Self Psychology Page 


Heinz Kohut:
The Making of a Psychoanalyst

by Charles B. Strozier

There are few figures in the history of psychoanalysis as interesting and important as Heinz Kohut. He had a way of imposing himself on others. He was brilliant, lively, outgoing, truly charismatic, and at the center of any conversation or meeting, whether of three people or nine hundred. For the most part, you felt better after an encounter with him, and you certainly learned something. At the same time, he could be impossibly self-centered, at times almost with a certain innocence, and grandiose to a fault. To say he was a man of contradictions understates the case.

Born in Vienna in 1913, Kohut was raised in an assimilated Jewish family imbued with European high culture. He trained in medicine at the University of Vienna before being forced to emigrate in 1939 after the Nazis took over. Kohut settled in Chicago, where he made his life for the next four decades. A cautious man, in the 1940s Kohut gradually shifted from neurology to psychiatry to psychoanalysis. But once ensconced in the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, he embraced analysis with the fervor of a convert. He spent the 1950s and the first part of the 1960s as "Mr. Psychoanalysis" as he later joked, widely noted for his orthodoxy, admired by all the right people.

But something was happening to Kohut on the inside that coincided with a half-conscious crisis in the field. Time had eroded much of the humanism in the Freudian legacy. Psychoanalytic theory and practice, for various historical reasons, were fast becoming anachronistic, committed to values of autonomy despite a yearning for connection; focused on grim ideas about insight despite a pervasive interest in empathy after war and holocaust; and obsessed with the intricate workings of guilt despite the culture's embrace of the tragic.

In a burst of creativity that began in the mid-1960s and lasted for the remaining fifteen years of his life, Kohut found his voice and explored narcissism in new ways that led to what he ended up calling a "psychology of the self." He began his real work in the second half of his sixth decade, when most people are preparing for retirement. Kohut's reformulation of mainstream psychoanalytic thinking was the pivotal event in the transformation of the field into what is generally termed "relational psychoanalysis." Many had flailed at the stout walls of classical psychoanalysis and ego psychology. It took someone from the inside to think things through from the ground up, discarding the debris but salvaging what remained valuable in its clinical insights for the next century. Kohut, for all his own confusions and contradictions, may well have saved psychoanalysis from itself.

This book explores the complex tale of Kohut's life in the old and new worlds, together with the way his story got woven into the fabric of his ideas. With his own protean sexuality and identity confusions, he fit uneasily into the world of psychoanalysis as Freud constructed it. His project became to change the theory so as to find a place for himself in it. And there are larger meanings. Kohut lived out in his life and formulated in his work the core issues of contemporary America. He touched the pulse.

I have lived with this book longer than I sometimes like to acknowledge. It was launched formally in the spring of 1982. For the first four years I interviewed old friends and colleagues (many of whom have since died) and read the available published material. But after 1986, without access to Kohut's correspondence, I had to wait until the papers became available in 1994. I then finally returned full-time to my interviewing and writing. By this final phase, the man I knew personally as "Heinz" had become "Kohut" to me, though in the book I call him Heinz until he grows up and I get him into university; after that he becomes Kohut. The book is better for that distance.

I was neither Kohut's patient nor his supervisee, nor even his student. He had a casual acquaintance with my father, Robert M. Strozier, who was a French professor and dean at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, and he had a much closer relationship with the man who later became my stepfather, Howell Wright, chairman of pediatrics in the university's medical school for thirty years from the mid-1940s. As a child, I attended the university's "Lab School" several years ahead of Kohut's son, Thomas, though we barely knew each other. Such loose connections meant that when I showed up as a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in the 1970s, after getting my Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, I was someone who would be greeted cordially but otherwise considered, reasonably, a neophyte in the field.

I came to the Institute as a Freudian, immersed in Freud's work for a decade. Once at the Institute, I began to read Kohut closely and was soon transfixed. Here, I felt, were ideas that solved all the troublesome issues about Freud that had been gnawing away at me. I was also enormously stimulated by the atmosphere at the Institute, which was then pretty evenly divided between Freudians and Kohutians. Politics aside, the struggle gave intensity to the meaning of the smallest dream image in a case seminar and forced a tense Platonic dialogue over the interpretation of all sacred texts in the canon. In psychoanalysis dissidents tend to leave or be driven out of the fold. Kohut stayed, feeling he was not a dissident but the new voice of psychoanalysis. His conviction and determination forced a debate in the inner sanctum of the temple. I doubt there has been a more lively intellectual atmosphere in the history of psychoanalysis than at the Chicago Institute in the 1970s.

In time Kohut heard me give a couple of papers and was impressed enough to draw me into the outer ring or two of his circle. Neither then nor later was I at the heart of things, but I did experience firsthand the workings of charisma. I organized some events with Kohut, edited and published a piece of his in a journal I had started, appeared on a panel with him and others at the first self psychology conference in Chicago in 1978, and worked with him and Arnold Goldberg in hosting a major conference on history and psychoanalysis in 1980. After that he asked me to look at some of his unpublished papers on history and the humanities. I told him I thought they would be best presented along with some other material and some interviews. He agreed, and I conducted what turned out to be the last series of interviews he gave before he died.

While Kohut was alive, it never occurred to me consciously that I would write his biography. Yet the idea must have been working in me at some level, for I "suddenly" decided to write it barely six months after his death. In retrospect, it is not really that surprising. I had just finished a psychoanalytic study of Lincoln and was looking for a new project. Why not write about Heinz Kohut, a fascinating and important man for whom I cared and whose work connected with my interests in history and psychoanalysis?

Despite some difficulties over the years, nearly everyone I asked eventually granted me interviews, including Kohut's childhood friends, colleagues, and friends from later years. The story of the family's relationship to this book, however, is more complicated. It has ranged from enthusiastic support to guarded caution to outright opposition -- and sometimes all three attitudes in the same person at different times. Certainly, this biography is neither "authorized" nor "official." But I did have access to surviving family members, most of whom I also knew personally. I interviewed Kohut's widow, Elizabeth (Betty) Meyer Kohut, twice in the early 1980s; she died in 1992. In 1996 I had an extensive interview over two days with Kohut's only child, Thomas A. Kohut. He has not reviewed the manuscript, but has provided other materials and answered many specific questions in correspondence. A cousin, Walter Lampl, from Kohut's Vienna days, provided helpful insights into Kohut's childhood. Gretchen Meyer, Elizabeth's only sister, provided additional information on Kohut's family life.

Nothing has changed biography in the past century more than psychoanalysis itself. Until Freud it dealt mostly with great men in public life and, as Steven Marcus has put it, was intended to be "exemplary, monumental, inspirational, elevating, and instructive." A biography had to be highly selective, emphasizing the public side of a figures life and the story of his virtues -- there were few women -- in order to accomplish its appointed tasks. Since Freud (and Erik Erikson's models), on the other hand, biography has sought to discover, illuminate, and disclose. It is both broader and deeper. It looks into early experience and is concerned as much with quirks and neuroses as with achievements. The point is to find the true self. There is no theoretical or moral limit in determining relevance, and as Marcus adds, "no secret embarrassment, no shameful memory or episode" is ruled out, as long as it is "pertinent to the central project of understanding how a significant life came about." The larger, more visible story of the life in politics, science, or art remains the central task to explain. But the imperative of psychoanalysis forces the biographer to include the public and the private, the work and the life. It can be a daunting task and requires its own form of careful selection. The best one can do, along with Lytton Strachey, is to row out into the vast sea of facts and drop a bucket or two.

Kohut was fond of the Latin aphorism Habent sua fata libelli, "Writings have their own destiny." And so I have written a biography that has taken a life out of the inchoate past and shaped it into a narrative for others to experience in their own way, while I, with some ambivalence, must now relinquish the subject back into history.

*Endnotes were omitted

Copyright © 2001 Charles B. Strozier

Buy Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst at through this link and save 20% now while helping to support the Self Psychology Page.

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; April 2001

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

All Rights Reserved
Published by 3b