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Otto Rank

Hired by Freud, Breaks with Freud, Emigrates to the United States

Austrian psychoanalyst and collaborator of Sigmund Freud, who developed theories of will and birth trauma.

Otto Rank was Sigmund Freud's closest collaborator for 20 years. Later, he strongly influenced the development of psychotherapy in the United States. He was the first psychoanalyst to examine mother-child relationships, including separation anxiety. He also was one of the first to practice a briefer form of psychotherapy, called "active therapy." His work, in contrast to orthodox Freudian psychology, emphasized free will, relationships, and creativity. Many of Rank's ideas, including the importance of the ego, consciousness, and the present, have become mainstays of psychoanalytic theory.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1884, Otto Rosenfeld changed his name to Otto Rank as an adolescent. It was one of his first acts of "self-creation." The second son of Simon Rosenfeld, a jeweler, and Karoline Fleischner, the family could only afford a higher education for one son. Rank attended trade school, despite recurring bouts of rheumatic fever, and became a locksmith, while his brother studied law. In 1904, Rank suffered a suicidal depression, after which he experienced a spiritual rebirth.

Hired by Freud

Rank was extremely well-read in literature and philosophy. After discovering the works of Freud, he wrote an essay that applied Freud's theory of dreams to the creativity of artists. On reading the essay, Freud was so impressed that in 1906 he hired Rank as the secretary of the newly founded Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Soon, Rank was a member of the "Committee of Seven," Freud's inner circle. Although only 22, Rank was considered to be the resident expert on mythology, literature, and philosophy. With financial support from Freud, Rank earned his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1912, with the first ever dissertation on psychoanalysis. Entitled The Lohengrin Legend, it was published in 1911. Rank was the first psychoanalyst without a medical degree.

Rank lived with Freud and together they trained psychoanalysts from all over the world. However as Freud's favorite, he engendered the anger and jealousy of other Freud disciples. Rank edited Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, co-edited their psychoanalytic journals, and became director of their publishing house. In 1918 in Poland, while serving in the Austrian army, Rank married Beata "Tola" Mincer, who also joined Freud's circle and became a psychoanalyst. Their only child, a daughter, was born in 1919.

Breaks with Freud

In The Trauma of Birth, published in German in 1924 and in English in 1929, Rank extended Freud's ideas to mother-child relationships. He viewed the child's separation from the mother at birth and weaning as the basis of neurosis and argued that the male sex drive was a desire to return to the womb. Rank's therapy involved re-experiencing the trauma of birth. On a trip to the United States in 1924, Rank lectured on his own ideas as well as Freud's. Although Freud originally praised Rank's new work, soon he was attacking him, and they broke off their relationship in 1926. Rank moved his family to Paris and began spending a great deal of time in the United States, lecturing and treating patients. His new "active therapy" stressed a more equal relationship between the patient and therapist, with a focus on terminating the analysis, as opposed to the open-ended and intensive psychoanalysis of Freud. The Freudians labeled Rank as mentally ill, and he was expelled from the American Psychoanalytic Association. To remain in the Association, those who had undergone analysis with Rank were forced to undergo analysis again with a Freudian practitioner.

Rank was a prolific writer. His works included a 700-page survey, The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend, first published in 1912. Between 1926 and 1931, he wrote important works on developmental psychology, education, and therapeutic methods. The English translation of an expanded version of his early essay on art, Art and Artist, appeared in 1932. In sharp contrast to Freudian principles, Will Therapy (1936) stressed consciousness, choice, responsibility, and action. Rank argued that neurotics were failed artists who could regain their will through analysis, in a process of self-creation or rebirth.

Emigrates to the United States

With the rise of Nazi Germany, Rank, a Jew, emigrated to the United States in 1935. Teaching at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work, he adopted the nickname "Huck," after his favorite American book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rank and his wife separated in 1934. Three months before his death in New York City in 1939, from side effects of the sulfa drug he was taking for a kidney infection, Rank married Estelle Buel.

Rank has never received full credit for his contributions to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, primarily because of the attacks by Freudians. Although Rank abhorred the Nazis, in 1939 the psychologist Erich Fromm labeled Rank's "will therapy" a Nazi-style philosophy. Rank's work was ignored for years, until the 1970s when it was resurrected by the psychologists Rollo May and Carl Rogers, among others, and by writers such as Anaïs Nin. The Journal of the Otto Rank Association, with writings by Rank and his followers, was published biannually from 1966 until 1983. Rank's 1930 work, Psychology and the Soul, was finally published in English in 1998.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Lieberman, E. James. Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank: With a New Preface. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Menaker, Esther. Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Rudnytsky, Peter L. The Psychoanalytic Vocation: Rank, Winnicott, and the Legacy of Freud. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Taft, Jessie. Otto Rank: A Biographical Study Based on Notebooks, Letters, Collected Writings, Therapeutic Achievements and Personal Associations. New York: Julian Press, 1958.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists