An Analysis of the Shadow Side of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann

[Written in 2005. Feel free to read my 2013 commentary on this essay — for context and/or follow-up.]

Essay refers to:  To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World, by Gail Hornstein

[Unless otherwise noted all bracketed page numbers refer to Gail Hornstein’s book]


It is characteristic of biographers that they have difficulty identifying with the child and quite unconsciously minimize mistreatment by the parents.

    -Alice Miller, from FOR YOUR OWN GOOD


Gail Hornstein’s gift to the reader in To Redeem One Person Is To Redeem The World is that she provided the raw materials to understand the fascinating character and revolutionary work of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.  The book’s weakness is that Hornstein did not sufficiently connect the dots of her own careful research to create a psychologically satisfying, three-dimensional portrait of her subject.  Although Hornstein’s biography cannot fail to move any open-minded person in this day and age of the near utter neglect of the psychotherapy of schizophrenics, all too often Hornstein herself neglected a careful enough study of Frieda’s shadow side to allow the psychotherapeutic healers of this generation to build optimally on Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s shoulders, and not just walk in her footsteps.

In order to attain a cohesive point of reference for making sense of Frieda’s shadow side, I will first examine her childhood history – and the degree of emotional pathology of her parents.  Gail Hornstein noted that Klara Reichmann, the ninth of ten children in her own family of origin, had a devotion to her own mother “bordering on the compulsive.” [p. 3]  Hornstein provided as her example, care of the Reichmann family lore as passed down to one of Frieda’s nieces, that after Klara’s mother died, Klara wore only black on her body, even down to her necklaces and underwear, for the remaining decades of her life.  I agree that this is compulsive – if not more downright pathological – and while it might seem like Klara was simply in terrible mourning, I suspect that she was more stuck than mourning, and was actually attempting to mourn something even greater:  the repressed pain of her own history of childhood emotional neglect.  I don’t know if her own neglect was simply a function of having been one of ten children, or it if ran much deeper, but my primary evidence for its existence goes far beyond her seemingly bizarre wearing of black.  It instead lies directly in her treatment of her own children:  that she was an incredibly needy mother.

A mother who got her own emotional needs met as a child does not try to get them met from her children.  And Frieda’s childhood abounds with examples of Klara’s pathological neediness, that is, narcissism.  For the sake of clarity, I define narcissism as that part of the adult personality which holds the ancient emotional needs that were never met in childhood and which live on anachronistically – with the same ancient hunger for resolution.  Klara, clearly unable consciously to enter the psychic space of her childhood and truly grieve – that is, get the healing she needed – instead had an external alternative:  she created children of her own whom she could control, manipulate, and project onto in order to have them serve her narcissistic needs and artificially keep her life in balance.

Firstly, a non-narcissistic parent does not manipulate her child to the degree Klara Reichmann did.  She does not impose the artificial primacy of primogeniture upon them forcing her oldest child, Frieda, to be always right and more powerful in her relationships with her younger sisters.  Granted, Jewish culture at the time did find it acceptable to do this with eldest sons, but that does not take away from the damage committed on the children involved.  Frieda herself later claimed, with guilt and shame, that she tried to prevent this.  As Hornstein quoted Frieda as saying, “God!  How I tried to hinder my mother to make me a favorite.” [p. 6]  Hornstein, however, added by way of commentary that Frieda

clearly benefited from her advantaged status.  Besides the extra privileges she was accorded, she also developed the confident sense of entitlement oldest children often gain from successfully outpacing their rivals. [p. 6]

But this fails the test of emotional logic.  True confidence comes from being treated with great respect and honor, not from being forced to accept an artificial and at times cruel position of power in one’s relationship over one’s siblings.  But more importantly, I don’t see this or any entitlement as a consequence of privilege, much less the privilege of primogeniture.  Entitlement results from emotional deprivation, and is a psychological compensation for not having gotten one’s honest needs met.  Entitlement is false confidence – though of course it can become quite a valued personal quality in a world such as Frieda’s and ours that so often lauds the false self at the expense of the true self.  Entitlement never feeds the soul.  That is why a person who gets their deepest needs met never becomes entitled when offered special privileges.  Instead he or she becomes humble, which is a sign of true confidence.

It is not surprising that Klara’s manipulation of her children’s power dynamics put Frieda at odds with her sisters – another dynamic which Klara may well have unconsciously set up by to deflect and displace some of her children’s legitimate anger at Klara herself for her maternal neediness – to the degree that it brought out hatred in the second child, Grete, who was openly mocked by Klara at birth for being so ugly.  (Incidentally, from her photos, Grete was not so ugly at all, and one wonders what effect the “decades” of retelling of the story of her early ugliness had on her self-esteem.  Perhaps it contributed to her own lack of psychic independence, which gave Klara the opportunity to live under the care of this spinster-to-be daughter for decades.)  Hornstein noted:

Grete had a single famous moment of rebellion, when seemingly, without provocation, she slapped Frieda hard, right across the face.  When Klara and Adolf [Frieda’s father] demanded to know why she had done such a thing, Grete said she was fed up with Frieda’s always being so perfect. [p. 5]

And then the family accepted this answer – and so did Gail Hornstein.  One wonders what Grete might have said if her deeper unconscious had been allowed to speak.  I suspect her rage would have climbed a few rungs higher up the parental ladder beyond where Frieda stood.  (It was also reminiscent of the sporadic physical abuse Frieda tolerated self-blamingly from her patients later in life – in the name of healing them.  Through replication she was still unconsciously appeasing her family system through being the masochistic point person all those decades later.)  But in a family where speaking out honestly was a psychic crime, which I will explore next, this was an impossibility.  After all, the family would not have retold Grete’s tale so comfortably had her response instead hit the nail on the head of the deeper truth.  Instead they would have silenced Grete and buried the incident.

Secondly, a non-narcissistic parent does not create an emotionally tyrannical family environment.  Hornstein noted that “even the most minor misbehavior” – that is, anything which did not please Klara – “earned Klara’s look of disapproval, a punishment far worse in this intense household than any beating would have been.” [p. 10]  This is an extreme statement, contradictory with the notion of a truly “doting” [p. 61] and “adoring” parent who was at the root of “Frieda’s appreciation of women’s positive power” [p. 134] – unless you consider conditional love to be the same as unconditional love.  Yet if what Hornstein wrote was true, and I have no reason to believe that it wasn’t, this would have been an emotionally terrifying household for a child, to say the least – if, that is, the child wished (as every child does) to step out of the box and attempt to manifest her full, true self.  The only emotional exploration that would be safe for a child in such a household would have been that which was ratified by the parent.  And since Adolf Reichmann, Frieda’s supposedly weak father, rarely stood up for his children, Frieda and her sisters were essentially left at the mercy of Klara’s whims.  Therefore, where Klara’s whims were truly loving, the children were lucky and could grow unfettered.  And where her whims were not, they were in for trouble and lived with the threat of rejection hanging over their heads, which is a horrifying emotional burden to bear.  While Klara may have had their best interests consciously at heart – as do most, if not all, parents – unconsciously they were at the mercy of her own unresolved narcissism.  And they suffered accordingly, in the same suffering of most children of the world – in silence, outside of the history books and biographies.

Thirdly, a non-narcissistic parent does not confide personal problems in his or her children.  Yet in Frieda’s case both parents confided strongly in her from the time she was three years old!  Hornstein commented that “Klara and Adolf had both begun confiding in their sensitive eldest daughter almost as soon as she could speak, and Frieda could absorb conflicts swirling around her without even realizing what she was doing.” [p. 13]  But of course Frieda couldn’t realize what she was doing, that is, realize the significance of these adult dynamics:  she was only a toddler!  I mark this as a serious boundary violation by her parents.  When parents impose their needs on a child – and no parent confides their own personal secrets, let alone their marital difficulties, in his or her children, without some expectation of need resolution – it perverts the growth of the child.  It sets up a dynamic in which the child cannot help but devote some, and sometimes more that some, of her psychic energy toward trying to heal her parents, because she knows that if her parents are emotionally in trouble, so too is she, because they will not be able to, or willing to, provide for her needs.  The job of a child is not to play analyst for her parents, much less confessor or friend.

According to Gail Hornstein, this troubled dynamic was taken to the extreme in Frieda’s case, and was of such significance that Hornstein used the following to close the chapter on Frieda’s childhood:  “Acutely sensitive to the feelings of others, Frieda became a person whose own needs were invisible and whose greatest desire was to heal.” [p. 15]  But to heal whom, and at what cost to her own healing?

So when Frieda in her sixties “laughingly” recalled this dynamic of having played analyst to her parents when she was three, and marked it as the “beginning” of her psychiatric career [p. 13], she (and Gail Hornstein to a milder degree) showed a lack of empathy with the dilemma faced by her own past little child.  She was drafted into becoming her parents’ psychiatrist, and this tragedy is revealed only more starkly by the fact that decades later she found this emotional horror humorous, which suggests that at some basic level she was still following the same template as an analyst.  This does not speak well of her as a conscious psychiatrist, but rather as an unconscious psychiatrist.  So when Gail Hornstein pointed out that the adult Frieda as an analyst herself “constantly blurred the boundaries of relationship,” [p. 60] and Hornstein not only failed to recognize this as a intensely negative attribute in a therapist (because she presented it in rather neutral terms), but entirely failed to question the origins of this behavior, I feel Frieda’s unconscious “laughingly” provided her own answer.

The flip side, however, is that if Frieda did learn her basic analytic attitude or patterns in her family home as a toddler, it highlights the degree of unconscious emotional sophistication in her family and the complexity of her parents’ emotional dynamics, because an unsophisticated and simple family could by no means have produced such an empathic genius as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.  Of course, this does not take into account her own inherent empathic gift, but certainly the complexity of her family dynamics gave whatever inherent gift she did have the perfect pressured environment in which to bloom and evolve.

Fourthly, a non-narcissistic parent does not overtly try to sabotage her child’s healthy career development.  Hornstein noted that Klara, stunted in her own ambitions, as she had “trained as a teacher but was too conventional to work after marriage,” [p. 7] had incredibly high expectations for her children that ran counter to their own desires, talents and needs.  (Adolf too was stunted in his ambitions and spent his life “mourning [his] lost opportunities,” [p. 7] but did not appear to take it out on his children to the same degree of Klara.  His mediocrity as a provider, however, was a longtime frustration and disappointment to Klara, who came from a much more prosperous childhood home.)  For instance, when Frieda wanted to become a doctor, Klara “bitterly opposed it” [p. 16] because of her own competitive streak and did all within her power to destroy Frieda’s potential for this path.  It was the supposedly “weak” Adolf who had to defend her.  Hornstein wrote:

Klara was furious for having failed to set the course for her daughter’s future but knew she couldn’t oppose her husband directly.  So she enacted her resentment by insisting that Frieda use the six-month waiting period [before she was old enough to take the entrance exams] to master “domestic science.”  Sensing that this might be her last chance to turn Frieda into a proper young woman, Klara may also unconsciously have wanted her to suffer at least some of the indignities of her gender before escaping into the male world of medicine. [p.17]

So when Hornstein commented that Frieda felt that she owed “any success she had in life…to her mother’s having arranged things ‘so wonderfully’ for her,” [p. 18] we can all too plainly see the denial and idealization in Frieda’s head – and also tie it into the bigger picture of her overall character.

Lastly, a non-narcissistic parent does not subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – humiliate her spouse’s manhood in front of her children.  (Of course, this works in the reverse, in cases where husbands demean their wives in front of the children, but Hornstein gave no evidence of this happening in Frieda’s family of origin.)  Hornstein noted:

In general, Adolf had such strong principles that Klara nicknamed him “Zip,” short for Prinzip (“principle”).  Years later, when Frieda was in analysis, she decided that “Zip” had really been Klara’s (unconscious) abbreviation for Zipfel, slang for “little penis.”  [p. 14]

If Frieda was right, and I suspect that she was considering the degree to which she idealized, rather than devalued, her mother, Klara was subtly trying to belittle – and perhaps psychically destroy – her husband, whom it was already noted was a passive and not intensely forceful man and was not a successful businessman.  Frieda herself realized “decades later” “that she had always seen Adolf through her mother’s eyes:  ‘I treated him as though he were a little dumbbell, which he wasn’t.’” [p. 14]  One only wonders where Adolf’s rage went at Klara’s treatment, for surely he felt her hatred and barbs, despite Hornstein’s conclusion that their marriage was “apparently a happy one,” [p. 4] not to mention Frieda’s later quote that “[Klara had] made it the most harmonious marriage you have ever seen.” [p. 14]

It was noted that Adolf regularly got migraines, and Frieda herself (who also got migraines) was later able to recognize the split-off hostility inherent in them, though I would also add split-off grief into the mix.  And then later he committed suicide – which, aside from being an expression of hopelessness and misery, is a very hostile act, especially when you are a husband and a father.  In his own way he was a wounded man long before Klara Reichmann came into his life, traumatized when he was only ten by the untimely death of his father, which forced him “to leave school to go to work to help his mother” and to “often go without food to buy books.” [pp. 2-3]   But even if we knew none of his childhood history, we would still know that his personality remained partially that of an unresolved, traumatized child, because no resolved person could ever have been able to tolerate such humiliation in his marriage.  It would have been incompatible with a healthy personality structure.  But Hornstein’s biography made no mention of this.

Yet Hornstein did note that Frieda herself later acted out with men.  The most overt example was her sexual seduction of Erich Fromm, who was not only her analytic patient, and thus her extreme inferior in terms of their power dynamic, but was also more than ten years her junior, which further magnified her power.  Also, he was just a student in his early- to mid-twenties, while she herself was a full adult who ran her own psychoanalytic institute!  On one hand he provided Frieda the chance to replicate her parents’ abusive marital dynamics in her own relationship, but more so, he provided her the chance to replicate what had been done to her by her mother – that is, manipulated, used for Klara’s own narcissistic purposes, molded and guided to fit Klara’s personal ambitions, expectations, and projections, and hindered from progressing on her own healthy emotional track.

Yet Hornstein pleaded leniency for Frieda, and didn’t address any of these underlying repetition compulsions.  Instead she rationalized Frieda’s behavior, noting:

Of course, things were a lot looser in the 1920s, where people were constantly having affairs with their patients or marrying them  We can’t apply our own rigid rules to that world any more than we can call every relationship between a professor and a student ‘sexual harassment.’ [p. 60]

But I do not agree.  The analytic times may have been looser then, but the human psyche was not.  Rules of healthy boundaries are not “rigid,” whether a culture accepts them or not.  They exist to prevent the exploitation of the emotionally vulnerable – which by definition an analytic patient must become in order to grow in analysis – by the emotionally powerful.  And while it is true that psychoanalysis was in its early days then, and that this left more room for analytic experimenters like Frieda to test outside the box, it also left more room for analysts like Frieda to act out their narcissism.   Thus there is no excuse for failing to call abuse by its proper name.  And to avoid labeling abuse for what it really is also blocks asking the deeper question of why the analyst, in this case Frieda, was impelled to commit it.

Yet Hornstein twice rationalized that it was Erich Fromm who actually “seduced” Frieda [pp. 61-62], even adding that “later it seemed natural that Frieda should have been seduced by Erich’s charms: everybody was a little in love with Erich.” [p. 61]  This only blames the victim and obscures the perpetration.  Imagine if every therapist were allowed that excuse?  Patients cannot seduce their therapists.  It is the patient’s inalienable right to try to seduce his therapist, just as it is the therapist’s inalienable emotional responsibility to analyze the (not-so-) hidden message in the patient’s behavior – for the sake of her patient’s growth.  If the therapist goes along with the patient’s attempted seduction – no matter what the time period or what the therapist’s analytic style – it is really the therapist seducing the patient in disguise, in an equally disguised attempt to have the patient meet her own ancient unmet childhood needs.  Frieda and Erich were not, as Frieda believed – and Hornstein partially went along with – “in love,” [p. 60] unless, again, we confuse the projective distortions inherent in conditional love with the nurturing realities of unconditional love.  There is nothing truly loving about sexually seducing a patient, even if a confused culture says it’s okay.  It is parallel to parents having sexual relationships with their children, or adults with any child.  Children cannot seduce adults.  It simply doesn’t work that way, no matter how you dress it up and what seeming perks the children get out of the arrangement.

Although I have read few of the writings of Erich Fromm, I did read with interest, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, his firm and confident explanation of how Hitler’s adult psychopathology could never be understood in light of his history of childhood abuse by his parents – if only because Fromm found no evidence that this abuse even happened.  Fromm instead found Hitler’s parents to be “well-meaning, stable, very normal, and certainly not destructive,” [Fromm, pp. 416-7] and determined that the main causes of Hitler’s insane behavior had less to do with the seemingly average and even caring treatment he received from his hard-working, “life-loving,” “rather tolerant” father and more to do with having been lovingly overindulged, “pampered,” and “spoiled” by his “well-adjusted and sympathetic” mother. [Fromm, pp. 414-7]

But when I read Alice Miller’s chapter on the same subject in For Your Own Good, where she turned the foundation of Erich Fromm’s point of view on its head from several angles, I realized what Fromm was lacking, and it wasn’t just solid biographical data on Hitler’s childhood history of ultra-brutal abuse (– because that had been available for decades):  it was a solid conscious grounding in the history of Fromm’s own childhood traumas.  I can only wonder how his point of view would have been broadened and deepened had Frieda Fromm-Reichmann actually analyzed and helped him resolve his mother fixation – and the traumas walled off behind it – instead of gratifying, and thus obfuscating, it.  So when Gail Hornstein stated that Frieda’s betrayal of Erich Fromm seemed not to cause him “many ill effects….except, of course, an increased narcissism,” [p. 60] I hold that to be incorrect.

Hornstein implied that by winning Frieda romantically – “he may have simply plucked the matronly Frieda like a piece of ripe fruit,” in Hornstein’s words [p. 60] – Erich got to have his cake and eat it too, and thus it went to his head:  another female “conquest” for him and his narcissism.  But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Clearly the effect on Erich was far, far worse.  To be betrayed by a therapist in this way is a terrible blow, and yes, a terrible narcissistic injury, but on a much deeper scale than Hornstein recognized, because it unconsciously confirms to the patient his worst fears about himself, namely, that he is not a person with an inherent value to be loved as a self, but only as a person with a value in terms of his ability to give love to the parent figure, and meet their unmet narcissistic needs.  The fact that he had a sexualized transference toward Frieda in the first place only shows how he was sending her a message about his own history of emotional (and possibly sexual) abuse in his family of origin – at the hands of those more powerful than he.

But then, several pages later [p. 72], and somewhat more safely out of context, Hornstein noted that Frieda did in fact admit (“with a grim laugh” [p. 72]) to having a sadistic streak with men, and that she derived pleasure in making “victims” of them.  But Hornstein did not connect this with Frieda’s behavior toward Erich Fromm – though at other points she did recount instances of Frieda mocking him – and instead concluded confusingly, albeit in a slightly different context, that “Klara [was] in some sense Frieda’s first ‘victim.’” [p. 73]  This left me stumped, firstly because I could find no psychological logic in this statement – except the dissociative logic of blaming the victim and exonerating the parents – and secondly because it ignores the repetition compulsion in Frieda’s behavior.  Frieda took Erich (and other men) as victims because she herself was taken victim by her mother (for the reasons described earlier), and by her father too, not only because of his (hostile) quasi-suicide the year before but because of his passivity at insufficiently protecting her from her mother’s narcissism and sadism.  A person who was not taken victim in some way would never take others as victims – let alone describe it laughingly, grim or otherwise.  It would be antithetical to their nature.

Add to the mix that Erich Fromm, whom Hornstein quoted as having been “an unbearable, neurotic child,” had a mother fixation and who began his adulthood by having a series of “relationships with women much his senior who doted on him” [p. 60] – which highlights Frieda’s act as even more of a stark betrayal.  So much for getting to the bottom of his neurosis and curing it.  Instead Frieda bought right into it, lost all perspective on his transference – and unconsciously manipulated it for her own unmet needs.  Frieda was thirty-six and was under pressure from her family to marry.  She had a ticking biological clock and desperately wanted a baby.  She was especially lonely because she had lost her father (to presumable suicide) only a year before.  And Erich was “brilliant,” [p. 58] “handsome,” [p. 60] “dashing,” [from Hornstein’s photo caption], “charming and warm,” [p. 58] and complex in his broad and penetrating education.  And yet while Hornstein concluded that because of all these factors “Erich was the perfect choice for Frieda,” [p. 58] and no doubt they all undoubtedly contributed to her seductive behavior, they alone still fail to explain Frieda’s comfort with using her patient to meet her own needs and thus violating the sanctity of the analytic relationship.  Her violation of Erich’s therapy was a basic betrayal of his self, and signals the basic emotional betrayal of her self that she suffered in her own earlier life.

And then there is the matter of Frieda having been the victim of a brutal street rape – as a late teenager or in her early 20s (and perhaps when she was around the age Erich Fromm was when she sexually seduced him, which might have added to her unconscious motivation to similarly betray him).  This was likely one of the most defining moments of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s life, and I was troubled that Gail Hornstein devoted fewer than five hundred words to it [pp. 69-70] – with almost no interpretation or commentary beyond a rudimentary attempt to understand how it might have affected Frieda psychologically, much less played into her already confused sense of boundaries from having grown up in her family of origin.

Interestingly, Hornstein also failed to share this rape incident in the strict chronological order in which she presented most of the rest of Frieda’s life.  This was oddly reminiscent to me of the way that traumatized, dissociated patients themselves often share their own trauma histories – in fragmented, non-chronological ways.  This may not be coincidental at all, because Hornstein, like Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, seemed not to have processed Frieda’s traumas (the rape just being the most blatant and overt) to a significant degree, and thus, instead of integrating them into the whole of the person’s character, she did what many unresolved trauma victims do, and just brushed it under the rug and split it off into the unconscious.

Also, like many trauma victims, Hornstein brought up Frieda’s rape almost as a casual aside, in the middle of an only somewhat related tale, and after she’d shared the few fragmentary bits she knew about it she simply forged onward with the biography – and then barely mentioned it again, just leaving it hanging in the audience’s mind like a black cloud or unacknowledged graveyard ghost.  My suspicion is that this really reflects more than Hornstein realized – or intended to express – about Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s personal psychology, and Hornstein appears to have unwittingly captured this.  So when Hornstein noted that Frieda “seemed never to inhabit her body” [p. 70], and that she appeared positively asexual – and even anti-sexual in her attitude – I suspect that this had more than a little to do with her unhealed rape.

As one other point on the rape incident, Hornstein pointed out Frieda’s (“doting” [p. 61]) mother’s incredibly callous and vicious reaction to her daughter’s obvious horror:  complete stonewalling.  This gave me a painfully different view into the character of the woman who had almost complete control over Frieda during her most vulnerable years, and it certainly gave me pause when Gail Hornstein wrote that “Frieda’s appreciation of women’s positive power clearly began in her own childhood.  Klara’s indomitable will shaped the Reichmann household into ‘the happiest family you could think of…’” [p. 134]  A parent of “indomitable will” and “positive power” does not stonewall her just-raped child – no matter how anti-human the cultural norms of the day – much less, as Hornstein described, sew up her “ripped, ragged underwear” and “sadistically” force her daughter to put them back on that very evening. [pp. 69-70]  It may not be so entirely coincidental that Frieda had such an uncanny gift for – and partially pathologically self-sacrificing passion for – relating to and even accommodating to the needs of extremely disturbed people who came out of highly dysfunctional families.  Clearly parts of her own family were severely troubled, and she knew how to relate comfortably and function satisfactorily in that type of system – or in spite of it.  In an odd way, this is a gift that few severely mentally ill people have mastered.  One wonders what degree of her healing gifts involved helping her patients learn to do the same.

I sense that Frieda’s idealization of her mother was a key component in this defensive skill of hers.  Hornstein pointed out that Frieda spent most of her adult life being extremely devoted to her mother – and I would add emotionally intertwined – even when an ocean separated them.  Frieda had an admiration bordering on worship for her mother, and bought this distorted version of reality to the degree that she emotionally played second fiddle to her mother, and her maternal stand-ins (such as her bosses and many of her professional contemporaries), for her whole life, even when it was clear that Frieda was the real genius of the two.  This idealization of her mother, evidenced by later comments (when she was in her sixties) such as “[my mother] did everything right, and it was the luckiest family you could think of” [p. 14] and “if my mama went with her forehead toward a wall, the wall would give in,” [p. 14] suggest how non-individuated and narcissistic Frieda herself really was.

Thus, I couldn’t agree when Hornstein wrote that “[Klara] clearly encouraged the fundamental autonomy that made Frieda so self-reliant.” [p. 134]  Hornstein herself even commented on Frieda’s lack of autonomy and self-reliance when she stated that “for Frieda, boldness and abandonment were simply too entwined for her to consider striking out on her own.” [p. 320]  In this vein she also wrote that “[Chestnut] Lodge was never simply her affiliation; it was who she became,” [p. 189] and that “there seemed to be no distinction between Frieda the person and Frieda the psychiatrist.” [p. 221]  When a person allies her personal self that closely with an institution, or with her professional persona within that institution, there is a strong indication that the person has been very narcissistically wounded and is living largely through a false self.

And Chestnut Lodge was not the first place in which she appeared to intermingle her personal identity with her workplace to the degree of boundarilessness.  In her therapy clinic in Heidelberg in the 1920s (where she seduced Erich Fromm), it was noted that an “almost cultlike atmosphere prevailed” [p. 65] – presumably leaving Frieda as the cult leader, considering she was the only analyst, “analyzed everybody” including the housekeeper and the cook, [pp. 64-5] and owned the clinic.

And surely Frieda’s blind spots, like all of our blind spots, extended into her work with her patients, at least those who had parents with significant narcissistic deficits, which I would presume was no small percentage – especially once she started working primarily with schizophrenics.  Thus it is curious that it was Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who created the concept of the ‘schizophrenogenic mother,’ though Hornstein did introduce the valid possibility that although Frieda was likely expressing some hostility at her mother through the formation of this concept, she was also using it to unconsciously praise Klara for essentially having been a good enough mother not to drive her mad.  One wonders, however, what madness Frieda did have to hold in check to survive in a family of origin whose behavioral norms severely circumscribed her needs and where, if I may repeat myself, “misbehavior earned Klara’s look of disapproval, a punishment far worse in this intense household than any beating would have been.” [p. 10]  Perhaps it was safer for Frieda, with her idealization of her mother, to create the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother than it was to create a concept a little bit closer to home, such as the ‘narcissistogenic mother.’

But Hornstein tended to downplay most of the examples of Frieda’s narcissism.  Hornstein did, however, share many examples of Frieda’s extreme entitlement in ordering others around and in feeling like the world literally existed to be at her beck and call.  For instance, note the beginning of her friendship with Virginia Gunst, a rich housewife from nearby Richmond:

Gunst attended a series of lectures Frieda gave at the Washington School of Psychiatry and went up at the end to express her appreciation.  Frieda was preoccupied with finding someone to drive her to Santa Fe [from Maryland, a trip of two thousand miles] later that week for summer vacation; the friend who was supposed to accompany her had suddenly taken ill.  After chatting politely with Gunst (whom she had never previously met), Frieda gave her a warm smile and asked, “Are you a good driver?”  Gunst, taken aback, blurted out, “Well, I was head of the Army Motor Corps for four years during the war.”  Frieda was delighted.  “Fine.  We leave in four days…. Go home now and break the news to your nice husband and family.  I do not believe they will object to your going with me or being away two weeks.  You can take the train back to Washington.” [p. 221]

This degree of entitlement is frightening.  It struck me as eerily similar to the control and manipulation Frieda experienced under the rule of her own mother.  This was not the action of an adult who was respected in her family of origin.  It is the behavior of an adult who was mistreated – and denied it and compulsively replicated it from the position of the aggressor, in a misplaced desire to heal.  A person who was connected with her deepest sense of self would be repulsed by such entitled use of others, even if, as in Frieda’s case, she was providing her new “friend” the opportunity to spend time with a famous and innovative psychoanalyst.

Likewise, Hornstein noted that Frieda had very few close friends who were not also her ex-patients.  This is a total misuse of her patients – not to mention another likely repetition compulsion of her mother’s entitled use of her for her own narcissistic purposes – and demonstrates just how much Frieda nurtured them with an unconscious intention of having them heal to be there…for her.  Hornstein quoted Margaret Rioch, a colleague of Frieda’s, as saying:  “There was a particular quality to [Frieda’s caring] that was totally unequal; Frieda helped you the way she decided you needed help.” [p. 221]  This again sounds reminiscent of Klara, and provides evidence for the dilemma Frieda faced as a child in her family of origin:  that if you played along with the parental rules, you were “in” and received love, and if you didn’t, you were “out.”  It also shows a flip side of Frieda’s personality:  if you were her patient she listened to your needs; if you were her colleague, or had graduated from becoming her patient into her friend, her role shifted, and she began inserting her own needs into the relationship and forced you – perhaps through giving “loving” perks in return – to meet them.

A good therapist does not befriend her patients.  She instead – like a good parent – nurtures them for the sake of their own progressive independence, and when the time is right, lets them go free, with no strings attached.  Thus, when a therapist has boundaries as murky as Frieda’s, it’s a clear sign that something is not going right in her personal life.  Frieda herself agreed with this on paper, stating correctly in her Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy that the therapist

must have enough sources of satisfaction and security in his nonprofessional life to forgo the temptation of using his patients for the pursuit of his personal satisfaction or security. [p. 7]

Likewise, Frieda’s actual behavior also directly contradicts Gail Hornstein’s statement that “Frieda had an unerring eye for exploitation, and never used patients for her own ends.” [p. xv] Certainly she failed the test here with Erich Fromm, whom she took to bed.  And she failed as well with the highly paranoid “Mr. R.,” a schizophrenic man who “constantly searched the [therapy] room for hidden cameras, wires in the walls, or other means of spying on him,” [p. 263] yet whose sessions Frieda manipulatively and at times even cruelly insisted on tape recording completely against his will so she could share their work with her colleagues – and so she could assuage her own anxieties at her patient’s expense [p. 266].  According to Hornstein herself, this bit of “psychic sabotage” by Frieda with Mr. R. only drove him further over the edge [p. 328].

Meanwhile, Hornstein never really even labeled Frieda as depressed at all, much less connected her depression to her unfulfilled narcissism.  Hornstein instead blamed Frieda’s sadness and social isolation and lack of more open, healthy peer relationships on her cultural alienation in America and her trauma from having escaped the Nazis in 1933.  The problem is, this interpretation, though partially valid – because clearly being forced on fear of death to give up her entire life, her country, her work, her family, and her language was a manifest horror – ultimately doesn’t add up because Frieda’s significant character flaws were evident in Germany long before the Nazis.  After all, she seduced Erich Fromm in 1925, eight years before the Nazis even came to power.  And she had been emotionally seduced by her own mother (and father) by the time she was three years old.

Thus I felt Gail Hornstein couldn’t sufficiently address Frieda’s loneliness and social isolation in America because she largely denied the deeper undercurrent of Frieda’s unhealed wounds of childhood.  This left Hornstein with no other option but to label that which exacerbated the problem as the problem itself.  I suspect that loneliness and depression existed all along throughout Frieda’s life in Germany, but just weren’t as overt then because she was more socially connected – that is, was more overtly winning the professional contest.  In America they simply stood out more, mostly, presumably, because she was such a fish out of water in so many ways – both in terms of her positives and her negatives.

It may be less than coincidental that Frieda’s last paper, left unfinished, was on loneliness.  This was her final frontier, and a wholly personal one, much as Frieda presented it in professional terms.  From the evidence of the neglects and abuses she suffered in her childhood in her family system, her loneliness clearly predated her time at Chestnut Lodge, predated her social isolation in America, predated her fleeing from the Nazis, and predated her rape.  Here she was facing the loneliness of her childhood.  This was the deep and anguished emotional isolation of the child forced to abandon and split off her needs because her parents failed to adequately love, witness, and truly cherish her.  Yet the fact that she only tangentially addressed this deepest loneliness at all tells more about Frieda’s psychic state than that which she did write.  It struck me as an emotionally incomplete paper, and this suggests to me why it held her captive to the end.

But Frieda’s real captors were her unhealed wounds of childhood.  Her struggle to write the loneliness paper was an expression of her personal quest to heal, and its incompleteness sheds light on the incompleteness of her grieving process.  She – like the rest of us, whether we consciously admit it or not – desperately wanted to heal her deepest wounds to the core of her being, and didn’t have the tools to do it.  Although Hornstein commented that “Frieda would have been quick to credit her mother for providing the grounding for her healthy development,” [p. 134] I saw her misery in later life as proving quite the opposite:  that Frieda had not received enough of a healthy grounding to be able to heal.  She was still simply too emotionally identified with her introjected, troubled family of origin to be able to nurture herself toward a more emotionally integrated and well-rounded life.  To have taken the leaps she needed to take, that is, to confront and heal her parental introjects, would have been tantamount to a betrayal of her mother from her mother’s perspective.  And add on top of this that in order to confront and heal her introjects Frieda would have had to betray more than six decades of her own unconscious replications of her parents’ violations against her.

But I suspect that Frieda, at age sixty-six, just one year before her death, was starting to heal anyway – in spite of all the odds against her.  Her grief process was starting to kick up, and in many ways by no choice of her own.  She was going painfully deaf and could no longer function effectively as a working psychiatrist – and she was a confirmed workaholic, no less, who relied on a breathtakingly addictive work pace to maintain her emotional equilibrium.  With the stripping of her professional adequacy, she was forced into withdrawal from her pill of grandiosity, which brought her deeper demons right to the fore.  Combine this with the death of her repressive mother only five short years before, and I believe she simply lost her internal structure that had for so long allowed her to keep her repressed horrors and loneliness safely buried.

That explained to me why a year before her death she finally started opening up emotionally – on the famous tape recordings in Palo Alto for her colleagues where “she spoke movingly of her long-buried guilt at her father’s death and bitterly recalled the behavior of her ‘Aryan’ colleagues in the 1930s.” [p. 320]  She was desperate, and willing to try new options.  (This said, her introjected perspective remains evident on the tape by the fact that she still couldn’t address her own role in having seduced Erich Fromm, and instead “laughingly recounted [it].” [p. 320])  I didn’t take it as coincidental that she was sharing this in front of others, and taping it on top of that.  I felt she was doing that more for narcissistic than biographical purposes – she who rarely talked about her personal life at all and made “friends promise to burn [her] files at her death.” [p. xx]  I suspect she was telling others of her troubles in this non-private way because she, the unhealed child who was allowed no unauthorized needs, had mixed up her thirst to be privately witnessed in a healing way with her grandiose desire of being exhibitionistic, which is just an externalized and ineffective attempt to heal.  This also parallels her own parents having inappropriately confided their troubles in her for the attempted purpose of their own healing, which never worked anyway, considering that ultimately her father – whom you might consider her first male patient – suicided.  Hornstein also commented that Frieda had plans to see a psychiatrist herself in her last months of life [p. 331] – a clear sign that her grief and pain were entering her consciousness at a new level and that her previous methods of keeping them split off were no longer functioning as effectively.

From this perspective it makes sense why Frieda never finished her loneliness paper.  Her own full history of loneliness was simply too painful and too overwhelming for her to face, much less process and then translate into a theoretical format.  The anguish went too deep, was too buried, and too compounded under too many years of avoidance and externalization and replication.  Despite her strength at handling and managing and channeling the pain of others, her own was too great for her.  This is what leads me to believe that Frieda chose death instead – as an easier alternative to healing.  I have witnessed this in others more than once:  that when they open the doors to their deep unconscious and feel the immense horror that has been buried in there for decades – and recognize its magnitude – they simply die to avoid it.  This to me forms the gray territory between committing suicide and simply emotionally giving up.  And Hornstein did note the mysterious and potentially suicidal circumstances of Frieda’s death, which shared an uncanny surface parallel with those of her father’s seeming suicide, including their similar ages, loss of hearing, and loss of professional competence.  I would not be surprised if their internal experiences were parallel as well.  After all, her father was a traumatized child whose own needs were bypassed for the “good” of his family of origin.

So then we come to the whole matter of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s gift for healing.  Although Frieda’s genius for working with schizophrenics is the stuff of which legends are made, which is what draws me to her still, I feel Frieda’s real genius was that of the courageous pioneer, not that of the fully manifested healer.  What I suspect is that at best Frieda could only take patients so far on the healing journey.  Her gift was taking a very broken Humpty Dumpty and putting him back together again, and tenaciously assisting in making him into a reasonably good egg.  (This is despite the fact that she failed with many schizophrenics, much as they realistically seemed to be beyond the help of almost anyone, so it seems unfair to fault her for that.)  But had a reconstituted Humpty Dumpty walked into her office and wanted help to hatch and grow into a fully enlightened bird, I don’t think Frieda would have been of much use, because she hadn’t figured out that stretch of the healing road herself.  Instead it seems that once Frieda helped her patients become good eggs she either let them go or converted them into personal friends.  Either way, that is not hatching.

So while it is true that Frieda Fromm-Reichmann took some incredibly disturbed people a great distance on their healing journeys, perhaps more than anyone else of her time – which remains a beautifully hopeful testament to humanity’s potential and to the raw power of psychotherapy, especially in this day and age of psychiatry’s hopelessness regarding severe mental illness – she herself really did appear to be too broken and too narcissistic to lead them all the way to greater truth.  Had she healed her own deeper wounds, she might have been able to do greater healing, but she did not.  Thus, to really “redeem one person” – much less “to redeem the world” – you have to guide people a lot farther than simply transforming them into adequately high functioning adults who work, enter relationships, raise children, and grow happily old.  Huge amounts of pathology can still exist in the most seemingly normal and super-normal of people, and by failing to address the shadow side in one so truly special as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, we do ourselves an injustice.  In a world as troubled as our, denial of our shadows no longer has a place.  The time has come for all of us to look our dark side in the eye and do all that we can to heal it.  That is the new definition of redemption, and true redemption is the future of psychotherapy.

3 thoughts on “An Analysis of the Shadow Side of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann

  1. Don’t forget that antisemitism was present in Germany long before Hitler. Her first boss joined Nazis eventually and Freida sensed that long before.
    She had to get Fromm as in her circles he was popular, and as an entitled first child subconsciously she knew he was hers. Her conscious self prohibited to bear his child as she wanted to appear always in shadows of others, but subconsciously she also reject the idea of being pregnant and therefor conquered.

  2. A very interesting analysis of Gail Hornstein’s book on Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. I haven’t read the book but your style of criticism resembles literary criticism. I’ve often wondered about the relationship between life events and literature, reality and fantasy and the role of interpretation and imagined worlds. I’ve never cared for the postmodernist practice of treating histories as fictions as though by doing so the postmodernist critic is exercising doubt. He is not. To doubt, one must assume that there is a truth to be had. This is not simply a theoretical matter but a fundamental question of experience.

    I am neither a literary critic nor someone working in a psychiatric or counselling profession but I find the subjectivism of so much contemporary thought appalling. Psychiatry/psychology frequently comes under attack from so-called skeptics. In some cases, it is justified. Howeveer, I do not accept the idea, as some do, that the one’s own ‘neuroses’ can be used to treat clients or use clients to treat oneself. Though this is probably not representative of the psychiatric profession, it sometimes comes up among various ‘therapists’ and it rears its head in your account of Dr. Fromm-Reichmann.

    Another issue is the method of interpretation chosen and the degree of generalization exercised. A certain set of assumptions are already built into any descriptive language that one might use to elucidate one’s own or someone else’s experience, including the ‘meta-experience’ of one’s method of interpretation. Whatever rational method one might employ (I’m assuming that it is rational, though it might not be), an extra-linguistic faculty must be harnessed in order make critical sense of the data of experience. I believe that faculty is our capacity to reason which, though it frequently employs words, is not linguistic or literary. Language is merely its descriptor. Association is just one method it uses. Testing those associations against other data for consistency is its purpose. It provides no guarantee of truth and accuracy in which case it is completely relativistic. But it is not relativistic in the sense in which wild imaginings and loose associations are often deemed relativistic. They are not because these latter do not have to relate to anything else.

    Here, the question of objectivity is a fundamental one. Not being knowledgeable about this field, I wonder how this is handled convincingly particularly as it relates to psychological mechanisms involved. There are, of course, neurological analyses of psychological phenomena. Ultimately, I think that these are rooted in biology and the human organism’s response to its environment, survival being a fundamental issue in all of this. I’d be curious to know what reading material you would suggest to the non-specialist that brings an objective analysis of psychiatry particularly where drugs are not the treatment of choice.

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