A Conversation with Charles B. Strozier

Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College

Charles B. Strozier was born in 1944 and received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1971.  He is a professor of history and Co-Director with Robert Jay Lifton of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and founding editor of The Psychohistory Review.  Professor Strozier is the author of Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982), The Leader: Psychohistorical Studies with Daniel Offer (New York: Plenum Press, 1985), and  Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).  He served as editor and collaborator on Heinz Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections Publishing Company, 1985), as senior editor with Michael Flynn on the companion volumes Genocide, War and Human Survival and Trauma and Self (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), and has just completed work as contributor and senior editor with Michael Flynn on The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York: New York University Press, 1997)He is currently working on a biography of Heinz Kohut entitled, Heinz Kohut: Psychoanalysis at the Millennium (New York: Fararr, Straus & Giroux, forthcoming).  In addition to his written work, Professor Strozier has participated in various media projects including a nationally televised PBS (Public Broadcasting System) documentary on Abraham Lincoln for which he also contributed the script (1992).  Charles Strozier (“CS”) spoke with us (“PHE”) on November 22, 1996, at the Center on Violence and Human Survival.

PHE: How do you define our field of psychohistory?

CS: I define psychohistory as the exploration of history from the psychological point of view.  It remains history but is systematically psychological in the kinds of questions it asks.  However, those questions have to get answered within a historical frame, following the criteria of historical methodology and abiding by the rigor of historical methodology.  It is an interdiscipline — the point on the bridge where the two approaches meet.  By defining it this way, you distinguish it sharply from psychological questioning per se or from historical questioning per se.  It combines the psychological quest for the universal with the historian’s appreciation for the unique and is intrinsically interesting.

PHE: What is your primary identification as a professional?

CS: What am I?  Who am I?  These are the eternal questions.  My answers have changed as they change, as they evolve, for each person over a life cycle.  I never thought of myself as anything but a historian.  Even from four years of age I was interested in history and thought about things historically.  In my earliest schooling I was interested in the stories of the past and biographies.  We didn’t do a lot of visiting of historic sites when I was a kid, but we did a lot of talking about wars.  I come from an academic family: my father was a college professor who would always talk about things in the past — the stories of Europe and France.  I was born in the South and he was from the South, so there were stories of the Civil War.  I’m a Georgia boy — born in Athens, Georgia.  Then we moved to Chicago where my father was a professor.  During my adolescence, I went to high school in Tallahassee, Florida, where he was president of Florida State University.  He died when I was sixteen.  Then I went away to school and was no longer in the South from that point.  Nevertheless, although I’m basically northern, I have deep roots in southern history.  Stroziers go back in Georgia for a couple hundred years — way back to plantation life.  There is a Strozier plantation down there in Georgia.  It’s an astonishing past.  On the side, I’m writing an autobiography.  My most complete chapter is the one on my father, so I’ve explored some of the father issues more systematically in terms of my own experience.

PHE: I wonder if concern for the father isn’t a commonality among many psychohis-torians.  How did you come to psychohistory?

CS: I first got interested in psychohistory when I was a senior at Harvard in European History and took Erik Erikson’s course, “The Human Life Cycle.”  I thought, “This is really intriguing stuff.”  I read Young Man Luther and got very excited about it.  Then I read Freud, to understand Erikson.  In graduate school at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, I began to approach psychohistory more systematically — reading more widely and doing a dissertation which combined the two fields.  I had a generous grant to study Polish history and I did a psychoanalytic study of the 19th century Polish Revolution.  I spent a year-and-a-half in Warsaw and Krakow.  I had relatively more money than I have ever had in my life.  This was during the Cold War: phones were tapped and there were men in dark suits talking into their wrist watches and following me whenever I went to the library.  It was an extraordinary experience.  The PhD was in history even though I had two first readers: one psychoanalyst and one historian — George Pollack and William McNeill.  It was a reaching out from within the history profession to try to understand history from a psychological point of view.

In 1972 I was hired at Sangamon State in Springfield, Illinois, [now the University of Illinois at Springfield] as a psychohistorian, not a European or East European historian.  It was the only job that was or has ever been formally named as such.  Sangamon was a new school, setting up a new history department, and a student had read Gandhi’s Truth and said, “How can you possibly create a department of history without a psychohistorian?” — not realizing how utterly revolutionary his idea was.  That helped consolidate my own thinking about my relation to the field of psychohistory: I was there in psychohistory, I developed a program in psychohistory, and then I started editing my own journal [The Psychohistory Review] within a year.  It was a deeper exploration of what I thought it meant to be a psychohistorian, but not essentially different from where I had started.

When I first started teaching at Sangamon, I also started psychoanalytic training at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.  First, I was analyzed.  As a research candidate, I wasn’t doing clinical work.  At that point in my life I was probably too poor, too crazy, and had too many children to do clinical work.  It seemed that if I wanted to teach and keep my head above water and also write books, I couldn’t throw clinical work into the mix.  I always thought that clinical work would appeal to me, but I thought it was dangerous because I thought I would like it too much.  So I had to keep it away from my life — but that was also part of my identity as a historian.  Though it was very good that I did my psychoanalytic study of Lincoln  [Lincoln’s Quest for Union] (it was an extension of my identity as a psychohistorian), I was really moving onto that bridge, into that interdiscipline from the point of view of history.

PHE: How did your analysis affect your work as a psychohistorian?

CS: My analysis was central to my development as a psychohistorian, though I think I might broaden that a bit to say my ongoing encounter with the therapeutic is crucial to being a psychohistorian.  I was not entirely pleased with it, partly because it was my didactic analysis and carried the burden of being part of my training.  I also thought my analyst was a bit of a jerk, and I came to feel the couch is vastly over-rated.  In my own practice I never use the couch.  Why deliberately foster regression and fragmentation when the goal is healing and self-cohesion?  Anyway, after analysis I have had several shorter and more fruitful experiences with therapy.  I can’t imagine keeping alive to the psychological in history without those continuing encounters.

One further thought, which has been quite surprising for me, is the way I have been changed by actually being a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.  I would not have thought it would make that much difference in my life.  But my wife says, and I think I believe her, that I am softer, less driven, more generous, and a happier person since I began my practice five years ago.  It may be good for your soul to try and heal others.

PHE: What led you, trained in Polish history, to the study of Lincoln?

CS: I think I was drawn into a study of Lincoln for reasons that were both sublime and ridiculous.  When I arrived in Springfield in 1972, I was looking for a big project, especially one that would take me out of the East European rut I felt stuck in.  I was in the world’s most boring town in a new university literally surrounded by corn fields.  Lincoln seemed the only interesting thing available.  And, yes, it mattered hugely that Lincoln was in the air in Springfield and that the Illinois State Historical Library there is the richest trove of Lincolniana in the world.  Once I began to really read Lincoln, however, I discovered why he is so endlessly interesting, and I was hooked.  What I then focused on about Lincoln drew intensely out of my own experience.  My first insights were about young Lincoln’s struggles with identity when he was almost exactly my age then [about thirty].  Over the course of the next seven or eight years I moved more into his troubled marriage, which was the main theme in my life then as well.  In a sense, my book became reflections on his “House Divided” speech.  And I always tried to keep Mary [Todd Lincoln] in focus as I studied Lincoln.  One reviewer, in a left-handed compliment, said it was the best thing ever written about Mary — and the only thing worthwhile in the book.  Needless to say, I preferred the New York Times review, which called the book “surpassingly eloquent.”

PHE: Will you tell us about your coming East?

CS: I came to New York about ten years ago, in 1986.  First, working with Robert [Jay Lifton], I began to change somewhat — I was in a totally different environment.  Aside from working at the Center and all the work here [at John Jay College], I got associated with the Self Psychology Institute, TRISP (Training and Research Institute in Self Psychology).  They were just setting it up and I helped them.  As I started teaching at the Institute, I was getting closer and closer to clinical psychology, even though I still wasn’t seeing patients.  At one point in the late eighties I thought, “Maybe I should do this,” but as I looked into it I found there were some incredible hurdles and road blocks and such nonsense — so I just put it away.  But then about five years ago I got grandfathered in as a psychoanalyst and I suddenly could do clinical work.  It was a wonderful opportunity!  Doing clinical work has actually changed my whole thinking about myself.

Who am I?  Now, I genuinely think of myself as much as a psychoanalyst as I do as a historian.  I’m writing a biography now on Heinz Kohut and I’m seeing patients.  It’s a real change of identity.  But, of course, it’s not a change at all.  It’s moving a little further over the bridge: taking a few steps over the other way, without losing anything that I was before.  I find that my fears were groundless; rather than being a distraction and taking me away from my creative impulses and my writing, psychoanalysis and seeing patients has deepened them and I think it has made for more interesting psychohistorical work.  Although I’ve been reading and teaching psychoanalysis for all these years, by not seeing patients there had been something missing in my understanding of the field.  So, that’s where I am in my early fifties.  I’m fifty-two and I see this mix of teaching and seeing patients as absolutely wonderful — it gives me a much deeper appreciation for our enterprise.

PHE: How do you respond to the fears of Bruce Mazlish, our December interviewee, that historians will go over the line and cease being historians if they’re seeing patients?

CS: I think it’s a real issue.  If you’re not committed to your scholarly work, then you’ll probably be drawn away from it.  If you have a kid in college you may try to pay the tuition bill by seeing an extra five or ten patients.  If you’ve already got too many hours, then it’s going to be a real distraction.  But, if you are committed to scholarship and you feel it has integrity in terms of the course of your life, psychoanalysis will deepen your commitment rather than soften it.  I don’t think the mere fact of having psychoanalytic training is per se going to draw you away.  I think there are also some very practical considerations.  For example, Jack Fitzpatrick who worked on The Psychohistory Review couldn’t get a job teaching history, so he started seeing patients and became a psychoanalyst.  That was his only option.

In my own experience, I wanted to wait [to do clinical work].  I didn’t want to start too early.  I knew that I was a historian.  That’s what I’ve always been, but it could have been eroded.  If you’re in your twenties or early thirties and you’re training and getting into clinical work, then that can become a crucial part of your identity in ways that can compromise your commitment to historical research.  So, I share some of Mazlish’s concerns.  Clinical work is wonderful work and very seductive — but not more seductive than teaching.

Historians, because most of them are not dealing with psychological questions and haven’t been in treatment, don’t think psychologically about people and emotions.  They can be very smart and write about the history of emotions, or people’s motivations in doing things, or motivations in great events like wars and social movements, but they don’t think about their connection to those events.  They write historical narration and they’re separated from those events.  We psychohistorians, however, are so damn systematic about those issues of motivation and where we stand as authors in relationship to our subjects and our own feelings about our subjects.  This really bothers historians and they think it borders on bullshit.  Psychologists and psycho-analysts, however, say, “Of course if you’re going to read about the Civil War you are going to want to know in advance why Lincoln would act the way he did.  Why would anybody be so stupid as to not want to ask that question?”

I have found that whenever I speak to shrinks or medical schools, I begin with their being receptive to what I am up to [as a psychohistorian].  They don’t question the project, although they may not like what I say.  (Whereas, when you talk to historians, you have to justify your existence.)  You have to speak with caution.  You have to know how not to push the wrong buttons.  Then you bring them in and make them think that they like it [the psychohistorical material] more than they actually do.  This is, and has always been, a dilemma for those of us who move in both areas.

PHE: But the world out there is very open.  The average people on the street might not know exactly what psychohistory is, but they know it makes sense.  And they want to talk about themselves which psychohistory gives them more opportunity to do.  So, I think we’ve won the battle for the basic approaches inherent in psychohistory, but we’ve lost the war for academia.

CS: I don’t think we lost the war; we never got a chance to fight it!  In the sixties, the field had the prospect of being structurally grounded  But it started just as the bottom dropped out of academic hiring between 1971 and 1972.  That’s exactly when The Journal [of Psychohistory] started (1971) and when I started The Psychohistory Review (1972), and when everyone was getting their first jobs — or they had them for a few years before then.  The established people like Erikson and Lifton were doing nothing to institutionalize psychohistory — in terms of creating an institutional framework where you bring students in, train them, they get PhDs, and then they have jobs.  Then, fifteen or twenty years later you have the next generation of people moving into the field.  This is what happened in economic history, women’s history, and American colonial history.  Keep in mind, those men were not in history —  Erikson was in Social Relations at Harvard and Robert was in Psychiatry at Yale.  But, they were not trying to become major professors and create psychohistorical centers.  Nobody was!  We were trying to do it at the junior level which was impossible to do because of the hiring crisis.

PHE: Another problem was that a lot of what passed for psychohistory was throwing labels around very nervously and defensively like second-year medical students who are so nervous that they have all those diseases and then, in turn, see those diseases in their friends and family.

CS: That’s partly generational.  Erikson wasn’t doing that in the fifties and sixties.  The people who were doing that were younger people doing their first works.  So, the lesson had to be learned all over again.  The early Freudians did it, as reflected in the minutes of the meetings every Wednesday at Freud’s house.  Now, however, most of the seventies’ younger people have grown up and gone beyond that.

My friend Larry Friedman feels that, as a field, psychohistory is dead.  But I think he exaggerates the difficulty that graduate students face in getting jobs.  I think the field is not dead at all; I think it’s very intellectually alive.  However, it’s not structurally grounded in the life of academia, and it probably won’t be —  and that’s a problem.  Institutionally, it is always going to work at the margins.  At the same time, biography, in the last thirty years, has been changed — transformed!

PHE: You’re working on a biography of Kohut now?

CS: Yes, my main project right now is my biography of Heinz Kohut.  I began it in 1983 and worked on it for three years but then I had to abandon it because I couldn’t get access to [vital manuscript] papers.  But now I’ve come back to Kohut in a big way.  He’s such an interesting and wonderful figure who created a new set of original ideas — he’s so complex and contradictory.  And self psychology is so important to the history of psychoanalysis.  It’s very exciting for me to be back again writing another psychobiography, which is really what I love to do.

If you really understand Kohut’s life history, you can see how his ideas are the natural extension of his self and his issues into the theoretical realm.  He didn’t just project his own issues and universalize his conflicts and confusions and create a theory out of them.  He was able to speak from within his own confusions and contradictions and wrestle with them in a way that forced him to reinterpret and remake psychoanalytic theory.  One can see Kohut in all of his theories: narcissism, idealization, mirroring the psychological meaning of drivenness, and, perhaps most importantly, his reinterpretation of sexuality — that is, sexuality as opposed to sexual drive, the instinct.  All of this reconceptualization can only make sense in terms of understanding what his own life history is all about.

PHE: I’m curious about applied psychohistory — what you do here.

CS: Once I came to the Center on Violence and Human Survival, I went through a ten-year project working on the “Ultimate Threat,” under the influence of Robert [Jay Lifton].  My coming to New York happened to coincide with finishing my Lincoln work, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was going and what my next project would be.  By coming here, I came to understand the significance of ultimate threats.  I found that enormously exciting.  I realized in retrospect that I didn’t “get it” before.  Psychologically, I didn’t understand what the ultimate threat really means.

We got a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in the late eighties to do a big study on what Americans think about nuclear war.  I handled that and did tons of interviewing.  We interviewed [Christian] fundamentalists, black poor, civic leaders, and peace activists.  The interview method was Robert’s method that he had been working on ever since the thought reform book [Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism] in the late 1950s.  It is psychological interviewing — it isn’t therapy when you’re doing a research interview, but it’s psychological.

I think it is of just such enormous significance to understand ultimate threats that we live with because we live in a time of extremes.  Even when you have superficial calm, such as with Generation X and self-absorbed people doing their own thing, it’s a false confidence, a false withdrawal into self.  What is below the surface is agitation, turmoil, and deep anxiety because nobody can really trust a human future. The Christian fundamentalists, while they wait for Jesus to come back, become the extreme edge of that agitation.  It affects everybody else in the culture; the way it connects with very widespread and diverse, protean forms of anxiety about the future and about social dislocation, mass death, AIDS, disease, suffering, and all the kinds of uncertainties that are very much a part of our cultural and social existence now.  It gets connected to the year 2000 in very peculiar kinds of ways so that there’s an “age of millennialism.”  The year 2000 focuses those concerns.  You can’t go to a movie or read a book without seeing something that has an apocalyptic theme.  It is everywhere!  In fact, Christian millennialism has stirred Jewish millennialism — if that’s not an irony!

It changes everything if you can’t be certain of your own future.  In the wake of the end of the Cold War, there was this response for a few years where people said, “Well, we don’t need to worry about the nuclear threat anymore.”  It wasn’t just that [nuclear] proliferation had made the threat even worse if you thought about it for five minutes, but it was a response — albeit an irrational response — that revealed how panic-stricken people had been about the threat itself, that there could be this kind of totalistic retreat from the threat into the fantasy that now it was over.  When we were doing this study between 1988 and 1991, we documented in our interviews the expansion of the fears from nuclear [war] to environmental [catastrophes], for example, ozone holes.  That’s a change in consciousness of great proportions, although it’s not a conceptual change.  It’s like T.S. Elliot’s poem: You go with a bang or a whimper.  Ultimately, you go.  What the fear is and what the knowledge of the possibility of going is, is that it could end.  Not that it will end, but it could end.

If you have such a profound shift in the last half of the century in consciousness, your sense of self changes, religion changes, culture changes, art changes, aesthetics change, values change, and all institutions change.  It effects banking systems and computers.  Computer makers forgot to program the turn of the millennium.  Psychologically, when people forget something rather significant like that, there’s more going on than just accidental forgetfulness.  It could cost anywhere between 300 and 600 billion dollars worldwide to correct — and that’s a conservative estimate!  It is just so fundamental to who we are.

Historically we’ve always had millennial fears; they’ve been around since the beginning of culture.  However, they’ve been assigned to deeply religious people (mystics) and artists who can extend their own individual death to encompass universal human endings, and to psychotics.  Those three groups were assigned the task of thinking about collective death — until the nuclear age.  Now, what the nuclear age introduces is that you can no longer leave the task of imagining ultimate issues to the margins and to these three assigned groups.  Now you have to numb yourself to not think about them.  Before, you could live a life having never questioned that there would be your children’s children and that there would be, as Robert says, some kind of immortality of the self.  [This allowed you] to lead a rich, vital life.  Now, you cannot lead a rich, vital life and not, at some point — if not continuously — imagine human endings. That is such a profound transformation. We’re just beginning to understand it.

We’re still going nowhere with the American nuclear age.  You see the incredible confusions that Paul S. Boyer [see When Time Shall Be No More (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)] has documented and all this madness.  Think about Herman Kahn [Thinking About the Unthinkable] in the sixties talking about having limited nuclear war where only 100 million people will die and therefore it’s imaginable and therefore we can have it.  That kind of utter craziness and evil — I mean, it’s ethically evil to think in those terms.  We’re just beginning to be able to think in terms that make some sense about all that.

[As I said,] one of the groups that I interviewed was the Christian fundamentalists.  I started hanging out in the churches.  It was so interesting I stayed with it and did a separate book based on that research [Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America].  Although I finished that book in 1994, I then got sucked into doing a book on the year 2000 with Mike Flynn [The Year 2000: Essays on the End] — it’s a collection of essays, three of which are mine.  Mike and I just turned it in [to the publisher] the day before yesterday.  So, that’s the end of millennialism, ultimate issues, fundamentalism, Christianity — well, it’s not totally the end because I’m sure I’ll write some more, but right now I’m really focused on my Kohut biography.

PHE: How do you feel about there being two major journals in the field?

CS: We need two journals in the field.  Each serves a purpose.  The Journal of Psychohistory is much more psychologically oriented.  It’s approaching that bridge from the point of view of psychology and psychoanalysis, rather than from the point of view of history.  It is also an important alternative to the perspective of The Psychohistory Review, which is to look at psychohistory from [a particular] point of view: that the answers that one has to those psychological questions have to be historical and have to follow historical methodology and have the rigor of history.  The essential difference is the difference between an approach to psychohistory from within psychology and psychoanalysis as opposed to one coming from history.

PHE: Yes, I think that is a very real distinction.

CS: That is why when you go to meetings of the IPA [International Psychohistorical Association] there are a lot of people who are psychoanalysts.  Whereas [at an] upcoming meeting of GUPH [the Group for the Use of Psychology in History] there will be all historians in attendance.  There will be people like me who are historians and analysts — or [Robert Jay] Lifton who is going to give a talk — but there won’t be any [who are only] psychoanalysts.

PHE: Which is unfortunate because a few more [besides you and Lifton] would probably be good.  You disagree with Lloyd deMause’s belief in laws in history, but what about patterns?

CS: I do not accept the idea that there are laws of history at all, but certainly there are patterns.  It is one of the prime tasks of historians to uncover and describe those patterns.  But it is foolish to attempt anything more than that.

PHE: One thing that strikes me is how, despite different approaches and disagreements, you, Lloyd deMause, Robert Jay Lifton, Peter Loewenberg, Larry Shiner, and various presidents of the IPA have all done the right thing as far as cooperating with each other at crucial junctures and not burning bridges.

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