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Horney & Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Personal History

Karen Horney was born Karen Danielsen in a suburb of Hamburg on September 15, 1885. Her father was a sea captain of Norwegian origin; her mother was of Dutch-German extraction. Karen had a brother, Berndt, who was four years older than she. Karen sided with her mother in the fierce conflicts between her parents, who were ill-matched in age and background, and her mother supported Karen's desire for an education against her father's opposition.

Karen decided that she wanted to be a physician when she was thirteen and was one of the first women in Germany to be admitted to medical school. She received her medical education at the universities of Freiburg, Göttingen, and Berlin. In 1909, she married Oskar Horney, a social scientist she had met while they were both students in Freiburg. In 1910, she entered analysis with Karl Abraham, a member of Freud's inner circle and the first psychoanalyst to practice in Germany. She decided to become an analyst herself and in 1920 was one of the six founding members of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. She taught there until 1932, when Franz Alexander invited her to become Associate Director of the newly formed Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. She joined the faculty of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1934 but was driven out in 1941 as a result of the publication of New Ways in Psychoanalysis. She founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis the same year and was dean until her death in 1952. She was also founding editor of The American Journal of Psychoanalysis.

Karen Horney was introspective and self-analytical in her youth, partly because of her temperament and partly because of her unhappy childhood. She felt that she had been unwanted and that her brother was much more highly valued than she, principally because he was a male. Since she disliked her father, whom she regarded as religious hypocrite, and her mother confided in her brother, she felt alone and unsupported in the family. To compensate for this, she tried to attach herself to her brother, with whom she seems to have engaged in some kind of sex play between the ages of 5 and 9. When her brother distanced himself from her on reaching puberty, Karen felt rejected and tried to gain a sense of worth by becoming fiercely competitive in school.

As a child, Karen was bitter, angry, and rebellious, but when she reached puberty, she could no longer tolerate her isolation and won a position in the family by joining the circle of her mother's admirers. At the age of thirteen, she began keeping a diary (Horney 1980) in which she expressed adoration of her mother and brother. Her buried hostility toward them erupted when she was twenty-one, however, and her relations with them were strained thereafter. The diaries that were written while Karen was repressing her anger give a misleading picture of her relations with her family and must be read in light of the Clare case in Self-Analysis (1942), which is highly autobiographical. This case, which appears in three other places as well, provides information about Karen's earlier history and explains her behavior during adolescence.

Although Karen's diaries are misleading about her relations with her family, they reveal her emotional problems quite clearly. She suffered from depression, timidity, and paralyzing fatigue, could not bear being without a boyfriend, was insecure about her mental abilities, and felt like an ugly duckling who could not compete with her beautiful mother. She had great difficulty focusing on her work and was able to succeed academically only because of her exceptional intelligence.

Karen's diaries were mostly devoted to her relationships with males, from whom she desperately needed attention. The typical pattern of her relationships was first idealization of the male, followed by disappointment, depression, and efforts to comprehend why the relationship failed. Because of her disappointments, she moved from man to man, often trying to hold onto several at once because each satisfied different demands. She hoped to find a great man who could fulfill her conflicting needs for dominance and submission, crude force and refined sensibility, but she was perpetually disappointed. Deeply unhappy, she tried to understand the sources of her misery, first in her diaries and then in her psychoanalytic writings, many of which are covert autobiography.

At first Karen thought that Oskar Horney was the great man for whom she had been looking, but he was not forceful enough, and the marriage was soon in trouble. She sought help in her analysis with Karl Abraham, but her symptoms were the same after two years of treatment as they were when she began. The failure of her analysis is one reason why she began to question orthodox theory, especially with respect to the psychology of women. After having three children, Karen and Oskar separated in 1926 and divorced in 1938. Karen never remarried, but she had many troubled relationships of the kind she describes in her essays on feminine psychology and the Clare case in Self-Analysis.

Although she had begun to emphasize culture in her writings of the 1920s, it was her move to the United States in 1932 that convinced her that Freud had given too much importance to biology and too little to social factors. First in Chicago and then in New York, she found patients with very different kinds of problems than those she had encountered in Germany. This experience, combined with her reading in the burgeoning sciences of sociology and anthropology, made her doubt the universality of the Oedipus complex and led her to explore the impact of culture on individual psychology. In 1935, she lectured on this topic at the New School for Social Research and was invited by W. W. Norton to write the book that became The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. As Horney's disagreements with Freud deepened, she felt it important to contrast her thinking with his in a systematic way, and this she did in New Ways in Psychoanalysis.

Horney's third book, Self-Analysis (1942), was an outgrowth of the breakdown of her relationship with Erich Fromm. She had known Fromm when he was a student at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (he was fifteen years younger than she), and she met him again when he lectured at the University of Chicago in 1933. They became lovers when both moved to New York in 1934. Their relationship was intellectual as well as emotional, with Fromm teaching Horney sociology and Horney teaching Fromm psychoanalysis. The relationship deteriorated in the late 1930s, after Horney sent her daughter Marianne, who was specializing in psychiatry, to Fromm for a training analysis. When Marianne's hostilities toward her mother emerged in the course of analysis, as was to be expected, Horney blamed Fromm. The breakdown of the relationship was extremely painful to Horney and led to a period of intense self-analysis. This issued in the writing of Self-Analysis, in which the story of Clare and Peter is a fictionalized account of what happened between Horney and Fromm. Despite their estrangement, Fromm became a member of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis when it was founded in 1941, but Horney drove him out in 1942, using his status as a lay analyst (he had a Ph.D. rather than an M.D.) as a pretext.

The 1930s were a turbulent period for Horney, culminating with the hostile reaction of her colleagues at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to her criticisms of Freud and her split with Erich Fromm. The 1940s were equally turbulent, since many of Horney's most distinguished colleagues left the American Institute, one group (including Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Clara Thompson) to form the William Alanson White Institute and another to join the New York Medical College. These splits were partly the result of Horney's need for dominance and her inability to grant others the kind of academic freedom she had demanded for herself at the New York Psychoanalytic. Horney continued to have difficulties in her love life, and these often contributed to dissention at her institute, since she tended to place men with whom she was having relationships in positions of power. Despite the political turmoil it involved, heading her own institute enabled Horney to flourish. It gave her the intellectual freedom she had always sought and facilitated the development of her mature theory. Toward the end of the decade, Horney became interested in Zen, and not long before her death in 1952, she traveled to Japan with D. T. Suzuki, who had written and lectured about Zen in America, to visit Zen monasteries.

Although Horney was a brilliant clinician, she suffered all her life from not having had an analyst who could really help her. After her disappointing experiences, first with Karl Abraham and then with Hanns Sachs in the early 1920s, she turned to self-analysis in an effort to gain relief from her emotional difficulties. Combined with her clinical experience, her self-analysis generated many of her psychoanalytic ideas. Her constant struggle to obtain relief from her problems was largely responsible for the continual evolution of her theory and the deepening of her insights. Horney had a remarkable ability to see herself clearly and to be brutally honest about her own problems. With the exception of her earliest essays, she did not construct a theory that universalized or normalized her difficulties.

Although Horney made little progress with some of her problems, she was remarkably successful with others. As a young woman, she had suffered severely from depression, fatigue, and inability to work, but she became extraordinarily creative, energetic, and productive. Like Clare in Self-Analysis, she was a late-bloomer, since she did not write very much until she was in her forties. The last fifteen years of her life are remarkable: she published five ground-breaking books; she was in great demand as an analyst, supervisor, and speaker; she founded and directed the American Institute for Psychoanalysis; she founded and edited The American Journal of Psychoanalysis; she taught at the New School on a regular basis; she read widely; she learned how to paint; she had many eminent friends and a busy social life; she spent much time in the summers with her daughters; and she traveled a great deal. Her failure to overcome some of her problems made her realistic, while her successes were the source of her famous optimism. Her belief both in the human potential for growth and in the difficulty of achieving it was based on her own experience.

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Last updated: 06/18/2002