Karen Horney
Karen Horney; drawing by David Levine

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.

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.

This Issue

November 5, 1987