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The Interpretation of Khan

The Boston Globe, December 15, 2002

ON JUNE 19 of last year, 120 members of a famously secretive organization met to discuss recent accusations that sexual and ethical infractions had been committed by one of their own. Violating the organization’s oath to minister to those in need, this member had repeatedly betrayed the sacred trust of those who had sought his help. It was an occasion for collective soul-searching, a time to acknowledge, in the words of a confidential report on the meeting, “the severe institutional difficulties and limitations we face. . . in tackling perverse and psychopathic behaviors in our membership.” Another scandal in the Catholic Church? No, the meeting took place in the London offices of the British Psycho- Analytical Society, and was called in response to the economist Wynne Godley’s charges that he had been psychologically tortured by Mohammed Masud Raza Khan, a charismatic Anglo-Pakistani psychoanalyst, during the course of his seven-year analysis. Godley, a visiting scholar at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute and professor emeritus at Cambridge University, shocked the psychoanalytic world when his memoir of Khan was published in a Feb. 2001 issue of the London Review of Books.

Godley’s analysis was a “long and fruitless battle culminating in a spiral of degradation,” he wrote. “Within minutes of our first meeting, the therapeutic relationship had been totally subverted.” In later sessions, Khan violated almost every one of his profession’s carefully established boundaries between analyst and patient. He assaulted the very British Godley with verbal tirades (“And to think you people ruled the world!”). He gossiped freely about his A-list social life – Rudolph Nureyev, Julie Christie, Peter O’Toole, Mike Nichols – and his other patients, going so far as to arrange a liaison between the happily married Godley and a female patient. (Khan said they were “handmade for one another.”) The three of them – the two patients and their analyst – even played poker together. (Khan cheated.)

The article was especially devastating because Khan had been one of psychoanalysis’s best and brightest – he was a protege of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and a long-time collaborator with the most famous child analyst of the 20th century, D.W. Winnicott. (Khan edited and, some speculate, may have co-authored some of Winnicott’s voluminous output of books and papers.) Thanks to his impeccable professional pedigree, he was seen as the link between the legendary first generation of psychoanalysts and some of today’s most important analysts. Indeed, Anna Freud insisted that Khan understood her father’s work better than anyone else – other than herself, of course – and spoke in defense of her star pupil whenever he aroused the Society’s ire.

Psychoanalysis has often appeared to be in a state of perpetual crisis, but the Khan-Godley affair comes at a particularly fraught moment in the discipline’s history. Critics such as Frederick Crews, Adolph Grunbaum, and Peter Swales have undermined psychoanalysis’s long-standing claim to scientific rigor and punched holes in the received story of its founding and development. In response, some psychoanalysts have refashioned Freud into a man of letters, while others have sought new support for his work in the discoveries of neuroscience.
“Every family has secrets. And what we are witnessing in the `family’ of psychoanalysis is nothing less than `the return of the repressed,’ ” says Gregorio Kohon, an animated Argentine emigre and member of the Psycho-Analytical Society. “Everything is being criticized and re-evaluated here, everything is up for grabs.”

Over the past year and a half, the Khan scandal has revived several long-simmering disputes that go to the heart of the psychoanalytic enterprise. Should analysts maintain a clinical, professional distance, respecting the “boundaries” between themselves and their patients (as classical analysis insists they should)? Or should they strive for a so-called “real relationship,” eroding the sacred boundaries in order to comfort and heal the patient? The question here is this: Was Khan’s behavior anomalous, or are there ideas within certain traditions of psychoanalysis that unwittingly encourage such flagrant boundary violations?

. . .

Tall, darkly handsome, and impeccably tailored (Savile Row with a dash of the Raj), Khan was anything but the stereotypically self- effacing shrink. In fact, he claimed to be a Pakistani prince, and had a gold nameplate affixed to his door that read “His Royal Highness Masud Khan.” In 1959 Khan married the ballerina Svetlana Beriosova, through whom he acquired a far-flung set of celebrity friends. Francois Truffaut, Princess Margaret, and Julie Andrews (Beriosova was her daughter’s godmother) attended parties at their London apartment, where Khan circulated among guests performing “instant analyses” as a kind of party trick – an act which inspired the literary critic Frank Kermode, also a friend, to dub him a “circus analyst.”
For all his considerable charm, Khan could also be ill-behaved and overbearing. On one occasion, Mike Nichols recalls, Khan sent a chocolate cake to an obese man at another table at the restaurant where they were dining, calling across to him as it was delivered, “So that you might die sooner!” On another, while drinking champagne with the French analyst Andre Green, Khan deliberately nudged the bottle off the table, sending it crashing to the floor. He turned to the man at the adjacent table and demanded an apology, creating such a scene that the innocent diner eventually bought them a new bottle.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Khan’s behavior was that it usually went unchallenged. One reason, suggests Kermode, was Khan’s intelligence. Kermode recalls a standing-room-only lecture by the French analyst Jacques Lacan at London’s Institute Francais in the mid-1960s, when Lacan was at the height of his fame. “It was boring and went on for three hours. Finally, Masud strode up to the stage and interrupted him saying, `No, you’re explaining this incorrectly.’ ” Khan then proceeded to offer his own version of Lacanian theory while Lacan beamed with admiration.

In an interview, Godley suggests Khan’s dual personae – the bully and the charismatic – were uniquely suited for exploiting British reticence and reserve. When not daring an opponent (or analysand) to call his bluff, he seduced them. The psychoanalyst Karl Menninger often told the story of Khan’s lecture at his clinic in Topeka, Kansas, after which he promised to send Menninger – an avid horseman – four Arabian stallions from his “royal stables” in Pakistan. Needless to say, they never arrived. “Don’t you know?” Khan explained when asked about the incident years later, “I always tell people what they want to hear.”

How did Freud’s “science of the mind” end up producing someone like Khan? And how did someone like Khan thrive in the most exclusive precincts of the psychoanalytic world?

. . .

Ever since 1919, British psychoanalysis has been the product of one organization: The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, which administers the activities of the British Psycho-Analytical Society – including the training and further education of psychoanalysts. In the 1940s, the Institute was rocked by the “Controversial Discussions” which pitted Anna Freud and her followers against child analyst Melanie Klein, who favored – among other things – a more confrontational relationship between analyst and patient. Ultimately, the debates spawned a third party known as the Middle, or Independent Group. Its most famous member was D.W. Winnicott, who modified Freud’s theory of innate drives by placing the environment – primarily the mother-child relationship – at the center of his work.

In Winnicott’s view, it was vital to create a “safe holding space” for patients. To do so, he often blurred classical formulas of psychoanalysis, taking phone calls from patients during sessions, for example, and offering extended visits at odd times. With some patients, Winnicott literally held their hands or heads, much as one might cradle a frightened infant. For the most troubled patients, Winnicott believed that a safe, “holding” environment was all that analysis had to offer.

When Khan entered analysis with Winnicott in 1951, he might well have qualified as a troubled patient: His first two analysts had both died before the analysis was complete. The relationship between Khan and Winnicott was a complex one, alternating between filial indulgence and collegial rivalry. Winnicott, the chief theorist of childhood, hadn’t been able to have children with either of his two wives (the first of whom was psychotic) and longed for a son. Khan, meanwhile, was ashamed of his mother, a former dancing girl in Pakistan, and he was grieving for his late father – not to mention his first two analysts. Winnicott, who had suffered several heart attacks, would occasionally fall asleep during Khan’s sessions; Khan would leap to his feet, anxiously looking behind the couch to make sure his third analyst hadn’t died.

For most of his 15-year analysis, Khan was Winnicott’s de facto secretary (an independently wealthy man, Winnicott also had a paid, full-time secretary), performing various editorial tasks for his many books and articles. Five times a week Khan would lie on Winnicott’s couch for analysis; most afternoons he would stop by Winnicott’s study to work on his papers. As writer and editor their relationship was extremely productive; as analyst and patient it was a dismal failure.

Why it failed has been the subject of heated debate. Brett Kahr, a psychotherapist who is writing a biography of Winnicott, ascribes the difficulties to “secretarial neurosis” – the process by which patients and disciples are turned into secretaries. In an unpublished essay, Kahr points out that Winnicott had helped his analyst, James Strachey, with the preparation of the Standard Edition of Freud’s collected writings, just as Strachey had collaborated with his own analyst, Freud. Kahr argues that Khan, far from being an exception, was in fact part of a long counter- tradition in psychoanalysis, a guild in which boundary violations between patient and analyst are the rule, where the patient’s wish to have a real relationship with his psychoanalyst is more often realized rather than analyzed away. The intimacy and love Khan experienced in his analysis with Winnicott may have taken a markedly different form when he tried to create a similar bond with Godley, the other wealthy aristocratic Englishman in his life.

Khan’s behavior was always eccentric, but his descent into obvious madness only began when his mother and Winnicott died within a few months of one another in 1971. The final blow came when the will was read and he learned that Winnicott had appointed his wife, not Khan, as his literary executor. After years of selfless editorial service, Khan felt cruelly cast out.

His behavior grew even more erratic. At a conference in Geneva, Khan slipped away from one of the panels and stole an expensive watch from a boutique, spending the night in jail. When the analyst Susie Orbach (who later became Princess Diana’s shrink) and a colleague met with him as part of their training, Khan received them from a throne-like chair and proceeded to gossip about his patients’ sexual habits. “At one point he showed us a sword, which he claimed he had used to kill a dog a patient had brought with him to a session. I knew then that I was in the presence of someone who was deeply troubled,” Orbach says. On their way out, Khan gave the two a book by the Marquis de Sade.

In 1976 Khan was diagnosed with cancer and had part of a lung removed. That same year, Beriosova divorced him. In 1977 the Society withdrew Khan’s right to train students, but not – significantly – his right to analyze ordinary people. The analysts of tomorrow were safe from Khan, in other words, but the “civilians,” the patients of the moment, were not. In 1987 the cancer spread, and Khan’s larynx and part of his trachea were removed; he became agoraphobic, rarely leaving his apartment.

Somehow he continued to write, and in 1988 Khan published “The Long Wait,” a collection of case studies. The book was rumored to have several offensive sections, and when it appeared, the Society’s ethics committee immediately ordered 25 copies. They were not disappointed. The book’s central case study, “A Dismaying Homosexual,” contained a vicious anti-Semitic harangue. Khan was too ill to travel to the Society, so he was “struck off” in absentia.

Determined to have the last word, he resigned before receiving official word of his expulsion. The Society immediately began receiving “anonymous” bomb threats which could only have come from Khan. Although he was at the time alcoholic, riddled with cancer, and confined to his bed, Khan so frightened the Society that the president hired a security guard.
The man whom the analyst Charles Rycroft called “the damaged Archangel” died on June 7, 1989.

. . .

What happened to Masud Khan? Linda Hopkins, a psychoanalyst who is writing the first full-length biography of Khan, believes he suffered from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, although she suspects his upbringing and analysis hindered him as well. In any case, the Institute was content to leave such questions unexplored – until Godley’s wrenching memoir was published.

Soon after the article appeared, Donald Campbell, then the Society’s president, launched a full-scale investigation. A members- only meeting was subsequently called to discuss the affair and a confidential report was shared with members. It was now clear that the Society’s collusion in Khan’s misbehavior had begun with Khan’s training in 1946. Although he’d failed to complete his first psychoanalytic case successfully – the case was supervised by Anna Freud herself – Khan was nevertheless officially qualified as an analyst, in blatant violation of the Society’s rules. By 1950, at the remarkably young age of 26, Khan had become a full-fledged analyst. After being rejected three times “for unspecified reasons,” the report notes, Khan was made a training analyst in 1959.

According to the investigation, members of the Society continued to protect Khan even after he’d had an extremely public affair with a patient who was training with him to be an analyst. When her husband – who was also training at the Institute, though not with Kahn – complained to the Institute’s president, it was “some time before he was even believed and action was taken.” (Kahn later had an affair with a woman whose husband he was treating.)

The report also found a variety of other boundary violations. Khan dined regularly with the father of one of his “high profile” female patients. He frequently phoned patients in the middle of the night and barged into their homes, drunk and disturbed. “I wasn’t the only one,” says Godley. “Khan was a serial killer.”

The Institute has yet to fashion any new policies in response to its failure to protect Khan’s patients. But in a confidential memo, the honorary secretary of the Institute’s ethical committee raises a few topics for his colleagues’ “consideration.” Psychoanalysts, the memo notes, must recognize the existence of “perverse and psychotic areas in ourselves while concurrently trying to analyze such areas of the personalities in our patients.” It then asks: “Where does our first loyalty lie? To patients or to colleagues?” Finally, it broaches the least welcome idea of all: “the limitations of psychoanalysis as a treatment, and the hazard of omnipotence and omniscience.”