“The unexpected death of the North American psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell at the age of 54 has stunned colleagues and friends all over the psychoanalytic world. His contribution over the last two decades has been absolutely crucial in reformulating the psychoanalytic project to meet the intellectual and emotional demands upon it a century after its birth.
In 1983, Mitchell published the first of many books which bore the hallmark of his intellectual approach. With Jay Greenberg, he wrote Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory, in which they brought both a generosity and a rigour to the work of other theorists whose various attempts to understand the structures of the inner world had resulted in a profusion of concepts that looked similar, even sounded similar, but often meant very different things in theory and in practice.
Mitchell and Greenberg looked for the links, the strengths, the arguments that the psychoanalysts themselves were trying to make about their theories, often setting them out better than they had themselves, in order to draw a historical and philosophical picture of the mental world individuals create within themselves to handle distress and conflict. They argued that there were two dominant tendencies within the field, a drive model in which the mind is prestructured to use relationships with parents and others as a source of drive gratification, and the relational model in which it is the actual interaction with others that creates the structures of the mind.
In Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (1988), Mitchell proposed a paradigm shift within psychoanalysis, elegantly and persuasively arguing for the insistence on relationship as the determining feature in human psychological life. Without sacrificing Freud’s great contributions to our notions of the unconscious, of the role of conflict, of sexuality, and of infancy, Mitchell determinedly and persuasively insisted that the complexity and subtlety of human relations are best understood within the individual’s inevitable struggle both to connect with others and yet be autonomous. He understood that individuality and uniqueness comes out of and is expressed in relationship; that the concept of individuals coming together to form a society is a nonsense, for the individual emerges out of human relatedeness and is always embedded within it.
Drawing on the work of the Scottish analyst, WRD Fairbairn, he addressed the problem of human agency, the individual not simply as a tabula rasa, but as a figure whose idiosyncratic and deeply personal responses and reactions within the relational matrix are an expression of her or his unique will.
He saw the complexity of defence structures both as they were expressed in the patients he saw and supervised, and through the relational demands that were thrown up within the analytical relationship. He helped a whole generation of analysts recognise that one of the critical dilemmas of treatment, those moments when the analyst privately experiences her- or himself as embroiled with the patient’s inner world, were the inevitable consequence of addressing relational theory in the consulting room. For Mitchell and the group working around him, the analyst moved from being an external, evaluating, neutral observer of the patient’s distress to being a co-participant in the dramas and struggles of the patient to develop.
The patient needed not just to be witnessed, heard and interpreted by the analyst as a transference figure, but also needed recognition and a palpable emotional relationship in which the analyst was unafraid to become entangled by the very issues that perplexed the patient.
More books followed, including Freud and Beyond with his wife Margaret Black (1995), and a new book, The Degradation of Romance (to be published in 2001), addressed to a more popular audience.
Born in New York, Mitchell graduated from Yale with philosophy as his main subject, and took a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from New York University (NYU) in 1972. In 1977, he completed his psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute. At NYU he became an adjunct professor and clinical supervisor of postdoctoral studies in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and at the White Institute he was a training analyst.
While his lucidly written books had a wide readership, most psychoanalysts know Mitchell through the innovative scholarly journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues (PD), which he founded in 1991. Each new issue was the most avidly awaited journal of the field: the articles were well written, with thoughtfulness and originality encouraged; they often addressed the leading edge of clinical practice, so that the preoccupations of practising analysts – their subjectivity, their erotic countertransference, issues of dependency – could be rigorously questioned from fresh perspectives; part of each issue was organised as a dialogue in which leading thinkers would engage with one another over critical issues in theory and practice; and there was the sense that PD represented a community of analysts hard at work, in dialogue to create new understandings and to push their field forward. The excitement that came off the pages was palpable.
The element of dialogue was particularly apt: although avowedly relational, Mitchell invited analysts of other persuasions who had things to say to think through their arguments on the pages of PD, and allow themselves to influence and be influenced by the positions of colleagues from another idiom. This allowed psychoanalysts, so good at listening to others and so often inadequate at listening to one another, to really take on and hear the strengths in each other’s positions and the historical and philosophical basis of those positions. The work of theory-making, in relation both to theory about practice and theories of development and change, thus reflected Mitchell’s intellectual commitment, purpose and passion for dialogue, listening and learning.
The energy generated by the journal encouraged Mitchell and others to start an even more participatory organisation, the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis, of which he was to be the first president. For those of us 3,000 miles away from the New York scene, this was a welcome way in which to participate in developments in relational practice.
Stephen’s loss is incalculable. Those who spoke to the thousand and more people at his funeral said that his loss will be as large as the space that he occupied. All of us who have been touched by his intellectual acuity and generosity echo that sentiment.”