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Psychoanalysis at the MarginsReview - Psychoanalysis at the Margins
by Paul E. Stepansky
Other Press, 2009
Review by Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH
Dec 6th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 49)

Every now and then a book is published that is hard to categorize.  Here we have a book written by the main publisher of a psychoanalytic press, now out of business, about why psychoanalysis has gone out of business -- and, more importantly -- why psychoanalysts don't realize sufficiently that they are out of business.

Paul Stepansky edited The Analytic Press from 1984 to 2006 and was the editor for famous analysts like Heinz Kohut.  He describes here the inside works of the publishing world in psychoanalysis.  

A key theme is that psychoanalysis has been pushed to the cultural margins, as reflected in the decline of interest in books on the topic. This is both a good and bad thing. It is bad, obviously, for those psychoanalysts who enjoyed the power of being at the professional and cultural center, as was the case from about 1940 to about 1990.  It is good, Stepanksy tries to remind us, because psychoanalysis was originally a marginal idea, from a marginal group, led by a marginal leader. It's okay to be marginal; there are many good things about being marginal, including the freedom to think radically.  To the extent that Freud has insights to give us, it is because of his radical marginality.  Psychoanalysis betrayed Freud when it became the mainstream Establishment, with no new ideas, and with a reification of the old ideas.  Much like the Soviet Union was a parody of Marx's ideas, so too with psychoanalysis and Freud.

But now that psychoanalysis has been forced to the margins, it may yet gain new cultural life by thinking freely and no longer needing to defend its power base. 

Stepansky makes these points with an interesting publishing-based analysis of the cultural influence of psychoanalysis.  For instance, at the cultural peak of psychoanalysis, almost any analyst could write a second-rate academic tome and get first-rate publication results that modern writers would love to achieve -- automatic bestseller status (usually defined as about 50,000 copies or more).  Examples are as follows: 

  1. Otto Fenichel's dry and academic Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, published in the 1940s, sold 80,000 copies in its original cloth edition.  Even 50 years later, in 1995, a Norton reissue sold 1500 copies, more than an average new book published by an academic presss.
  2. Harry Stack Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry -- stuffy and complex to read -- sold over 95,000 copies in 1953.
  3. Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society only sold 1500 copies in 1950, but by 1963 a revised edition sold 85,000 copies.  Norton reports that cumulative sales since 1963 approximate 750,000 copies.
  4. Erikson's follow-up books, which in retrospect objectively seem mediocre and speculative -- like Young Man Luther and Insight and Responsibility -- sold over 250,000 copies.
  5. Erich Fromm's popularizations -  like Escape from Freedom (1941), The Sane Society (1955) and the Art of Loving (1956) -- sold over a million copies each.  The Art of Loving had exceeded 5 million copies by 1970.
  6. Charles Brenner's simple Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis sold over one million copies in the 1960s for Doubleday's Anchor press.

These are unheard of numbers -- rivaling the best of Stephen King novels.  By the 1980s, Stepansky reports, he knew of no single psychoanalytic book that ever approached anything like these sales.

In other words, a few decades ago, a book along these lines was a guaranteed bestseller, sometimes a megaseller.  Today, they are hardly read. The same kinds of writers write the same kinds of things; what has changed is the culture. The buyers aren't there anymore.

This is the dilemma of psychoanalysis today.  Are the ideas still right, and the readers wrong? Or are the ideas finished now, having had their heyday, with the sales numbers being the statistics that prove it?

Paul Stepansky is the best person to think about these questions, and what he has to say about it all is well worth reading.


© 2011 Nassir Ghaemi


Nassir Ghaemi, MD MPH, Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology; Director, Mood Disorders Program, Tufts Medical Center


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