sent a portion of the manuscript to a fellow immigrant, who ran an MFA writing program in New York; Shteyngart thought he was applying to the program, but his bowled-over friend sent the manuscript to his own publisher.) A series of disastrous relationships with women fed his feelings of being a second-class citizen.

And so Shteyngart, still in his 20s, embarked on a course of psychoanalysis. Although he was often depressed, there were no specific symptoms he sought to address. “I felt that my entire personality needed to be entirely reexamined and, when necessary, changed,” Shteyngart says. “Other forms of therapy do not explore and rewire the personality to the same extent.”

 

What attracted Shteyngart to psychoanalysis is precisely what has for more than a century made it fodder for impassioned, and often ugly, debate.