Ilonka Venier Alexander: The life and times of Franz Alexander. From Budapest to California. London: Karnac, £22.99 pbk, 2015, xxxii + 154 pp. ISBN: 9781782202509
by Csaba Pléh
Written by the granddaughter of the famous Hungarian-born and educated psychoanalyst (Franz) Ferenc Alexander, Ilonka Venier Alexander’s book is a peculiar work on the life and work of her grandfather in several regards. The peculiarity of the book is shown in two ways. Regarding its central figure, Franz Alexander, the reader sees a constant shifting of perspective between the personal/familiar and the professional perspective, the latter mainly dealing with the history of American psychoanalysis. On the other hand, sometimes we have to deal not with Franz Alexander, but with the grandchild, the vicissitudes of the divorce of her parents, and the central role of the grandfather.
This is not necessarily intended to be a criticism. The book is an excellent resource and a fascinating read. But the constant shifts of perspective make for a hard time for the reader. As a history of a professional psychoanalyst, the monograph is certainly timely. Alexander has been unduly forgotten. The editor of Karnac’s ‘History of Psychoanalysis’ series, Brett Klahr, points out in the preface that Franz Alexander is an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis; Alexander’s proposal for short therapy was a provocative intervention. Even more provocative was his glittering life in California. The author argues that Franz Alexander’s copious honoraria – which allowed for this luxurious standard of life – made many of his colleagues jealous. At the same time, the fact that Alexander continued his practice for over a decade in Hollywood had an important role in psychoanalysis becoming part of American everyday life, thought and pop culture.
The first third of the book is a family chronicle. It presents the Alexander clan with family trees, family photos, and gossip. Franz Alexander’s Father, Bernat (Bernhard) Alexander (1850–1927) – whom the writer spells as Bernard – was a very influential philosopher in turn of the century Budapest. He launched an important series of translations of modern philosophy, from Kant and Leibniz, to Schopenhauer and Hartmann; he was was a central literary and theater critic, and led an intellectual salon. 1 The book provides a rich and detailed account of life in the New York Palace, a new art nouveau building full of rich bourgeois homes, which was the home of the Alexander family, and at the same time a center for coffeehouse life and journalism. The book also provides a detailed picture of all the in-laws, including the mathematical genius Alfréd ‘Buba’ Rényi (1921-1970), who had a large role in modern probability and information theory. 2 The presentation is personal and it is full of moving moments. There was a similar account from the same family written by Franz Alexander when he was approximately the same age as the present author is now. 3 This latter account was rather more interesting when discussing social details, and regarding the birth of psychoanalysis as well. In the book of Ilonka Venier Alexander, there is too much assumed intimacy, and the reader sometimes has a hard time deciphering whether the author is speaking about the philosopher, Bernat, or his son, Franz. It is nonetheless a rich resource for future historians of ideas and family network researchers.
The section dealing with the history of psychoanalysis has two especially interesting moments. The first is the detailed account of the life of Franz Alexander as a military soldier. The second relates to Ilonka Venier Alexander, the author of the present book. For her, the reconstruction of the assimilated Jewish way of life of the Alexander family in Budapest was a striking novelty. This status had its own ghosts, even in America. Ilonka Venier Alexander, the granddaughter, was initially ignorant of her Jewish background, and she gradually realized this only during family gatherings. The book is full of wondering about this past that is repressed in the interpretation of the author. However, from the perspective of turn of century Budapest, these moments show the importance of assimilation and secularization at the time, and later, the role of the Franz Alexander’s Italian artist wife in his life. Indeed, Ilonka Venier Alexander herself notes the complexities of these factors: ‘in marrying an Italian Catholic woman of noble heritage, Alexander had certainly “married up” and thus, unwittingly, began his own metamorphosis into something other than an Eastern European Jew. Her aristocratic ancestry, as well as his denial of his Jewish heritage, no doubt allowed them to ultimately move about Chicago’s high society with ease’ (p. 28).
The book has around one hundred pages on the psychoanalytic career of Franz Alexander. The account of the Berlin training years of Franz Alexander is well documented. The saga of the Chicago decades is fascinating. The reader learns not merely about the external history of the work of Alexander, his successes in criminal psychology 4 but we also learn about his professional tensions, and debates over short therapy, as well as over the issue of psychoanalysis becoming part of residential training of psychiatrists. In his granddaughter’s account we learn much about an all-round scholar and clinician, who, as his book on the history of psychiatry also showed, was not an either/or thinker regarding relations between body, brain, and the mind. 5 We also learn about a caring European-style pater familias. We learn with the eyes of the respectful granddaughter about a family style that always combined love and commitment with decisiveness. Franz Alexander did not hesitate to intervene into the life of his child and of the youngster navigating through the troubled water of divorced parents.
Overall, the book has two special points of interest: it is a good source for the reconstruction of the role of Franz Alexander in psychoanalysis. At the same time it is a rich starting point for those who are interested in the details of the family socialization of talented Central European Jews in early and mid 20th Century.
Csaba Pléh is a cognitive psychologist with a strong interest in the history of psychology. Recently he has been a visiting professor at the Dept of Cognitive Science, Central European University, Budapest. Many of his papers are accessible at his website: plehcsaba.eu
- Gábor, É. (1986). Alexander Bernát. Budapest: Akadémiai In Hungarian ↩
- Rényi, A. (1970). Probability Theory. New York: American Elsevier ↩
- Alexander, F. (1960). The Western mind in transition: An eyewitness story. New York: Random House ↩
- Alexander, F. and Staub, H. (1956). The Criminal, the Judge and the Public. Glencoe, IL: Free Press 6 and psychosomatic medicine, 7Alexander, F.G. (1950). Psychosomatic medicine. New York: Norton ↩
- Alexander,F. G. and Selesnick, S. T. (1966): The history of psychiatry. New York: Harper ↩