Friendship and Fratricide, an Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss
In answer to the appeal of the English judge, Earl Jowitt, that American psychiatrists look into the “baffling” case of Chambers and Hiss, a psychoanalyst has spent six years investigating the two men. There was the difficulty that Chambers would not let himself be interviewed and died in the course of the investigation. However, he had left enough evidence in the court records and a published autobiography, as well as in the memories of friends and acquaintances, to enable Dr. Zeligs to piece together a psychoanalytic portrait. There was the further difficulty for an “analytic biography,” as he calls his book, that while Hiss gave Dr. Zeligs many hours and a full volume of letters, he was not submitted in any sense to psychoanalysis by the author. One will object that a true relation of analyst and analysand would have made it impossible for the analyst to write this book. But does not the whole enterprise of an “analytic biography” of a living person risk indelicacy and violation of a doctor’s code? And if the man has been convicted of a crime that he continues to deny, is there not a contradiction or at least a paradox in anyone’s undertaking to make a portrait of him “in depth” while pretending, as Dr. Zeligs does pretend, that his standpoint is one of “careful analytic neutrality”? He tells us that his study was made “in the spirit of pure inquiry,” that he has maintained “a proper equidistance” from his two subjects and has “no political ax to grind.” “It was not my intent,” he writes, “to confirm the guilt or establish the innocence of Hiss”—as if our understanding of a man’s life and character can be independent of the judgment of guilt or innocence in such a case. Obviously, the story would be different for an investigator who accepts the verdict of the court than for one who doesn’t.
Here are the pictures of the two men that result from Dr. Zeligs’s study:
Chambers was a pathological liar, an impostor, a psychopath, a paranoiac, an overt homosexual, a fratricide, a forger guilty of framing his friend Alger Hiss, and in the end a suicide.
The neutral “portrait in depth” of his victim shows him to be a kind cultured gentleman, loyal to friends and family, warm but reserved, scrupulously logical and accurate, strict in the performance of duties, and so impersonal and disinterested in pursuing truth as to weaken his effectiveness in self-defense and to make his book strangely unemotional though it concerns a frame-up.
Dr. Zeligs’s characterization of Chambers, I must say at once, is largely conjectural, and the account of Hiss lacks altogether the depth analysis applied so freely to Chambers. As a school-mate and old friend of Chambers, I find the picture drawn by Dr. Zeligs insensitive and crude. It is clear throughout the book that Dr. Zeligs takes Hiss’s innocence for granted and regards Chambers as guilty of having framed his former friend. He accepts Hiss’s testimony without…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.