July 7, 1873 (Miskolc) – May 22, 1933 (Budapest)
Sándor Ferenczi was born on the 7th of July, 1873, in Miskolc, Hungary. His father, Baruch Fraenkel (1830-1889), a Polish Jew from Cracow, emigrated with his family as a young man, to escape upheavals in a partitioned Poland, and joined the Hungarian revolution against the Austrian Empire in 1848. After the bloody defeat of the Hungarian War of Independence in 1849, Baruch Fraenkel settled in the Northern Hungarian town, Miskolc, trained for a career in the book trade and ran his own book shop by1856. His second wife, Rosa Eibenschütz, daughter of a Polish Jewish family from Galicia, was brought up in Vienna. As a result of this diverse heritage, the Ferenczi family was multilingual, speaking Hungarian, German, Polish and most likely Yiddish. Ferenczi himself was bilingual (Hungarian and German) and would later learn English and French.
Sándor was the eighth of eleven children in a liberal, middle class Jewish family. In 1879, his father legally changed their German-sounding family name, Fraenkel, to the Hungarian Ferenczi. This was an expression of his enthusiasm for liberal causes, not a desire to forget his Jewish origins, to which he remained very attached (Haynal, 1988, p. 38). The family bookshop contributed significantly to the intellectual life of Miskolc by publishing, selling and lending progressive literature, as well as by promoting the town’s cultural events—an endeavor in which Ferenczi’s mother also played an important part. Famous poets, writers, and artists would frequent the bookstore, sparking Ferenczi’s many interests and contributing to the formation of his later friendships (Harmat, 1994; Kapusi, 2000).
After completing secondary school, Ferenczi studied medicine in Vienna and received his medical degree in 1894. During the Viennese years, he was greatly influenced by Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s ideas on sexual disorders, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Jean-Batiste Lamark and Ernst Haeckel’s teachings on the link between philogenesis and ontogenesis (Ferenczi, 1900). While in Vienna, he read Freud and Breuer’s studies on the pathogenesis of hysteria, but he disliked them so much that he forgot about them for years (Ferenczi, 1908a).
Ferenczi’s first medical post in Budapest was at the St. Rókus Hospital under a supervisor – whom Ferenczi experienced as authoritarian and spiteful – who placed him in a ward that dealt with prostitutes and patients suffering from venereal disease, instead of letting the young resident study psychological phenomena in neuropsychiatry. Lacking material for observation, Ferenczi began psychological experiments on himself with automatic writing, which tapped into the unconscious mental apparatus, similar to what we imagine free associations tend to do. It was during this period that he met internist Lajos Lévy and psychiatrist István Hollós, with whom he maintained a lifelong professional relationship. Lévy introduced Ferenczi to Miksa Schächter – the owner and editor-in-chief of the weekly medical journal Gyógyászat [Therapy] – who would become Ferenczi’s patron during the early years of his career. Schächter published Ferenczi’s early writings and would later make psychoanalytic concepts available to physicians just as these ideas were beginning to take hold. Between 1897 and 1908, before Ferenczi came to know Freud and psychoanalysis, he published 98 papers, case studies, essays, and book reviews. He dealt primarily with unconscious and semi-conscious states, hypnotism, dreams and occult phenomena— for example, he wrote an article about spiritism, speculating about psychic splits, showing his interest in the unconscious and all that fell outside the area of conscious functions (Ferenczi, 1899) —but he was also interested in neurological diseases, psychological experimentation, and connections in the psyche to sexuality. He considered a relationship founded on doctor-patient cooperation essential to curing the patient; this flew in the face of the generally accepted view of the day which was that the doctor-patient relationship was of no importance and also challenged expressions of hierarchy and authority in the medical community. This perspective, which would later characterize him as a psychoanalyst, was already evident in his early writings (Mészáros, 1999).
After Ferenczi met Freud in early 1908, an intense, lifelong personal and professional relationship developed between them (see the three-volume Freud-Ferenczi Correspondences: Freud & Ferenczi, 1908-1914; 1914-1919; 1920-1923). Ferenczi immediately embraced psychoanalysis and soon published the first work (1909), reflecting the perspective of early object relations theory. Rounding out Freud’s concept of projection, Ferenczi described introjection—a word he coined—as the other powerful aspect in the formation of the internal world and the internal object. In 1910, his first volume of psychoanalytic writings was published (Ferenczi, 1910, 1914, 1919a). Ferenczi spared no effort in promoting the psychoanalytic movement and even proposed establishing the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) in 1910, which he later saw it as his most “enduring” contribution to the history of psychoanalysis (Ferenczi, 1928a, p. 206). He pressed for the creation of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1920, also founded the Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society in 1913, and remained its president until his death in 1933.
It was through Ferenczi’s interdisciplinary openness and his efforts to popularize psychoanalysis that the discipline found its way into the ranks of physicians, social scientists and other inquiring minds. His efforts helped the field establish ties to literature, pedagogy, ethnography and the arts, as well as intertwining with Hungarian intellectual movements such as those of the progressives and middle-class radicals. New audiences were exposed to psychoanalysis through literary journals such as Nyugat [West], which was founded by Ignotus, Ferenczi’s friend and a leading figure in modern Hungarian literature. In his writings, Ferenczi also emphasized ideas of radical social critique (Ferenczi, 1908b; 1913).
During the First World War, Ferenczi served as an army physician and, based on his experiences with traumatized soldiers, elaborated upon psychoanalytic theories that explained the etiology of war neuroses, views that became instrumental in the treatment of war trauma (Ferenczi, 1919b; Harris, 2015). In the final months of WWI Ferenczi was elected president of the IPA at the 5th International Psychoanalytical Congress, which was held in Budapest in 1918. One of the primary topics of the IPA Congress was war neuroses. The scientific presentations of the Congress influenced the Austro-Hungarian war command: in October 1918, shortly before the end of the war, they issued an order that recommended the use of psychoanalysis at military psychiatric facilities.
Between 1918 and 1920, Hungary witnessed a series of socio-political changes that left an indelible mark on the psychoanalytic movement there. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, travel and communication between the countries of Central Eastern Europe became difficult and thus Ferenczi saw the need to resign from the IPA presidency in the fall of 1919. In April 1919, during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic—and based on an earlier initiative by medical students—Ferenczi was granted a professorship and a department of psychoanalysis was established within the Budapest University’s faculty of medicine. This was the first time that psychoanalysis became fully integrated into a medical curriculum. A few months later in 1919, after the fall of the Soviet Republic, Ferenczi was removed from his post and psychoanalysis lost its place within higher education (Erős, 2011). During these tumultuous months an important change took place in Ferenczi’s personal life. After a relationship of almost twenty years, he married Gizella Pálos in March 1919 (Berman, 2004). The White Terror that followed the overthrow of the Soviet Republic and marked the beginning of the right-wing Horthy regime set off the first wave of emigration from Hungary, involving a number of psychoanalysts. Many of them, such as Sándor Radó, Melanie Klein, Margaret Mahler, Michael Balint, Alice Balint and Franz Alexander, settled in Berlin or Vienna.
Always of great interest, psychoanalytic technique, particularly enhancing its therapeutic effectiveness, became one of Ferenczi’s top priorities in the 1920s. While, previously, countertransference had been thrust into the background, Ferenczi began to saw it as integral to the psychoanalytic relationship, conceiving it as a two-way process in the transference-countertransference dynamic (Ferenczi, 1919b; 1928b; Aron and Harris, 1993; Martín Cabré, 1998; Mészáros 2004). These revolutionary ways of understanding the analytic situation justly earned Ferenczi the title: “the founder of all relationship-based psychoanalysis” (Haynal, 2002 p. xi). Believing that nobody was in the position to say the final words on the potentialities of the technique and theory of psychoanalysis (Ferenczi, 1929, p. 113), Ferenczi experimented with psychoanalytic technique, first with active technique and later with mutual analysis. Although he eventually set both of them aside, nevertheless, these rich clinical experiments greatly contributed to the growth of psychoanalytic theory and practice (Haynal, 1988, Borgogno, 2007a). Simultaneously, his deepening understanding of the significance of the early mother-child relationship (Ferenczi, 1929) and of parental responsibility in the development of the personality (Ferenczi, 1927), made psychoanalytic work increasingly complex. He realized that future analysts’ skills needed to be based on equally deep foundations (Ferenczi, 1931), of a thorough training analysis, lest the future psychoanalyst’s own unresolved issues hinder work with the patient. Thus, he initiated the establishment of systematic psychoanalytic training programs.
At the invitation of the New School for Social Research, Ferenczi held lectures in New York City and in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of local societies, between 1926 and 1927. These lectures had an influence on early interpersonal psychoanalysis, and its key figures, such as Harry Stack Sullivan and Clara M. Thompson, would maintain personal contact with Ferenczi (Silver, 1996). Like Freud, Ferenczi was a strong advocate of lay analysis which drew fierce resistance from the medical establishment in America. After his return to Budapest, he continued analyzing many difficult trauma cases (Fortune, 2007; Brennan, 2015; Rachman, 2015; Rudnytsky, 2015) and focused on exploring the connections between early mother-child relationship and trauma. He placed trauma within a system of interpersonal and intrapsychic sequences of processes between victim and persecutor that pushed the process of traumatization toward dimensions of object relations, and he also emphasized that trauma is based on real events (Ferenczi, 1932; Ferenczi, 1933). Ferenczi described a major consequence of trauma, traumatic splits in the personality, and his concept, identification with the aggressor, a cornerstone concept of contemporary trauma theory, became vital in further understanding the complex intrapsychic and interpersonal impact of trauma and its treatment. Ferenczi’s identification with the aggressor describes the emotional and intellectual consequences of growing up in a traumatizing environment and vividly depicts the emotionally dependent child gradually and unperceptively adapting and coping with the dangers and impingements of the trauma, which then impacts the whole personality. Ferenczi’s concept resonates in the Stockholm Syndrome which became widely known in 1973. His detailed descriptions of his extensive work with traumatized patients (Ferenczi, 1932), led to new approaches that would later emerge in the complex system of modern trauma theory and treatment (Dupont, 1998; Bonomi, 2004; Borgogno, 2007b; Frankel, 1998; Mészáros, 2010; Vida, 2005).
We recognize Ferenczi’s wide impact on the life of the Budapest School (Szekacs-Weisz and Keve, 2012; Meszaros, 2014), where outstanding work took place in the 1920s and 30s, especially in the areas of applying the countertransference perspective and examining the early mother-child relationship (particularly by Michael Balint, Alice Balint, Therese Benedek and Fanny Hann-Kende), in psychoanalytic psychosomatics (mostly by Lajos Lévy, Michael Balint and later Franz Alexander), as well as inspiring an interdisciplinary spread of the psychoanalytic way of thinking, e.g., in the creation of psychoanalytic anthropology (mainly by Géza Róheim, who created this new discipline in the 1920s). All of these investigations influenced modern psychoanalysis after the emigration of Budapest psychoanalysts in the 1920s and during the Nazi years.
During the last years of his life the relationship with Freud deteriorated and conflicts developed which were painful to both of them (Freud & Ferenczi, 1920-1933). Ferenczi died unexpectedly of pernicious anemia at age 59, a few weeks short of his 60th birthday. For several decades, the rumor spread by Ernest Jones of Ferenczi’s so-called mental illness (Jones, 1957), played a powerful role in preventing Ferenczi’s ideas from taking their rightful place in the history of psychoanalysis (Bonomi, 1999). However, over the past 30 years, international research, and publications about Ferenczi’s theoretical and therapeutic contributions, have helped to integrate him into the mainstream and confirmed his place as the most significant forerunner to contemporary psychoanalysis.
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