Understanding Dissidence and Controversy (Book Review)

Author:  Bergmann, Martin S.
Publisher: Other Press
Reviewed By: Fonya Helm, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 59-60

This book begins with Martin Bergmann’s paper, “Rethinking Dissidence and Change in the History of Psychoanalysis,” a fascinating history of the controversies of the psychoanalytic movement and the dissidents who formed different schools of psychoanalysis. One of Bergmann’s main points is that psychoanalysis Is more like a religion than a science because of the formation of new groups analogous to the different sects of a religion. Bergmann believes the dissident’s disappointment in psychoanalysis and the failure of his or her initial idealization of psychoanalysis to hold up is an important contributor to this situation.

His paper is followed by a number of very interesting and thoughtful papers, and the book ends with detailed notes of the discussion at the conference. Both the papers and the discussion revolve around two issues: 1) what creates dissidence and the formation of new schools or groups within psychoanalysis, and 2) what contributes to the vehemence with which psychoanalytic discussions take place.

André Green’s very interesting paper, “Dissidence—Disagreement and Alternate Hypotheses for the Foundation of Psychoanalysis: On the Importance of Examining the Underlying Meanings of Freud’s Hypotheses,” notes that after the first period of psychoanalysis, dissidence rarely led to exclusion. Freud’s theory currently represents a prehistory of our discipline, and we are all dissidents now (p. 120). He attributes the fragmentation of psychoanalysis to several factors: the difficulties in curing many patients, new categories of patients like borderline or other non-neurotic cases, changes in scientific and epistemological paradigms and changes in “the leading new concepts of psychoanalysis” (p. 121-122).

Otto Kernberg, in his insightful paper, “’Dissidence’ in Psychoanalysis: A Psychoanalytic Reflection,” agrees with Bergmann that personal disappointment either in one’s analyst or in the relationship with Freud played an important role in dissidence. He also notes that behind that conflict was personal psychopathology, and moreover that the “innocent bystanders” of the psychoanalytic movement had their own profound ambivalence toward the leader that allowed hostility to be displaced and expressed toward a particular subgroup or person (p. 131). Regressive group processes continue in psychoanalytic institutions to this day. Kernberg also notes that the clinical basis of psychoanalytic discoveries has methodological difficulties, making it very difficult to make decisions about alternative theories (p. 132). He states the need to develop our understanding of psychoanalytic process and to emphasize empirical research to test alternative hypotheses (p. 143).

Anton Kris’s thoughtful paper, “Some Implications for Learning Psychoanalysis in Martin Bergmann’s ‘Rethinking Dissidence and Change in the History of Psychoanalysis,” focuses on the difficulty of focusing on the patient’s psychic reality, rather than external issues, the difficulty of remaining thoughtful and balanced, rather than impatient or moralistic. He points out that the patient may go to “great defensive lengths to avoid the painful experience of internal conflict or of involvement with another person” (p. 151).

Harold Blum’s paper, “The Wise Baby and the Wild Analyst,” is about Ferenczi, whom he characterizes as both a wild and creative analyst, along with having aspects of the wise baby or wise child that he wrote about. Blum notes that Ferenczi “placed object relations at the center of the traumatic situation” of child abuse. Ferenczi believed that the worst part of the abuse was the adult’s hypocrisy—the denial and deception. Blum weaves historical information about Ferenczi and his relationships, including his relationship with Freud, into a fascinating discussion of the development of Ferenczi’s ideas.

Jill Savege Scharff’s paper, “The British Object Relations Theorists: Fairbairn, Winnicott, Balint, Guntrip, Sutherland, and Bowlby,” provides an excellent summary of the contributions of this group. She points out that Ferenczi had a strong influence, since he “was the analyst of Balint and of Abraham who analyzed Klein, thereby affecting directly and indirectly both British object relations and Kleinian thinking” (p. 177). She states that at times she has been regarded as a dissident but would rather see herself as an integrator, and she is grateful for Bergmann’s broad perspective on dissidence and Wallerstein’s vision that allows her to see herself in the context of an “international, pluralistic psychoanalysis” (p. 180).

Robert Wallerstein’s paper, “From Dissidence to Pluralism in Psychoanalysis—and Onto What?” provides a fine summary of the ideas of the last fifty years. He notes that in current psychoanalytic thinking the common ground or convergence among psychoanalysts has continued to expand and that different analysts are becoming more appreciative of each other’s clinical work (p. 219-220). He sees our “experience-distant general theories” and the ways we believe our interventions are guided by these theories to be the area where we continue to be diverse (p. 207).

Elisabeth Young-Buehl’s paper, “The ‘Taboo on Tenderness’ in the History of Psychoanalysis,” is an excellent exposition of the work of Ian Suttie, and analyst from the 1930’s, who died young and who thought Freud made a mistake to turn away from the ego instincts toward the death instinct, away from “their manifestation, affectionate love or tenderness” (p. 239). Suttie also believed that Freud missed the most fundamental jealousy of man for woman’s reproductive powers (p. 242). Suttie noted a “’taboo on tenderness’ in Freud’s life and work, and thus in psychoanalysis”—mostly in the theoretical realm, but occasionally in the technical realm (p. 244). Perhaps Suttie would have felt more comfortable with present day self psychology.

Martin Bergmann’s chapter, “Charles Rycroft: A Study Dissidence and a Psychoanalytic Cautionary Tale,” tells the story of Charles Rycroft, the youngest son of Sir Richard Nelson Rycroft, the fifth baronet and famous fox hunter, and his second wife. When Charles was 11, his father died, the estate passed to the oldest son, and Charles’s mother became very depressed (p. 250). Ernest Jones refused to accept him as a lay analyst, so he qualified in medicine in 1945. In 1947, he qualified in psychoanalysis and was analyzed by both Ella Freeman Sharpe and Sylvia Payne. Bergmann’s suspects that his failure to be accepted as a lay analyst repeated the trauma of his loss of status after his father’s death. What Rycroft wrote about in his papers is very interesting. One of his papers, written in 1965 but unpublished until 1985, was called “On Ablation of the Parental Images or the Creation of the Illusion of Having Created Oneself.” In it, Rycroft described patients who neither followed in their parent’s footsteps nor rebelled against them (p. 251). Rycroft eventually left psychoanalysis.

After the papers, as the conference discussion began, Bergmann urged participants to discuss the issues in a thoughtful way, in order to generate new ideas, and pointed out those times when participants were beginning to sound vehement. Twice, Bergmann’s noting of vehemence took place as participants recounted their disappointing and frustrating experiences in psychoanalytic institutions. Kernberg made important points as he emphasized the dysfunctional nature of psychoanalytic institutions and described ways they encourage regression in the membership.

Interestingly, the discussion did not revolve around the issue of the importance of empirical research. The reasons for this situation are unclear, but an important aspect may be our need for stories and drama. In our work, we are listening to the patient’s stories and creating new narratives with our patients. Research is usually not a dramatic story, and progress is slow. Discussions of research demand quantitative skills that are different from the skills needed to create narratives.

Moreover, since eighty to ninety per cent of the communication between people, including analyst and analysand, takes place outside conscious awareness, most therapeutic change takes place through implicit memory. These changes take place to a large extent through priming (Helm, 2004). Because we cannot reliably describe in words what we are doing in our consulting rooms, it is hard to talk about what we are doing. Psychoanalysts are, for the most part, however, thoughtful and serious people who are trying hard to discover new ways to work well with their patients. This search is important, because it allows the analyst to have some new ideas and be able to bring vitality to the clinical exchange. As a supervisor of mine once said, “It is important to use new techniques and ideas before everyone finds out that they don’t work very well.” Possibly, they work better in the beginning because they are new and charged with affect, and when they are overused, they become stale. We also implicitly promise more than we can deliver and people are going to be disappointed. We mostly offer people the opportunity for a thoughtful inquiry in the context of an affective exchange that we hope is useful. Most of the time, it is quite helpful. But since this exchange of feeling and ideas is, for the most part, outside conscious awareness, it is no wonder that our attempts to describe it—our theories—do not stand the test of time. Both the larger culture and the psychoanalytic culture are changing constantly. Each of us works differently, and the way we work is more dependent on our personalities, our resilience and our inner balance than it is on our theories and ideas.

Despite Esther Menaker’s (1942) paper emphasizing the contribution of both people in the room, many psychoanalysts, as Wallerstein illustrated in his paper, are just beginning to focus more on the details of the communication between the two people in the room and to acknowledge how different each analytic dyad is in terms of the relationship they create together. Jones (1997) provides strong evidence for the different repetitive interaction structures created by each dyad. I highly recommend this very important book.

Fonya Lord Helm


Helm, F.L. (2004). Conscious, Unconscious and Nonconscious Communication: Subliminal and Supraliminal Priming. Presented at the Winter Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, New York, NY, January 2004
Jones, E.E. (1997). Modes of therapeutic action. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 78 : 1135-1150.
Menaker, E. (1942). The masochistic factor in the psychoanalytic situation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 11: 171-186.


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