About Heinz Kohut

Heinz Kohut was born on May 3, 1913 in Vienna, the capital of the Austria-Hungarian empire, the only son to his parents Elsa, nee Lampel, and Felix Kohut. Socioeconomically his family was an organic part of the upper-middle class and of the liberal circles who were well integrated into the European cultural life specifically and especially that of Vienna. Despite the family’s Jewish origin- which carries according to one of the traditions the evolving to the Hungarian language of the Biblical name Kehat, one of the sons of Levi- the Jewishness of the family was a complicated issue, which left its windy mark on Kohut’s life; even though the family operated with an acceptance of a structure of major customs and rituals of Judaism, and was even associated with various organizations of the Vienna Jewish community, his parents, in their opposing inner sentiments wove an ambivalent fabric regarding Judaism as an element of core identity for their child: while it seems that Kohut’s father, Felix, functioned with a degree of peace between his acceptance of his Jewishness and his artistic tendencies and being a man of European culture, Elsa, Kohut’s mother, was the source of restlessness and ambivalence. According to her personality leanings she preferred the Christian belief over her Jewish origins, and later on in her life she even actualized this tendency and officially joined the Catholic Church.

The first year of Kohut’s life was for him a blessed cradle of spirited and happy family life; the satisfied parenthood of a father and a mother, a young loving couple in the beginning of their twenties, who were prepared for their own lives with great promise; the mother, an intensely emotional and beautiful woman, involved with social circles and having a varied interests in art, and the father, a lively man making his first strides in building a musical career as a solo pianist.

The year 1914 upsets the path of the family’s life; the father enlists into the Austria-Hungarian army, and Kohut – a child of a little over a year – uproots with his mother to the home of her parents in a village outside of Vienna. Life without father, the emotional destabilizing of the mother which began during these years, the quick and confusing visits with the father who would come for bizarre vacations from out of the harrowing experience of three years at the Russian front, the father’s return only after four years of war, in 1918, not before falling into captivity of the allies in Italy – all this rattled the family irreparably. The parents’ couplehood fell apart, and even though they continued to maintain a shared household, from then on their lives flowed on separate tracks. The father abandoned his love of music and became engrossed in business dealings in order to support the family, and the mother wandered lost in her social affairs which had lost their vital direction. And worst of all, Kohut’s life continue as if he is he is a child only to his mother alone.

The mother is the dominant center of his life, and the father who lost his natural charisma, retreated to paleness of personality throughout Heinz’s childhood, as if giving him up. Kohut’s childhood is a combination of terrible loneliness at home and disconnectedness from socializing with other children outside of it. The mother decides to leave her son at home in the circle of her constant control and prevents him from going to school for four years. Only at age ten does Kohut experiment socializing with other children as a constructive life-routine. In an emotional conversation with his analyst, August Eichorn, some years after they separated, Kohut asked his former therapist what had happened to Eichorn’s little dog, who so many times laid on Kohut’s stomach on the analytic couch. “Unlike other patients who undoubtedly had ambivalent feelings towards him as to a brother,” pondered Kohut aloud, “I, an only son, felt that he was most close to me and identified with him.”

The place of the ongoing emotional absence of the father, in the shadow of the great mother, who overcame her paranoid-coloured anxieties by intrusive domineering of her son, is taken by certain private tutor figures in Kohut the adolescent’s life, types of counselors whom the mother hired to educate her son. These take on for Kohut the stance of mentors, who both allow for a separating breathing space from the mother and who shape the cultural compensation as a self-consolidating context. Kohut the adolescent is exposed to the classical and contemporary European literature between the two world wars, views the great operas that are performed on the appraised stages of Vienna two to three times per week and comes to know the array of currents of the plastic arts in innumerous museum tours guided by his mentors. The presences of these figures in Kohut’s life were so crucial – and probably emotional life-saving – that to two of them he even dedicates his last book, How Does Analysis Cure.

In 1932, at 19, Kohut began his medical studies. These were much better years for him. Alongside his medical studies there was the continued process of Kohut’s shaping as an intellectual, where his emotional-spiritual interests continued to extend, ranging from music, including his comprehensive awareness of American jazz, through literature, philosophy to social and political issues. A crucial area in the years of Kohut’s maturation were close relationships with several friends with whom he engaged in endless conversations, sitting in the Viennese cafés alongside the cultural heroes of their time, and deepening the shared acquaintance with the treasures of European culture.

These years also marked his emotional strengthening Vis a Vis his mother, and it is no wonder that following a long period of a chilly barrenness in his relationship with his father, the shifting balance in the relationship between the three allowed for something new and promising to blossom between father and son. The father learned to appreciate the intellectual sprouting of his son and his horizons which were expanding in giant steps, and his academic successes in medical school aroused renewed pride in the father which anointed young Kohut happiness which was previously unfamiliar to him. But this renewed promise which was awakened for a live relationship with the father was cut down ruthlessly. In 1937, after six months of leukemia, his father died at age 49. Kohut, only 24 at that time, was left struck by grief. It seems that his despair awakened the original experience of separation and cutoff from his father, and connected the sensitive youngster to uncontained experiences of intolerable infantile despair.

Now that the relationship with his mother was no longer for him a natural source of comforting merger, he sought therapeutic help. After several months of failed treatment elsewhere, Kohut came to analysis with August Eichorn. He was a somewhat unusual figure in the psychoanalytic landscape but very beloved. Eichorn came to psychoanalysis from the field of education and special education and came to be known for his untraditional work with delinquent youth. He was a warm and open person, and alongside a deep belief in analytic therapy and its disciplined application his informal style and his humaneness blazed as oxygen to the soul for Kohut, who again was left in mourning with no father.

The depth and great influence of the connection between the two is evidenced by these events: a short time before their hurried separation due to Kohut’s preparations for his leave-escape from the city of his birth after the Nazi occupation of Vienna,, Eichorn turned to his young patient and said: “I have seen you lying on this couch for a long time. The time has come that you see me lying on it.” Days later Eichorn handed a surprised Kohut a picture of him lying on the analytic couch as a parting souvenir. And Kohut, with boundless gratitude to the man that probably saved him from sinking into deadening emotional freeze, would in the future name his only son Thomas August Kohut – after the author Thomas Mann whom he admired, and as a gift of remembrance, which there may be none exceeding it, to his analyst.

The collapse of the Viennese world and the rupture of the whole German culture came upon Kohut, as on many others, as a traumatic blow which deprived him of the source of his vitality, and the whole set of his life’s ideals was dispersed to all corners. Just as great was the real danger to his life as was the danger to the life of his soul. It seems that only the unique analysis that he merited with Eichorn allowed him to endure in peace the awful Styx of those days’ events. After heavy concerns that Nazi Austria would prevent him from completing his studies, and against all odds facing professors who had then been recently appointed by the new regime, he passed his final exams at the end of 1938 and was anointed the degree of doctor of medicine.

Towards the end of March 1939 he succeeded in leaving Vienna, almost at the skin of his teeth, and landed in England at the head of a group of émigrés. A year later, in March 1940, Kohut signed the journey of his uprooting from Europe and arrived in Chicago. There, a fellow immigrant, Sigmund Lev-Ari, his closest childhood friend, was already living several months. His choice of Chicago as a safe coast was somewhat chance, but would become his home for the rest of his life.

Despite the fact that Kohut’s life-fate was determined by his Judaism which led his adult life from Europe which was going up in the Nazi flames to the new world of America, Kohut’s relationship to his Jewish identity was complex and twisted, and his tendency to disavow awareness of it as something which defines his selfhood was a source of disturbing disquiet among many contemplators of some of the personal strands of this historic figure.

Within the riddle of Judaism in Kohut’s nuclear self lies, as far as one can conceive, the basic question, whether the step of merger with an idealized paternal figure is indeed a compensatory option for the massive absence of a person’s being seen and mirrored by the mother, as Kohut argues in one of the pillars of his teachings; Kohut’s following his mother’s inclination towards Christianity demonstrates that he couldn’t find in identification with his father, who accepted his Judaism without ambivalence, the compensatory context for his difficulties with an unseeing mother. It seems therefore that like Narcissus, who did not find a livening solution to his being unseen by Echo – the representation of his mother the nymph, in merging with the water reservoir – the representation of his father the river, so too Kohut could not substitute his deep attachment to the mother, which determined his fate to disengage from his Judaism.

Kohut’s first years in the new home land passed albeit in establishing his professional base as a doctor, and he finisheds his neurology internship at the Chicago University hospital in 1944, but already then, in a parallel undercurrent, his path was being paved toward his life’s vocation – psychoanalysis. First he abandoned neurology in favor of a psychiatry internship, and then traversed the last leg of his journey and applied for psychoanalytic training at the Chicago institute. He did his personal and training analysis with Ruth Eissler, beginning his studies in 1946 and becoming qualified as an analyst in 1950.

We will never know how and why a person reaches his vocation as a psychoanalyst, neither concerning ourselves nor certainly concerning others. For Kohut, it seems, it was psychoanalysis as an idea that preserved the image of a whole culture which was wiped out upon the revelation of man’s monstrosity, and to which he owed its emotional life. And of course August Eichorn, who, unlike many psychoanalysts that were corrupted with the foul current, embodied for Kohut psychoanalysis at its best, that for which he himself would become a voice that continues its future.

In 1948 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Meier, whom he met at the Chicago psychoanalytic institute. Elizabeth, the daughter of an American family of German descent, studied social work, and in 1936 came to psychoanalytic Vienna to complete and deepen her training and remained there until close to the outbreak of the war. At the time of her studies at the psychoanalytic institute, in courses that were earmarked for social workers, she also attended a seminar given by Eichorn, and although she had not met Kohut in Vienna, the two felt that a hidden string attaches them to each other and gives their human meeting as a couple added meaning. In 1950 the Kohuts gave birth to their only son, Thomas. Fatherhood had for Kohut a critical significance, and he tried being for him the father whom he had missed and the mentors whom he had had as well; as such his presence for Thomas was a mixture of involved and unreserved fatherhood with the intentional and constant introduction of matters of culture, art and science.

Immediately upon completing his psychoanalytic training, Kohut joined the institute’s staff and not before long his star shone as a creative and leading figure. He was appointed training analyst as early as 1953, his writings merited an increasing appreciation and his standing as a gifted teacher and as an exciting identification figure for the young candidates at the institute increasingly expanded. These were years during which Kohut’s innovations as well, and mainly his revolutionary 1959 paper on the place of empathy in psychoanalysis, were still arousing an extremely fruitful intellectual fermentation, and the process of Kohut’s appointment as president of the American Psychoanalytic Association for the 1964-1965 term was only natural. Not any less natural than that was the growing international recognition of his unique position, which bore his being chosen the vice president of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) in 1965.

The middle of the 1960’s marked the great change in Kohut’s status in the psychoanalytic establishment and movement. The gradual unfolding of his expanding thinking, beginning with the 1966 paper on the forms and transformations of narcissism, is revealed in its full radical vision, and as great as was the enthrallment with it in broad circles so was the intensity of the severe resistances which it accumulated, which more than once became substituted with conspiring animosity toward Kohut the man. He was therefore forced in 1969 to remove his candidacy for presidency of the IPA, and in his analytic home in Chicago he withdrew from positions of administrative leadership as well.

The beginning of the 1970’s is albeit remembered by the students of the Chicago Analytic Institute as years during which the theoretical and clinical struggles between Kohut’s supporters and his opponents were an organic part of a rich and stormy intellectual atmosphere, however for Kohut these were years of painful loss of old friendships, of disbelief at the enormity of his loneliness as an innovative thinker and of contemplative meditation on transience as a natural principle of life. And worst of all, at this point in time Kohut also begins his journey to his death when in 1971 the diagnosis of lymphoma in his body, which would gradually consume his life.

Kohut’s distancing of himself from the direct practice within mainstream psychoanalysis paved the way for self psychology becoming an independent psychoanalytic paradigm, which does not seek hegemony within the mainstream but rather deepens increasingly its own horizons. These were Kohut’s most creative and fruitful years, during which he puts into writing his ideas in his first two books (The Analysis of the Self in 1971;and The Restoration of the Self in1977) and in numerous papers which improve and refine the complexity of the theory in its different sectors.

Parallel to Kohut’s withdrawal into his gradually written oeuvre, self psychology’s expanding horizon as an established movement which strives to continue developing the theory and passing it on. In these years there formed around Kohut an excited group of around 50 students who were involved in mutual learning of the theory in its making, took an organic part in spreading it around and with Kohut’s inspiration and encouragement they ripend toward a creation possessing an independent contribution for posterity.

The year 1978 marked a unique milestone in this blessed process, which tooke place as a natural consequence of Kohut’s second book, The Restoration of the Self, which was published preceding year, and in it is Kohut’s quasi official declaration of the creation of self psychology. In this year the tradition of the annual self psychology conferences was opened with the first conference taking place in Chicago; The Psychology of the Self: A Casebook was published, labored over by a group with Arnold Goldberg, one of Kohut’s distinguished students, as editor; and the first two volumes in the great project of collecting Kohut’s papers, The Search for the Self, was published, edited by Paul Ornstein, another central member of the group.

The works of this group – whose story is a riveting topic in and of itself – in collating and publishing Kohut’s writings, proceeded following his death as well. As such in 1984 the publication of How Does Analysis Cure was completed; in 1985 Charles Strozier Published the volume Self Psychology and the Humanities, which contained some surprising papers than were not published during Kohut’s life; in the years 1990-1991 P. Ornstein completed the compilation and installment of the last two volumes of Kohut’s collected papers in The Search for the Self; and Jeffrey Cocks brought to us in 1994 a selection of Kohut’s branching and fascinating correspondences in a curious volume The Curve of Life.

And as for Kohut himself: Alongside the great satisfaction which he sated from the events of the philosophical and material becoming of self psychology, the last decade of his life was burdened with illness, ongoing pain and philosophical preparation for the end of the road. Aside from the cancer in 1979 Kohut underwent coronary bypass surgery which became complicated and dragged into an extended rehabilitation period, and other systems in his body increasingly receded as well. Kohut carries his body’s illness in aloneness which more than anything has within it quiet, reserved and inspiring self-respect. As one who knew that tragedy is not compulsory even facing death, as long as man lives his nuclear self before he dies, and in going to his end he is paneled by a human selfobject surrounding, Kohut ended his complete life cycle in great serenity.
A half a year before his death, on March 22 and April 12 1984, Kohut conversed with a young theologist, Robert L. Randall. In one of the two interviews Kohut presented to Randall the way in which his ideas connect with theological contemplations on death. Probably it is difficult to find a more suitable way to end the presentation of Kohut’s life process than to bring several lines from these contemplations (quoted in C. Strozier’s 2001 Heinz Kohut: The making of a psychoanalyst, p. 331), as it seems that they hint already to someone who is immersed in the cosmic spheres of his soul.

There is a seed, there is a flowering, there is wilting, there is a death and the next generation of roses takes over. I think that one isn’t really fully alive if one doesn’t somehow down deep in one’s bones feel this eternal rhythm of life, this coming and going of which one is only a link in a chain. To me this is an uplifting thought, not a discouraging thought. It goes beyond my individuality to something broader and more enduring than this little me that is common, hasn’t been here during Plato’s time and will not be here in a thousand years when there’s another Plato or maybe nothing. Who knows? Why do I have to be around and have been around? I wasn’t and I won’t. That doesn’t disturb me.

(From “Between Tragic and Compasion”, by Ra’anan Kulka, an introductory essay to the Hebrew translation of How Does Analysis Cure, Tel Aviv, Am Oved Publishers, 2005. Text translated into English by Dr. Asher Epstein)