Paulina Kernberg, M.D.
Obituary for the journal Kinderanalyse
Dr. Paulina Fischer Kernberg, an internationally renowned psychoanalyst on the Faculty of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and a distinguished Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Westchester branch of Weill Medical College of Cornell University, died in New York City from cancer on April 12 at age 71.
Dr. Kernberg was born in Santiago, Chile, where she received her undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Chile. She did her psychiatric training at the Menninger Memorial Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, and completed her psychoanalytic training at the Topeka Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1969. From 1975-1978, Dr. Kernberg was the director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Bronx Municipal Hospital Center of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She then moved to Weill Cornell, Westchester Division and served as Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from 1978 until 1996 and as Director of the Child and Adolescent training program from 1978 until her death. She became a full professor of psychiatry in 1995. Contemporaneously she served as Training and Supervising Analyst at the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic training and research from 1977 until her death.
An unassuming and unpretentious woman in both personal and public situations, Dr. Kernberg had enormous industry and determination. She published nearly 100 papers and numerous books including two that have had a major influence on child psychiatry: her award winning book Children With Conduct Disorders: A Psychotherapy Manual written with Saralea Chazan in 1991, and Personality Disorders in Children and Adolescents written with Alan Weiner and her daughter Karen Bardenstein in 2000. Working up until the time of her death, she completed a new book that explores children’s’ reactions to their images in the mirror as a window on their self-development and their object relations; the book will be published later this year.
Dr. Kernberg had immense grace and clarity under pressure. This was particularly evident in her performance as a consultant in the well publicized Elian Gonzalez custody case involving a Cuban boy whose mother had drowned during their escape from Cuba to Miami. There was formidable public opinion surrounding the case for the boy to remain in the United States. Nonetheless, keeping her focus clearly on the boy’s best interest, Dr. Kernberg determined that the boy and his father were well connected emotionally and she recommended that he rejoin his father in Cuba.
Dr. Kernberg had a special interest in children who had been traumatized by divorce or had been sexually abused. She founded the Children of Divorce program at Weill Cornell Westchester Division, dedicated to the amelioration of the serious emotional consequences of divorce on children.
Dr. Kernberg was an esteemed and beloved colleague who had rare clinical gifts informed by her enormous common sense and compassion. Unencumbered by convention, she was bold in her search for creative solutions to clinical problems, tailoring her interventions or her recommendations to the unique details of the child’s situation. She had a passionate interest in her work, boundless curiosity, and unending enthusiasm for the process of discovery, all of which made working with her a great pleasure. Dr. Kernberg was also known to her colleagues for her deep personal generosity. She was always available to close colleagues to sort out puzzling problems and dilemmas. She was blessed with a scintillating wit that shone even in her final days.
She was unusually intuitive with children while also drawing on her sharp intellect and her vast breadth of knowledge. She had a twinkle in her eye that invited playful engagement, and a quietly intense presence that made children feel cared about and that inspired trust. She would wait on the sidelines as a child began to play until she discovered the child’s rhythm and then she would jump in with the ease and exquisite timing of a partner in double-dutch jump rope.
Generations of faculty and staff have been enriched by her humanity, by her warmth, and by her clinical wisdom. Her loss will be deeply and widely felt and we will forever be indebted to her for her distinguished and enduring contributions to child psychiatry.
Dr. Kernberg is survived by her husband of 52 years, Dr. Otto F. Kernberg, the world-renowned psychoanalyst at the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Director of the Personality Disorders Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital; by two daughters, Karen Bardenstein, a psychologist, in Cleveland, and Adine Varah, a lawyer in San Francisco; and by a son, Dr. Martin Kernberg, a radiologist and emergency physician in San Francisco; and her six grandchildren, Ian 18, Annessa 18, Daniel 15, Sarina,14, Sonia 7, James 3. In the days before she died she composed a poem for Sonia on the occasion of her approaching seventh birthday.
Birthdays are magic days.
Number 0, suddenly you are there, there a minute before you were not.
One time it was only your mom and dad.
When they found you on the spot
And from then on came
Birthday 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Every April 12th,
Always, always on the dot.
Dear Sonia, now happy birthday number seven,
Do not forget, ever ever
Said the raven
And the hawk
And all the mocking birds,
Sparrows and doves
And all the birds flying
And singing crisscrossing
The skies like sparking arrows, that April 12,
Sonia's birthdays happen always on the dot.
Paulina Kernberg died on April 12, 2006.