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Heinz KohutReview - Heinz Kohut
The Making of a Psychoanalyst
by Charles B. Strozier
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001
Review by Craig E. Smith
Feb 25th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 9)

Biography, it strikes me, is one of the more bizarre genres of Western literary production. Biography requires the reader to accomplish two contradictory operations. The reader is asked to believe in the veracity of the tale, whilst suspending anxieties about how this is achieved. Yet is it really possible to tell the “true” story of another’s life, let alone sustain the grander ambition of psycho-biography’s claims to have access to the inner life of the subject’s intentions, motivations and so on? And what happens when attempting o deal with a life composed of fleeting and limited forays in the public eye? What is biography aiming at?

Charles Strozier, with his biography of Heinz Kohut, one of the giants of the American psychoanalytical scene, proffers two sorts of responses to my quandary. What a biography is – the imposition of a narrative on an inchoate past – cannot be separated from what a biography aims at. Namely to discover, illuminate, and disclose how a “significant life came about” (p.xii). Part of this daunting task of reconstructing the private and the public facets of another’s life is made a little easier for Strozier because Kohut has left behind a testimony, a collection of jottings of his inner life, in the guise of a case study titled “Mr Z”. Unlike other forms of memoir, the case study of Mr Z promises to offer the knowing biographer unique insights into Kohut’s mind. Yet for all that, troubling questions and objections come to mind. Is Mr Z really Heinz Kohut? (Mr Z is never identified by name). And if Mr Z really is Kohut (which Strozier seems fairly sure), are we really witnessing the inner going-ons of another, or is it yet another version of a “self”, claiming weight and legitimacy by employing the impressive sounding vocabulary of psychoanalytical discourse? In other words is self-analysis possible? Even the most famous self-analysis of the psychoanalytic movement, that of Sigmund Freud’s, had another playing the crucial role of interlocutor. Who play’s Kohut’s Fleiss as it were?

To move past these interminable questions of biography, the parallel with Freud’s self-analysis and Kohut’s is more than coincidental. To bring us back to Strozier’s title, this is the story of how one psychoanalyst is made. Strozier’s central thesis is clear enough. Kohut, after several false starts, becomes a psychoanalyst in more than name when he discovers the courage and, dare I say it, the humility, to think beyond his master. The master in question is not Freud per se, but the deadweight of the psychoanalytic institutions in North American, which had reduced psychoanalysis to a practice more closely resembling a guild, with its rites of passage and mimetic transmission of knowledge. Kohut, of course, was a major figure in initially supporting and continuing this state of affairs in the American institutions. To find out why this was so, and also the reasons behind Kohut breaking away, Strozier gives us biography.

Kohut, we discover via Strozier, was a deeply unattractive character. In fact, a difficulty in reading his biography, without the prism of “genius” to sustain me, was having to grapple with a story of a man who dedicates much of his long life in self-serving and status-seeking enterprises. For example the Second World War seems for Kohut an event primarily aimed at thwarting his burgeoning career. Particularly gruelling to take are Kohut’s complaints in regards to the displaced persons camp in Britain, and the avoidance of national service once Kohut settles in the United States. True, if Kohut didn’t perceive himself as Jewish, it must have been terribly frustrating to be bureaucratically processed and interned as one, but one’s sympathy stretches only so far, especially when most of Europe’s Jewry were being marked for extermination. Strozier momentarily raises the issue of Kohut’s war record as an issue of concern and a marker of a certain character defect. “Somehow, Kohut missed the draft and the war, for which he later gave at least two mutually exclusive explanations…But the lies are telling. On certain issues, Kohut, it seemed, needed to deceive” (, p.73-73.)  But to deceive whom, and to what ends? Uncle Sam and the war aims? One would have thought that Kohut, a person with extensive medical training and who had already directly experienced the racial politics of Nazi Germany, would have been strongly motivated to become involved. Yet Strozier, who throws up the idea of Kohut’s “avoidance”, doesn’t take this line of inquiry far enough. What does Strozier think lies at the heart of Kohut’s behaviour? Instead Strozier focuses on the start of Kohut’s brilliant and single-minded career in psychoanalysis at the Chicago Institute.

One is told repeatedly of Kohut’s genius, coupled with his determination and adroitness at playing the political games of psychoanalytic institutions.  (For a detailed and critical analysis of psychoanalytic institutions in North America, Strozier refers us to Douglas Kirsner’s excellent book Unfree Associations.) But I must confess, I didn’t really get a sense of why Kohut was driven by such a large ambition, whilst retaining such a muted enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. One gets the impression that psychoanalysis for Kohut is a practice to be dutifully learned through the enactment of a series of rituals and techniques. But this is precisely what psychoanalysis is not – starting with the imperative of the analyst’s own analysis.

Psychoanalysis, at this point in Strozier’s narrative (the 1940s), is entering into a position of widespread clinical acceptance within public institutions, accompanied by respectability and power. One suspects that if Kohut were plotting his career today, it would be in the hegemonic field of psychology.

The low point of Strozier’s biography coincides with his description of a woman with whom Kohut has a relationship. She is described as possessing “high Anglo-Saxon cheekbones” (this really is Iain Fleming terrain). Yet, once past this point, Strozier’s narrative steadily builds in interest and importance. Kohut faces courageously both the death of his overbearing mother (is there any other type in psycho-biography?), and his own mortality. Strozier conveys skilfully the parallel between these biographical facts and the sea change building in Kohut’s professional life. Kohut’s near pathological demand to be loved, evidenced in this self-absorbed life of impressing yet conforming, diminishes, opening (literally) a new chapter in his profession life that centres on the concepts of “self” and “empathy” as the way forward for psychoanalysis.  (See in particular Strozier’s account of Kohut’s wooing of Anna Freud in lobbying for the presidency of the International Psychoanalytical Association, p.170-175.)

Kohut, of course, does much more than emphasize the self and empathy with his new orientation. Gone, for example, is the conceptual primacy of the drives, overtaken by the primacy of self-forms and its “selfobjects”. This turn away from Freudian concepts, from the formations of the unconscious to the psychology of the self, is motivated by an absolutely crucial and key question: What is the aim of psychoanalysis? Is it simply to reconcile one to the forces beyond one’s control, or should it hold larger ambitions for example, in regards to its ability to change the course of others lives? This is a question that needs to be approached beyond the commonplace either/or schema of pessimism versus optimism, which Strozier characterises Kohut’s innovation vis-à-vis Freud. It is also a question that leads ultimately to a sometimes-tiresome debate regarding the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis and how far can one go in not adhering to them and still claim psychoanalysis as an orientation. Yet ironically it is precisely this moment, when there is a question mark over Kohut’s theoretical fidelity that he seems to finally assume the full symbolic function of the psychoanalyst.

For Strozier, concerns or questions such ass these are glossed over in his assertion of Kohut as genius and saviour of the psychoanalytic movement. The first assertion is carried through the book as an unwavering article of faith, but from this distance, these claims seem both overstated and a little silly (evidenced by titles such as “The Making of a Hero” for example).

The strength of Strozier’s book for me lies less in a sterile debate over Kohut’s status as genius or saviour, and more in Strozier’s rich detail, which captures well the rather strange life and history of an analyst in North America, when psychoanalysis was king.


© 2002 Craig Smith


Craig Smith co-edited Female Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies (1999) and is currently completing his PhD at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.


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