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American Imago 60.4 (2003) 429-444

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Ferenczi, Rescue, and Utopia

Emanuel Berman

My interest in the paradoxical place of rescue fantasies in the vocational motivation and countertransference of analysts and therapists (1997), and in the way these fantasies can become a springboard for utopian wishes to rescue humanity (1993), has led me to contemplate the relevance of this topic for our understanding of Ferenczi's work and its impact today (1996; 1999).

The history of thinking about rescue fantasies teaches us something about the potential of professional and intellectual traditions to imagine themselves immune from the blind spots they observe in the outside world. When Freud (1910a) first discussed the phenomenon of the rescue fantasy, he attributed it to certain male patients whose emotional life centers around the rescue of "fallen women." His interpretation was along oedipal lines: the woman is unconsciously seen as mother, and her rescue from sexual exploitation signifies having her for oneself, in defiance of the oedipal father.

Theodor Reik (1911), Wilhelm Stekel (1911), and other early analysts pursued this line of thought, supplying intriguing clinical and literary examples. Karl Abraham (1922) added fantasies of rescuing the father, and interpreted them as a reaction formation to murderous oedipal wishes. But none of these prominent authors appeared to realize that these rescue fantasies may be relevant to our own profession.

The roots of this insight, like the roots of our understanding of many other aspects of countertransference, appear in Ferenczi's work, though he did not utilize the term rescue fantasies directly in this context. In "On the Technique of Psychoanalysis," Ferenczi described situations when "the doctor has unconsciously made himself his patient's patron or knight" (1919, 188). The context of this insight is important [End Page 429] too. Ferenczi discussed accusations or even legal proceedings against therapists or "wild" analysts, in which "the patients are simply unmasking the doctor's unconscious. The enthusiastic doctor who wants to 'sweep away' his patient in his zeal to cure and elucidate the case does not observe the little and big indications of fixation to the patient, male or female, but they [the patients] are only too aware of it, and interpret the underlying tendency quite correctly without guessing that the doctor himself was ignorant of it."

This is a central example of Ferenczi's awareness that countertransference may mold the transference, that it is not merely countertransference at all. Another example offered by Ferenczi and Rank (1923), in a chapter originally written by Ferenczi, was "the development of a kind of narcissistic countertransference which provokes the person being analyzed into pushing into the foreground certain things which flatter the analyst and, on the other hand, into suppressing remarks and associations of an unpleasant nature in relation to him" (41-42). Racker, though not giving full credit to Ferenczi's contribution, developed this direction further, emphasizing for example that "as long as we repress . . . our wish to dominate the analysand neurotically. . . we cannot free him from his neurotic dependence" (1968, 132).

Although Ferenczi, in his 1919 discussion, cautiously pinpointed nonanalytic therapists or "wild" analysts as being vulnerable to unconscious rescue fantasies, one can easily understand that well-trained analysts may be at risk too. In this awareness he characteristically foresaw the future of our professional discourse. Almost half a century passed before this future came into being. Phyllis Greenacre, in 1966, first directly applied the concept of rescue fantasies to analysts, without any awareness of Ferenczi's insights—one more indication of the way Ferenczi's work was silenced for decades. (Another amazing example is Warren Poland's [1975] comprehensive paper on tact in psychoanalysis, where all the references cited are much later than Ferenczi's groundbreaking discussion of the topic, but the latter is not mentioned at all.)

Greenacre portrayed the rescue fantasy of the overzealous analyst as an expression of the analyst's self-image as a substitute parent: "In such rescue operations the analyst's aggression [End Page 430] may be allocated to those relatives or therapists who have previously been in contact with the patient and are, in fact...


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