strong sense of self-determination

Celebrating the 120th Anniversary of Karen Horney’s Birth


Marianne Horney Eckardt

I am going to sketch for you a portrait of Karen Horney emphasizing two features: her remarkable strong sense of self-determination and the seeming happenstance of being in the right place at the right time. She collaborated with fate. She prescribed everything for it and fate facilitated opportunities.

Horney was a very private person. It is only due to our coming, after her death, upon her diaries written in her adolescence and early twenties that this remarkable young person made her appearance and shed much light on later happenings. We owe the real discovery of the diaries to my sister Renate. We had casually noted their existence. They then gathered dust on Renate’s bookshelves in Mexico, when by some magical spiritual happening she discovered them, transcribed them, had them translated, and published them. All of Karen’s early entries, beginning at age 13, be- guile with confident self-determination of her path, her actions, and her thinking. She writes, “Fate will have an easy time with me, I prescribe everything for it” (Horney, 1990, p. 19). She aims at being a doctor, even though as yet no German university is admitting women to medical school. She has no doubt that she will find a way. The word ambition does not convey her spirit. She just makes her decision and follows her mapped-out road. The diaries are never boring. She reflects on happen- ings, debates, asks big questions about religion, mores, love, morality, and truth, and declares her opinion.

1This address was given on October 23, 2005, at the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, New York, celebrating the 120th anniversary of Karen Horney’s birth.

Address correspondence to: Marianne Horney Eckardt, 3066 Via Serena South Unit A, La- guna Woods, CA 92637, USA; e-mail:

The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 66, No. 2, June 2006 (� 2006) DOI: 10.1007/s11231-006-9008-4


0002-9548/06/0600-0105/1 � 2006 Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis

At age 17 she is debating the ethics of free love. The turn of that cen- tury is still steeped in Victorian morals, ready to disintegrate. As yet she has had no love experience of her own. She muses and declares that deep love is always moral greatness, because it elevates us inwardly. “It is altogether too absurd,” she writes, “to judge a person’s character exclu- sively from his or her attitude toward sex. How much more important is his or her attitude toward the truth. A woman who decides to give herself freely to a man, stands much higher on the moral scale than a woman who marries the first man just to be married” (Horney, 1990, p. 81). Her environment is full of what she recognizes or perceives as prejudices and false morals. She comes to the conclusion that one should free oneself of common conventional morality and think through the large issues for oneself and act accordingly.

At age 18 she is very impressed by the Swedish avant-garde writer Ellen Key, who also sounds the tune of true morality, rather than the false morality of convention. Karen reflects: “I took up Ellen Key again. It is like a bath in the sea in autumn, when the cold is cutting and you have to battle with wind and waves, but once out, you are refreshed and a new person” (Horney, 1990, p. 90). In her book, The Century of the Child, Key rebels against the definition of the human being as man par excellence, writing that women have to take their rightful place as wo- men because society is entitled to receive the best women have to give. She seeks a morality of love; she questions the morality of monogamy and marriage. Key’s message profoundly influenced Karen’s outlook on life.

On New Year’s Eve, age 18, she is full of New Year’s resolutions, namely, to cultivate strength of will, self-discipline, hard work. She writes: ‘‘Yes, I long for one more thing, to learn how to listen to the delicate vibrations of my soul, to be incorruptibly true to myself and fair to others, to find in this way the right measure of my own worth” (Horney, 1990, p. 102). She is her own teacher, guide, and critic.

Two personal themes emerge, which become characteristics of her way of being. One theme is not complaining to others: “Only not sympathy, she remarks, “sympathy hurts, humiliates. But if I show my suffering, it calls forth sympathy. Nobody is to know when I am suffering” (Horney, 1990, p. 62). The other theme refers to a lack of group spirit. People ac- cuse her of this lack. She ponders: Why should she be expected in dis- puted cases to join the majority? Is that a lack of esprit de corps, a real lack on her part, or is it justified? She believes that it is justified. She never developed this esprit de corps, never was a good team player, never a family person.


Her strength of character was certainly the major factor in shaping her great career, but fate also facilitated her development. She repeatedly seemed to be in the right place at the right time. High schools and uni- versities opened their doors for women just when she was at the right age. She came to Berlin in 1910, just when Abraham started his first psy- choanalytic seminars. She became a psychoanalyst in Berlin, not in Vien- na. The atmosphere in Berlin was very different from Vienna. In spite of economic and political turmoil, the period between 1920 and 1930 was a cultural phenomenon. One cannot appreciate the spirit or the soul of the early Berlin psychoanalytic pioneers detached from this unique exu- berant atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, when cultural energy ex- ploded, sparkled, vibrated, and, for 10 years, nourished the arts and lives of people and made Berlin the Mecca of attraction. What happened in Berlin influenced art and cultural happenings in the Western world for the rest of that century. It was this spirit that gave the Berlin psychoana- lytic community its very special flavor, very distinct from the atmosphere in Freud’s Vienna, where the psychoanalytic community was much di- rectly influenced by the giant shadow of Freud. The enthusiastic Berlin community embraced psychoanalysis as a young science challenging its members toward further creative contributions. The spirit of the time em- braced breaking traditions and conventions, and the Berlin analysts, too, viewed psychoanalysis as a force that would free the human potential and allow it to unfold. The soil did not favor orthodoxy. Karen Horney would never have flourished as well in Vienna.

She had the good fortune to be asked by Franz Alexander in 1932 to join him in Chicago to codirect the first American Psychoanalytic Institute. Because of her theoretical differences with Alexander, she left Chicago for New York after two years. She joined the New York Psycho- analytic Institute. She was also invited to teach at the New School of Social Research, a school that established a reputation for attracting the best minds of European immigrants who escaped Hitler. The New School provided the setting for the development of her own novel psychoanalytic notions. Her lectures were sought after, extremely successful, and evolved into her first two books, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time and New Ways in Psychoanalysis. Her teaching did not find approval at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Her direct challenge of Freud led to a break and the well-known walk-out of Karen Horney, Clara Thompson, Sarah Kelman, Saul Ephron, and Bernard Robbins, singing, “Go Down Moses, Let My People Go,” the spiritual that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. The break led to the formation of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis. Fourteen candidates of the New York Psychoanalytic resigned at the same time.


Again the time was right for favoring secessions. Sandor Rado, Abraham Kardiner, John Millet, George Daniel, Phyllis Greenacre, David Levy, and others at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute were also developing plans for a new institute. They favored an association with a university and a few years later founded the Association for Psychoana- lytic and Psychosomatic Medicine and an institute at Columbia Univer- sity. Alexander in Chicago set a liberal course. Splits began occurring in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Boston, and Los Angeles.

While the new constitution of the new American Institute for Psycho- analysis was a hymn to freedom of thought and encouraging diversity, in retrospect it seems inevitable that Horney would create her own institute. Beginning in the mid 1930s she had the foundation and outline for a new system of psychoanalytic thought and worked steadily from then on, allowing it to grow, with the new insights ever nourishing her creativity. This was her task, goal, and sole interest. Like Berlin in the 1920s, the 1940s began a very creative period in American psychoanalysis, and Karen Horney was a major player, opening the field for ongoing creative development.

We all are fortunate beneficiaries of her remarkable spirit.

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