What’s Life Like for the Child of a Psychoanalyst?

What’s Life Like for the Child of a Psychoanalyst?

What’s Life Like for the Child of a Psychoanalyst?

Alice Wexler’s The Analyst explores the complicated life of her father, Milton Wexler, whose work courted controversy in the public and within in his family


At the start of Milton Wexler’s career as a psychoanalyst, he devoted his practice to what was still uncharted territory for American practitioners in the 1930s: He attempted to treat schizophrenia through psychotherapy. After making a name for himself at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan., he moved to the Hollywood Hills in the 1950s, where he became the go-to therapist for troubled artists, a roster of patients that included the likes of Frank Gehry, John Altoon, and, on occasion, Marilyn Monroe. By the 1980s, Wexler was devoting his free time to hereditary diseases and brought needed funding to research for the genetic roots of Huntington’s disease—an affliction that upended the lives of his wife and her family. While Wexler’s contributions to science are undeniable, he was transgressive and unorthodox in achieving those ends, rendering him a contested figure: first in the world of psychoanalysis, for his use and defense of harsh therapeutic methods, and later in the media, for breaking doctor/patient protocols by getting too close with his patients and sometimes collaborating with them, as he did with the director Blake Edwards.

In Alice Wexler’s book, The Analyst, Milton’s daughter attempts to assess his intricate and often troubled life. The book is not only a portrait of her father’s storied professional achievements; it is also a revelation of his personal affairs, relationships, and failings, which Alice was often both a participant in and a witness to. Writing from the dual perspective of historian and daughter—one with unresolved emotions about her relationship with her father—Alice blends scrupulous research with intuitive observation, nostalgic vignettes, and personal reflections. The result is a book that is not exactly a biography and not a memoir either, but something else entirely: a work of personal history tinged with all the biases and preconceptions that one develops while living in the shadow of someone they love. The critic Maggie Doherty, in an essay, calls this sort of work the “intimate biography”—a life’s story as refracted through the writer’s “impressionistic” and “subjective” experience of the subject at hand. This perspective makes for a style of life-writing that not only feels more personal but is also, perhaps, inimitable. Alice Wexler may know her father better than any other writer, as their relationship extended far beyond the page, but her desire to navigate the compromised divide between logic and emotion also becomes integral to his story’s complications.

Milton Wexler began his foray into psychoanalysis in the 1930s after becoming unsatisfied with a legal career in New York City. While he had been sneaking psychoanalytic texts into his law school classes since his early days, he left law to begin a study of psychoanalysis in earnest around 1939. At the time he was charmed by Freud, whose work was then being translated into English and whose intellectual shadow would come to loom over Wexler and his peers. Toward the end of his graduate studies, Wexler followed an academic named David Rapaport to an institution in Kansas that would eventually become one of the premier psychoanalytic research institutions in the country: the Menninger Foundation. (It later employed Ben Lerner’s parents and would become the setting of his novel The Topeka School.) In Kansas, Wexler became interested in schizophrenia and spent much of his time working with a patient called Nedda. She’d been raised in a conservative Catholic home marked by death and religious trauma and suffered from schizophrenic delusions related to guilt about her sexual desires and her marriage to a non-Catholic man. At Menninger, Nedda was noisy and disruptive, often known to masturbate in public.

Wexler used Nedda as a kind of guinea pig upon which he practiced different therapeutic techniques, including a method called “direct analysis,” in which the doctor offers the patient “instant interpretations” of their “supposed unconscious motivations” in response to their psychosis. In Wexler’s own variation on direct analysis, he would affirm Nedda’s delusions and use physical violence against her when she used it on him, thereby “allying himself with her self-punishing superego” to unlock her more rational ego. It’s a method that by any contemporary standard would be considered malpractice. And while Wexler didn’t necessarily recommend it to other analysts, by extensively cataloging its uses, he invited criticism both of himself and of the Menninger Foundation. Some of his analyst peers condemned his “authoritarian attitude,” while Karl Menninger worried about Wexler’s approach being used by parents as a justification to punish misbehaving children.

In recounting her father’s “therapeutic” system, which Alice Wexler refers to throughout the book as “the slap,” she recognizes both the troubling nature of her father’s approach as well as his difficulty in keeping his story straight. Sifting through his research archives, notebooks, and memoir drafts, Alice explains that in one manuscript, Milton described his approach with Nedda as follows: “I slapped her hard, sometimes very hard.” But the clause had been crossed out with a pen and replaced with something more euphemistic: “I fulfilled my promise to use force with force.” The latter version is what was published for academic audiences. In Milton Wexler’s memoir, A Look Through the Rearview Mirror, which Alice and her sister Nancy helped him self-publish in 2002, a few years before his death, the story again goes a little differently: Rather than fulfilling a promise, Wexler writes, he lost his temper and hit Nedda by accident. When she responded positively, he adds, he decided he might try it again.

Alice spends the entirety of an early chapter of The Analyst attempting to unscramble her father’s shifting narrative, and she concludes that “the slap” was premeditated—the violence was hardly accidental, as he later tried to say. But she also contends with her own cognitive dissonance, asserting that she doesn’t remember Milton as violent: “He never slapped us, as far as I can recall. I never saw him use physical force against our mother or any other woman. But there were his words, acknowledging that he had slapped, repeatedly, his female patient.” She admits that learning about him in this way is “distressing.”

While Wexler’s colleagues questioned his methods, the skepticism was not enough to revoke his credentials or damage his reputation in the outside world. He was still considered an expert on schizophrenia when he moved to Hollywood, which is why he was called in for help when the abstract painter John Altoon suffered a psychotic break. (According to some accounts, at the time he was seen running naked in graveyards and destroying paintings on gallery walls on La Cienega.) Over the course of their weekly meetings, Wexler was able to help Altoon, adding to his reputation as a therapist and earning him a new Rolodex of clients. Wexler soon became an art-world regular, forming a free therapy group for creatives, exhibiting his own drawings in a show of Altoon’s, and sometimes accepting artworks as a form of payment for therapy sessions.

Wexler divorced Alice’s mother in the early 1960s after much unhappiness, thereby commencing what he called in one letter to his brother—also an analyst—his “Big Freedom.” He traveled through Europe, where he had flings with young women; he reflected on his successes and regrets; he explored interests like architecture and screenwriting; and he started a short-lived arts foundation with a council of notable writers like Susan Sontag and Ray Bradbury. While he was never willing to give up analysis, by the mid-1960s he had stopped focusing on schizophrenia and started seeing patients with simpler problems—mostly “highly privileged white people with a great deal of freedom in their lives.” In 1968, he began laying the groundwork for a more successful organization, the Hereditary Disease Foundation. The organization, which Alice’s sister, Nancy, would eventually take over, began as an open discussion forum for scientists, a format that he borrowed from group therapy.

During Milton’s period of wanderlust, Alice started college and got to know her father for the first time as an adult. She became very close with him, partly motivated by the stress of her mother’s declining health. Milton was not a distant father, however physically apart he may have been: He was supportive and seemingly vulnerable in his letters, opening up to Alice about his post-marriage dalliances and his current mental state. But it wasn’t until later in life—around the time she began research for this book, Alice tells us—that she learned just how much had been going on in her father’s life behind the scenes. It is here, in the gap between Alice’s lived experience and what she can gather from the historical record, that the book finds its animating conflict: Milton Wexler’s often failed attempts to keep his professional, romantic, and family affairs separate from one another.

One of the most prevalent tensions in the Wexler family, which was the subject of Alice’s first memoir, Mapping Fate (1995), is the shadow of a neurological disease called Huntington’s chorea or, today, Huntington’s disease. It’s hereditary, which made it a locus of shame for the families that carried it as well as a target for eugenicists—which in the mid-20th century included many doctors. The disease ran on her mother’s side of the family, but due to the stigma, Alice’s mother did not disclose this to Milton when they married in 1936, fearing that he might reject her if he knew she was a carrier. Eventually, Alice’s uncles were diagnosed with the disease, and the fear that it might develop in other family members consumed her parents with anxiety.

It’s while discussing this familial friction that Alice reveals to the reader that her father had begun an affair with another analyst named Maryline. She contends that Milton’s decision to leave the Menninger Foundation for a more lucrative job in Los Angeles, in order to support her mother’s dying brother, was partly connected to his guilt over this infidelity. Upon reflection years later, Alice tells us, her father admitted that he believed “right from scratch that Maryline was far more of a woman to my liking than Mother.” Milton revealed the affair only after initiating a divorce with Alice’s mother, but he had already integrated Maryline into the Wexler family—not as a mistress, but as a close friend who tagged along on summer vacations.

These episodes from Milton Wexler’s life reveal a man who was curt, deceptively conservative, and reckless in most of his relationships—therapeutic and familial alike. In one of The Analyst’s final chapters, Alice, then in her 50s, sits down at a restaurant with her dad and tells him that she thinks she might be gay. “I still recall my father’s sorrowful look,” she remembers. Turning back to the archives, we see his views more flatly: “Some of his early lectures described trying to encourage heterosexuality in his male patients,” Alice reports. Milton Wexler was also an elitist, comparing Alice with those whom he considered “the best” in her field of history and flouting rules against “dual relationships” with patients—“rules made for ‘social workers.’” But reading Alice’s illustrative and often fond memories of her father, it’s hard to come to a definitive judgment of his character.

It was after Alice’s mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s, from which she would later die, that Milton began researching the disease and started what would become the Hereditary Disease Foundation. By this point, he had long since fallen out of love with her. Nonetheless, he was committed to finding an answer to the life-shattering illness—for the betterment of the afflicted, but also for his daughters, who were at high risk of contracting the disease. Elsewhere, Alice reproduces Milton’s lyrical, almost sermonic letters, which offer sage advice on risk-taking, sorrow, and aspiration: “I think most of us feel pretty much alone. It is damnably hard to be understood by another,” he writes to Alice when she goes through a breakup. After their initial conversation about her sexuality, Alice tells us, her father seemed to reserve judgment, signaling support for her in his own way. When Milton died in 2007, Alice grieved “his unconditional love, which I had never doubted no matter how fierce our arguments.”

There is writer and subject, analyst and analysand. But what happens when the analyst becomes the subject? Within the confines of this book, Milton Wexler reflects a great deal on himself, but also on his relationship with his daughter, turning the tables and causing us to momentarily forget which one is dissecting the other. “I guess it isn’t too far from the truth that we often tend to worry each other and for no real causes but because of some fantasies we hold about each other,” he observes to Alice in a letter while she’s living in Caracas.

Near the end of The Analyst, Alice tells us that she began writing a more traditional biography of her father nearly 40 years earlier, in 1969, but never brought the project to fruition despite his eager participation (he recorded conversations with loved ones and gave her access to his personal ephemera). It’s not clear why the initial book faltered; perhaps it was too hard for Alice to publish something while her father was still alive. But in many ways, it makes sense, for The Analyst—billed not as a biography but as “a daughter’s memoir”—offers something much closer to reconciliation and forgiveness.

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