Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Book Review; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 20, 2010

    This 1977 book captures the story of Monte and Marla The interplay between the professional and the personal makes for an “impossible profession”. Aaron Green, the pseudonym for the psychoanalyst, met with Janet Malcolm weekly, as Ms. Malcolm delved into the psychoanalytic world of New York City. Janet Malcolm reminds us that psychoanalysis created a major cultural shift in understanding the human mind; it also became a popular treatment for anxiety in the 1950’s. Yet, for the professional, psychoanalysis became a world of hierarchy, competition, and endless revitalization of  infantile wishes. The psychoanalytic institutes re-created family relationships where there were “favorite” children, and “unloveable” children. Unlike families of origin, the psychoanalyst, since he stays working in the profession, never has the opportunity to “grow up”.

     Dr. Green, like Monte, works as a middle-aged professional, yet when he walks into the psychoanalytic institute, feels like the child at the dinner table whom no one listens to. This asymmetry between Dr. Green’s public persona  and his internal life around his colleagues creates the stage for pulling up the curtain on the profession. It is not that psychoanalysis does not help people who seek relief from their internal demons; rather, it is that the field of  psychoanalysis has trouble helping the provider work through his infantile  fantasies.

      Psychoanalysis established the unconscious as an operative mode in the human psyche. The field also helped many people understand themselves in ways in which they can grow and open up new possibilities for ways to exist in their worlds. Mental health providers hit up against one limitation; it is hard to heal a wound, if the family never lets you leave the dinner table. A developmental principle is echoed; separation is the key to growth and psychological autonomy. Alas, the field of psychoanalysis needs to put into operation that principle. Hopefully, a new model of psychoanalytic training awaits; a model in which psychoanalysts do not associate professionally with their colleagues whom they have sought mental health treatment in the past. The field needs to grow up and go off to college; the providers need to find new colleagues when their training is done. Senior members, although it is hard for them to let go, must encourage this transition. The profession needs to become possible.

6 Responses to “Book Review; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession”

  1. It is interesting to learn about the difficulities of the family impact on a mental health sufferer. Because, the family might never let you leave the dinner table. Separation is the key. I really enjoyed this book review. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with others.

  2. Suzi said

    Really good point.

  3. Shelly said

    Does psychoanalytic thinking change with the times? For instance, many advances have been made since the publication of this book. Do you notice their absence in the content of the text?

    • Interesting question. There are newer ways of thinking about the human mind, and there have been some changes to the training of psychoanalysts, but having said that, Janet Malcolm’s book still rings true. The profession has “impossible” qualities. Training and healing can be opposing agendas.

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