Shari Thurer, ScD, is a BPSI Psychotherapist Member. Her below remarks originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of the library newsletter, which can be read here.
When I first read journalist Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession in 1981, I wanted to be Janet Malcolm…notably not the psychoanalyst she profiled. This may seem odd as I later became a psychotherapist, not a journalist. But Malcolm struck me as being far more insightful than her analyst subject. Certainly, she had the greater caustic wit.
Malcolm died this June at 86. I am indebted to her, for her book is where I got my first handle on Freud. It is a highly readable, slightly wicked introduction to psychoanalytic theory and technique as it was practiced forty years ago. It explains complicated concepts in plain English. Here is an example: “The phenomenon of transference—How we all invent each other according to early blueprints…” What a masterpiece of concision! Here’s another: “…romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality …. we cannot see each other plain.” Malcolm refused the comfortable delusion that our knowledge of one another could be anything but imperfect. “We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others.”
Malcolm’s interview with the pseudonymous analyst Aaron Green suggests what kind of temperament was then drawn to the unswervingly Freudian style of work, namely, a rigid one. Green himself recognized conformist tendencies among analysts – the herringbone jacket. Malcolm goes on to discuss the insular atmosphere of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute as well as the tensions and bad feelings that then pervaded this organization, and the nature of education, and advancement in the profession. Of course, with the recent emphasis in psychoanalytic institutes on inclusion and diversity, today’s therapists do not limit their sartorial display to bland tweed. I have observed creative hair weaves and male ponytails.
Malcolm’s tone throughout is gently mocking. She describes Anna Freud’s
ordering of defenses as “housewifely.” She subtly disparages such revisionists as Alfred Adler and Harry Stack Sullivan who aimed to “improve” patients, that is, to facilitate their “fulfillment,” as if, channeling Freud, those were unsuitable goals. But though she can be tart about the practitioners and practice of psychoanalysis, she ultimately pays the profession a great compliment – she makes use of some of its techniques. Like psychoanalytic practitioners, Malcolm closely observes human behavior. She looks for those small, unguarded moments when folks betray their truth. Her book about psychoanalysis is not outright satire, but a gentle, lucid, expertly written summary and critique of Freudian psychotherapy. She will be missed.
Shari Thurer, ScD, is a BPSI Psychotherapist and Library Committee Member, a former Adjunct Associate Professor at Boston University, a psychologist in Boston, and the author of many noted publications, including Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994) and The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy (Routledge, 2005). Among her recent blog posts are reviews of Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Balm in Gilead, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis.
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