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Psychoanalysis and Autobiography

ENGL 395.401
MW 5:15-6:45pm

ENGL 395/PSYS395/COML395/GSWS395

Retelling a Life: Psychoanalysis and Autobiography


fall 2021

MW 5:15-6:45


Prof. Max Cavitch and Dr. Mark Moore


Both psychoanalysis and autobiography are ways of re-telling a life. Psychoanalysis is often called “the talking cure” because, as patients tell the analyst more about their lives (their thoughts, dreams, memories, hopes, fears, relationships, jobs, hopes, fears and fantasies), they start to discover new possibilities within themselves for overcoming conflicts, impasses, emotional pain, and even psychiatric illnesses that have kept them from flourishing. Autobiographers do something similar as they remember, re-examine, and re-tell their lives—though two very important differences are 1) that they do so in writing, rather than in speech, and 2) that they do so, not privately in a psychoanalyst’s office, but publicly in books that anyone may read. This seminar is a comparative exploration of these different ways of re-telling a life. We’ll ask: What are the potential risks and benefits of re-telling one’s life, in either form? What are the differences between having a face-to-face audience of one (the analyst) and an imagined audience of readers? What are the possibilities and limits of self-analysis? What sorts of narratives do patients, analysts, and autobiographers construct? What is the role of the analyst/reader in the construction of such narratives? How complete and “truthful” can they be? And, in our own era of social media and mass surveillance, how have the meanings of audience, self-awareness, privacy, and publicity changed—for better and for worse?


Course goals: Students will come away from the course with a general understanding of 1) psychoanalytic theory and practice from Freud to the present, 2) the literary genre of autobiography, and 3) the meaning and importance of narrative in our lives. Seminar readings will include 1) famous psychoanalytic case-histories and other major works of clinical theory and metapsychology by such authors as Christopher Bollas, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Kay Redfield Jamison, Theodor Reik, and Roy Schafer, and 2) major autobiographical works by such authors as St. Augustine, James Baldwin, Alison Bechdel, Frederick Douglass, Lauren Slater, Greta Thunberg, and Malcolm X.


Assignments: In addition to the required reading and regular participation in seminar discussion, students will write several very short essays, prepare and deliver a brief presentation to the class, and write/produce a hybrid creative-scholarly autobiographical project that will be due at the end of the semester. There will also be a number of brief, straightforward quizzes—but no mid-term or final exam.


Instructors: Like most courses affiliated with the Psychoanalytic Studies Minor, this seminar will be team-taught by a humanities scholar (Prof. Cavitch) and a practicing psychoanalyst (Dr. Moore), who designed the course together. Feel free to contact them if you have any questions about this seminar: /


This seminar satisfies the Sector 1 and Sector 6 requirements of the English Core curriculum.

This seminar also counts toward the 6-course requirement of the Psychoanalytic Studies Minor.

fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major