Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bert Cohler, Narrative and memories of an essential other

Max Ernst’s  “Angel of Hearth and Home” 

Reading through Adam Philiip’s lovely new philosophical essay Becoming Freud, I found myself thinking of my old mentor, Bert Cohler, who first engaged me in reading Freud two decades ago at University of Chicgao. The essay covered material Bert loved. As the book flap notes.

Becoming Freud is the story of the young Freud—Freud up until the age of fifty—that incorporates all of Freud’s many misgivings about the art of biography. Freud invented a psychological treatment that involved the telling and revising of life stories, but he was himself skeptical of the writing of such stories. In this biography, Adam Phillips, whom the New Yorker calls “Britain’s foremost psychoanalytical writer,” emphasizes the largely and inevitably undocumented story of Freud’s earliest years as the oldest—and favored—son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and suggests that the psychoanalysis Freud invented was, among many other things, a psychology of the immigrant—increasingly, of course, everybody’s status in the modern world.

In my years knowing Bert, we talked for hours about life writing and narrative, the way people tell stories and listen to others tell their stories.  His stories opened up a new way of looking at the world for me.  He helped me see the oral narratives I was compiling as an armchair historian and the assessments I was conducting as a social worker, these could function in much the same ways.

Bert then and shortly before he died, with a smile on his face.

At Chicago, I took his seminars and we met occasionally for coffee and a beer.  

That fall of 1996, we talked about Allan Ginsberg, who had just died, and the way to write about memories and lives, as well as connect with others while telling and listening to stories. Through psychoanalytic storytelling, he helped me see a framework for thinking about the way people tell their life stories. 

And I was not the only who felt that way.  Countless other friends and students remembered him that way.  My friend Sarah Schulman, who studied with Bert as an undergraduate in the 1970's, recalled writing a paper about the Interpretation of Dreams as an exploration of her lesbian identity.  The work would later form the basis of one of her novels. She later talked with Bert about that.  She recalled an extraordinary empathy is being around him. 

Bert was a mentor extraordinaire.  He continued the process years after I graduated from University of Chicago.  During those lunches, we told stories about the clients we were seeing, the books we were reading, connecting psychoanalysis with questions about hiv risk, the vulnerabilies of youth, sexuality, and narrative.  Bert helped me connect lives in time with a philosophy of narrative and psychoanalysis.

Our meetings in New York and Chicago were always fun.  The last time I saw him, we at oysters at the oyster bar.  “I just love oysters” Bert confessed over a beer. 

The night before Bert was giving a talk at the William Allanson White Institute, where I was in training.

There was no way to know that was the last time I’d see him.

We’d always loved writing about stories. I had helped comment on a book of his on gay male life writing and he’d offered suggestions for stories I could read that proved profoundly useful.

But over the years, our correspondence tapered off.   Bert was slowing down.  Still, he supported and mentored me from afar, drafting letters of recommendation for my first academic job and supporting me being a part of his last book.

Hammack, P.L., & Cohler, B.J. (Eds.). The story of sexual identity: Narrative
perspectives on the gay and lesbian life course. New York: Oxford University Press.
The last time I was in Chicago, giving a lecture at Layola, in 2012, I called Bert.  He said he was too tired to meet.  He would only live a few more months.

I did not find out he was gone till months later.

But his memories are always with me.  He demonstrated care through his gestures.  His view was that psychoanalysis should be for all, so he provided free long term psychoanalysis to patients.  His view was that universities should be places where researchers teach, so he taught and taught, above the call of duty.  He believed that we have to empathize, as he learned from Bettelheim, even as he forgive his mentor’s abuses, these were all hallmarks of who Bert was. 

When I met him, he was not quite out of the closet as a gay man, but he was getting there.  Everything was very secretive, but he brought me into his world.

Cohler in the classroom, as the master teacher.

We were all struck by Bert.  As another former student, Greg Holden, recalls, writing about a class with Bert.

''Picture yourself in a first-year Common Core class: ''Self, Culture, and Society,'' taught by Profesor Bertram Cohler. On this morning in Cobb Lecture Hall the room rings with voices and anticipation. A dozen students sit around a large table. The same number sit around the walls of the classroom. There is no ''head of the class,'' no lecrurer's podium. When Mr. Cohler comes in, he sits down at the table with the students. Papers rustle. Books are brought out of brightly colored backpacks. There is no lecture. He simply asks: ''How was Durkheim? What problems did it pose?''

Over our coffee meetings and in class, we talked about the blurry in between spaces of sexuality, identity and a queer sensibility which could help us all feel a little more human and at home with ourselves.   He wrote about his experiences as a gay man, going to bath houses, as a psychoanalyst, as a human, bring courage and honesty in countless ways. He connected psychoanalysis with narrative, philosophy with ethnography, and increasingly with authoethnophy as a method, he inspired me to explore.

And today, Bert remains with me.

I try to emulate Bert’s thoughtful entrance every time I walk into the room to teach.

He is there in the corners of my mind. Visiting Frances Bacon’s studio, in the Dublin City Gallery later that summer, I was taken by quiet images of his life and work, his photos of friends and catalogs strewn through his studio.  Throughout the trip, I had been reading the work of Bertram Cohler, my one time mentor at University of Chicago, who died this spring.  The last time I saw Bert for lunch at the Oyster Bar in New York in 2005.  He was here to deliver a paper at the White Institute where I was completing a one year course of study in psychoanalysis.  Waiting for Bert in the Oyster Bar, I was reading Freud’s case study of the Wolfman. 

Max Ernst’s  “Angel of Hearth and Home” is featured on the cover, so similar to Bacon.  The week before Dodi and I had gone to the Met where she declared “Wolfman” when she saw the picture on wall.  Bert smiled seeing the copy of the book.  We shared stories and books. He talked about his lecture at White ordering some clam chowder, oysters and a beer.  “I love oysters,” he confessed.  In the years to follow, his reference helped me get my first academic job.  He asked about a long life study I completed in graduate school, which I am now completing for a new book on friendships. In the years to follow that talk, he invited me to contribute an essay to his final published collection. Gradually, his correspondence became less and less engaged.   It was harder to reach him.  Last fall and spring I contacted him when I was in Chicago and he could not get together.  This summer, I looked up an article of his and saw his obituary. Over and over again in Chicago he advised that what connected social work and psychoanalysis  was advocacy. He framed case studies as narratives. But generativity was his life blood, he connected, empathized and cared about others. Today my copy of the Wolfman case study with the Ernst cover has those notes from that final engaged conversation. 

Like Harry Stack Sullivan, Cohler reminded us we all need “essential others;” we all need “chums” and not just as children, but throughout the course of our lives.  These connections can be the source of profound connections and even as sources of social change. 

And I think of Bert when I teach, when I talk with my students, and write about narrative.

Thanks for being a friend and mentor, and someone who asked the most of me, as I think about the messy corners of our minds, intentions, our dreams and stories.

And of course, I am not the only one to remember him fondly.  Robert Galzer Levy's keynote
address at the Conference Honoring Cohler is worth exploring. 

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