Freud’s therapy couch, covered with a carpet from Smyrna (today’s Izmir in Turkey), is as intriguing an object as the sculptures and paintings that make up the décor of his famous office. Each with their own story, these items are still on display in the Freud museum in London alongside his divan, as he liked to call his couch. In her short story “A Great Effort,” the Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin introduces another piece of furniture, a massage table, that proves to be as effective as Freud’s couch in treating emotional trauma. “A Great Effort” is a third-person narrative of a massage therapist treating a man’s bodily pain as well as the familial trauma caused by his absent father. Schweblin demonstrates that the differences between a therapy couch and a massage table are prone to collapse, just like the line separating psychoanalysis from massage therapy is not as clear-cut as one may think. The kind of therapy that Schweblin envisions in her story is one that treats pain not only as physical discomfort but also as relational distress. As such, the story invites its readers to think beyond institutional boundaries and ponder the possibility of a collaboration between the seemingly incommensurate fields of psychoanalysis and massage therapy.
In the story, the unnamed main character feels “stiffer than usual, more hunched over” (189) following a disturbing nightly dream. On the recommendation of a friend, the man makes an appointment at a massage therapist and finds himself on Mrs. Linn’s massage table, which functions in a similar manner to a therapy couch, enticing the patient into talking freely. In contrast to Freud, who disappears from his patients’ view by positioning them horizontally on the divan, Schweblin’s therapist is physically involved with the patient: “Her hands, elbows, and knees were that woman’s true strength, and he let himself be influenced by them” (190). Often feeling on the verge of crying during his sessions with Mrs. Linn, the man nonetheless holds back his tears and keeps talking, remembering his childhood and his absent father. As the man talks—too much speaking, he observes—he feels as though he is yielding to the allure of the massage table with its promise of releasing his pain. Mrs. Linn neither takes notes as she listens to her patient’s story, nor does she overtly advocate the “talking cure.” She is instead attuned to her patient’s body, physically involved in her work, occasionally asking questions, interjecting into the man’s monologue, and commanding certain bodily gestures, such as “relax your arms” or “open your fists” (192). Although this situation might appear to treat body and mind as fundamentally separate, the story instead challenges the so-called divide between body and mind. On Mrs. Linn’s massage table, the man’s body and tongue loosen, allowing repressed memories to reemerge. He reminisces about growing up with an absent father who nonchalantly disappeared for prolonged periods of time. Memories flow straight out of him while Mrs. Linn digs her elbow into a specific part of his body.
The therapy style represented in the story is not entirely Schweblin’s invention. In fact, a niche field at the intersection of massage therapy (MT) and psychology, known as affective massage therapy (ATM), has been explored by counselling psychologists such as Christopher Moyer. Building on the proven effects of massage therapy on anxiety and depression, Moyer proposes further study “to optimize the ways that MT influences affect, the observable components of an individual’s feelings, moods and emotions” (4). Moyer underlines the structural similarities between MT and psychotherapy as one of the theories that merits testing. He observes that, besides being predicated on private interpersonal contact between a therapist and patient, “the effects of MT on anxiety and depression, when quantified, are similar in magnitude to the effects observed in hundreds of psychotherapy studies” (4). He adds that these affinities can pave the way for research designs informed by psychotherapy scholarship that can lead to a better understanding of AMT (4). In a similar vein, Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his acclaimed book The Body Keeps the Score, shares the outcome of a survey conducted by Dr. Spencer Eth in 2002 with 225 survivors of the Twin Towers in New York. Contrary to traditional therapies such as talk therapy, massages (alongside acupuncture, yoga, and EMDR) turned out to be particularly popular among rescue workers. Van Der Kolk observes, “Eth’s survey suggests that the most helpful interventions focus[ed] on relieving the physical burdens generated by trauma” (233).
In Schweblin’s story, the effects of massage therapy likewise extend beyond Mrs. Linn’s massage table. In time, the man observes a connection between his distressing nightmare, physical pain, and fear of abandonment. He notices, for the first time, the physical presence of resentment that he has harbored toward his father since childhood in the form of “a painful ball of air that he carries with him, always with his mouth closed” (193). As the trauma, with all its associated affects, haunts him, he rushes to Mrs. Linn’s office. She continues her work on the body where his resentment resides. This connection between the body and memory challenges the assumption that the brain is the sole receptacle of memories and introduces “body memory” as another repository for memories. The man’s stiff, hunched-over body is in fact a response to the recall of traumatic memories that haunt him in his dream. Massage therapy activates these memories in daylight. As Mrs. Linn attends to his physical distress through massage, the man’s bodily pain is lessened, and so is his resentment; the ball of air deflates. In other words, the efficacy of Mrs. Linn’s therapy lies in its ability to release the traumatic memories and accompanying feelings, such as resentment and the fear of abandonment, that are stored in the body. “It is a joint task,” (193) the man thinks to himself as he keeps talking while Mrs. Linn kneads his whole body, from shoulder blades to lumbar zones, with her fingers and elbows, releasing the traumatic memories bottled up inside him. The joint task echoes Freud’s words about the psychoanalytic dialogue: it takes two—the patient and the therapist—to witness the unconscious. Schweblin’s short story further envisions the coupling of two seemingly distinct therapies, massage and psychoanalysis, that when combined pave the way for healing and self-discovery.
“A Great Effort” also does something unique in its portrayal of the father figure as someone who has inflicted pain but who is also in pain. When the main character cannot let go of the fear that he will abandon his own son just like his father did him, he comes to the conclusion that setting his father free will break the cycle: “To free his father was to free them all” (198). With his father in the car, he drives away and at some point pulls over, opens the car door, and asks his father to get out. The old man does not move. The story ends with the man driving to Mrs. Linn’s office with his father still in the car. He rushes into Mrs. Linn’s office without an appointment while his father sits in the waiting room. Mrs. Linn has the man bring his father in. This time, it is his father who lays down on the massage table per Mrs. Linn’s command. As his father’s body arches, cracks, and resettles, the man himself, sitting in an armchair next to the table, relaxes into his seat. The narrative suggests that the man’s trauma is not an isolated case but a generational one. At the end of his first session, the man’s father commits to becoming a regular by having his own file in Mrs. Linn’s office. Mrs. Linn will continue to address the physical and emotional effects of familial trauma with her caring hands.
Moyer, Christopher. “Affective Massage Therapy.” International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork vol. 1, no. 2, December 2008, pp. 3-5.
Schweblin, Samanta. “A Great Effort” in Mouthful of Birds. Trans. by Megan Mcdowell. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019, pp. 189-200.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
Author bio: Nefise Kahraman holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. Her research and teaching interests include medical humanities, narrative medicine, and collaborative literary translation.
Image source: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic couch at the Freud Museum London