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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Book Review: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm

I recently spotted a tweet from my Twitter pal @RuthNinaWelsh saying she'd just bought Janet Malcolm's book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. Before I knew it the very same book was in my Amazon basket, along with another by Malcolm, In the Freud Archives, my next big read. I've a weakness for pretty dust jackets and books about psychotherapy and with the help of Amazon I've been able to fill two rooms at my house and office. The Marsden Therapy library! It will certainly fill a large skip when I'm dead and gone.

Janet Malcolm's book fooled me a little. This latest edition was published in 2012, but the book was first published in 1981. Very dated then. It started as an article in The New Yorker, where Malcolm has been a contributor since 1963, and it's been expanded to 168 pages with detours into Freudian theory and practice. 

At the heart of the book is an extended interview with psychoanalyst "Aaron Green", a 'forty-six-year-old psychoanalyst who practices in Manhattan in the East Nineties' (3). The book is fascinating when it describes the views and experiences of Green, this 'slight man, with a vivid, impatient, unsmiling face' (3). 

To increase the word count (I suspect) the opinions of Green become departure points for fairly esoteric discussions of Freudian theory and technique (transference, analyzability) and the competing revisions of post-Freudians. In the face of all these revisions Green remains completely loyal to Freud's original conception of psychoanalysis, articulated for Green by his contemporary, Charles Brenner. 

The first chapter of the book is something of a potted history of Freud's discoveries, but after that the book becomes much more interesting. The interview with Green casts light on the politics of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, the eccentricities of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, the manoeuvres and bids for power and status of America's leading analysts in the '70s and '80s. There are insights too - on therapy, on Freud and on human nature - so I'm looking forward to reading my other Malcolm purchase, In the Freud Archive, about Jeffrey Masson, who did us all a great service as the editor of the Freud-Fliess letters and then did a hatchet job on Freudian studies and the field of psychotherapy with his two books, The Assault on Truth and  Against Therapy

Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, London, Granta. Available from Amazon


  1. Hi John, Great review and a really accurate summary of the book - thanks so much for the mention! You highlighted perfectly the reason why the book wasn't quite what I thought it would be - that it was dated. As interesting as revisiting the power play was and the interviews with Green, I thought it was going to be discussing our times now. Glad that you still got a lot out of it and I really look forward to your thoughts on Malcolm's other book - which I haven't read. I'm signing up to your blog to ensure that I don't miss your posts but you can always tweet me directly to let me know about any of your reviews, posts or articles as they are valuable. Look forward to seeing you on twitter again soon! All my best, Ruth

  2. Hello Ruth and thanks for commenting. I have put Google to the test and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Society is still around, despite Herr Director saying in Malcolm's book that they were near bankruptcy. I don't know if the politics and empire building has remained the same ... using a Freudian perspective on human nature, I'd guess so! Thanks for subscribing to my blog, with five subscribers I'm one step closer to world domination. I'm enjoying Malcolm's In the Freud Archive, which is about the havoc Jeffrey Masson created when he was appointed secretary of the Freud Archive in the Library of Congress. I've read Masson so this is background on something that interests me and high-quality gossip! Best wishes to you! JohnM