Who is Theodor Reik, and how did he contribute to the development of psychoanalysis?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Theodor Reik (May 12, 1888 to December 31, 1969) was an accomplished and prominent psychoanalyst, and one of Sigmund Freud’s first students in Vienna. Among his other accomplishments, Reik wrote the first dissertation on psychoanalysis.

Reik came from humble beginnings.  His parents, Max and Caroline, were lower-middle-class Jews,  The Reiks had four children; Theodor was the third.  All four children attended public schools in Vienna.  His father worked as a government clerk; he died when Theodor was just eighteen. 

At age eighteen, Reik was accepted at the University of Vienna, where he studied, psychology, French, and German literature. He was awarded his PhD in 1912, at the age of tweny-four.  The topic of his dissertation was “Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony.”  It was while studying for his doctorate that Reik met Freud, in 1910. Freud became a father figure to the young man, a role Freud would play for the rest of Theodor’s life. Two years after their first meeting, Reik became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

In 1914, Reik moved to Berlin and underwent analysis with Karl Abraham, who was a collaborator with Freud. However, when World War I began, Reik enlisted and served as an officer in the Austrian cavalryfor three years, from 1915 to 1918; he saw combat in Montenegro and Italy. Reik was decorated for bravery.

After the war, Reik returned to Vienna, where, following the resignation of Otto Rank (one of Freud’s closest colleagues), he became Secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Over the next ten years, Reik practiced psychoanalysis and wrote prolifically. (It is said that Freud once asked Reik,” Why do you piss around so much? Just piss in one spot.”) 

Despite his lack of a medical degree, Freud vehemently defended Reik’s abilities, writing in 1926, in his friend and colleague’s defense, “The Question of Lay Analysis.”  Reik was being prosecuted in Austria for quackery. 

Following the trial, Reik moved back to Berlin, where he lived and worked from 1928 to 1934. In Berlin, he once again enjoyed the acclaim he had previously experienced as a popular teacher at the psychoanalytic institute.  However, as he watched the Nazis rise to power, he moved The Hague, where he continued to work.  These years were rocky; his first wife, Ella, and mother of his son, Arthur, died.  He later met and married a woman named Marija, with whom he had two children, Theodora and Miriam.

As Nazi power continued to grow, once again Reik felt compelled to move himself and his family. The four of them relocated in New York. However, due to his lack of a medical degree, the New York Psychoanalytic Society did not allow Reik to practice. 

Reik’s sense of personal ethics would not allow him to take a position as a “research analyst,” a position in which he could ostensibly still practice (as many people did).  The decision caused many financial problems for Reik and his family.  To help him through this difficult time, Karl Abraham treated him for free. Freud, for a period, sent Reik 200 marks a month to see his friend through, but not first without some chastisement.  Freud wrote: “What ill wind has blown you, just you, to America? You must have known how amiably lay analysts would be received there by our colleagues for whom psychoanalysis is nothing more that one of the hand-maidens of psychiatry.”

Despite his mentor’s objections, Reik carried on and over the next ten years, established a practice and earned the esteem of his American colleagues. In 1945, he founded the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP). Riek’s influence on the psychoanalytic and lay community continued to grow in the second half of the twentieth century. His many books influenced the general public, and his influence within NPAP continued to grow. From his original institute, many new institutes emerged, making Reik one of the “major promulgator[s] of non-medical analysis in the United States.”

Riek may have been popular with general readers because of his conversational style and inclusion of well-known literary figures, such as Shakespeare, Flaubert, and Goethe.  His best known works include his autobiography Fragments of a Great Confession (1949), Listening with the Third Ear (1948); the monumental Masochism in Modern Man (1949); Surprise and the Psychoanalyst (1935); his recollection of Freud, From Thirty Years with Freud (1940); applied psychoanalysis of the Bible in Mystery on the Mountain (1958); anthropology in Ritual (1958); and sexuality in Of Love and Lust (1959), Creation of Woman (1960), and The Psychology of Sex Relations (1961); and music in The Haunting Melody (1960).

Source: International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the first students of the famous Sigmund Freud, Theodor Reik was a native of Vienna who later came to America and became a ground-breaking psychoanalyst. After fleeing Nazism in 1938, Reik came to the United States, but was rejected from the community of psychoanalysts because he was not a medical physician. However, Reik went on to form the National Psychological Association for Psychoanlysis, which to this day is one of the most renown training institutes in New York City, as well as the largest. 

Because of his rejection by the medical psychoanalysis community, Reik brought legal charges against them, charges which led to the legitimization of the psychoanalysis by non-physicians. Many of his methods are used today, especially those of psychotherapeutic listening, and criminology; for, Reik instituted the process of psychologically profiling unknown criminals, contending that because of unconscious guilt, criminals often leave clues that can lead to their identification and arrest. 

Reik examined many areas of the unconscious, including the unconscious mind of the analyst which comes into play during the analysis of a patient. Thus, his theories exerted a strong influence upon the developments in American psychoanalysis, such as that of intersubjectivity (the psychological relationship between people) and countertransference (the emotional entanglement of a psychotherapist with a patient). Moreover, the training of non-medical analysts such as social workers and psychologists is prevalent in the United States and well accepted because of Reik's efforts.

laurto | Student

Theodor Reik was a psychoanalyst who was also one of Freud's first students. Reik wrote the first psychoanalytic dissertation ever, a study of Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony. Reik founded one of the first psychoanalytical training centers for psychologists in New York City (NPAP). He is best known for his psychoanalytic studies of masochism, criminology, literature, and religion.