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Publications: Book Reviews
Review of My Life in Theory

Title: My Life in Theory
Author: Rangell, Leo
Publisher: New York: Other Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Jeffrey Golland, Spring 2005, pp. 42-43

Leo Rangell should need no introduction to a psychoanalytic readership. Since this book—a professional memoir—acknowledges that the “mainstream” is no longer main, and since many readers of this newsletter may not even be in his stream, perhaps he does. Rangell is only the fourth person to be named Honorary President of the 95-year old International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), following Ernest Jones, Heinz Hartmann and Anna Freud. He and the late Merton Gill (separately at the same watershed symposium) provided overlapping statements of the psychoanalytic method of treatment (1954). For over half a century, their formulations have defined “standard technique.” Rangell’s contributions include 450 papers and 7 books. He was twice president of the American Psychoanalytic Association (1961-62, 1966-67) and served two consecutive terms as IPA president (1969-73). He coined the phrase “total composite theory,” and is the leading advocate for that paradigm. Among other things, this book is an argument against eclecticism and pluralism, and in favor of a “unitary psychoanalysis.”

Total composite theory rests on the premise that recurrent theoretical divergences result from misguided attempts at creating replacement systems overemphasizing an important element while neglecting or dismissing others. Such pars pro toto thinking, abetted by group psychopathology in response to charismatic leadership, has generated several new psychoanalytic theories. Earlier in the psychoanalytic century, schism (e.g., Jung, Adler) and exclusion (e.g., Reich, Horney) were common. More recently, eclecticism and pluralism keep divergent groups under a common administrative umbrella. Rangell sees this internal incoherence of theory and practice playing a major role in the diminished standing of psychoanalysis as an intellectual discipline, with public confusion and low confidence as sad results.

Alternatively, total composite theory is open to inquiry, inclusion and change, but newer discoveries neither displace valid older ones nor do they make for exaggerated corrections. Over time, innovations achieve standing in the composite, with challenged concepts becoming fine-tuned or dismissed. Applying Freud’s notion of “complementary series” to several of the dichotomies that led to splits (e.g., drive–object relations, oedipal–preoedipal, transference–reconstruction, historical truth–narrative truth, authority–egalitarianism), Rangell proposes “both–and” as an antidote to “either–or.” He provides numerous examples to illustrate his “both–and” solution.

Full disclosure is in order. I have been an adherent of Rangell’s outlook from my training days (1968-73), and my own thinking, teaching and writing have been strongly influenced by his. When I met him for the first time nearly a decade ago, I told him he was “my favorite analyst I hadn’t met.” When I volunteered for this review, I had little doubt I would enjoy the book and favor its approach. While I have some reservations and will not simply applaud, my anticipation was accurate, or perhaps self-fulfilling.

Rangell aims in this memoir to supplement his scientific record. His choice of title, My Life in Theory, is especially welcome now, when Darwinism is attacked as “merely a theory” and when therapists may claim to be good clinicians while denigrating or even dismissing theory. While warmth, intuition, and tact are necessary components of good therapy, they are not sufficient. Rangell shows how theory, a set of conceptualizations providing coherence to discreet phenomena (as Freud’s did with symptoms, dreams and slips, and with the normal and the pathological in psychic life), is essential both to psychoanalytic treatment and to a scientific worldview. And, for Rangell, psychoanalysis must be scientific.

Another of Rangell’s themes is that science is not simply an objective enterprise. He describes the interaction of the personal (affective) and the theoretical (cognitive), using as prime examples his own biography and his relationships with other leading analysts of the past fifty years. This affective-cognitive dichotomy is shown also to be a complementary series, although he sees theoretical progress evolving by separating the poles and minimizing the personal and political. Rangell’s review of even early divergences finds a cognitive/rational perspective to be opposed by an emphasis on the affective/inspirational/identificatory dimension. Following Fenichel (1945), he views ideas and affects as equally important subjects for study, but with rationality, not affect, guiding theory and method.

Divergences leading to the current pluralism are ascribed to the seminal breaks of Melanie Klein in London, George Klein in Topeka, and Heinz Kohut in Chicago. Personal interactions with Ralph Greenson, Anna Freud and Kohut are offered as examples of subjective influences on psychoanalytic politics and on theory. Much of Rangell’s text is devoted to a chronology delineating agreements and differences with Joseph Sandler, Robert Wallerstein, Roy Schafer, Charles Brenner, Peter Fonagy and Gill, among others. In each instance, he aims to demonstrate that his is the inclusive theoretical frame, and that alternate views, when not incorrect, can easily be subsumed. George Klein (1973), with his separation of clinical theory from metapsychology, and Wallerstein (1988) with his sanctioning of multiple theories are seen as the major adversaries of total composite theory. Rangell’s argumentation reprises much of his earlier work and I find it effective.

One particular issue where I judge Rangell’s discussion to be weak is in regard to the controversy over “lay analysis” in the United States. He considers the exclusion of non-medical analysts by the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) as having been an error, but he believes that this issue is improperly confounded with opposition to the ego psychological stance, resulting in hostility both to the politics and the theory by those who were excluded. I made the same point regarding the confounding of politics and theory in an essay in this newsletter 14 years ago (Golland, 1991). But Rangell minimizes the “lay” issue when he asserts, however correctly, that physicians and non-physicians alike have held to both good theory and bad. He neglects his own thesis regarding the interaction of personal/political factors with theory by not recognizing that the large-scale, systematic exclusion from the political center of psychoanalysis in America had large-scale effects on alternate theory development. And Rangell, unlike his paradigm rival Wallerstein, was neither leader nor participant in the political change. The wounds resulting from of the exclusion of non-physicians are not fully healed. Despite Freud’s coinage, most of us feel “lay analysis” to be an inappropriate and disparaging term. A unified psychoanalysis must include analysts, independent of their academic background.

There are also elements of style that may create some dissonance. Editorial discipline cannot be easy in memoir writing. Rangell devotes many pages to the politics of psychoanalysis in his home city, Los Angeles. Details of his rivalry with Greenson are as fascinating for a reader as good gossip can be, but as an admirer of Greenson’s monumental text on technique (1967), I felt like a child listening to his parents fight. A similar feeling was evoked from descriptions of the machinations involving Miss Freud around Rangell’s rivalry with Kohut for the IPA presidency. Rangell uses published letters to support his views, but these necessarily one-sided, sometimes angry and negativistic accounts may muddy rather than enhance understanding of the theoretical issues at stake.

Rangell does not neglect more current theoretical controversy. He discusses relational psychoanalysis, two-person psychology, and the technique of self-disclosure. He reviews Schafer’s attempt to unify Kleinian and Freudian approaches. He challenges Brenner’s recent rejection of the tripartite structural model. He welcomes indications that some alternate theorists, like Jay Greenberg, have moved to more inclusive positions, but he remains uncompromising about what he takes to be errors of thinking.

Now in his nineties, Rangell continues to develop theory. He extends his own original contributions regarding unconscious active decision-making as an ego function, and his treatment of the moral dimension (first proposed in his 1980 book on the Watergate scandal). He sees his election as Honorary President, after two decades of absence from the IPA executive council, as indication that his views may again be ascendant. He hopes that psychoanalysis will move forward by addressing topics in moral psychopathology and by approaching new frontiers with the study of freedom, sincerity and courage. Despite the (inevitable) discovery of a hero’s limitations, I remain in awe of both his intellect and his feistiness.

But are we really near a unified theory? Brenner’s conflicted patients suffer from maladaptive compromises, and Kohut’s from the tragedy of narcissistic wounds. Schafer has come to find his patients plagued by projective identifications. Wallerstein finds common ground in actual clinical practice, but is challenged in this view by Paniagua (1995). Rangell sees common ground in a unified conceptualization, but theoretical differences are still pronounced. I join Rangell in hoping for a unified theory, but such a goal remains elusive.

Those who are unfamiliar with Leo Rangell will find this memoir to make important contributions to their understanding of psychoanalytic theory and practice. Those who know Rangell’s work will appreciate many aspects of this book, and especially that the work goes on.

Fenichel, O. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. NY: Norton.
Gill, M. (1954). Psychoanalysis and exploratory psychotherapy. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2:771-797.
Golland, J. (1991). The politics of psychoanalytic training. Psychologist Psychoanalyst, 11 (No.1):10-12.
Greenson, R. (1967). The technique and practice of psychoanalysis, Vol.1. New York: International Universities Press.
Klein, G. (1973). Two theories or one? Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 37:102-132.
Paniagua, C. (1995). Common ground, uncommon methods. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76:357-371.
Rangell, L. (1954). Similarities and differences between psychoanalysis and dynamic psychotherapy. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2:734-744.
Rangell, L. (1980). The mind of Watergate. New York: Norton.
Wallerstein, R. (1988). One psychoanalysis or many? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 69:5-21.

Jeff Golland is a member of the faculty and training and supervising analyst at the New York Freudian Society.

© Division of Psychoanalysis, 1999-2005
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