‘Christmas Freud’ by David Rakoff

Christmas Freud by David Rakoff, 1996

The magic trick:

Avoiding the potential pitfalls of personal essay by mixing tones and effectively using comedy

What is this? A personal essay? Literary nonfiction? Is it even writing? It was a radio piece for This American Life. Well, I’m claiming it as a short story. It has everything you’d want from a short story – character, point of view, theme. And no matter category you pick, it’s a damn fine piece of writing.

Rakoff is in complete control of his voice from start to finish. There really isn’t a single sentence here that hits the wrong note. And that’s saying something coming from me because I am probably a little oversensitive to what I perceive to be self-absorbed writing, it being a particular pet peeve. He’s writing about something very specific to his own life (we presume), but it never feels like he’s consumed with the cleverness of his existence. He’s funny. He sardonic. He’s genuine. He’s critical. But mostly he’s funny some more. He blends tones sentence to sentence to create a piece that is amusing and touching. And that’s quite a trick on Rakoff’s part.

The selection:

My window is a mock-up of Freud’s study, with the requisite chair and couch. It is also equipped with a motorized track on which a videocamera-wielding baby carriage travels back and forth, a slide projector, a large revolving black-and-white spiral, two hanging torsos, and about ten video monitors that play Freud-related text and images: trains entering tunnels, archetypal mothers, title cards that read “I DREAMED I WAS FLYING” “I DREAMED MY TEETH FELL OUT,” and so on. The other Barney’s windows this Christmas season are devoted to Frank Sinatra, Martin Luther King Jr., the Beat poets, and Blondes of the 20th Century. The Freud window, titled “Neurotic Yule,” is the only live one.

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