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Ekstein saw Hoffer as a man of exceptional reliability, loyalty, and personal integrity. He viewed him as a friend, despite their difference in age. When he spoke of Hoffer in his later years, tears would come to his eyes. Hoffer supervised him individually, often took walks with him, and conducted seminars in coffee houses. At one point, Hoffer encouraged him to get his M.D. degree, thinking it would make his psychoanalytic career easier (Hoffer himself, though a Ph.D., went to medical school). Hoffer also played a key role in urging Ekstein to leave Vienna and helping secure for him a visa to England. Not only did Hoffer live up to his promise to help, but when Ekstein arrived in London he invited him once again to participate in the old seminar of psychoanalytic pedagogues.


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Though Bettelheim and Ekstein both attended the University of Vienna, shared a number of professors, and became involved with the psychoanalytic movement as lay analysts, they never met in pre-World War II Vienna. Ekstein knew Bettelheim’s second wife, Trude, who had some training as a psychoanalytic pedagogue. Both developed an early interest in working with severely disturbed children; both were influenced by Anna Freud; both were brutalized and dislocated by the rise of fascist anti-Semitism in Vienna; both suffered profoundly by the invasion of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. Here is how Ekstein remembered those early days in his obituary for Bettelheim:

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While on a summer holiday in his early twenties, Ekstein was told by friends about a book by Siegfried Bernfeld, Sisyphus ,or the Limits of Education (1925) that significantly changed his life. Bernfeld attempted to combine Marxist sociology with Freudian psychology in a manner that intellectually and emotionally excited Ekstein. He asked his friends where he could learn more about these teachings. He was told about the program led by Anna Freud and August Aichhorn to train psychoanalytic pedagogues. It was a “movement” which opened up psychoanalytic perspectives to kindergarten, elementary and high school teachers: It [Sisyphus, or The Limits of Education] was an early attempt to synthesize Marxian understanding of the social world and Freudian understanding of the inner world. The social world, Bernfeld suggested, sets the outer limits of education, while the inner world of the child, his unconscious, sets the inner limits for the influence of the educator. It was this book which made the young man look for places where he would learn more about Freud than was possible through the reading of his work in the university library. The university was critical of Freud. Where was there a source of direct learning?

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Regarding personality, Bettelheim and Ekstein were distinctly different creative narcissists. Despite his enormous vitality, prodigious capacity for work, and intense focus, Bettelheim was a depressive. He was a highly serious man with a spirit of gravity about him. He did not suffer fools easily. Impatient, tough-minded, authoritarian, easy to anger, Bettelheim had a need to unmask sentimentality, to cut through phoniness, and demolish soft thinking. He was a proponent of the reality principle and was unwilling to tolerate idealistic or romantic conceptions of the personality, of cultural artifacts, or of history. He displayed an ironic sense of humor and he could often be self-deprecating. He intensely disliked pretense and he could be brutally honest, often picking up on an individual’s vulnerabilities and inner conflicts, offering searing interpretations. He had an uncanny ability to make one feel understood and, on the other hand, to make one feel exposed, precipitating feelings of shame and guilt.

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Ekstein, on the other hand, was significantly lighter in mood and affectivity than was Bettelheim, despite a life history that was saturated by hardship, loss, and trauma. Ekstein had a wonderful knack for interacting well with others. He was likeable, outspoken, but almost always tactful. Though erudite, bookish and a lover and collector of books, he was playful, witty, earthy, irreverent, avuncular, and childlike. He possessed a ready access to his own broad spectrum of emotions and his own rich fantasy life; he could easily laugh as well as easily shed tears. His affectivity was linked integrally to his method of clinical empathy, often speaking of the need of the clinician to feel himself into the world, mind, and soul of the patient. His guiding clinical principle was: tell me in what language I need to speak with you. He was unashamed to be moved by people. Many of his own memories evoked a strong, emotional response. He was a gentle soul. Ekstein preferred to mediate, to build bridges, rather than to criticize or polemicize as did Bettelheim, once joking during a period of institute strife that he would rather “make love, not war.” Charming, intuitive, inventive, sensitive, intellectually curious, with a gift for communicating through metaphor and simile, Ekstein was a distinctly kind and original man who maintained a sense of wonder about individuals, their potential for growth and reflection, a sense of astonishment about the world.

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Because the personal history of Bettelheim is so well documented, no fewer than three full-length biographies having recently appeared, this chapter will focus more on the lesser known Ekstein in order to situate their relationship and debates and in order to provide a biographical and historical context for their correspondence.