Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981)
Reissued by Vintage in paperback in 1982.
Janet Malcolm found her keystone subject — psychoanalysis - early in her journalistic career. Malcolm dedicated over 10 years of her life to this strange and arguably obsolete Freudian institution. This period produced three books and countless magazine essays, and it all began with Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. The book obsessively investigates the relationship between the psychiatrist and patient, blending over a century of psychology texts, literature, and a long profile of a New York psychoanalyst.
The whole mix depends on transference, an early concept Freud developed to explain amorous feelings developed within the analytic relationship. After his patient Dora threw her arms around the doctor after a heady session, Freud made some startling decisions about human behavior. Malcolm summarizes: "Love for the analyst [is] a normal part of the treatment ... and as something unreal and hallucinatory — an artificial revival of early feelings that has nothing to do with the person of the analyst." In other words, "infantile" childhood fantasies resurface during analysis — love for one's father or misguided puppy love for one's nanny — and these socially unacceptable memories cause neurotic behavior in adults. According to Freud, we all repeat these childhood constructions in adulthood. Every quirky adult relationship, from doctor/patient seriousness to disastrous love affairs, follows personality-scripts written well before puberty. If carried far enough, the idea makes romantic love seem like a pathetic fantasy.
Malcolm's psychoanalyst subject follows Freud's theories religiously, and at times sounds like a fanatical Christian dedicated to a secular Messiah. Although Malcolm admires many of the ideas floating around the book, the various institutions carrying Freud's legacy today come across as spiteful cliques run by clueless old men. Through long interviews, readers see how most Freudian disciples maintain a frigid relationship with patients and keep awkward etiquette in the psychological community — all to avoid this "transference" love. As expected, they bungle most human relationships through their dedication to Freudian thought.
Malcolm changed her subject's identity to protect his practice and patients, but the trick opens a door into very private material — the hidden world of therapy. More importantly, Malcolm brings her literary background to the material, spicing painfully dull Freudian theories with more accessible examples from Proust and Chekhov. Towards the end of the book, she places Proustian epiphany, when his narrator "is flooded with illumination after illumination about love, art, memory and time" (127), beside some Freudian discoveries about memories. Suddenly the dry theories jump off the page, "illuminated" for regular readers.
Malcolm's later work focuses heavily on the relationship between the journalist and their profiled subject (getting herself in some trouble at the same time). This kind of love-hate relationship orbits around the story, as Malcolm surfaces with her finely tuned "I" during the interviews —asking probing questions, arguing with her subject or adding lengthy, personal disagreements with Freud's work. Setting her book on this intimate scale gives the material a vitality that most books about psychoanalysis lack. She reveals how transference love (and hate) always surfaces between writers and their subject.
This is an important lesson for all writers. A journalist hiding out in a bunker with Communist revolutionaries will shed more light on Marxist theory than a thousand scholarly papers ever could; in the same way, Malcolm's book teaches the average reader more about psychoanalysis than years at a university ever could. The book provides a textbook example of how journalists can tackle scholarly topics with an engaging voice, turning long, intellectual discussions into vivid scenes. Beyond that, mainstream psychology has rejected most of Freud's theories, and Malcolm's book records a fading analytic style. This book reminds us how Freud touched profound places in the human mind and changed many ideas about human experience — something we shouldn't completely abandon.
The New York Times’ Review of Books-- Detailed Bibliography
Craig Seligman explores Malcolm’s long libel lawsuit after she published In the Freud Archives
Malcolm defends J.D. Salinger
Malcolm's Controversial Opinion of Journalism