“THE CASE OF THE TRAM-MAN”

At the end of the 19th century, horse-drawn trams were the main means of transport in Vienna. Therefore, if you had a phobia of trams, you had a handicap. If you had two phobias of trams you had two handicaps … and if you had forty-five phobias of trams (as the new patient of Freud claimed to have) you had forty-five handicaps and a serious problem. To the patient this was evident, whereas to Freud such logic slipped away from him. “You can’t have several phobias of the same thing” he affirmed. But his patient insisted that his was not an ordinary phobia. He didn’t have phobia of trams. Through other cities he used to travel by tram and had never had the slightest problem, except once in Budapest when he fell from the streetcar and fractured his collarbone (but that did not stop him from getting up and running after it until he got on again). Of the trams of Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, he had no phobia at all. He only had phobia of the trams of Vienna. And not of the trams of Vienna in general, but of each one of the forty-five tram lines that at that time operated in the Austrian capital.

Although the logic of his patient slipped away from him, that was not going to stop Freud from healing the Tram-Man. After all, as he was a rich man, Freud could bill him a thick invoice for the services rendered. (At that time, a psychoanalyst had almost as many job opportunities as a lamplighter would have today.) Unfortunately, the psychoanalytic method seemed useless in this case. If his patient’s phobia had concerned trams in general or a single tram in particular, there would be still a chance that the Tram-Man would have been victim of a childhood trauma caused by a tram collision. But what was the probability that he had witnessed forty-five tram collisions, one for every tram line in Vienna? That didn’t make sense.

When Freud discussed the issue with Stekel, this one suggested that he should try “shock therapy”. That confirmed that Stekel was a traitor to the psychoanalytic cause and consequently Freud included him on his blacklist. Even so, in the next visit of his patient, Freud suggested going for a walk in Vienna by tram. The Tram-Man paled and hurried to ask what line he was thinking about. “What difference does it make?” Freud thought, but kindly told him they could take line 4. The Tram-Man let out a sigh of relief. His phobia of line 4 was not as great as that of line 5… Suddenly, Freud changed his mind: on second thought, he would rather take line 5. The Tram-Man reacted with apparent fortitude, but Freud surprised him stuffing a cyanide pill into his pocket.

When the tram arrived at the stop, both lost several minutes giving way to each other, until Freud put the Tram-Man inside with a push. As a child, in his hometown, Freud had witnessed the wailing and grinding of teeth that accompanied some Jewish ceremonies. Well, that was a happy hubbub compared to the scene made by the Tram-Man as soon as he put his feet inside the streetcar. The other passengers thought that Freud was mistreating him and they reproached him angrily (a lady hit him with an umbrella and another with a candelabra). Fearing a riot, Freud grabbed his patient’s arm and they both got off at the next stop. Immediately, the Tram-Man regained his self-possession. “I warned you” he said, while Freud cursed himself for heeding Stekel, that traitor. However, disguising his feelings, he accompanied the Tram-Man to the stop number 4 and both climbed the tram without major shocks. During the journey, however, Freud observed that the Tram-Man was constantly winking alternately both eyes. “It was the number 4 phobia,” he clarified. In this way so entertaining, getting on and off all the trams of Vienna, the two men spent the whole day. And Freud verified that, in effect, the symptomatology of his patient varied depending on the number of tram that he took. The only plausible explanation that came to his mind was that the patient was pretending, maybe with a view to discredit him. Freud panicked. Among the medical profession, psychoanalytic theories were still in question. If his resounding failure with that patient was disclosed, that could mean the tomb of psychoanalysis. Freud was not going to allow it. So he turned to Otto Rank again, who by then was still loyal and submissive to his Master. In addition, Rank had recently acquired spare glasses, which meant that the danger of ending up digging graves in New Caledonia had been reduced considerably. So when Freud ordered him to proceed with the kidnapping of the Tram-Man and his transport to New Caledonia, he did not offer any serious resistance.


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