Otto Rank

The Austrian psychotherapist Otto Rank (1884-1939) taught and practiced a form of psychotherapy based upon his own trauma-of-birth theory and will therapy.

Otto Rank was born in Vienna on April 22, 1884, into a disintegrating lower-middle-class Jewish family. His father is said to have been indifferent to the family and to have drunk. As a child, Otto found solace in the music of Richard Wagner. For intellectual nourishment he read Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Then he discovered the early works of Sigmund Freud. They were a revelation.

When Rank was 21 he met Freud, who persuaded him to attend the gymnasium and the University of Vienna and to study psychoanalysis. Freud read a manuscript which Rank had written; with the help of Freud's criticism, Rank rewrote it. The book, Der Künstler (1907; The Artist), was well received. He followed it with Der Mythus der Geburt des Heldens (1909; The Myth of the Birth of the Hero), a work strongly influenced by Freud. In Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (1912; The Incest Motive in Poetry and Legend) Rank identified many motifs from myth and poetry with the Oedipus complex.

Rank saw service during World War I. The war transformed him from a shy over deferential person to "a wiry tough man with a masterful air." He became friends with Sándor Ferenczi, and together they published Entwicklungsziele der Psychoanalyse (1924; The Development of Psychoanalysis). In Das Trauma der Geburt (1924; The Trauma of Birth) Rank maintained that all anxiety, hence neurosis, came as a result of the infant's first shock at being separated from the mother. Freud was at first impressed by this new idea of his favorite disciple, but he later cooled considerably. One report states that Freud himself had planted this new idea in the head of Rank in the first place.

In 1924 Rank tore himself away from Freud and went to America. Because Freud represented a father image, Rank suffered fear, conflict, and illness at being separated from him. By 1926 he was recognized by some Americans as a psychoanalytic leader. His therapy (which he called psychotherapy rather than psychoanalysis) consisted mainly in having the patient reexperience the birth trauma, the psychological consequences of the separation of the child from the mother's womb. This trauma had in turn caused "separation anxiety," hence neurosis. Many if not all human activities, from thumb-sucking to lovemaking, were, as interpreted by Rank, substitutions for the original pleasures of existence in the mother's womb.

Between 1924 and 1936 Rank traveled extensively between New York and Paris for teaching and practicing psychotherapy. In 1936 he settled in New York City, where he had some influence among social workers. His influence was especially strong in Philadelphia, where at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work his methods were adopted to a large extent. Rank favored a short analysis which could take weeks or months instead of years.

Later in life Rank came to a realization that knowledge is not fundamentally curative. "It is illusions that cure," he contended, "but first of all the patient must learn to get along at all—to live; and to do this he must have illusions." Psychotherapy, far from removing illusions, should help the patient to sustain them.

Rank died in New York City on Oct. 31, 1939, five weeks after Freud had passed away in London.

Further Reading on Otto Rank

A study of Rank's life is Jessie Taft, Otto Rank: A Biographical Study Based on Notebooks, Letters, Collected Writings, Therapeutic Achievements and Personal Associations (1958). Fay Berger Karpf, The Psychology and Psychotherapy of Otto Rank (1953), presents a three-part view of Rank: one section is devoted to his life and role in the psychoanalytic movement, one to the influences on his thought and work, and another to the essentials of his psychotherapy. An exposition of Rank's will therapy is the chapter "Rank's Will Psychology" in Lovell Langstroth, Structure of the Ego (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Lieberman, E. James, Acts of will: the life and work of Otto Rank: with a new preface, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Menaker, Esther, Otto Rank, a rediscovered legacy, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

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