“He taught me to be critically minded”

David Bernstein inspired by Jean Schimek


He wanted to become a psychoanalyst. That is why David Bernstein (1956) moved from his place of birth Los Angeles to New York at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties. “New York University offered one of the best psychoanalytically oriented programmes,” says Bernstein, professor of Forensic Psychotherapy at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences. “One of my lecturers was Jean Schimek. I was impressed by his in-depth knowledge of Freud’s work. I also admired him because he tried to be objective and was not tempted to adopt extreme points of view about Freud’s work. He wanted to understand what Freud meant, read his texts meticulously, and encouraged his students to do the same. He taught me to choose my own line, to be critically minded.”

Schimek investigated Freud’s theory of seduction. According to this theory, hysterical phenomena in women are caused by a sexual trauma in childhood. Later, Freud rejected the theory when he concluded that fantasy played a major role in sexual abuse. Bernstein: “For this, he was widely criticised. He was accused of betraying women by denying their abuse. However, this was not what Freud did, as Schimek taught us. Freud only indicated that fantasy played a role in the perception of abuse, as Schimek discovered, without denying it. So everyone has his or her own way of dealing with traumatic events. Schimek illustrated this by referring to patients from his own practice. He described three abused women who afterwards each went their own way. The first became a nun, the second a prostitute, and the third a psychoanalyst.”

Bernstein did not become a psychoanalyst. “During my psychoanalytical training, I started to see its limitations. It is a lengthy, passive therapy, in which the search is always for something dark, for something in the subconscious. Conscious experiences don’t count so there is hardly any recognition for the patient’s perception. That is why I sometimes say that psychoanalysis is the only business in the world where the customer is always wrong!”     

Until Schimek’s death in 2002, Bernstein met him from time to time. “He was my supervisor during my clinical internship and, if only on paper, the supervisor of my research.” Schimek’s death was caused by a neurological disease. At his funeral, his wife told a story that Bernstein had never heard before. Schimek - a Jew - grew up in Austria or Germany (Bernstein is not sure) and he was a teenager when the Nazis took over the country. Some Jewish people, wanting their children to be safe, sent them to Switzerland. Schimek, a fourteen-year-old boy at the time, was the one who took care of these children and took them on their journey across the Alps. Having arrived in Switzerland, he changed his name. Bernstein does not know why Schimek never told this story. “Maybe it was too painful for him, maybe this was his trauma and did he become a psychoanalyst in order to deal with it.”

Ingrid Candel

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

“He taught me to be critically minded”
David Bernstein and Jean Schimek
Author: Redactie
Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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