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American Imago 59.1 (2002) 91-102
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Self psychology may have been the most influential new movement within psychoanalysis in the late twentieth century. Heinz Kohut, its founder, often proudly claimed that it was the product of his introspective efforts; hence a biography of Kohut is amply justified by the role it should play in clarifying the intellectual history of the field. As it turns out, the narrative of Kohut's life happens to be a fascinating story that may interest a wide public, even those unconcerned with psychoanalysis as such. Charles Strozier, a professional historian, honed his biographical skills by writing a psychological study of Abraham Lincoln; Strozier has full command of all the tools of the discipline. His book is well written, diligently researched, and (as far as I am able to judge) surprisingly free of errors and solecisms.
Strozier has not written an official biography--far from it. In fact, lack of cooperation from Kohut's widow forced him to suspend his efforts for many years; after her death, the biographer's task was facilitated by the collegial efforts of Thomas Kohut, the sole survivor, who is himself a distinguished historian. Strozier's point of view is, however, strongly biased by the fact that in recent years he has become a practitioner of self psychology. In other words (in a classification of psychoanalytic convictions proposed some years ago by Moraitis ) Strozier is a fervent "believer." His beliefs may have had little bearing on his attitude toward Kohut as an individual, but they have compromised his ability to assess Kohut's contributions to psychoanalysis in a balanced manner.
I can claim no greater objectivity, either about Kohut's work and his person or about Strozier's book, in which I appear as one of the cast of characters and am portrayed with a certain lack of empathy. I was the first active contributor to theoretical discourse in psychoanalysis to have taken Kohut's [End Page 91] innovations seriously, and I was the only member of his early circle to have been sufficiently disquieted by the direction his work took after 1972 to have left his entourage. Over the years, I have published detailed critiques of self psychology (1980, 1986, 1989, 1999) and have articulated a theoretical position of my own (1979, 1988, 1991, 1996) widely at variance with that of Kohut and his followers. These activities have resulted in a high degree of mutual antipathy between the Kohutians and me.
In his Acknowledgments, Strozier makes clear how close he has been, personally and professionally, to many of Kohut's disciples, particularly to Arnold Goldberg, Ernest Wolf, and Marian Tolpin. A number of self psychologists even assisted him in obtaining funding for his research. When I decided to cooperate to the full extent of my capacity with Strozier's enterprise, I was cognizant of his loyalties; I had the hope that, if I proved to be helpful, Strozier might give my side of the story a fair hearing. Strozier accurately recorded what I told him but (as I now read his book) he portrays me as a rebel without a good cause. Needless to say, I don't like it.
What I like a great deal about Heinz Kohut is that it brings to light many hitherto unknown facts about the life of its protagonist. Among these, the most significant datum is that about all sorts of matters, both important and seemingly insignificant, Kohut was systematically untruthful. Moreover, he often told a variety of different lies about the same circumstance to his various interlocutors. I can now testify that he was an extremely skillful confabulator: from Strozier, I have learned that much of what Kohut told me about himself--confessions I have always regarded as entirely confidential--was fictive. (When I finally caught him in a blatant lie--having to do with his claim that he had waited for me at the spot designated for an appointment...