There are few figures in the history of psychoanalysis as interesting and
important as Heinz Kohut. He had a way of imposing himself on others.
He was brilliant, lively, outgoing, truly charismatic, and at the center of
any conversation or meeting, whether of three people or nine hundred.
For the most part, you felt better after an encounter with him, and you
certainly learned something. At the same time, he could be impossibly
self-centered, at times almost with a certain innocence, and grandiose to a
fault. To say he was a man of contradictions understates the case.
Born in Vienna in
1913, Kohut was raised in an assimilated Jewish family imbued with European high culture. He trained in medicine at the
University of Vienna before being forced to emigrate in
Nazis took over. Kohut settled in Chicago, where he made his life for
the next four decades. A cautious man, in the 1940s
shifted from neurology to psychiatry to psychoanalysis. But once ensconced in the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, he embraced analysis
with the fervor of a convert. He spent the 1950s
and the first part of the 1960s
as "Mr. Psychoanalysis" as he later joked, widely noted for his orthodoxy, admired by all the right people.
But something was happening to Kohut on the inside that coincided
with a half-conscious crisis in the field. Time had eroded much of the humanism in the Freudian legacy. Psychoanalytic theory and practice, for
various historical reasons, were fast becoming anachronistic, committed
to values of autonomy despite a yearning for connection; focused on grim ideas about insight despite a pervasive interest in empathy after war
and holocaust; and obsessed with the intricate workings of guilt despite
the culture's embrace of the tragic.
In a burst of creativity that began in the
mid-1960s and lasted for the
remaining fifteen years of his life, Kohut found his voice and explored
narcissism in new ways that led to what he ended up calling a "psychology of the self." He began his real work in the second half of his sixth
decade, when most people are preparing for retirement. Kohut's reformulation of mainstream psychoanalytic thinking was the pivotal event in the
transformation of the field into what is generally termed "relational psychoanalysis."
Many had flailed at the stout walls of classical psychoanalysis and ego psychology. It took someone from the inside to think things
through from the ground up, discarding the debris but salvaging what remained valuable in its clinical insights for the next century.
Kohut, for all
his own confusions and contradictions, may well have saved psychoanalysis from
This book explores the complex tale of
Kohut's life in the old and new worlds, together with the way his story got woven into the fabric of his
ideas. With his own protean sexuality and identity confusions, he fit uneasily into the world of psychoanalysis as Freud constructed it. His
project became to change the theory so as to find a place for himself in it. And there are larger meanings. Kohut lived out in his life and formulated
in his work the core issues of contemporary America. He touched the pulse.
I have lived with this book longer than I sometimes like to acknowledge.
It was launched formally in the spring of 1982. For the first four years I interviewed old friends and colleagues (many of whom have since died) and
read the available published material. But after 1986, without access to
Kohut's correspondence, I had to wait until the papers became available
in 1994. I then finally returned full-time to my interviewing and writing.
By this final phase, the man I knew personally as "Heinz" had become "Kohut" to
me, though in the book I call him Heinz until he grows up
and I get him into university; after that he becomes Kohut. The book is
better for that distance.
I was neither Kohut's patient nor his supervisee, nor even his student.
He had a casual acquaintance with my father, Robert M. Strozier, who
was a French professor and dean at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, and he had a much closer relationship with the man who later
became my stepfather, Howell Wright, chairman of pediatrics in the university's medical school for thirty years from the
mid-1940s. As a child, I
attended the university's "Lab School" several years ahead of Kohut's son,
Thomas, though we barely knew each other. Such loose connections
meant that when I showed up as a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in the 1970s, after getting my Ph.D. in history at the University of
Chicago, I was someone who would be greeted cordially but otherwise
considered, reasonably, a neophyte in the field.
I came to the Institute as a Freudian, immersed in Freud's work for a
decade. Once at the Institute, I began to read Kohut closely and was soon
transfixed. Here, I felt, were ideas that solved all the troublesome issues
about Freud that had been gnawing away at me. I was also enormously
stimulated by the atmosphere at the Institute, which was then pretty
evenly divided between Freudians and Kohutians. Politics aside, the
struggle gave intensity to the meaning of the smallest dream image in a
case seminar and forced a tense Platonic dialogue over the interpretation
of all sacred texts in the canon. In psychoanalysis dissidents tend to leave
or be driven out of the fold. Kohut stayed, feeling he was not a dissident
but the new voice of psychoanalysis. His conviction and determination
forced a debate in the inner sanctum of the temple. I doubt there has
been a more lively intellectual atmosphere in the history of psychoanalysis
than at the Chicago Institute in the 1970s.
In time Kohut heard me give a couple of papers and was impressed
enough to draw me into the outer ring or two of his circle. Neither then
nor later was I at the heart of things, but I did experience firsthand the
workings of charisma. I organized some events with Kohut, edited and
published a piece of his in a journal I had started, appeared on a panel
with him and others at the first self psychology conference in Chicago in
and worked with him and Arnold Goldberg in hosting a major conference on history and psychoanalysis in
After that he asked me to
look at some of his unpublished papers on history and the humanities. I
told him I thought they would be best presented along with some other
material and some interviews. He agreed, and I conducted what turned
out to be the last series of interviews he gave before he died.
While Kohut was alive, it never occurred to me consciously that I
would write his biography. Yet the idea must have been working in me at
some level, for I "suddenly" decided to write it barely six months after his
death. In retrospect, it is not really that surprising. I had just finished a psychoanalytic study of Lincoln and was looking for a new
not write about Heinz Kohut, a fascinating and important man for whom
I cared and whose work connected with my interests in history and psychoanalysis?
Despite some difficulties over the years, nearly everyone I asked eventually granted me interviews, including Kohut's childhood friends, colleagues, and
friends from later years. The story of the family's relationship to this book, however, is more complicated. It has ranged from enthusiastic support to
guarded caution to outright opposition -- and sometimes all three attitudes in the same person at different times. Certainly, this biography is neither
"authorized" nor "official." But I did have access to surviving family members, most of whom I also knew personally. I interviewed
Kohut's widow, Elizabeth (Betty) Meyer Kohut, twice in the early 1980s; she died in
1996 I had an extensive interview over two days with Kohut's only child, Thomas A.
Kohut. He has not reviewed the manuscript, but has provided other materials and answered many specific
questions in correspondence. A cousin, Walter Lampl, from Kohut's Vienna days, provided helpful insights into
Kohut's childhood. Gretchen Meyer, Elizabeth's only sister, provided additional information on Kohut's family life.
Nothing has changed biography in the past century more than psychoanalysis itself. Until Freud it dealt mostly with great men in public life
and, as Steven Marcus has put it, was intended to be "exemplary, monumental, inspirational, elevating, and
instructive." A biography had to be
highly selective, emphasizing the public side of a figures life and the story
of his virtues -- there were few women -- in order to accomplish its appointed tasks. Since Freud (and Erik
Erikson's models), on the other
hand, biography has sought to discover, illuminate, and disclose. It is
both broader and deeper. It looks into early experience and is concerned
as much with quirks and neuroses as with achievements. The point is to
find the true self. There is no theoretical or moral limit in determining
relevance, and as Marcus adds, "no secret embarrassment, no shameful
memory or episode" is ruled out, as long as it is "pertinent to the central
project of understanding how a significant life came about." The larger,
more visible story of the life in politics, science, or art remains the central
task to explain. But the imperative of psychoanalysis forces the biographer to include the public
and the private, the work and the life. It can be a daunting task and requires its own form of
careful selection. The best
one can do, along with Lytton Strachey, is to row out into the vast sea of
facts and drop a bucket or two.
Kohut was fond of the Latin aphorism Habent
sua fata libelli, "Writings have their own destiny." And so I have written a biography that has
taken a life out of the inchoate past and shaped it into a narrative for others to experience in their own way, while
I, with some ambivalence, must
now relinquish the subject back into history.
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Charles B. Strozier
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Published by Farrar, Straus and
Giroux; April 2001