Boxer, Sarah. "Kurt Eissler, 90, Director of Sigmund Freud Archives," New York Times, 20
February 1999, p. A13.
Kurt Robert Eissler, the New York psychoanalyst who founded, directed and defended the
Sigmund Freud Archives and then handpicked a successor who ended up plunging the archive
into a sea of trouble, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
Until the 1980s Dr. Eissler was little known outside psychoanalytic circles. As Janet Malcolm
described him in 1983 in The New Yorker, "he was tall, gaunt and unmistakably European," he
was "an extraordinary clinician," and he was the author of many "quirky papers." His work
included papers on the treatment of schizophrenics and delinquents and a paper on the debate
about vaginal orgasm.
He wrote "The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient," (1955) "Leonardo da Vinci: Psychoanalytic
Notes on the Enigma" (1961) and a two-volume work, "Goethe: A Psychoanalytic Study" (1963).
He also wrote a number of books on Freudian history, including "Talent and Genius," about
Viktor Tausk, Freud's troubled student (1971). In that book, Ms. Malcolm wrote, he defended
Freud against "the insinuation that Freud was to blame" for his patient's death. "Eissler's
devotion to Freud," she added, was "considered a kind of lovable nuttiness."
After World War II Dr. Eissler and a small group of psychoanalysts, Heinz Hartmann, Ernst
Krus, Bertram Lewin and Herman Nunberg, decided to preserve Freud's letters and papers in a
single archive. The Library of Congress, Dr. Eissler wrote, agreed "to accept as a donation all
documents collected by the Archives, and to make them accessible to scholars." By the 1980s Dr.
Eissler, with the help of Anna Freud, had collected thousands of tapes, letters and papers for that
archive. (An exhibition of parts of the collection was held at the Library of Congress last year
and will be at the Jewish Museum this year.
But his role in psychoanalytic history took a turn (though he did not know it then) when he met
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a Sanskrit scholar and psychoanalyst, at an annual meeting of the
American Psychoanalytic Society.
This is how Dr. Masson remembered him when they met in 1974: Dr. Eissler, the Secretary of
the Archives, was "called the pope of orthodox analysis," Dr. Masson wrote in his book "Final
Analysis." He had "hundreds of hours of tape recordings of conversations with many of Freud's
patients," and he was a confidante of Anna Freud. Dr. Masson continued, "If anyone represented
the link with Freud and Freud's Vienna, it was the formidable Kurt Eissler."
Dr. Eissler, whose wife, Ruth, died in 1988, was a formal and secretive man. But he befriended
Dr. Masson because of their mutually intense interest in Freud. Dr. Eissler let Dr. Masson listen
to his tapes of the so-called Wolf Man, Freud's patient, and borrow valuable Freud documents.
Finally, in 1980 Dr. Eissler decided that Dr. Masson would be his successor at the archives. He
asked Anna Freud to release the letters between Freud and Wilhelm Fliess that had not yet been
published so that Dr. Masson could translate and edit them. The fatefulness of that decision
became clear to Dr. Eissler in 1981, when Dr. Masson, who was projects director of the archives,
delivered a shocking paper to the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society, in New Haven.
Dr. Masson said Freud had abandoned his "seduction theory" - the idea that adult neurosis is
caused by childhood sexual abuse - for personal rather than scientific reasons. By dropping the
seduction theory, Dr. Masson concluded, "Freud began a trend away from the real world that, it
seems to me, has come to a dead halt in the present-day sterility of psychoanalysis throughout the
The fallout followed quickly. Dr. Eissler led the 13-member board of the Freud Archives into a
vote to remove Dr. Masson from his position as projects director of the archives. In explanation
of his action, Dr. Eissler said: "Would you make director of the archives someone who writes
plain nonsense?" Then the legal tango began. Dr. Masson sued the Freud Archives for $13
million. Dr. Eissler sued Dr. Masson to get back his audio tapes and Freud's letters. And after
Ms. Malcolm wrote an article on the affair, she too was sued by Dr. Masson. One matter at the
heart of Malcolm trial involved a quotation in which Dr. Masson describes Dr. Eissler begging
him not to tell Anna Freud about the scandal. Dr. Eissler attended that trial. "There was about
him," Gwen Davis wrote in The Nation, "the poignance of old Geppetto, who had carved himself
a son, only to discover, to his profound chagrin, that Pinocchio was a naughty boy."
George Gross, a psychoanalyst and friend of Dr. Eissler, saw Dr. Eissler's emotions in a slightly
different light. Dr. Eissler, he said "was disappointed that he had not found a person who
understood Freud the way he did." In that, he was a little like Freud. Mr. Gross said, "Freud was