In 1959 while I was finishing my doctorate at Harvard, David Riesman, the sociologist, introduced me to Erich Fromm who was looking for a psychologist with knowledge of statistics and projective testing to work with him on his study of a Mexican village. In exchange for working with him, Fromm offered me training in psychoanalysis at the Mexican Institute he had founded and analysis with him. That year before leaving for Mexico in 1960 with my wife Sandylee, I participated with Fromm, Riesman and others in two political meetings. One focused on the dangers of nuclear war with the Soviet Union which led to establishing a group called Committees of Correspondence. Riesman published a newsletter, The Correspondent, which both Fromm and I contributed to in the years that followed. The other was a meeting to discuss revitalizing the Socialist Party in the United States. Fromm had written a manifesto which was the topic of discussion. Although I agreed with much of what Fromm had written, I wasn’t convinced that a Socialist Party had any chance in America, a country where class differences are denied. Riesman, who was also at the meeting, and I decided our best hopes were to work within the Democratic Party, and subsequently, we presented a paper to a group of progressive Democratic Congressmen which was published in a collection of essays called The Liberal Papers(1961).
From 1960 to 1970, I was Fromm’s student, analysand, apprentice, and colleague, co-author of a debate on thermonuclear war with Herman Kahn(1962) and finally the book Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970).
It is difficult to summarize a decade of profound learning and experiences with Fromm. The analysis was a deep exploration of self, rich in dreams and insights that woke up sleeping parts of the self and forced me to take full ownership of my life in making critical decisions. At one point, I had a dream of being in a Harvard examination hall with others. In front of us was a map of the world. I started to work on my map but I noticed the others just sitting there, not working. “That’s a good dream,” said Fromm, “We are all given the world as a test, but most people don’t know it’s a test they have to to take until it’s too late and they can no longer decide what they are here for.”
Fromm’s view of the self was like a mansion of many rooms in which most people lived in one or two with the others closed off. Like Freud, he agreed with Horace that “nothing human is alien to me”. One’s ability to experience and contain all the irrational as well as transcendent emotions, from the murderous to the loving and sublime, from deep despair to encompassing joy determined how deep the analysis could go. But to contain this awareness required a philosophical frame of meaning which Fromm had found first in Judaism but later in different forms of Buddhism and religious mysticism. Together with my analysis, Fromm had me read Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s Ethics, Herbert Marcuse’s study of Hegel, Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, Meister Eckhardt’s stages of development and writings in Zen and Indian Buddhism.
During the time I knew him, including periodic meetings in the 1970s, Fromm significantly changed some of his views. In the early 1960s, his outlook combined a messianic belief in humanistic socialism with a practice of Zen Buddhism, learned from D. Suzuki. He was in contact with the Yugoslavian Paxis Marxist and encouraged me to lecture in Belgrade and Zagreb in 1964 and later to attend the meetings of Praxis in Korcula.
His analytic style at this time was very influenced by Zen and he had me practice Zen meditation every day. Like a Zen master he could be punishing when he thought I was holding back or being inauthentic. When I complained that he was not being helpful, he said “I am not here to be helpful but to analyze”. He repeated the Zen story of the master who smacks his disciple with a stick. “But I haven’t even said anything,” says the student. “Why should I wait?” says the master.
After his heart attack, Fromm became gentler, more sympathetic.He said that one could believe all illness was psychosomatic until you reached your 60s, In 1968, we both were very active in the anti Viet Nam war movement and Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president. After the election was over, Fromm expected McCarthy to join him in leading a humanistic movement based on his book The Revolution of Hope, but McCarthy let him down, even failing to show up for an agreed-on meeting. Fromm became more pessimistic. The Messiah was not going to come any time soon. The Socialist movement was being buried in the rebellious acting out of the late 1960s, more in tune with what Fromm considered Herbert Marcuse’s distortion of both Freud and Marx than with Fromm’s humanism. He became more interested in individual spiritual development, more in tune with the Buddhist vision of transcendence, of becoming one with nature. In his New York apartment, he lay on the floor and showed me how he was practicing dying. His book To Have Or To Be expressed his conviction about purpose, the aspiration to fully love life and to not be held back by greed and enslaving attachments.
Working with Fromm could be difficult but also extremely enjoyable. Even when difficult, it was stimulating. Never before had any professor ripped my drafts apart and forced me to clarify my thoughts, fully express the logic of my arguments. Fromm had no patience with unfounded disagreements, but when we wrote together, he was open to my ideas and criticisms. One of the most memorable days of my life was when he asked me to critique his manuscript of The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and we met in his New York apartment, dialoguing and arguing from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm, getting up only to go to the bath room. Food and drink was brought in by Annis, his wife. What intensity and concentration! Yet, at 11:00pm, neither of us was at all tired. We were fully awake, full of enthusiasm from the intellectual journey we had shared.
Fromm’s tough criticism was, I believe, a compliment, for he was equally tough on himself and extremely self critical of what he considered his narcissism. Like Freud, he saw himself as a narcissistic personality. However, in retrospect, I think he overemphasized the negative aspects of this personality type and underestimated the positive side, the lack of internalization of the father, replacing the superego with an ego ideal, giving one the freedom to create, for good or evil, one’s own sense of meaning without being tied to cultural norms.
Fromm and I both loved telling each other jokes. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a joyful laugh. He believed that a sense of humor is the emotional equivalent of a cognitive sense of reality. He especially enjoyed humor that punctured self importance.
Fromm became an idolized figure in Mexico, based on appreciation of his wisdom but also strengthened by transferential idealization. His disciples lacked his knowledge and vision and few questioned anything he pronounced. I once asked him how it felt to be idealized and he answered that it was frustrating in the sense that his followers, with few exceptions, only repeated what he gave them, that there was a lack of creativity in their followership. But this is a problem with many extremely creative thinkers who never finish learning and revising their ideas. It is the reason why the Freuds, Marxes and Fromms don’t want to be Freudians, Marxists or Frommians..