“Psychoanalysis,” Otto Rank once remarked, “was born in the year 1881. Its father was the late physician, Dr. Josef Breuer, who for nearly ten years kept secret the birth of this illegitimate child.”  Rank continued, somewhat mischievously:

Dr. Breuer then abandoned the child because it might appear a bastard of scientific medicine, of which he himself was a representative, and of psychotherapy, which is still under suspicion at the present time. It was then that it found a tender and loving foster mother in the person of Sigmund Freud. He reared the neglected and misunderstood being and developed it into what we know today as psychoanalysis. [i]

In 1924, when he delivered these cheeky remarks, Rank was on a lecture tour in America, talking about his new book The Trauma of Birth, which focused on mothers not fathers.  Everyone in the audience knew, of course, that Freud had placed fathers at the center of the unconscious.

Rank was then “No. 2” on the Politburo of psychoanalysis, the Secret Committee  formed by Freud in the wake of Jung’s defection.  In 1922, in the only photo of the Secret Committee ever taken, a supremely confident Rank is seen with his right elbow draped casually over Freud’s throne-like chair.

He had been Freud’s right-hand man for almost two decades, a prolific author, vice-president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, editor of the two leading journals, and managing director of Freud’s publishing house.  After Freud, Rank was the senior training analyst in Vienna.

In 1924, his name could be found under Freud’s on the title page of The Interpretation of Dreams.  At Freud’s invitation, Rank had contributed two chapters, on myth and poetry, to Freud’s masterpiece. As journal editor, Rank was gatekeeper for new ideas in psychoanalysis.  When he spoke in America, psychiatrists and social workers flocked to listen him. He was so influential that Hanns Sachs, a member of the Secret Committee, dubbed him, simply, “Lord Everything Else.”[ii]

Virtually an adopted son, Rank dined Wednesdays with Freud and his family before meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, over which he presided in Freud’s frequent absences.  For years, American psychiatrists had gone to Rank for training in psychoanalysis. Now, in 1924,  Rank was getting rave reviews for his new, time-limited therapy, which proposed that helping to reduce the anxiety of patients while they detach, in the end phase, from the symbolic “mother-analyst” is the purpose of end-setting, and the means of healing.

In 1924 Rank’s audience knew that Freud had an attachment theory, called “transference,” but no detachment theory. Analysis was getting longer and longer. Would it ever end?  Rank surprised the Americans by focusing on end-setting and the patient’s anxiety at separating from internal images of mother, father, siblings and others, rather than interminable investigation of the Oedipal unconscious—what Freud called the “father complex.”  In 1924 Rank was bringing America “a method to cut down neurosis at the main trunk instead of picking at leaves and twigs,” recalls psychiatrist Abram Kardiner. “We all flocked to him.” [iii]

By 1924, at only 40, Rank had become virtually indispensable to Freud, then approaching 70.   Diagnosed with oral cancer in 1923, Freud declared to the Secret Committee that Rank, the youngest member, was to be “my heir.”[iv] Full of jealous rivals, the Committee knew that Freud, whose surgeons had given him no more than five years to live, preferred Rank above the others – Ferenczi, Abraham, Sachs, Eitingon and Jones.

“You are the feared David”

But trouble was brewing. Unknown to the Americans, Freud and Rank were at loggerheads over The Trauma of Birth.  Freud strongly opposed Rank’s arguments that mother’s will during the early years of life was more powerful than father’s will.

In a November 26, 1923 letter to Rank, responding to Rank’s interpretation of one of Freud’s dreams, Freud likened himself to a “boastful giant Goliath, who another, a young David, will slay.” Freud was expressing dread at Rank’s forthcoming  book, which, he knew, was about to introduce the terms “separation anxiety” and “pre-Oedipal” into the lexicon of psychoanalysis.

“You are the feared David who with a Trauma of Birth succeeds in devaluing my work,” Freud chastised Rank, who had gone to Freud’s hospital to cheer him up after cancer surgery. At his bedside, Freud told his David-and-Goliath dream to Rank, inviting an interpretation. The only member of the Secret Committee with whom Freud shared his dreams, Rank, in a letter the next day, offered an analysis filled with amusing wordplay. Responding to Rank’s interpretation, Freud wrote, apprehensively: “you have grown immensely and know so much more about me….”[v]

What did Rank know about Freud? In April 1923, at the time he was drafting his book, Rank knew that Freud had a blind spot concerning the will of mothers. He meant to correct this blind spot. But by elevating the role of mother over that of father, Rank was risking Freud’s wrath, since he might be misread as destroying the significance of the Oedipus complex, a discovery that Freud believed had secured his place among the immortals of science – Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin.

But Rank could not believe that Freud would misread him since he was author, in 1912, of a 700-page study of the Oedipus complex in world literature and legend.  Overjoyed by this monumental work, Freud had praised Rank’s book to the skies. “And so we would like to regard our arguments,” wrote Rank confidently in The Trauma of Birth, ”only as a contribution to the Freudian structure of normal psychology, at its best as one of its pillars”[vi]

Rank knew, of course, that Freud, insisting on the pre-eminent significance of the child’s relationship to its powerful father, had always treated mothers  only as objects of the small boy’s sexual desire. But Rank was now arguing that mothers had powerful wills of their own, just as fathers did. Initially dazzled by Rank’s argument – he told Ferenczi it was “the most important progress since the discovery of psychoanalysis”[vii] — Freud quickly turned against it.  However, since Ferenczi was on his side, Rank felt confident he could persuade Freud, in private conversations, to change his mind. Wasn’t it blindingly obvious that mother comes first and father second?

At the same time this conflict—”Who comes first, mother or father?”—was flaring up,  another crisis was brewing in the inner circle. Freud shared with the Secret Committee his belief, never revealed to the Americans, that psychoanalysis may be virtually worthless. Everyone on the Committee knew that Freud had for decades disparaged patients as “Negros.” [viii] At various times, Freud also called patients Narren (nuts), Gesindel (rabble), and Quälgeister (pests). When Ludwig Binswanger asked what he thought of patients, Freud answered: “I could wring   their necks, all of them.”[ix]

Freud was using patients merely to provide income, and as guinea pigs for deeper research into the Oedipal unconscious. There was, of course, no pre-Oedipal unconscious for Freud. Writing in his 1932 Clinical Diary, Ferenczi identified the “personal causes for the erroneous development of psychoanalysis”:

One learned from [Freud] and from his kind of technique various  things that make one’s life and work more comfortable: the calm, unemotional reserve; the unruffled assurance that one knows better; and the theories, the seeking and finding of the causes of failure in the patient instead of partially in ourselves… and finally   the pessimistic view, shared only with a few, that neurotics are a rabble [Gesindel], good only to support us financially and to allow us to learn  from their cases: psychoanalysis may be worthless. [x]

In the early 1920s, Ferenczi and Rank were collaborating to introduce pre-Oedipal theory into the canon but also to contest Freud’s pessimism about the worth of therapy.  They wanted to save psychoanalysis from Freud. At the center of their campaign, which was directed not at Freud, but at his surrogates,  Jones and Abraham, was Rank’s book on the role of mothers and separation anxiety in development, a role Freud had made no place for. There was no separation from mother for Freud.

During 1924 and 1925, Freud and Rank met many times to share their differences over The Trauma of Birth,  but, in the end, reconciliation proved impossible. “The elimination of the father in your theory strikes me as revealing too much      the influence of personal factors in your life,” Freud reproached  Rank. “That’s not so, of  course, and cannot be,” Rank retorted, denying that he   had eliminated the father; “it would be nonsense. I’ve only at tempted to assign him the correct place.” Mother  comes first then father, insisted Rank. What’s so hard to understand about this basic fact?  Disturbed by Freud’s blindness, Rank added, forthrightly, “The only measure is    and remains whether one can be true to oneself. ” [xi]

But Freud would not be moved. “I am boiling with rage,” [xii] he exploded to Ferenczi.  It was evident to Freud that Rank had denied the Oedipus complex, Freud’s greatest discovery, and was, therefore, challenging Freud’s immortality as explorer of the unconscious.  Freud began to maneuver for Rank’s ouster from the inner circle.

 Lebensangst and Todesangst

In 1926, after two years of fruitless debates, Rank, fed up with Freud’s resistance to accepting basic facts, decided to resign from all his leadership positions and move to Paris.  How could he make a living in Vienna if Freud was determined to oppose him?  Freud held monopoly power over patient referrals.

Rank lived in Paris from 1926 to 1935, and travelled often to America to lecture at universities such as  Harvard, Yale, Minnesota, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, where he taught from 1926 until his death in 1939.

Attacked by Freud and his daughter Anna, who replaced Rank on the Secret Committee and as her father’s heir, Rank’s writings on the creative will and relationship therapy nevertheless left a deep impression on an array of prominent figures:

  • dancer Martha Graham;
  • writer Samuel Beckett;
  • artist Salvador Dali;
  • psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan;
  • diarist Anaïs Nin;
  • writer Henry Miller;
  • writer Lawrence Durrell;
  • client-centered therapist Carl Rogers;
  • social worker Jessie Taft;
  • existential psychoanalyst Rollo May;
  • existential therapist Irvin Yalom;
  • co-creator of Gestalt therapy Paul Goodman;
  • psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton;
  • African-American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen;
  • theologian Matthew Fox;
  • philosopher Peter Sloterdjik; and
  • cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for The Denial of Death, based on Rank’s theory of Lebensangst and Todesangst– the Urangst of “life-fear and death-fear”—an Urangst that Rank believed unconsciously motivates the most destructive evils human beings perpetrate against each other: terrorism, war, genocide.

The theory and practice of Rank’s experiment are now things of the past—no less than American ‘prosperity’ itself.

In 1937, two years before his death, Freud published “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” his final word on the subject of psychotherapy. In the first paragraph, he attacks Rank’s relationship therapy, a derivative of the birth trauma theory. Rank was mistaken, declares Freud, that ”this small piece of analytic work would save the necessity for all the rest.” Analysis must be interminable, insists Freud.  Rank’s innovations in end-setting, he scoffs, were ”designed to adapt the tempo of analytic therapy to the haste of American life.” Then, with a wave of his hand, Freud dismissed Rank, relegating him to the dustbin of history: ”The theory and practice of Rank’s experiment are now things of the past—no less than American ‘prosperity’ itself.” [xiii]

But Freud was mistaken. Neither Rank’s “experiment” nor American “prosperity” were things of the past.  Rank’s ideas about the centrality of relationship, not interpretation, to therapy spread across America, through thousands of female social workers trained by Rank and Jessie Taft at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.  By the end of the 20th century, as a result of the teachings of Carl Rogers, who based his “client-centered therapy” entirely on Rank, hundreds of thousands of counselors and clinical psychologists in America had adopted Rank’s practice of relationship therapy.

The legacy of Carl Rogers extends far beyond therapy and counseling, and reaches  around the globe. “Active listening,” a term coined by Rogers, is an essential practice for those who need to build trusting relationships with others in the “helping professions” such as teaching, medicine, nursing, social work, hospice care, pastoral counseling, coaching, organization development, conflict mediation and diplomacy. During the 20th century Carl Rogers swept America—and much of the world—with his Rankian ideas. [xiv]

Moreover, women everywhere appreciated that, in The Trauma of Birth, Rank was the first male psychoanalyst to focus a spotlight on pregnancy and childbirth. The pregnant body  had received no attention before Rank.  In Women’s Bodies in Psychoanalysis, Rosemary Balsam, a Yale psychiatrist, shows how the “vanished pregnant body” has barely begun to be seen, even today, in psychoanalytic theorizing. “Rank’s ability to draw attention to childbirth   as a central bodily female experience and a vital trope in our own     minds is surely a highly valuable vision,” writes Balsam. [xv]

“The war on women”

During 1924-25, with Ferenczi’s backing, Rank had tried to persuade Freud to end what Balsam calls  “the war on women” in the making of Oedipal theory. “Psychoanalysis has both waged ‘hot’ war on women overtly and ‘cold’ war covertly over the years,” says Balsam, “by  colluding with cultural stereotypes offered as ‘theory,’ starting with Freud and his Viennese circle.” [xvi]

But no matter how tactfully Ferenczi and Rank tried to enlighten him, Freud refused to budge. Ferenczi and Rank were forced to conclude that Freud would never understand sexuality from a woman’s point of view. As Lacan observed in 1952 in Écrits, “The history of psychoanalysis can be seen entirely as a struggle with the question of feminine sexuality”[xvii] Almost 30 years before Lacan, Otto Rank had already pointed this out. Freud’s theory of sexuality, Rank noted in The Trauma of Birth, “has given predominance to the man’s point  of view and has almost entirely neglected the woman’s … as a rule,  we tacitly represent the sexual relations only from the man’s point  of view … from an insufficient understanding of the woman’s sexual life.” [xviii]

In 1926, the year in which Rank walked out of psychoanalysis, Freud published The Question of Lay Analysis, admitting that “We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent‘ for psychology.” [xix] It was, however, a “dark continent” only for Freud, not for Rank or Anaïs Nin, whose analysis with Rank in Paris in the early 1930s resulted in an explosive release of her creative will. Nin, one of the most influential voices on female sexuality in the 20th century, was forever grateful to Rank.[xx]

By 1926, Ferenczi and Rank had surmised that Freud was promoting the Oedipus complex in large measure to defend against analyzing his feelings toward his mother Amalia, whose powerful will dominated his life, from the day of his birth until she died, at age 95, in 1930, when Freud was 75.

“He couldn’t credit Freud with any more insight than a small boy”

Who was Amalia Freud? Even today, after an avalanche of books and articles on every aspect of Freud’s work and life, almost nothing is known about her except for a few scattered reminiscences.  ”She was charming and smiling when strangers were about,” writes Judith Bernays Heller, the maternal granddaughter of Amalia, “but I at least always felt that with familiars she was a tyrant, and a selfish one. Quite definitely, she had a strong personality and knew what she wanted.” [xxi]

“I really feared” her, adds Heller. A “fine-looking” but exceptionally vain woman, Amalia “had a volatile temperament” and was “somewhat shrill and domineering – the emotional opposite of Sigmund’s father, Jacob, who ”remained quiet and imperturbable, not indifferent, but not disturbed, never out of temper and never raising his voice.” Even into his seventies, ”Professor Freud would always find time [on] a Sunday morning to pay his mother a visit and give her the pleasure of petting and making a fuss over him.”[xxii]

What made Freud regress to small boyhood in the presence of his mother?  Like Ferenczi, Rank paid courtesy calls on Amalia. He and his wife, Tola, threw Christmas parties for Freud and his family.  Might Rank’s long-standing acquaintance with Amalia’s powerful will explain why he told Freud at their last meeting in April 1926, as Jones recounts, that “he couldn’t credit Freud with any more insight than a small boy”? [xxiii]

Echoing Rank, Ferenczi wondered in his 1932 Clinical Diary about ”the ease with which Freud sacrifices the interests of women in favor of male patients.” Freud, writes Ferenczi, ”may have a personal aversion to the spontaneous female-oriented sexuality in women: idealization of the mother. He recoils from the task of having a sexually demanding mother, and having to satisfy her. At some point his mother’s passionate nature may have presented him with such a task. (The primal scene may have rendered him relatively impotent).”[xxiv]

Twisting Oedipal theory into dogma, suggests Ferenczi, allowed Freud to deny his anxiety at being the object of Amalia’s sexual will.  Thus, he projected the fear of his castrating mother onto Jacob, by all accounts a mild-mannered father, never out of temper.

Terrified of Freud’s rage, Ferenczi was willing to criticize Freud privately in his diary, but never in public. In his American lectures, however, Rank, always fearless, levelled a barely veiled accusation that Freud had a blind spot about his powerful mother. “The ’bad mother,’” die böse Mutter, said Rank, without naming Amalia, “he has never seen, but only the later displacement of her to the father, who therefore plays such an omnipotent part in his theory. The image of the bad mother,” adds Rank, in the most penetrating critique of Freud ever made, “is present in Freud’s estimation of woman, who is merely a passive and inferior object for him: in other words, ‘castrated’.”[xxv]

Consulting with each other frequently, Ferenczi and Rank agreed that Freud remained a “small boy,“ psychosexually, submerged for his entire life in the pre-Oedipal oceanic feeling, unwilling to allow anyone to help him reach the neurotic harbor of his Oedipus complex. Freud may have invented psychoanalysis simply to get the love from patients that he never got from his mother. Others, too, saw signs of infantilism in Freud. The poet Hilda Doolittle, known as “HD,” recounts a startling experience in therapy with Freud, then 78 years old:

[Freud] is beating with his hand, with his fist on the hand-piece of the old-fashioned horsehair sofa… I was not aware of having said anything that might account for his outburst… The Professor said, “The trouble is – I am an old man – you do not think it worth your while to love me.”

The impact of his words was too dreadful – I simply felt nothing at all.

Anyhow, he was a terribly frightening old man, too old and too detached, to beat that way with his fist like a child hammering a porridge-spoon on the table. [xxvi]

Martha Bernays noticed this trait long before Ferenczi, Rank and H. D. did. As Jones reports, Martha wrote to her 37 year-old fiancée in 1886, shortly before they were married:

Dear Sigi:

 … First regain some calmness and peace of mind which at present are so entirely wrecked. You have no reason whatever for your ill-humor and dependency, which borders on the pathological. Dismiss all these calculations, and first of all become once more a sensible man. At the moment you are like a spoilt child which can’t get his own way and cries, in the belief that in that way he can get everything. Don’t mind this last sentence, but it is really true. Take to heart these truly well-meant words and don’t think badly of  

Your faithful

Mother [xxvii]

According to historian Paul Roazen, Martha “laid out her husband’s clothes each night before going to bed, and put the toothpaste on his toothbrush.” [xxviii] A glance at any artwork by Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka or Egon Schiele – all of which could be found in art galleries or museums a short distance from Berggasse 19 – makes evident that Freud was unable to see the powerful sexual will of the women these artists were portraying in fin-de-siècle Vienna.  He never showed the slightest interest in the work of these artists.

By the early-1920s, Ferenczi and Rank had concluded that Freud’s lifelong failure at self-analysis was leading to toxic consequences for therapy. [xxix] The technique of “classical analysis,” a term coined by Ferenczi as criticism not praise, was turning out to be more harmful than helpful.

Employing veiled language so as not to enrage Freud, Ferenczi and Rank began, ever so tactfully, to criticize Freud’s recommendations to analysts to show “indifference” [xxx] to the suffering of their patients; his fostering of a regressive transference neurosis; his giving of clichéd Oedipal interpretations instead of listening to their feelings; and his insistence on interminable analysis of the Oedipal unconscious.

The emotionless method of classical analysis, according to Ferenczi and Rank, derived, at bottom, from Freud’s refusal to analyze his life-long, tormented relationship with Amalia, even though Ferenczi offered to help him. “I will come to you for a few months and place myself at your disposal as an analyst,” Ferenczi wrote to Freud in February 1926, “naturally, if you don’t throw me out.”[xxxi] Freud declined the offer.

“Was will das Weib”?

“I have the definite impression,” Rank told Freud in 1924, “that you don’t wish to see certain things.”[xxxii] Rank spoke often with Ferenczi about Freud’s blind spot. What Freud refused to see, even though Rank implored him for two years to open his eyes, was the will of women.  “Was will das Weib?,” Freud asked Marie Bonaparte in 1925, at the peak of his conflict with Rank. “What does a woman want?” [xxxiii]

Rank answered in his 1929 book Truth and Reality: “the emotional tone is an index of the ‘what’ of the will.” [xxxiv] In Will Therapy, written at the same time, he added: “The real I, or self, with its own power, the will, is left out” of psychoanalysis. [xxxv] Returning       to Freud’s question—What does a woman want?—Rank, in his last book, Beyond Psychology, writes: “She has always wanted, and still wants first and foremost to be a woman, because this alone is her fundamental self, and expresses her personality, no matter what else she may do or achieve… [she has a] craving for expression of her true woman-self in a masculine world which has no room or use for her.”[xxxvi]

For Freud, as Rank knew well, women were “failed men,” passive, powerless, without a moral center, never commanding authority. They had no will.  Only men did.  It’s not surprising, therefore,  that female social workers felt so strongly empowered by Rank’s  will therapy. “The professional conflicts between a male-dominated psychiatry and female social workers,” according to historian Roy deCarvalho, “were crucial in the dissemination of Rank’s psychological thought and the early popularity  of Rogers.”[xxxvii] Freud’s blindness toward the will of women is the  reason why Rank came to call his critique of classical psychoanalysis, “will therapy.”

“Treacherous Assassination”

In August 1925, “boiling with rage” at Rank’s denial of the Oedipus complex, Freud began to draft a new manuscript.  It would be a “treacherous assassination” of Rank, he promised in a letter to Ferenczi, who immediately aborted his friendship with Rank for fear that Freud would turn on him next. [xxxviii]

Eight months later, on April 12, 1926, Rank visited Berggasse 19 to talk with Freud about his new book, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, the first work by Freud not read or edited in advance by Rank, managing director of Freud’s publishing house since 1919.

It was also Freud’s first full-throated attack on The Trauma of Birth, which he had never before criticized in public, only in private letters circulated within the Secret Committee.  Plunging a dagger into Rank’s heart, Freud fulfilled his promise to Ferenczi to assassinate Rank: “It becomes impossible,” he wrote in Inhibitions, “to shut one’s eyes any longer to the far-fetched character of [Rank’s] explanation.”[xxxix]

Rank was outraged. Knowing that his professional life in Vienna had just ended – how would he ever get patients now that Freud had assassinated him?—he went to Berggasse 19 to confront Freud, face-to-face. “Theoretically, Rank seems to be retracting nothing, “ Freud complained to Max Eitingon, the day after Rank’s visit, the last time they would ever meet; “our conversation about my last book on anxiety revealed irreconcilable differences. Practically, he seems to be holding on to his technique. He also indicated that he’s come much further in his insights….”[xl] It was then that Rank told Freud to his face that he had “no more insight than a small boy.”   From that day forward, an enraged Freud never tired of repeating that Rank was “eine Hochstaplernatur”[xli] : an imposter by nature, a huckster, a confidence trickster. The two men, once as close as father and son, never spoke again.

After Rank left Vienna, Freud waged war against Rank, condemning will therapy and relationship therapy  as “anti-Oedipal” heresy. Once the second most powerful person in the movement, Rank was now persona non grata. The psychiatrists he had trained were required to be re-analyzed by Freudians to retain their credentials as analysts in the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Unfazed, Rank enjoyed a successful career in France and America as a writer,  therapist and teacher. But Rank was now rendered totgeschwiegen – “silenced to death”—by the psychoanalytic establishment. His name was mud.

After Freud turned publicly against Rank, Jones, who had long feared Rank’s power to shut down his English-language publications, was given license by Freud to take an axe to Rank.  In his Freud biography, Jones lied brazenly about Rank, calling him “psychotic”[xlii]—a diagnosis that had no basis in fact, but which contributed significantly to Rank’s disappearance from psychoanalytic discourse. He vanished into a black hole. As far as Freudians were concerned, Rank was dead after 1926.

But, in fact, he was very much alive, teaching at universities across America about the principles of relationship therapy and will therapy, and writing prolifically.

In 1937, Freud wrote “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” in part to hammer a final nail into Rank’s coffinThe year before Freud penned this essay, Rank released Will Therapy, originally published by him as two German volumes in 1929 and 1931.

Patients needed a relationship, insisted Rank in Will Therapy, not endless analysis of their Oedipal or pre-Oedipal unconscious.  Relationship takes priority over insight. The giving of insight into the unconscious, whether accurate or not, may block feelings and encounter in the here-and-now. The patient seeks understanding, not an interpretation, no matter how ingeniously formulated.

 “I Became Infected with Rankian Ideas”

In recent decades, there has been a renaissance of interest in Otto Rank, now recognized as the creator of modern psychotherapy in America. [xliii] How did Rank’s ideas penetrate so deeply into the anti-intellectual heartland of America, not known for embracing Central European intellectuals like Rank, who had Goethe, Schopenhauer, Ibsen, Nietzsche and Freud at his fingertips?  The answer is simple: through the writings of Carl Rogers and Rollo May, two great American psychotherapists, who wrote English beautifully. Unlike Freud, Rank did not write well.

After attending a weekend workshop conducted by Rank in 1936, Carl Rogers, who had been trained in Freudian technique for his PhD at Columbia University, radically transformed his practice of therapy. “I became infected with Rankian ideas,” said Rogers. [xliv]  Within a short time, Rogers became the leading spokesman for humanistic psychology in America.  Asked in 1983 who had been his teachers, Rogers answered, simply: ”Otto Rank and my clients.” [xlv] So influential was Rogers that he became the second most cited clinician, after Freud, over the span of the 20th century. [xlvi]

In 1936, Rollo May, while undergoing analysis with Harry Bone, who’d been trained by Rank in Paris, immersed himself in Rank’s writings.  Unlike Rogers, May never met Rank, but, like Rogers, he always credited Rank with being his greatest influence as a psychotherapist. “I have long considered Otto Rank to be the great unacknowledged genius in Freud’s circle,” wrote May in his foreword to Rank’s American lectures. [xlvii] As the recent excellent biography by Robert Abzug shows, Rollo May was one of the most influential psychotherapists and public intellectuals in America during the second half of the 20th century. [xlviii]

Thus, the two major figures in humanistic and existential psychotherapy in America in the 20th century, Carl Rogers and Rollo May, were radically transformed by their encounter with Rank.  By the dawn of the 21st century, humanistic-existential therapy had been absorbed into mainstream American psychology, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is today firmly rooted in the principles of relationship therapy. “The humanistic-existential movement,” write Shahar and Schiller in the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, “has infiltrated not only the fortress of clinical psychology, but also mainstream academic psychology in general and has assumed a quiet, albeit steadfast control.” [xlix]

The Rankian revival began in 1973, with Ernest Becker’s  Pulitzer-Prize winning The Denial of Death, a merger of Rank’s writings on “life fear” and “death fear” with the thought of Kierkegaard.  “There’s no substitute for reading Rank,” said Becker; “he is a mine for years of insights and pondering.”[l] On   the dedication page of Escape from Evil, Becker wrote: “In memory of Otto Rank, whose thought may well prove to the  rarest gift of Freud’s disciples to the world.”

If the 20th century was the century of Freud, the 21st is shaping up to be the century of Rank.  No psychoanalyst’s theories have ever been tested with as much rigor, and across so many different cultures, as those of Otto Rank.  Freud, on the other hand, strongly objected to experimental testing of his theories. According to Freud, “the wealth of reliable observations on which these assertions are made make them independent of experimental verification.” [li]  Following Freud, the vast majority of analysts in the world today remain uninterested in, or even opposed to, the testing of their theories.

On the other hand, the experimental testing of Rank’s theories is booming. The International Society for the Science of Existential Psychology, which pays homage to Ernst Becker and Otto Rank (among others), reports on its web site:

Around the world, researchers are using diverse methods – from controlled laboratory experiments to analyses of large data sets– to rigorously test ideas about the roles of various existential concerns. This trend is popping up in almost every domain of contemporary psychological science, including cognition and neuroscience, social and personality psychology, clinical and counseling psychology and more. A growing number of major peer-reviewed research journals such as Personality and Social Psychology (2010), Religion, Brain & Behavior (2016), Review of General Psychology (2018), and Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2020), have been hosting “special issues” focused exclusively on existential topics. [lii]

For example, researchers around the world have designed over 1,500 randomly controlled experiments to test Otto Rank’s hypothesis in Will Therapy: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.”[liii] Across dozens of different cultures and populations, experimental findings in “terror management theory” show that human beings tend to project their fear of death onto “the other,” thereby sanctifying group paranoia, hatred, scapegoating, and, in its most vicious form, leading to genocide.

We kill other human beings, according to Rank, to show that we can triumph over death. What greater evil is there than that imposed on us, against our will, by the Grim Reaper?  We seek to protect our immortality, said Rank, rather than our lives. Islamic suicide bombers have long proven that preserving their illusion of immortality is more important than preserving their bodies. “By projecting our nemesis, death, upon another whom we can kill,” writes E. James Lieberman in his introduction to Rank’s Psychology and the Soul, “we symbolically annihilate death”[liv]

The denial of death, adds Ernest Becker in Escape from Evil, is “an expression of the will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died.”[lv] The basic motive of mankind, said Rank, is self-perpetuation, reaching towards the dream of immortality, an immortality provided by the seductive blandishments of religion and the nation-state. Today, like religion, the nation-state is a universal symbol of immortality. Each of the 193 member-states of the United Nations promises permanent safety, meaning and dignity for its citizens; gnats who wander on a tiny portion of a minuscule planet in a vast, unfathomable, frightening universe that cares nothing for human beings.

Why, exactly, did Vladimir Putin start his genocidal war in Ukraine?  Putin is approaching his 70th birthday. He’s widely reported to be terrified of death — which is why he has those long conference tables so he can’t get Covid from anyone who meets him.  A self-described “thug,” Putin, it seems, needs a final, murderous rampage on the planet Earth before he enters the luxury mausoleum being prepared for him next to Lenin’s tomb outside the walls of the Kremlin. [lvi]

Putin’s terror of death is not unusual. Freud is reported to have thought about death every day of his life, and was obsessed with establishing his immortality as a world-class scientist. [lvii] No wonder, then, that he “killed off” Rank, who threatened what Freud considered to be his greatest scientific achievement, the discovery of the Oedipus complex.

“When Freud fell into hostile relations with others,” observes Lesley Chamberlain, “he looked away from what he should have seen, namely his own acts of self-repetition and vengeance. He called Rank a confidence trickster, but who exactly was the trickster? To avoid confrontation with the truth, Freud split this fallible part of himself off and called it Rank.” [lviii]

“The problem of human relationship,” Rank said to a patient in 1927, one year after he walked out of Berggasse 19, like Nora slamming the door in Ibsen’s Doll House, “is the most important in the world today.” [lix]  It remains so.



[i] Otto Rank. A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures (Princeton University Press, 1996). R. Kramer (ed.), pp. 51-52.

[ii] Hanns Sach. Freud: Master and Friend (Harvard University Press, 1945), p. 60.

[iii] E. James Lieberman.  Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank (The Free Press, 1985), p. 234.

[iv] E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer. The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), p. 225.

[v] Ibid., pp.  177-179. Rank’s interpretation, full of puns, is too long to be reproduced here. The dream itself has not survived, only the interpretations of Rank and Freud.

[vi] Otto Rank. The Trauma of Birth (Dover Books, 1993), p 210. (Original work published 1924)

[vii] Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol 3 (Basic Books, 1957), p. 59.

[viii] “This strange appellation,” which Freud began to use in the early years of his practice, when his consultation hour started at noon, “came from a cartoon in the Fliegende Blatter depicting a yawning lion muttering ‘Twelve o’clock and no negro.’” Ernest Jones, ibid., p. 105. As late as 1924, writes Jones, Freud was still using the appellation  “negro” for an American patient whom he had taken along with him on a vacation on the Semmering (ibid.). Once, in conversation with Rank, Freud compared psychotherapy, his impossible profession, to “the white-washing of a negro.” Otto Rank, Beyond Psychology (Dover, 1958), p. 272).

[ix] Ernst Falzeder. ”Freud the Analyst and Therapist.” In  A. Kollreuter (ed.), What Is This Professor Freud Like? A Diary of an Analysis with Historical Comments (Karnac, 2016), p. 94.

[x] Sándor Ferenczi (1932). The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi. J. Dupont (ed.), (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 185-186.

[xi] E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer. The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), pp. 208-209; p 218.

[xii] Robert Kramer. “’I Am Boiling with Rage’: Why Did Freud Banish Rank?” Psychoanalyse im Widersprach, 53, 2015, pp. 31-44.

[xiii] Sigmund Freud. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis., 18, 1937, p. 373.

[xiv] Robert Kramer. The Birth of Relationship Therapy: Carl Rogers Meets Otto Rank. (Psychosozial Verlag, 2022), p. 11..

[xv] Rosemary Balsam. Woman’s Bodies in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2012), pp. 31-54.  Rosemary Balsam.”Freud, Females, Childbirth and Dissidence: Margarite Hilferding, Karen Horney and Otto Rank.” The Psychoanalytic Review, 100, 2013, p 713.

[xvi] Rosemary Balsam. ”The War Against Women in Psychoanalytic Theory: Past to Present.” In C. Lamont, R.A. King, S. Abrams, P.M. Brinich and R. Knight (eds.). The War Against Women in Psychoanalytic Culture. (Yale University Press, 2016), p. 83.

[xvii] In Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.). Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. (Macmillan, 1982), pp. 61-73.

[xviii] Otto Rank. The Trauma of Birth (Dover Books, 1993), pp. 36-37. (Original work published 1924).

[xix] Sigmund Freud. The Question of Lay Analysis. S.E. 20, p. 212.

[xx] Letters Rank sent to Nin show they had a steamy affair after the analysis was over, but not while it was ongoing.

[xxi] Judith Bernays Heller. ”Freud’s Father and Mother.” In H. Ruitenbeck (ed.). Freud As We Knew Him. (Wayne State University Press, 1973), p. 338.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 335; p. 336; p. 339.

[xxiii] A few days before his own, final meeting with Freud (in August 1932), Ferenczi told A. A. Brill that “he couldn’t credit Freud with any more insight than a small boy; this,” writes Jones, “happened to be the exact phrase that Rank had used in his time—a memory that could but heighten Freud’s forebodings.” Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol 3 (Basic Books, 1957), p. 172.

[xxiv] Sándor Ferenczi (1932). The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi.  Judith Dupont (ed.).  (Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 187-188.

[xxv] Otto Rank. A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures.  R. Kramer (ed.).  (Princeton University Press, 1996), p.  101. The lecture was delivered by Rank after he left Vienna in April 1926.

[xxvi] H.D. Tribute to Freud.  (New Directions, 1956), pp. 22-23.

[xxvii] Ernest Jones. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 2. (Basic Books, 1955), pp. 147-148.

[xxviii] Paul Roazen, personal communication, July 4, 1997.

[xxix] As British analyst Christopher Bollas observes, “What Freud could not analyse in himself – his relation to his own mother – was acted out in his choice of the ecology of psychoanalytic technique.” Quoted in Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis.  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 275.

[xxx] The word Indifferenz, although translated as “neutrality” in the three places it appears in the German edition of Freud’s writings, has a more callous connotation than “neutrality.” According to Ernst Falzeder, “if Freud had meant ‘neutrality’ in the benevolent or non-intrusive sense, he would have used the perfectly adequate German word Neutralität” (personal communication, April 25, 1994).

[xxxi] Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi. Correspondence, Vol 3.  E. Falzeder and E. Brabant (eds). (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 250.

[xxxii] E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer. The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Pychoanalysis. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), p. 209.

[xxxiii] Ernest Jones. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 2. (Basic Books, 1955), p. 420.

[xxxiv] Otto Rank. Truth and Reality: A Life History of the Human Will (Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 24.

[xxxv] Otto Rank. Will Therapy: An Analysis of the Therapeutic Process in Terms of Relationship (Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 113.

[xxxvi] Otto Rank. Beyond Psychology (Dover Books, 1958), p. 254; p. 267.

[xxxvii] Roy deCarvahlo. ”Otto Rank, the Rankian Circle in Philadelphia, and the Origins of Carl Rogers’ Person-centered Psychotherapy.” History of Psychology, 2, 1999, p. 132.

[xxxviii] “I am boiling with rage”: Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi, Correspondence, Vol 3.  E. Falzeder and E. Brabant (eds). (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 178; “treacherous assassination”: ibid., p. 222.

[xxxix] Sigmund Freud. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxieties, SE, 20, p. 136.

[xl] E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer. The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), pp. 251-252.

[xli] Peter Gay. Freud: A Life for Our Times  (W. W. Norton, 1988), p. 471.

[xlii] Ernest Jones.  The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3.  (Basic Books, 1957),  p. 76.

[xliii] Kirk Schneider. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/awakening-awe/202111/the-existential-unconscious-re-visioning-our-hidden-selves.

[xliv] Howard Kirschenbaum. On Becoming Carl Rogers (Delacorte, 1979), p. 95.

[xlv] Carl Rogers., Conversations with Carl Rogers. Videotape produced in 1983 by the Encinitas Center for Family and Personality Development.

[xlvi] S. J. Haggbloom et al.  “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century.” Review of General Psychology, 6, 2002, pp. 139-152.

[xlvii] Rollo May.  Foreword to Otto Rank, A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures. R. Kramer (ed.). (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. xi.

[xlviii] Robert Abzug.  Psyche and Soul in America: The Spiritual Odyssey of Rollo May. (Oxford University Press, 2021).

[xlix] Golan Shahar and Meron Schiller. “A Conqueror by Stealth: Introduction to the Special Issue on Humanism, Existentialism, and Psychotherapy Integration.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 26, 2016, p. 1.

[l] Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death, (The Free Press, 1973), p. xii.

[li] Robert S. Wallerstein. “Psychoanalytic Therapy Research: Its Coming of Age.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 2002, p. 376.

[lii] See: https://www.issep.org/the-science-of-existential-psychology

[liii] Otto Rank. Will Therapy: An Analysis of the Therapeutic Process in Terms of Relationship (Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 130.

[liv] Otto Rank. Psychology and the Soul (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. xii. (Original work published 1930.)

[lv] Ernest Becker.  Escape from Evil (Free Press, 1975), p. 3.

[lvi] For more on this theme, see my cover story, “His Dying Wish: Putin’s Terrible Quest for Immortality,” The New European, March 10-16, 2022, pp. 6-8.

[lvii] Max Schur.  Freud: Living and Dying. (The Hogarth Press, 1972).

[lviii] Lesley Chamberlain. The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud. (Seven Stories Press, 2000), p. 55.

[lix] Wilda Peck, Diary. 1927. E. James Lieberman Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.  Butler Library. Columbia University.