Friday, January 29, 2010

Defamation -- and the Independent-Minded, Favorite Son

The following is an excerpt from E. James Lieberman, M.D. Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank at xxxi-xxxiv (New York: The Free Press, 1985). Otto Rank, Ph.D. was a close associate of Freud's, sometimes called Freud's favorite son. Rank's special position as Freud's favorite aroused jealousy and angry defamation from Freud's followers. Rank's independence of thought and action also aroused the ire of the close-knit group of Freud's followers, who placed a premium on loyalty to the all-powerful father-figure represented by Freud. As a general rule, the independent-minded favorite of an all-powerful father-figure will tend to arouse aggression from a cohesive group.

I draw the reader's special attention to the final paragraph of this post.

E. James Lieberman, M.D., is a retired Washington, D.C. psychiatrist, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center Department of Psychiatry. Incidentally, I was a patient at GW's psychiatry department during the years 1992-1996. During that time frame, the department chairman was the late Jerry M. Wiener, M.D.: past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association and past president of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Wiener was himself an all-powerful father-figure in the department and in the world of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Did that fact influence psychiatry residents' reactions to me and my prolific writings about psychoanalysis? I wonder.


In 1926 Otto Rank left Freud's inner circle, the "Ring" or Committee, to make his own way in Paris and New York. The departure of Freud's favorite son was promptly interpreted by Rank’s rivals as a sign of his own emotional instability, and Ernest Jones sent out word to that effect. But many American professionals including psychiatrists continued to seek out Rank for analysis and supervision.

Then, at a major conference in 1930 the eminent Dr. A.A. Brill slandered Rank before an audience, denouncing his ideas as a product of mental disturbance. Rank was dropped from the roster of the American Psychoanalytic Association; analysts who had been trained by him had to resign from the APA or be reanalyzed by an approved Freudian. Freud himself vacillated between expressions of admiration for Rank's contributions to psychoanalysis and condemnation of his maverick ideas and behavior.

To the extent that Rank expressed himself politically in these times, he opposed the fascism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. Yet in 1939 Erich Fromm -- not an establishment Freudian -- published an article labeling Rank's "will therapy" as a Nazi-style totalitarian philosophy.

Upon Rank's death that same year, Ernest Jones described his late rival as a mentally sick man. In his subsequent biography of Freud, Jones relentlessly pursued this theme.

"Rank in a dramatic fashion presently to be described, and Ferenczi more gradually toward the end of his life, developed psychotic manifestations that revealed themselves in, among other ways, a turning away from Freud and his doctrines. . . .

I had known that Rank had suffered much in childhood from a strongly repressed hostility to his brother, and that this usually covered a similar attitude toward a father. This was now being unloaded on to me, and my dominant concern was how to protect Freud from the consequences. . . .

It became plain that a manic phase of his cyclothymia was gradually intensifying."

Comparing Rank with Carl Jung, Jones said, "The outstanding difference in the two cases is of course that Jung was not afflicted by any of the mental trouble that wrecked Rank and so was able to pursue an unusually fruitful and productive life." Unfortunately this testimony became widely accepted even in New York, where -- as Jones himself later admitted in a complete reversal -- Rank had a highly successful career. Reviewing the Jones work in The New York Times, critic Lionel Trilling exaggerated the falsehood, stating that Rank and Ferenczi both died insane.

In 1958 Jessie Taft's memoir Otto Rank was reviewed in the mass media. Although it effectively refuted Jones, review of her book in Time magazine and The New York Post carried on the libel: "Ernest Jones, the peppery little Welshman, was perhaps the first to realize that Rank was deeply disturbed . . . a victim of manic-depressive psychosis." Dr. Walter Alvarez, the widely syndicated medical columnist, diagnosed the adolescent Rank as "a typical schizoid or mildly schizophrenic person. . . . Like so many men of this type, who one finds in mental hospitals, he soon was feeling that he belonged to the group of heroes. . . . See what sort of a man it was who presented some of our psychiatrists and social workers with many of the weird theories of mental illness on which they now base their teachings and behavior."

Marthe Robert represents a second wave of historians who discredited Rank in Europe and America. "The practice of excessively short treatments could easily lead to charlatanism," she wrote, "especially as Rank, who was not a doctor, preferred to address 'lay' analysts and this opened the doors of the profession to all comers." Rank was a doctor -- a clinical psychologist, not a physician. And Freud was the strongest advocate for nonmedical (lay) therapists; he hoped to prevent the domination of psychoanalysis by psychiatry. In this he was thwarted by the efforts of Jones and Brill, the most powerful psychoanalysts in the English-speaking world, where analysis flourished after World War II.

Karl Menninger, perhaps the most influential American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, wrote: "The three months of analysis advocated by Otto Rank proved to be a farce for some and a tragedy for others." But Rank never advocated a fixed length of time for treatment, only that an ending be kept in focus.

Some correctives appeared in books favorable to Rank by Ira Progoff, Paul Roazen, and Ronald Clark, and articles by Jack Jones, Max Lerner, and Philip Freund. But the denunciations continue in recent psychoanalytic writings: "Clinical evidence of a narcissistic disturbance in Rank's personality can be found in the patterning of his mood swings, in his lifelong tendency of grandiose isolation, and in the quality of his object relations." The posthumous analysis suggests that Rank suffered from "a dangerous fragility in his self-representation along with a looming threat of self-fragmentation," and that "isolation and insulation from human contact was apparent throughout his life." As recently as 1983, in a biography of the late Anna Freud, who did not regard Rank as mentally ill, the author echoes Jones in citing Rank's "eventual paranoia and psychotic collapse."

Considering the duration and extent of the attack on Rank, it stands out among examples of psychoanalytic character assassination. He was demeaned in public and private, in plain words and in jargon, in professional and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a stigma greater than to be labeled mentally ill by leading authorities in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Rank did not fight back directly: he tried to find assistance in disseminating his views but did not defend or counterattack. (I have found no mention of Ernest Jones, for example, in Rank's publications or correspondence after 1925.) The sorry result of the stigma has been the virtual disappearance of the works of Otto Rank. For a whole generation only a few hardy souls studied his books, and even fewer taught his ideas in universities and clinics.


I love this line: "It is hard to imagine a stigma greater than to be labeled mentally ill by leading authorities in psychiatry and psychoanalysis." Gertrude R. Ticho, M.D., who, according to my former employer, concluded that I was paranoid and potentially violent, was one of the most eminent psychoanalysts in the country!


Gary Freedman said...

Otto Rank wrote his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Vienna on the Lohengrin Saga.

Gary Freedman said...

For a discussion of Ernest Jones' defamation of the analyst Sandor Ferenczi, see: