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January 8, 2008

Allen Wheelis, M.D. — 'A Neurotic's Neurotic'


I read one of his novels many years ago and was enchanted by the raw emotion in what was, after all, a work by a practicing psychoanalyst.

I hadn't thought about him for a long time until I happened to read an appreciation by Daphne Merkin in the December 30, 2007 New York Times magazine.

The nonfiction work pictured up top I found remarkable.

Strange indeed, the work of man.

Here's the Times piece.

    A Neurotic’s Neurotic

    Given that words are the bread and butter of psychoanalytic work, it would seem strange on the face of it that very few practitioners have written elegant or even lucid prose. Indeed, they amount to no more than a handful: Freud himself; his daughter, Anna; the British analyst D. W. Winnicott; the much-neglected Leslie Farber; Robert Stoller; Irvin Yalom; Adam Phillips. The field, suffering as it does from an inferiority complex about its relevance to the larger culture, has immured itself behind the high walls of jargon — terms like “introjective identification,” “countercathexis” and “unintegrated superego nuclei.” This emphasis on opacity is in part an effort to preserve psychoanalysis’s waning mystique. Paradoxically, it also underscores the discipline’s attempt to validate its much-disputed conjectures about human behavior by appropriating the clinical vocabulary of hard science. Yet for those of us who remain interested in what the talking cure may have to offer (the number dwindles almost daily), the lack of an accessible dialogue between clergy and laity remains a woeful reality.

    Allen Wheelis stands out in this fallow field for the elegiac sinuousness of his prose, his tonic grimness (“Life is unmanageable, escapes reason”) and his willingness to drop the therapist’s cloaked persona for a literary one that is more authentic and less elevated. (“We analysts are very defensive about our theory,” he wrote in “The Doctor of Desire,” a novel about an analyst who falls in love with a female patient. “As well we might be. Conjectural excess has always been our method.”) One of his writing’s more compelling aspects, which can be felt in all of the 14 books he wrote — the best known of which is “How People Change” — is the seeming ease with which he divulges his own unrequited needs, implacable fears and unacceptable impulses in the name of illuminating his patients’ and readers’ neurotic quandaries.

    Wheelis’s propensity for self-incriminating and ruthless candor is unmistakeable: his writing, scattered with shards of autobiographical and even confessional material, would be courageous in an ordinary writer. Coming as it does from someone trained in the art and ethos of assuming a veil, a posture of neutrality, the better for his patients to unveil their dodgy inner selves, it verges on the heroic. In “The Listener: A Psychoanalyst Examines His Life,” published when Wheelis was 84 and characterized by him as a “self-sketch” rather than an all-out memoir, he identifies sex and death (“these difficult two”) together with love (“that impossible third”) as making up “the text of my life, this unruly trio.” Lest we think he is exaggerating, distancing himself from the clamor of these realities by glossing over them in poetic language, Wheelis opens the book on a brazen note: “When I pick up a novel, I look first for the sexual passages. I want to know what this author thinks can happen between a man and a woman. I discover the girl undressing, examine her undergarments, see her twisting and moaning under her lover. . . . I go right to the limit, the far edge. Before learning whether it’s safe for her even to have coffee with this guy or to go for a walk, I have her skirt up, her legs spread wide.”

    Wheelis, who was married twice and had three children, achieved renown as a psychoanalyst in San Francisco, where he saw patients for more than five decades. He never really became part of the orthodox psychoanalytic establishment — largely, it would seem, by choice. He trafficked in existential despair, unceasingly questioning the purposes and limitations of putting people on the couch — in “a room of listening, of longing” — even as he continued working in his chosen field. “I have not found in pyschoanalysis the meaning I sought. I function as guide to the lost, but do not myself know the way.”

    Wheelis grew up in genteel poverty in rural Texas under the rule of a failed, humorless sadist of a father. When, as a young boy, Wheelis came home with a poor grade for conduct, he was made to spend the entire summer cutting the grass with a razor; this punishment is chillingly depicted again and again in his books. His self-effacing mother (who agreed, on her dying husband’s insistence, never to remarry) became ever more emotionally dependent on her son after his father died a drawn-out death from tuberculosis at the age of 43, when Wheelis was 9. (In another memoir, “The Life and Death of My Mother,” he explores his charged, almost incestuous relationship with her with a quiet and discomfiting directness.) He recalls in “The Path Not Taken: Reflections on Power and Fear” how, as a bullied child, there was a sole encounter in which he had the courage to fight back against an “archtormentor,” delivering “a rain of blows.” He then immediately goes on to note that this was not the beginning of a triumphant ascension over an instilled timidity: “I did not fight again. . . . I went the other way, found my place and my work among those who are afraid. I understand them better. I help them be less afraid.”

    Wheelis’s credentials as a healer were sterling: after graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1943, he served as a Navy medical officer in the Pacific Theater. He went on to study at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kan., worked at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., and underwent further training at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute before moving in 1954 to San Francisco. He published his first book, “The Quest for Identity,” in 1959 and went right on publishing until the end. His last book, “The Way We Are” — a spare inquiry into his preoccupying theme of how to live with unfulfillment lurking on one side and death beckoning on the other — was published more than a month after he died. Despite his prolifigacy, he rarely wrote for analytic journals; one of the few exceptions was a paper published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis in the mid-’50s titled, tellingly enough, “The Vocational Hazards of Psychoanalysis.”

    Wheelis was a maverick — a resilient pessimist obsessed with the idea, as T. S. Eliot put it, that “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality,” while at the same time believing in the value of bringing light to the shadowy corners where psychic cobwebs lurk. He was haunted by the specter of mortality and unpersuaded by attempts to render death as a meaningful conclusion rather than a fated, inescapable end. “A symphony has a climax,” he observed in “The Listener”: “a poem builds to a burst of meaning, but we are unfinished business. No coming together of strands. The game is called because of darkness.” Glen Gabbard, a psychoanalyst at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who considered Wheelis a friend and a mentor, describes him as “the Samuel Beckett of psychoanalysis — one of the few analysts who wrote about the presence of the gravedigger as he toiled behind the couch.” Wheelis’s death is a loss to his profession — and to all those who look to his unflinching perceptions to help make sense of the necessary illusions and tenuous self-delusions with which we make our way and carve out bearable lives.



Wheelis (above, in 1975) died last year at the age of 91.

January 8, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Theodor Reik's _Listening With the Third Ear_ is also a lucid bit of psychoanalytic prose. Granted, the guy went a little cuckoo in his later years, but the writing is good.

Posted by: jim` | Jan 9, 2008 12:54:55 PM

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