Sometimes a Gift Is Just a Gift — or Is It?

Donning ‘Freudian Slippers,’ Eggheads Bear Presents of Mind

By Max Gross

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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What does it mean when your mother gives you a pair of Freudian Slippers? Is she trying to tell you something? If your son gives you a Freud tie, is he alleviating castration anxiety?

Sometimes a gift is just a gift, even if that gift bares the bearded, bespectacled face of Sigmund Freud. Here’s something to ponder as you tap into your unconscious: The popularity of Freud toys is on the rise.

For those who do not yet possess a Freud toy, at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild Web site,, one can order a whole line of assorted Freud kitsch. The “Freudiana” includes the 50-Minute Freud Watch; a Singing Sigmund Lapel Pin (a tiny electronic Freud head that sings “Try to Remember”); Freud dolls; Freud finger puppets — complete with a tiny couch and Carl Jung and Anna Freud counterparts, and a pair of Freudian Slippers — large, soft scuffs with a bobbing bust of the great man on the toes.

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild is not the only manufacturer of Freud gifts — at Barney’s one can purchase Liquid Freud bubble bath, which advertises itself, “When you need to turn up the volume on your inner voice of reason.”

Stephan Shaw is the id behind the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. In addition to Freud toys, Shaw puts out a series of other intellectual doodads: the Nietzsche Will to Power Bar, Karl Marx finger puppets, and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” pillows (they shriek when you squeeze them). As a reporter waited to interview Shaw in his office in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, he overheard Shaw’s receptionist say: “Hi, I’m calling from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild; we have your Dorothy Parker martini glasses.” The next item to hit the market will be “Meshuggamints,” Shaw said, part of the company’s Yiddish line.

Shaw is a small man with dark hair and a wry sense of humor. The Queens-born entrepreneur, who dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy to start the Unemployed Philosophers Guild, began making intellectual kitsch shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall with a pair of East and West German earrings that could be worn separately or together. The Unemployed Philosophers Guild has been growing by 30% to 40% every year since. And while Freud-bashing has become a sort of blood sport in psychoanalytic circles, Freudiana was among Shaw’s first product lines and is now one of his biggest sellers.

During the recent Christmas-Chanukah rush, Shaw sold out of much of the Freudiana. He has sold tchotchkes to the Freud Museum in London, as well as the New York Jewish Museum and Library of Congress gift shops during Freud retrospectives. Freudiana even became part of the exhibit — in displays examining Freud, the icon, within mass culture.

“I have a theory that every shrink in New York has three” pieces of Freud memorabilia, Shaw told the Forward. Leading, even, to a Freudiana backlash in the psychoanalytic community.

Psychiatrist and author Dr. Peter Kramer says he’s sick of Freud kitsch. The author of “Listening to Prozac” received his first Freud toy a number of years ago. “I have a colleague who regularly gives me them,” Kramer told the Forward. “I don’t want to insult [my colleague] but…”

Kramer said that he thought the Freud toy was not an admiring homage to Freud, but a hostile (dare we say, passive aggressive?) one. “There’s a false bravery in debunking Freud as a father figure,” he said during a phone interview. “Whether critiquing Freud is rebellious, there isn’t [anything clever] in making chichi puns [such as] ‘Freudian slips, Freudian slippers.’ They’re not good puns.”

Many disagree with Kramer.

“It’s just amusing,” said Peter Gay, author of “Freud: A Life for Our Time” and the editor of the Norton edition of Freud’s work, who received a 50-Minute Freud Watch as a gift several years ago. “It seems to me very light-hearted.”

Dr. Gail Saltz, chairman of public information for the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, has received a number of Freud toys over the years. She says that she has always found Freudiana funny. “Analysts aren’t adverse to humor,” Saltz said. “Humor is one of the most mature of all defenses. It’s something useful and healthy. I don’t think any of these things are really deprecating.”

Of course, analysts are not the only people buying Freud toys.

Mindy Hernandez, a graduate student in public policy at Princeton University, bought a Freud doll when she went to an exhibit about Freud at the Library of Congress. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Hernandez studied Freud’s relationship with

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