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Review of Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes by Douglas Kirsner. London: Process Press, 2000. Pb Pp. viii+324

Price:19.95 British pounds sterling. ISBN1-899209-12-3  

Reviewed by Kenneth Eisold       

This extraordinary book is a labour of love and of rage.  I say “love” because it has obviously been painstakingly compiled.  Distilled from interviews with over 150 psychoanalysts conducted over almost 20 years, it carefully details the stories of many of the upheavals and schisms that have beset four of most prominent American psychoanalytic institutes, The New York Institute, The Boston, The Chicago, and The Los Angeles (LAPSI). 

Kirsner tells a number of stories that not only never have been told before in such a balanced and fair-minded way, but stories that I had believed could never be told.  Through his profound engagement with his subject and his determination to get it right, he has retrieved these events from the fading memories and obscure records of those who lived through them and who, often, played major roles themselves.  Clearly, much has been lost to the dustbin of history, but almost single handedly Kirsner has retrieved these remarkable stories of rivalries, plots, vendettas, narcissistic exploits and injuries as well as idealistic and repressive crusades that comprise the secret history of American psychoanalysis.  In doing so, he has provided us with an unparalleled opportunity to better understand our institutional history and professional dilemmas. 

It is also a labour of love because it tries to stand apart from the events it depicts and understand them without blame. That is, he calls attention to the anxieties, ambitions and petty motivations of the leaders who brought about these painful events, unsparingly at times, but he doesn’t scapegoat them.  This is no mean feat as, obviously, no one could undertake such a project without getting caught up again and again in the issues.  This is especially true as he has personally met with so many of the key players and allowed himself to be influenced by their points of view.  Thus the book bears the earmarks of understanding born of attachment and struggle.  No doubt that is why he has been able to gain the co-operation and endorsement of so many prominent analysts and historians of psychoanalysis throughout the course of his prolonged researches. 

But it is also, clearly, a labour of rage. These are ugly stories of how our institutes abused the trust of their candidates and members and undermined their own capacities to thrive.  Kirsner is unsparing in his portrait, determined that the events be laid bare in all their harsh detail.  Fiercely, he exposes how American psychoanalysis engineered its own decline, discrediting itself and, often, betraying its own standards and values in the process. 

That rage raises these stories to the level of tragedy.  Kirsner obviously understands and appreciates the enormous value of what has been lost.  These institutes, like tragic heroes, inevitably and uncomprehendingly struggled to bring about their own decline.  Representing powerful and immensely valuable ideas and practices, nevertheless with hubris and ignorance, they were caught in the net of their own practices and beliefs;  they brought about their own fates.  Self-righteous and intolerant as so many of the players in these stories were, they were also motivated by convictions that mattered deeply to them -- as well as by profound terrors that drove them, often, to acts of malice and self destruction. 

We often satirise and ridicule our history -- and distance ourselves from it as well -- by claiming the analogy of religious wars.  But in doing so what we forget is how deeply motivated those sectarian battles were (and, in some settings, still are).  Our present liberal religious tolerance is purchased by an indifference and detachment to the issues they represent. 

What Kirsner makes possible for us to do now is think more clearly into the contradictions and dilemmas of our professional practices.  To a high degree, of course, the stories he tells represent the working out of our flawed inheritance:  the legacy of charismatic authority, of proprietary entitlement, and secret manipulation.  Freud and his apostles were our leaders in this.  But more importantly, he points us in the direction of understanding our on-going unresolved professional problems:  the contradictions in our training practices, the limitations in our institute structures, the ambiguities of our professional identities. 

He concludes with trenchant observations about the “false expertise” we have traditionally laid claim to.  That is, preoccupied as we have been with our own theoretical orientations, we have never been able to identify -- never truly wanted to learn -- what constitutes psychoanalytic competence.  As a result, training is fatally compromised.  Because we have not studied the outcomes of our practices in any serious or systematic way, we have refrained from systematically linking our training to those outcomes.  As a result, our training practices are determined by such extraneous concerns as controlling candidates, promoting the careers of those in power, and indulging in the wish for certainty about the unknown. 

This is not to say that our training and supervising analysts are irresponsible or incompetent.  On the contrary, I believe that many, if not most, of them are serious and dedicated.  But it is to say that they have been abandoned by our institutions to cope with these issues in an anarchic and isolated way.  Institutionally, psychoanalysis has so far failed to assume the responsibility of studying and clarifying its own practices. 

Kirsner makes an extremely important point.  I would add that the stories he tells makes it possible to arrive at other thoughts as well about our professional practices.  But even to say this is to acknowledge his place among those thinkers about our institutional reality to whom we owe the greatest of debts.


This review will appear in Free Associations 

Address for correspondence with reviewer:

Kenneth Eisold

285 Central Park West

New York, NY 10024

Tel. (212) 874-7143 


You can order this book directly from the publisher by post, fax or email from Process Press Ltd., 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

Fax. +44 (0) 171 609 4837


Price: 19.95 British pounds sterling + 1.50 P&P

Payment by cheque in British pounds sterling or by credit card, giving name on card, billing address, card type (Visa/Mastercard/Amex), card number, expiry date.


Publisher's description: 

This is the most thorough, revealing and illuminating account of the inner workings of psychoanalytic institutions that has ever been written. It comprises ground-breaking, in depth, recent political histories of the four leading psychoanalytic institutes in the United States — New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles - based on the author's extensive field work. Kirsner also provides dramatic insights into what psychoanalysts and their institutions have contributed to what has gone wrong with psychoanalysis.

The result is a fascinating series of portraits of these institutes — their organisations, their cultures, their ways of mediating conflict and how they have survived. In addition to archival research, the book is built on scores of interviews with prominent psychoanalysts who were often  protagonists in the stories of their institutes.

            Many themes emerge in Kirsner's gripping yet scholarly accounts. Most importantly, he demonstrates that issues surrounding the right to train are central to psychoanalytic disputes. In his study of the Los Angeles institute he also shows how a doctrinal dispute between Kleinians and ego psychologists got interwoven with group dynamics. Moreover, Unfree Associations  examines the problems of  psychoanalysis, a humanistic discipline that has been touted as a science on the model of the natural sciences but has been organized institutionally as a religion.

            Interest in this book should not be confined to psychoanalysts. It is a rich set of case studies in the vicissitudes of group relations, with the ironic twist that the members of these organisations profess to have special insight into human nature and how people  get along with one another.  

Douglas Kirsner, PhD is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and History of Ideas at Deakin University, Australia, where he teaches philosophy and psychoanalytic studies. He founded the annual Deakin University Freud Conference which he directed for twenty years. He is the author of  The Schizoid World of Jean-Paul Sartre and R. D. Laing,  and numerous articles about psychoanalysis.  


Comments on Unfree Associations:  

'It is a work of scholarship that is unparalleled in its field. Truly a magnum opus.'

— Charles Brenner, MD, author of An Elementary Textbook of    Psychoanalysis and The Mind in Conflict 


'Using extensive interviews and documents Kirsner has written am arresting, definitive account of the internal politics o psychoanalytic institutes and their sometimes paralysing effects on policy and research.'

 — Nathan Hale, Ph.D. author of Freud and the Americans and The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States


'Douglas Kirsner has produced a pioneering study of the operations of psychoanalytic Institutes. Unfree Associations traces the consequences of various organisational arrangements on their vital functions. It also presents a veritable nosology of the ills that beset analytic education. Kirsner's case studies are focused on four of the most influential Institutes in North America. The database he has collected is both convincing and astonishing. His conclusions transcend the problems of psychoanalytic education, for they are equally relevant to the fate of psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge.'

 — John E. Gedo MD,  author of Psychoanalysis and Its Discontents,; Spleen and Nostalgia: A Life and Work in Psychoanalysis ; Beyond Interpretation. and The Languages of Psychoanalysis.


'As a survivor of a paradigmatic split (Boston 1973), I can attest to Prof Kirsner's sensitivity and precision, in collecting many accounts of these traumatic events. He has recorded dozens of sympathetic interviews, in which each informant reports his or her own version of what happened, and he has reviewed hundreds of documents. From these conflicting and complex details, he has woven a seamless web that is both scholarly & extremely readable.

'From this brilliant historical reconstruction, the general as well as the scholarly reader will learn how complex & easily forgotten are the details of relatively recent events. As a sympathetic interviewer of the analysts who survived these traumatic experiences, each with a different view of what happened,  Kirsner has created a unified narrative that makes lively and dramatic reading. Historians of psychoanalysis will also be grateful for the wealth of factual detail he has preserved.'

 — Sanford Gifford, MD, Chair of the History and Archives Division of the American Psychoanalytic Association.


"I should be embarrassed about having known so little about American psychoanalysis, but I am just grateful to Douglas Kirsner for having done all the hard work which has brought up so much that is new. Kirsner is balanced and impartial; his interviewing has yielded a rich storehouse of material which makes a wonderful book.'

 — Paul Roazen, PhD, author of Freud and his Followers; Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision and Brother Animal: The Story of Freud and Tausk


"Kirsner's study of the dissensions in the most expansively successful psychoanalytic culture in the world is not only an extremely impressive piece of social and historical research, but is also a revelation concerning the local causes of bitter feuds and squabbles amongst Freud's most orthodox progeny. Whether the issues were money, professional style, parochial empire-building or the future developments of clinical technique and scientific theory, Kirsner gives a clear and unbiassed account of the at times bitter struggles. It will be absolutely indispensable to all those interested in the fate of professional societies, scientific institutions and the rise and fall of American psychoanalysis.'

 — John Forrester, PhD, Reader in History and Philosophy of the Sciences, University of Cambridge. Author of Dispatches from the Freud Wars; Truth Games and The Seductions of Psychoanalysis 



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