James Grotstein

James Grotstein

Born in Ohio in 1925, James S Grotstein was an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. A curious, wide-ranging and voracious reader, as well as a prolific writer, he published over 250 papers and wrote or edited 12 books. He was a key figure in the introduction of Kleinian ideas to Californian psychoanalysis, and a passionate follower of Bion’s work. Grotstein was for several years North American Vice President of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (IJP). Alongside his private practice, he was also Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Unfailingly energetic and engaged in his work, he continued to write, lecture, supervise candidates and see patients until the last months of his life. Grotstein was, in his former analyst and supervisor Albert Mason’s words, ‘indefatigable’. He possessed great enthusiasm for life, as well as a lively sense of humour, a keen habit of punning and playing with language, and a love of tennis. He died aged 89 on 30th May 2015, at home in Los Angeles.

Training and early career

Grotstein studied at the University of Akron, Ohio, gained his MD from Western Reserve University, and completed his psychiatric training at hospitals in Chicago, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles Between 1955 and 1961, he trained as a psychoanalyst at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (LAPSI). He later became a supervising analyst at LAPSI (now the New Centre for Psychoanalysis) and the Psychoanalytic Center of California (PCC). In private practice for well over 50 years, Grotstein took a particular interest in the treatment of borderline and narcissistic disorders, and his writing often focuses on theoretical and clinical questions around these complex and challenging illnesses.

He was one of the first analysts in the US to seriously engage with Melanie Klein’s theories, and he made great efforts to explore her ideas in dialogue with mainstream US analytic traditions – such as ego-psychology, which was so prominent in the States from the mid-20th century. In the early 1960s, he and several fellow analysts in a postgraduate study group invited a number of prominent Kleinian thinkers to give seminars in Los Angeles. These included such major figures as Herbert Rosenfeld, Hanna Segal, Donald Meltzer, Albert Mason, Hans Thorner, Betty Joseph and Wilfred Bion. Exposure to these theorists influenced Grotstein immeasurably and led him, in turn, to become an important teacher of Kleinian theory across the US.

Psychoanalytic ‘multilingualism’

Drawing from many theoretical quarters, both within and beyond psychoanalysis, one of Grotstein’s defining characteristics was a passionate, sustained desire to link what, to others, might appear very different – even irreconcilable – conceptual strains. He considered himself ‘multilingual’ in analytic terms, and wrote: “I myself am basically Kleinian – with a Bionian accent. I speak Winnicott and Fairbairn fluently, and Lacan less fluently. But I would never want to undertake an analysis without Kohut looking over my shoulder – as one of my highly treasured guides.” Analysed initially by a Fairbairnian analyst, and trained in the US ego psychology tradition, on discovering the work of Klein and the post-Kleinians, he nonetheless found stimulating points of contact between these different theoretical models. He was eager to hold onto ideas that were useful to him as a thinker and clinician, whichever ‘school’ might have produced them. However, he was also emphatic that Kleinian and Bionian theory formed the core of his thought and clinical practice, as he expressed in a late work:

“I have come to believe that Kleinian technique, augmented by Bion’s seminal contributions, constitutes the basic and fundamental technique for psychoanalytic treatment because of its unique ability to focus on the early and deep part-object layers (pre-oedipal) of the archaic mental life of the infant’s experience in terms of unconscious phantasy, especially involving the infant’s belief in the omnipotence and omnipresence of the effects of his sense of agency (causality) on his objects.”

Grotstein, J. But at the Same Time and on Another Level: Psychoanalytic Theory and Technique in the Kleinian/Bionian Mode – Volume 1 (Karnac, 2009)

Klein and Bion

From his first encounter with Bion’s ideas, Grotstein was a committed advocate of his work. He went on to be both supervised and analysed by him. This analysis was both a helpful and an inspiring experience, which lasted for six years. He continued to grapple with, respond to, and write about Bion’s theoretical works throughout his career. Particularly toward the end of his life, he considered Bion’s thinking to be unsurpassed in its scope and visionary ambition. At times it can be difficult to discern where he judges Klein and Bion to coincide and diverge, and to unpick the richly allusive, many-layered contributions Grotstein makes to the ongoing theoretical conversation. However, those contributions are always deeply thoughtful, steeped in theoretical understanding, and always reaching toward brighter elucidations of their thought as well as new insights of his own.

Grotstein himself was sometimes perplexed, though always enthralled, by Bion’s extensions of Kleinian and Freudian concepts. He was fascinated by Bion’s quite philosophical – indeed, spiritual – concept of ‘O’, his attempt to describe an ultimate, transcendent truth that none of us can ever reach. Grotstein returned to this idea again and again in his writing and, in his later years, he became ever more drawn to Bion’s own late work: his ambitious, far-reaching, often highly enigmatic attempts to grasp what is most obscure and ineffable in our unconscious minds.

Eleanor Sawbridge Burton, 2018

Key publications

1981 Grotstein, J. S. ‘Wilfred R. Bion: The man, the psychoanalyst, the mystic. A perspective on his life and work‘. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 17:501-536.

1981 Grotstein, J.S. Splitting and Projective Identification. New York: Jason Aronson.

1985 Grotstein, J. S. ‘The evolving and shifting trends in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy‘. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 13(4):423-452.

1989 Grotstein, J. S. ‘A revised psychoanalytic conception of schizophrenia: an interdisciplinary update’Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6(3):253-275.

2000 Grotstein, J. S. Who is the Dreamer Who Dreams the Dream? A Study of Psychic Presences.The Analytic Press.

2004 Grotstein, J.S. ‘Notes on the superego‘. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 24(2):257-270.

2007 Grotstein, J. S. A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis. Karnac.

2009 Grotstein, J. S. But at the Same Time and on Another Level: Volume 1: Psychoanalytic Theory and Technique in the Kleinian/Bionian Mode. Karnac.

2009 Grotstein, J. S. But at the Same Time and on Another Level: Volume 2: Clinical Applications in the Kleinian/Bionian Mode. Karnac.