A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney
Karen Horney arrived in the United States in 1932, among the first European psychoanalytic émigrés. A leading member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society (and one of its few gentiles), she had already established a reputation as remarkably outspoken in her views on female sexuality. Less than a decade later she was dismissed from the New York Psychoanalytic Society for not adhering to the rigid views of the American group. She has long been seen as one of the founders of the school of psychoanalysis emphasizing environmental rather than biological causes of neurosis. It is only within the last twenty years that contemporary feminists have begun to recognize her as one of their early supporters.
In 1978 Jack Rubins published a life of Horney whose subtitle, “Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis,” suggests the somewhat sanitized version of an uncritical admirer. Susan Quinn’s book describes a shrewd, ebullient, self-centered woman and gives a clear exposition of the development of her theories. It also traces the unedifying history of American psychoanalytic politics. She has written an excellent book, sophisticated in its judgments, and with a candor that does justice to her courageous subject.
Karen Danielsen was born on September 15, 1885, in a suburb of Hamburg. Her father was a middle-aged steamship captain and her mother was sixteen years his junior. As the daughter of a Dutch architect she never forgot that she had married beneath her status. There were temperamental difficulties as well. Wackels Danielsen, a zealous Lutheran, from time to time descended on his easygoing household like the wrath of God. Karen also had an older brother, Berndt, adored by his mother. Rubins is perhaps more satisfactory than Quinn in linking Horney’s later theories to her early awareness of the preferential treatment the family accorded to Berndt.
Quinn relies heavily on Horney’s Adolescent Diaries published a few years ago.* Horney started writing these when she was thirteen and continued pouring her thoughts into them intermittently until her mid-twenties. “How I come to be writing a diary,” the youthful Horney announces, “is easy to explain: it’s because I am enthusiastic about everything new, and I have decided now to carry this through so that in later years I can better remember the days of my youth.”
One of the central themes of her adolescence was her passion for her teacher, Herr Schulze, on whom she bestowed all the love she was unable to give to her unbending father. After one of the frequent interminable family quarrels, she wrote: “I can’t respect that man who makes us all unhappy with his dreadful hypocrisy, selfishness, crudeness, and illbreeding, etc.” In 1904 her mother finally made the momentous decision to leave her husband for good.
The separation did not have a significant effect on Horney since she was about to embark on a life of her own. In 1906 she entered the Medical School at Freiburg, the only woman in her class. Despite fierce opposition from their faculties, German universities were beginning to admit women, and Freiburg had led the way in 1900 by becoming the first university in Germany to allow a woman to graduate.
The intellectual freedom of Freiburg provided Horney with one of the happiest periods of her life. Here she met a graduate student in political science, Oskar Horney. When he went off to Braunschweig to work on his thesis, her letters to him served as a substitute for her diary. Without really knowing him, Horney idealized her fiancé as infinitely wise and objective.
After their marriage in 1909, the couple settled in prosperous Wilhelmine Berlin, where Oskar had begun to work for an industrial conglomerate. Meanwhile Karen Horney was completing her final year of medical school at the Berlin Charité under the renowned psychiatrist, Karl Bonhoeffer. To all appearances she was adhering to the current Kraepelinian view of psychiatry as a laboratory science in which the clinician’s task was to observe and classify symptoms.
However, by early 1910 Horney had encountered psychoanalysis and had become a patient of Karl Abraham, one of Freud’s closest associates. As a young man Abraham had been working in the Burghölzi clinic in Switzerland, but after reading Freud in 1907 he moved to Berlin to set up a psychoanalytic practice. To Freud he wrote: “I should like to ask for your recommendation should you ever have the opportunity of suggesting a doctor to undertake psychological treatment in Berlin. I am fully aware of the difficulties I shall encounter and I should therefore also like to ask your permission to turn to you for advice if necessary.”
Abraham’s letters to Freud during the next twenty years detail the rise of the extraordinarily vital Berlin Psychoanalytic Society under his able leadership. It was the first in Europe to open a clinic for indigent patients and ultimately its fame was such that among those it attracted to its doors were Max Eitingon, Hanns Sachs, Melanie Klein, Sandor Rado, Franz Alexander, and a large British contingent, including Edward and James Glover.
Abraham had the reputation of being the best clinician among the early pioneers; but Horney’s analysis (lasting less than a year) seemed to her in retrospect to be of questionable value. She appears to have sought his help for severe depression following the death of her father. At that point Abraham was still subscribing fully to the Freudian dictum that the libido was the source of all neurotic conflict. In Quinn’s view, the probable short-coming of the analysis lay in Abraham’s failure to address Horney’s compulsion for moving in and out of relationships with men.
Shortly after the birth of her first child in 1911, Horney was deeply involved with the husband of a colleague and when the affair ended she contemplated suicide. The birth of two more daughters a few years later gave her marriage a certain stability, although all three children harbored resentment over her erratic interest in them. They were also scornful of the benefits they gained from the “prophylactic” analyses that their mother insisted they have with Melanie Klein. Nevertheless, their births provided her with enormous gratification, serving as a touchstone for an alternative theory of female development to that currently held by the early analysts. In 1926 in “The Flight from Womanhood” she felt confident enough to question Freud’s view that childbirth was only a substitute and partial compensation for the lack of a penis:
I, as a woman, ask in amazement, And what about motherhood? And the blissful consciousness of bearing a new life within oneself? And the ineffable happiness of the increasing expectation of the appearance of this new being? And the joy when it finally makes its appearance and one holds it for the first time in one’s arms? And the deep pleasurable feeling of satisfaction in suckling it and the happiness of the whole period when the infant needs her care?
The breakup of Horney’s marriage in 1927 was an act of liberation. The subsequent period before her departure for America in 1932 was possibly the most productive of her life. As the only woman among the six founding members of the Berlin Institute in 1920, she served as secretary, treasurer, and teacher. As early as February 1912 Abraham wrote to Freud: “At our last meeting we enjoyed a report from Dr. Horney about sexual instruction in early childhood. For once, the paper showed a real understanding of the material, unfortunately something rather infrequent in the papers of our circle.” Her lectures drew large audiences and her papers appeared frequently in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.
Curiously enough, sometime during the Twenties Horney went into a second analysis with Hanns Sachs. It was a puzzling choice since Sachs, one of the original members of the secret inner “Committee,” was wholly devoted to Freud, and Horney was by now demonstrating her determination to think things out for herself. Even before she left Oskar she had begun to publish a series of papers on female psychology. In “The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal” (1927) she lists the many ways in which marriage is bound to prove disappointing. Monogamy is usually maintained, she argued, only to ensure the fidelity of the mate; and when it is found to be almost impossible, one of the partners is left with a narcissistic wound.
The contrast between her choice of Sachs as her analyst and the ideas she was promulgating is only one of many indications of a conflict between dependence and defiance of authority. All the more courageous, then, was her response to the paper Abraham presented at the first postwar Psychoanalytic Congress at The Hague in 1920. In “Manifestations of the Female Castration Complex” Abraham echoed the party line that the lack of a penis was a “physical defect,” asserting that even healthy women (that is, women who have resigned themselves to their inferiority) are periodically reminded of their castration by menstrual blood. Two years later Horney, in “On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women,” took public issue with her former analyst. She could not accept that it was an axiomatic fact that a woman inevitably feels at a disadvantage. However, the disappointment a girl experiences when she finds that the Oedipus complex cannot be tested in reality may impel her to seek identification with her father.
This fairly mild essay was the first of fourteen papers on the subject of female development that she produced between 1922 and 1935. It would appear that Freud agreed with her sufficiently to write in The Ego and the Id: “Analysis often shows that the little girl, after she has had to relinquish her father as love-object, will bring her masculinity into prominence and identify herself with her father (that is, with the object that has been lost), instead of with her mother.”
During the Twenties Horney instigated a lively debate on the hitherto neglected subject of women. Helene Deutsch largely adhered to her Viennese loyalties in her view that the emancipated woman becomes masculine. Deutsch even claimed that women only achieve the equivalent intensity of male orgasm in the act of childbirth, whereas Horney countered that she was overlooking the fact that “intense pain greatly predominates over the masochistic pleasure that accompanies it.” By the time Horney came to write “The Flight from Womanhood” (1926), she was turning conventional views upside down. Her analysis of men was beginning to convince her that they suffered from womb envy. While she was willing to accept a “primary” penis envy, she emphasized that a “secondary” phase, which she called “admiring envy,” is related not to biological drives but to the preferential treatment accorded to boys. What women resent is the greater freedom enjoyed by men in their personal and professional lives.
In 1933 Freud returned for the last time to the question of female psychology in “Femininity,” part of a third version of Introductory Lectures. Quinn rightly emphasizes the basic condescension of Freud’s attitude toward women. He continued to insist on the mortification a girl subconsciously experiences after recognizing her castrated condition. Women are more narcissistic than men, he claimed, “since they are bound to value their charms more highly as a compensation for their original sexual inferiority.” Horney sharply questioned Freud’s view of women’s sexual inferiority. To mention only one example, she argued that through the clitoris—much maligned by Freud as an inferior penis—little girls very probably experience vaginal as well as clitoral sensations.
Basic Books, 1980.↩
Basic Books, 1980.↩