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In Treatment

In Argentina, psychoanalysis is as common as Malbec

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Psychoanalysis texts displayed at a bookstore in Buenos Aires’ Villa Freud. (Sharon Frost)
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Freud & Fahler, an airy, elegant café in Buenos Aires’ chic Palermo Soho neighborhood, is named for the original owner’s two greatest loves. Fahler, my waitress tells me, was the woman’s husband. And Freud? Well, that’s obvious—the whole city, it seems, is in love with the father of psychoanalysis. Indeed, just a few blocks away from Freud & Fahler is a neighborhood popularly known as Villa Freud because of all the psychoanalysts practicing out of the Spanish-style buildings that line its leafy avenues. Until recently, there was a restaurant there called Bar Sigi, a diminutive, of course, of Sigmund.

Argentina has more shrinks per capita than any other country in the world—around 120 for every 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, nearly four times as many as in the United States. In Buenos Aires, the Wall Street Journal reported last year, there are 789 therapists per 100,000 people. While Freud’s theories have fallen out of fashion in other countries, “in Argentina Freud’s works are still gospel,” wrote historian Mariano Ben Plotkin in his book about the country’s psychoanalytic culture, Freud in the Pampas. Plotkin’s own parents sent him to psychoanalysis four times a week, starting when he was 6 years old, something not uncommon in his upper-middle-class Jewish milieu. Kids “would go to football, they would go to swimming, and they go to analysis,” he told me. He, his family, and many other Argentines took it for granted, he wrote, “that lying on an analyst’s couch four times a week at great financial sacrifice was one of any normal human being’s activities.” It wasn’t until he left for graduate school in Berkeley in 1986 that he realized that outside of Argentina, this wasn’t very normal at all.

No one has a definitive explanation for the Argentine obsession with the unconscious. Like New Yorkers, Porteños, as Buenos Aires natives are called, have a reputation for anxiety, introspection, and gloom, but there’s no evidence that they’re more neurotic than residents of other metropolises. They are, however, certainly beset by complicated questions about identity. Argentina is a country of immigrants—in 1914, more than a third of the population was foreign-born—and many, particularly in the middle class, see themselves as more European than Latin American. For them, the years following World War II have been a series of shocks. “Argentines,” wrote Plotkin, “who were accustomed to believe that their country was a European enclave and therefore was immune to the problems that affected the rest of Latin America, suffered dictatorship, exclusion, violence, war and poverty. In the 1970s Argentina was ruled by one of the most murderous military regimes on the continent.”

Psychoanalysis in Argentina, not surprisingly, has been deeply rooted in the country’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. Ironically, though, it became entrenched in the broader society at times when Jews themselves were embattled. For Jews, Argentina can be a paradoxical place. It has Jewish gauchos and Hasidic barrios and even a town in the Pampas called Moises Ville, settled by Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. It also famously offered sanctuary to Nazis after World War II, and it has a history of intense, sometimes homicidal anti-Semitism. (As the Buenos Aires Herald lamented in 1977, “[I]t is not easy to explain why such un-Argentine attitudes as anti-Semitism and xenophobia … should continue to exist with such virulence.”) But none of this has affected Freud’s standing. Indeed, psychoanalysis in Argentina is so mainstream that it’s “not perceived as a Jewish discipline, a Jewish science,” says Plotkin.

Still, to walk into the chambers of some Buenos Aires analysts is to step back in time to an earlier era in Jewish culture. David Rosenfeld, the former vice president of the International Psychoanalytic Association, practices out of what looks like the platonic ideal of an old-world psychoanalyst’s office. Persian carpets cover the floor, the complete works of Sigmund Freud crowd the bookshelves, and there’s a modernist leather couch for patients to recline on. Rosenfeld seems at once world-weary and playfully ironic. There’s a hint of Eastern Europe in his accent. A die-hard cosmopolitan, he reacts with half-feigned incredulity when he learns I can’t speak French

The first foreign translation of Freud, he tells me proudly, was made in Spanish in 1922, and Freud, who learned Spanish in order to read Don Quixote, corrected it himself. This translation—published as the first volume of Freud’s Obras Completas, or “Complete Works”—quickly made its way to Argentina, where it had a huge impact on the Buenos Aires literary world. “It became a beloved book for all the poets, intellectuals, what we call the intelligentsia,” says Rosenfeld.

Thus when psychoanalysts fleeing Europe during World War II arrived in Buenos Aires, “they were so well received, because all the intelligentsia—philosophers, painters, writers—they spoke about Freud in every discussion and newspaper or literary review,” says Rosenfeld. “Even my teacher, Jorge Louis Borges.” He studied with the legendary author, he explains, when Borges was working as a librarian and lecturer.

Psychoanalysis, then, has become more than a therapeutic technique—its theories and categories shape Argentina’s entire culture, high and low. A decade ago, the popular TV drama Vulnerables followed the participants in group therapy, while on the 2008 show Terapia (única session), celebrity psychoanalyst Gabriel Rolón put his famous guests on the couch. Tratame Bien, or “Treat Me Well,” a show about a struggling couple who have individual shrinks as well as a marriage therapist, recently won eight Martín Fierro awards, the Argentine equivalent of the Emmys.

Unlike in other countries, psychoanalysis in Argentina has spread far beyond the middle class. As Plotkin points out, his cleaning lady lives in a shantytown, but her daughter sees a shrink. When he taught at a suburban Buenos Aires university whose students come from the lower-middle class, all of them were familiar with Freud, “and 95 percent of them know exactly who Lacan was.” He’s talking about Jacques Lacan, the pioneering French psychoanalyst, who seems to be almost a household name among Porteños.

These days, very few Argentines still see their therapists multiple times a week—the economic crisis that wracked the country starting in the late 1990s made that impossible. But the culture of psychoanalysis persists. During the height of the crisis, Argentines formed mutual-assistance neighborhood assemblies and created small-scale barter economies. Shrinks, says Plotkin, were very much a part of these systems—they’d offer free therapy for the jobless, or trade sessions for other services.

Since then, the market for therapy has revived, and not just among Argentines. Laura Turner is a Buenos Aires psychoanalyst who, because of her excellent English, sees expatriates as well as locals. Some of her foreign patients come to her after moving to Argentina and finding the adjustment unexpectedly difficult. For others, though, therapy has become part of the Buenos Aires experience, like steak, Malbec, and tango. “What I find very odd, or astonishing, is that so many people come to make a consultation to start therapy even when it’s their first experience,” she says. “They do it here while they are traveling or studying abroad or living short-term.” There’s no easier way to start feeling like a local.

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Jacob Arnon says:

Freud was a diasporist, alright. He was born in one diaspora country, lived in another, and died in a third.

When he fled to England he left a large part of his family behind who died in a Nazi diasporic concentration camp.

Jews who celebrate the diaspora are like the Jews who left Egypr with Moses and clamored to go back to the safety of slavery.

Jacob Arnon says:

“Despite the fact that Jews constitute only one percent of the population of Argentina, an estimated ten percent of the victims of the dirty war were Jews. That this war had an anti-Semitic side is attested to by CONADEP, which devoted a section to illustrate this point. It is illustrated, to quote the report, by the “particular brutality in the treatment of prisoners of Jewish origin .1117 Jews were not only tortured, but the torture often took on an anti-Semitic form. The torturers painted swastikas on one Jewish prisoner’s back with a sharp pointed marker. Another torturer who called himself the “great fuehrer” made Jewish prisoners shout “Hell Hitler.” A Jewish woman on her way to an excursion in Israel was called by her abductors “a Yid,” and subjected to the cattle prod. They wanted information from her and from her files on Jews. She was told that the Jewish problem was second only to the problem of subversion. Later, they told her that her abduction was a mistake and to forget it. In one torture center Jews were made to raise one hand and to shout “I love Hitler.” One prisoner remembered the ordeal of another prisoner, a Jew nicknamed “Chango,” at the hands of his torturer called “Julian the Turk.” Julian always carried a key ring with a swastika and wore a crucifix around his neck. He made Chango bark like a dog, wag as though he were a dog wagging his tail, and lick his boots. Chango did very well at this. If he didn’t, Julian would beat him. CONADEP concluded that:
All kinds of torture would be applied to Jews, especially one which was extremely sadistic and cruel: “the rectoscope,” which consisted of inserting a tube into the victim’s anus, or into a woman’s vagina, then letting a rat into the tube. The rodent would try to get out by gnawing at the victim’s internal organs.”

Jacob Arnon says:

No wonder many Jews there look for comfort in psychoanalytic fairy tales.

Does anyone in the area practice CBT?It is becoming more common and useful in the US.

Yahalomi says:

I don’t know what CBT is but for this Jew in the Diaspora something more common and useful would be a gun.

Porteños are very fashion-conscious. They think of themselves as sophisticated Europeans as they lament that geographically they live in “el culo del mundo” and look down upon their neighboring countries. Therefore, if this year’s fashion is orange, they all wear it. If it is chic to chatter about Lacan, they chatter, whether they have read (or understood) him or not. They also have one of the world’s highest numbers of plastic surgeons, so that they are all young and beautiful. If it is fashionable, sophisticated and European to go to a shrink, they want to be with it. Fads flourish there rapidly, but somehow Freud has remained. And check into how many Argentines are still sitting in their Reichian orgone box.

Robin Margois says:

Folks, there are some serious errors in the comments on this article.

Jacob Arnon, of course Freud lived in the diaspora — the vast majority of Jews lived in the diaspora before 1947! Freud died in the late 1930s.

Second, comparing Jews who celebrate the diaspora with Jews asking to return to Egyptian slavery — have a look at some online Israeli newspapers — free of charge, translated into English — Israel is turning into right-wing, militarized theocracy dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. There are good reasons why there are thousands of Israeli Jews living in the Diaspora.

Third, with regard to the anti-Semitic right-wing Argentine dictatorship of 1976-1983 — the Tablet article was not about Argentine politics of thirty years ago. But if you want a discussion of that era — instead of the article on Freud — you may wish to review Argentine history, which would tell you that the ugly dictatorship came to power after decades of violent conflicts with ultra-left-wing groups that also engaged in kidnapping, torture and murder.

It is greatly to the Argentines’ credit that democracy was restored in 1983, and they have maintained a stable, moderate democracy since then. Their embrace of Freud, a Jew, also counteracts the long history of Argentine anti-semitism. Plus, a country that underwent decades of bloody conflict between the right and the left could benefit from therapy. It is a positive sign for Argentina that they are willing to engage in self-examination and healing.

Jacob and GSK: with regard to “psychoanalytic fairy tales” — we Jews should be proud of Freud — he founded modern therapy, which has helped thousands of people. Many of his theories have been disproven over the last century, but he was a pioneer.

Yahalomi — “CBT” is cognitive-behavioral therapy — a very useful form of therapy founded by another Jew, Dr. Aaron Beck. Please don’t pick up a gun! Dr. Beck has written a wonderful book on violence, “Prisoners of Hate.”

Benjamin Entine says:

The error in Freud is that he sought universal principles in limited and culturally – bound case samples (possibly accurate in his own milieu) but leading to apparent anachronisms as culture evolved–in part because of his influence. His genius is to be found in his recognition of the unconscious, and the extent to which it must be explored in any meaningful consideration of human behavior.
His Jewishness was reflected in a variety of ways, including the fact it gave him the openness and outsider status necessary to step away from pervasive theological explanations of societal and individual beliefs and conduct. Like Joseph, he located the essence of understanding in the interpretation of dreams. Portefinos are the richer for this inheritance and for not simply embracing more modern quick-fixes . “In Therapy” anyone? Would that question be imaginable, but for Freud?

It was not an analyst, but a simple journalist, who wrote in the Boston Globe ( ) that the arrival of an International Conference on Freud for the first time in Beijing is the sign of the end of Communism. And why? Because, as Jacques Lacan remarked so precisely, when psychoanalytic discourse has space to exist, the discourse of the Master, no matter what kind of Master, ceases to be so dominant.
The present article does not point out the fact that in Argentina, it was the 1966 coup by the Junta of military Masters to be assassins later on, this coup of 1966 marked the formal expulsion from University of outstanding intellectuals (many of them Jewish), but gave the opportunity for “study groups” to flourish outside the eye of the dictatorship, many of them Freud-Lacan study groups.

Jacob Arnon says:

Robin Margois your knowledge of history is spotty at best.

I am familiar with Haaretz and Jpost website. I also read these papers in Hebrew. Do you?

Try not talking down to people and posting tendentious arguments. Israel is not ” Israel turning into right-wing, militarized theocracy dominated by the ultra-Orthodox.” Yes, I read David Grossman’s latest novel, have you?

I also didn’t compare Jews living in the galut to Israelites liberated from Egypt wanting to return to slavery. I explicitly said that those Jews who celebrate it are like those benighted slaves. Here is my comment:

“Jews who celebrate the diaspora are like the Jews who left Egypr with Moses and clamored to go back to the safety of slavery.”

As for Freud the man was a megalomaniac who fled the Nazis and left his family behind. Did he try to save them? Are there any letters he wrote to try and do something for them?

Psychoanalysis is not a science, it is a fairy tale that only some Parisians and many Portenos believe in anymore.

Jacob Arnon says:

The David Grossman novel I mentioned is:

“[אישה בורחת מבשורה / Isha Borahat MiBesora” translated as “To the End of the Land.”

Hernán says:

The common mention of Argentina as a sanctuary to Nazis should be equated with the hundreds and hundreds of Nazis that also came to the United States. Paradoxically, Argentina was also the place where Emile Schlinder lived, and Buenos Aires was a city that suffered to terrorist attacks.
It would be very important to mention that Héctor Timerman (the son of Jacobo Timerman) is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and one of the most vital members of President Cristina Fernández’ cabinet. This is the first time that a Jewish person reaches such an important position.

Dear Jacob:

You disagree that ”Israel turning into right-wing, militarized theocracy dominated by the ultra-Orthodox.” Have you read the recent headlines about an Israeli government report noting that one-third of all Israeli Jewish kindergarten children are now ultra-Orthodox? They will be the majority of Israeli Jews in the near future.

You stated: “I also didn’t compare Jews living in the galut to Israelites liberated from Egypt wanting to return to slavery. I explicitly said that those Jews who celebrate it are like those benighted slaves.”

Jacob, most of us Diaspora Jews are happy to be in the Diaspora, as are the Israeli Jews who’ve been here with us for decades. If you are trying to recruit support for Israeli Jews, calling us “benighted slaves” is probably not the right way to do it.

You stated: “As for Freud the man was a megalomaniac who fled the Nazis and left his family behind. Did he try to save them? Are there any letters he wrote to try and do something for them?”

This is not accurate. Freud did not leave his entire family behind. Some members of Freud’s family were able leave Austria and travel to England with him, thanks to a former pupil of his who had joined the Nazis, but still had affection for his old teacher.

It appears that many members of Freud’s family managed to escape from Austria, and they form a very large extended family today.

A biography of his daughter, Anna, states that her father and his brother left Freud’s four elderly sisters behind, because they mistakenly thought that they were better off in their own apartments and financially well-provided for. They believed that no one would be interested in persecuting four elderly women.

When Freud arrived in England in 1938, he was in his eighties and dying of cancer, and in great pain. He lived for only one more year. Your apparent expectation that Freud should have launched family rescues or (I guess) move to British Palestine is not reasonable or fair.

Be careful. The greatest ill our people face is in fighting and hatred within. (I am not referring to disagreement which is civil and a necessity.) That is our biggest downfall. Let us not hate especially not one another. Let us hate the real enemy-tyrrany culture of death terrorism, anti freedom and antisemitism.

Dear Hernán,

Héctor Timerman (the son of Jacobo Timerman) the Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently recognized the sovereign state of (an illusionary Juden-rein) Palestine within the the 1949 armistice lines. In return the P.L.O. recognized the Malvinas (Falkland Islands)- no Brits allowed, as the eternal property of the Argentine nation.

I’ve said that least 159964 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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In Treatment

In Argentina, psychoanalysis is as common as Malbec

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