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Review of "Heinz Kohut"

By Charles B. Strozier
Other Press, 2004
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D. on Dec 31st 2005
Heinz Kohut

Say what you will about psychoanalysis, it has attracted a large number of brilliant people into its ranks. And what would you say about somebody who single-handedly created a new psychoanalytic tradition, and started that when he was 55 years old? That individual had to be not just brilliant, but charismatic and self-confident. . As we discover reading this biography, Heinz Kohut the person was just what we would expect of a leading psychoanalyst, and much more. 

Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) was the man who created the "self psychology" school in American psychoanalysis.  In some ways, his early life mimicked that of Sigmund Freud and countless other well-known artists and intellectuals. He was a product of  Vienna as it was before the Nazis, a cultural center and a home to creativity  and radical ideas. He was a man of high European culture, like Freud, quoting both the classics of antiquity and Geothe.  Until the age of eleven private tutors educated him; then he joined the regular school system, leading to graduation from an elite high school, and, at age 19, to medical school. As a medical student he was analyzed by August Aichhorn, a well-known name in the history of early psychoanalysis, but at that point his future role in psychoanalysis was not even dreamt about. Heinz Kohut became an MD in 1938, the year Austria became part of the Third Reich.Like many other psychoanalysts and intellectuals, was born in a Jewish family, and so had to leave Vienna, and Europe, behind.

He settled in Chicago, where he did residencies in neurology and in psychiatry in the 1940s, became a candidate at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1946, graduated in 1950 and joined the faculty. Kohut soon became recognized in the local psychoanalytic community, until led the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis as an orthodox psychoanalyst who, for a while, read only Freud's writings, until he broke away to develop his own ideas. In 1964-1965 Kohut served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association, which was a measure of his reputation among US psychoanalysts. In 1971 he came on stage as a major challenger of psychoanalytic orthodoxy when he published The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders.  This book presented the concept of "self-object transferences", as part of a whole new terminology, as well as claiming a major role for empathy in psychoanalytic practice. Within a decade, Kohut's ideas became internationally known, and today one may speak of a worldwide "self psychology" movement, with conferences and teaching institutes. The idea of the self as the center of personality and interactions with the world is at the center of that movement.

The biographer, Charles Strozier, is both an academic historian and a psychoanalyst. He knew Kohut, and follows Kohut's ideas sympathetically in his own psychoanalytic practice. He worked on this biography for 20 years, and in his introduction to the 2004 edition makes it clear that in working on his subject he discovered quite a few things he had not anticipated. There were not only skeletons in Kohut's closet, but personality traits that could only be described as problematic. The man who theorized about narcissism turned out to be a real narcissist, obsessed with his importance and contributions to the world. He did not always tell the truth about himself, which is rather unremarkable, but some of the things he lied about leave us puzzled.

And then there is the matter of Kohut's "protean sexuality", as Strozier put it. As a prepubescent boy, he was seduced by one of his tutors into a homosexual relationship. Strozier writes that "By current standards, what went on...can only be defined legally as childhood sexual abuse "(p. 25). But also states that  " it may well be that our sense of the exploitation of children has become too ideological and leads us to miss the subtlety of love and connection that can arise even in deeply unequal relationships "( p. 26). Heinz Kohut described a similar history in a case study published in 1979, "The Two Analyses of Mr. Z.", which Strozier considers autobiographical. Strozier also reports judgments of those who saw in Kohut a strong homoerotic streak.

Kohut's actions regarding his Jewish ancestry seem the most baffling thing about his private and public persona. He was born to Jewish parents, but since coming to the US described himself as half-Jewish or as a gentile. Later on he described himself as Christian, and attended church. The issue was that of Jewishness, rather than Judaism, of social identity, rather than religious practice  (see Beit-Hallahmi, 1993).  Most psychoanalysts of Jewish ancestry were atheists, starting with Sigmund Freud, and so they never observed any of Judaism's commandments and taboos. But, while keeping their distance from Judaism, they retained Jewishness, never denied their ancestry, and would not dream of embracing another religion. 

Kohut's own theoretical ideas about religion, as presented by Strozier, offer a psychological analysis in terms of the motives and human needs that create religious ideas, starting with the idealization need.  Kohut states that "there must be something idealizable, something that nears perfection or that is perfect, something that one wants to live up to, something that lifts one up" (p. 329)..."Such experiences touch the psychological core of our first encounters with the majestic mother who uplifted us as babies and held us close to her...Uplifted, we merged into the mother's greatness and calmness" (p. 329) These stimulating ideas and insights, which tie the readiness of adult humans to believe in religious illusions to childhood helplessness and dependence on  parents are quite consistent with the tradition of interpretations by such well-known atheists as Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, but their author, Heinz  Kohut chose to present himself to the world as a religious believer.. Strozier himself asks: "Did Kohut himself believe in God?" (p. 330).

Kohut called himself Christian and was a member of a Unitarian congregation in Chicago for many years. But the Unitarian-Universalist movement is not officially Christian, and this is a point not raised but either Kohut or Strozier. Unitarians may choose to be Christian, but it seems that for Kohut the label of Christian was just a façade. In a fascinating letter to Anna Freud in 1964, presented by Strozier, Kohut describes American psychoanalysis as dominated by Jewish MDs and by individuals coming from Protestant groups such as the "mystical Quakers" and the "rationalistic Universalists and Unitarians". The problem with Protestants was that they would "probably move psychoanalysis toward nonscientific "healing through love" and other cures by identification"(pp. 136-137). So Kohut chose to join the "rationalistic Universalists and Unitarians", had his doubts about their penchant for "healing through love", but still wanted to call himself a Christian, apparently for the sake of appearances and for his son, who should not know of the curse of Jewishness among his ancestors.

We all have clay feet, things about ourselves we would not want the world to see, but the question is always what we have got to balance out our weaknesses and sins. We can find many narcissists, but only a few among them do indeed offer us outstanding contributions and make our lives more enjoyable, or at least interesting, Whatever faults Kohut had, he was simply an outstanding and creative thinker. Strozier makes Kohut's original and provocative ideas stand out, in addition to his personality. The writing is clear and engaging, and this book is a must read if you are curious about psychoanalysis in general or about the development of psychoanalysis in the United States.



Beit-Hallahmi, B.   Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel.  New York: Interlink, 1993.


© 2005 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi


Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has written about psychoanalysis and Jewish identity. See Bunzl, J. & Beit-Hallahmi, B. Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology: Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case:.  Boston: Kluwer, 2002.