The Life of Franz Alexander: Pioneer of Psychosomatic Medicine

Professor Brett Kahr interviews Ilonka Venier Alexander, the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud’s pupil Franz Alexander, exclusively for Karnacology


Franz Gabriel Alexander (1891-1964), the noted psychoanalyst, has earned a place in history as the very first person to graduate formally from a psychoanalytical institute.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Alexander became a pioneer of psychoanalytical studies of characterology and, subsequently, of criminology and, also, of new directions in psychotherapeutic technique.  He will perhaps best be remembered as one of the undisputed founders of psychosomatic medicine. His granddaughter, Ilonka Venier Alexander, a psychotherapist, has recently written a deeply moving memoir of her remarkable grandfather.  Psychoanalytical historian Brett Kahr interviewed Ilonka Alexander to coincide with the publication of her book The Life and Times of Franz Alexander: From Budapest to California, which appears in the Karnac Books “History of Psychoanalysis Series”.

BRETT KAHR: Greetings, Ilonka.  I must confess that I am a little bit nervous speaking to you.  Your grandfather, Dr. Franz Alexander, ranks as one of the most influential men in the history of psychoanalysis, and I have admired his many contributions since my days as an undergraduate.  I have come to regard your grandfather as quite a genius:  the father of psychosomatic medicine, the father of brief psychoanalytical psychotherapy, the creator of evidence-based psychoanalysis, and so much more.  But I know that many younger people may never have heard about Franz Alexander.  Please do tell us about your grandfather, if you would, and about what had prompted you to write this wonderful new book.

ILONKA VENIER ALEXANDER: It is just over fifty years since my grandfather died.  Many of his ideas, thought to be controversial at the time, and leading to what some call a crisis in psychoanalysis, are now commonplace.  Though as you say, few people know their genesis.  I had thought of writing a biography for many years and was first urged to do so by my long-time friend, Dr. Jane Matson, for whom I worked in university.  It was not until I came to meet previously unknown family members and learned more about my family history that I thought the time was right.  In many things – the important things in life – timing is crucial.

BK: Thank you.  Might we begin with some basic pieces of biography?  Perhaps you would not mind describing your grandfather’s physical appearance.  What do you remember about him?

BIG PAPA-Franz Gabriel Alexander

“Big Papa” – Franz Gabriel Alexander

IVA: First of all, I called him “Big Papa”.  He was, to my young mind, a larger than life person.  He was dark-haired with twinkling brown eyes, although in his later years, I knew him as a more grey-haired man.  He was a man whose build was described as akin to that of Babe Ruth, the famous American baseball player.  He was not out of shape, and he enjoyed sports.  He played tennis, and he golfed, swam, and skied.  He had boundless energy.  And he was also a sun-worshipper.

BK: I must say that I rather like the nickname of “Big Papa”.

IVA: Yes, family lore has it that I could not say “grandfather” when I started speaking.  Thus, the marriage of “Papa” – the European word instead of the American word “Daddy” – and “Big” to identify him as more important.

BK: I had always thought of your grandfather as a large and substantial person, and I suspected that only a very big man would have had the bravery and the courage to make so many important contributions to the new science of psychoanalysis.  Tell us, please, how your Big Papa had first come to meet Sigmund Freud.  He knew Freud quite well, I believe.

IVA: When my grandfather was in medical school in Budapest, he worked in a laboratory and described himself as a lab rat.  His father – a philosopher – had preferred him to study the classics and was not too happy that he was studying medicine, and gave him a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  And both father and son thought the ideas contained therein were nonsense.  My grandfather Franz Alexander’s interests at that time were still mainly biological (in fact he is responsible for the beginning dialogue in medicine about the mind-body connection).  World War I occurred and my grandfather returned to his native Budapest and he began working in a mental health clinic and hospital.  His interests were now more focused away from pure biology and he began to think that some of Freud’s concepts might help with his patients.  He started attending the local psychoanalytical meetings and made a commitment to train formally in Berlin.  While in Berlin, his relationship with Freud grew and he visited the Professor in Vienna frequently.

BK: Your grandfather wrote a little bit about his relationship with Freud in his autobiography, The Western Mind in Transition: An Eyewitness Story, and he spoke more extensively about this to Dr. Kurt Eissler, who interviewed him for the Sigmund Freud Archives.  But do you remember your “Big Papa” ever speaking to you about Freud directly?

IVA: No.  He never spoke to me about Freud.  He was just astonished that at the age of twelve years or so I did not recognise a portrait of Freud hanging in his office.  I was, remember, only nineteen years of age when my grandfather died.  Incidentally, that portrait of Freud was painted by grandmother, who was an artist of some note.  It hangs in the library of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Society (now the Alexander-Simmel Library at the New Center for Psychoanalysis).  They named the library after my grandfather, not Freud.

BK: I understand that you do not have any unpublished Freud stories.  But I thought this too good an opportunity to miss.  It would be a great sadness to myself and to other Freud historians not to preserve each important anecdote.

IVA: Of course.

BK: Did your grandfather ever explain to you about how the psychoanalytical process works?  You became a mental health practitioner yourself, and in your memoir, you reminisce about patients walking in and out of the Alexander family house.


Ilonka’s parents, Dr. George Rotariu and Silvia Alexander, Chicago

IVA: Yes, I do recall that he had many celebrities come to the house for treatment.  But even as a preteen I knew that his work was important and that he was a leader in the field.  This was when he was still in Chicago.  I had only a vague understanding of psychoanalysis at that time.  As my knowledge of psychoanalysis increased, I was able to visit him at Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.  By then I was in my mid- to late-teenage years.  He often showed me around his office, with his two-way-mirror used for observations of patient interviews, and he spoke a bit about his research.

BK: Presumably he used two-way mirrors only in his research work and not, I suspect, in his ordinary, daily clinical psychoanalytical sessions?

IVA: Yes.

BK: When did you first start to learn about your grandfather’s scientific work?  His clinical work?  Did you read his books and papers as a teenager, or did that come later?

IVA: I first learned of his work after he had come to Los Angeles.  I knew that he was studying the relationship between analyst and analysand and how that contributed to success in analysis.  I also knew that he had a cadre of scientists and other clinicians working for him.  I read some of his books as a teen, after he had died.  I was obsessed with learning more and more about him.  The loss to me was nearly catastrophic.  I wanted to feel connected to him in any way that I could.

BK: I quite understand.

IVA: Two of his colleagues, Sheldon Selesnick and Glenn Flagg, were family friends and came to the house often.  I learned more about him from them as well.  Also, Hedda Bolgar, another psychoanalyst, told me about him.  She was a psychologist who had been accepted for training in Chicago, before “that was allowed”.

BK: In other words, before psychologists had received more widespread permission to train under the auspices of the American Psychoanalytic Association, an organisation long dominated by physicians.


Happy Days: Ilonka aged 6, wearing her favourite “Hoppy outfit”, with her mother and half sister

IVA: Yes.  It may seem a contradiction, his wanting psychoanalysis to be part of a medical school but also wanting non-physicians to be analysts.  However, I think he believed so much in the mind-body connection and that is why he was so keen to get psychoanalysis recognised by medical schools.

BK:  You mentioned the many celebrity patients who came to the house for sessions.  By the time your grandfather had moved to California in old age, he had already become an internationally renowned psychoanalyst of long-standing.  But he had to overcome many obstacles and had to work very hard to forge his career.  He holds the distinction of being the very first man to graduate – ever – from a psychoanalytical training institute.  Did people think him mad to train in psychoanalysis in the early 1920s?  After all, most people at that time regarded psychoanalysis as a perverse discipline and as a “Jewish” science.

IVA: I think the one who thought him the most mad would have been his father, Bernat Alexander.  But in spite of parental disapproval, Big Papa was very proud to say that he was the first formally trained analyst in the world.  He held that distinction with honour.  He modelled the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago after the one in Berlin and he thought carefully about how best to train new analysts.  He had a creative and open mind and that may be one of his best attributes.

BK: So your grandfather trained in Berlin.  And he underwent a training analysis with Freud’s disciple Hanns Sachs?  Do we know much about that experience?

IVA: The analysis was not as we think of it today.  It was an informal relationship and one that was quite short by our current standards.  It lasted less than three months.  It ended when my grandfather spoke of a transference-type dream and Sachs said he was cured.  Of course, he was not ill.  He and Sachs walked around the gardens near the psychoanalytical institute in Berlin.

BK: I find it striking to think of Hanns Sachs and your grandfather walking through the gardens while having analysis.  Freud practiced a similar version of “treatment” with Max Eitingon in Vienna.  We have all become exceptionally sedentary nowadays, spending hours and hours sitting and sitting and sitting.  I sometimes worry that psychoanalytical practitioners forget about the body.  But your grandfather did not.  Tell us something about how he pioneered the field of psychosomatic medicine and elucidated the mind-body relationship.

IVA:  First of all, let me say that my grandfather’s positive relationship with his analyst – a non-medical man – stirred in him the important belief that psychoanalytical training should not be offered only to physicians.  After all, Freud believed this to be the case.

BK: I think that, nowadays, the majority of practitioners do not come from medical backgrounds at all.

IVA: Quite so.

BK: But let us speak about psychosomatic medicine.

IVA: I think Big Papa’s fascination with the interaction between mind and body, and the resultant field of psychosomatic medicine, sprang from his early training with the psychologist Géza Révész, who eventually became his brother-in-law.  Géza’s work was instrumental in my grandfather’s progression from being a basic scientist to becoming a psychoanalyst with ties to the body.  I think that my grandfather meshed those two important worlds in a new way, creating innovative theories that were basic to his thinking.  It is now commonplace to discuss how these two systems interact and are interdependent, but in 1930, if one discussed psychoanalysis in relation to headaches and asthma, this was quite shocking to many.  Franz Alexander expanded on these ideas in his early work in Chicago, and he authored many publications, and formed the first professional body on psychosomatics, which still exists today.

41YpNe9XrIL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_BK: I believe that your grandfather helped to found the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, in 1939, and then served as one of the first presidents of the American Society for Research in Psychosomatic Problems, which now flourishes as the American Psychosomatic Society.

IVA: That is correct.

BK: As I have come to understand it, your grandfather worked hard by examining many different types of patients with psychosomatic symptoms (e.g., those with bronchial asthma, hypertension, and so forth), and he attempted to identify unconscious phantasy constellations that might underpin these symptoms, often linked to repressed aggression and rage.  Personally, I think that this is a very brilliant strategy and I have certainly used his ideas in my own work with patients, quite successfully, I must confess.  But many people have come to criticise your grandfather’s approach as being too “linear”, too “simplistic”.  Is this a very unfair reaction?

IVA: It is interesting that you use the terms “linear” and “simplistic” as these are used also to describe his theory of the “corrective emotional experience”.  I think the criticism is unfair, and I think his genius, his creativity in his work, was not truly appreciated by those in his time.  I think that his ideas were ahead of his time and many did not “get it”.  There is a theory, known as Occam’s razor, that says most times the best answer is the simplest one.  Certainly, a simple answer is not a simplistic one.  It may have been obvious to him, the unconscious origins of symptoms in psychosomatic patients, but I believe that the term “simplistic” represents a misunderstanding.

BK: I find your response very helpful.  Not long ago, one of my patients came to a session with a feeling of a lump in her throat.  The patient had already had numerous very costly, very time-consuming, and very anxiety-provoking medical examinations, including scans, which revealed nothing of concern.  I explained to the patient that I applauded her decision to seek appropriate medical investigations but I also wondered whether the feeling of a lump in the throat represented something very angry that could not easily be put into words.  The patient then started to speak with profound rage about a certain family member and then felt a great sense of relief afterwards.  Two days later, the patient returned for another session, and she told me that the lump had disappeared entirely.  Does this remind you of your grandfather’s approach to psychosomatics?

IVA: Yes, absolutely.  And others have followed suit, including a colleague, Herman Borenszweig, at the University of Southern California, who worked as a professor of social work and as a Jungian analyst in the early 1980s.  He also worked in this way.  As an aside, my grandfather was charismatic, successful, larger than life, brilliant, and iconoclastic.  Perhaps colleagues had some jealousy towards him, and that may have contributed to their descriptions of his work as simplistic.  Perhaps these comments are really reflections of their own weak ego state.

BK: I can imagine that this might sometimes well be the case.  On the subject of psychosomatics, your grandfather not only put forward bold theories about aetiology but, also, he tested them carefully and empirically.  He undertook large-scale research projects with colleagues – a complete novelty within psychoanalysis during the 1930s – and he even obtained funding from various medical charities and from other philanthropic bodies.  Your grandfather must have been very determined and quite inspiring to have assembled a large team and to have made successful applications to organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation.


Big Papa and his “adoring grandchild”, Ilonka Venier Alexander

IVA: He was happiest in the middle of a lot of people, garnering admiration and attention.  He believed in the importance of empirical data to substantiate the value of his work.  His lifelong goal was to have psychoanalysis considered a legitimate science and to have it positioned at a medical school.  Perhaps this was a result of his initial bad reception at the University of Chicago Medical School.  His grants were noteworthy for their big sums of money and for the belief that people had in his work.  He was one of a kind.  This evaluation comes, of course, from an adoring grandchild.

BK: As a psychosomatic researcher, your grandfather surrounded himself with some very skilled colleagues, especially during his period in Chicago.  I am thinking, in particular, of Thomas French and, also, of his fellow Hungarian colleague Therese Benedek.  Did you know either of these collaborators, each a distinguished psychoanalyst in his and her own right?

IVA: No, I did not know Thomas French.  I think I met Therese Benedek at some point.  I was friendly with May Romm, another colleague, in Los Angeles.  And I became friendly after my grandfather’s death with Dick Grinker.  He is the son of Roy Richard Grinker.  They are all analysts.  The Grinkers were friendly with my mother and aunt, as all the children of analysts would attend the same parties.  All in Chicago.

BK: So, we have spoken about your grandfather’s contribution to psychosomatic medicine.  He also made a number of very important contributions to the study of psychoanalytical practice.  What can you tell us about this aspect of his work?

IVA: His contributions to psychoanalytical practice must include short-term psychoanalysis.  He was committed to observational research and shorter-length treatment which allowed for the empirical testing that he craved.  The patients who most benefited from short-term treatment were those who could more easily and more quickly engage and who could benefit from a specific therapeutic focus.  These patients were the most healthy to begin with and had the least need for therapy.  Additionally, they were the least resistant to therapy, forming an alliance with the analyst, and therefore better able to change.

BK: Did your grandfather’s willingness to embrace time-limited therapy or short-term therapy meet with resistance from professional colleagues?

IVA: Yes, indeed, his short-term or time-limited concept for therapy did meet with resistance.  Some colleagues were almost comical in their criticism, such as Kurt Eissler, who wrote critically when Alexander’s book with Thomas French appeared in the late 1940s.

10380BK: I presume that you might be referring to their book Psychoanalytic Therapy: Principles and Application, published in 1946, and co-authored with several other Chicago colleagues.

IVA: Yes.  That’s right.  Some said that my grandfather was not really interested in the patient coming fewer times weekly because of therapeutic reasons and was only interested in lessening his patient load in the summer months so that he could travel.  I find this offensive and most assuredly to be untrue.  His most important message to me, and to all who knew him, was of independence and of self-sufficiency.  I am confident that those ideals underscored his treatment decisions at all times.  His theories on short-term treatment were part of the dissident undertones in Chicago, prior to his leaving for California.  The other idea which caused the staff to take sides was his commitment to change in the training of analysts.  He wanted to continue to embrace Freud but with some changes.  Many of those on staff were staunch Freudians and could not go along with him.  He felt betrayed.

BK: It must have been galling to your grandfather to have been told that he was not a proper Freudian when he had, in fact, a close relationship with Sigmund Freud himself, and had even treated Freud’s middle son Oliver Freud.  And, if I am not mistaken, Anna Freud became the godmother to your aunt Francesca Alexander.  How did your grandfather manage the experience of resentment and of being misunderstood and considered – erroneously – as a non-Freudian?

IVA: It was a bittersweet ending for him in Chicago, certainly not what he had anticipated.  He was hurt and confused.  He may have discussed it more with his colleagues, but not with anyone within the family.  He was not one to talk about his feelings but from his outer appearance one could tell.  He sort of put it behind him and moved on, further west, to new horizons – literally – and to new tasks.  He returned to Chicago from time to time, received a warm welcome, and missed his former home of such long-standing.  He jokingly said that he went to California because the weather was nicer, but in some ways, he was pushed out of Chicago.  He was a man of principles, and when his staff all but abandoned him, he felt he had no recourse but to leave.

BK: It seems to be the lot of the pioneer to endure all sorts of resistances.  Freud had to put up with this in spades, of course.

IVA: Indeed.

BK: Also, can you tell us something about his controversial concept of the “corrective emotional experience”?  I think that many people caricature this notion.  It would be very helpful to have your understanding of the matter.

IVA: The “corrective emotional experience” has become almost common parlance and is misunderstood by many.  At least I think so.  The definition put forward by Alexander and French is that the purpose of psychotherapy is to re-expose the patient, under more favourable circumstances, to emotional situations which the patient could not handle in the past.  The patient, in order to be helped, must undergo a corrective emotional experience suitable to repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences.  My grandfather believed that change was possible and most likely occurred as a result of the genuine relationship between the therapist and the patient.  In fact, that relationship was in itself the corrective emotional experience.  When he went to Los Angeles, his research was to further look at this relationship.  He believed that intellectual insight without emotional experience was of little value.  One of my favourite quotes from him, from 1960, is, “We now feel we can cure the patient without his fully understanding what made him sick.  We are no longer interested in peeling the onion as in changing it”.

BK: Tell me, in addition to being a consummate researcher and writer, your grandfather made important political and administrative contributions as Director of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago and as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association.  Do you think he succeeded as an administrator?  And did he have a private secretary to help him with the mountain of correspondence?  I wonder how you would rate his achievements as a “politician” of psychoanalysis?

IVA: Yes, of course, he always had a private secretary.  He had the unique experience of being both a student and a teacher in Berlin which provided him with that dual perspective.  When Alfred K. Stern, a philanthropist from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, offered him the opportunity to open the institute in Chicago, they both agreed that it must be modelled after the institute in Berlin.  However, there were some changes as well and these came after my grandfather had spent some time in the United States and had learned of the differences between Europe and America.  He made the institute an important part of the Chicago medical community.  He introduced a course on psychoanalysis to the physicians.  Some had an interest in psychosomatics as well.  In contrast to the dissent from the medical school when he was a Visiting Professor in 1930, once the doors of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis opened later on, there was no animosity shown from the same group.  Additionally, the Chicago Institute reached out to the public with lectures, brochures, educational offerings, and annual reports.  He was completely transparent in his business of running the institute and the first to insist that lay people serve on the board.

BK: Quite progressive, I suspect.

IVA: This is so commonplace now that we don’t even consider it may have been revolutionary at one time.  Any mystery or fear about psychoanalysis was thus dispelled.  The most important administrative achievement, however, was his insistence that Chicago have a research component to its programme.  For many of his twenty-five or so years there he believed in change and he felt the need to move on from the status quo.  He was a man of unparalleled energy and ideas.  He was prolific in his writing, his lectures, and he carried a big patient load.  Sheldon Selesnick – a psychoanalytical colleague – said, after Big Papa died, that, “he made students of us all”.

BK: Franz Alexander wrote so much … and most of it in English, rather than in Hungarian or in German.  How did he master the English language?  Did he speak with a thick Hungarian accent?  Did he struggle to write in English or did it come naturally?


“Big Mama, Kiki and Mama” – Ilonka’s grandmother with her daughters, Silvia and Kiki

IVA:  My grandfather grew up in an upper middle class intellectual family.  A family in which, surprisingly, money was never discussed.  I say surprisingly, as he did earn vast sums of money in his life.  But his pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was considered the most important goal.  My grandfather spoke Hungarian, German, English, Italian and, also, French.  Of course, he had an accent but nobody ever failed to understand him.  He was concerned about my own foreign language education and he insisted that during the summer months instead of going to the beach and wasting time that I should instead study another language.  My mother and my aunt told me that the family spoke only German at home but by the time I came into the family, it was only English.  I do not believe that he struggled with any language.  He was brilliant, had a good ear, and was determined to do everything well.  Again, this is from the viewpoint of a loving grandchild.

BK: How fascinating.

IVA: My grandmother also spoke many languages and they would swear at each other in Hungarian and Italian.  When they went to the race track they counted their money in their respective first languages.  I was a little girl and was most embarrassed by this.

BK: You mentioned Sheldon Selesnick a short while ago, and this reminds me that in addition to being a clinician, researcher, politician, writer, and so on, your grandfather also became an historian of both psychiatry and psychoanalysis towards the end of his life, and he worked in close collaboration with Dr. Selesnick.  Together they wrote a wonderful textbook on psychiatric history, entitled The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought and Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present; and they also edited a selection of Sigmund Freud’s correspondence with Eugen Bleuler, the great Swiss psychiatrist.  What can you tell us about Franz Alexander the historian?  And what do you remember of Sheldon Selesnick, a much-forgotten historian of psychoanalysis?

historyofpsychiatryIVA: I knew Sheldon very well.  He was one of the staff who was most kind to me as opposed to being nervous around me because my grandfather ran the show.  He often came to the house for dinner and spoke lovingly about my grandfather.  I know that my grandfather’s interests were many and varied.  I know little about his interest in the history of psychiatry, but that book is one that I have read, cover to cover, and more than once.  His use of language and the stories told therein are, indeed, captivating and of such interest to me, a mental health professional.  You may be interested to know that when my mother abandoned me at the age of seventeen, I went to live in a social services home for homeless children.  It was run by the nuns in downtown Los Angeles.  This was in the month of June, right after I had graduated from high school and my mother moved in with her fourth husband in Reno, Nevada.  I took the bus daily to Mount Sinai Hospital and worked for my grandfather, transcribing and typing the manuscript you mention about the history of psychiatry.  My grandfather paid me $5.00 per hour which I am sure was quite a substantial sum for 1962.  I worked there for a month or so and then found myself living with my aunt with whom I had only a superficial relationship as she had only just moved to California from Chicago.  I am sure that my grandfather was concerned about his stature in the hospital and would be upset to have others learn his grandchild was living in such an odd place, a home for homeless children.  I am sure that he intervened and made an offer to my aunt that she could not refuse.  I lived there for three years.

BK: You have begun to speak about your own childhood experiences.  Perhaps we can now begin to discuss your personal journey researching this book.  I wonder how you came to conceive of the idea of writing a biographical memoir of Franz Alexander, and why you chose to do so?

IVA: I was told as a college student that I should write my family’s story.  At that time the story consisted only of a grandchild of Franz Alexander’s who was completely estranged from her mother and aunt as well as from her grandmother.  My grandfather was then dead.  I knew only my own family but did sense they were odd.  When, seven or eight years ago, I came to retire, after having had a career as a clinician and an administrator, a friend suggested that I needed a hobby.  She often felt there were gaps in my life story and that I should start learning more about my grandfather.  When I began to learn more, and began to meet cousins previously kept from me, and learned of their relationships and feelings about my grandfather, it seemed that the timing was now right to start work on a biography.  I knew that there were hundreds of references to him and articles about him, as well as his many books and papers, but there was nothing about his life story and about how his early childhood and family contributed to his choices and thus, to his outstanding career.  I felt that it was important to share his story and also to share the fact that dysfunction occurs everywhere, even where you least expect to find it.  So, in 2009 I made the first contact with a cousin and then met another one in 2010, and more cousins in 2011 and 2012, and then finally, in late 2013, I began to write.

BK: And what happened in those meetings with your newly-discovered cousins?


Reunion in La Jolla, California in the summer of 2011

IVA: In the book I tell a bit about meeting such extraordinary people – these cousins – many of who survived the Holocaust and who knew my grandfather well.  I organised a coming together reunion in California and another one in Europe for those who could not come to America.  It was after these meaningful experiences that I cemented in my mind how I wanted the book to unfold.  David Terman, the Chicago psychoanalyst, was so kind and said that it would helpful for everyone to know a bit about Franz Alexander’s family, as my grandfather never spoke about it.

BK: You are very generous to have shared your family story with us.  Would you mind telling us more about your encounters with your long-lost cousins?  How did you find them?  How did you conduct your research?  And what did you discover?


Ilonka meets her cousin Judith Laquer-Révész, aged ninety-five

IVA: I was lucky to start searching with the benefit of the Internet.  I found an article about Magda Révész-Alexander who was my grandfather’s older sister.  I also found an article about her husband Dr. Géza Révész.  At the end of the article was the name of the author, an academician in Budapest, as well as an e-mail address.  I wrote to him and he immediately answered and told me that Magda’s daughter, Judith Laquer-Révész, was helpful in the writing of the article and that she was still alive, at the age of ninety-five, and living in Italy.  He gave me her address and I wrote to her.  In about a week I received a phone call from her.  We spoke for nearly an hour and it was as if I had known her my whole life.  Of course there was the familiar Hungarian accent and the proper pronunciation of my Hungarian name:  Ilonka, with an emphasis on the first syllable rather than Ilonka.  I felt at home.  She told me that she had always wondered where I was and that other family members, who I knew nothing of, had always been searching for me.  It was the most astounding moment of my life.  I thought I had no relatives.  I was raised as an only child.  I always felt isolated and separate.  I am getting choked up even as I tell you this now.  A week later the phone rang and my husband said, “There is another cousin on the phone for you”.  This time it was Eva who was in Cleveland, Ohio.  We agreed I would come to see her soon.

BK: These are amazing stories.  Deeply moving stories.

Eva & Ilonka

Ilonka and cousin Eva. “I now know the purpose of my life was to bring these disconnected Alexanders and Broesslers together again.”

IVA: When I met my cousins, literally from all over the United States and elsewhere in the world, it was the most wonderful time of my life.  I had never before felt connected to anyone.  I learned that all the members of my family are all a bit anxious, we all love to cook, and we are all a bit obsessional.  It felt comfortable and I felt safe.  I now know the purpose of my life was to bring these disconnected Alexanders (the paternal line) and Broesslers (the maternal line) together again.

BK: How very touching.  As you are publishing this book in the “History of Psychoanalysis Series” for Karnac Books, I am sure that readers will be curious to learn more about your research methodology.

IVA: Through my research – my oral histories – I learned a lot about Big Papa.  Many cousins knew grandfather, and knew him well.  One cousin, Vera, an oceanographer, the daughter of Big Papa’s younger brother Paul, spent many holidays with them in Chicago as a student at the University of Wisconsin.  Her older sister and younger brother knew him as well.  Additionally, Eva and her sister and her parents were written letters of recommendation and support when they came from Europe, after escaping Hitler, to live just outside Chicago.  Every one of my cousins knew my grandfather and none of them knew about me.  How does this happen?  When I visited my cousin Robin, Vera’s brother, he gave me a box of hundreds of old photos.  I have since gone through them and catalogued them for the family.  Vera gave me one of my grandmother’s paintings of La Jolla.  Vera also gave me photographs as did Judith Laqueur-Révész when I visited her in Italy.

LaJolla house‏

La Jolla house‏

BK: Gosh!  What a very special set of experiences.  How very moving to hear about these encounters … finding new family members … how very precious.  And you made an important discovery about a very big secret, namely, the family’s Judaism.  This features hugely in your book.  Can you bear to tell us something about how you came to discover your grandfather’s suppressed Jewish roots?

IVA: I learned of this from my friend Julia who found a photograph of my great-grandfather’s grave on the Internet.  I immediately told her she was wrong and that we were Catholics.  She jokingly said, “You better suck it up princess.  Your family was Jewish”.  During the process of meeting cousins, and of writing to cousins who I still have not yet met, the theme of Judaism is constant and almost obsessional.  Most want to know immediately, “When did you find out your are Jewish?” … “Are you Jewish?”  Some continue to deny their Jewish heritage and speak of the family celebrating Christmas and going to Catholic schools.  This started in the 1800s when my grandfather’s father was sent to a Catholic school in Budapest.  I did know all the names of my grandfather’s siblings but never of one sister, Borbala, until more recently.  She and her descendants are the only ones who continue truly to call themselves Jewish and who continue to practice that religion.  It may be she was too Jewish for my grandfather to acknowledge.  When my great-grandfather lost his university appointment I think it was devastating to the entire family.  It was rooted, to some degree, in his Jewish heritage.  When Hitler came into power and the family had moved to the United States, I believe that fear and paranoia was so strong that the need to continue the ruse was reinforced.  It was a survival technique.  However, when you deny such an important element of your history, you deny yourself.

BK: Yes, you speak about very powerful historical processes impacting upon the daily lives of families.  Many Continental Jewish families of the nineteenth century struggled with similar dynamics of anti-Semitism and with the wish to blend in through baptism, and so forth.

IVA: To this day, some of my Jewish friends refuse to accept that my heritage is Jewish in as much as my mother’s mother was a true Catholic, and Orthodox Jewish law states that the faith is passed on from a Jewish mother.  Even so, I accept wholeheartedly that the family was Jewish and I accept their fears and concerns as well as the need to hide.  It saddens me that the lie continued long after that need was over.  When my aunt married a Jewish man, my grandmother “did not allow” my grandfather to attend the ceremony and so another psychoanalyst gave her away instead.  So sad.

BK: I find myself struggling to form words in response to these incredible revelations.  You undertook the biography as a seemingly straightforward research project and in the process you discovered not only how to write a book but, also, you found an entire family, as well as a hidden family history.  It is quite powerful.  Quite extraordinary.


Bernat Alexander

IVA: Indeed.

BK: When did the family turn from Jews into Catholics?  Did Bernat Alexander – your great-grandfather – identify himself as Jewish?

IVA: I think that Bernat’s parents once stated that they had wanted him to be a rabbi.  So that indicates to me that at least in the early 1800s – he was born in 1850 – the family considered themselves Jewish.  They moved from a small suburb outside Budapest and into the city so that Bernat and his younger siblings could attend Catholic school which, presumably, offered a better education than the public school.  So you have a family who desires their son to enter rabbinical studies, but is trained instead in Catholic education.  Ironic to me.  I do not think that Bernat readily identified as Jewish.  He hid it.  His wife, also Jewish, did not hide it but neither of them practiced.  None of the children practiced and they all denied it except Borbala who was left behind in Budapest during World War II and who, along with her husband, was put on a train to Auschwitz when their son rescued them.  My grandfather, when he married the soon-to-be-nun, really then solidified his connection to Catholicism.  Both my mother and my aunt were raised Catholics, as was I.  My grandparents are buried in the Catholic cemetery in San Diego, a far cry from the cemetery in Budapest where his parents are buried.


Two of Ilonka’s cousin’s children putting stones on the grave site of her great grandparents. “It’s important to keep our connections to the past and know our heritage.”

BK: Oh, this is such a profound and emotional set of stories and it raises so many questions.  First of all, how on earth did Borbala’s son manage to save both her, and her husband, from the train bound for Auschwitz?

IVA: Well, here is the answer.  My cousin, Nauszika Máthé-Árvay, who is a school psychologist in Budapest, has a diary that her great-grandfather kept.  He was married to my grandfather’s younger sister, Borbala.  His name was Artúr Rényi.  Their son became the world-famous mathematician Alfred Rényi whose area of specialism was probability theory.  Anyhow, this diary chronicles their life from 1920 through 1947.  It tells how their lives of opulence and comfort changed when Hitler invaded Budapest, took all of their belongings, and how they lost their home.  At the same time Alfred (known as “Buba” in the family) was put into a labour camp and his parents went to a ghetto.  He eventually was able to escape from the labour camp and stole an officer’s uniform.  He put on the uniform and with confidence walked into the ghetto and learned that his parents were destined for the concentration camp.  He was able to convince those in charge to release them and that is how he saved their lives.  It is the most extraordinary example of pure heroism to me.  The three of them shared a love for each other that is unparalleled in this family.  And now, thanks to Karnac Books, my cousin and I are in the process of preparing an English translation and edition of this never-before-published diary.  It is a real page-turner.


Ilonka with her friend Julia, who helped discover the family’s Jewish heritage

BK: We eagerly await the appearance of this important historical document.

IVA: I always thought the family name had been changed.  “Alexander” most assuredly does not sound Hungarian.  It is when I met another distant cousin, Ray Minkus, who lives in Chicago.  He has been studying the Broessler family for decades, and he informed me of the names of my great-grandfather’s parents.  Prior to 2012 nobody knew this name and it turns out it was, in fact, Alexander, even back then.  I have since learned that Alexander is actually a common Hungarian name, and that it was most likely taken to reflect admiration long ago for Alexander the Great.

BK: This genealogical research is so interesting.  Do you know the work of Randal Schoenberg?

IVA: Yes, I am a Facebook friend with Randy Schoenberg who is also a distant cousin of mine.  He won the legal case for Maria Altmann, depicted in the movie Woman in Gold.  It is about art stolen by the Nazis during World War II and about the subsequent restitution.  On those Facebook pages I have learned that this story, as you say, is not unusual.  Many hid their Jewish heritage and changed their names and stories in order to fit in and assimilate.

BK: How extraordinary that you are cousins with Randy Schoenberg, the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg.  You each have such famous and impactful Jewish grandfathers.  And I am a huge fan of Mr. Schoenberg, not only for his extraordinary work in restoring Maria Altmann’s Gustav Klimt painting to her rightful ownership but, also, for the hugely important genealogical work he has done – and continues to do – tracing the life histories of so many of the early Jewish Viennese members of Freud’s psychoanalytical community.

IVA: Yes, Randy found me through the Internet and told me that we are related.  Additionally, through his genealogical researches I was able to determine that we are related to both Sigmund Freud and also to Alfred Stern, the man who financed the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago.  Small world.  Do you know that when I began this book, I had first approached the University of Chicago Press but they told me that they do not publish biographies and so they sent me to Karnac Books.  I am so pleased with my relationship with Karnac.  Everyone has been so kind, professional, and helpful for me, a novice, with telling an interesting story.  I am blessed and so happy.

BK: Well, I feel that we are the lucky ones Ilonka.  I am very aware that you followed in your grandfather’s footsteps and that you entered the mental health field.  Did you want to become a psychoanalyst like Big Papa?  Do you think that your grandfather’s theories and his books and papers have had any influence on your own clinical practice?

IVA: When my grandfather died and my mother left California, I was adrift and when I needed help making the decision regarding university and career, there was nobody to help me.  I stumbled through my twenties and completed an undergraduate degree in constitutional history.  I attended a semester or two of law school at the University of Southern California, but it was not for me.  I entered the work force and ended up working with a prominent urological cancer specialist at U.C.L.A.  With him I ended up spending lots of time with dying patients and then I decided to enter graduate school.  I was then engaged to a surgeon who had a military commitment and that meant a probable move to another state.  I could not complete a Ph.D. and so I applied to the University of Southern California’s M.S.W. programme.

BK: Master of Social Work.

IVA: Yes.  That is right.  At the time I wanted to continue working with cancer patients.  I did that for a while but then I became a mental health clinician.  I never thought of being an analyst though, at twenty-eight years of age I went to the admissions department of the University of Toronto and asked how to apply for medical school.  I was told I was too old.  I assumed that people in authority knew what they were talking about.  It was a mistake.  I never thought of being an analyst.  One assignment in social work school was to critique theory.  I chose some of my grandfather’s work.  He did influence me in that I believed in the importance of the patient-therapist relationship as the mechanism for change in treatment.  It seems so obvious to me. How could anyone doubt that?  The long and the short of it is that he steered me into the field and led my career.  He continues to influence my thinking today.

BK: Tell us what comes next in the world of “Franz Alexander Studies”.  I believe that there are plans to house his professional papers at the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College, part of Cornell University, at The New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.  Are there similar plans afoot to prepare the “Collected Works of Franz Alexander”?

IVA: I suppose what is next in my world, in memory of Franz Alexander, is to travel and to promote this book.  I want to reawaken the students and practitioners whose education might not have included his books and lectures and to alert them to his genius.  I hope that the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis will host a celebration in January, 2016, to mark the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of his birth in 1891.  I hope to visit the national and international psychoanalytical meetings to speak about the book and to travel to some of the other institutes as well:  Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City, and so on.  Yes, his papers are going to Cornell.  They may be available for public viewing sometime this year, in 2015.  I do not know who has the copyright of his writings.  Some kind of discussion of his collected works was undertaken by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Judd Marmor a long time ago.  I think a full collection of his works is a superb idea and I would like to help with that!

BK: Well, these are terrific plans.  I think that your book has now fertilised the ground for a Renaissance in “Franz Alexander Studies”.  I certainly hope so.  I do think that your grandfather proved himself to be a magnificent man, and a brilliant scientist, and he remains, in my humble estimation, a true role model for all mental health practitioners in terms of his creativity and his breadth of vision.  We would be a much poorer field without Franz Alexander.  Before we pause at this point, Ilonka, is there anything else that you might like readers to know?

IVA: I suppose simply that my grandfather was a man of contradictions.  I guess that is not unusual as well. He was the public face of psychoanalysis.  But as my cousin Judith Laqueur-Révész says, he was a difficult man to know.  I think that through interviews with cousins, searching through archives, and listening to stories, I do know the man now.  I do not pretend to understand why he made all the choices he did, but I have a better understanding of what motivated him to leave behind everything and start anew.  I have also found out that I am a lot like him.  With pride I say that.

BK: Well, Ilonka, I am so very grateful to you for your time and interest.  I have really enjoyed talking to you and I do hope that the readers of Karnacology will find your new book engaging.  Thank you so much.

IVA: Thank you, Brett.  Thank you so much.

Ilonka Venier Alexander is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist with thirty years’ experience in the field of mental health. She had the opportunity to testify before the United States Congress in the early days of the HIV epidemic about its impact on Boston area veterans. For years her area of specialization was adults with a severe and persistent mental illness. Later in her career she helped to write the mental health standards for children and adolescents in Nova Scotia, at the time the only such standards in Canada. She received her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Southern California and is the granddaughter of Dr Franz Alexander, founder of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. She is currently working on a more personal memoir of her life with her grandfather, entitled Growing up Alexander.






Knight-chess“A brilliant interview, reminds me of a tightly contested Grand Master’s chest match or a Premier talent fencing match. This is truly superb talent at work both author & interviewer, each has come with their A game onboard, mesmerising like reading a LeCarre novel each turn in the road shows you more & more even beyond possibility!  A genuine Tour de Force.” — Keith Mac Donald