A Forgotten Freudian: The Passion of Karl Stern, by Daniel Burston

The Pillar of Fire: Psychoanalysis and Religion


Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been interested in the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion, delving deeply into the competing perspectives of Freud and Jung, and later, of Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson, and R.D. Laing. Between 1986 and 1999, I published two books and many papers that deal with these issues, and in July of 2000, found myself at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA, researching Erik Erikson and the American Psyche: Ego, Ethics and Evolution. Being Jewish myself, I was interested in exploring Erikson’s sense of dual religious identity, as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously, and in assessing the extent of the damage done by the personal and professional crisis that enveloped Erikson when his near-conversion and ultimate refusal to repudiate either faith came to the attention of his (mostly Jewish) critics in the 1970s.

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Karl Stern (1906-1975)

Contrary to what a former teacher, the late Paul Roazen said, I eventually concluded that Erikson’s spiritual migration away from Judaism and toward Christianity was not an act of cowardice or betrayal, but a decision rooted in the circumstances of his birth and upbringing; that despite the appearance of “going along to get along”, he had chosen a difficult path, and been abused and misinterpreted by many of his critics.

Meanwhile, while rummaging around the Riggs’ library, I stumbled across Karl Stern’s book The Third Revolution (1954). Being Canadian, and having some knowledge of Canadian psychiatry, I knew that Stern, like Erikson, was a German Jew who fled the Nazi menace in the thirties – though unlike Erikson, who settled in the USA, Stern settled in Montreal, where after a long internal struggle lasting a decade or more, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1943.

He also taught at McGill University, practiced as a psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist, and appeared fairly regularly on CBC radio and television during the 1960s.  I also knew that Freud and his followers regarded any Jew’s decision to convert to Christianity as clear evidence of rank opportunism or of unresolved neurotic conflicts, but that this convert was already Freudian of sorts, who recommended that Catholics should study Freud’s work with care and respect, and lectured Catholic audiences frequently on the evils of anti-Semitism. I was intrigued! As I worked my way through The Third Revolution, it dawned on me that there might be some fruitful and illuminating parallels between Erikson and Stern, and resolved to read the rest of Stern’s books, including The Pillar of Fire (1951), The Flight from Woman (1965), Love and Success (1975), and his novel Through Dooms of Love (1960).

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Then, through a series of fortunate coincidences, around 2004 I met Stern’s grandson Philip, his grand-daughter Eva-Marie, and in due course, their mother Lilian, Stern’s daughter-in law. A year or so later, in the summer of 2006, I met Stern’s daughter, Katherine Skorzewska, her husband Olaf Skorzewski and many of their children, and got a peek at the large (but rather chaotic) collection of correspondence, rough drafts, notes, diaries, photos, reviews, testimonials and memorabilia that dwelt in a ramshackle assembly of large cardboard boxes in a corner of Katherine’s dining room; the same items that now comprise the Karl Stern Archive at the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center at Duquesne University’s Gumberg Library.

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Items in the Karl Stern Archive included letters from C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, and Carl Jung

What a discovery that was! Here were letters to and from Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Claire Boothe Luce and many of the leading Catholic intellectuals of the day; from non-Catholic Christian authors like C.S.Lewis, Rheinhold Neibuhr, novelist Graham Greene, poet Robert Lowell and a long letter (brimming with thanks and good wishes) from C.G.Jung; letters from fellow converts from Judaism who thanked Stern effusively for illuminating their own path to Christ, and from Jewish critics who roundly denounced the things he said in The Pillar of Fire, and were disgusted by his decision to convert in the midst of the Holocaust.

They were certainly not alone. While angry Jewish readers wrote Stern from the USA and Canada, Montreal’s Jewish community shunned Stern completely for the remainder of his life. But oddly enough, letters from his own family members – cousins, uncles, aunts and above all, his own brother Ludwig, later Shimon – were generally quite kind and, in the end, accepting of his decision to convert.

Here I should mention that Stern’s younger brother was a Labor Zionist and a kibbutznik, and that I myself was raised in a Labor Zionist household by two former kibbutniks who shared Ludwig Stern’s socialist values and perspectives. That being so, I read the final chapter of Stern’s memoir, The Pillar of Fire, entitled “Letter to My Brother”, with deep fascination and, I admit, certain feelings of horror and revulsion.

After all, having studied the circumstances of his upbringing, and the environment in which he came of age, I could understand and accept Stern’s decision to convert to Christianity without reproach – albeit also without embracing his theological frame of reference, or ignoring the elements of self-deception that colored his decision. But even so, I could not accept Stern’s vigorous attempts to proselytize, and to convert other Jews away from their ancestral faith.

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Ludwig Stern. “Karl’s relationship with his brother remained intact, despite the controversy that raged around Karl’s book”

Knowing that the Vatican had since renounced its historic mission to convert the Jews, and that it still experiences considerable “push-back” on this score from conservative quarters, I wondered how this lengthy (and very public) exhortation to embrace Jesus in The Pillar of Fire affected his relationship to his younger brother Ludwig. After all, the chapter that was ostensibly addressed to Ludwig evoked consternation, feelings of betrayal, and scathing denunciations from the vast majority of Stern’s Jewish readers. But as their correspondence attests, Karl’s relationship with his brother remained intact. Their affection and admiration for one another clearly survived Karl’s conversion, and contact between their two families flourished, despite the controversy that raged around Karl’s book; a remarkable state of affairs, given the temper of the times.

In any case, if I harbored any doubts about whether or not to write a biography of Stern, an all but forgotten figure – even in Canada, his adoptive home – they were dispelled after glimpsing these letters. What a story they told! I resolved to get them back to Pittsburgh, where I could study them closely, and archive them for posterity.

Before doing so, however, I also contacted, interviewed and/or corresponded with several psychiatrists who had trained with Stern, including the late Dr. Maurice Dongier and the late Dr. Noel Walsh, who were especially helpful in clarifying the relationship between Stern and his erstwhile employer, Ewan Cameron, at the Allan memorial Institute. And I profited greatly from conversation and correspondence with Professor Sherry Simon (Concordia University), Professor Robert Schwartzwald (The University of Montreal) and Professor Frank Stahnisch (University of Calgary), who despite the deepening obscurity into which he had fallen, had written splendid papers about Stern’s social, intellectual and religious milieu.

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Karl Stern at the piano, Montreal

Another invaluable interlocutor in this undertaking was Professor Gregory Baum (McGill University), whose writings on social justice, religious pluralism and inter-religious dialogue are a beacon of sanity and hope in a world torn to shreds by neoliberal social policies and deepening religious intolerance. I approached Professor Baum because of his long involvement with Therafields, a now defunct therapeutic community with a large Catholic constituency which, during the 1970’s, provided low cost psychodynamic psychotherapy to the general public in Toronto.

As I soon discovered, Baum met Stern on at least two occasions – once at the Second Vatican Council, where Baum served as a peritus, or Papal advisor, and a decade or so later, in Canada, when they discussed the theological dimensions and ramifications of the psychotherapeutic dialogue. Owing to Stern’s conservative theological views, they disagreed profoundly on both occasions, but thanks to my discussions with Baum, I learned a great deal about Catholic culture and Catholic teaching, and Baum has since been moved to reflect anew on the place of Stern in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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Playful Stern: photo from A Forgotten Freudian: The Passion of Karl Stern

In any case, after all these years of reading, reflection and research, it is a great pleasure to see this book finally appear in print, and I thank all of those who helped me on this journey. Here’s hoping it will provide some insight and instruction for future generations who are inclined to ponder the complex and evolving relationships between psychoanalysis and religion, and between Judaism and Christianity.

Daniel Burston is an Associate Professor and former chair of the Psychology Department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He was raised and educated in Toronto, Canada, and is married with two children. He is the author of numerous books and journal articles on the history of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, including The Legacy of Erich FrommThe Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D.Laing, and Erik Erikson and the American Psyche: Ego, Ethics and Evolution. His latest book, A Forgotten Freudian: The Passion of Karl Stern, has just been published by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

37372‘Karl Stern (1906-1975) was a complicated and fascinating figure, resurrected here from near invisibility by Daniel Burston’s meticulous biography. Stern, a “Hebrew Catholic” born and educated in Germany, came to practice psychiatry in Canada in 1939, where he also displayed his talents as a best-selling non-fiction author, novelist, and skilled musician. Stern, like his cohort of Jewish converts, offers scholars of religion and the social sciences a study of hybrid identity, parental conflict, friendship, loss, religious conversion, and psychoanalytic debates, set against the backdrop of the signal movements and events of the twentieth century. Stern’s friendships and correspondence with prominent Catholics of the era, including Dorothy Day, Graham Greene, Gabriel Marcel, and Jacques Maritain are well-served in Burston’s perceptive treatment.’
Paula Kane, Professor of Religious Studies and Marous Chair of Contemporary Catholic Studies, University of Pittsburgh

‘With his characteristic eloquence and subtlety of analysis, Daniel Burston describes the rise, struggles, and remarkable accomplishments of Karl Stern, a key figure of mid-twentieth-century psychoanalysis who deserves to be remembered for his central contributions to the understanding of culture and the psyche. Burston’s gripping account sheds welcome new light on the history of both psychiatry and psychoanalysis. A fine, heartfelt, moving work of intellectual biography and cultural history.’
Louis Sass, author of Madness and Modernism and The Paradoxes of Delusion

‘Drawing on Duquesne University’s rich archive of published and unpublished fictional and epistolary material, Daniel Burston has written a compelling account of Karl Stern’s personal and professional life. This biography traces his journey from Germany to Canada, from neurology to psychoanalysis, from troubled Judaism to committed Catholicism. Stern’s spiritual experience is given particular attention and contextualized geographically, historically, and philosophically as he struggled to resolve the tensions between science and religion, between his European Jewish roots and his particular understanding of Catholicism in the post-World War II world. Burston pays a worthy tribute to this forgotten Freudian.’
Dr Caroline Zilboorg, Life Member, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge

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