Deutsch, Helene (1884–1982)

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Deutsch, Helene (1884–1982)

Polish-born psychoanalyst and pioneer theoretician in female psychology. Born Helene Rosenbach in the town of Przemy´sl in Polish Galacia on the Ukrainian border of the Austro-Hungarian empire (present-day Poland), on October 9, 1884; died on March 29, 1982, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; daughter of Wilhelm Rosenbach (a lawyer) and Regina (Fass) Rosen-bach; granted M.D. from the University of Munich Medical School, 1912; married Felix Deutsch, in 1912; children: Martin (b. 1917).

Worked as full-time assistant at the Wagner-Jauregg Clinic for Psychiatric and Nervous Disorders, Vienna (1912–18); admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (1918); became founding member of the Vienna Training Institute (1925); made president of the Vienna Training Institute (1925–34); arrived in the U.S. (1934); joined the staff of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute (1934); was a training analyst at the Boston Training Institute (1934–62).

Selected publications:

The Psychology of Sexual Functions in Women (1925); Psychoanalysis of the Neuroses (1932); The Psychology of Women (Volume I, 1944, Volume II, 1945); Neuroses and Character Types (1965); Selected Problems of Adolescence (1967); A Psychoanalytic Study of the Myth of Dionysus and Apollo (1969); Confrontations With Myself (1973).

Though the relevance of Helene Deutsch's theoretical contributions to contemporary psychoanalysis is currently debated, her status as a central figure at the beginning of the psychoanalytic movement is beyond dispute. One of the first women admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and a founding member and director of the Vienna Training Institute, she wielded enormous power and influence over the training of analysts and the future direction of psychoanalysis. She was also the first major theorist of feminine psychology, devoting numerous books and articles to the subjects of female sexuality and the unique psychological dilemmas posed by motherhood. Her own struggle to achieve professional success at a time when women were roundly discouraged from pursuing careers bears the hallmarks of a dedicated early 20th-century feminist: a strong drive to overcome a restrictive home life and seek higher education; an early flirtation with radical politics and unconventional relationships with men; a conflicted desire to balance her role as dutiful wife and mother with that of pioneering psychoanalyst. Yet her theoretical contributions have largely been dismissed by contemporary feminists as offering little more than a perpetuation of Freudian phallocentrism and for unwittingly providing a biological basis for women's subjugation. In more recent years, however, revisionist scholars have begun to call for a new interpretation of her work as highly original in defining the complexities of maternal and paternal identification and in illustrating the role of identification in personality formation and disorders of narcissistic self-esteem.

Helene Deutsch's interest in psychoanalysis was informed by her own childhood struggles. She was born on October 9, 1884, the fourth and last child of a well-established Jewish family in Przemy´sl, a garrison town in Polish Galicia on the Ukrainian border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father Wilhelm Rosenbach was a highly educated lawyer who achieved professional and public prominence despite the region's deep-rooted anti-Semitism. From an early age, Deutsch seems to have identified closely with her father. She took a genuine interest in his work and routinely accompanied him to court. As a young child, she even entertained the notion of becoming a lawyer, though at that time the practice of law was closed to women.

Deutsch's earliest difficulties in life revolved around her strained relationship with her mother. Later she would describe her childhood as classically "oedipal"—consisting of hatred for her mother and love for her father. Regina Fass Rosenbach indeed seems to have singled her youngest child out as the object of her maternal rage. Deutsch later wrote that she always disliked her mother whom she viewed as autocratic and preoccupied with social convention, and who beat her "not to punish me, but as an outlet for her own pent-up aggressions." Deutsch's siblings (a brother and two sisters) were a good deal older, and Regina Rosenbach seems to have had little interest in parenting her youngest. That job fell to a succession of nurses and to her older and much-beloved sister, Malvina Rosenbach , whom Deutsch credited with providing her with the love and maternal attention she craved.

Deutsch was a brilliant and imaginative child. Like many girls, she kept a diary during her early teenage years. But Deutsch's diary contained far more than the usual longings and emotional outpourings that typify adolescent diaries. Rather, hers was a novelistic, book-length narrative written as the journal of a modern Viennese Catholic girl named "Madi Fournier." In her journal, Deutsch created a life far more exciting and unconventional than her own. Yet interspersed throughout the long, engaging chronicles of Madi Fournier were dramatic expressions of

her own ambitions and dreams for a future well beyond that which she could reasonably expect.

Deutsch's desperate longing for a richer, less restricted life, as well as her ongoing conflicts with her mother, stamped an indelible rebel-liousness in her. As was then the fashion in a girl's education, she was formally schooled until the age of 14, after which she continued to pursue instruction through independent study and private tutoring. But around the time that she completed her formal schooling, she began a long-term relationship with Herman Lieberman, a married man 14 years her senior. Lieberman was a committed socialist, active in the Polish labor movement, and a well-known public figure who awakened in Deutsch an interest in radical politics. She developed a deep commitment to revolutionary activism: she attended demonstrations, dispensed propaganda, and organized the first-ever strike of Przemy´sl women. With Lieberman's help, she began writing articles for the Pzyemy´sl Voice. As their professional collaboration and personal relationship deepened, and Deutsch openly accompanied Lieberman around town and to socialist conferences, her mother was horrified by her daughter's behavior and did what she could to thwart Helene's scandalous romantic and political entanglements. When Deutsch's ambitions for a life outside the bounds of bourgeois propriety met implacable familial hostility, she ran away from home. She returned only when her parents signed a contract agreeing to help their daughter gain university admission.

With financial support from her family, Deutsch left home in 1905 to devote her time to studying for the abitur in Lwow (Lemberg). During the following year, her romance with Lieberman seems to have cooled perceptibly, while the dual pressures of study and family strain took a toll. In 1906, she spent time in a sanatorium near Graz for treatment of depression. Although she recovered, physical and emotional ailments would continue to plague her over the next several years.

In February 1907, at age 22, she passed her college exams and received her abitur. That fall, she became one of the first women to enroll in the medical school at the University of Vienna. After a painful break with Lieberman in 1910, she left Vienna for Munich where she continued her medical studies. Shortly thereafter, she met Felix Deutsch, a physician who would later become a pioneer in the treatment of psychosomatic disorders. On April 14, 1912, the two were married in Vienna. (Their son Martin would be born in 1917.)

The year of Deutsch's marriage, she received her medical degree and accepted a job as a full-time assistant at the famous Wagner-Jauregg Clinic for Psychiatric and Nervous Disorders, where she worked for the next six years. Though her work at the clinic was lauded, her gender precluded her from gaining an official position, and she remained unpaid. Despite her marginal status, her responsibilities increased during the latter part of World War I when many of the male doctors were drafted into the army. She later recalled of those years that her most rewarding work involved treating the seriously disturbed, unresponsive patients who had been labeled as suffering from "stupor."

By 1918, Helene Deutsch had become familiar with the writings of Sigmund Freud and had developed a deep interest in psychoanalysis. She had first encountered Freud's work in 1907 and increasingly immersed herself in it. "As I absorbed Freud's teachings on the unconscious mind and began to believe in infantile sexuality and … the role of these forces in the formation of neuroses, I gradually became a devoted disciple." In August, Deutsch left the Wagner-Jauregg Clinic to undergo a yearlong analysis with Freud. That same year, she became the second female member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and also began analyzing patients under Freud's direction. Freud's immediate confidence in Deutsch was evident. Her first patient was a member of Freud's own family and in 1919 she became his unofficial assistant, accompanying him the following year to the Sixth Congress of the International Psycho-Analytical Association in The Hague. Deutsch pursued the study of psychoanalysis with the same tenacity and single-mindedness that had marked her earlier conversion to socialism and her admittance to medical school. "Psychoanalysis," she later recalled, "was my last and most deeply experienced revolution; and Freud … became for me the greatest revolutionary of my life."

Helene Deutsch's particular interest in female psychology developed early in her career. "My intense interest in women stemmed from various sources: first, from my own narcissism, a wish to know myself; second from the fact that research until then had been chiefly concerned with men." The first lectures she presented to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society focused on the problems of women and feminine sexuality. In 1925, she published The Psychology of Sexual Functions in Women, the first monograph devoted specifically to feminine psychology and one which offered a systematic description of female instinctual development and its relation to the reproductive function. In her book, Deutsch relied heavily on Freud's classic model of the stages of development. She characterized the first active stage of a girl's sexuality as phallic. The phallic stage, Deutsch believed, is succeeded by a passive stage brought on by the girl's recognition that she does not possess a penis. This realization is experienced as a loss and results in mourning. Deutsch's theories of puberty followed the same trajectory: an active state that gives way to passivity as a girl construes menstruation as both castration and a symbol of the lack of a baby. The longing for a baby and a penis, Deutsch believed, were the motivations behind the girl's desire for sexual inter-course. She also described the experience of pregnancy as being informed by early infantile oral and anal fantasies of incorporation and expulsion, the latter expressed in morning sickness and miscarriage. To her credit, Deutsch decried the practice of early 20th-century obstetrics which she believed created an unpleasant and uncaring atmosphere for birth, leaving new mothers feeling depleted rather than enhanced by the experience.

Shortly thereafter, she began a long study of the writer George Sand in which she traced the patriarchal and maternal roots of femininity and identified a woman's "masculinity complex." Deutsch was drawn to Sand, who also bridled at bourgeois conventionality and who, like Deutsch, identified with her father and was estranged from her mother. In other writings of this period, Deutsch used literary sources, the experiences of patients, and her own difficult relationship with her mother and maternal struggles with her son to explore the ways sex and mothering affected a woman's self-esteem.

In 1925, Helene Deutsch was elected the first director of the newly created Vienna Training Institute. Modeled after the Berlin Training Institute, it was designed to formulate standards and to establish a formal training program for students of psychoanalysis. For the next nine years, Deutsch supervised the training of a new generation of analysts.

In 1934, Deutsch and her family moved permanently to the United States. She had briefly visited America once before, in 1930, at which time she had been heralded in the newspapers as "the first accredited ambassador of her sex to come here from the King of Psycho-Analysis." Now the family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Deutsch took up where she left off in Vienna, practicing psychoanalysis, delivering lectures at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, and working as a training analyst at the Boston Training Institute. As she had done on her earlier trip to America, she missionized throughout the country as Freud's intellectual emissary.

By this time, Deutsch had modified her earlier theories, recasting them in light of greater experience and observation. Deutsch's new theoretical framework provided a complete psychological overview of the development of women from menarche to menopause. She first described the young girl's psychological development into womanhood, a process that she deemed complete with the onset of menstruation. It is in the course of this process that Deutsch believed the "feminine core" is formed. Deutsch also defined the three "essential traits of femininity" as narcissism, passivity and masochism. But here she broke with Freud and provided a more liberating, less restrictive view of the interplay of these traits. Deutsch still saw passivity as an essential characteristic of woman, but she redefined it as "activity directed inward." This inward-directed activity, she believed, accounted for a woman's exaggerated fantasy life, her intuitive sensitivity, and her ability to empathize. A component of this passivity is feminine masochism which included self-sacrifice and tolerance of pain. Deutsch saw female narcissism as a healthy and necessary trait to counteract the woman's tendency to be overly submissive and give her an independent sense of self.

Deutsch also saw motherhood as the "central problem of femininity." She viewed the new mother's altruistic readiness to sacrifice her own needs to that of her baby's as masochistic, but not necessarily self-damaging, as the mother's own narcissistic tendencies keep her from total self-abnegation. It was only when mothering led to a complete renunciation of erotic fulfillment or when the mother possessed unmastered masochistic tendencies that Deutsch believed conflicts arose.

Her theories of feminine psychology were published in 1944 and 1945 in her magnum opus, the two-volume The Psychology of Women, which at the time became the standard textbook of feminine psychology and remains important today. In it, she again sets her ideas of instinctual development against the background of biological determinism, although she also concedes that sociological and cultural factors affect female development. It was this insistence on the importance of biology that drew professional criticism from several of her contemporaries (including the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney ) who were beginning to research the societal, cultural, and educational factors resulting in women's subjugation.

Another of Helene Deutsch's important theoretical contributions to psychology was the notion of the "as if" personality. The term was designed to refer to those individuals who are capable of powerful identifications that are imitative and lacking in character. These people, Deutsch believed, "validate their existence by identification." The "as if" personality "behaves as if [he/she] possessed a fully felt emotional life" but in reality merely mimics the perceived feelings and experiences of others. Deutsch traced the origins of this personality type to an inability to develop a normal Oedipus complex in early childhood.

Despite advancing years, Deutsch remained professionally engaged, though she actively retired from the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute in 1954 at the mandatory retirement age of 70. Though she continued to analyze a few patients, she devoted most of her time to research and writing. Much of Deutsch's later published work involved the interplay of psychology and literature, and she wrote numerous psychoanalytic articles on literary topics, including A Psychoanalytic Study of the Myth of Dionysus and Apollo (1969).

Deutsch also traveled extensively throughout Europe and Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, and engaged in the amateur study of the chickens and cows that she raised at "Babayaga Farm," a rural property she owned in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and named after a witch from a Polish fairy tale. In 1973, she wrote her autobiography, Confrontations With Myself, and in it she reflected on the problem of motherhood in light of women's political and social progress in the 20th century:

Social progress, while not eliminating all difficulties connected with motherhood, has increased women's opportunities as active members of society outside the home. A large measure of freedom and equality has been achieved; more is coming. I welcome all progress in the direction of women's liberation with pleasure, but also with a silent, sad realization: though woman is different now, she is forever the same, a servant of her biological fate, to which she has to adjust other pursuits.

Helene Deutsch remained intellectually vital to the end. In 1977, she helped Nancy Friday with her bestselling book, My Mother, My Self. Five years later, on March 29, 1982, Helene Deutsch died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 97.


Appignanesi, Lisa, and John Forrester. Freud's Women. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.

Deutsch, Helene. Confrontations With Myself. NY: W.W. Norton, 1973.

——. The Psychology of Women. NY: Grune & Stratton, 1944 (vol. I), 1945 (vol. II).

Roazen, Paul. Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst's Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Sayers, Janet. Mothers of Psychoanalysis. NY: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Webster, Brenda S. "Helene Deutsch: A New Look," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 10, no. 31, 1985, pp. 553–571.


Helene Deutsch Archive, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer and editor, Decatur, Georgia

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Deutsch, Helene (1884–1982)

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