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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Writing an Undergraduate Textbook: An Analyst's Strange Journey

By James Hansell, Ph.D.

For the past five years, I (along with Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a candidate at the Hanna Perkins Center in Cleveland) have been immersed in writing an undergraduate Abnormal Psychology textbook which has just been published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. It has been an engrossing project, by turns exhilarating and exasperating, gratifying and grueling, but never dull. Along the way, Lisa and I have learned some striking lessons about the place of psychoanalytic thinking in undergraduate education. Considering the well-founded current concern about the near erasure of meaningful psychoanalytic content in psychology departments (McWilliams, 2004), I thought it would be useful to report on our experience. Offering undergraduates--literally millions of whom take psychology courses every year--a positive image of psychoanalysis may be a crucial part of efforts is to re-establish psychoanalysis to a more respected position in the intellectual and mental health communities in the U.S.

I began teaching undergraduates at the University of Michigan shortly after receiving my Ph.D. there in 1988. When I started looking for a textbook for my Abnormal Psychology course, I was appalled. The coverage of psychoanalytic theory and practice in the leading textbooks at the time was at best inadequate and at worst explicitly disparaging, as noted in Bornstein’s review of several of these textbooks in Psychoanalytic Psychology (Bornstein, 1988). In my own classes, it was relatively easy to include rich psychoanalytic and clinical content through articles in a photocopied coursepack I compiled, but I shuddered to think that undergraduates were being taught that psychoanalysis was a historical curiosity, even an abomination! (Many of the leading textbooks, it turns out, are written by either non-practicing academic clinical psychologists or even by non-clinical psychologists, and certainly not by analysts.) Furthermore, most of the textbooks were so focused on the DSM-IV and the medical model of psychopathology that they seemed to leave out most of what was interesting about the field. Certainly my students seemed to think so; I frequently heard them complain “this topic is so interesting, why is the textbook so dull?” As a result, I began thinking about the possibility of writing an alternative, livelier, and psychoanalysis-friendly textbook.

My first approach was very discouraging. In talking to editors at the major publishers about my idea (this was in the early 1990s), I was told in no uncertain terms that while they sympathized with my concern there was no market for a psychoanalytic undergraduate textbook. In fact, the editors explained that they were used to hearing complaints from psychology faculty around the country about psychoanalytic content in textbooks, and, understandably, the editors were almost phobic that anything psychodynamic was the kiss of death in the marketplace. I wasn’t totally surprised by this, as I had heard similar stories from my friend Drew Westen about his introductory Psychology textbook. While his book had been quite successful, it was regarded as “too psychoanalytic” in some quarters and Drew had been asked to tone it down.

After absorbing this depressing news, I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to publish an edited “reader” of case studies and classic articles that my students had liked - something that might meet my goals in place of, or as a supplement to, a traditional textbook. Again, editors were sympathetic, but upon researching the cost of permissions discovered that this was economically not feasible.

It took another two years before I finally hit on an idea that worked. Rather than a book that was explicitly psychoanalytic, I began envisioning a textbook that would focus on the fascinating and enduring issues and controversies in the field of abnormal psychology--issues such as the continuum between normal and abnormal behavior and the connection between mind and body--that my students found so interesting. I thought that such a focus might provide an alternative to the ahistorical, DSM/medical-model emphasis of the existing texts. And, I thought, such a book would provide an approach to the field consistent with psychoanalytic thinking, and in which psychodynamic content could be respectfully included. By this point, I had brought Lisa on board. She, too, had been teaching Abnormal Psychology at the University of Michigan and was frustrated with the textbook options. (In addition, she already had a book to her credit--First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Teaching, with Anne Curzan--so she knew what she was getting into!) We pitched this idea, concretized in a prospectus for a book called Abnormal Psychology: The Enduring Issues, to several publishers. To our delight, this formula worked. Not only did the concept appeal to editors, but the faculty reviewers of the prospectus, commissioned by the publishers, were highly enthusiastic. We received many comments from faculty around the country along the lines of “it’s about time somebody brought back what’s interesting in this field and de-emphasized the DSM-IV!” Several publishing houses were so taken with the reviews that we enjoyed a mini-bidding war before choosing John Wiley & Sons. We were thrilled with the confirmation that there was, indeed, a hunger for something different. Little did we know what lay ahead….

Having signed a contract, we began the grueling writing process in January, 2000. Each time we finished a group of chapters, Wiley would send them out for review by psychology faculty who teach Abnormal Psychology. This was an eye-opening experience. While we had received a favorable response to our overall vision for the book from reviewers, now they were reviewing chapters that included specific psychoanalytic content. A significant number of reviewers were entirely hostile to any such content, dismissing it as totally inappropriate for inclusion in a contemporary book! A larger group of reviewers seemed to appreciate our clinical content until we used specifically psychoanalytic terms to summarize what we had been saying, at which point they balked. This reaction was familiar from our teaching. Both Lisa and I had repeatedly heard from students, “you can’t be Freudian or psychoanalytic; your lectures are interesting, and Professor X told us that psychoanalysis is nonsense!”

What we began to realize after several rounds of such reviews was sobering, if not surprising. Among the vast majority of academic clinical psychologists today--those who are shaping the interests and attitudes of the next generation--psychoanalytic ideas are either openly derided or co-opted and given new names within other theoretical perspectives without proper credit. For example, research on the therapeutic alliance is thriving across theoretical perspectives, but the psychoanalytic origins and aspects of the concept of the alliance are rarely acknowledged and appreciated.

We adopted a two-fold approach to this problem in our textbook. First, in keeping with our original plan, we organized the book around six “core concepts” in Abnormal Psychology that highlight the interesting complexities and controversies in the field instead of a medical model/DSM-IV/empiricist emphasis. (The six core concepts we chose are: the continuum between normal and abnormal behavior; the importance of context in defining abnormality; cultural and historical relativism in defining and classifying abnormality; the advantages and limitations of diagnosis; the connection between mind and body; and the principle of multiple causality.) Secondly, we chose a “components”/integrative approach to the theoretical diversity in clinical psychology. In other words, we present the major theoretical models in the field (psychoanalytic, behavioral, cognitive, etc.) as different lenses through which to view psychopathology – lenses that can complement each other and that often overlap. This approach allowed us to talk about the ways in which newer theories and clinical approaches (such as CBT) have their own terms for describing the same phenomena that have been conceptualized previously within other theories, including psychoanalytic theory. We could also then describe prominently and in detail the psychoanalytic perspective on psychopathology and treatment, showing what it uniquely contributes, where it overlaps with other approaches, and how it can complement other perspectives.

As we had hoped, this approach seemed to solve our problem with reviewers. By the time we were able to refine this vision and finish the book, reviewers were once again enthusiastic about it, and I’m pleased to report that sales of the book are off to an encouraging start. What is most gratifying to us is that many of the positive reviews and early adoptions have come from professors who have in the past been unfriendly to psychoanalysis and used cognitive-behaviorally oriented textbooks. It’s probably going too far to describe our book as “stealth psychoanalysis,” but we do think that it conveys an appreciation of the indispensable role of psychoanalytic thinking in clinical psychology, partly by flying under the jargon-focused radar of the current anti-psychoanalytic zeitgeist. We hope that the book can serve as a partial antidote to the Freud-bashing that has become all-too-common in undergraduate psychology courses, and encourage greater respect for and interest in psychoanalysis in the next generation of students.

Of course, the last chapter of this story has yet to be written. We do not yet know how our book will fare. But whatever the outcome, we feel we have learned some lessons that may be important in the struggle for psychoanalysis to regain its rightful role in the marketplace of ideas. The bad news is that the current situation in Departments of Psychology is dire for psychoanalysis. The good news is that psychoanalytic thinking makes sense to undergraduates and they find it interesting; only the label “psychoanalytic” turns them off. So the battle must be waged on two fronts: we should lead by showing students how we think because they find it compelling, and we should follow by explaining that what they have heard from us is psychoanalytic, contrary to the disparaging stereotypes they have been taught. Most of all, psychoanalytic clinicians need to be finding ways to spread the word more effectively about what we do. In increasing numbers, we need to be venturing out of our consulting rooms and back into the universities to shape the courses and textbooks that are influencing the attitudes of the next generation.


Bornstein, R. (1988). Psychoanalysis in the Undergraduate Curriculum: The Treatment of Psychoanalytic Theory in Abnormal Psychology Texts. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 5(1), 83-93.

McWilliams, N. (2004). Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. The Guilford Press: New York.

This article was originally published in Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, the newsletter of the Division of Psychoanalysis, and is reprinted here with permission of the Division.