Charles B. Strozier, PhD


October 25, 2016

A Visit to the Home of Heinz Kohut in Vienna

        At the recent meetings of the international self psychology association in Vienna (the organization that continues the psychoanalytic work of Heinz Kohut), most participants visited Freud's apartment and consulting room (with all but one room empty because he took the furniture with him to London in 1938). I went instead to a far more important site, that of Kohut's home at Paradisgasse 47.

        There is quite a story associated with this house. After the Anschluss in March of 1939, the Nazis radically altered the life of Vienna. Austrian mobs looted stores. In the Leopoldstadt district of the city where the poorer and religious Jews lived, the mobs forced the Jews in their black robes to get on their knees and wash the sidewalks with the fringes of their undergarments and, sometimes, with their beards. Cafes had signs that read, "No Dogs or Jews Allowed." Benches were marked Nur fur Arier (For Aryans Only). And so on.

        The Nazis also began the systematic appropriation of Jewish wealth. They decreed shortly after the Anschluss that Jews had to file a complete inventory of all their possessions or face "heavy penalties." Kohut went to work and filed his report of the family wealth on July 12. He listed as owning some art objects, three rings, a gold fountain pen, and other assorted items, along with an inheritance from his father, Felix, of 13,798 that was held in trust by his mother (or about $5,500 in today's dollars). Below his signature was the required "Heil Hitler."

        But more importantly than the appropriation of wealth, the Nazis wanted Vienna Judenfrei. That meant taking over all Jewish homes, which were to be "sold" to Aryans. In August, a couple named the Kraulics presented themselves to Else and Heinz Kohut to buy the house. Heinz was worried whether things would go smoothly, as he wrote to his friend, Siegmund Levarie, in Chicago on August 23. In fact, things were not going smoothly at all, as Else refused to budge. She correctly regarded the forced sale as a disguised steal.

        But the Kraulics were not to be trifled with. In the middle of the night that August, Herr Kraulic called Else and threatened to have her son sent to a concentration camp, which undoubtedly would have been Mathausen near Vienna that was created in August, 1938. In the end the Kraulics got the house for 23,000 Reichsmarks, or half the estimated value made by the Nazis themselves. Of that amount, they further deducted 20,000 Reichsmarks for an "emigration tax" and 1,200 Reichsmark for another, obscure tax. The house was essentially confiscated.

       Psychoanalytic psychotherapy would be a very different thing if Heinz Kohut had ended up in a Nazi concentration camp in August of 1938.

September 6, 2018

After the Affair:  Couples in Crisis

It is often the case that an affair threatens a long-term relationship.  There are many varieties of such threats, and there is no cookie-cutter rule in this area of human experience.  And the strategies one employs as a therapist must also adapt to the unique demands and needs of any given couple.  One must be flexible in handling the enormously complex feelings around issues of infidelity.  The course of therapy after an affair is seldom smooth as the couple seeks to resolve their feelings.  The injured party needs to vent about hurt feelings, humiliation, and anger, but the person in the couple designated as “bad,” also needs to feel safe enough to explain his or her frustrations in the relationship that to the affair in the first place.  Those feelings behind the affair only emerge in painstaking therapeutic work over long periods. In order to get anywhere with the treatment, both members of the couple need to feel safe in the room.  That takes time.

In this post, I will describe two clinical examples of couples in crisis over affairs, how I dealt with the issues around the affair, and the outcomes of the therapy.  

I had a recent couple, married for nearly 20 years, that fit that narrative. The husband had an affair, which he confessed to after six months.  For nearly a year they fought and argued over the affair before finally coming into therapy.  They worked diligently to repair their marriage but concluded, with some pain, that they really could no longer live together. The wife came to conclude in therapy, and then voice her feelings, that she not only wanted to have her own relationship outside of the marriage but in fact wanted to be free herself to have many other relationships and return to her once-successful business.  She came to realize she hated being married, even though she loved her husband. The therapy, while it didn’t “save” the marriage, did contribute to a reasonably friendly divorce process, based on work with a mediator whom I recommended.  Without the therapy, that divorce would have been much more bitter, and everyone would have wasted a lot of money.

For the most part, however, the couples I work with coming out of affairs find ways to understand each other at deeper levels and move their marriages to a more mutually satisfying relationship.  One couple I treated faced a crisis in the wake of the wife’s affair with a tennis pro in their resort in south Florida.  The husband was a successful Wall Street trader who worked long hours and was under constant stress.  Their upscale lifestyle was unable to bring them much joy with each other.  But several factors about their life together struck me from the very outset of our work together.  First, they had three happy and successful children, just grown, whom both greatly admired.  The couple, I guessed, must have collaborated, partly unconsciously, in profoundly important ways to create a home life that nurtured the raising of their children.  My strategy in the therapy was to encourage the couple toward greater awareness of this unspoken aspect of their relationship.  My guess about the importance of their mutual feelings of respect and love for each other in the way they raised their children proved quite accurate.  It was something they knew well.  In therapy I gently encouraged them to put into words what they felt toward each other.  “Always use your words” is my mantra in working with couples in crisis.  

I was also struck by the husband’s love for the wife.  He felt guilty for making his wife lonely all those years but deeply loved her and wanted to save the marriage.  She in turn had had her fling, regretted it now, and wanted to move forward.  Again, I sensed these dynamics early on and tried subtly to encourage their expression.  Therapy lasted about nine months and ended with the couple back on track, now to grow old, and happy, together.

October 2, 2018

On Empathy

I consider myself a self psychologist, which means I practice as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in the tradition of Heinz Kohut.  The single most important emphasis in Kohut’s work was on empathy, which he felt lies at the heart of clinical practice.  It is not only the oxygen of life, but a deep empathic immersion is the essence of good therapeutic work.  For far too long, psychoanalysts believed in remaining aloof and quiet as a way of fostering regression in the patient.  All that does, I believe, is confuse and even frighten someone.  What people seek in therapy is empathic understanding, not simply remote and arrogant interpretations.

There is an old Native American saying that to get me you need to walk for a mile in my moccasins.  That’s empathy.  It does not mean compassion per se, though such feelings are often a part of the landscape of empathy.  Kohut initially defined empathy as vicarious introspection, which is useful but perhaps a bit abstract.  In the course of his creative explorations into what he came to call self psychology, that scientific definition of empathy expanded to mean a kind of life force.  To be cut off from others and lack empathic connection with them, to be unconnected with humans or symbolic others, to be utterly unto oneself or locked within the self as in psychosis, is to be dead.  Empathy is the “wordless psychological extension of the human environment” and is the ultimate “barrier to meaningless, to pessimistic despair.”

Kohut felt that psychoanalysis had long missed the significance of empathy in one sense because it is so obvious.  His interesting analogy was the discovery of perspective by Brunelleschi in the 15th Century.  Surely, Kohut said, people knew before that that people looked smaller if far off and larger up close.  How could geniuses of art then never paint that way?  They had to have known what the eye sees, and yet they did not know.  What Brunelleschi did was give people a new theory that allowed the world to be perceived more accurately as it really is.

And thus empathy is what therapy is all about.