Helene Deutsch: a psychoanalyst’s life. – book reviews

Michael S. Kimmel

Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst’s Life

When Helene Deutsch died in 1982, at age 97, she was the last survivor of Freud’s intimate circle of disciples who had championed the psychoanalytic cause in its earliest days. And what is perhaps most remarkable about her life is that she had remained intellectually close to Freud to the end, neither apostate nor repudiated by the master for minor deviations. Beginning with her own analysis with Freud in 1918, she subsequently became head of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society’s Training Institute in 1924. She immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1930s where, until her death, she spread the doctrine through her teachings and writings, including her major work, the two-volume The Psychology of Women (1944-1945). Today she remains one of the most important figures in the history of psychoanalysis.

Unfortunately, however, lives of unrepentant true believers are often less compelling than are those of rebels and outcasts, since we are less curious about how things remain the same than about how and why they change. In Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst’s Life (Anchor Press/ Doubleday, $19.95), historian Paul Roazen confronts this biographical obstacle and on balance succeeds in rescuing Deutsch from the second-rate status of thinkers not imaginative enough to rebel. Following his earlier biographical efforts to portray the heady atmosphere of the Freudian inner circle in Vienna, Roazen uses letters, interviews and published materials to recount the life of arguably the most important woman in the history of the discipline.

Roazen confronts several other obstacles besides Deutsch’s adherence to Freudian orthodoxy. Her clinical contribution remained “modest’ during Freud’s lifetime because she did not strike off on her own (although judging from how Freud dealt with those who even hinted at disagreement, her decision is certainly understandable). Moreover, her insistence that femininity was composed, in part, of deep and irredeemable narcissism, passivity and masochism made her an easy target for feminist criticism. Finally, her own meticulous recounting of her life in her autobiography, published in 1973, reveals a life more intensively scrutinized than intensely lived.

Yet Roazen’s careful study pays off handsomely, and he provides a solid and readable work that confronts, and partially surmounts, each of these potential obstacles. For Deutsch, psychoanalytic insights were barely concealed autobiographical revelations. As a young girl in Poland, her tie to her father was “the strongest source of her abilities’; she argued clinically against forced identification of girls with their mothers, since identification with fathers could also be “liberating.’ A clandestine and passionate affair with a married man and her subsequent companionable marriage to a rather bland intellectual admirer indicated renunciation of “unappreciated female libido.’ And while she suggested that women were endangered by their “unconscious erotic masochism’ (symbolized by the termination of her consuming affair), she also understood female narcissism as a “vital source of self-protection.’ While Roazen may go too far by insisting that Deutsch was “trying to use psychological theory for the sake of female emancipation,’ he does argue convincingly that she was not the extreme antifeminist others have depicted.

Interestingly, Freud himself comes off rather badly in this account. He is portrayed as a petty and self-absorbed man who would brook no overt criticism yet suspected each of his disciples of heretical betrayal. He would often steal his followers’ ideas and then accuse them of theft if they claimed priority. Yet Deutsch worked “as if bewitched by Freud,’ mediating his relationships with other followers, in constant deference to his genius.

Perhaps Deutsch’s most significant clinical insight was her depiction of the “as if’ personality, the individual character type that populates what Christopher Lasch calls the “culture of narcissism.’ Intellectually gifted and productive, their work is “formally good but totally devoid of originality.’ In relations with others they demonstrate intense warmth and love, yet “something is chillingly missing.’ They “behave as if they possessed a fully felt emotional life.’ Such a compelling portrait of what must be the archetypal yuppie character disorder sprang directly from Deutsch’s own thinly disguised self-doubts. Although her work was a “sacred devotion,’ it did not allow her to feel complete. “I am so much like a mere shadow,’ she wrote to her husband, Felix, in 1914, “so far estranged from myself, like a lethargic instrument of nature, soul-less and unsublimated, in fear for the future and longing for the past, just wandering about.’ Roazen holds this eloquent confession before us just long enough to ensure our recognition of something modern and familiar in this 70-year-old fragment, and then moves on. But that startling moment of identification reminds the reader of the importance and the analytic power of Deutsch’s oft-maligned contribution.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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