Democracia y Política

Bad Freudian fathers

Shteir-Bad-Freudian-Fathers-690 (2)Franz Alexander, circa the nineteen-thirties. 


To a believer in the impossible profession, the family memoirs of famous psychoanalysts constitute a troubling but delicious genre. There is a certain satisfaction in reading about the unhappy marriages and not good enough parenting skills of bad Freudian fathers. (Shrinks: they’re just like us!)

And yet there are also things to be learned from, for instance, the family memoir of Franz Alexander, the pioneering émigré psychoanalyst, written by his granddaughter Ilonka Alexander. Franz Alexander was one of the most important interpreters of Freud in America, the founder of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, and the man behind a much debated idea known as the “corrective emotional experience.” His granddaughter’s book, “The Life and Times of Franz Alexander: From Budapest to California,” was published a few months ago by Karnac Press, a London-based publishing house devoted to books about psychoanalysis. Ilonka, who is now sixty-seven, first had the idea for the book when she was nineteen, decades before she started writing—much the way people think about entering analysis (or used to) for a long time before hitting the couch.
The book got its final push from an unexpected revelation about the past. In 2007, after a “very successful” career as a social worker, Ilonka—who lives with her husband in Port Maitland, a small town outside of Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia—received, via e-mail, a photo of her great-grandfather’s gravestone. Her great-grandfather was the philosopher Bernard Alexander, and his gravestone is located, it turns out, in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Ilonka was shocked. She did not know that anyone on her father’s side of the family was Jewish, she told me over the phone. It was not in the official biographies.

The photo of Franz’s father’s grave arrived in her inbox courtesy of a friend, Julia E. Gunn, an epidemiologist in Boston, who found the picture on the Internet after the two women returned from one of their many road trips. The photo made Ilonka see her whole life differently, and it came to seem emblematic of the Alexanders’ family desire for a nice story, whatever the cost.

Ilonka was born in 1948, in Chicago. After her parents’ marriage fell apart, she and her mother, Silvia, moved into her grandparents’ sumptuous Lincoln Park apartment. For much of Ilonka’s childhood, Silvia flitted between husbands—she had five altogether—and so Ilonka grew up closer to Franz than to her own mother.

When Ilonka was seventeen and living in California, where the Alexanders had relocated, Silvia ran off with her fourth husband. She demanded that Ilonka join her. Ilonka refused. But then her grandfather declined to house her, as if, she said, he was punishing her for her mother’s choices. She wound up in a Catholic residence for girls in downtown Los Angeles. She didn’t know that she had family in San Diego, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Madison, and Dallas. No one told her. When Franz Alexander died, in 1964, two years later, Ilonka was adrift. Although she had two half-sisters, she thought of herself as an only child. She wrote to Silvia, but she would not hear from her mother again until she was thirty-four.

After Ilonka saw the photo of the gravestone, she decided to search for other family. She found dozens of relatives, “mostly cousins once removed,” in Europe, the Midwest, Alaska. She began to visit them and collect their stories. Some had heard about her, some had not. In 2010, Ilonka held the first of two family reunions. She was struck more than ever by how she had “been lied to by people [she] honored.

The biggest lie: Franz told everyone that he didn’t know where Ilonka’s mother’s was. He was embarrassed, Ilonka said, analyzing him.

The man responsible for much of the chaos in his family, and a good deal of the Americanizing of psychoanalysis, was born in Budapest, into a large, intellectual family, in 1891. In 1920, he defied his father, moving to Berlin to become the first student at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. There, he grew close to Freud, who told him to go to America, which Freud hated, and spread the gospel of psychoanalysis.

Alexander moved to Chicago, where, in 1930, he founded the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He became a prolific proselytizer for the profession, writing nine books and contributing to many subsidiary fields, including psychosomatic medicine and criminal psychology. Although some of Alexander’s ideas seem, today, like a wacky caricature of Freudian excesses—such as his argument that bronchial asthma comes from being insufficiently attached to one’s mother—others, such as his belief that the length of analysis should be more flexible, were ahead of their time. (To many American Freudians, analysis meant four or five sessions a week.) Most of all, Alexander seemed acutely aware that psychoanalysis had to change to win followers in the upbeat, status-conscious United States.
Alexander’s expensive suits and high fees can be generously interpreted in this light, as can his treatment of celebrities, including, according to legend, Al Capone. (Ilonka told me that, as a teen-ager, she asked her grandfather whether he and Capone talked about murders and other gangsters. “No,” she recalled her father replying, “we spent time talking about his mother.”) According to Ilonka, her grandfather said that he also treated Marilyn Monroe, Steve Allen, and Danny Kaye, who was also one of Franz’s golfing partners. Like the benefits of psychoanalysis, who was whose celebrity shrink in the twentieth century can be hard to fact-check; one of Alexander’s attributes, Ilonka said, was what people in his profession call grandiosity. (According to her biographers, Monroe had three analysts, none of whom was Alexander—though one of them, Marianne Kris, was herself analyzed by Alexander when he was still in Berlin.)

Franz Alexander seemed to believe that there was a cure to our psychological maladies, whereas Freud famously said that the most his analysands could hope for was the transformation of neurosis into ordinary misery. Alexander’s most controversial idea was “corrective emotional experience,” the theory, roughly speaking, that our learned responses to certain experiences can be corrected by undergoing them, or something like them, again in a new setting. To most psychoanalysts, this idea suggested that therapy can reach a definitive conclusion. In “The Impossible Profession,” Janet Malcolm argued that this idea departed from Freud’s wishes, in that it offered analysands “a happy ending.” “Psychoanalysis cannot tolerate happy endings; it casts them off the way the body’s immunological system casts off transplanted organs,” Malcolm writes.

In 1946, Franz Alexander’s devotion to this idea spurred a crisis in psychoanalysis, pitting renegade analysts against more orthodox Freudians. Today, that crisis, which drove him from Chicago, seems somewhat hysterical—and many psychoanalysts have cautiously accepted corrective emotional experience, just as they have accepted Alexander’s other innovations. “Corrective emotional experience is still a term of contention,” James Anderson, a faculty member at the Chicago Institute, told me. But, he added, analysts now also value Alexander’s focus on how the relationship between the therapist and the patient plays at least as large a role in the analytic process as the analysand’s discoveries.

For her part, Ilonka never underwent analysis. She intended to start years ago, but she was late for the appointment. The shrink scolded her, and she never went back. “The purpose of my life is to bring my family back together,” Ilonka said. She is trying to replace the lie her family told about its past and with something real, including the suppressed fact of Franz’s Jewishness. “The Life and Times of Franz Alexander” is her corrective emotional experience.

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