Bellow, The Therapy King

The Treatment History of Nobel Prize Winner inspired by James Atlas’ Bellow: A Biography

by Henry Abramovitch

Jung Journal: Psyche and Culture, 2007

Psychoanalysis pretends to investigate the Unconscious. The Unconscious by definition is what you are not conscious of. But the Analysts already know what's in it - they should, because they put it all in beforehand.


Saul Bellow, three times winner of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Laureate is one of the most influential and best known contemporary American writers. From the point of view of depth psychology, his works are of special interest since almost all are based on his personal autobiography. Dangling Man, his first published novel is based on his experience of waiting to be drafted in the American Army during WW11. Seize the Day decisively reflects the period following his first divorce. Humboldt’s Gift is based on his relationship with the tragic poet, Delmore Schwartz, author of In Dreams Begin Resposiblity. Ravelstein, explores his close friendship with Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, who died of AIDS. Even Henderson, The Rain King, Bellow’s one non-autobiographical novel contains many personal elements and derives from his year as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin.

What is less known is that Bellow was a serious consumer of therapy and psychoanalysis. He had at least four therapists/analysts, who were as famous as Bellow himself. James Atlas’ Bellow: A Biography (2002) provides a thrilling exposition of Bellow’s life and work, as well detailing his life as a patient and analysand. In many ways, I found Atlas more engrossing than Bellow himself.

Atlas devoted over a decade to this masterwork, which was a logical next step of his first master-biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977). Bellow was Schwartz’s assistant and later tried to save him when the poet had a series of acute psychiatric hospitalization, gathering money for him in order to be transferred from Bellevue to a private hospital up market and uptown. Schwartz, in a concerto of self-destruction, signed himself as soon as he could, pocketed the rest of the money and then bitterly accused Bellow of stealing the rest. For Bellow and his generation, Schwartz became an icon of the tragic fates that American Poets suffer for lack of public appreciation. The reality was less metaphoric and more psychiatric. A life long insomniac – some of his most vital lines describe the depth of this condition – Schwartz became addicted to stimulants. Ultimately, he most likely developed acute intoxication that lead to what is now known as “amphetamine-induced paranoid psychosis”. He died of a heart attack, outside of an elevator in flophouse worthy of Raskolnikov, said to be ‘carefully preserved by the heartless state for poets to die in’. “At the morgue there were no readers of modern poetry,” Bellow noted in Humboldt’s Gift. “For two days, Delmore’s body lay unclaimed.” (Atlas 2002, p.376). Bellow devoted himself to writing Humboldt’s Gift, not only to honor his dead friend, but even more, to assuage his own guilt, as an act of expiation.

Bellow was born in Montreal, Canada to Jewish immigrants in 1915. He was the fourth and last child, and most significantly the only one born in the “new country”. Later in life he claimed that he never really belonged to his own family, “I was always the one apart.” (Atlas 2002, p. 8). He almost died at age 8 and spent over six month in hospital slowly recovering. Later he wrote, “Any one who has faced death at that age is likely to feel something of what I felt – that it was a triumph, that I had gotten away with it.” (p.16). Time and again, he returned to this seminal experience in his writing. At nine, the family fled to Chicago and in many ways, Bellow remained a “nostalgia man” yearning for his Montreal years with its warm, extended family and his lost childhood.

The next major loss was the lingering death of Bellow’s mother from breast cancer. “My life was never the same after my mother’s died,” Bellow admitted many years later. (p.35). Her death scene was another that recurred repeatedly in his novels. Atlas notes that the age of the son is reduced in his “fiction” from the actual 17 to 16, 15, or younger, as if to indicate how emotionally unprepared Bellow was for her dying. It was a death he never really mourned, which in the words of his character Herzog left him “mother bound”. “It was a bondage doomed to play itself out in five marriages and a string of failed relationships, as Bellow struggled to free himself from the intensity of his need by denying its primal hold over him.” (p. 36). Almost as soon as Bellow would marry, he would start cheating on his wife. As soon as he found “her”, he had to re-enact his loss of her. Divorces were bitter and often landed him in court. His female characters are all harpies or seductresses. Of course, none of his therapists were women.

Therapist No. 1: Dr. Chester Raphael

Bellow’s oldest friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, had discovered Reich and The Function of the Orgasm. Reich’s emphasis on sexual gratification must have appealed to Bellow. In 1951, he went to the Reichian Institute in Queens. He was recommended to Dr. Chester Raphael, who practiced in Forest Hills, where Reich himself had established an Orgone Energy Laboratory during the war. Here is Atlas’ account of the treatment:

It was a strenuous form of therapy. Dr. Raphael was an orthodox interpreter of Reich: his vocabulary was full of such phrases as “orgonomic potential” and “breaking down biophysical and characterological armor”. It wasn’t enough to talk through this blockage; it had to be physically attacked. “You deal with the way they look at you, the way they talk, the way they breathe,” Dr. Raphael explained. Lying naked on a couch, the patient was exhorted to purge the body of its defenses by acting out rage and sexual tension, shouting, gagging, grimacing, pounding the couch; the aim was to pierce the “armor segments” that sheathed the neurosis. (p. 163)

In an unfinished novel about Rosenfeld, Bellow provided a ‘sustained and richly comic’ account of a Reichian session: “You look like an overfed, jowly, snouty white pig…You have erectile potency, but you are not a potent man…I can tell by looking at you – the retracted penis, the stasis of accumulated fat, the shallowness of breathing. Have you had any real sexual experience?” A cynical observer noted, “He goes to Queens for fucking lessons.” (p. 163).

Bellow also put in his time in an Orgone Accumulator, a zinc-lined wooden box about the size of a telephone booth, insulated with steel wool, that was said to collect orgone energy. Bellow had one installed in his apartment. He spent long hours inside reading beneath a bare lightbulb. “At odd moments, he stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth and screamed – one of the methods Reich had supposedly prescribed for achieving emotional release.” (p.164). For years afterwards, Bellow would go off into the woods to scream.

Reich and his followers were not devotees of monogamy and the emphasis on sexual freedom surely exonerated Bellow’s chronic philandering. Atlas calls him ‘a master of self-exculpation’ who did not have ‘the reserves of self-esteem needed to engage in serious self-criticism’ (p. 165). He was never to blame – not for the breakup of his marriages, nor the breakdown of his friendships. He took any criticism to heart and never forgave a bad review. He was always The Victim, to use the title of one of his works.

One of the nastiest lines said about him was that Bellow was forever jealous of every writer who won the Nobel prize, long after he had received the honor.

Significantly, the hero of Seize the Day is named Wilhelm, in undoubted recognition of Wilhelm Reich. King Dahfu in Henderson The Rain King, was an African version of Reich, who sounded just like Dr. Chester Raphael.

Reichians, for all their talk of personal liberation turned into a fanatical sect, obsessed with ideological purity; Bellow compared them to Jacobins of the French revolution. “The Freudians had their own Thermidor, and the Riechian were Sans-culottes. They were excommunicated.” (p.163)

Bellow surely puts his finger on how the powerful concern with ideological purity has played such a deleterious role in the history of depth psychology. Even Jungians, with our alleged dedication to diversity and individuation, are often concerned with whether someone is really, “truly Jungian”. Transference to theory, especially your analyst’s own orientation is potent source of belonging and security, but easily leads to splitting and excommunication of out groups by in groups (Abramovitch 2004). The resulting party line would make any good Stalinist might feel quite at home.

I wonder whether the whole Reichian treatment was not a sham analysis from the start. Bellow enjoyed his treatment on the couch as a game being played yet claimed that his treatment with Dr. Raphael was essentially a gesture of solidarity with Rosenfeld: “I didn’t want to lose Isaac when all that was happening. So I went through analysis, too, just to stay close.” (p. 165).

I know of cases in which people enter treatment out of a sense of competition or even solidarity, as Bellow claimed. Such extra-analytical attachments sometimes play a crucial if hidden role in the success or failure of treatment. I can think of a case in which a woman was forced to abandon a successful, ongoing treatment because her partner insisted that she switch to a therapist more like her own. The abandoned analyst thought something had been missed in the transference. Rather, what was missed was how her partner had blackmailed the patient. The new therapist, likewise, was unaware of the real story behind the referral or the hidden rage buried within the couple dynamic.

Closer to home, how do we Jungian feel when our loved ones seek out a non-Jungian analyst? What impact does it have on the marriage for a spouse to abandon a trusted colleague and seek out a seemingly charlatan, as Reichians appear to many of us today? Sometimes, the real story of the analysis is never known, and least of all to the analyst. Dr. Raphael recalled the treatment differently, saying that Bellow came because he had problems, and didn’t talk about Rosenfeld at all.

Atlas argues that Bellow’s minimizing the significance of his first therapy was his way of denying that he had problems acute enough to require treatment. Bellow did call the whole experience a “disaster” that made him “nastier” and wrecked his marriage. (His first wife was for a period was in treatment with Dr. Raphael.) The destructive Reichian influences are evident in his one-act play, The Wrecker written at the time. The hero in an effort to resist being evicted from a condemned building, begins to destroy his own apartment with an ax. His wife, at first appalled, is soon persuaded to join him. “Where there is no demolition there’s no advancement...The old must go” (p.165). One wonders if this was a self-representation of his Ego-Self axis in turmoil, his marriage, or both.

When Rosenfeld dropped dead of a heart attack, Bellow did not go to the funeral. Rosenfeld’s widow said, “Saul doesn’t go to funeral.” But Atlas suggests:

“Failing to attend his closest and oldest friend’s funeral was a dramatic instance of a lifelong pattern: the tendency to deny and run away from pain.” (p. 235). Later, Bellow would say of his work with Dr. Raphael, “That wasn’t psychology…that was zoology.” (p. 295).

Therapist No. 2: Paul Meehl

Bellow’s next therapist was Paul Meehl. Atlas merely calls him a “clinical psychologist”, but Meehl was perhaps the outstanding academic clinical professor of psychology of his generation, President of American Psychological Association (1962) with multiple life time awards for his many contributions. He was a genuine polymath with joint appointments in philosophy, law, psychiatry and neurology at the University of Minnesota. He helped develop the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and invented a number of innovative statistical techniques such as multivariate taxonomic procedures. Today he is best for his advocating the use of actuarial decision-making in place of clinical judgment, and for being an early exponent of the genetic basis of schizophrenia.

The young Meehl read Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind and decided to become a psychoanalyst rather than a lawyer. He was just at the end of his formal psychoanalytic training when Bellow came to see him. Bellow’s second marriage was not in good shape. Unknown to him, the tables were turned this marriage around. His second wife, Sondra, was cheating on him with his good friend, Jack Ludwig. Sondra pushed him into therapy as did the wife in Herzog. Here too, the extra-analytic reality may have been the real story. “Four afternoons a week they knew where I was, on the couch, and so were safe in bed” (p. 264). As in so many cases, Bellow had his revenge, not in life, but in print.

Meehl was an eclectic therapist, a “calm, Protestant, Nordic Anglo-Celt”. Unlike Bellow the wandering Jew, Meehl was Minnesota born and bred. He never left his native city of Minneapolis where he completed all his degrees and eventually become Regents’ Professor of Psychology and occupied a special Chair, created in his honor. One wonders whether Meehl growing up and living in such stability could ever understand the existential angst of modern, alienated, intellectual like Bellow. Meehl described Bellow was YAVIS (Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent, Successful), the empirical sign of a good candidate for psychotherapy and found him a fascinating patient. He did note that Bellow was somewhat grievance-prone, perhaps what today might be called an “injustice collector”. Sondra herself was given to rages and even underwent a neurological examination to search for a temporal lobe lesion. In fact, she was outraged at Bellow’s neediness and her own hypocrisy. Strangely, Sondra entered into therapy with Meehl as well. As Atlas ironically comments, “Bellow didn’t like to go it alone, even on the couch” (p. 264). Like a Goldoni comedy, Sondra confessed her adulteries on the couch, while Bellow, in his sessions, tried desperately to find out what Meehl knew. Later, Meehl even saw Bellow’s son as well. Atlas, ever ironic, comments, “It wasn’t an arrangement that made for effective therapy.” (op. cit). They may have needed family therapy, but what they got was a family in psychoanalysis.

Looking into Meehl’s psychoanalytic pedigree, I discovered that his personal analyst, a certain Dr. B.C. Gluek, was also his control analyst for both of his training cases. Clear boundaries and the danger of dual relationships was not something that was likely addressed in his training. Not surprisingly Meehl never quite figured Bellow out. In a speech given on receiving the prestigious Cattell Award, Meehl confessed that there are sessions ‘in which neither analyst nor analysand can discern much of anything that hangs together.’ One suspects that there were many such sessions with Bellow. Meehl became disillusioned with psychoanalysis, yet kept a picture of Freud on his office wall and maintained a private practice until his death in 2003.

Meehl appears as Dr. Edvig in Herzog, which even Meehl concurred was “not bad” as a portrait. In an early chapter which was later dropped from the book, Dr. Edvig gives what was essentially Meehl’s diagnosis: “You are fairly normal. Complicated, yes. Depressive, yes. But reactive-depressive. Not the worst of the depressive by any means.” (op. cit.) In the end, even Meehl was unsure of his diagnosis, “I could never make up my mind how unhappy he was.” One can understand that with weak clinical intuition, Meehl might easy favor quantitative methods for clinical assessment. Atlas suggests that this confusion in Meehl’s mind reflected a double reality in Bellow’s: “Meehl couldn’t tell if his patient was really suffering because in a sense he wasn’t; he was merely observing himself suffering.’ (p. 266). Suffering was redemptive. Suffering was the basis for his next work. Indeed, more than one literary figure has suggested that Bellow set up the whole situation up with Sondra, Ludwig, and even, Meehl so that he could write his book. Bellow did admit that Meehl had helped him, but added to his friend the poet, John Berryman, “As I creep near the deepest secrets of my life I drop off like a lotus-eater.” (p. 294).

Perhaps here, too, Bellow had a point. If creativity is not only a wellspring from the treasure house of the Self as many Jungian believe, but a distortion which emerges out of a dragon fight with depressive position, as Kleinians might argue, then one might imagine a healthier but less creative Bellow. One wonders if Bellow never really gave himself over to treatment because he cared more about his books than about his life. I have not treated novelists, but I have had a number of professional poets in analysis. Some of those analyses were not sufficiently successful because at the bottom, the poet cared much more about their poetry than about their lives.

Therapist No. 3: Albert Ellis

Soon after, despite Bellow’s expressed contempt for therapists, he was back in therapy. This time it was with Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy and now considered one of the founding father of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Synchronistically, his biography, Albert Ellis: Passionate Skeptic (Wiener 1988) has a forward by Paul Meehl. Ellis shared Bellow’s sexual appetite and bragged about his conquests. Ellis and Bellow each vindictively labeled the other a “phallic-narcissistic type”. Not surprisingly little progress was made around this issue. Indeed, Ellis believed that the goal of therapy was sexual pleasure, pure and simple. The removal of parental prohibitions and empowerment were a major goals. His method was to get people to act on their wishes and not to feel bad. Here, again, the creative artist represented a special challenge for this type of liberating therapist. “My goal was to get him unangry,” Ellis recalled, “which wasn’t easy with a person like that because he was a novelist, and novelists think that all emotions are good.” (p. 296). Bellow entered therapy in the aftermath of the horrendous breakdown of his marriage to Sondra and left as soon as he could tolerate the pain, a few months later. As supportive psychotherapy, it might even be considered a modest success.

Therapist No. 4: Heinz Kohut

Back in Chicago, Bellow was once again juggling many women. He had moved into the Cloisters, a grand apartment building in Hyde Park that was home to many fellow University of Chicago faculty. A former professor who met him on the elevator quipped, “We heard that you’d moved in. When will the orgies begin?” (p. 384). Heinz Kohut, the founder of Self Psychology, and Bellow’s neighbour, became his fourth and last analyst. Unlike the other three clinicians, whom Atlas was able to interview, Kohut died long before he had a chance to speak with him. Moreover, Kohut shredded all confidential documents concerning his patients. Despite Kohut’s apparent ethical integrity, Atlas argues convincingly that one can see clear traces of Bellow in two of Kohut’s published case vignettes.

Atlas most clearly identifies Bellow as a “forty year old professor” who had a previous analysis ten years earlier, presumably with Meehl. Similar to Bellow, this analysand had a “joyless, guilt-producing mother” who wanted him to be a fiddler or a rabbi but certainly not a scribbler luftmensch. His father was self-absorbed and attention demanding on the one hand, and yet, actively belittling and ridiculing, on the other. Atlas correctly asks, “How many patients have such parents? A great many, no doubt.” Yet in the account in Kohut’s last book, How Does Analysis Cure? (1984) a careless, even negligent clue to Bellow’s identity appears, viz. that the analysand was in the process of buying a property in a Colorado resort. Bellow indeed bought a property at Aspen around this time. It seems strange for Kohut to include such a specific detail that was irrelevant to his clinical argument. Yet throughout his writings, Kohut appears unnecessarily explicit of analysand’s background e.g. “a psychiatric resident at a university hospital where I occasionally give seminars on theory and practice of psychotherapy” (Kohut 1984, p.74). Atlas does not discuss why Kohut included a discussion of the “forty year old professor”, which is a brief vignette in a chapter titled, The curative effect of analysis (Kohut 1984, p.73). But the context is worthy of mention.

In this chapter, Kohut discusses an interesting clinical dilemma: “Early in analysis, not infrequently during the first session, a patient may confront the analyst with an easily discoverable lie or something disguised or even quite open delinquent move, such as an attempt to cheat with regard to the analyst’s fee or the payment of taxes.” (op. cit. p.72). Kohut argues that one ought not to respond with moral indignation and rejection, as presumably Kohut did, in his pre-Self Psychology days. Rather, Kohut proposes that the patient’s lie be seen “ as a first, testing assertion of the rights to an independent self”. It is in this context that he relates Bellow’s request to postpone paying fees for several months in order to make a down payment on his Aspen holiday home. Not without misgivings at the time, Kohut said he could wait, but added that the request and his compliance might have significance “that went beyond what we could know at this point”.

Kohut goes on to give an extremely positive interpretation of the event that provided a favorable start for his successful analysis. He provides the following astonishing observation: “He had simply begun his analysis with an act that expressed the hope that this analysis, perhaps in contrast to his previous analysis, would be for him and not for the analyst, that is, for me.” Given how narcissistic Kohut himself is alleged to have been as a person, one wonders if he is not talking about himself and his own use of his analysands as selfobjects. Meehl surely made some regrettable clinical decisions, but he does not come across as a narcissist. Nor does Kohut seem to question Bellow’s perceptions. One might speculate that this tendency to see others as narcissistic was a core part of Bellow’s defensive structure – a pattern that once again remained outside the analytical frame.

Kohut regarded Bellow as “a very moral, straitlaced person” and conceived the analytic goal as allowing Bellow’s imaginative, creative potential to unfold without the emotional restrictions of his home. Given Bellow’s track record as an adulterer, deceiver and injustice collector, one wonders whether he was also somewhat creative with the truth even while free associating. I wonder if Kohut unconsciously understood this when he linked the vignette with the discussion on how to handle an obvious initial analytic lie. In a symbolic way, Kohut may have allowed Bellow to continue his self-deception.

If Kohut seems somewhat permissive in his first account, he seems right on the money in the case of “Mr. I.” In that case, the patient developed a “Don Juan syndrome” as an attempt to provide an insecurely established self with a regular flow of self-esteem. Mr. I.’s relentless seduction of women was “motivated not by libidinal but by narcissistic needs.” Sex became the way he relieved loneliness. Bellow may have understood all this at some level. In Herzog, Bellow writes, “The depressive character is narcissistic. It fears the disappearance of the beloved. Above all terrors it places the terror of abandonment and naked solitude. So with secret hate it cuts off the deserters.” The defensive strategy was: “Leave before you are left.” Bellow did this over and over again.

Late in life, in his fifth and last marriage, Bellow may have found some peace. This wife, unlike the others was totally devoted to him and his needs in mother-like way. He even fathered his last child in his eighties. An elderly gentleman present at the naming the Saul Bellow Municipal Library in Lachine, Montreal wondered aloud, “How did he do it?” “Practice, practice, practice,” Bellow replied.” (p. 593). Maybe this time, he got it right; or rather she did.


Atlas’ absorbing narrative is a unique document in that it traces Bellow’s multiple therapeutic voyages. As a profession, we lack complete accounts of individual analyses, and now it appears, we need even more comprehensive records of multiple analyses.

The biography also highlights the many pitfalls in the treatment of creative or famous individuals. From a Jungian point of view, what is striking is not what happened in treatment, but Bellow’s profound belief in his own powers. For many years, he was a penniless, itinerant author, going from job to job, city to city, book to book, woman to woman. His early critical success did not help him make a living and often he had to turn to his financial secure brothers or father to ask for humiliating loans. Only when he was miraculously appointed to University of Chicago’s Committee of Social Thought did he find a home and financial security. I suspect many other creative souls give up, put their novels in their drawers and go into the family business. How many masterpieces were lost in a similar fashion! Despite all his complexes, Bellow did know how to touch his innermost Self and to transform neurotic suffering into neurotic art.

Atlas did have an opportunity to speak with Bellow’s therapists. At one point, he hints that Bellow did not give permission to do so, saying “… Kohut, unlike Bellow’s other therapists, was intent upon honoring his patient’s right to privacy” (p. 384). I understand by implication that Drs. Raphael, Meehl and Ellis did not honor Bellow’s rights. If that is true, it is a shocking ethical violation. On the other hand, Barbara Wharton (2005), a former editor of Journal of Analytical Psychology has argued for a rethink of the issue of confidentiality. Does the analysis really belong only to the patient? Does an analysand need our permission to write about the analyst? Writing about a patient is so very different than treating one. When should one ask for permission, Wharton asks: During analysis, after, or as has been suggested, at the very outset? Each course is problematic and intrusive. Writing about a patient always effects the treatment; writing after it is over, never allow any working through. We often focus on the dangers of writing up cases but some patients are delighted, for both good and bad reasons. Perhaps what we need more of are double versions like Yalom’s Everyday Gets a Little Closer: A Twice Told Tale (1990), in which the reader can openly see the analyst’s version along side what the patient was experiencing. We need not only successful treatments, but even more, accounts of how things go wrong. Surely we learn more from our failures than our successes. I know I learned a lot from Bellow’s failures to heal.

In Henderson, the hero escapes his high-powered life in America to live with an African tribe, where he is ultimately chosen as the new leader, The Rain King. When faced with the reality of his new task, Henderson flees. In a similar vein, Bellow sought out the territory of his unconscious darkness again and again. But as he was about to inherit the mantle of self-knowledge, he also fled. Bellow the Therapy King never let therapy rule over him.



Abramovitch, H. (2004). ‘Rabban Gamliel & Rabbi Yehoshua in the Analytic Training Institute: A Talmudic Text (Berachot 27b-28a) and the Group Life of Analysts’. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, vol, 6, 21-40.

Atlas, J. (1977). Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers.

Atlas, J. (2002) Bellow: A Biography. New York: Modern Library.

Kohut, H. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wharton, B. (2005). ‘Ethical issues in the publication of clinical material.’ Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 50, 83-90.

Wiener, D.N. (1988). Albert Ellis: Passionate Skeptic. New York: Prager.

Yalom, I. (1990). Everyday Gets a Little Closer: A Twice Told Tale. New York: Basic Books.