Certain books are so strongly associated with the places and times we read them, we cannot imagine having been in that spot or subsequent events having transpired without them. This was the case for me with Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession which I read in August of 1981 in a peeling Adirondack chair on a grassy bluff in the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet the month before I began graduate school in clinical psychology. I was too young and itinerant and broke at the time to subscribe to The New Yorker, but somehow the two issues from the prior December that contained most of what would be published as Malcolm’s slim volume had found their way to the cottage where I was staying—a place whose shabbiness (cramped rooms and rattling windows, an ancient stove that lit only under duress) in contrast with the grandeur of the property it occupied (majestic view of a roiling white-capped Atlantic, vast beach reached by a hundred wooden steps) seemed itself a metaphor for the psychoanalytic edifice and terrain that was Malcolm’s subject.

When I first read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, what I knew about Freud’s work came largely from a schematic college introduction and Russell Jacoby’s critical-theory inflected Social Amnesia about the most radical elements having been repressed so as to make psychoanalysis more palatable to conservative American medical schools. It is hard to fathom how in a brief time Malcolm managed to so deeply synthesize analytic theory, apprehend the labyrinthine and internecine New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and form such a trusting and tender relationship with her guide to analytic work—the pseudonymous Dr. Aaron Green, a firmly orthodox yet kind, humble, and thoughtful analyst. The majority of pages are exegeses of key theoretical concepts—not for the faint of heart—but the book’s engine is Malcolm’s own encounter with Green and her light-handed contrivance that their series of meetings illuminates the analytic process: transferences and countertransferences, a termination. Although this foreshadows what will become one of Malcolm’s signature themes—the centrality of the relationship between journalist and subject, observer and data inextricably intertwined—the dozen or so meetings she and Green have in his office are only tenuously related to what takes place between patient and analyst. More apt is the parallel between the seemingly transformative encounter the writer had with her subject—texts, Green, and other analysts—and that which the reader, or at least this reader, has with this short but profound book.

A few weeks later, I made my way to my first graduate school—a fine academic institution which I recognized immediately to be the wrong intellectual home for me, an apprehension that had a great deal to do with the vistas opened to me by Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. The clinical psychology program was founded on the practitioner-as-scientist model particularly compatible with empirically based cognitive behavior therapy. If there were guilt-ridden Dr. Greens resisting the temptation to temper the austerity of classical psychoanalysis with pinches of the “real relationship” and the “therapeutic alliance” in those hallways, they were well-hidden from student eyes. By the following September, I found my way to Yale where the psychology department still housed rat labs aplenty and cadres of graduate students carting reams of sprocket-bordered computer pages, but the university itself was a hotbed of European psychoanalytic theory with eminent Viennese émigrés conducting analyses on Trumbull Street, and half of my new cohort were secretly in analysis (an undertaking made all the more enticing by having been unofficially forbidden by the head of our program) with the candidates of The Western New England Institute, itself a character in what would become Malcolm’s next book, In the Freud Archives, and another summer’s reading.


Lisa Gornick is the author of A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, which Sarah Crichton Books will publish in September 2013. She has a BS from Princeton, and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at New York University and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is currently on the faculty.