Among the many contributions of Sándor Ferenczi (1873-1933) to psychoanalysis were insights, which he gained towards the end of his life, into the possibility that analysands accurately perceive elements of the analytic situation and unconsciously portray these in disguised symbolic form. A generation later some of his ideas found an echo in the work of Harold Searles (1961, 1972, 1975) and of Robert Langs (1973, 1975a,b). As far as I know it was Smith (1991) who first focused attention onto Ferenczi’s contribution in this area. Here I will trace Ferenczi’s consideration of his patients’ unconscious perceptiveness in some detail.
What emerges is a picture of how Ferenczi’s tenacity and acuity led him to consider certain analytic material as representing patients’ veridical unconscious portrayal of the analytic situation. Strikingly however, while Langs, in particular, later came to view the therapeutic frame as a vital determinant of such portrayals, Ferenczi made no such connection, even though, as I hope to demonstrate, it is indicated in his clinical material. I will suggest that it may have been precisely this connection with frame issues that inhibited Ferenczi from further pursuing patients’ unconscious perceptions.
The examination of this episode from the history of psychoanalysis has intrinsic interest. It serves to clarify the nature of Ferenczi’s findings about childhood sexual abuse, as well as those about patients’ unconscious perceptiveness. It also has implications for current therapeutic theory and practice. The conjectures that Ferenczi considered are still relevant to ongoing debates, both concerning the boundaries between transference and reality-relatedness in the therapeutic arena, and concerning the veracity and present significance of reconstructions of the past. Alongside this, Ferenczi’s apparent selective blindness to implications of his own clinical records stands as testimony to the difficulty of establishing a secure base for a field of knowledge in which the interpretation of data is so dependent on the conscious and unconscious expectations of the analyst/researcher.
The quality of the available English translations of Ferenczi’s work is very variable. In a few instances below, when mistranslations directly impinge on the present discussion, I have rectified a word or phrase by reference to the German original. Each such case is indicated by an interpolation.
By the early 1930s Ferenczi had been concerned for some years with the pathogenic effects of traumatic abuse in his patients’ childhoods. In a paper read to the 11th congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association, held in Oxford, England in 1929, Ferenczi (1930, pp. 120-121) wrote:
In the Wiesbaden paper, Ferenczi (1933a,b) explained how he had hoped that the ‘reproductions’ would put an end to the formation of new symptoms in his patients. But, ‘This hope, unfortunately, was only very imperfectly fulfilled’ (1933a, p. 157). In the event, for some patients, the ‘reproductions’ led to new symptoms. These patients developed a pattern of nocturnal anxiety and nightmares while their ‘reproductions’ intensified into what Ferenczi described as attacks of anxiety hysteria, repeated in each session. As this new state of affairs went on unabated, Ferenczi felt he had to, as he put it, ‘give free rein to self-criticism’ (ibid.). He continued (pp. 157-8):
Gradually, then, I came to the conviction [Überzeugung (1933b) mistranslated as ‘conclusion’] that the patients have an exceedingly refined sensitivity for the wishes, tendencies, whims, sympathies and antipathies of their analyst, even if the analyst is completely unaware of this sensitivity. Instead of contradicting the analyst, accusing him of certain errors or blunders [,ihn gewisser Verfehlungen oder Missgriffe zu zeihen (1933b) mistranslated as ‘or accusing him of errors and blindness’], the patients identify themselves with him; only in rare moments of an hysteroid excitement, i.e. in an almost unconscious state, can they pluck up enough courage to make a protest; normally they do not allow themselves to criticize us, such a criticism does not even become conscious in them unless we give them special permission or even encouragement to be so bold. That means that we must discern not only the painful events of their past from their associations, but also - and much more often than hitherto supposed - their repressed or suppressed criticism of us.
It is important to recognise that, in this paper, Ferenczi did not portray patients’ perceptions as transference phenomena. If he had, he could still have acknowledged, as have many authors (Balint & Balint 1939; Searles 1978 ), that the perceptions had some basis in reality. But, in this case, Ferenczi’s central focus was the reality and validity of his patients’ suppressed and repressed perceptions, the ‘truth in these accusations.’ He went on to assert that analysts display resistance to discerning their patients’ latent insights, and he described some of what he himself had been ‘taught,’ especially with regard to analytic technique, by such material. These are lines of inquiry which were taken up by Searles (1972, 1975) and Langs (1973, 1975a).
In terms of Ferenczi’s own previous work, his account of patients’ sensitivity for their analyst’s psyche or character (‘the wishes,... sympathies and antipathies of their analyst’) can be associated with his long-standing interest in telepathy. For example, 22 years earlier, on 17 August 1910, Ferenczi had written to Freud detailing how the associations of one of his patients could be understood as unconscious insights into Ferenczi’s own preoccupations (Freud & Ferenczi 1993). But the separate, albeit related, notion of patients’ valid unconscious criticisms of how their own analysis was being conducted (‘contradicting the analyst, accusing him of certain errors or blunders’) was new ground for Ferenczi.
Despite his insistence that patients’ associations be used to reveal these latent criticisms, Ferenczi gave no actual examples of such interpretations in the Wiesbaden paper. However, from 7 January until 2 October 1932, Ferenczi (1988a,b) kept a clinical diary. In the diary I have found two examples of Ferenczi’s interpretation of patients’ associations as accurately symbolising his conduct of the analysis (I found only these two examples in the nine month period covered by the diary). The first of these is in Ferenczi’s very first entry on 7 January 1932. He wrote (1988a, pp. 1-2):
The second example is in an entry dated 7 July 1932. In this entry Ferenczi described a dream reported by his patient R.N. This was the code-name he used for an American woman, identified by Masson (1984) as Elizabeth Severn. One theme of the dream was her ‘helpless struggle’ to communicate a message to a man. Ferenczi wrote that this dream was linked by association in the analysis ‘to her despair over the fact that I, the analyst, could have misunderstood her for so long... The man in the dream who is so hard to reach is on the one hand this tormentor [her father]; on the other hand he represents me, the stubborn analyst’ (1988a, pp. 157-8). Ferenczi’s assertion here was unambiguous as to the veracity of Severn’s disguised portrayal of the analytic situation: the dream’s latent meaning referred to ‘the fact’ that he had misunderstood his patient for so long.
Ferenczi’s thinking about his patients’ ‘reproductions’ continued to evolve during the last year of his life (he died in May 1933). He was impelled to question the historical reality of the reconstructions he had based on these ‘reproductions.’ At the same time, his ideas shed further light on the possibility that patients unconsciously perceive and portray the analytic situation.
Ferenczi (1933a), following the passages already quoted, had gone on to assert (p. 159) that ‘The analytical situation - i.e. the restrained coolness, the professional hypocrisy and - hidden behind it but never revealed -- a dislike of the patient which, nevertheless, he felt in all his being’ resembled the childhood situation that had resulted in the patient’s illness. Ferenczi continued (p. 160):
Ferenczi’s 1932 diary (1988a) makes clear that his encouragement of criticism from his patients that year was effective. He faced considerable explicit criticism and made strenuous efforts to respond. However, crucially, Ferenczi’s hopes for this process went largely unrealised. In most cases no convincing (i.e. convincing to the patient) recollections of the inferred traumas were forthcoming. On 22 March 1932 he wrote (p. 67):
It was against this background that, towards the end of October 1932, after the Wiesbaden Congress and after his last entry in his clinical diary, in a series of notes published posthumously, Ferenczi (1939a,b) recorded his continuing concern with the difficulty of establishing recollection to support his reconstructions. In one of these notes, on 24 October, Ferenczi questioned the origin of ‘reproductions.’ The standard translation by Balint of the relevant passage, Ferenczi (1939a, p. 259), has significant errors. It reads:
However, Ferenczi then raised a separate issue in the second sentence.
He did not, though, refer to a ‘real-life situation,’ as Balint translated,
but to a ‘totally current [ganz aktuellen] life situation.’ So Ferenczi
was asking himself the extent to which the ‘reproduction’ of a childhood
trauma could be interpreted as an historical metaphor that expressed perceptions
of a totally current situation, the analytic situation in particular. Previously,
as we have seen, Ferenczi had considered the validity of patients’ accusations
against him made during ‘reproductions.’ This is what had convinced him
of the presence of other repressed criticism that could be discerned from
patients’ associations. Now Ferenczi countenanced something more fundamental:
unconsciously, the whole scene which was ‘reproduced’ might be, in part,
a disguised representation (an ‘historical dressing up’) of the analytic
situation. (Of course, this re-interpretation of the ‘reproductions’ would
not have precluded them having additional meanings, including the direct
or symbolic representation of childhood events.)
Ferenczi’s Clinical Material
As far as I know, Ferenczi recorded no examples of interpretations of ‘reproduced’ scenes based on this new possibility. It should be remembered that by this time he was very ill with pernicious anaemia, from which he was to die seven months later. More surprising is the paucity of examples in Ferenczi’s 1932 clinical diary (1988a,b) of the interpretation of patients’ other material as disguised unconscious commentary on the analytic situation (only the two examples already described, dated 7 January and 7 July 1932). This suggests that Ferenczi employed such a perspective very infrequently. There are, on the other hand, many examples in the diary of him taking cognizance of considerable and very fierce manifest criticism from his patients.
If Ferenczi’s (1933a) conclusions had some validity, the question arises of why he applied his new-found paradigm so rarely. It is here that I think Robert Langs’ work may be especially relevant. Langs (1975b, 1978) contended that, through the latent meanings of their associations, patients portray negatively any deviations from a ‘secure’ therapeutic frame which includes the neutrality and relative anonymity of the therapist. Ferenczi (1928, 1930, 1988a), in the last few years of his life, had been increasingly varying the frame of his analytic relationships, moving toward flexible or absent boundaries. Langs’ work implies that if Ferenczi had pursued the interpretation of patients’ unconscious critiques of the analytic situation he might have had to come to consider his frame alterations as their predominant determinant. Ferenczi may indeed have been strongly motivated not to arrive at such an understanding, because, by 1932, frame alterations underpinned a great deal of his work. But was latent criticism of Ferenczi’s frame alterations actually discernible from the associations of his patients during this period?
The trend in Ferenczi’s work away from a ‘secure’ frame reached its apogee when he began, probably in 1931, to accede to Elizabeth Severn’s directly expressed wish to analyse Ferenczi in addition to being analysed by him. Ferenczi (1988a,b), in his 1932 clinical diary, described this taking place regularly, either in one half of double sessions or in alternate sessions. He used the expression ‘mutuality’ or ‘mutual analysis’ for a range of experimental techniques, from a willingness to open up with his true feeling responses to patients, to the explicit swapping of roles (analyst on the couch, patient as the analyst), and, on a more intermittent basis, extended the use of such techniques from Severn to some of his other patients. Although the number of patients involved is unclear from the diary, it does appear that, aside from Severn, the largest part was played by ‘B.,’ another female patient. Ferenczi’s analytic relationships with Severn and with B. involve a radical frame alteration with a clear theme: the reversal of roles between analyst and patient. If some of Severn’s or B.’s associations did symbolise a latent critique of the ‘mutuality’ in their analyses, then in all probability these associations would themselves have incorporated references to the theme of reversal.
With this in mind, I examined the records in Ferenczi’s diary of Severn’s associations in analysis, as well as B.’s associations in the sessions following two recorded incidents of ‘mutuality.’ I looked specifically to see if the theme of reversal was apparent. Somewhat to my surprise, even in a very limited sample of analytic material, in some cases the theme of reversal could be discerned. In these cases only, I went on to look at the possible further relevance of the material as an unconscious portrayal of the analytic situation.
Ferenczi frequently discussed his work with Severn in the diary entries. However, I found only two, dated 12 June and 7 July 1932, which clearly indicate the nature of Severn’s actual associations in the analysis. Both described dreams. On 12 June, Ferenczi wrote (1988a, p. 119):
2. R.N.: Treated appallingly by drunken father, then left all alone; later repeated. (Humiliation after seduction.) (Hate of woman!) Dream: downstairs "tea." She is lying in the corridor, with her head empty, feels her way to the door, 17, 18, then 19, with a great effort - no light. Realizes that this is not her room. (This cannot be her; each time she loses consciousness.) In the (middle) room (18) she sees... [The rest of the entry is missing.]
The entry on 7 July has already been discussed in this article. It described (p. 157) a dream reported by Elizabeth Severn, which Ferenczi interpreted as, in part, a commentary on how Severn had been misunderstood by him:
A latent critique of Ferenczi’s work, to the effect that mutuality in the analysis made communication with him a nightmarish, helpless struggle, may thus have been represented in the dream. In a way this is the converse of Ferenczi’s interpretation that the dream refers in part to Severn’s despair that he could have misunderstood her for so long. Ferenczi (1988a,b), as well as Severn on a conscious level, believed that mutual analysis was at last allowing Ferenczi to further his understanding of Severn.
Ferenczi’s patient ‘B.’ was discussed by him in his clinical diary and also, both before and afterwards, in separate notes (1939a,b). It is clear from Ferenczi’s English quotations of some of B.’s words, reproduced in the German (1988b) edition of the diary, that she, like Severn, was English-speaking, probably American. Several of the diary entries concerning her refer to mutuality in the analysis, although this does not seem to have become as formalised as in the case of Elizabeth Severn. There is an apparent allusion to ‘mutual analysis’ in connection with B. on 24 February 1932, but what this amounted to in practice is unclear. A second such entry, dated 8 March, is more explicit. Here Ferenczi described B.’s protests about lack of progress in her analysis; ‘The analysis, she says, is exactly repeating the conduct of her parents, who only provoke unpleasure but cannot cure her’ (1988a, p. 52). He went on to recount (pp. 52-53):
In the case of B., in view of the mutuality, the reaction naturally went much deeper. This gave me an opportunity to penetrate much deeper into my own infantilism: the tragic moment in childhood when my mother declares: You are my murderer. [My?] Excessively strong reaction to something similar in the analysis, followed by despair and discouragement, becomes clearly manifest. In this way: [B.’s?] detachment from the present and a return of sympathy with sublimation tendencies and resignation.
The diary entry continued (ibid.):
Four months later, in an entry of 23 July 1932, Ferenczi described exchanging roles with B. so that, for the first time, he lay on the couch and she sat in his armchair. He wrote (p. 167):
The next entry concerning B. was on 30 July 1932. Only the initial sentences described the content of her associations. They read (1988a, p. 179):
Towards the end of his life Ferenczi made considerable alterations to the frame of his analytic relationships, culminating in a process of ‘mutual analysis’ with some patients. This approach was, in part, a response to manifest feedback from patients. At this time too, Ferenczi became convinced that his patients had powerful and vital unconscious criticisms of his analytic conduct. Unbeknown to Ferenczi, the core of such unconscious criticism may have been directed at the very frame alterations that his patients often consciously demanded and welcomed. A dichotomy and contrast between manifest feedback and disguised latent feedback may have hidden from Ferenczi the full import of his new perspective.
Ferenczi, S. (1928) The elasticity of psycho-analytic technique. In Ferenczi (1955).
Ferenczi, S. (1930) The principle of relaxation and neocatharsis. In Ferenczi (1955).
Ferenczi, S. (1931) Child analysis in the analysis of adults. In Ferenczi (1955).
Ferenczi, S. (1933a) Confusion of tongues between adults and the child (the language of tenderness and of passion). In Ferenczi (1955).
Ferenczi, S. (1933b) Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind (die Sprache der Zärtlichkeit und der Leidenschaft). In Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, 19: 5-15.
Ferenczi, S. (1939a) Notes and fragments. In Ferenczi (1955).
Ferenczi, S. (1939b) Fragmente. In Bausteine zur Psychoanalyse, IV Band: Gedenkartikel, Kritiken und Referate. Fragmente. Bibliographie. Sachregister. Bern: Verlag Hans Huber.
Ferenczi, S. (1955) Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psycho-Analysis (Ed. M. Balint, Trans. M. Balint and E. Mosbacher). London: Hogarth Press.
Ferenczi, S. (1988a) The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi (Ed. J. Dupont, Trans. N. Jackson). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ferenczi, S. (1988b) Ohne Sympathie keine Heilung: Das klinische Tagebuch von 1932 (Ed. J. Dupont). Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag.
Freud, S. (1896) Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie. In Gesammelte Werke 1. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1952.
Freud, S. (1920) Jenseits des Lustprinzips. In Gesammelte Werke 13. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940.
Freud, S. (1985) The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (Ed. and Trans. J. Masson). Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Freud, S. & Ferenczi, S. (1993) The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi: Volume 1, 1908-1914 (Ed. E. Brabant et al., Trans. P. Hoffer). Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Langs, R. (1973) The patient’s view of the therapist: reality or fantasy? In International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 2: 411-31.
Langs, R. (1975a) The patient’s unconscious perceptions of the therapist’s errors. In Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Therapy, Vol. II: Countertransference, (Ed. P. Giovacchini). New York: Jason Aronson, 1975.
Langs, R. (1975b) The therapeutic relationship and deviations in technique. In International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 4: 106-41.
Langs, R. (1978) The Listening Process.. Northvale: JasonAronson (revised edition, 1992).
Masson, J. (1984) The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Masson, J. (1992) Afterword to the second edition. In Against Therapy (Revised Edition). London: Fontana.
Schimek, J. (1987) Fact and fantasy in the seduction theory: a historical review. In Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 35: 937-65.
Searles, H. (1961) Schizophrenic communication. In Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Review 48: 3-50.
Searles, H. (1972) The function of the patient’s realistic perceptions of the analyst in delusional transference. In British Journal of Medical Psychology 45: 1-18.
Searles, H. (1975) The patient as therapist to his analyst. In Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Therapy, Vol. II: Countertransference (Ed. P. Giovacchini). New York: Jason Aronson.
Searles, H. (1978 ) Concerning transference and countertransference. In International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 7: 165-88.
Smith, D. (1991) Hidden Conversations: An Introduction to Communicative Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
The author of this article can be reached by E-mail: