HELENE DEUTSCH; A Psychoanalyst's Life. By Paul Roazen.Anchor/Doubleday. 371 pp. $19.95.
THROUGHOUT her almost century-long life, Helene Deutsch was one of the most professionally and personally intriguing of the original followers of Freud. One of the first Freudians to be analyzed by Freud himself, Deutsch was a brilliant psychoanalyst who had an enormous impact on future generations of analysts. She helped found the first psychoanalytic training institute in Vienna and for more than a decade cast the deciding vote in the selection of candidates for psychoanalytic training there. An excellent clinician and writer, she conducted research on "as if" personalities that was a precursor of current work on narcissistic character disorders -- a major preoccupation of modern psychology.
Her most important contribution to psychoanalytic literature and theory was the two-volume Psychology of Women. It is a classic exposition of Freud's theories about women -- complete with long discussions of penis envy, female masochism and passivity. Because of her strict adherence to Freud's views of women, Deutsch was later to become a prime target of modern feminists who believe she was a male-identified betrayer of women. In the latter part of the 20th century she became, therefore, a symbol of the confrontation between feminism and psychoanalysis.
Although she wrote about "feminine passivity," Deutsch's lifelong activities contradicted her work. Born in Poland, she was a campaigner for women's rights. An early socialist, she smuggled forbidden political tracts into her homeland and tried to organize women workers. During the Second World War, she fled to the United States to escape Nazi persecution and was active in Boston's psychoanalytic community. And throughout her life, she remained committed to the emancipatory causes championed in her youth. In her eighties, in America, she was no less politically concerned and joined younger colleagues in their protests against the war in Vietnam.
Her personal life was, moreover, illustrative of the psychoanalytic theories she espoused. She hated her mother, adored her father, had a tempestuous love afair with a married man far older than she, and later married yet another lover, Felix Deutsch. After having great difficulty conceiving, she bore one son, with whom she had lifelong conflicts. Like so many modern women, she was torn between her love for her family and her love for her profession.
When I met her, she was 94 and seemed to have lost none of her spirit. A widow for many years, she lived alone, but still maintained a presence in Boston psychoanalytic circles and contributed her time to those interested in charting the origins of psychoanalysis. She never feigned modesty but rather unabashedly and refreshingly claimed her place in a movement which had changed history. More than this, she filled her recollections not only with humanity but with humor. Commenting, for example, on Wilhelm Reich's expulsion from the psychoanalytic community, she admitted that his theories were "crazy" but nostalgically regretted his absence because, she said "He was a good dancer, and when he left there was no one left to dance with." When she commented on her truncated analysis with Freud, who needed her time-slot to pursue his analysis of what was to be one of his most famous cases, The Wolfman, she quipped, at 94, "And so, I am sitting here waiting for analysis."
BECAUSE Deutsch was such a lively and remarkable woman, her life and work are extraordinarily rich ground for the biographer. If Paul Roazen, a psychoanalytic historian who has written several important books on Freud and his followers, had simply told her story, he would have produced a book that would be hard to put down. Unfortunately, Roazen seems intent on placing as many rhetorical, historical and psychological stumbling blocks as he can in the reader's way.
His style, for example, is often infuriating. Whenever the reader becomes immersed in the intriguing details of Deutsch's life, the author suddenly intrudes. A discussion of Deutsch's family includes a banal aside about the virtues of extended families and the drawbacks of nuclear ones. Roazen's description of Deutsch's girlhood diary is interrupted by an explanation of why young girls keep them. And, when he talks about Deutsch's lover's refusal to divorce, an explanation of the obvious -- "Since in our own time divorce has become so commonplace, and in certain circles even fashionable, it requires an effort to understand Lieberman's full dilemma" -- reminds the reader that then is not now.
Roazen tries so hard to interweave fact, interpretation, observation and recollection that it is almost impossible to follow the progress of Deutsch's life and experiences. In the space of several pages, she's a child, an adolescent, an adult struggling with her parents, a married woman dealing with her parent's death, and a younger woman falling in love. Then, with equal rapidity, she's ending a love affair, getting engaged, finding a house, and having a child. The reader is left breathless, trying to keep up with the flow, and lost trying to follow the sequence.
Roazen's most significant failing is, however, his inability to come to grips with the controversies over Deutsch's Psychology of Women. As he and many others have pointed out, Deutsch's life negated her notions about feminine passivity. (Similarly, in spite of Freud's views of the second sex, women played a major role in the development of psychoanalysis.) Rather than elaborating Deutsch's ideas and then carefully analyzing them, Roazen engages in a tortuous defense of her theories. Then, at the very end of the book, after he has discussed Helene's later years and concluded with her death in 1982 at age 97, he tacks on an epilogue in which he returns more fully to The Psychology of Women. Why, one wonders, did he not bring these issues up in the appropriate chapter? What could have been a subtle and important discussion of the historical influences that shaped early psychoanalytic thinking is once again marred by the author's inability to organize his material.
The book's many disturbing flaws are merely symptomatic of a deeper conflict. For the author seems unable to decide why he's writing this biography or the nature of his intended audience. Is he a popular biographer recounting a gripping story to an audience of historical illiterates? Is he a psychoanalytic historian relaying interesting new material about a psychoanalytic great to cognoscenti who can fill in the author's gaps? Or is he trying to rescue Deutsch from the feminist assailants who jeopardize her achievements and need, therefore, to be convinced of her good intentions?
Roazen seems to want to be everything to everyone -- popular biographer, psychoanalytic insider, and posthumous public relations advisor. Given such an ambitious agenda, it's not surprising he fails to do any one thing very well.