New Books Network

Ellen Pinsky

Death and Fallibility in the Psychoanalytic Encounter

Mortal Gifts

Routledge 2017

New Books in PsychoanalysisNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books Network April 19, 2019 Tracy Morgan

If I could vote for my favorite new psychoanalytic book of the 21st century, Ellen Pinsky’s Death and Fallibility in the Psychoanalytic Encounter: Mortal...

If I could vote for my favorite new psychoanalytic book of the 21st century, Ellen Pinsky’s Death and Fallibility in the Psychoanalytic Encounter: Mortal Gifts (Routledge, 2017) might be it; however to be clear, this is actually a set of essays that is decidedly not a collection of psychoanalytic articles. With great pleasure I am happy to report that it is full of style.

Pinsky sets out to explore the field’s overall silence regarding two seemingly unrelated topics: the analyst’s mortality and sexual transgressions in the consulting room.  The strategy behind yoking these topics together is revealed as the author essentially asks, among other questions, what happens to the patient when the analysis is brought to a sudden end, by death or violation of the frame?

The field’s turning of a blind eye to these two conceptually interrelated “events” is rooted in a refusal to wrestle with the demands of analytic work and the analyst’s human fallibility.  (I could make an argument that this is also largely a book about men in the field but that would be a separate essay. Be sure to not miss her description of Owen Renik’s writing on what constitutes analytic work!)

This book is also a love letter to abstinence and neutrality, and I would argue that I have never encountered such a passionate argument on their behalf.  Pinsky reminds us that our consulting rooms are, ideally, transference hothouses.  Analytic silence arouses feelings of love, hate and eros and analytic neutrality invites those feelings to be spoken. But the analyst is importantly human: how does the analyst survive the rigors of a setting that demand he listen, feel and absorb myriad transferences, without acting?  What, if any, possible preparation can safeguard analysts and analytic treatments from potential demise?  How does the analyst endure not mattering day in and day out without retaliating, because if we are honest, we know the transference is not about us? Pinsky examines the literature on what constitutes analytic work and wonders whether we have fallen prey to a narrative that sees the analyst as God-like, immortal and Olympian, so as to protect the analyst from the truth of his human imperfectability, and to compensate for his deprivations?

On finishing this dramatic and beautiful book, which is also a book about psychoanalytic ethics, I wondered if the field’s interest in the analyst’s subjectivity functions as an expression of its (understandable) hatred of analytic work? The analyst’s subjectivity, and the field’s embrace of it, can stand in the way of cultivating neutrality and abstinence, (the argument on behalf of the analyst’s ineluctable subjective presence usually goes, and I summarize wildly: “it is impossible to hide who we are, so why put up the façade of neutrality?).

Leading with our subjectivity can run the risk of sullying the conditions for the growth of the ever-volatile transference. Pinsky wryly suggests that analyst’s are charged with engaging in a perverse process wherein we must feel intensely yet refuse to act. How can we practice abstinence and neutrality and accept our mortality and fallibility?

Pinsky reminds us that psychoanalytic ethics are embedded in technique.  I suspect she is not so sure that enactments and the focus on the analyst’s subjectivity reflect the best of psychoanalytic ethics. That said, what the analyst offers has value precisely because it is limited by the constraints of our humanity.  We die and we fail.  How to make good use of our imperfection?  It can be argued that the literature on analytic subjectivity and enactments is making an attempt to grapple with precisely this question.  To find an answer Pinsky would, I think, encourage us to take a closer look at the popular eschewal of abstinence and neutrality, and at abstinence and neutrality themselves as we seek to resolve the dilemma of being human while sitting in the analyst’s chair.


Tracy Morgan is the founding editor of New Books in Psychoanalysis and a psychoanalyst, working in NY, NY and Rome, Italy.  She can be reached at tracedoris@gmail.com.