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The Woman Who Broke Away

Another contentious issue raised during these prewar years was the question of lay analysis. In 1926, Theodor Reik, a nonphysician, was sued by the Austrian government for quackery. Freud came energetically to the defense with a pamphlet, The Question of Lay Analysis, in which he argued that one did not need a medical degree to practice psychoanalysis. The issue was of particular urgency to him since his daughter Anna, who lacked a medical degree, had recently begun to practice child analysis. His supporters were even more sharply divided than in the debate over female development. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis devoted an issue to the question, soliciting a wide variety of views from analysts. Some refused to contribute for fear of offending Freud. Others, particularly the Americans, felt that a medical degree was absolutely necessary, not least to give psychoanalysis respectability in the US. While Horney did not object to limited lay practice, she was insistent on the importance of medical qualifications. In her view training in psychiatry was essential since it enabled one to learn “other psychotherapeutic methods, not only in order to mix them on occasion with the ‘pure gold of analysis,’ but to be able to judge what other possibilities there are for any special case.”

By now Horney had developed a reputation as a “difficult” woman, no respecter of persons, never reluctant to state her own views. There was general relief when she left for Chicago in 1932. An invitation had come from Franz Alexander, who had already moved to America, to become his second in command at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis. For Horney the move brought exhilaration, loneliness, and ultimately disenchantment. She was not cut out to give support to a man six years her junior, and her stay as associate director lasted only two years before she moved to New York.

Susan Quinn cites Horney’s brusque response to the detailed questions on the application for membership to the New York Psychoanalytic Society as a portent of her later difficulties. Having had far more experience than any of its members, she found it difficult to contain herself when asked to list the names of all her supervisors. Her impatience breaks through in her comment, “As long as the institution of supervised analyses exists—since 1920—I have done supervising work.”

Nonetheless, the New York years, from 1934 on, had their satisfactions. The latest man in her life was Erich Fromm, who had joined the faculty of the International Institute of Social Research, which had been transplanted from Frankfurt to Columbia University. They were steady companions, and in their work it was clear that a crossfertilization of ideas was taking place. A Marxist, Fromm believed that psychoanalysis was passing through a crisis brought on by complacency and unwillingness to venture social criticism beyond safely defined limits. Like Horney, he tended to discard instinct theory and to concentrate on examination of the individual’s relationship to society and its values. It was the closest Horney was ever to come to a true marriage of minds.

She joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research, an institution admirably suited to her temperament. This unique university in exile provided a haven for distinguished European intellectuals such as the German director Erwin Piscator and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Here Horney attracted large audiences with her clearly written lectures, which were noticeably free of psychoanalytic jargon. The ideas in them were assembled in her first book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, which, after its publication in 1937, went through thirteen printings in a decade. She had clearly touched a nerve among self-critical Americans when she described the modern neurotic personality as characterized by an indiscriminate hunger for appreciation and affection. This particular neurotic need was widespread in America, she claimed, where a fiercely competitive environment had intensified an insatiable striving for success and recognition.

At the New School a largely European faculty of highly independent scholars worked in an atmosphere of American liberalism. The New York Psychoanalytic Institute was its complete antithesis. Its membership comprised an American medical elite, more rigid and hierarchical than any of its European counterparts. A clash with the freewheeling Horney was inevitable.

She provided the New York analysts with plenty of grounds for suspicion. In the first place, it was no secret that she was involved with Fromm, a nonmedical practitioner of psychoanalysis. Then she had made a teaching arrangement with the non-Freudian Washington-Baltimore Society when she knew that the New York group had tried to have it excluded from the International Psychoanalytic Association because of its “eclecticism.” She seemed outright defiant in her friendship with the “Zodiac” group, whose leading members, Harry Stack Sullivan and Clara Thompson, had been leaders of the Washington-Baltimore Society before they moved to New York. Morever, within the institute itself she had an implacable enemy, Sandor Rado. In 1933 Horney had attacked Rado’s paper on female castration anxiety, and he was so offended that he tried to prevent her from joining the New York society. Finally, Horney was too popular with the students.

Despite her awareness of the rigid orthodoxy of her colleagues, Horney’s second book, New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), was more directly critical of Freud than anything she had written to date. She acknowledged Freud’s great contribution but complained that in his dualistic thinking he was the victim of nineteenth-century biological determinism. This bias was apparent in the way he postulated opposites, particularly in his view of neurotic conflict as springing from the struggle between the instincts and the ego. Such a view also affected his conception of masculinity and femininity as opposite poles. Horney offered an alternative theory to the drives in her emphasis on basic anxiety, “a deep feeling of helplessness toward a world conceived as potentially hostile.” Horney proposed to replace Freudian explanations based on frustration and gratification of drives with an understanding of the need for security and reassurance. In this view anxiety is created when a person’s means of achieving security are in jeopardy. In her view, Freud’s belief in a superego eroded true psychological independence since it reinforced people’s anxieties about what was expected of them. For therapy to succeed, she argued, attention must be directed to the reaffirmation of the ego and its potential.

The reaction of the psychoanalytic community was predictable. In the Psychoanalytic Quarterly Otto Fenichel fumed that “anyone who knows psychoanalysis realizes that what Dr. Horney wants to abolish is the essence of psychoanalysis.” In The New Republic Karl Menninger referred to her demeaningly as “Miss Horney.” The opposition to Horney was reinforced by the general wave of sympathy for Freud during his last illness in 1939. As a non-Jewish German female analyst, moreover, Horney was something of an anomaly. The gossipmongers took note of the fact that one of her daughters, Brigitte, continued to act in films in the Third Reich.

Matters came to a head when Lawrence Kubie took over as president of the New York Psychoanalytic Society in the fall of 1939. A suave, dictatorial man, he was just the person to deflect the demands of the students for greater flexibility in their curriculum. In addition to Horney’s ideological unreliability, her popularity with the restive students contributed to her downfall. Horney’s offer to teach a course on alternative theories was rejected. Her strongest opponents were two members of the Education Committee, Fritz Wittels and Gregory Zilboorg, who were determined to eject her from the society. In 1941 Horney was officially demoted from instructor to lecturer.

Zilboorg, as chairman of the committee, announced this decision to the society in April 1941. To present the students with contentious material prematurely, he said, was disruptive to the harmony of the society:

The published writings and contentions of Dr. Karen Horney present, in this respect, a case in point. The Educational Committee is fully in favor of free and unhampered discussion of all points of view existing in psychoanalysis. Such discussions are possible and most fruitful only if the preparatory analyses and preliminary, theoretical fundamentals are such as not to prejudice the student in advance to the basic principles of psychoanalysis. The Education Committee has therefore decided to change the status of Dr. Karen Horney from that of Instructor to that of Lecturer, effective at the end of this academic year.

The decision achieved its unspoken aim: Horney walked out, never to return.

There were some disturbing ironies in the situation. Only a few years after the publication of New Ways in Psychoanalysis, a version of ego psychology not all that different from Horney’s was to become the prevailing theoretical orthodoxy under the aegis of three members of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute: Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, and Rudolph Loewenstein. In 1942 a second group of dissidents, led by Rado, left to establish the Columbia Psychoanalytic Clinic. However, by negotiating in advance with the American Psychoanalytic Association, they were able to stay within the fold and avoid the ostracism suffered by Horney and her supporters.

Horney’s fourth book, Self-Analysis, was reviled by psychoanalytically minded critics such as Lionel Trilling, who was outraged by the suggestion that a neurotic person could effectively analyze himself. The psychoanalytic journals ignored the book. One cannot wonder if her sex had something to do with the animus when one compares the way she was treated with the way Gregory Zilboorg was treated. Zilboorg, it appeared, had been fleecing a patient, demanding a large payment in advance and additional perks such as a wristwatch and tickets to a Joe Louis fight. When the matter was brought to the attention of the New York Psychoanalytic Society only a year after Horney’s resignation, it was decided he would merely be reprimanded, and he remained a member in good standing.

Horney and her allies, including Clara Thompson, in the meantime established the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (AAP). Despite their exclusion from the national body, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the impossibility of publishing in mainstream journals, they managed to attract students and to establish connections with several hospitals. Nevertheless, within two years of its founding, two further factions broke off from the parent organization. According to Quinn, what happened to the AAP was “a reenactment on a larger scale of the quarreling of young Karen’s parents throughout her childhood. Just as she had never found much peace at home, Karen was never able to create a tranquil, cooperative atmosphere in the organization she founded.”

This explanation seems too simple. At about the same time as the American psychoanalysts were splitting up, similarly divisive situations occurred in London and Paris. One might well ask why seemingly analyzed people who consider themselves capable of resolving their patients’ neuroses should have such difficulties in getting along among themselves. Among a group of people whose main preoccupation is the examination of inner motives an inherent potential for strife seems unavoidable. Within any psychoanalytic society there is a persistent temptation to ascribe pathological symptoms to anyone who holds divergent views. Within the group too many people know the innermost secrets of those they have analyzed or supervised. Such a situation can lead to fear, manipulation, dogmatism, patriarchy, and power struggles. Factionalism or rigidity is intensified by the threat that patients will no longer be referred to offending analysts. Power over the psyche can be the most subtle form of manipulation. According to Susan Quinn, even Horney, who had prided herself on her independence of thinking, became authoritarian when she found herself in a position of power. In rejecting Freud’s death instinct, Horney wrote: “It is not the will to destroy that drives us, but the will-to-life that forces us to destroy.”

The details of Horney’s life reveal a woman driven to be an enfant terrible, thumbing her nose at authority. Yet she also hungered for unquestioning adoration, particularly as she grew older. If anyone could write about the narcissistic personality, it was she. In her private life she had deep longings for dependence and was devastated when her relationship with Erich Fromm came to an end in the 1940s. At the end of her life she was having an affair with a young candidate at her institute.

Whatever her private life, her theoretical contribution to psychoanalysis was important. She strikes one as a woman who was constantly searching, and it seems significant that one of her last books should have been Our Inner Conflicts (1945). Whatever she wrote was based not only on the observation of her patients but on her insights into herself. Shortly before her death in 1952 she became interested in Zen and made a pilgrimage to Japan in the company of a scholar of Zen Buddhism. Aware as she was of her own narcissistic personality, Zen perhaps seemed to offer a means of transcending the self.

In her recently published Final Lectures, a course on analytic technique given in New York, she refers to Zen in her emphasis on the importance of concentration in the analytic situation. The Orientals, she writes, have a much better training in total absorption in work than we do; but she believes it is possible to learn from them the sort of wholehearted concentration that brings all our faculties into play. This concentration involves “conscious reasoning, intuition, feelings, perception, curiosity, liking, sympathy, wanting to help, or whatever.”

She goes on to speak of the importance of “intuitive understanding,” yet at the same time of the undesirability of making premature interpretations. The talks are couched in sensible, down-to-earth language. Like the woman herself, her advice is direct and unequivocal—too direct, perhaps, for her own good.

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