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by Charles B. Strozier
Other Press, 2004
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D. on Dec 31st 2005
Say what you will about psychoanalysis,
it has attracted a large number of brilliant people into its ranks. And what
would you say about somebody who single-handedly created a new psychoanalytic
tradition, and started that when he was 55 years old? That individual had to be
not just brilliant, but charismatic and self-confident. . As we discover
reading this biography, Heinz Kohut the person was just what we would expect of
a leading psychoanalyst, and much more.
Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) was the man
who created the "self psychology" school in American
psychoanalysis. In some ways, his early
life mimicked that of Sigmund Freud and countless other well-known artists and
intellectuals. He was a product of Vienna
as it was before the Nazis, a cultural center and a home to creativity and radical ideas. He was a man of high
European culture, like Freud, quoting both the classics of antiquity and
Geothe. Until the age of eleven private
tutors educated him; then he joined the regular school system, leading to
graduation from an elite high school, and, at age 19, to medical school. As a medical student he was analyzed by August Aichhorn, a
well-known name in the history of early psychoanalysis, but at that point his
future role in psychoanalysis was not even dreamt about. Heinz Kohut
became an MD in 1938, the year Austria became part of the Third Reich.Like many other psychoanalysts and intellectuals,
was born in a Jewish family, and so had to leave Vienna, and Europe, behind.
He settled in Chicago, where he did
residencies in neurology and in psychiatry in the
1940s, became a candidate at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1946,
graduated in 1950 and joined the faculty. Kohut soon became recognized in the
local psychoanalytic community, until led the Chicago Institute for
Psychoanalysis as an orthodox psychoanalyst who, for a while, read only Freud's
writings, until he broke away to develop his own ideas.
In 1964-1965 Kohut served as President of the American Psychoanalytic
Association, which was a measure of his reputation among US psychoanalysts. In
1971 he came on stage as a major challenger of psychoanalytic orthodoxy when he
published The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment
of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders.
This book presented the concept of "self-object
transferences", as part of a whole new terminology, as well as claiming a
major role for empathy in psychoanalytic practice. Within a decade, Kohut's
ideas became internationally known, and today one may speak of a worldwide
"self psychology" movement, with conferences and teaching institutes.
The idea of the self as the center of personality and interactions with the
world is at the center of that movement.
The biographer, Charles Strozier,
is both an academic historian and a psychoanalyst. He knew Kohut, and follows
Kohut's ideas sympathetically in his own psychoanalytic practice. He worked on
this biography for 20 years, and in his introduction to the 2004 edition makes
it clear that in working on his subject he discovered quite a few things he had
not anticipated. There were not only skeletons in Kohut's closet, but
personality traits that could only be described as problematic. The man who
theorized about narcissism turned out to be a real narcissist, obsessed with
his importance and contributions to the world. He did not always tell the truth
about himself, which is rather unremarkable, but some of the things he lied
about leave us puzzled.
there is the matter of Kohut's "protean sexuality", as Strozier put
it. As a prepubescent boy, he was seduced by one of his tutors into a
homosexual relationship. Strozier writes that "By current standards, what
went on...can only be defined legally as childhood sexual abuse "(p. 25).
But also states that " it may well be that our sense of the exploitation
of children has become too ideological and leads us to miss the subtlety of
love and connection that can arise even in deeply unequal relationships "(
p. 26). Heinz Kohut described a similar history in a case study
published in 1979, "The Two Analyses of Mr. Z.", which Strozier
considers autobiographical. Strozier also reports judgments of those who saw in
Kohut a strong homoerotic streak.
regarding his Jewish ancestry seem the most baffling thing about his private
and public persona. He was born to Jewish parents, but since coming to the US
described himself as half-Jewish or as a gentile. Later on he described himself
as Christian, and attended church. The issue was that of Jewishness, rather
than Judaism, of social identity, rather than religious practice (see Beit-Hallahmi, 1993). Most psychoanalysts of Jewish ancestry were
atheists, starting with Sigmund Freud, and
so they never observed any of Judaism's commandments and taboos. But, while
keeping their distance from Judaism, they retained Jewishness, never denied
their ancestry, and would not dream of embracing another religion.
Kohut's own theoretical ideas about
religion, as presented by Strozier, offer a psychological analysis in terms of
the motives and human needs that create religious ideas, starting with the
idealization need. Kohut states that
"there must be something idealizable, something that nears perfection or
that is perfect, something that one wants to live up to, something that lifts
one up" (p. 329)..."Such experiences touch the psychological core of
our first encounters with the majestic mother who uplifted us as babies and
held us close to her...Uplifted, we merged into the mother's greatness and
calmness" (p. 329) These stimulating ideas and insights, which tie the
readiness of adult humans to believe in religious illusions to childhood
helplessness and dependence on parents
are quite consistent with the tradition of interpretations by such well-known
atheists as Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, but their author, Heinz Kohut chose to present himself to the world
as a religious believer.. Strozier himself asks: "Did Kohut himself
believe in God?" (p. 330).
Kohut called himself Christian and
was a member of a Unitarian congregation in Chicago for many years. But the
Unitarian-Universalist movement is not officially Christian, and this is a
point not raised but either Kohut or Strozier. Unitarians may choose to be
Christian, but it seems that for Kohut the label of Christian was just a
façade. In a fascinating letter to Anna Freud in 1964, presented by Strozier,
Kohut describes American psychoanalysis as dominated by Jewish MDs and by
individuals coming from Protestant groups such as the "mystical
Quakers" and the "rationalistic Universalists and Unitarians". The
problem with Protestants was that they would "probably move psychoanalysis
toward nonscientific "healing through love" and other cures by
identification"(pp. 136-137). So Kohut chose to join the
"rationalistic Universalists and Unitarians", had his doubts about
their penchant for "healing through love", but still wanted to call
himself a Christian, apparently for the sake of appearances and for his son,
who should not know of the curse of Jewishness among his ancestors.
We all have clay feet, things about ourselves we
would not want the world to see, but the question is always what we have got to
balance out our weaknesses and sins. We can find many narcissists, but only a
few among them do indeed offer us outstanding contributions and make our lives
more enjoyable, or at least interesting, Whatever faults Kohut had, he was
simply an outstanding and creative thinker. Strozier makes Kohut's original and
provocative ideas stand out, in addition to his personality. The writing is
clear and engaging, and this book is a must read if you are curious about
psychoanalysis in general or about the development of psychoanalysis in the
B. Original Sins:
Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel. New York: Interlink, 1993.
© 2005 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has written about
psychoanalysis and Jewish identity. See Bunzl,
J. & Beit-Hallahmi, B. Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology:
Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case:. Boston: Kluwer, 2002.