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Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding 
by Bernard Paris.
Yale, 270 pp., £22.50, November 1994, 0 300 05956 6
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Is psychoanalysis flirtation, as Adam Phillips has suggested? Even when not sexually charged, psychoanalysis liberates longing from a deadening fidelity to the past. It lets dreaming off the hook – and provides a vacation from the ego – by declaring a moratorium on action. Freud famously told his patients not to make any major decisions while in treatment with him. His method seeks to exchange deeds for words in order to explore the wishful thinking in between. Like flirtation, his technique stops short of seduction, sex and love, to create a space in which to discover what we are doing by talking about the imagined fulfilment of our wishes to someone else – who often becomes their main object.

Psychoanalysis began with women talking to Freud about their discontents. Increasingly, however, Freud’s own talk was only of men – of the legendary Oedipus and Narcissus, and of grown men’s boyhood dread of castration. Hence the appeal of Karen Horney. Not only was she the first psychoanalyst to point out Freud’s male-centredness, she was also the first to complement it with an account of men’s as well as women’s psychology on the basis of her own experience – as a woman. In her time, and following the publication of her collected papers, Feminine Psychology (1967), she became the darling of feminism and, more generally, of pop psychology. Now, however, her work is much less well-known. And those who do know it are inclined to dismiss it – for naively, narcissistically even, assuming that Women’s femininity is generated by women’s biology alone, without reference to men.

Her latest biographer, Bernard Paris, tells a different story, however: that of a woman who questioned her femininity through self-analysis. The account is woman-centred yet curiously devoid of women, as friends, colleagues or patients. Instead, it transpires, Horney made men her all. It was discrimination against her sex, she wrote as a teenager, that launched her into self-analysis. Excluded from dissection classes in school on account of being a girl, she decided to dissect herself.

Her story, as told in her adolescent diaries and in her case-histories and books, which Paris reads as autobiography, portrays her as the unwanted child of her German mother Sonni’s unhappy marriage to a Norwegian sea captain, Berndt Henrick Wackels Danielsen. She was born in 1885, in a suburb of Hamburg. Years later she remembered herself as a child going on voyages with her father. More often he went away without her or, when he was at home, was less interested in her than in the children of his first marriage. Bereft of his regard, Karen made do with playing up to her mother’s craving for adoration. Sonni, however, preferred Karen’s older brother, Berndt. Karen idolised Berndt, but in his early teens he rejected her. She filled the gap with studying, religious zeal and, after she lost her faith, with ‘eternal crushes’ – on teachers, an actor, a friend of her brother, a musician, the lodger her mother took in after leaving Wackels and undergraduates she met studying medicine. Among these was an economics student, Oskar Horney, whom she married in 1909.

Oskar, however, fell short of being the ‘beast of prey’ she had imagined for herself, an image modelled in part perhaps on her mother’s denigration of her Lutheran father as a bigot and an uneducated lout. Depressed, disappointed and exhausted by endlessly chasing after her father’s likeness, Karen went into analysis with Freud’s then heir apparent, Karl Abraham. It was the only time she allowed herself to be analysed by someone other than herself and the experiment ended when her father died the next year. Many years later, she recorded a woman patient who described how, as a child, she had sought to win her father’s unattainable love by making him the baby: when he died she wanted ‘to lie down beside him and put him on her breast as a mother would do with her child’.

Paris suggests that the patient was Horney herself. Whether or not this was the case, she became a mother for real after her father died. She bore Oskar three daughters. Mothering, however, did not abate her high-living ‘vagabonding’. Nor did her work as analyst, teacher and the only woman member of the first psychoanalytic clinic, founded in Berlin in 1920.

The same year Abraham propounded what was to become Freud’s notorious penis-envy account of women’s psychology. Horney answered it, using her male patients’ experience of her as a woman, by drawing attention to men’s envy of childbearing: ‘When one begins, as I did, to analyse men ... one receives a most surprising impression of the intensity of this envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, as well as of the breasts and of the act of suckling.’ Men’s womb envy, she suggested, stems from their imagining the mother as someone who could fulfil their every expectation and longing. Resenting what women have and they lack – specifically, creativity in mothering – men, wrote Horney, create society and exclude women from it on grounds of their alleged inferiority as theorised by Freud and others.

If women envy the penis, she wrote, this is not the cause, as Freud claimed, but the effect of their innately given desire for the father. Its fulfilment is expressed in anxious fantasies of ‘criminals who break in through windows or doors; men with guns who threaten to shoot; animals that creep, fly, or run inside some place (e.g. snakes, mice, moths); animals or women stabbed with knives; or trains running into a station or tunnel’. Worse than any fear or guilt, however, is the little girl’s anguish at not having her yearning for her father requited. Paris movingly recounts Horney’s discovery, from her own case, of children’s desolation and their resulting flight from femininity into a masquerade of masculinity, lured by the privilege accorded men in a male-dominated society.

Later, taking her cue from Marlene Dietrich’s song, ‘I know only love’, Horney wrote of women who, angry at their mothers outdoing them with the father or brother, become female Don Juans, believing in ‘sexual gratification as a kind of elixir of life that only men are able to provide’. By then Horney herself, according to Paris, had lost all belief in her own man: the corporation Oskar worked for had collapsed, in 1923 he nearly died of meningitis and three years later he went bankrupt. Karen chose this moment to leave him. In 1932, she also left Germany – for Chicago and then New York.

Her move initiated a second, more culturally-oriented stage in her work. She now switched her attention from the fantasy elaboration of femininity to its social, specifically parental causes. Neurosis, she argued in the Thirties, stems from parents favouring one child over another, from their showing themselves to be unfair or inconsiderate, from their interfering with the child’s wishes and friendships, or from their ridiculing the child’s nascent bids for independence. Fearful of losing the parents’ love, the child represses the hostility evoked by their maltreatment. But this gives rise to yet further insecurity, against which children seek to cushion and comfort themselves with affection, submission, power or withdrawal.

These inclinations, Horney indicated, do neither children nor adults any good. Nevertheless, a masochistic pursuit of love often proves adaptive to women because it is deemed socially appropriate to their sex. Furthermore, since women are brought up to centre themselves on family and home, they avoid the typically masculine characteristics of dominance and emotional detachment which, they fear, might make them less attractive to the men they want. Neurosis only breaks out when competitiveness and a caring concern for others, respectively equated with masculinity and femininity, collide, as they are bound to do, given that US society advocates both.

Sad but prosaic. Gone is any mention of the unconscious reworking of infantile sexuality. Instead, Horney increasingly viewed therapy as a matter of piecing together the mosaic of the patient’s here-and-now traits, beginning with those that are most apparent because they conform with prevailing sex-role stereotypes. Nowhere, Paris argues, did Horney better illustrate her method than in her 1942 book. Self-Analysis. In it she describes, in the guise of a patient she calls Clare, her own conflicting responses to being left by the then most important man in her life, the sociologist Erich Fromm. Paris claims that, in his enormously successful book Escape from Freedom, Fromm in turn described, from a man’s point of view, the clinging dependence Horney observed to be socially approved of in women.

Others record that on one occasion Horney called Fromm ‘Freud’ by mistake. Perhaps mindful of her father, she also likened him to the adventurer of the Norwegian epic, Peer Gynt. In Self-Analysis she describes Clare dreaming of her lover as a ‘large, gloriously coloured bird flying away’. Her associations included memories of a Sunday School song in which children ask Jesus to take them under his wing; her surprise at a man singling her out for his favours and his anticipating her desire for luxuries without her having to ask for them. It made her realise that she exploited men, sponged off them, and felt offended and depressed when they did not meet her expectations.

Clare and her boyfriend might have been Horney and Fromm, as Paris claims. What is certain is that Fromm was fifteen years younger than Horney. Cuckolded by him in her late fifties, she continued to take much younger men as her lovers – often several at a time – students and patients included. Men her own age or older hardly constituted the studs she craved. Only at the very end of her story, it seems, did she make room for women in her life. The men’s place was then taken by her oldest daughter, Brigitte, a film star, whom she made the centre of her life. Enamoured with Zen Buddhism, she took Brigitte with her to Japan in the summer of 1952, already ill with the cancer that killed her within months of their return.

Her final decade had been dogged by professional rivalries which, in her books, she portrayed as the unlooked-for corollary of women’s ‘boy-craziness’. She fell out with the leading figures both of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and of the alternative Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis which her dissident faction set up in 1941. But her shortcomings, Paris insists, were also the source of her greatest gifts. Her self-analysis over her last years resulted in her third and, in Paris’s opinion, most important and enduring contribution to psychology. Having previously attended to the parental and social causes of neurosis, she now looked inwards, as she had in the first stage of her work. Then she had described the fantasies to which femininity give rise. Now, in effect, she stripped femininity, as well as masculinity, of any embodiment, actual or imagined, by treating them as free-floating tendencies. In Our Inner Conflicts, she described ‘our compulsive moves toward, against and away from people’. In Neurosis and Human Growth she labelled these as ‘self-effacement’, ‘expansiveness’ – including arrogant vindictiveness, narcissism and perfectionism – and ‘resignation’. Because these impulses alienate us from ourselves, we invent, often beginning in adolescence, a compensatory, idealised image of the self. The conflict between this and the ‘real self’, and not the Oedipus or castration complex, is the kernel of neurosis.

The ideal self constantly berates the real self for not living up to its claims, demands and exhortations. But where does it come from? Horney argued that we imagine the ideal self as ‘a hero, a genius, a supreme lover, a saint, a god’. Jung regarded such male deities of the mind as beacons lighting the way forward in our quest for a personal myth. He located their origin in the archetypes – puer, senex, and so on – of the collective unconscious. Freud, by contrast, treated the male (as well as female) personae of our dreams as the backward-looking effect of vitalising the bits and pieces of humdrum day-to-day existence with the artifices and monuments created long ago by our infantile sexual wishes. Later, he treated the ego ideal, at least in depression, as an effect of our clutching onto those who might otherwise disappoint us as though they were judges inside us. Later still, he characterised the ideal self – the superego – as a totem set up by the boy in defensive imitation of the father he imagines as castrator. Others see the inflated images peopling the psyche as evidence that we have magnificently papered over the cracks in the love and hate we bear to those around us.

Horney devoted much of her later work to describing our variously loving and hating, affectionate and rivalrous, clinging and destructive feelings. But she denuded them, and the femininity and masculinity they connote, of both cause and effect. Hers was a schema of action without actors. She left it to others to flesh out the self-realisation she now postulated as the goal of therapy: to Maslow’s hypothesis of a hierarchy of needs culminating in self-actualisation; and to Paris himself, who concludes his book with a Horneyan account of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons.

The result unwittingly reveals the limits of the ‘internal dialogue’ Paris so applauds in Horney. Psychoanalysis might have begun with Freud’s self-analysis at the time of his father’s death. But he also used his confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, as a sounding board: one cannot get far on one’s own. In Horney’s case, for all the energy she put into analysing her obsessive appetite for sexual love, it scarcely changed from her teens onwards. Not, anyway, according to Paris. Ironically, his biography, written against Post-Modernist theory, proves the truth of the Lacanian dictum that, in effect, we only learn about ourselves through others; that we only get going when the analyst interprets our dreams so as to expose as illusory the tactics – the symptoms and obsessions – by which we kid ourselves we have already arrived at where we wanted to be.

Horney, it seems, did not give dreaming a chance: without pausing for talk, she no sooner imagined a man as the remedy for her ills than she went after him – as lover or as rival. Unlike her previous biographers, Paris pulls no punches about the nastiness of what she termed women’s ‘hero worship’. In doing so, and like his subject, at least in her later work, he may not tell us much about psychoanalysis. But he tells us a great deal about both Horney and ourselves – men as well as women.

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