Photograph of Hans Thorner

Hans Thorner

Life and career

Dr Hans Thorner was born in 1905 in Meissen, Germany. He studied medicine and qualified as a doctor specialising in neurology and psychiatry. With the Nazi persecution of Jews he left Germany, having lost his position in Berlin as a neurologist, and arrived in London in 1933. Following his first analysis there with Frieda Fromm Reichmann, he trained at the British Psychoanalytical Society, qualifying as a member in 1938. In London he was in analysis, first with Melanie Klein, and later with Wilfred Bion.

He worked as a GP in a village on the outskirts of London and then, from 1942 to 1946, in Shenley Hospital as a Major in the British army, treating psychoneurotic patients. Later he worked in the Cassel Hospital, before taking up full-time private practice as a training analyst and supervisor. He made frequent visits to post-war Germany and also Brazil, supervising and lecturing on psychoanalysis. As a teacher he was renowned for the simplicity with which he conveyed complex psychoanalytical ideas, often cross-referencing to classical literature, the Bible and Greek mythology. 

Thorner wrote numerous papers, some of which he had presented to the British Psychoanalytical Society between the late 1930s and the mid 1980s, and others which were published in Britain and/or in Germany. A few are highlighted in more detail below. Thorner also revised the original translation of Melanie Klein’s The Psychoanalysis of Children (1975) in collaboration with Alix Strachey.

In his retirement, Dr Thorner moved with his wife to join their children in the United States, where he died in 1991.

Understanding inner persecution

In his seminal paper, ‘Three defences against inner persecution – examination anxiety, depersonalization and hypochondria’ (1955), Thorner suggests three groups of patients. In the first, the inner persecutors are projected outside and then experienced as an external danger. They use the situation of a test (examination) to diminish their anxiety by externalising an inner danger, thus confining a universal (genital) danger to a specific situation. In the second, the externalisation is complicated by splitting of the ego and a process of projective identification, leaving the patient’s ego impoverished. If the patient tries to externalise the danger by projection of an inner persecuting object, but is unable to sever the intimate connection between the inner persecuting object and his ego, he does not lose the feeling of an inner persecution. The persecutor remains attached to a greater part of the ego, causing a feeling of unreality, manifested either by depersonalisation (feeling the ego has changed) or by derealisation (feeling the world has changed) or both. In the third he considers hypochondria, in which the ego-split follows the body-mind boundary and the persecuting inner objects are expelled from the core of the ego into the body, thus prevented from permeating the ego as a whole. 

Symbolization and sublimation

Later, in response to Hanna Segal’s paper ‘Notes on symbol formation’, Thorner published ‘Either/or – a contribution to the problem of symbolization and sublimation’ (1981). Here he describes a patient unable to establish a meaningful synthesis of two aspects: the symbolic representation and the idea of a game – any contact is felt as a powerful collision. He further makes a useful distinction between concentration and attention. He sees concentration as a form of splitting to exclude, attention as perceptiveness to stimuli which emanate from other objects, and a readiness to receive. He suggests that in order to experience life as a whole it is necessary to have more than one stimulus and meaning, and to tolerate others that are also present. The patient here cannot combine one idea with another.

The ‘good object’

In another paper, ‘The criteria of progress in a patient during analysis’ (1952), following the work of Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere, Thorner follows their views on how the patient’s sense of security depends largely on his or her relation to the good object. Thorner follows the progress of an analysis in terms of the ‘good object’ and its fate in the inner and outer world of the patient. He shows how the good object, which at one stage is idealised and appears all-powerful, and as such is anxiety-producing, becomes a more realistic and benevolent good object. The patient can accept its limitations and its discipline as he or she accepts the discipline of analysis. The patient may often sway from one phase to the other before he or she has reached lasting stability. As the patient’s anxieties with regard to his or her own dangerousness are diminished through the analysis, the internal world becomes safer and more stable. This process goes together with the introjections of the ‘good object’ represented by the analyst. Thorner goes on to say that the introjection is not that of the ‘real’ analyst, but of the good object of the patient, which he or she had previously projected on to the analyst. With the progress of the treatment, the patient’s reaction to analysis will change, and with it the unconscious meaning of the analysis.  

He suggests that patients, with analytic help, will feel less guilty and, through greater tolerance of suffering and depressive feelings, their craving for reassurance and extra-analytical help will lessen. With this increasing tolerance, the nature of the analytic material will change and become more realistic, while at the same time they will be in more direct contact with the deeper layers of their unconscious. The need to compare themselves with others diminishes and they are able to rely more on their own feelings, ideas and values. This subject of the ‘recovery of the lost good object’ was further developed by Dr Eric Brenman (2006).

Naomi Shavit & Irma Brenman Pick

Key publications

1946 Thorner, H. A. ‘The treatment of psychoneurosis in the British Army’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 27: 52-59.

1949 Thorner, H. A. ‘Notes on a case of male homosexuality’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 30: 31-35.

1952 Thorner, H. A. ‘Examination anxiety without examination’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 153-159.

1952 Thorner, H. A. ‘The criteria of progress in a patient during analysis’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 479-484.

1955 Thorner, H. A. ‘Three defences against inner persecution in M. Klein’, in P. Heimann, R. E. Money-Kyrle (eds.) New Directions in Psycho-Analysis. Tavistock Publications.

1981 Thorner, H. A. ‘Notes on the desire for knowledge’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 62: 73-80.

1981 Thorner, H. A. ‘Either/or – a contribution to the problem of symbolization and sublimation’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 62: 455-463.

1985 Thorner, H. A. ‘On repetition. Its relationship to the depressive position’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 66: 231-236.