April 5, 1997

Psychoanalysis, the Anxiety of Influence and the Sadomasochism of Everyday Life

Presenter: John Munder Ross, Ph.D.
Discussant: Abraham Zaleznik, Ph.D.
Reviewer: William Solodow, Ph.D.

One understanding of Dr. Ross’s presentation was as a clinical case study of ourselves, the professionals working within the psychoanalytic community. We have fallen on hard times, with fewer patients and fewer candidates. We all too readily see ourselves, Ross believes, as victims of "bad press," and view public scorn as social resistance to hearing underlying truths. In this way, we are like a patient with a history of not looking at his own specific role in creating his current dilemmas. We see ourselves rather as having been forced by circumstances, mainly economic ones, into making many dramatic changes. Though positive in some ways, these changes may mask some underlying dynamics that need close attention if psychoanalysis is to survive. Dr. Ross spoke about a necessary self-analysis on the part of our community, not unlike that undertaken by Freud himself. We, as Freud did, perhaps must examine and try to come to terms with "our fathers" and the ways they used their authority.

Freud placed his ideas regarding the use of authority by one generation over the next at the center of his theory. He believed that, once internalized, relationships with authority figures from childhood were formative in all-encompassing ways. Dr. Ross focused in his paper on the idea that the same formative processes emerge in the relationships between candidates and their mentors at psychoanalytic institutes. He articulated how historically the goals of psychoanalytic training became dangerously skewed by not addressing some deeper, mostly unconscious lessons learned through internalized sadomasochistic interactions, thinly disguised as "rigor."

Maladaptive identifications are only one part of the problem. As a community, we have in fact now reacted vigorously against the abuses of authority that have at times characterized training. The 1990s brought changes within training programs and within analytic theorizing itself that have deemphasized compliance with analytic norms for candidates and patients alike. To some degree "authority" now resides in the interaction and is a joint creation of both patient and analyst. "Knowing" resides in the process where all parties participate, and there are fewer and fewer "givens" that are handed down from one generation to the next. Dr. Ross examined the heart of the current crisis in psychoanalysis by focusing both on our history of unacknowledged maladaptive identifications, and on the current overemphasis on eliminating authority.

Sadomasochism and the Stifling of Creativity

In his talk, Dr. Ross described dramatic, largely unacknowledged sadomasochism in American analytic training during the past 50 years. Until the 1950s, heavy-handed "orthodoxy" and demands for compliance with institutional norms masked a deeper kind of learning. This learning was marked by identifications with mentors whose aggression and over-control were rampant, mentors who were furthermore idealized in defensive ways. Survival at these institutes demanded it. In this atmosphere, new ideas and alternative perspectives were too easily branded as "Oedipal rivalry," a trainee’s aggression toward the "parent" who had all the desired possessions. Candidates could be "intermitted" by their analysts and their progress stalled for not complying with prevailing wisdom. Within the institute, neither aggression directed toward the trainee, nor aggression arising from within the trainee, found adaptive outlets except via stultifying and stifling processes that ignored reality.

Unacknowledged aggression turned training into an ordeal that is hard to conceptualize today. The time involved, the personal costs, the uncertainty of ever graduating all took an enormous toll. Aggression displaced from authorities at the institute tended to be directed toward anyone critical outside or inside the circle. Learning itself was massively impeded. Unacknowledged, powerful identifications with mentors placed loyalty to the group above efforts toward change or alternative ideas. Incorporation of new experiences that were at odds with prevailing norms became intolerable because it meant disloyalty.

Ross traced the history of dominance by rigid authority within East Coast institutes to the influx of European analysts before World War II, most of whom brought with them their internalized highly authoritarian social and political influences. Ross also spoke of the fact that from the beginning, psychoanalysis in America was exclusively tied to the medical establishment, which has its own traditions of learning via the "laying down of unquestioned technical precepts." These forces together made for an education where "students were regarded as uncritical vessels for information. They would be spoon-fed vast quantities of ‘facts’ -- inferences, really, when it came to intrapsychic processes -- for many years, before being deemed knowledgeable enough to think on their own." Candidates learned an "aim inhibited negative Oedipal submission," which demanded compliance rather than creativity. Dissenters were punished and ostracized. Aggression turned inward and often drove "the most forthright candidates" into acts of career self-destruction. "Successful" candidates formed powerful identifications with aggressors, ensuring that the next generation of candidates would meet a similar fate. Debate and incorporation of new ideas died. Innovators had no recourse but to flee and form their own institutes. Different "schools" of analysis, each with its own bastions and having little interaction with others, turned psychoanalysis into the antithesis of a marketplace for ideas about the realities of analytic practice.

The Growth of Institutional Narcissism

Overly authoritarian structures inevitably lead to what Dr. Zaleznik in his discussion paper called "institutional narcissism." Such structures ultimately fail due to their own internal self-preoccupations, which leave them increasingly out of touch with the marketplace they are serving. Dr. Ross described psychoanalytic institutes as having been beset by just such a crisis. Psychoanalysis became focused on itself, losing touch with almost all outside intellectual currents that might have enriched and enlivened its appeal. Increasingly, a "psychoanalytic language" emerged that became far removed from plain English and drastically reduced how connected analysts could be with the larger community. The size of training classes dramatically declined. Patients seeking psychoanalysis became scarce. Commentary in the public media regarding analysis turned highly negative. Psychoanalysis was "under attack." Recognition of the need to revitalize psychoanalysis became inescapable, even at the most die-hard of institutes. Sheer economics -- no candidates, no patients -- dictated the change.

New Directions Spawned by the "Anxiety of Influence"

By the 1990s, radical alterations had begun, most of which involved undoing structures that had been imposed by existing authorities for many years. Training in analysis was "democratized, feminized and demedicalized." Candidates participated more in the training itself -- sitting on curriculum committees, for example. Women and minorities became candidates. Psychologists and social workers were admitted for the first time in nonresearch roles. These changes away from an authoritarian, elitist structure were visible not only in institutes themselves. In theory building, too, notions of "the truth" were also given up in favor of what Dr. Zaleznik called the "humanistic realities" of countertransference, intersubjectivity and narrative truth. Dr. Ross noted that these were ideas with which a new generation of analysts could be empowered by making them their own. Just as adolescent development requires a child’s closure of a certain "yielding to . . . father’s protective and redemptive authority," so psychoanalytic training and modifications of theory made room for trainees to grow up more as more autonomous figures. These new approaches were deconstructing authority in the analytic setting.

The crisis is far from over, however, according to Ross. In many ways the pendulum has swung too far. Dr. Ross argued that we now suffer from what literary critic Harold Bloom has called an "anxiety of influence." Bloom states that those who would have an impact must "creatively misread" those who came before, in order to present their own body of thought as unique and without precedent. We especially misread those writers whose vision is so large as to encompass much of what might be debated within a given field. Such is the legacy of Freud. To some degree attacks on his legacy are needed in order to carve out a unique domain. Dr. Ross noted, however, that in the recent wave of deconstructing authority, we have thrown out much that is essential from our past, including Freud.

The Dialectic of Authority versus Experience

In the haste to adapt, institutes often ignore a key principle of development. The past has to be adequately understood and incorporated rather than buried and denied. There is indeed much about authority and its sadistic uses that has characterized psychoanalytic training in the past. However, leaving these forces unexamined and simply replacing them with a new emphasis on "experience near" phenomena would be a mistake, according to Ross. Training does require some balance between "authority" and creating one’s own experience with the patient. Freud was always "changing his mind, contradicting not only himself but others, remaking his theories." He maintained a constant "tension . . . between his radicalism and authoritarianism." The "dialectics of theory building" requires a dynamic tension between the use of authority (to understand) and the use of experience that is new and original (to question what we have previously thought to be true).

One of the most mutative aspects of psychoanalysis has been in the articulation of the uses patients make of authority in their experience with us. Authority, by definition a relationship of unequals, lies at the heart of transference. Our past relationships with those who held power over us are called into question through transferences. Dr. Ross quite convincingly articulated how we in the psychoanalytic community have not yet fully looked at our own authority enactments within psychoanalytic training programs, even though authority relations and transference are central aspects of Freud’s theory. We want to deny that these forces are at work even today. In our zeal to eliminate all that is authoritarian, we can also eliminate some needed grounding and guidance. Ross said we’ve tended to create a theoretical "anarchy" in which candidates are "deposited into the current state of the art" without quite knowing from where they and it came, or where they are going. We, like our patients, are the losers when these unconscious authority relations are allowed to operate without exploration.

Abraham Zaleznik’s Discussion

Abraham Zaleznik, the main discussant, was unable to attend the meeting, and a written presentation by him was read by Dr. Glick. Mr. Zaleznik looked at the points made by Dr. Ross both from the perspective of recent developments in psychoanalytic thinking and from perspectives of other disciplines as well. He noted certain political and social pressures, particularly the women’s movement, as forces that reacted negatively to authority as it was used by Freud and his followers. He noted a much larger antiauthoritarian trend in what he called "humanistic" schools of thought, such as self psychology with its focus on notions of narrative truth and the importance of intersubjectivity. He suggested that these developments in psychoanalytic theory have served as counterpoints to the "cold, relatively ungiving atmosphere of life in institutes." "Humanistic" ideas empower people and make analyst and analysand more equal. He noted how these approaches are much more in accord with what is needed for survival in a marketplace now dominated by the "economics of scarcity."

Although these new approaches have more appeal to the wider population, Dr. Zaleznik noted that they "mistake the part for the whole." He feels that "humanism" to some degree waters down the notion of individual responsibility by placing more focus on the analyst’s need to "correct" the past and making central the notion that . "love cures all." Such approaches emphasize what analysts need to "give" rather than what we need to "withhold" -- hence their wider appeal. Although he does not directly state it, one consequence of Dr. Zaleznik’s point is that "humanism" allows us to be "victims" of unloving early environments, the very sense of victimization that Dr. Ross in his talk attempted to analyze and dispel. What is most appealing to him in Freud’s work is the idea of finding individual accountability, even in situations where one might seem clearly a victim. He cited Freud’s Dora case as an example. He particularly noted the enormous difficulty of teaching this case given the current politicization of knowledge. Focus on the abusive mistreatment Dora received, though not misplaced, has virtually excluded from consideration any notion of Dora as an agent in the events recounted. As a society, we distance ourselves from Freud’s idea of looking more inward and tend rather to look toward the environment as ultimately more curative. Dr. Zaleznik sees this as a great loss -- Dora would ultimately be more protected by understanding and changing her own reactions to authority.

Dr. Zaleznik attributed the "economic" decline of more traditional psychoanalysis to "institutional narcissism," a business school concept, wherein organizations reward their members only for loyalty and "thorough identification" with the group. The consequences are a dramatic failure to incorporate new ideas and to change in ways that meet new needs in the marketplace. He concluded his talk by examining the ways in which the psychoanalytic community does not look at economic realities. For example, he said, psychoanalysis can be too costly and take too long. In this way it can lose sight of the purpose that "psychoanalysis is for life rather than life being for psychoanalysis." He suggested that developments in neuroscience may help us address the issue of what it is about psychoanalysis that is effective. None of the various theoretical approaches as yet have any "hard" scientific backing. This absence of science accounts in large part for the "intellectual chaos" in psychoanalytic theory today. Like Dr. Ross, Dr. Zaleznik argued that we can suffer just as much from an absence of authority as we can from becoming too dominated by it.

Audience Discussion

In the discussion that followed, the fact that we rarely discuss Rado, the "father" of our Center, was mentioned as a case in point. We perhaps deny his contribution in many areas, particularly his predictions regarding which parts of Freud’s theories would ultimately be supported by neuroscience. To the extent that Rado was very authoritarian, we either complied too well or rebelled too strongly. Neither position allows a full evolution or incorporation of his ideas into our current conceptions here at Columbia.

Most participants agreed that psychoanalysts have a history of behaving very badly toward patients and candidates. One thought, however, was that better behavior would not have been enough -- that social forces have been more powerful than anything psychoanalysts have done to themselves. Another point that was made was that by discussing these "boundary abuses" rather than covering them up, we will be in a much better position to define the future in different ways. Many agreed that we are doing better with less authoritarian institutional structures and with the elimination of "human" errors and "rudeness" from our treatment.

Dr. Glick concluded the discussion by noting that Dr. Ross had provided an Oedipal reading of our history. He noted that there were two factors that might serve to counter the abuses of authority described. The first concerns pre-Oedipal development, which determines how we traverse Oedipal life. Our need to care for others, he pointed out, draws its passion from these early experiences with our mothers. He noted that this need to care and empathize might counter any sadomasochistic stance elicited during training. The second factor Dr. Glick cited is that although our claims to authority rest on our theories, it has always been our clinical work that drives theory formation. Our experience in sessions, our listening to the patient, does indeed temper our use of authority. He noted that theories never provide enough room to explore treatment and that therefore they must constantly be revised to meet the realities of our clinical experience. The anarchy that Dr. Ross described has led to many cults of personality in the field, all of which have been historically rationalized around theory. They represent instances where we have replaced the goal of understanding the treatment experience with the goal of loyalty or identification with the group. Our field grows only to the extent that clinical work changes the theory, and not the other way around.