Review – Donna F. Tarver

A review of Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life Experience: When the Personal Becomes Professional, edited by Steven Kuchuck (2014), Routledge New York, 254 pages

By  Donna F. Tarver, MSSW

Originally published in American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work Newsletter, Winter 2015, pages 5-9.

There are many things to recommend Steven Kuchuck’s latest book Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life Experience: When the Personal Becomes Professional. What I found most compelling is that the book seamlessly demonstrates Kuchuck’s premise and the subject of the book— that each clinician’s choice of theory, clinical interests and technique, and presence in the consulting room is an outgrowth of his/her earliest life experiences, crises, and ongoing history and development. In the Introduction he shares some of the important elements of his own early history and their impact on him and his evolution as a clinician. Kuchuck entered graduate school and then institute training at a classical Freudian institute relatively early in his life. Over the ensuing twenty years he worked continuously to develop his identity as an analyst and has emerged as a faculty member, supervisor, and Board Member of NIP; co-editor of the Journal Psychoanalytic Perspectives and an Associate Editor of the Relational Perspectives Book Series from Routledge. From classical Freudian theory to established Relational Theorist—a complex but understandable transition in light of his history. A transition from training and theory that labeled him, as a gay man, damaged and insisted he keep his core identity secret to his present relational perspective where his subjectivity is to be understood and used in the service of the treatment.

In this edited book, Kuchuck not only chronicles his own evolution but he presents chapters by other clinicians—both established writers and newer contributors—who write about their own histories and how their early life experiences have contributed to their choice of theory, clinical technique and their persona in the consulting room. These writers include Kuchuck’s own colleagues, mentors, friends and co-theorists. Their influence on his thinking and development is also skillfully woven into the fabric of the book. The book serves as memoir, explication of theory, tribute to his colleagues and as a celebration of his “arrival” at a place where his own subjectivity can comfortably serve as a guide to his thinking and to his work.

The book is divided into two sections. The primary focus of the authors in Part I is on early life events and their impact on the analyst’s theory and practice. The book’s authors share a part of themselves and help us understand something about how they have become the clinicians that we have come to know from their writings, teaching, and presentations. I will give a brief snapshot of the nine authors in Part 1 to demonstrate the depth and diversity of their offerings. In Chapters 1, 2, and 3 Sally Bjorklund, Susie Orbach, and Galit Atlas share with us how early loss, confusion, and secrecy has impacted their development and choices of interest and focus as analysts. Joyce Slochower writes a fascinating Chapter 4 describing the impact of growing up with parents who were both Freudian analysts on the development of her own professional identity, choice of theoretical models and she ends with some interesting thoughts about theory’s dynamic function. I found Irwin Hirsh’s Chapter 6 entitled Emerging from the Oppositional and the Negative particularly interesting. He introduces his piece by telling us that his most significant learning in life, particularly in his work life, has come from failures. He then goes on to explain his understanding of how much of what he feels most strongly about has grown out of negative experience. Out From Hiding, Chapter 6, by Kenneth A. Frank describes his long struggle with his deep wish to express himself and be known and his competing strong need to maintain his privacy. Anna Ornstein’s powerful Chapter 7 The Development of My Analytic Subjectivity includes the story of relocating with her husband Paul to the United States after growing up in a bitterly anti-Semitic Hungary and being one of her family’s few survivors of the holocaust. Chama Ullman the daughter of holocaust survivors in Chapter 8 The Personal is Political, The Political is Personal continues with the theme of the impact of the analyst’s political environment on the analyst’s subjectivity when she writes about her life as a psychoanalyst In Israel. Eric Sherman’s very personal, poignant struggle with coming out as a gay man in New York in the 1980’s, being the only openly gay candidate at NIP in the early 1990’s, and the impact of these struggles on his development as a clinician is beautifully shared in this final chapter of Part I entitled Sweet Dreams are Made of This.

In Part II of the book the focus is on later life events and passages and their effect on the analyst’s development. The seven chapters are written by Michael Eigen, Steven Kuchuck, Philip Ringstrom, Noah Glassman and Steven Botticelli, Hillary Grill, Eric Mendelsohn, Bonnie Zindel, Deborah Pines and the concluding chapter by Martin S. Bergmann. These last seven chapters touch on a variety of subjects— adoption, parenting, fatherhood, illness, and the impact of losing a parent, losing a long term marriage, and losing a spouse and an analyst. The final chapter written by Martin Bergmann at age 99 is about advanced age and his thoughts about being a clinician at such an advanced age. The book was published shortly before his death January 2014.

In the introduction to the book Kuchuck points out that with the exception of Martin Bergmann “all of the contributors to the book would likely self-identify as relational, interpersonal, or self-psychological.” (This is despite the fact that persons of other persuasions were invited to participate). Upon considering reviewing this book I wondered if it might be better reviewed by someone with a relational perspective. As I read the book, I realized that by knowing and understanding the writers’ histories and how their theoretical perspectives had developed that both their theory and techniques became more accessible and useful to me. What a remarkable sharing of autobiographical information and remarkable thoughtfulness went into the writing of these chapters. It is autobiographical—not self-disclosing—and Kuchuck tells us that to his surprise in many of his discussions about the book, he is asked about selfdisclosure. My strongest recommendation for Steven Kuchuck’s book comes from the fact that I found it so evocative of thought, memory, and emotion. I find very few books that have the capacity to provoke as much intense thought and feeling and so many memories. In particular I was reminded of the powerful sense of finding a home that I experienced as I began to read psychoanalytic writing some 30 + years ago. As you might suspect, I am writing my own personal chapter for Kuchuck’s book. I think that he would be pleased.

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