Sándor Ferenczi
Sándor Ferenczi; drawing by David Levine

In the mythology surrounding Freud’s early career, Sándor Ferenczi has emerged as the most lovable and generous of Freud’s close colleagues, a man whose personal qualities contrast with the deviousness of Ernest Jones, the aloofness of Karl Abraham, and the knotted-up character of Otto Rank. While it has generally been acknowledged that Ferenczi was for years Freud’s favorite disciple, he has been regarded with suspicion for his experiments in psychoanalytic technique; and it has been assumed that his mind deteriorated in the years before his death in 1933.

Such charges were circulated mainly by Ernest Jones in his biography of Freud. Jones was fiercely jealous of the closeness of the relationship between Ferenczi and Freud. In 1913 Freud made it clear that he wanted Jones to be analyzed by Ferenczi. Not unnaturally Jones didn’t welcome Ferenczi’s becoming privy to the irregularities of his sexual life. These had caused Freud some alarm, particularly since he needed a gentile to replace Jung after the latter’s defection and Jones was the only candidate available. “Put some stuffing in the clown,” Freud advised Ferenczi, “so we can make him a king.” When Jones was writing his life of Freud, he was given access to the Freud–Ferenczi correspondence and it must have come as a shock to him to learn how much Freud had distrusted him. Consequently he omitted passages from letters he quoted, thus creating a false impression about Ferenczi.

That Ferenczi’s important contributions have not been sufficiently acknowledged cannot be laid on Jones’s shoulders alone. Freud, as he grew older, became increasingly intolerant of views differing from his own, and he did not hesitate to claim that such differences had pathological sources. Moreover, Freud frequently described the same people and events very differently to various correspondents.

During the 1980s an important reevaluation of Ferenczi has been taking place, particularly by French scholars, led by the Coq-Heron Group in Paris, of which Dr. Judith Dupont is a leading member. Dr. Dupont has recently edited a superb edition of Ferenczi’s clinical diary, written in the last year of his life (1932), in which we learn for the first time Ferenczi’s own reasons for the controversial experimental methods he used in his therapeutic work.

We also learn something of his background. His father, Baruch Frankel, was born in Poland in 1830. As a young man he moved to Hungary, where he took an active part in the nationalist uprising against the Habsburgs in 1848. After the insurrection was put down he and his wife (also of Polish-Jewish extraction) settled in a provincial town where they established a bookshop, then a printing press, and a booking agency for concert tours. Their home was the intellectual center of the region, constantly filled with people, despite the fact that they had eleven children, of which Sándor, the fifth son, was born in 1873. During this period they changed their name to its Magyar form, Ferenczi. Apparently Sándor was his father’s favorite and accompanied him on his daily visits to vineyards he owned in the neighborhood. His father’s death, when Ferenczi was fifteen, was a wound from which he never recovered.

Toward his dominating mother Ferenczi had an unrelenting hostility. In the year of her death (1921) he wrote to his new friend, Georg Groddeck, that his mother had been too severe, that he never received any signs of affection from her, and that all the children were in awe of their parents. From such a background, he demanded, “how could anyone respect anything but hypocrisy?” Preserving appearances was essential. As an adolescent he was a brilliant student. At the same time he became a compulsive masturbator; and, using stolen money, he frequented brothels. His mother discovered a list of obscene words he had compiled and instead of talking to him with the sympathetic understanding he felt he deserved, she delivered a moralizing sermon for which he never forgave her.

In 1893 he entered medical school in Vienna. His favorite brother, Sigmund, was working in the city as a chemical engineer, and the two brothers spent all their free time together, leading Freud later to declare that Ferenczi had a brother fixation. On his return to Budapest he rose rapidly within the medical profession, and by 1905 was an expert court medical witness.

When he first read The Interpretation of Dreams in 1907 his reaction was revulsion. However, Freud’s ideas must have held a certain fascination for him for he sought out the author in Vienna early the following year. Their first meeting on February 2, 1908, was a mutual coup de foudre. That summer he spent his vacation with Freud at Berchtesgaden, and for years he was to be Freud’s companion on holidays. He visited him frequently in Vienna, and an extensive correspondence continued until Ferenczi’s death in 1933. For a time Freud also hoped that Ferenczi would marry his daughter Mathilde.


Freud invited him to accompany him to America in 1909 when he received an honorary doctorate from Clark University. It was from Ferenczi, not Jung, that Freud took advice before delivering his lectures to an American audience. The International Association of Psychoanalysis was formed on Ferenczi’s suggestion. At Nuremberg in 1910 Jung—the essential gentile—presided as president. Within the year Freud had become convinced of Jung’s unreliability; and in 1912, on the joint suggestion of Ferenczi and Jones, a “secret committee” was formed to ensure a united front protective of Freud and his theories.

In 1913 Ferenczi founded the Hungarian Psychoanalytic Society. Its future looked so promising that at the Congress of 1918 Freud predicted that Budapest would become the pivot of psychoanalysis. However, the situation would change with startling rapidity when an anti-Semitic government gained power in Hungary and almost all the leading analysts fled to Berlin, where Karl Abraham was establishing a strong institute.

On two occasions, in 1913 and 1916, Freud spent several weeks analyzing Ferenczi. In the interval Freud even made a trip to Hungary to visit Ferenczi, who had been conscripted to serve as an army psychiatrist. Years later Ferenczi confided to Groddeck that he had been unable to open himself up freely to Freud because he was too much in awe of him, that he regarded him as a father, and that he wanted above anything else to be loved by Freud.1 He later complained to Freud that Freud had not sufficiently analyzed Ferenczi’s negative transference, and Freud, still smarting from the accusation, defended himself after Ferenczi’s death in “Analysis: Terminable and Interminable” (1937). The general belief that Ferenczi was in a state of neurotic dependence on Freud is not altogether borne out by the facts. In 1910 an estrangement almost occurred between the two men during “an incident” that took place in Palermo while they were on extended holiday. This is Jones’s account:

What actually happened in Sicily was merely that Ferenczi was inhibited, sulky and unreliable in the day to day arrangements; Freud described his attitude as one of “bashful admiration and mute opposition.” But behind those manifestations lay severe trouble in the depths of his personality. As I well knew from many intimate talks with him, he was haunted by a quite inordinate and insatiable longing for his father’s love. It was the dominating passion of his life and was indirectly the source of the unfortunate changes he introduced into his psychoanalytic technique twenty years later, which had the effect of estranging him from Freud (though not Freud from him).2

As we now know from the correspondence between Groddeck and Ferenczi and the clinical diary under review, Freud suggested that they collaborate on a paper based on the memoirs of the psychotic judge Schreber. When Ferenczi discovered that “collaboration” in effect meant that he would serve as Freud’s amanuensis, scribbling down Freud’s dictation, he firmly refused. Freud then retired in a sulk to work in isloation at night in his room.

Doubtless this incident was in Ferenczi’s mind at the Nuremberg Congress the following year when he proposed a psychoanalytic organization comparable to an ideal family:

It would be a family in which the father enjoyed no dogmatic authority, but only that to which he was entitled by reason of his abilities and labours. His pronouncements would not be followed blindly, as if they were divine revelations, but, like everything else, would be subject to thoroughgoing criticism, which he would accept, not with the absurd superiority of the paterfamilias, but with the attention it deserved.3

Nevertheless, Jones is not exaggerating when he says of Ferenczi that “his demands for intimacy had no bounds. There was to be no privacy and no secrets between him and Freud.”4 Encouraged by Freud, Ferenczi involved him in the most private complexities of his life.

While still a young man Ferenczi had entered into a liaison with a married woman ten years his senior, Gisella Palos. In 1911 he briefly analyzed her beautiful daughter Elma, with whom he fell madly in love. Elma subsequently married and moved to America. For years Freud encouraged him to marry Gisella, and in 1917 Ferenczi persuaded Freud to write to her on his behalf. Some years after their marriage Elma’s marriage broke up and she returned to Europe. Her distraught mother suggested that she and Ferenczi divorce so that he could marry Elma and she would then act as a surrogate mother to Ferenczi. However, the couple remained married, but Ferenczi always maintained a certain resentment toward Freud, holding him responsible for the fact that he could not have children or an adequate sexual life.

In the postwar years Ferenczi developed a number of physical ailments and spent considerable time at the Baden-Baden spa of Georg Groddeck, another enfant terrible of psychoanalysis, who believed in holistic medicine and whose ideas were to have considerable influence on Ferenczi’s subsequent experiments in technique.


In 1926 Ferenczi made a trip to America, where he lectured at the New School for Social Research, mainly to support Freud’s view endorsing lay analysis against the American doctors who insisted that all psychoanalysts have a medical degree. However, he gradually withdrew from the politics of the movement, concentrating on finding better ways to use psychoanalytic therapy. Freud at one point admitted to him that he was uninterested in curing patients whom he regarded as “riffraff” (Gesindel), and he reproached Ferenczi for his “furor sanandi” (rage to cure). Ferenczi admitted that he, too, was often “fed up” with patients, but he spelled out his position clearly in a letter of October 10, 1931: “I am, above all, an empiricist…. Ideas are always closely linked with the vicissitudes in the treatment of patients, and by these are either repudiated or confirmed.”5

The term “wild analyst” was first applied to Ferenczi for his introduction of the “active” technique in the early Twenties. This was fully endorsed by Freud at the time. It was a rigorous procedure in which the analyst would suggest or introduce situations that would create tension in the patient.6 The aim was to free repressed urges and associations. Freud himself had used this technique with the Wolf Man when he told his patient that he was setting a date by which the analysis would have to end.

Ferenczi came to the conclusion that there was something inhuman in this method, but it had led to further insights into the importance of counter-transference, the emotions stirred up in the analyst in reaction to the intense relationship with the patient. But there seems no solid basis for the gossip that Ferenczi’s “active” technique involved kissing and hugging his patients. The only evidence of this is the psychologist Clara Thompson’s boast that she could kiss Ferenczi any time she liked—gossip that reached Freud’s ears and caused him to write a gently reproving but possibly groundless letter to Ferenczi. In his clinical diary, Ferenczi declares that he would sit impassively when Thompson attempted to taunt him by kisses.7

The diary was compiled during the last year of his life, when Ferenczi, who was suffering from pernicious anemia, kept a record of many of his analytic sessions and his reflections on past experience. A summing up and a defense of his life as an analyst, it was mostly written after he had decided to decline Freud’s repeated pleas that he become president of the International Association. Freud rebuked him for abandoning his administrative responsibilities in order to work with patients. On May 12, 1932, he wrote to him: “In the past few years you have withdrawn into isolation…. But you must leave that island of dreams which you inhabit with your fantasy-children, and once again join in mankind’s struggles.” Freud never forgave Ferenczi for his decision to continue on his lonely path of healing the walking wounded. One of Freud’s reasons for wanting Ferenczi to be president was his determination to withhold the position from the detested Jones. Yet after Jones was elected president Freud wrote to him:

I felt bad that Ferenczi’s obvious ambition could not be satisfied but it really was not in doubt for even a single moment that only you could possibly take over the International.

This occurred at the Wiesbaden Congress of 1932, where Ferenczi presented his paper, “Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child” (later suppressed by Jones). On his way to the Congress Ferenczi stopped off in Vienna to read his paper to Freud. Freud did not hide his disapproval of its emphasis on actual trauma rather than fantasy although he later informed Max Eitingon that the paper was “harmless.” Nevertheless, Ferenczi was distressed by Freud’s reaction. Within a year he was dead. Although he was diagnosed as having pernicious anemia, Dr. Dupont in her introduction to the diary makes it clear that she is convinced that Freud’s animosity hastened Ferenczi’s death.

The Wiesbaden paper was presented on September 3, 1932. The diary entries begin on January 7, 1932, and the last passage was recorded on October 2. By then Ferenczi was so gravely ill that he could not continue writing—a source of real regret to him—and he died on May 22, 1933. While I would agree with Dr. Dupont that the diary attests to Ferenczi’s sound mental state, toward the end there are rambling, somewhat incoherent passages. These do not indicate a mental breakdown but a man whose strength was failing. Presumably he jotted down notes that he intended to write up later on.

Groddeck’s humane treatment of his patients seems to have presented Ferenczi with the germ of the idea of “mutual analysis,” his most important experiment with analytic techniques. How many patients took part in mutual analysis with Ferenczi remains unclear; the main one seems to have been Elizabeth Severn, an American dancer, referred to in the diary as “R.N.” Ferenczi credits her with initiating the experiment on May 5, 1932. In the grip of a positive transference, Severn believed that her analyst was in love with her. Ferenczi emphasized that she was repressing her negative feelings toward him, whereupon the patient voiced her suspicions of Ferenczi’s basic dislike of her. Such frankness opened up a new dimension to an analysis whose lack of progress during two previous years had been a source of self-reproach to Ferenczi.

The two then embarked on a revolutionary experiment. They would have double or alternating sessions, each in turn playing the role of analyst and analysand. Ferenczi abandoned the role of the all-powerful guide, and in his courageous willingness to admit to failings and to reveal his past openly extraordinary progress seems to have been achieved.

Who should get the credit for this success? [he asked]. Foremost, of course, the patient, who in her precarious situation as patient never ceased fighting for her rights. This would not have been enough, however, had I myself not submitted to the unusual sacrifice of risking an experiment in which I the doctor put myself into the hands of a not undangerous patient.

This humility, openness, and respect for the rights of the patient are unique in the annals of psychoanalysis. The child in Ferenczi was responding to the child in the patient. Through empathy (or what Melanie Klein called projective identification) Ferenczi reenacted his wishes that he had been listened to as a child and this in turn encouraged his patient to open up to him. Again and again he insists that the analyst must believe what the patient tells him. He rejoices in success; he admits failure.

As Jeffrey M. Masson rightly points out in The Assault on Truth, Ferenczi had reverted to Freud’s position in The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896). People fall ill from what happened to them, not from what they imagine happened to them.8 One serious problem, however, is that Ferenczi assumes that everything a patient tells him actually happened. The disturbing universality of child abuse (and Ferenczi was one of the first to be aware of this) has alerted us to listen to unpalatable facts that have generally been swept out of sight; but Ferenczi is so militantly indignant about the harm that adults inflict on children that he under-estimates the unconscious psychic life. Freud and his colleagues were not being unreasonable when they were concerned that Ferenczi, in dismissing evidence of unconscious defenses, was undermining the foundations of psychoanalysis.

A word that recurs repeatedly throughout the diary is “hypocrisy.” Ferenczi sees the family as a war zone, in which the child must learn to tread warily lest he stumble on a land mine. This is the “wise child” whose parents have projected anger and anxiety into him so that he identifies with the aggressor. He learns how to deflect attacks by anticipating them, thus cultivating what D.W. Winnicott was later to call “the false self.” The patient must get in touch with his true feelings by losing his sense of powerlessness within the analytic situation.

Traditionally the analyst assumes a God-like position, never revealing anything about himself. The underlying assumption is that he, having been analyzed, is impeccably balanced and is willing to tolerate the ravings of a sick person; the effect is often to intensify the patient’s lack of self-esteem. What Ferenczi is basically seeking is to transform the hypocritical superiority of the analyst into the attitude of a compassionate and vulnerable human being. In the diary he says he is willing to admit to the patient when he is irritated or dozes off out of boredom; and he made it clear to patients that he welcomed equally frank reactions on their part. But the diary contains many warnings to himself about the dangers of frankness. On February 16, 1932, he concedes that his technique is admissable “only to the extent that (a) the patient’s needs require it or (b) the patient is capable of it in the given situation.”

When he advanced these views in “Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child” at the Wiesbaden Congress, the audience, not surprisingly, was hostile to them. What Ferenczi was in fact doing was asking his colleagues to surrender their egotistical authority. He begged them not to discourage patients from criticizing them. He pointed out to them that generally their patients were better analyzed than they were. He encouraged them to offer sympathy for traumas and to convince their patients that they believed what they were hearing. By loosening their tongues, Ferenczi concluded, “You will hear much that is instructive.” There seems no evidence that psychoanalysts accepted this invitation, or tried to incorporate his ideas into psychoanalytic training.

In the diary Ferenczi has much to say about the possible origins of his own traits of character, including his charm. He had received “terrifying rough treatment” from a nurse for soiling his pants. As a result, he suffered from “an exaggerated tendency in me to attach too much importance to the wishes, likes, and dislikes of other people.” His mother’s coldness had left him with an insatiable need for understanding and love. Within the analytic situation he tried to create the ideal relationship of loving parents and loved child by playing both roles. One wonders if in a sense he destroyed himself by failing to acknowledge the inevitable ambivalence of relationships. He recognized the experience of splitting into two personalities “which do not want to know about each other,” but was he able to reconcile these two aspects of himself?

He never forgave Freud for not living up to the original idealized image that Ferenczi had of him. His letters to his former mentor are full of such reproaches. The diary entry dated August 4, 1932, is startling in its observations on why he believed psychoanalysis had developed “erroneously.” The Freud–Ferenczi relationship he views as the heart of the situation. Freud had adopted him like a son, assuring him that he regarded him as “the most perfect heir of his ideas.”9 He transferred the role of crown prince from Jung to himself, “anticipating his triumphal march into America.” But the all-wise child was already scrutinizing the father with critical eyes as early as 1909. He realized that Freud fainted when he was with Jung at Bremen because he could not bear the possibility of being supplanted by one of his heirs. Ferenczi cringed with embarrassment when he saw the hypocritical tears in Freud’s eyes when he thanked Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, who first invited Freud to lecture in America, for his help, for Ferenczi knew how much Freud despised the Americans. Above all, he realized Freud’s insecurity when he refused to allow himself to be analyzed because he could not bear admitting that like everyone else he too had murderous feelings toward his own father.

Looking back to his neurotic dependence during the early days of their relationship, by 1932 Ferenczi remarked bitterly that Freud “must have felt very comfortable” in the role of the king who was never contradicted. He concluded that if he had not been so bedazzled by Freud he would have realized that Freud’s brilliant ideas were usually based only on a single case.

Among the advantages of blind adoration, he writes, were the comfortable feelings of belonging to an in-group, the possibility of learning from Freud, and “the unruffled assurance that one [Freud] knew better.” Freud’s candid confession that he considered neurotics to be a rabble only good for supporting analysts financially was a blow from which Ferenczi never recovered. It was at this point, he says, that he began to experiment with his own techniques, opening himself up fully to the suffering of his patients.

Still, to have used his relationship with Freud as a model of “erroneous” psychoanalysis seems grandiose on Ferenczi’s part. Psychoanalysts would say, with some point, that he offered a narcissistically omnipotent explanation of the theoretical and historical development of psychoanalysis. Ferenczi may have been disturbed in some ways but he was an honest man and an original thinker. For a more complete understanding of his life and ideas, we desperately need to have the long-withheld Freud–Ferenczi letters published. In 1958 Ferenczi’s literary executor, Dr. Michael Balint, decided to postpone their publication (and that of the diary) in the atmosphere of controversy following the revelations that Jones had fabricated pejorative stories about Ferenczi for his biography of Freud. Nevertheless, Balint, who died in 1970, did not intend that the letters would not see the light of day for the next thirty years. Just why Dr. Balint’s own executors have not yet arranged for their publication remains unclear, but they have a heavy responsibility to do so as soon as possible.

This Issue

December 8, 1988