Biography of Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was bom on February 7, 1870, in Rudolfsheim, a village near Vienna. His mother Pauline was a hard-working homemaker who kept busy with her seven children. His father Leopold was a middle-class Jewish grain merchant from Hungary. As a young boy, Adler was weak and sickly and at age 5, he nearly died of pneumonia. He had gone ice-skating with an older boy who abandoned young Alfred. Cold and shivering, Adler managed to find his way home where he immediately fell asleep on the living room couch. As Adler gradually gained consciousness, he heard a doctor say to his parents, "Give yourself no more trouble. The boy is lost" (Hoffman, 1994, p. 8). This experience, along with the death of a younger brother, motivated Adler to become a physician.

Adler's poor health was in sharp contrast to the health of his older brother Sig-mund. Several of Adler's earliest memories were concerned with the unhappy competition between his brother's good health and his own illness. Sigmund Adler, the childhood rival whom Adler attempted to surpass, remained a worthy opponent, and in later years he became very successful in business and even helped Alfred financially. By almost any standard, however, Alfred Adler was much more famous than Sigmund Adler. Like many secondborn children, however, Alfred continued the rivalry with his older brother into middle age. He once told one of his biographers, Phyllis Bottome (1939, p. 18), "My eldest brother is a good industrious fellow—he was always ahead of me . . . and he is still ahead of me!"

The lives of Freud and Adler have several interesting parallels. Although both men came from middle- or lower-middle-class Viennese Jewish parents, neither was devoutly religious. However, Freud was much more conscious of his Jewishness than was Adler and often believed himself to be persecuted because of his Jewish background. On the other hand, Adler never claimed to have been mistreated, and in 1904, while still a member of Freud's inner circle, he converted to Protestantism. Despite this conversion, he held no deep religious convictions, and in fact, one of his biographers (Rattner, 1983) regarded him as an agnostic.

Like Freud, Adler had a younger brother who died in infancy. This early experience profoundly affected both men but in vastly different ways. Freud, by his own account, had wished unconsciously for the death of his rival and when the infant Julius did in fact die, Freud was filled with guilt and self-reproach, conditions that continued into his adulthood.

In contrast, Adler would seem to have had a more powerful reason to be traumatized by the death of his younger brother Rudolf. At age 4, Adler awoke one

Chapter 3 Adler: Individual Psychology 67

morning to find Rudolf dead in the bed next to his. Rather than being terrified or feeling guilty, Adler saw this experience, along with his own near death from pneumonia as a challenge to overcome death. Thus, at age 5, he decided that his goal hi life would be to conquer death. Because medicine offered some chance to forestall death, Adler decided at that early age to become a physician (Hoffman, 1994).

Although Freud was surrounded by a large family, including seven younger brothers and sisters, two grown half-brothers, and a nephew and niece about his age, he felt more emotionally attached to his parents, especially his mother, than to these other family members. In contrast, Adler was more hiterested in social relationships, and his siblings and peers played a pivotal role hi his childhood development. Personality differences between Freud and Adler continued throughout adulthood, with Freud preferrhig intense one-to-one relationships and Adler feeling more comfortable hi group situations. These personality differences were also reflected in then professional organizations. Freud's Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and International Psychoanalytic Association were highly structured in pyramid fashion, with an inner circle of six of Freud's trusted friends forming a kind of oligarchy at the top. Adler, by comparison, was more democratic, often meeting with colleagues and friends hi Vienna coffeehouses where they played a piano and sang songs. Adler's Society for Individual Psychology, in fact, suffered from a loose organization, and Adler had a relaxed attitude toward bushiess details that did not enhance his movement (Ellen-berger, 1970).

Adler attended elementary school with neither difficulty nor distinction. However, when he entered the Gymnasium hi preparation for medical school, he did so poorly that his father threatened to remove him from school and apprentice him to a shoemaker (Grey, 1998). As a medical student he once agahi completed work with no special honors, probably because his hiterest in patient care conflicted with his professors' hiterest hi precise diagnoses (Hoffman, 1994). When he received his medical degree near the end of 1895, he had realized his childhood goal of becoming a physician.

Because his father had been bom hi Hungary, Adler was a Hungarian citizen and was thus obliged to serve a tour of military duty in the Hungarian army. He fulfilled that obligation immediately after receiving his medical degree and then returned to Vienna for postgraduate study. (Adler became an Austrian citizen in 1911). He began private practice as an eye specialist, but gave up that specialization and turned to psychiatry and general medicine.

Scholars disagree on the first meeting of Adler and Freud (Bottome, 1939; El-lenenberger, 1970; Fiebert, 1997; Handlbauer, 1998), but all agree that in the late fall of 1902, Freud invited Adler and tlnee other Viennese physicians to attend a meeting in Freud's home to discuss psychology and neuropathology. This group was known as the Wednesday Psychological Society until 1908, when it became the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Although Freud led these discussion groups, Adler never considered Freud to be his mentor and believed somewhat naively that he and others could make contributions to psychoanalysis—contributions that would be acceptable to Freud. Although Adler was one of the original members of Freud's inner circle, the two men never shared a warm personal relationship. Neither man was quick to recognize theoretical differences even after Adler's 1907 publication of Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (1907/1917), which

68 Part II Psychodynamic Theories assumed that physical deficiencies—not sex—formed the foundation for human motivation.

During the next few years, Adler became even more convinced that psychoanalysis should be much broader than Freud's view of infantile sexuality, hi 1911, Adler, who was then president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, presented his views before the group, expresshig opposition to the strong sexual proclivities of psychoanalysis and insisting that the drive for superiority was a more basic motive than sexuality. Both he and Freud finally recognized that their differences were irreconcilable, and hi October of 1911 Adler resigned his presidency and membership hi the Psychoanalytic Society. Along with nine other former members of the Freudian circle, he formed the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Study, a name that irritated Freud with its implication that Freudian psychoanalysis was opposed to a free expression of ideas. Adler, however, soon changed the name of his organization to the Society for Individual Psychology—a name that clearly indicated he had abandoned psychoanalysis.

Like Freud Adler was affected by events surrounding World War I. Both men had financial difficulties, and both reluctantly borrowed money from relatives— Freud from his brother-in-law Edward Bennays and Adler from his brother Sigmund. Each man also made important changes hi his theory. Freud elevated aggression to the level of sex after viewhig the horrors of war, and Adler suggested that social interest and compassion could be the cornerstones of human motivation. The war years also brought a major disappointment to Adler when his application for an unpaid lecture position at the University of Vienna was turned down. Adler wanted this position to gain another forum for spreadhig his views, but he also desperately desired to attain the same prestigious position that Freud had held for more than a dozen years. Adler never attahied this position, but after the war he was able to advance his theories through lecturing, establishing child guidance clinics, and training teachers.

During the last several years of his life, Adler frequently visited the United States, where he taught individual psychology at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. By 1932, he was a permanent resident of the United States and held the position ofVisiting Professor for Medical Psychology at Long Island College of Medichie, now Downstate Medical School, State University of New York. Unlike Freud who disliked Americans and their superficial understanding of psychoanalysis, Adler was hnpressed by Americans and admired their optimism and open-mindedness. His popularity as a speaker in the United States during the mid-19308 had few rivals, and he ahned his last several books toward a receptive American market (Hoffman, 1994).

Adler married a fiercely independent Russian woman, Raissa Epstehi, in December of 1897. Raissa was an early feminist and much more political than her husband. In later years, while Adler lived hi New York, she remained mostly hi Vienna and worked to promote Marxist-Leninist views that were quite different from Adler's notion of individual freedom and responsibility. After several years of requests by her husband to move to New York, Raissa finally came to stay hi New York only a few months before Adler's death. Ironically, Raissa, who did not share her husband's love for America, continued to live hi New York until her own death, nearly a quarter of a century after Adler had died (Hoffman, 1994).

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Raissa and Alfred had four children: Alexandra and Kurt, who became psychiatrists and continued then father's work; Valentine (Vali), who died as a political prisoner of the Soviet Union in about 1942; and Cornelia (Nelly), who aspired to be an actress.

Adler's favorite relaxation was music, but he also maintained an active interest in art and literature. In his work he often borrowed examples from fairy tales, the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, and numerous other literary works. He identified himself closely with the common person, and his manner and appearance were consistent with that identification. His patients included a high percentage of people from the lower and middle classes, a rarity among psychiatrists of his time. His personal qualities included an optimistic attitude toward the human condition, an intense competitiveness coupled with friendly congeniality, and a strong belief in the basic gender equality, which combined with a willingness to forcefully advocate women's rights.

From middle childhood until after his 67th birthday, Adler enjoyed robust health. Then, in the early months of 1937, while concerned with the fate of his daughter Vali who had disappeared somewhere in Moscow, Adler felt chest pams while on a speakmg tour in the Netherlands. Ignoring the doctor's advice to rest, he continued on to Aberdeen, Scotland where on May 28, 1937, he died of a heart attack. Freud who was 14 years older than Adler, had outlived his longtime adversary. On hearing of Adler's death, Freud (as quoted in E. Jones, 1957) sarcastically remarked "For a Jew boy out of a Viennese suburb a death in Aberdeen is an unheard-of career in itself and a proof of how far he had got on. The world really rewarded him richly for his service in having contradicted psychoanalysis" (p. 208).

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