Janet Sayers

  • Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding by Bernard Paris
    Yale, 270 pp, £22.50, November 1994, ISBN 0 300 05956 6

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.

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