In Memoriam: Norbert Freedman, 1923-2011

By Marvin Hurvich

Norbert FreedmanIt is with great sorrow that I report the untimely death of Norbert Freedman, on November 30, 2011. To his many friends, patients, students and colleagues, in America, Europe and elsewhere, his passing is an irreplaceable loss of a much admired and beloved friend, mentor, role model, educator, clinician, and collaborator.

In addition to his substantial research work and collaboration, Bert was an innovative and generative force for excellence and integration in psychoanalytic training, especially at IPTAR and also at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He was invited to serve on important research and conceptual committees of the International Psychoanalytic Association, where he made meaningful contributions. Bert was also a founding member of CIPS, the Confederation of Independent Psychoanalytic Societies. At IPTAR he was the most senior of its senior members, and was consulted publicly and privately on matters large and small for his wisdom, balanced judgment and fair-mindedness.

A 2002 book of tributes to Bert by 26 colleagues was titled Symbolization and Desymbolization:  Essays in Honor of Norbert Freedman, ably edited by Richard Lasky. In a moving and informative introduction, Lasky detailed Bert’s remarkable life and career. On the dust jacket Bert is described by Wallerstein as “ at the zenith of his undiminished and astonishingly productive research career,” and “I see Bert Freedman as a major figure, an empiricist and conceptualizer, in psychotherapy research.”

Bert was an editor of a 2011 book, A New Freudian Synthesis, in which he summarized the views of ten colleagues from a 264-page book in 15 pages. Bert’s masterful integration sharpened and clarified the implications of their positions. While delineating the central contribution of each author, Bert also demonstrated his interest in “bringing divergent views under one umbrella.”

Only a brief overview of Bert’s research is possible here. His post-doctoral research work, begun at Downstate Medical Center, was in the area of psychopharmacology. In addition to the usual questions, Bert explored such issues as the role of transference, subjective somatic experience, and personality structures with regard to psychopharmacologic therapy. He also studied the construction and deconstruction of meaning and splitting in depression. He further explored distinctions between symbolizing and desymbolizing countertransference responses, reflecting, as Lasky has pointed out, one of the ways patient and analyst mutually regulate the psychoanalytic process. Together with a number of colleagues at IPTAR, Bert assessed process and outcome aspects of long-term psychoanalytically-based treatment. His work then focused on the place of symbolization in psychoanalytic treatment and change, where he delineated four levels of dynamically related symbolization, as well as the associated concept of defensively driven desymbolization.

With regard to the latter, Bert’s many studies, including those utilizing psychotherapy recordings, culminated in a recently published book, Another Kind of Evidence: Studies on Internalization, Annihilation Anxiety, and Progressive Symbolization in the Psychoanalytic Process. Bert was the originator, organizer, collaborator, main contributor and first author. With regard to this book, Peter Fonagy wrote, “It is a massive contribution that repays careful study and opens a new vista on psychoanalytic research, retaining the highest standards of empirical and clinical rigor.”  Robert Wallerstein and  Marianne Leuzinger-Bohleber wrote wrote comparable laudatory comments.

In addition to new contributions to the concepts of symbolization, and desymbolization and their relation to other variables, Bert’s central interest came to be focused on transformation, seeing the latter as a major consequence of progressive symbolization. While affirming the continuing importance of conflict resolution, Bert viewed transformation as leading to re-integration that is based on but also goes beyond conflict resolution. An example of Bert’s creative formulation of these concepts was his Proposition:  working through is repetition transformed.

Beyond the 49 publications indexed by Lasky, there are half a dozen subsequent ones, including the two books that appeared in 2011.

Collaborating with Bert on writing was a satisfying, sometimes heated, labor-intensive adventure. My sense is that he established a somewhat different way of working with each colleague, which, for the most part, brought out the best in each of them, and in himself. Sometimes, Bert tended toward bold formulations and overviews, but encouraged his collaborator to challenge him to elaborate and justify his ideas. He excelled in clarifying and extending the central features of his collaborator’s views, and then contrasting with and building bridges to his own views, which often led to a joint endeavor, where the input of each enriched the finished product. Frequent phone messages, and conversations, often late at night, kept the ideas flowing, and added to the next in-person “bull session.” There was always time for personal issues, and the discussion of local politics, along with lunches and snacks lovingly provided by Joyce.

Bert was a caring and very rewarding personal friend, available, attuned and responsive. He had many friends who benefited from his warmth, generative ideas, and engagement… When he greeted you with a “Good to see you,” you had the feeling that he really did see you, although he had lost his sight years earlier. The likes of Bert will not soon again pass this way. May his memory be for a blessing.