A Mind of Her Own

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Karen Horney was born just outside Hamburg in 1885, at a time when a German woman could not work or sign a contract without her husband’s consent, nor vote or assemble for political purposes. Her possibilities for education were limited, and marriage was often an economic necessity. Horney’s own mother, Clothilde Marie (“Sonni”) van Ronzelen, daughter of a prosperous Dutch-born architect, married, at age twenty-eight, Berndt Henrik Wackels Danielsen, a forty-four-year-old widower with four children, who was a steamship captain and the son of a Norwegian watchmaker. Sonni married considerably beneath her class and her father, had he been alive, would certainly not have approved, but at age twenty-eight she was facing the prospect of remaining single for life.

Sonni’s and Wackels’ differences in age, class, temperament, and values resulted in a marriage which was unhappy, tense, and fraught with conflict. Had it not been for her own two children, Berndt and Karen, Sonni, despite the inevitable social disapprobation, might not have stayed in the marriage or might even, as she sometimes implied, have committed suicide. The young children carried the heavy burden of trying to sustain their mother’s happiness, until (and even after) she left the marriage, when Karen was twenty.

Karen’s father was often away at sea for long periods of time so that, for the most part, she experienced him as absent; only infrequently did the zealous Lutheran return home, and then he engaged in a relentless series of haranguing sermons around the house. When he was away, family life seems to have been relatively happy. Still, her mother’s lifelong bouts with depression often placed Karen in a position of having to mother her mother, of having to carry out the responsibilities of an adult as a child. Karen’s insecure relationships with both parents as a child influenced her later in the formulation of her mature theory of the neurotic personality. As Quinn notes throughout, Horney’s psychological theory was always linked with her own experiences of life.

Despite the male-dominated culture in which she grew up, at age fourteen Karen envisioned a professional life for herself in a diary entry: “Now I see my goal to study medicine more clearly before me. First years of splendid but strenuous work, then being able to serve mankind through curing diseases.” At the time, there was no Gymnasium course for girls in Hamburg nor a single university in Germany that admitted women; yet, as it turned out, Karen was able to actualize her vision. In 1895, a feminist newspaper, Die Frauenbewegung (the woman’s movement), began publication in Berlin. Among its concerns were equal education and equal pay. Subsequently, other women’s rights groups began to form throughout Germany. In 1900, Gymnasium classes were offered for the first time to girls in Hamburg, and Karen persuaded her father to permit her to attend. In 1906, she began medical school at the University of Freiburg, one of the first universities in Germany to open its doors to women. Quinn portrays Karen Danielsen as a woman of vision, who had the good fortune to be supported by historical circumstance.

She did encounter obstacles. While at the Gymnasium, for example, she found herself turned down from a class in dissection offered at another school. She responded to the obstacle by writing in her diary: “I shall take myself to pieces. That will probably be more difficult, but also more interesting.” Quinn observes that “Four years before she began reading Freud, ten years before she began her own psychoanalysis, forty years before she advocated self-analysis in a book of that title, Karen Danielsen was already writing about taking herself apart, about trying to understand her behavior in a systematic fashion.” The statement portends the course her life would take and also reveals an important personality characteristic: thwarted, Karen would turn an obstacle into an opportunity.

Growing up, Karen resented her father’s stern personality and his absences, yet in some ways she identified with him, with the boldness of his life of adventure. His long absences created an emotional void she desired to have filled. Henceforth, she seemed to transfer the internal conflict she felt toward her father to her relationships with other men and with God. She tended to idealize a new love or teacher, to depend on men to fill “a terrible and disconsolate emptiness,” but then to eventually rebel against or separate from an authority figure or established love relationship. This syndrome persisted throughout her life, compelling her to move in and out of relationships and influencing her theories in such papers as “The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal” (1927) and “The Overvaluation of Love” (1933).

The pattern is clear in her early love relationships and also in her relationship with the man she eventually married, Oskar Horney. A practical man, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Socioeconomic Value of Municipal Wastes,” Oskar became the object of Karen’s idealized projections during a period when the two—she in Freiburg (still dating Oskar’s friend Losch) and he in Braunschweig—communicated by letter, allowing intimacy at a distance. The letter medium permitted Karen to sustain the fantasy that Oskar was infinitely wise and objective, a person who could understand her fully and provide her with the inner peace she sought. Eventually, the two married, settling in Berlin in 1909, where Oskar was to work as general secretary to the coal baron Hugo Stinnes. Karen would pursue specialized training in psychiatry rather than fulfill society’s expectations of the bourgeois wife. In fact, though she suffered from fatigue and depression, she managed to balance the demands of her psychiatric training, her marriage, the rearing of three daughters, and occasional extramarital affairs (of which Oskar knew). Oskar and Karen led increasingly separate lives and separated several years after...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Library Journal. CXII, October 15, 1987, p. 85.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, November 5, 1987, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, November 29, 1987, p. 10.

Psychology Today. XXI, November, 1987, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, September 25, 1987, p. 88.

Vogue. CLXXVII, November, 1987, p. 262.