Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney

Karen Horney was an M.D. who became one of the earliest practitioners of psychoanalysis in Berlin.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1932 and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1942, she made a dramatic walkout from the Institute, followed by many of its members, in protest of its rigid Freudian theory of female development.

Karen Horney published numerous books, and one of the most famous was The Neurotic Personality of Our TIme (1937).  Her books developed a significant lay following, but until the late1980's, her work was largely ignored or denigrated by her peers.  Posthumously, she began getting the recognition from psychologists which, in her lifetime, was withheld or given wrongly to others.  She is now regarded as having been a pioneer in social psychology and female psychological development.

This biography (see it on Amazon) is an ambitious work of history, setting the stage for each new development in Karen's life with great care.  It mercilessly exposes the in-fighting which has haunted Freudian psychoanalysis from its professional beginnings in the 1920's, and it attempts to understand a woman whose life was quite daring in comparison with the norms of her day.  Can you imagine, for example, what it was like to be one of the first women to become a medical doctor, let alone a psychologist, as well as something of a pioneer in, say, owning property or publishing books?

I would have had the author try a little less to get inside her subject's head, but the story is so exhaustively researched and documented that I was willing to put up with that.  I liked that the author did not try to soften the sharp edges of the personality of Karen Horney, who apparently was difficult in some ways as well as brilliant.  And as with all cases of misogyny, the question always arises of how much criticism from others was deserved, vs. how much was a result of professional jealousy intensified and amplified by disrespect of females in professional settings.  These agonizing questions of balance are still highly relevant to women today.

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here, with a few edits.

Book Review: Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr

This book (see it on Amazon) speaks strongly to me of events rememberred from my childhood in the South.  It is a biography compiled from interviews taped in the mid-1970's by scholars of oral history.  Its language is rich and free like a spoken conversation, full of anecdotes and amusing descriptions.  It is both social history and the personal story of Virginia Foster Durr's life.  I enjoyed it and recommend it hightly.

Born into a well-off white family in Alabama in 1903, Virginia eventually endured ostracism and defamation for her support of civil rights.  Her interviews provided a vivid account of the paranoia of the McCarthy era and tthe racism and severe economic problems in the South up through the 1960's.

Her influence derived from at least three factors.  One was her husband clifton Durr, who became head of the Federal Communications Commission and later was a leading civil rights lawyer.  Another factor was her sister's marriage to supreme court Justice Hugo Black.  And finally there was her own well-formed mind.  About the importance of her marriage, she said, "It was only after I was safely married that I could really be interested in anything...   Old maids were pitied not just because they had no husband but because a life without a husband meant a life of poverty."

The in-her-time-prevailing racism of thhe South is vividly captured in this book, as in the following description of one Southern senator: "[He] talked race all the time...he would always go on about the sex thing.  If anything happened to change the Southern system, the white women would just rush to get a black man.  We'd have a race of mulattoes.  He and others like him seemed maniacal on the subject of sex...These men...would get up and make vile speeches about white women of the South and how they were protecting them.  Every black man wanted to rape a white woman and every white woman apparently wanted to be raped...they showed a kind of sickness...I really think those fears came from the fact that the white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women...It's the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject."

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here and now because all its topics are still relevant for women.

Book Review: Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill, 1998

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910,  founder of the Church of Christ, Scientists; and founder of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper) is possibly the most important person that many people nowadays have never heard of.   This extensive biography was released after a 6-year, mostly successful effort to obtain original materials from the mother church library, with an amount of access to that library unavailable to previous biographers.  The book cannot be described as easy reading.  That is not surprising when one considers the difficulties and unlikely accomplishments of Mrs. Eddy's own life, the controversial press received over the decades by the stable and successful church she founded, and the undeniable biases and polemic of the ten or so earlier biographical works published before Ms. Gill's 712-page tome appeared in 1998.  But I find both the existence of this biography, by a respected feminist scholar, and the apparent facts of Mrs. Eddy's life pretty darned fascinating--and well worth the effort.

With several intervening years, I now have twice read this monster biography (which does not exist on Kindle, but is an economical purchase used).  For the second reading, I was as much intrigued by the careful and helpful notes and appendices as by the text itself.  This additional information was provided, not just to document sources, but to explain to the reader how the author navigated the forest of conflicting and uncertain claims in preceding works and attempted to reconcile them with the extensive new source material.  Ms. Gill's scholarly credentials, her unprecedented access to archives of mother church library (obtained at great effort), and her experienced, confident and relatively neutral voice make this biography worth the substantial effort required to read it.   It is a clear-eyed treatment of Mrs. Eddy's life and works, and I find it interesting in every respect as a work of, not just women's history, but of the nineteenth century as a whole.

Mary Baker Eddy herself broke every rule and expectation ever provided to keep women within bounds.  Married three times, divorced, owning property, earning money, setting herself up as a healer, writing and self-publishing a work of compelling spirituality (which was to be fully underestimated and misunderstood both by the reading public and her later biographers), she was demonized, essentially homeless and very poor for decades, and yet ended her life wealthy and having founded a lasting church and a world-acclaimed, highly professional and successful newspaper (the Christian Science Monitor).

If you think you are a feminist, or know anything about the history of women, this is in my opinion a must-read book.

The first time, I came to this book via a favorable review of it in the New York Times.  Some years later, on a quest of spiritual discovery of my own, I picked up a free edition of Mrs. Eddy's most famous work, Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures.  After working with that for a while, I found things in it that are compellingly compatible with other respected mystics, including Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha as detailed in recent translations of the Pali Canon.  Thus, I came back to this remembered biography, and read it again in much deeper detail.