The Rapaport-Holt Letters: A Master-Apprentice Collaboration on Psychoanalytic Theory

Dropped on:February 23, 2013
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by Robert R. Holt

Late in July 2011, I had an unexpected call from Arnold D. Richards, M.D., an old acquaintance.  He asked if I happened to have any unpublished papers on psychoanalysis; if so, he offered to make them available to their most likely audience through International Psychoanalysis.  It happened that, for about a year, I had been trying to find a publisher for a collection of letters between David Rapaport and me during his final 12 years (1948–1960).  When I mentioned that to Dr. Richards, he at once expressed interest, and at last here we are.

My relationship with Rapaport.  When I was a graduate-student member of Henry A. Murray’s staff at the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the early 1940s, David Rapaport, as one of many stellar visitors, gave a talk about his approach to testing.  (Despite its name, Murray’s “clinic” saw no patients but was devoted to psychoanalytically oriented research on personality with Harvard students as subjects.)  Several years later, Rapaport asked Murray to recommend people to be trained by him for the psychological staff of the VA hospital, and Prof. Murray gave him my name.  My memory of Rapaport’s presentation was vivid enough for me to be eager to accept an invitation to an interview, though my hopes were not high in light of my total lack of experience with patients.  As I soon saw in my job interview, however, Rapaport paid little attention to the prior training and practice of his recruits, some of whom had had years of experience—all of us had to learn diagnostic testing of psychiatric patients in his way.

That interview took place in 1946, when I was working in my first post-Ph.D. job, at Rensis Likert’s ground-breaking public opinion research enterprise in the US Department of Agriculture.  Rapaport was then looking for staff members for the Winter Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Topeka, which was being taken over by Karl A. Menninger (universally called “Dr. Karl”) to house the world’s largest psychiatric residency program.  It was a time of grandiose projects conceived and run by charismatic, gifted leaders.  Part of Dr. Karl’s big scheme was to complement the Menninger Foundation School of Psychiatry with Menninger Foundation Schools of psychiatric social work, adjunctive therapies, and clinical psychology. The last was led by Rapaport but, like the others, centered at Winter Hospital and affiliated with the nearby University of Kansas.

After a few months of intensive training and supervised testing of patients, I and other recruits were pressed into service as supervisors of the newly arrived students in the Menninger Foundation School of Clinical Psychology.  They were getting their clinical training in the VA hospital.  In 1947, Rapaport invited me to join the staff of his Research Department at Menninger’s, as we all called the Clinic/Hospital/Foundation, to take the leadership of the Selection Project (see Holt & Luborsky, 1958).  He and Dr. Karl had started that research at the same time as the School of Psychiatry, at Rapaport’s urging, to take advantage of the size of the new operation by rethinking the traditional local method of selecting young physicians for training in psychiatry: testing and interviewing them in essentially the same way as patients.  Soon Lester Luborsky joined us, later William R. Morrow and a couple of other part-timers.  Rapaport met with our little team frequently, not telling us what we were to do but facilitating discussions of how to proceed.  That was typical of his way of leading the Research Department: immersing himself in each project so that he could give advice, but doing his best to train autonomous researchers.

Somehow, he and I hit it off personally as well as professionally.  I of course looked up to him (as did virtually everyone else on both staffs) as if he were of my father’s generation though he was only six years my senior, and was in awe of his astonishing and varied gifts.  I felt an enormous boost in my self esteem when he offered friendship by asking me to call him “David.”  (I have described that episode and its significance for me in my Memoir [Holt, 1967].)

And then, in 1948, David Rapaport left Topeka, KS, for Stockbridge, MA.  He joined a select group who had made the same exodus from the Menninger Foundation the year before with Robert P. Knight, at that time Chief of Staff.  Knight took with him some of Menninger’s most brilliant staff members: the team of clinical researchers Merton M. Gill and Margaret Brenman, with their families (notably including Brenman’s husband, the writer William Gibson); Roy Schafer; and Allen Wheelis.  Knight had been offered the leadership of the sagging Austen Riggs Center, a once-famous private psychiatric clinic and hospital, and set out to make it an even more outstanding, now psychoanalytically oriented institution.  At about the time Rapaport joined them, Erik H. Erikson did so too, completing a dazzling team.

Meanwhile, Rapaport kept in touch with former students and colleagues in Topeka.  As the one who had been most inspired to try to follow in his footsteps, I was among his most regular correspondents during this period of his life.  At first, the letters were  scanty and not very intimate.  But as you will see, as the years passed, the letters show the growing depth of our friendship as well as intellectual collaboration and mutual aid.  These years also saw major changes in our personal lives.  Though these aspects of the letters are downplayed, some readers may be interested in what is revealed of the human side of our lives and its effects on our joint work.

Why read these old letters?  In this collection, one can follow the interlocked final and most productive years of a master of psychoanalytic theory, and the early-mature developmental phase of a follower who sought to continue and even transcend the master’s work.  In them, readers can observe how Rapaport functioned as a teacher and mentor, at the same time treating his younger colleague as an equal whose critique of his own work was to be welcomed and respected.

The reader can see here how Rapaport developed and reworked his greatest theoretical contributions, the critical and synthetic review of major problem areas in psychoanalysis, and how he made good use of sympathetic but unsparing criticism, modeled on his own critiques of my early writings.  Always with a primary concern to discern and preserve the best and most lasting parts of Freud’s work, Rapaport was willing to take seriously some fundamental challenges to the basic tenets of metapsychology, which I was beginning to formulate at the time and which I developed in the years after my mentor’s death.

I hope it is obvious that historians of several kinds may find these letters interesting, not only those who focus on the history of psychoanalytic theory in particular but those involved in various other branches of the history of science: that of clinical psychology, of psychiatry, of medicine more generally, even of the history of ideas.  For both correspondents were well aware of the fact that they were touching, from time to time, on a broad range of historical literatures and aware of the ways that the development of psychoanalytic theory resonated to recurrent themes in those histories.

Perhaps the largest group of possible readers are psychoanalysts by profession, or other mental health professionals with a strong interest in the discipline Freud began.  If that description fits you, you probably know of David Rapaport and associate him with ego psychology and metapsychology, two largely outmoded endeavors in the psychoanalysis of a good many years ago.  Yet in your reading of Freud, you will have discovered that a good deal of what he wrote dealt with just these matters, and that those are among the most difficult parts of his works.  You may have not felt wholly satisfied by some teachers’ dismissal of them as outmoded and not worth the effort required to make an independent judgment.  Rapaport was notable precisely for his deep interest in elucidating the meanings of Freud’s ego-psychological and metapsychological works, and showing their relevance to clinical realities.  Moreover, Rapaport is famous for his mighty effort to organize Freud’s theories, integrate them, compare them with other contemporary sciences, and lay out the result with clarity and a keen architectonic sense.  He was able to do that because of an unsurpassed mastery of Freud’s entire output and of the rest of the psychoanalytic literature of his time.  My efforts to follow the work of my mentor, applying to the latter’s drafts the same searching critical methods and standards he had taught me, led me to raise questions that helped the older man to think through and clarify his writing.  Questions Rapaport could not answer and those on which we two agreed to disagree continued to motivate me in my subsequent contribution to the overthrow of metapsychology generally and ego psychology in particular.

Following our conversation and arguments may therefore help you understand how and why those branches of psychoanalysis have been generally abandoned.  It may also stimulate adherents of contemporary schools to ask how far the variant of psychoanalysis they prefer satisfies the standards to which the correspondents held the theory of their day.  Presently, psychoanalysis looks to the interested outsider like a loose grouping of more or less competing schools of thought and practice.  I find it hard to believe that it has a bright future unless they can be reintegrated in the fashion Rapaport undertook in The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory.

Since both of us correspondents were deeply interested in and committed to empirical research on psychoanalytic propositions, the letters should be of value to anyone with a similar interest today.  One sees here how Rapaport stimulated the formation of the Research Center for Mental Health at New York University by me and George S. Klein, and nurtured its growth, even though he never succeeded in gratifying his own wish to develop an experimental program.  The origins of lines of work at the NYU center may be clearly seen in these letters, work that continues to develop in a variety of settings today.

Finally, both of us were concerned with philosophy and its implications for what we were trying to do.  We knew that our efforts must be grounded on methodology and related aspects of the philosophy of science, but we were aware, also, of fundamental, metaphysical implications.  Freud could not be fully understood, we realized, without searching out his implicit basic assumptions and his relation to developments in philosophical thinking of his time.  For example, it becomes evident to any close student of his works that he was bedeviled by the mind-body problem and never developed a satisfactory stance on it.

The rediscovery and compilation of these letters.  When Rapaport died of a sudden fibrillation on December 14, 1960, I was in Palo Alto (on sabbatical from my professorship of psychology and directorship of the Research Center for Mental Health) for a year’s fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, freed from my usual administrative, investigative, and teaching obligations at NYU.  It was therefore easy for me to go at once to Stockbridge, to give some emotional support to Elvira, his widow, and their daughters Hanna and Juliet.  I was also able to plunge into helping David’s remarkable assistant, Suzette K. Annin, with the task of dealing with the accumulation of files, books, correspondence, multiple drafts of papers, and fragments of a considerable variety of projects.  (More than just a secretary, Sue had quietly corrected her boss’s idiosyncratic English and made valuable substantive suggestions when typing up his letters and papers.)  With Elvira’s consent, much of what he would have called his Nachlass went to the Library of Congress, his personal collection of books and journals being donated to the Riggs library.

Several decades later, in 1989–1990, I had to face a similar task in disposing of my own collections when I retired from NYU and, with my wife Joan, moved to our final home on Cape Cod, in Truro.  In the process, I had to decide what to do with many years of correspondence, since my tiny basement office was far smaller than my NYU quarters had been.  When I winnowed the letters down, I took especial care of two fat file folders of exchanges with Rapaport.  Two more decades passed, however, before I took the time to read through their contents.  How vividly these letters helped me relive twelve years of some of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my life!  I felt the obligation to share them with any interested colleagues, especially because Rapaport had been in the most productive years of his psychoanalytic scholarship.  Many of our exchanges give an insight into his way of working, of thinking through difficult issues by discussion.  Those who knew him well were aware of the many drafts his papers would go through, but few of us were privy to his ways of working ideas out, making them at once more subtle and clearer.

The letters also display Rapaport as a critic, a mentor and teacher, as he sent me his critiques of my various attempts, often to follow in his footsteps and at times to branch out on my own.  He set the example of close reading, responding empathically as well as unsparingly in pointing out difficulties, lapses in reasoning, omissions of relevant data or of treatments of apposite points in the literature.  Though he never succeeded in writing English like one born to it, he was a fine critic of grammatical and rhetorical lapses—as the reader will soon see.  I did my best not only to meet his criticism but to learn from it his style and technique of editing and advising, and to apply that learning to the drafts that he sent me.

My two old file folders contained 232 items, mostly letters, plus a few manuscripts and copies of letters to and from other scholars.  When I was in the process of consulting two friends and colleagues, Morris Eagle and David Wolitzky, about the possibility of making the collection into a monograph, I happened to hear from another researcher, Dr. Nellie Thompson.  She was looking for letters between Rapaport and another scholar in whose work she was interested.  She told me that she had discovered several in the Library of Congress, and kindly sent me a copy of its holdings of Rapaport materials.  I was amazed to learn that his correspondence not only filled 90 boxes, but that the only one devoted to exchanges with another single person was labeled “Holt.”  Through Dr. Thompson’s good offices I got in touch with Dr. Leonard C. Bruno, on the Library of Congress staff, and wrote him about my project and what I had.  He was extraordinarily helpful.  Dr. Bruno offered to go through the “Holt box,” check its contents against my listing of my own holdings, and personally make photocopies for me of the unduplicated letters.  I owe him more thanks for his unusual generosity and helpfulness than I can easily express.

There was of course extensive overlap between the two collections, but I now had photocopies of 59 additional items, making a total of 291.  Of these, 138 are from Rapaport and 133 from me, leaving 20 not written by either of us—mostly notes from secretaries conveying manuscripts or letters from third parties concerning David and Elvira Rapaport’s sabbatical at NYU in 1959–1960.  We of course had no need to exchange letters during that academic year.  David and I continued to consult intensively about what we were then working on, but there are no written records of those conversations.

I have omitted 126 of the total of 271 letters by the two of us, because they dealt only with personal rather than intellectual matters, or because they discussed institutional or professional topics.  I have, however, summarized the contents of all and have quoted passages of interest from some that seemed not worthy of including in toto.  Some of the 126—plus a few from or to Rapaport from other professionals, mostly psychoanalysts—may be of possible interest to a future biographer or historian, and will remain available at the Library of Congress, to which I have sent all items not previously in their collection.  Another complete set will be donated to the Rapaport collection at the Austen Riggs library.

A note about format: I have made very few and minor unnoted corrections of the letters (mostly typographical errors).  David was overly fond of dashes between sentences, for no apparent reason; I have eliminated most of them.  Both of us used underlining for emphasis; I have retained it without change.  Where entire letters were handwritten, that is noted at the beginning.  Dissimilar typefaces are used to distinguish the original text of the letters, and other documents, from commentary and other added material.  Brief editorial interpolations in texts, however, are in brackets [thus].  Notice that there is a list of Persons Mentioned (more than once) with brief identifying paragraphs which do not, usually, include their accomplishments after 1960.  Another link will take you to the cumulative list of References to published works that are mentioned.

Readers interested in further background about the two of us may find such materials at  See also the following items from the attached References: re Rapaport—Gill & Klein (1967), Holt (1967); re Holt—Holt (1993); re Research Center for Mental Health—Holt (2013a).

In 2013 I am the only surviving member of Rapaport’s Research Department at the time of his departure except Herbert J. Schlesinger, whose name and work will doubtless be known to many readers.  Also still with us, of course, and currently being honored is Roy Schafer (who was not in the Research Department in 1948).  I have therefore not been able to obtain permission from any of the persons about whom personal details are mentioned or evaluative comments are made in these letters, except Drs. Schafer and Schlesinger, whose gracious cooperation I am happy to acknowledge.

These letters have not been copyrighted. The editors of this blog and I request only that any quotations from these materials be attributed correctly to the source.


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