Living Longer; Practicing How?

Dropped on:September 5, 2012
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Photo: Samuel Eisenstein, M.D.

Before Labor Day, we ran a paper documenting that analysts live longer than other related professions. Click Here to Read: Analyst Living Longer, but How Do We Practice.

But, what about what and how well we practice in these later years? Fisher and Hoffs bring us Samuel Eisenstein’s paper on the aging therapist. Eisenstein, like his colleague Alexander, was a refugee; the first Rumanian, the second Hungarian. They brought wisdom with them that flourished in Los Angeles’ soil.

Here is a short introduction followed by Eisenstein’s reflections.
Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor


By David James Fisher, Ph.D. and Josh Hoffs, M.D.

     Samuel Eisenstein’s evocative paper, previously published in George L. Pollock’s collection of essays, How Psychiatrists Look at Aging (1992), was written in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, when the author was in his late seventies.  The Rumanian born Eisenstein (1913-1996) was educated in medicine inItaly during World War II,  undertaking analytic training inItaly after the war.  He was a highly respected figure in the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic community; he served as dean of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute (now theNewCenter for Psychoanalysis) from 1969 to1977 and strongly sponsored an innovative initiative by Peter Loewenberg to train academicians in the clinical and theoretical methodology of psychoanalysis.  Eisenstein’s work culminated in the California Research Psychoanalyst Law of 1977, the nation’s most successful arena for humanists engaged in psychoanalytic  training, interdisciplinary scholarship, and practice.  Having inspired the Research Training Program, he inaugurated a unique fellowship fund to help defray the costs of the training analysis.  This fund still exists and carries his name.

     Eisenstein remained very much a European presence in the Los Angelesmilieu.  His style of doing psychoanalysis included a strong identification with Freud, including Freud’s skepticism, as well as an appreciation of the Ego Psychologists who dominated American psychoanalysis from the 1930’s through the 1960’s.  He was creative, ironic, self-deprecating, lovable, suspicious of idealization, while at the same time able to speak to patients and colleagues in a direct, non-jargon ridden fashion—a style of thinking that was common sensical, pragmatic, and clinically grounded.  An adept listener, he was known to say that although understanding the “past”  tends to be dominant in our work, attention to the “present” and the “future” is sometimes more important.  He was skeptical of the trendiness of psychoanalytic theories, especially the enthusiasm that emerged around Kleinian analysis, self psychology, and certain versions of intersubjectivity theory.   Sam was open to serious innovations in theory and technique, continuing to study contemporary perspectives—perhaps as a way of maintaining a sharp mind and of being au courant.  As the readers of this essay on aging will discover, he was naturally “empathic” without privileging that position, oriented toward the feelings of patients and analysts without constructing a theoretical scaffolding around “affect attunement.”

     Eisenstein’s essay “The Aging of therapists” is intentionally impressionistic, written with a light touch.  He makes his points, illustrates them with a brief vignette, then moves on.  It is not written with a strong argument or polemical bent.  It is the work of an introspective clinician who, toward the end of his life, had developed a relaxed and realistic outlook on life.  He recognized the strengths and limitations of analysis, advocating an elasticity of mind and flexible approach on the part of the practitioner.  It contains illuminating self-disclosures and a number of statements of uncertainty, of genuine not knowing.  There are many questions in the piece, more questions than answers (perhaps an aspect of Sam’s Jewish heritage which savors the answering a question with a question).  Possibly the uncertainties point to the need for more rigorous research on the “aging of therapists” given the multiple problems that aging raises, including the narcissistic injury to the older analyst facing decline, retirement, disease, and death.

      It is possible that Sam wrote this paper as a mournful reflection on the loss of youth, while determined to see  the compensatory and adaptive value of reflecting on life experience, and on the quest for wisdom and serenity.    Eisenstein’s recognition of the value of the journey itself regardless of the goal reminds one of the often misread poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” Ultimately the poet and analytic clinician know that it doesn’t matter what road is taken in life, the process itself is to be embraced, including a recognition of the obstacles and losses that will have to be negotiated along the way.

     Eisenstein was an early historian of psychoanalysis, editing a volume of essays (with Franz Alexander and Martin Grotjahn) called Psychoanalytic Pioneers (1966, reprinted 1995), and coauthored a book with Norman Levy and Judd Marmor entitled The Dyadic Transaction(Transaction, 1994); this text was an extended commentary on an analytic case by Franz Alexander witnessed by Eisenstein, Levy, and Marmor through a two way mirror.    It was designed to illustrate the clinical efficacy of the “corrective emotional experience,”  a controversial technique in this era.

Click Here to Read:  The Aging of Therapists by Samuel Eisentstein.


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