Helen and Donald Meyers: Two Pillars of the Columbia Psychoanalytic Center and the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine

by Otto F. Kernberg, M.D.

When I joined Columbia in 1973, I established what was going to be the most meaningful professional psychoanalytic association of my life. From the first day, Helen and Don emerged as guiding spirits that facilitated my entrance into the Columbia system. They conveyed to me the ideals and the group spirit of the Columbia Psychoanalytic community, and initiated an ongoing stimulating personal relationship. In fact, the summer before I moved from Topeka to New York, at a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Hawaii, Helen, Don and I spent long hours on the beach discussing psychoanalysis, and theories of narcissism. Helen’s challenging questions and Don’s thoughtful reflections on the subject gave me an early feeling for their enthusiasm and commitment to our professional and scientific interests, a feeling that would continue to this very day. I shall never forget a dinner organized by Helen and Don (at a great Chinese restaurant) in New York, with several other members of the Psychoanalytic Center’s Executive Committee, where, in a very friendly but determined way, they raised the question, to what extent could they count on my collaborative work, in contrast to having to fear that I might set up my own ‘‘school’’ at Columbia. I felt moved by their concern for maintaining an open attitude toward all psychoanalytic currents, and their commitment to avoid ideological splits and restrictions at the Center. I believe that Helen’s leadership as far as the curriculum of the Center is concerned has reflected this pioneering openness to new ways of thinking, her love of controversy, and the stimulation of new ideas.

It is of course well known that Helen has been the guiding spirit of our curriculum over many years, participating personally with unending enthusiasm in our teaching activities, and in an on-going renovation of her own thinking. Perhaps it was less clear to those who were inside the Columbia system how unusual, in fact, revolutionary, such openness was—in contrast to the conservative timidity of a good many institutes in this country and abroad in the 1970’s. The enormous progress of Columbia throughout the last thirty years is due in no small measure to Helen’s innovative educational contributions.

At the same time, Don, while specializing in initiating the Child Analytic Program at Columbia, and keeping it alive under trying circumstances over many years, represented a leading voice of progress in psychoanalysis at the level of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He has been a source of organizational knowledge and of education for leadership for many of us. In fact, to this very day, his patient, mature, thoughtful way of analyzing complex political situations combines a concern for psychoanalytic values with an optimal understanding of the ‘‘art of the possible.’’

Both Helen and Don represent, I believe, the best of what American Psychoanalysis has produced within the broad spectrum of contemporary Ego psychology. Very open to new findings in object relations theory and to the various currents of psychoanalytic thought that have challenged traditional Ego psychology, they have been able, in their writings and teaching, to integrate new psychoanalytic formulations into a sophisticated Ego psychological approach, perhaps best reflected in Helen’s masterful initiation of candidates into the complexities of technique.

Social organizations tend to be understandably ambivalent about ‘‘powerful couples,’’ and, without any doubt, Helen and Don have constituted such a powerful couple, centrally influencing the work and ambiance of Columbia. And yet, in our collective relationships with them, it is very evident to me that this relationship has been remarkably non-ambivalent. Our entire psychoanalytic community at Columbia has appreciated their generosity, their concern, the warm center they provided for our professional and collegial life, and their remarkable lack of any attempt to use their obvious institutional power in any authoritarian way. This cannot be said of many couples in administrative leadership within the same institution, and speaks for their tactfulness empathy, and intuitive understanding of the requirements of the complex social currents at Columbia.

Finally, how can one express one’s gratitude for the many long, lovingly organized evenings at their home, where intellectual nourishment and gourmet food combined to create an atmosphere of enthusiasm and creativity. For all of this, I personally, and I believe all of us collectively, are deeply appreciative, and hope to continue this relationship and tradition for many years to come!