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o a believer in the impossible profession, the family memoirs of famous psychoanalysts

constitute a troubling but delicious genre. There is a certain satisfaction in reading about the
unhappy marriages and not good enough parenting skills of bad Freudian fathers. (Shrinks:
theyre just like us!)
And yet there are also things to be learned from, for instance, the family memoir of Franz
Alexander, the pioneering migr psychoanalyst, written by his granddaughter Ilonka Alexander.
Franz Alexander was one of the most important interpreters of Freud in America, the founder of
the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, and the man behind a much debated idea known as the
corrective emotional experience. His granddaughters book, The Life and Times of Franz
Alexander: From Budapest to California, was published a few months ago by Karnac Press, a
London-based publishing house devoted to books about psychoanalysis. Ilonka, who is now
sixty-seven, first had the idea for the book when she was nineteen, decades before she started
writingmuch the way people think about entering analysis (or used to) for a long time before
hitting the couch.
The book got its final push from an unexpected revelation about the past. In 2007, after a very
successful career as a social worker, Ilonkawho lives with her husband in Port Maitland, a
small town outside of Yarmouth, in Nova Scotiareceived, via e-mail, a photo of her greatgrandfathers gravestone. Her great-grandfather was the philosopher Bernard Alexander, and his
gravestone is located, it turns out, in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Ilonka was shocked. She
did not know that anyone on her fathers side of the family was Jewish, she told me over the
phone. It was not in the official biographies.
The photo of Franzs fathers grave arrived in her inbox courtesy of a friend, Julia E. Gunn, an
epidemiologist in Boston, who found the picture on the Internet after the two women returned
from one of their many road trips. The photo made Ilonka see her whole life differently, and it
came to seem emblematic of the Alexanders family desire for a nice story, whatever the cost.
Ilonka was born in 1948, in Chicago. After her parents marriage fell apart, she and her mother,
Silvia, moved into her grandparents sumptuous Lincoln Park apartment. For much of Ilonkas
childhood, Silvia flitted between husbandsshe had five altogetherand so Ilonka grew up
closer to Franz than to her own mother.

When Ilonka was seventeen and living in California, where the Alexanders had relocated, Silvia
ran off with her fourth husband. She demanded that Ilonka join her. Ilonka refused. But then her
grandfather declined to house her, as if, she said, he was punishing her for her mothers choices.
She wound up in a Catholic residence for girls in downtown Los Angeles. She didnt know that
she had family in San Diego, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Madison, and Dallas. No one told

her. When Franz Alexander died, in 1964, two years later, Ilonka was adrift. Although she had
two half-sisters, she thought of herself as an only child. She wrote to Silvia, but she would not
hear from her mother again until she was thirty-four.
After Ilonka saw the photo of the gravestone, she decided to search for other family. She found
dozens of relatives, mostly cousins once removed, in Europe, the Midwest, Alaska. She began
to visit them and collect their stories. Some had heard about her, some had not. In 2010, Ilonka
held the first of two family reunions. She was struck more than ever by how she had been lied
to by people [she] honored.
The biggest lie: Franz told everyone that he didnt know where Ilonkas mothers was. He was
embarrassed, Ilonka said, analyzing him.
The man responsible for much of the chaos in his family, and a good deal of the Americanizing
of psychoanalysis, was born in Budapest, into a large, intellectual family, in 1891. In 1920, he
defied his father, moving to Berlin to become the first student at the Berlin Psychoanalytic
Institute. There, he grew close to Freud, who told him to go to America, which Freud hated, and
spread the gospel of psychoanalysis.
Alexander moved to Chicago, where, in 1930, he founded the Chicago Institute for
Psychoanalysis. He became a prolific proselytizer for the profession, writing nine books and
contributing to many subsidiary fields, including psychosomatic medicine and criminal
psychology. Although some of Alexanders ideas seem, today, like a wacky caricature of
Freudian excessessuch as his argument that bronchial asthma comes from being insufficiently
attached to ones motherothers, such as his belief that the length of analysis should be more
flexible, were ahead of their time. (To many American Freudians, analysis meant four or five
sessions a week.) Most of all, Alexander seemed acutely aware that psychoanalysis had to
change to win followers in the upbeat, status-conscious United States.
Alexanders expensive suits and high fees can be generously interpreted in this light, as can his
treatment of celebrities, including, according to legend, Al Capone. (Ilonka told me that, as a
teen-ager, she asked her grandfather whether he and Capone talked about murders and other
gangsters. No, she recalled her father replying, we spent time talking about his mother.)
According to Ilonka, her grandfather said that he also treated Marilyn Monroe, Steve Allen, and
Danny Kaye, who was also one of Franzs golfing partners. Like the benefits of psychoanalysis,
who was whose celebrity shrink in the twentieth century can be hard to fact-check; one of
Alexanders attributes, Ilonka said, was what people in his profession call grandiosity.
(According to her biographers, Monroe had three analysts, none of whom was Alexander
though one of them, Marianne Kris, was herself analyzed by Alexander when he was still in

Franz Alexander seemed to believe that there was a cure to our psychological maladies, whereas
Freud famously said that the most his analysands could hope for was the transformation of
neurosis into ordinary misery. Alexanders most controversial idea was corrective emotional
experience, the theory, roughly speaking, that our learned responses to certain experiences can
be corrected by undergoing them, or something like them, again in a new setting. To most
psychoanalysts, this idea suggested that therapy can reach a definitive conclusion. In The
Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm argued that this idea departed from Freuds wishes, in
that it offered analysands a happy ending. Psychoanalysis cannot tolerate happy endings; it
casts them off the way the bodys immunological system casts off transplanted organs, Malcolm
In 1946, Franz Alexanders devotion to this idea spurred a crisis in psychoanalysis, pitting
renegade analysts against more orthodox Freudians. Today, that crisis, which drove him from
Chicago, seems somewhat hystericaland many psychoanalysts have cautiously accepted
corrective emotional experience, just as they have accepted Alexanders other innovations.
Corrective emotional experience is still a term of contention, James Anderson, a faculty
member at the Chicago Institute, told me. But, he added, analysts now also value Alexanders
focus on how the relationship between the therapist and the patient plays at least as large a role in
the analytic process as the analysands discoveries.
For her part, Ilonka never underwent analysis. She intended to start years ago, but she was late
for the appointment. The shrink scolded her, and she never went back. The purpose of my life is
to bring my family back together, Ilonka said. She is trying to replace the lie her family told
about its past and with something real, including the suppressed fact of Franzs Jewishness. The
Life and Times of Franz Alexander is her corrective emotional experience.