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Encounter With Psychoanalysis December 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Encounter With Psychoanalysis.
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(In my late thirties I went through an excruciating life crisis, one, I now believe, that had been slowly brewing since childhood.  I had hit what I considered to be rock bottom in the realm both of intimate relationships and personal success.  As fate had it, I was referred for counselling to Toronto physician, Bernard Glazman, a general practitioner whose practice consisted entirely of Berglerian psychoanalysis.


When I first stepped into his office I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  My first impression of Dr. Glazman was slightly negative.  He didn’t appear to me to be a necessarily brilliant individual, and he certainly projected an image of traditional middle class.  When he told me that in a sense I was at first going to have to take on faith what he was teaching me, I was sceptical to say the least.  For reasons I cannot remember, I decided to commit myself to the minimal period of therapy he insisted was necessary before taking a decision on whether to continue or not.  Fairly early on in therapy, well before my “contract” was up, I got the shock of my psychological/emotional life.  It came in the form of a revelation of how I and not others was the major source of my own suffering. 



What follows is a review of Bergler’s “Divorce Won’t Help” (a book that helped change my life – this coming, ironically, from a man with three divorces!)


I need to add a disclaimer.  Dr. Edmund Bergler, having escaped from Nazi Germany, practiced in New York in the 1950s and enjoyed both popularity and notoriety.  He was known for two areas of specialization: treating writers with writer’s block and treating homosexuals.  It is the later that has brought him notoriety, more in our time than in his own.  He believed that homosexuality was a form of neurosis and that it could be “cured.”  Naturally, his name is anathema to the gay community.  The notion that homosexuality is an illness has been virtually unanimously disclaimed by the community of mental health professionals.


Because I am a gay positive individual and have a long time involvement with the gay and Lesbian community and gay liberation, being an advocate of Berglerian psychoanalysis presents a problem for me.  Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with the novelist Bernard Wolfe, who had been a patient of Dr. Bergler in New York.  Wolfe, who at the time I met with him in Southern California was in the twilight of his life and career, had also been a secretary to Leon Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico.  I asked him about Bergler’s questionable position with respect to homosexuality.  Wolfe’s response was that Bergler was a socialist and a humanitarian, and he opined that in light of the movement for gay liberation, he is confident that Bergler would have revisited and revised his stance if he were alive today.


This gives some comfort, but the stigma of his crusading attitude towards curing homosexuality probably can never be completely erased.  I learned about Bergler and homosexuality after I had been well along in my therapy and was enjoying significant benefits.  I have concluded that Bergler’s unfortunate mischaracterization of homosexuality as a disease need not nullify his fundamental findings with respect to psychic masochism)


Divorce Won’t Help: A Review


The book’s title, Divorce Won’t Help, is meant to indicate that problems in marriage often stem from psychological problems, and that simply changing partners without understanding the source of the conflict is not likely to yield future satisfaction.  But this work is much more than a practical marriage manual.  It introduces us to the monumental and almost universally ignored work of the Viennese psychoanalyst, Dr. Edmund Bergler, who was amongst the last wave of young students and disciples of Freud in Vienna (1930’s).


Although Bergler considered himself to be an “orthodox” Freudian, he both broke with and is shunned by the orthodox Freudian establishment.  He felt that the psychoanalytic profession fixated itself on Freud’s earliest findings, particularly that of the dynamic of the Oedipus complex, while ignoring Freud’s later interest in the earliest stage of unconscious psychological development, i.e., that of the first eighteen months or the period characterized as that of orality because the major contact between the infant and the outside world is via the mouth (an interest that was also taken up by psychoanalysis theorists Melanie Klein and Anna Freud).


Bergler believed that adult neurotic behavior, which he referred to as the “clinical picture,” was a result of “compulsive unconscious repetition” of the outcome or resolution of unconscious internal conflict experienced in the oral stage, that is, the first eighteen months of life (this he referred to as the “genetic picture”).  He claimed that such neurosis was universal – that it occurs to one degree or another in everyone – due to the unusually extended period of human infant dependency.  He called this phenomenon “Psychic Masochism.”  He describes adult neurotic behavior in three steps which he refers to as the “Mechanism of Orality.”


Bergler’s principal concern was not with abnormal psychology or deep psychosis, but rather with what he considered to be a ubiquitous form of self destructive behavior, having its origins in the unconscious “libidinization of pain,” a result of the inevitable destruction of “infantile megalomania” that occurs at birth. According to Bergler, as a result of this interruption of intra-uterine Utopia (where every need is satisfied instantly and automatically), every infant develops an unconscious image of a bad punishing mother, regardless of the quality of actual maternal care.  In other words, no matter how caring and efficient a real life mother, it is not humanly possible to instantly satisfy the infant’s demands (to be nourished and kept comfortable and free of pain, frustration, etc.).  And in addition, and even more perplexing, the well-intended acts of feeding, cleaning and attending to the infant are inevitably perceived (i.e., misunderstood) as aggressive and punishing.


Bergler further explains the dual role of the unconscious superego: the “Ego Ideal” being that behavior or persona the infant is “taught” (by parents, teachers, etc.) to strive for; and the “Daimonion” (a term first used by Socrates), which is that part of the unconscious superego that accuses and punishes, and is the source of unconscious guilt.


Psychic masochism has to do with a five layered structural process by which unconsciously motivated self-destructive (painful) behaviour that occurs on the conscious level is experienced as unconscious pleasure.  It has to do with the unconscious wish (in relation to the libidinization of pain) to be punished by a “cruel mother image” and defensive behaviour resulting from the subsequent unconscious guilt.   Because the dynamic occurs mainly at the unconscious level, the true masochistic origin (motivation) is not perceived by the suffering individual, who is only aware of the conscious pain.  To the suffering neurotic, his pain appears consciously to be “caused” entirely by an external source (this phenomenon Bergler calls “the basic fallacy”).  This, of course, makes the curing of the pain all that more difficult, since its source is hidden.  Only by what Bergler calls putting the individual’s neurotic behaviour under the “psychoanalytic microscope” can understanding and healing occur.  This is not, however, to deny that individuals actually suffer from external sources, but instead to show how in neurotics, because of their unconscious psychic masochism, the degree of suffering, if not a result of outright distortion by the unconscious, is out of proportion to any particular external cause.


Berglerian therapy follows standard Freudian methods, that is, dream analysis and interpretation of unconscious sources of conscious behavior.  To escape Nazism, Bergler migrated from Vienna to New York, where he practiced for nearly three decades (until his death in 1962) and wrote dozens of articles and books and trained other analysts.  However, his work has been ostracized by the psychoanalytic establishment, and is virtually unknown outside of New York and Toronto, where a handful of Berglerian psychoanalysts continue to treat patients with success.


Since so much of adult behavior can be seen to be self-destructive, it may well serve us to look at the work of a theoretician whose entire lifetime work was dedicated to understanding its cause.


Mechanism of Orality


1.     The individual provokes a situation in which they are refused, rejected or unjustly treated.


2.     Quite ignorant of the fact that they themselves have brought about this defeat, the individual fights in righteous indignation – seemingly in self defense – against the person he imagines to be responsible.


3.     He pities himself ad nauseam: “Such injustice can only happen to me!”


The initial provocation (1) and the unconscious enjoyment of defeat (3) are entirely unconscious.  Conscious are the pseudo aggression accompanying the righteous indignation (2) and the self pity and commiseration (3).



Five Layer Structure of Psychic Masochism


1.     Unconscious wish to be refused, abused, rejected, etc. by the image of a bad refusing mother.


2.     Daimonion reproach because the Ego Ideal does not contain a bad refusing mother image, rather a good giving mother image.


3.     Denial of the masochistic wish to be refused.  Assertion of a contrary fury and aggression against the image of the bad mother and retaliation.


4.     Daimonion reproach for fury and aggression and retaliation because the Ego Ideal does not contain a child that retaliates but rather a child that gives back.


5.     Pleading guilty to the “lesser crime” of fury and aggression and refusing back (3), never recognizing the “greater crime” of masochism (1).  In punishment for the guilt, the aggression is turned inward causing suffering with the resultant self-damage, which manifests itself in the signs and symptoms of illness and disease.


(Note to the Reader: I have written a much longer piece describing my own

experience as a patient in therapy.  This is in the form of a letter to patients, which is used by Dr. Glazman in his practice.  You can request a copy of this letter by writing to me at rogerholla@aol.com)