Is Dr. Heinz Kohut Beside Himself? Rarely, but His Ideas on Fragmented Personality Revolutionized Psychiatry
On a bright June day in Vienna in 1938 a young medical student and a friend went to the railroad station, hoping to see Sigmund Freud. The Nazis had allowed the famed psychoanalyst, a Jew, to emigrate and, as he settled into his compartment, he looked out and spotted the two well-wishers.
"There was nobody else," says Dr. Heinz Kohut, now 65 and himself a psychoanalytic trailblazer. "The train began to move very slowly. I took off my fedora. He took off his cap, puzzled as to who was saying goodbye. But he greeted me back."
Kohut never did meet Freud but the moment inspired him. "The tipping of Freud's cap," he says, "was symbolic. The culture in which I had grown up had crumbled. The moment at the railroad station became a germinal point for my scientific future."
Yet that future was to embrace a break with Freudian doctrine. Kohut has made his reputation by studying "narcissism," named for the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection. Kohut's reputation now attracts doctors from all over the world to work with him at his current base, the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. Asserts one colleague, Dr. Ernest Wolf: "Kohut has added the first new ideas to psychoanalysis since Freud."
Kohut theorizes that the basic disorder of modern man is lack of self-esteem—a fragmentation of self—and not the sexually based inner conflict stressed by Freudians. "The emptiness of life troubles people," he says. "It is not because they can't have their mommies and daddies now. It is because nobody was really close or responded to them then.
"A baby is affectionate and affection-seeking," states Kohut, and learns to be an independent "self-object" through being " 'mirrored' by the gleam in the mother's eye, by the real warmth of acceptance and closeness. Someone has to say, 'Bravo, you are here and it is worthwhile that you are!' " Those emotionally rejected in childhood, Kohut argues, go through life constantly seeking the approval of others but never get enough. "Some say these people are narcissistic," Kohut observes, "but actually they are not narcissistic enough. They need food for their self-esteem all the time."
Kohut blames the modern family as a major contributor to fragmented personalities. "Parents," he notes, "are away a lot. Daddies are not around, or they don't feel any pride in themselves. Children feel abandoned and depressed. They try to bring their sense of self together in some artificial way."
Nations and whole groups can also suffer fragmentation, Kohut notes. "Hitler and Mussolini could gain power because people were terribly hungry for something that gave them self-esteem," he points out. Similarly, followers of the Rev. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple were given "a sense of being somebody, of uniting with a godlike figure. They became like babies in the arms of a father figure who could do with them what he wanted."
Kohut's own father was away in the Austrian army five of the first six years of Heinz's life. "I was deprived of a young, vigorous father," Kohut says. "He was replaced by an old man, a grandfather, and that was not the same. So, my male teachers had a tremendous role in my formation."
At 26 Kohut fled Austria shortly after Freud left, heading for England, then Chicago, where he did postgraduate work in neurology. He has one child, Thomas, 28, a psychohistorian, by his 30-year marriage to Betty Meyer, 65, a U of Chicago social worker. As a father, Kohut says, "I have no techniques except being direct and open. It doesn't count what parents do but what they really are.
"Children who get all the necessary calories and vitamins, but no picking up and no care, will die," he points out. "We need maternal and paternal responsiveness to know we are in the world. We need it from our first breath to our last."