How Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden Found His True Self in Fiction

The story of how he came to literary writing begins with – not surprisingly – his mother.

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Thomas Ogden.
Thomas Ogden.Credit: Derek Yarra
Noya Kohavi
Noya Kohavi

SAN FRANCISCO – Dr. Thomas Ogden seats himself in his therapist’s chair; I’m on a chair at the other end of the room. Between us is a narrow bed, its head facing him. In his clinic, on the ground floor of his San Francisco home, Ogden, a highly regarded psychoanalyst, lecturer, training therapist and author of numerous books and articles, looks completely in his comfort zone. In the background a handsome library is visible, and on the walls are abstract images that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in therapy – monochromatic shades, lines that don’t commit to a figure, something to stare at and fill with meaning.

Ogden is pleasant, soft-spoken, curious. He looks younger than his 70 years. It’s clear that he’s skilled at forging rapid intimacy with strangers, a talent that has made him one of the most riveting and innovative psychoanalysts of his generation. He rarely gives interviews, but he propelled our meeting with continuous speech that sometimes proved a challenge to direct. Even though he is in the therapist’s chair, it seems as though it’s the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis – which demands that the analysand share his free associations unfiltered – that is guiding his speech. He talks about his life, both professional and personal, with great openness. In the first 10 minutes of our conversation he tells me that he was seven the first time he saw his mother cry, after the death of her psychoanalyst.

It’s apparently more important for him to ensure that he will be understood than to preserve mystery as a storyteller or a therapist. But Ogden is fascinating and entertaining, and the way he tells his life story sheds light on his work as a psychoanalyst, a writer, even as a baby boomer.

The excuse for our meeting is the publication in Hebrew of his debut novel, “The Parts Left Out” (2014). In the meantime he’s learned that his second novel, “In the Hands of Gravity and Chance” (2016), will also be appearing in Hebrew. His career as a writer of fiction followed decades of authoring psychoanalytical texts. Readers in Israel are familiar with some of them: “The Matrix of the Mind,” “The Primitive Edge of Experience,” “Rediscovering Psychoanalysis” and “On Not Being Able to Dream” were successful both within and outside the psychoanalytic community.

The fact that his professional books were published in Israel and commercially successful there surprised him, but he has an explanation. “I think that Jewish people – I’m Jewish – value introspection in a way that mainstream America does not,” he says, adding, “Jews have been interpreting texts forever, and language is text. It’s just part of the genes of the people.”

Ogden’s psychoanalytic writing declines to adhere to one particular school. He’s very much influenced by Donald Winnicott, who was one of the leading analysts in the British object relations school (we’ll get back to him later), and by Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion. Ogden has written extensively about all three, but his theory, which is not generalized or comprehensive, turned in other directions as well. His approach to psychoanalysis, and his writing on the subject, is often described not as diagnostic procedure but as textual analysis.

The first thing that stands out in Ogden’s writing is that it’s comprehensible. Writing about psychoanalysis tends to be tangled or jargonized. Not with Ogden. At times the simplicity with which he presents his ideas sounds confessional, such as in his articles about reveries as a metaphor for the subconscious. In these pieces, he offers examples from thoughts that pass through his own mind while sitting in the therapist’s seat, such as a personal letter he has to respond to, something he said to a friend that sounds silly in retrospect, everyday tasks. Apparent distractions.

In one such case, he writes about a patient who told him that his wife complained, many years into their marriage, that he wasn’t one hundred percent hers. The patient relates that, from his point of view, that’s not a sign that he’s going to leave her; rather, it’s what makes it possible for him to stay with her. Ogden here describes a thin line between the feeling of “not being there” and the feeling that an “element of privacy” is essential even while one feels “emotionally present with another person.” He draws a parallel between the patient’s experience and his, and the reverie, in this sense, is a process in which metaphors are created that give form to the analyst’s experience of the unconscious dimension of the analytical relationship.

The story of how he came to literary writing, Ogden begins with – not surprisingly – his mother. She loved to read herself, and encouraged him to read. In high school, he chose a book by Freud from the summer reading list, and from there the road to psychoanalysis was clear to him. The two lines – literature and psychoanalysis – operate in parallel in his life.

Sigmund Freud ןn his working room in 1938.

“When I was three, my mother went into analysis, and even though she never talked to me about it, there were always her ‘appointments,’” he relates. “As a three- or four-year-old, I didn’t know what an ‘appointment’ meant, but I did know that she left the house and there was [an additional] presence in our family. Along with my brother, who is two years younger, and my father and mother, there was always in my mind a fifth person at the table. For years this was never formulated, was never conceived of as more than a feeling, and actually the first time I saw my mother cry was when her analyst died, when I was seven.”

His parents, who he says were “thickly Jewish” culturally, had grown up in the same New York neighborhood. His father did not go to college, “not because he wasn’t intelligent enough, but because he was a poor student. His mind did not work the way the system works. He was passionate about English – sorry, that’s a slip – about music, and his first job was as an usher at Carnegie Hall, so he could get free admission to the concerts. My mother, as I said, was an avid reader. She was a very intelligent woman, and even though her mind, too, did not work in the structure of schools, she did go to college.

“I found that my mind actually worked well within the system of education,” he continues, “so I was a good student. She was amazed and she kept saying she didn’t know where I came from.”

Giving you great material for at least 10 years of analysis.

“Yes, she was wonderful. She just died a year and a quarter ago, at age 94. She went into hospice in my brother’s house and I read her the second novel, which I dedicated to her.”

Ogden grew up in the suburbs of New York. “It was a different era, which I feel fortunate to have grown up in. It wasn’t the era of play dates. We kids would ride our bikes to an open field and we would play baseball using a rock for each base. And if a parent came along to collect one of the children, everything would stop. It wasn’t for adults. I’m sad that my own children did not have that. For them everything was arranged by the parents. It was awful.”

After high school, Ogden became a literature and premed student at Amherst College in Massachusetts. There he had what he terms “the most important learning experience in my whole life” during his freshman year, in English literature. Three times a week the students had to write a page-and-a-half-long essay. The topics were very interesting, Ogden recalls. “One was to describe a situation in which you were being sincere. So then the next class the assignment was to describe a situation in which you were being insincere. And the third one was to describe the difference in your writing of the two. It was a wonderful experience, because [it meant that] I was writing all the time. From that point on, I knew that writing was going to be an important part of my life.”

He then went on to Yale University to study medicine, which at that time was a requirement for psychoanalysis. He’s been writing papers and books in his field for 40 years. “When I’m with a patient,” he notes, “what’s at issue is addressing emotional problems. But from the beginning, I also wanted to be a writer, and when you come to write about the psychoanalytic experience you are no longer helping the patient. It becomes a literary problem involving the structure of the article.”

Thomas Ogden.Credit: Derek Yarra

‘The most boring thing in the world’

One of the most popular aspects of Ogden’s analytic writing is his case descriptions, which fashion characters and their stories richly and elegantly, but with no unnecessary verbiage. Even though he doesn’t want his novel “The Parts Left Out,” in which one of the characters undergoes psychiatric treatment, to be understood as a type of case description, he does treat case descriptions as a type of literary fiction.

“Most analysts aspire to be scientific, which I think is ridiculous,” Ogden says. “Psychoanalysis is not a natural science – at best it’s a social science and probably closer to a literary experience, an experience in language. The case descriptions are fictions, even though they are based on actual experiences with people. Experiences and writing are not the same. You’re actually imagining the experience, or the person, whom you have to somehow capture in language.

“If you’ve ever seen a transcript of a session, it’s the most boring thing in the world. It’s dry, because it hasn’t captured any of the feeling or tone of voice, intonation, all the ways in which language is expressive. So when you’re writing about a case, you’re writing to create that music.”

Does that make it more enjoyable to read, or does it convey your message better?

“Both. What’s important is beauty in the language, which doesn’t mean floweriness – there can be very simple beauty. And that’s important.”

Are there writers you learned this from?

“The master of this, the genius, is Winnicott. For me, Winnicott is the finest writer of the English language. Each of his papers is a gem. He writes articles half the length of the standard. Which brings me to talk about novel-writing, in part because of all the details that are left out.”

Winnicott (1896-1971) was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who wrote many articles about the mother-child relationship and about the importance of games to preserve the feeling of substantiality, aliveness and authenticity. One of his best-known concepts is that of the “transitional object, the “true self,” which allows a child to feel a connection with others and with the body and its processes, and to experience a sense of being spontaneously alive, in contrast to a “false self,” a defense mechanism that masks the true self in order to meet others’ expectations. Like Ogden, Winnicott is not associated with any one psychoanalytic school. Instead, he borrows from theoretical propositions and creates his own independent theory.

Donald Winnicott.Credit: Northwestern Psychoanalytic Society and Institute

So you knew you wanted to be a writer, but for years you wrote in an academic context. How did the first novel come about?

“I was an apprentice for about 40 years before I decided to try my hand at writing fiction. I had actually been dishonest with myself. People would say, ‘Your case examples are very compelling – have you ever thought about writing fiction?’ And I would say, ‘Sure I have thought about it, but I don’t do it because I don’t have the talent for it.’ And that was the self-deception, because I never tried it.

"Finally I decided in my 60s that I didn’t have all the time in the world, so I tried. My first effort was a semi-autobiographical thing based on my family’s history and my parents growing up as Jews in New York City. But I ran into a big problem: I didn’t feel it was right to say too much about what my mother was telling me about the family, but if I said too little it was boring.”

Ogden continues, “While searching for a plot, I spoke to a friend who told me about a member of his family who was homeless in a city in this country. I asked him if, growing up with her, he had had any sort of clue that she was in very severe psychological difficulty. He said no, the only thing that came to mind is that she sucked her thumb into adolescence and her parents had her wear a glove to bed to help her break the habit. And a whole plot came to mind in response.

“I wrote a short story, which essentially was the first two or three chapters of the novel, where a boy and his mother are locked in a battle over his sucking his thumb. She tries the ointment and the glove and then just completely loses it, goes after him with a knife; the father intercedes, pushes her and knocks her so hard she dies. That was the end of the short story. And I actually used these words talking to myself: ‘There are too many parts left out.’ How is it that in this family it has come to this, that a mother goes after a child with a knife, and the husband kills the wife. That can’t stand as a short story, there are too many parts left out.”

“The Parts Left Out” is set in a small Midwestern town, surrounded by flat open spaces covered with wheat and corn. The world of the novel is small, isolated and narrow, composed of neighbors from nearby farms, members of the local church, the druggist, the deputy sheriff – and they too are remote from the family unit of mother, father, daughter and son who show different faces externally and internally. The novel traces the characters’ lives and describes the circumstances that led to the mother’s violent death in her house (already in the first chapter). But it also notes, time and again, the limits of the ability to understand, explain and describe, and points to the shadows of the parts that have been left out, between the characters as well as between the narrator and the reader.

“For me, some of the most important aspects of writing lie in the effects created by the parts left out,” Ogden observes. “They create mystery, suspense, the plausible and yet inexplicable. Leaving out parts shows respect for the reader’s ability not only to be affected by what he or she reads, but also to participate in the writing of the novel.”

The book’s dialogues appear to be replete with indirect, unconnected responses, “even seeming non-sequiturs,” Ogden points out, and explains, “I say ‘seeming,’ because they make sense, more or less, but at a depth that is not always within the awareness of the reader or my own awareness as I wrote. I hesitate to call that depth ‘the unconscious,’ because, in general, I don’t like the use of psychoanalytic terminology and concepts in the discussion of literature. They offer pseudo-explanations, explanations that sound scientific, but actually limit imaginative possibility.”

How does fiction writing differ from writing a case description?

“I try to leave the psychoanalysis behind. I try very hard. When I write novels, I’m a novelist, and when I’m with patients, I’m an analyst. With one, it’s a completely literary experience and I’m free to do anything, and the price for doing anything is that you’re given nothing, you have to make the whole thing up. But when I meet a patient in the waiting room for the very first time, there’s so much that I’m given – the way the patient looks at me, whether they’re standing or sitting, the pace and gait and the muscular tension with which they walk into the office. They’re giving an enormous amount of information.”

In his article “Reverie and Metaphor,” Ogden offers a similar description of the acute attention the therapist must give the patient. The development of an “analytic sensitivity,” he maintains, “centrally involves the enhancement of the analyst’s capacity to feel in a visceral way the alive moments of an analytic session.” Elaborating, he explains: “to hear that a word or a phrase has been used in an interesting, unexpected way; to notice that a patient’s glance in the waiting room feels coy or apologetic or steamy; to sense that a message left on one’s answering machine feels dangerously, and yet alluringly, mysterious; to experience in a bodily way that a period of silence in the hour feels like lying in bed with a spouse whom one has loved for many years, but who now feels like a stranger.”

You’ve written about the sensitivity to details and its importance for therapy. How did you develop that?

“I think it’s part temperament. I’ve always had a very intense temperament, I experience things at high volume, for better and for worse. I think that since that college course, I’ve read things in two ways at the same time. I put myself into the piece of fiction or poetry, and I also think about how are they doing this. And that’s always of equal importance to how they are making me feel.”

What do you wish to give the reader of your fiction? In your analytic writing you talk about concepts in psychoanalysis or your experiences as an analyst. But what about in the novel?

“That’s not quite right. I don’t think of my analytic papers as instructive. I aspire but do not have any delusions of being anywhere near Winnicott. I aspire to give the reader an experience that is as much emotional as conceptual. One of Winnicott’s most fundamental ideas is that analysis requires, as an insufficient but nonetheless necessary condition, the patient and analyst to live and experience together, and then learn from that experience. And I think that’s what I aspire to. To be able to create in a literary form an experience for the reader to live together with me as the writer, and come out changed by it. That is where I put all the emphasis, both in therapy, analysis and also in literature, in film, in any form of art.

“The important thing is not what a person learns or even what they remember, but how they are changed by the experience. That’s also true of a dream: a dream is important only to the extent that we are changed by it. We don’t even have to remember it – something’s happened that’s made us different. That really is what I aspire to, that when a person finishes the novel, they feel changed, they’re just a little bit different from what they were before.”

Do you want to specify in what way they’re changed?

Ogden laughs. “No. That’s very important, too, and again it’s what Winnicott does so well. What’s important is to leave space open for the person to do something of their own with it. And what you do and what I do and what every other person does is different. I think of it as a form of receptivity, a form of openness on the part of the person who’s taking part, and it’s different in analysis than in writing, because everyone is reading the same book. For Freud, the fundamental rule was that you say everything that’s on your mind, you don’t keep any secrets. For me, the fundamental rule is that you create a conversation with this person that you’ve had with no other person. It’s very different from reading a book, apart from the receptivity of the reader, who may or may not be open to or even interested in this kind of experience.

“For example,” he continues, “in ‘The Parts Left Out,’ it’s an experience of wrestling with helplessness to extricate oneself from something that feels dangerous. The husband, Earl, struggles with that the whole time, so there’s a kind of sense of fate against which he’s struggling. Some people experience that very immediately in their lives and are moved and changed by a book that takes on that kind of theme, and others aren’t.”

I read the book differently. For me it was about consequences and led me to ask why the characters do what they do, in regard to the random quality of certain decisions in life that lead to consequences you could never have imagined.

“I say this genuinely: I put more faith in your reading of the book than in mine. I really do. An artist friend told me that he read, I don’t know where, that a well-known artist met a critic who asked about one of his paintings, and the artist said, ‘I do the painting and I leave the thinking to others.’ And I really do think that about the book: I do the writing and I leave the thinking about it to you, and I think it’s better thinking than I can do.”

“For me,” he adds in an email a few days later, “the act of writing must include my own surprise in response to what the novel is becoming. I don’t begin with an idea of where the story is going. When writing is going well, I am surprised by what I am writing. I keep asking myself, What is this novel about? And I can only begin to answer the question after the novel feels complete to me, and I feel that this is the place to stop. Life isn’t like that. The story of life does not find a place to stop, it just continues, and we have to keep asking, what is it about?”



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