To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World : The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, by Hornstein, Gail A.
- ISBN: 9780743215695 | 0743215699
- Copyright: 1/10/2002
|The Woman and the Jew|
|Creating Chestnut Lodge|
|The Luxury of Guilt|
|Epilogue: The Ambiguity Of Hope|
|Works Of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann|
|Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.|
There are no goals, only the goal...to lift up the fallen and to free the imprisoned...to work toward the redemption of the world.
September 28, 1948. The evening was mild. The air, misted with the memory of rain, smelled of catalpa and breeze. Paths through the grounds at Chestnut Lodge were deep in shade, the broad-brimmed trees thick with birds and leaves. A family-owned asylum in the Maryland countryside, the Lodge was often mistaken for a country estate. No fences or gates enclosed the sweeping grounds, but patients did not try to leave. Those not on locked wards walked aimlessly along the paths, watching offices in the main building flare to light in the sudden dusk. It was the first evening in weeks that no one needed seclusion or restraint, and the hallways echoed with the sound of nurses unclenching their teeth.
From the heavily screened porches at the south end of each floor, a white clapboard cottage was visible just across the path. A lamp at its side window illumined a figure at the desk. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann sat heavily in an old leather chair, a half-smoked Chesterfield in one hand, black coffee in the other, drafts of the book she was struggling to finish scattered like leaves across her desk. In less than a month, she would be fifty-nine. It had been thirteen years since she had come to work at the Lodge, and on nights like this, she could imagine herself still in Heidelberg. War and the ironies of psychoanalytic history had made her -- a woman, a Jew, a refugee -- the most distinguished member of Chestnut Lodge's staff, but no American questioned her place. For three decades, she had chosen to work primarily in hospital settings and with the most disturbed patients. She still spent hours each week with people considered beyond reach by most psychiatrists, although seniority now permitted her to treat only those who particularly interested her. For the first time in six months, she had taken on a new patient, a young woman who was, at that moment, sitting silently on a locked ward pretending not to be terrified, unable to imagine the relationship that would transform her life.
At sixteen, Joanne Greenberg was one of the youngest patients ever admitted to the Lodge. Her diagnosis of schizophrenia did not distinguish her from most others; every mental hospital in America was filled with schizophrenics in the late 1940s. She had been seriously disturbed since the age of nine. Her behavior had the oddness we find so unsettling in mental patients -- an embarrassing attentiveness to rules unknown to anyone else. Having finally become too strange to stay in school, she had been sent for an indeterminate stay at Chestnut Lodge.
There was little pattern to the strangeness, which frightened Greenberg's parents as much as the symptoms themselves. The pieces didn't seem to fit together. She refused to let anyone stand behind her, making for a slinking walk and a suspicious air. She claimed to smell odors and heard whispering from people who weren't there. She spoke aloud to them sometimes, in a language no one could recognize. She ate bits of paint or wood, pieces of string, movie tickets, unprepared gelatin. Lightning petrified her. Sudden stomach pains made her double over in agony, but doctors could find no physical cause for the attacks. The plodding gait and stringy hair gave her a dull awkwardness, which seemed at odds with the biting sarcasm that took the place of ordinary talk. There was no family history of mental illness, no obvious trauma in childhood. Yet when people met Joanne Greenberg, they knew something was terribly wrong with her, even though the look on her face made them want to leave before they found out what it was.
Hidden behind the flatness, however, were unmistakable sparks of someone still present. These were rare in a schizophrenic, except in one still a teenager. Psychosis is unrelenting anguish, a torment beyond most people's endurance, and those who end up as mental patients instead of suicides have found a way to blunt the edge. They pay a high price for this. As the lattice of lies, woven more and more tightly, blocks out the light, defenses turn parasitic, destroy the few remaining healthy parts, and then there is no way out.
Joanne Greenberg was too young to have reached that burned-out stage, but she was well on her way. Her absent stare had the look of someone "being beaten to death from the inside." What made her different from a typical schizophrenic was that the battle was still taking place. Trickles of feeling seeped through the brittleness and appeared as expressions on her face. Her indifference had a studied quality, as if she weren't quite sure of it herself. People had yet to become interchangeable objects in her mind.
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann had built her reputation on the claim that no patient, however disturbed, was beyond the reach of psychotherapy. Even as a medical student, listening to wildly hallucinating patients as they screamed or raved, or sitting quietly by the beds of those who lay mute and unresponsive for days, she had been convinced that buried inside the avalanche of illness was a terrified person crying out for help. Her job was to do whatever was necessary to get that person out. She did not think of this as heroic or even particularly worthy of note; a physician's responsibility was to help patients, and she had chosen to do that work.
Frieda -- almost everyone, even some patients, called her by her first name and it would be odd to refer to her in any other way -- was legendary for her ability to gain the trust of even the most disturbed patient. But even she acknowledged that psychotherapy can work only if a person can stay present to the panic, at least a moment at a time. There has to be a tiny part of the mind that can separate itself from the terror long enough to see what it looks like. People who have reached the point of psychosis usually can't tolerate this; it feels too much like being in a collapsed mineshaft, told to crawl straight toward the danger just to see how bad it is. Literally paralyzed from years of fear, they choose the lesser evil, retreating to a place no one can reach.
Joanne Greenberg didn't end up like this. She began treatment with Frieda a week after arriving at Chestnut Lodge. Four years later, she was successfully attending college at nearby American University. Despite months on the disturbed ward, ripping her arms to shreds with jagged tin cans and crushing lighted cigarettes into the wounds, Greenberg made a recovery so complete she was able to marry, have children, and become an accomplished writer of novels and short stories.
It was highly unusual for a schizophrenic patient to recover at all, and the fact that Greenberg had been treated solely with psychotherapy -- no drugs, shock, or any other biological methods -- made her cure even more remarkable. But few people outside Chestnut Lodge knew of these events or would have believed them if they had. Frieda presented the case in disguised form in her book, Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy, and in various lectures to professional groups, but it was one among many clinical illustrations she used in the early 1950s, and she called no special attention to it. The successful outcome was satisfying to be sure, but it was also perplexing, and Frieda, always given to understatement, didn't endow it with any of the dramatic qualities it would later come to have.
In 1964, Greenberg published a "novel," I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which presented a thinly fictionalized account of her illness, treatment, and cure. Frieda was dead by that point. Joanne used a pseudonym ("Hannah Green") to protect her family, but neither that detail nor the fact that the story portrayed real events was anywhere evident in the book. To the considerable surprise of Greenberg and her publisher, Rose Garden gained a huge following and has been continuously in print for thirty-five years. It has sold 5.7 million copies, been translated into a dozen languages, and been transmuted into a movie, a pop song, and a cultural cliché.
Mental patients hailed Rose Garden, psychiatrists denounced it, and it became the lightning rod for controversy about schizophrenia and its treatment. Eventually Joanne's and Frieda's identities were revealed, and they became one of those couples -- like Freud and Dora, Breuer and Anna O., or Ferenczi and R.N. -- that psychoanalysts revere like martyred saints.
Their story posed two fundamental questions, questions we still cannot answer today: Can relationship heal severe mental illness? and Why are psychiatrists the people fighting hardest against this idea?
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann would have been astonished by the adoring attitude that Greenberg's readers have taken toward her fictional incarnation, "Dr. Fried." She never saw herself as having special gifts as a therapist; she attributed her success with patients to commitment and diligence. Frieda always told people she had been a psychiatrist since earliest childhood. The eldest of three daughters in an Orthodox Jewish home, she had taken on responsibility for illusions of family harmony and was brilliant in the role. Like a simultaneous translator, listening past words to murmur, to the half glance, the tonality of a room, she interpreted everything everybody did with a grace that seemed effortless. Even as a toddler, she could execute this pas de trois so perfectly that neither of her parents knew she was doing it, and her vigilance transformed a thousand potentially incendiary moments into minor misunderstandings. Gliding back and forth between the sensitivities of her father and her mother's fierce control, Frieda learned to intuit a person's need the way dogs sense danger -- with her whole body. Her own neediness went unnoticed, a sacrifice so complete it seemed deliberate.
From her earliest days as a psychiatrist, long before she had ever heard of Freud, Frieda had insisted that no matter how bizarre a patient's behavior, it had an unconscious meaning that could potentially be deciphered. This might take months, even years, but if the doctor could stand the uncertainty, the pattern would emerge. Interpretation wasn't the key, especially with psychotic patients, already prone to imbuing their actions with too much symbolic significance. Frieda's main technique was waiting, a method she deployed so skillfully it looked like magic.
Waiting was her forte, although this was sometimes hard to realize. Her indifference to politeness could seem impatient, but mainly she just couldn't stand to lie. This didn't always endear her to friends or colleagues, for whom her matter-of-factness could have too blunt an edge. But psychotics appreciated her directness more than they could say, and they rewarded her patience by revealing themselves.
Frieda's capacity to wait had been honed as a child, when she trained herself to expand to infinity the time she gave her parents to tire of misunderstanding. Medical school in Königsberg was one long act of patience, designed to prove that she and the handful of other women deserved to be there. Later, working at a Prussian army hospital during World War I, she learned from brain-injured soldiers what it was like to have a shell explode in your face and still be alive. Their muteness became her measure. When she took up treating schizophrenics in the 1920s, they seemed so intact by comparison that she found the work a pleasure. Most psychiatrists, accustomed to treating the "worried well," find the unbearably slow pace of therapy with psychotics intolerable. But Frieda could wait cheerfully through years of infinitesimal gain; the knowledge that recovery was anatomically possible was enough to keep her going. She could tolerate any behavior, no matter how disgusting or bizarre, so long as it seemed necessary to protect a vulnerable person. It was only when symptoms became ruses or habits that she started badgering patients to give them up and get better.
People were sometimes surprised to hear of Frieda's lack of pretense with patients, given how presumptuous she could be with everyone else. She would think nothing of calling colleagues on an hour's notice, announcing that she needed to be driven to a meeting or felt like playing with their child. She took for granted that her wishes would simply take precedence over whatever else was going on in their lives. But with patients she never pulled such stunts. To act willful or superior would risk mocking their pain. Frieda had an unerring eye for exploitation, and never used patients for her own ends.
She was willing to try practically anything that might help them, which was a great deal more than most other psychiatrists were willing to do. She saw one patient at ten o'clock at night because that's when he was most likely to talk. She took others on walks around hospital grounds, or to symphony concerts, or to country inns for lunch. Those too distraught to leave at the end of an hour were permitted to stay for two. If a patient was violent and couldn't be let off the ward, she went to his room or saw him in restraints, if necessary. "She would have swung from the chandelier like Tarzan if she thought it would help," Joanne Greenberg later observed. A colleague remarked, not admiringly, that Frieda's patients got better because she simply gave them no other choice.
From earliest childhood, Frieda had been imbued with a deep sense of responsibility. No event, however insignificant, occurred in isolation; every act had implications for the lives of other people. The worldview of her Orthodox upbringing was embodied in this story, told by the great sixteenth-century rabbi Isaac Luria:
During the process of creation, God's divine emanations were gathered together and stored in sacred vessels. But the vessels, unable to contain the light pouring into them, shattered, fragmenting the divine sparks, which fell to earth. The world became chaotic; nothing was in its proper realm. The task of human history and the responsibility of every Jew is to rescue the divine sparks and restore order to the world. This is the work known as tikkun. When it is fully accomplished, redemption will come to everyone.
Tikkun is a collective task; no one person can perform it on his own. A divine spark is attached to each prayer, each charitable act, each moment of goodness. If a person fulfills her duty and strictly follows the ethical path, that spark is restored to its source in the divine realm. To assist another is to do God's work. To redeem one person is to redeem the world.
Fields of medicine define themselves by the cases they take as prototypes, and psychiatry's hopelessness is painfully evident in the poor choices it has made. Perversely claiming only disorders that defy understanding or can't be treated, it has ended up with whatever has been seen as least curable in every historical period. For two centuries, psychiatrists have felt themselves unable to do much but pity their patients' deterioration.
Yet a vocal minority has always opposed this nihilism. Frieda was one in a long line of rebels who refused to give up on patients, no matter how sick they were. There was William Tuke, the English Quaker, whose pioneering approach, "moral treatment," embodied the Quaker values of respect for the individual and the right of each patient, no matter how disturbed, to have the "spark of reason cherished within him." Tuke's asylum, the Retreat, founded in the northeast England town of York in 1796, became a model for humane treatment of mental patients across Europe and the United States. There was Philippe Pinel, the French physician, whose three decades of work at the Salpêtrière, the huge public hospital for women in Paris, brought the ideals of the French revolution to the treatment of mental illness. Pinel's personal, trusting relationship with his pauper patients and his rejection of all forms of coercion and restraint helped to define psychiatry as a field of medicine and recast insanity as a curable illness. A century later, Eugen Bleuler turned Zurich's Burghölzli clinic into an internationally recognized center for the treatment of psychosis. Introducing the term schizophrenia to highlight the splitting and dissociation he saw as fundamental to psychosis, Bleuler dedicated himself to developing psychotherapeutic approaches that could help even the sickest patients. Ernst Simmel, who in 1926 founded the first psychoanalytic hospital in the Berlin suburb of Tegel, demonstrated that even physical illnesses and addictions could be treated with psychotherapy. Historians have paid too little attention to these many dissenters, giving us a distorted image of psychiatrists and their work. Painting the rebels into the picture makes the whole field look radically different.
For Frieda, treatment of mental illness was like physical therapy after stroke: a painstaking exercise in hope. Improvement was unpredictable, and was often followed by relapse or deterioration. Recovery, to the extent it was present, proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. It was natural for the doctor to have periods of discouragement, even real despair, but he couldn't afford to give up, no matter how many setbacks there were. A patient had to have at least one person who could imagine the possibility of his getting well. Frieda thought the reason most psychiatrists failed at their work wasn't because their methods were ineffective, but because they gave up too soon. Their belief in their own potential to cure was so weak that as soon as they encountered a serious setback, they declared the illness "chronic" and abandoned the treatment. Unlike surgeons, who often do their best work when a patient is gravely ill, or oncologists, who pride themselves on creatively adapting their methods to the uniqueness of each case, psychiatrists tend to try one thing, which either works or doesn't.
Frieda accepted the fact that psychosis is often incomprehensible, but did the best she could with what she had. She neither promised miracles nor gave up on people who pleaded for her help. Instead, she improvised, like a doctor on a battlefield who has to keep going no matter what.
In praising a biography of Thomas Edison, one reviewer said it "de-mythologized the man and left the genius bigger than life." For Edison, who called genius "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," this is fitting praise. It's equally descriptive of Frieda, a woman others called "gifted" but who thought of herself as simply "not lazy." With Edison, it doesn't make much difference whether we give the larger role to talent or to struggle; his successes can be measured in material terms. But for someone like Frieda, the question of genius becomes a moral one: if psychiatrists could cure psychotic patients by working harder, we'd have to start asking why they don't.
It sounds flattering to call a person gifted, but it's often a way of discounting what she does. If only "gifted" psychiatrists are successful, then nobody is to blame for the failures of the discipline. Psychiatrists can excuse their inadequacies the same way priests leaving seminary do: they can say they just weren't "called" to the work. But this dooms the field to impotence, a fact psychiatrists never seem to realize. By taking responsibility for her failures, Frieda claimed the right also to succeed; when a patient did well, she could attribute his improvement to their hard work together, not to some "spontaneous" cure.
This is not to say that talent doesn't exist. A person with perfect pitch isn't someone who just listens exceptionally hard. Natural abilities are clearly evident in fields from mathematics to track, and it's silly to pretend on grounds of democracy that they aren't. Frieda's intuitive ability was the psychic equivalent of perfect pitch. Reading transcripts of her sessions with schizophrenic patients or listening to tape recordings of her work, we stand amazed as she asks precisely the right question or says something exactly on the mark. There is an elegance to her creativity that sets it apart. Yet she herself insisted that any psychiatrist who worked as hard as she did could accomplish as much.
No one knows what causes mental illness or why some patients recover. At every point in psychiatry's history, there have been competing theories, each seen by its advocates as having stronger support than the others. Since most theories have held that psychotic patients are untreatable by any method, psychiatrists have increasingly avoided them, partly because they don't know how to help them and partly because they are frightened. It's comforting to think of therapists as less terrified by madness than the rest of us are, but in fact, people often embrace psychiatry as an amulet against their own fears, and nothing about the work reassures them. Most flee into private practice, to spend their days, as Freud once said, transforming neurotic suffering into ordinary unhappiness. The remaining few work in hospitals, facing an unending wave of patients so ill that it is difficult to conceive what might be done to help them.
Psychiatry's despair is so profound the field can scarcely be imagined without it, and it remains the only branch of medicine that discounts even the few successes it has had. There are scarcely any mental disorders with agreed-on causes or treatments, but those that do exist are no longer within psychiatry's purview. Some kinds of disturbance -- like Alzheimer's disease or brain tumor -- have been appropriated by the neighboring fields of neurology and neurosurgery. Others were abandoned by psychiatrists themselves -- hysteria is an obvious example -- when the politics surrounding their origins made them too risky to hold onto. Inexplicable disorders like schizophrenia stay a part of psychiatry's domain, but patients who manage to get better are called "spontaneous remissions," not treatment successes. The standard view of Greenberg's apparent "recovery" was that she had been misdiagnosed in the first place or would eventually relapse.
What psychiatrists don't realize is how often their failures result from their own fears. Patients whose therapists aren't afraid of craziness can risk being fully themselves. They don't need to sabotage the treatment. They can say what they need. They can let their doctors unwind the bandages and see the real wounds underneath.
Frieda's family were Orthodox German Jews, the kind who typically looked down on their uncultivated brethren from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. But she often heard Hasidic tales as a child, and was so taken by these stories -- which, as Martin Buber says, use "the recital of a single incident to illuminate an entire destiny" -- that she recounted her own clinical cases as if they were legends. A tale told of Rabbi Israel of Koznitz, famous for his "cures of the possessed," illustrates the simple power of improvisation that Frieda liked best:
A woman came to the rabbi and told him, sobbing, that she had been married a dozen years and had yet to bear a child. "What are you willing to do about it?" he asked her. She did not know how to reply. So the rabbi told her this tale. "My mother," he said, "was aging and still had no child. She heard that the Baal Shem Tov, the great Hasidic master, was stopping over in Apt in the course of a journey. She hurried to his inn and begged him to pray that she might give birth soon. "What are you willing to do about it?" he asked her. "My husband is a poor book-binder," she replied, "but I do have one fine thing that I shall give to the rabbi." She went home as fast as she could and fetched her good cape, which was carefully stowed away in a chest. But when she returned to the inn with it, the Baal Shem had already left for Mezbizh. She immediately set out after him. Since she had no money to ride, she walked from town to town with her cape until she came to where he was staying. The Baal Shem took the cape and hung it on the wall. "It is well," he said. "My mother walked all the way back," said Rabbi Israel, "from town to town, until she reached Apt. A year later, I was born." The woman who had come to see him cried out: "I, too, will bring you my best cape so that I may have a child." The rabbi shook his head. "That won't work. You heard the story. My mother had no story to go by."
Part of the reason it has been so easy for Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to be displaced by Greenberg's fictional Dr. Fried is that there are so few sources documenting what she actually did. Indeed, for a person who lived practically her whole life in the twentieth century, astonishingly little is left of Frieda. Certain letters survive, along with some of her unpublished manuscripts and perhaps thirty photographs. There is a fragment of a recording where she reminisces to friends about life in Germany, taped the year before her death. There are scattered legal records -- her medical license, divorce papers, last will and testament, death certificate. Notes and tape recordings of her treatment of certain key patients remain in the files at Chestnut Lodge. But practically everything from the first two-thirds of her life was erased by Nazis and exile, like tracks on a beach when the wind is blowing hard. What remains is hearsay, from the decades-old memories of her one surviving relative or the mythmaking of her friends. A dozen would-be biographers, uncertain how to pick their way through this scattered landscape, have criss-crossed each other's tracks so often that whatever path may once have existed has long since worn away.
Frieda had her share in obscuring the trail, remaining close-mouthed with everyone during her lifetime and making friends promise to burn files at her death. Morrie Schwartz, the sociologist who practically lived at Chestnut Lodge during the years he spent studying it in the 1940s, said he and his wife once spent a whole evening trying to get Frieda drunk to "get something out of her." It didn't work. "She wouldn't drink enough," said Schwartz, shaking his head.
Relics of Frieda's life remain carefully preserved in homes all over the United States. Some -- a painting that hung over her desk, the clock from her bedroom, chairs from her summer house in Santa Fe -- are treated like ritual objects and proudly displayed. Others, like the emerald ring and the set of champagne glasses, are shown off only on special occasions, to the few still able to grasp their significance. It's as if Frieda herself has been dispersed, the fragments too charged to be kept all in one place. Even her cottage at Chestnut Lodge was still being described, forty years after her death, as a "magic, shrine-like place" in the minds of European psychiatrists.
In some disciplines, it's an honor to become an icon, but in medicine, it's cause for suspicion. Doctors who seem larger than life do not inspire others to follow their lead. Their talents seem more like magical gifts than skills to be passed on to the next generation. This is particularly true in psychiatry, a field whose most powerful images come not from real events but from paintings or fiction: Pinel striking the shackles from the madwomen of Paris, Charcot hypnotizing a hysteric as if they were actors in a play. These aren't pedagogical examples; they are feats of amazement. When Frieda's admirers depict her as St. Catherine, able to heal the afflicted with the power of her gaze, we lose sight of the woman whose fundamental commitment in life was simply to hard work.
Once I Never Promised You a Rose Garden appeared, the real-life Frieda became even further obscured. Published in 1964, seven years after Frieda's death, Greenberg's story became a source of inspiration for people all over the world who had no idea that serious mental illness could be cured. They didn't know Dr. Fried's real name, but it hardly mattered; the portrait was so accurate that even Frieda's sisters, reading the novel in translation, instantly recognized her. Rose Garden is a beautiful memorial to Frieda and an extraordinary testimony to her work, but by turning her into a fictional icon, it has made her seem even less real, a character in a novel, not a doctor with a systematic approach.
Biographers often struggle for a fresh view of subjects about whom much has been written, but trying to describe someone who vividly exists for most people as a fictional character is even more of a challenge. Rose Garden is based heavily on fact but it's also a novel, one written by a patient who was astounded at her own recovery and needed to reassure herself that it had actually happened.
That Frieda emerges as a saint in this narrative is unsurprising; the problem is to see beyond the glow of Greenberg's prose. The real Frieda did some extraordinary things, and they need to be appreciated for what they were. But she has been Dr. Fried for so long -- even to those who knew her best -- that her life already seems too invented to have happened. To reconstruct her now as a more complicated figure strikes her admirers as disloyalty or appropriation. Yet it is precisely because she was a real person that Frieda captures our attention and deserves broader interest.
I first read Rose Garden in 1966, in a cheap reprint with a mysterious Janus-faced figure on the front. I was fifteen years old. I had no idea that people weren't supposed to recover from schizophrenia or that there was anything controversial about treating them with psychotherapy. Ten years later, as a graduate student in psychology, I read Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy for a class. It seemed so humane, so pragmatic. I was impressed by Frieda's quiet confidence, her insistence that every patient was potentially reachable, her refusal to overstate her own accomplishments. A fellow student casually mentioned that Frieda was the one who had treated Greenberg. I read Rose Garden again, astonished that a patient could present her therapist's method with such accuracy and insightfulness.
Fifteen years later, when the very idea of psychotherapy with schizophrenics had been made to seem preposterous by a mental health establishment addicted to drug treatment, I became curious as to why so "absurd" a method would have been taken so seriously by someone as sensible as Frieda. I set out to recover the history of psychotherapy with schizophrenics, a topic strangely missing even from exhaustive accounts of psychiatry's development. I was completely unprepared for the outpouring of intense feelings this project immediately began to provoke from the historians and psychiatrists I contacted -- people taking weeks to decide whether to let me interview them, insisting that the tape recorder be switched off at key moments, or whispering revelations and unearthing boxes of materials they had kept secret for forty years. Discussions of Frieda as a person seemed especially charged. There was an odd absence of any of the ordinary sorts of source materials and a constant, unnerving sense of erasure of most of the details of her life and work. People who had known her well were so protective of even the most innocuous facts that it was hard not to feel they were hiding some terrible secret about her; those who knew her only by reputation spun out elaborate speculations filled with spite and innuendo. The overly emotional response by both groups seemed far in excess of what was called for by a historical debate. I knew that the issue of treatment in psychiatry was controversial, but this didn't explain the air of mystery that seemed to surround even the most routine queries about Frieda's approach.
In no sense did I set out to write a biography. Indeed, for most of the ten years I worked on this project, I fought against the idea even of attempting one. As I traveled across the United States and Europe, searching through archives and poring over hospital records and conducting interviews, I said over and over again that I wasn't interested in the details of Frieda's life so much as the historical significance of her work. I wanted to understand how an approach like hers had come to exist and why it had been repudiated and then literally expunged from the history books.
What I didn't understand was that when the very possibility of an idea ceases to seem believable, it becomes very difficult to talk about. I would tell people that I was studying the history of psychotherapy with schizophrenics, and they would give me a bewildered look and ask: "Is there one?" I was finally forced to the realization that the only way to get this idea taken seriously was to bring back the person who had embodied it most vividly.
But Frieda Fromm-Reichmann is a hard person to write about. Most people know her as a fictional character and would prefer her to remain one. A dozen prospective biographers had already given up when I began my work. Erich Fromm, Frieda's former husband, who outlived her by twenty years, rebuffed every researcher seeking information about their relationship. Most of her correspondence and other records were spirited out of her house the day after her death and remained locked in an attic in Richmond, Virginia, off limits to researchers. Those still alive who knew her personally had extraordinarily complicated memories about who she was. For a person who died more than forty years ago, Frieda still manages to exert powerful control over the lives of a surprising number of people.
So I cannot be the "courier" of a story that exists in fragmentary form in the written record, as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl describes herself in the preface to her biography of Anna Freud. Frieda did not leave neat parcels of correspondence, coded by year, the way Freud's methodical daughter did. Nor did she leave diaries from her youth like Karen Horney, or the draft of an autobiography as Melanie Klein did. I couldn't sit down with her for long talks over glasses of scotch the way Deirdre Bair did with Simone de Beauvoir.
To write this book, I had to construct the story of Frieda's life, not simply assemble it from what was already there. I have had to depend on people's memories far more than most other biographers do, both to fill gaps in the written record and decipher the meaning of what does remain. If I had adhered to rules like not using information presented orally by only one source, Frieda's life would remain the secret it has been for all these years.
However, despite my oft-repeated insistence that no biography of Frieda was possible given the paucity of standard sources, and even if it were, I wasn't writing one, I did end up doing precisely those things a biographer would have done. Although I had to make a number of subjective judgments about what information was trustworthy and what was not, I exhaustively sought out all possible sources and tried to balance them judiciously against one another in what I wrote:
- I located every surviving letter, draft, note, record or tape recording written or spoken by Frieda or sent to her, and read all material not currently under seal.
- I read every secondary source that discussed, referred to, or even briefly mentioned Frieda or her work, including those filled with inaccuracies, lies, or diatribes.
- I searched every archive in the United States and Germany that could logically be expected to include correspondence or other material, however tangential, related to her life or work.
- I went to every place where she regularly spent time or lived (except Königsberg, too heavily destroyed by wartime bombing to be of use), locating whenever possible the specific buildings or neighborhoods relevant to the story and traveling the specific routes she took.
- I interviewed or corresponded with every person who knew her well enough to add substantive detail to my account, making a point to seek out those who disagreed with her ideas as well as those who supported them.
- I invariably gave priority to official records where they contradicted people's recollections or less reliable secondary sources (e.g., I took the date of Frieda's marriage from the legal transcript of her divorce proceedings rather than from Erich Fromm's biographer, who cites no source).
- I carefully evaluated the position of each participant in the events I describe, tried to balance it against other perspectives, and constructed accounts of very complex events like Frieda's death from a dozen vantage points.
- I got to know all the people who provided extensive oral recollections well enough to evaluate their particular weaknesses and strengths (e.g., some people's clinical insights were more trustworthy than their memory for dates; others gave reliable accounts only of events in which they themselves had participated).
- I took very seriously the fragmentary set of autobiographical reminiscences that Frieda taped the year before her death, both because the nuances of her phrasing and intonation allowed for a subtle understanding of the significance she accorded particular events, and because every detail that could be independently corroborated checked out.
- Similarly, I took the extensive information about Frieda's family provided to me by her niece (and only surviving relative) to be reliable because her memories were detailed and proved accurate whenever they could be checked against written sources (such as genealogies, published accounts of family reunions, and photographs, many of which she offered to me as documentation).
- Since there were many instances in which the details of Frieda's clinical work were preserved in multiple forms -- progress notes as well as tape recordings, verbatim transcripts of therapy sessions or case conferences -- and these demonstrated that Frieda was able to recall accurately a patient's precise words, in cases where only her notes existed, I took them as a reliable record of the dialogue. (In the one crucial instance where Frieda systematically changed the details of what had happened -- the case of Mrs. E. -- I analyze these variations in considerable detail.)
- Frieda's key role in the creation of Chestnut Lodge as the only hospital ever to specialize in the psychotherapy of psychotic patients is amply documented in hundreds of written records, so for this part of the story, I used interviews only to interpret more fully the primary source materials.
- The patients I discuss in detail all had extensive written records documenting their treatment: Frieda's clinical notes, correspondence, verbatim transcripts of case conferences, and in two key instances, tape recordings or verbatim transcripts of the therapy hours themselves. I have, of course, concealed or disguised the identities of these patients according to standard clinical practices, but all quoted statements are taken directly from tapes or transcripts.
- The one patient who is identified, Joanne Greenberg, talked with me extensively, and gave me access to all notes, drafts, and correspondence relevant to the writing of Rose Garden, as well as to its subsequent reception by patients, psychiatrists, and general readers over three decades.
Despite the paucity of written records concerning Frieda's youth and life in Germany, I did have access to an extraordinarily rich archive of her clinical work, including dozens of tape recordings and verbatim transcripts of her therapy hours with schizophrenic patients. Just as with any other case notes or physician records, scrupulous ethical standards govern my use of these materials. But their benefit cannot be overstated; they offer a rare glimpse of an artful therapist hard at work. No biographer of a psychoanalyst has ever had the advantage of literally being able to listen in on what was happening in the consulting room. In writing about an analyst like Frieda, known primarily for her clinical gifts, listening to the sessions themselves is a powerful experience.
I also had the benefit of being given completely free rein to wander into any office, basement, attic, or storeroom at Chestnut Lodge over a five-year period and read whatever I found there. Because the Lodge's archives were being created during precisely these years, I was allowed the pleasure of reading each manuscript, listening to each tape, and studying each photograph within a few months of its discovery. This is every biographer's dream: being handed the keys to a room filled with treasures and told simply to turn out the lights at the end of the evening. (Since I was on the grounds of a still-vibrant mental hospital, I was also told that if I wanted lunch or dinner in the cafeteria as a break from working, I should simply sign myself in under "guests.") Researchers who must rely on archives constructed according to someone else's plan have to spend a lot more time searching for what they need than I did.
I was fortunate as well in having gained the trust of so many of Frieda's colleagues and students as to become a general repository of memory for the group. People would start to recount stories from the 1940s, a time before I was born, and I would be so familiar with the details from what others had told me that we would end up reminiscing together. Because no one who knew Frieda in her youth was still alive when I began this work, I had to piece the story together from dozens of sources -- some contradictory, and all partial. But because those I did interview were mostly psychoanalysts themselves -- people who spend every day of their lives making sense of stray bits, moments of coincidence, subtleties of voice and tone -- I had constant help in reaching that elusive goal Donald Spence calls "narrative truth."
Frieda belongs to many people, and not all of them will find their preferred version highlighted in what I wrote. Nor is this a close chronological record of her daily life, partly because no diaries or appointment books have survived, but mostly because Frieda spent the bulk of her life behind the closed doors of her consulting room, treating patients.
The lives of psychoanalysts have become a source of fascination in a culture where therapists have replaced priests, and stripping away the layers of silence in which they have shrouded themselves seems tantalizing. But Frieda Fromm-Reichmann isn't like other psychoanalysts, especially the women. She wrote about schizophrenia, not femininity or children. She lived in mental institutions, not elegant apartments, and she devoted herself to patients who smeared feces or muttered incoherently or tried to attack her. Her formative intellectual experiences took place on a ward for brain-injured soldiers, not in Freud's living room. She acted as if men and children were distractions, with no real place in a life like hers, dedicated to serious work. She was an Orthodox Jew at a time of assimilation. In a field famous for "excommunicating heretics" and given to interminable "civil wars," she took pains never to disparage even her sharpest critics. And she had no interest in the theoretical disputes that obsessed most of her analytic colleagues; curing patients was her consuming goal.
So here we have the life of a woman who denied that she had accomplished much, who most people think is a fictional character, whose intellectual legacy is ambiguous, and whose work stands in contradiction to everything contemporary psychiatry believes in. Yet the ideal that guided her life and work remains intensely powerful even in our jaded lives: "To redeem one person is to redeem the world."
Psychologist Mary Gergen says we must "play at the shores of understanding" to tell the story of a life, building coherence gradually from the detritus we find, sticking memories together with bits of shell from photographs, struggling to keep ahead of the tides. "The absence of the dead is their way of appearing," said one biographer, and perhaps by closing our eyes we can see beyond the lines.
Copyright © 2000 by Gail A. Hornstein
Excerpted from To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann by Gail A. Hornstein
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