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Growing Up Alexander

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Franz Alexander was the first trained psychoanalyst in the world and attended the Berlin Institute, where his training analyst was Hanns Sachs. Freud considered Alexander to be the best analyst to go to America and spread the doctrine of psychoanalysis. In 1932, Alexander duly founded the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and was its director for twenty-five years, before moving on to California. His place in psychoanalytic history is secure and he is regarded as the father of psychosomatic medicine. He is also acknowledged as the father of short-term analysis and psychotherapy, and evidence-based psychotherapeutic research. His brilliant analytic mind and his major contributions to the field did not, however, stop his family from being mired in dysfunction. His granddaughter Ilonka Venier Alexander, herself a psychotherapist, writes here of her growing up under the watchful eye of her grandfather and how he controlled and manipulated her life from its onset. His interference included renaming her after his older sister and himself when she was six months old. He also kept his family, her family, from her, and she thought she had no relatives until she was in her sixth decade. The emotional abuse that she endured is not atypical of dysfunction seen in many families. What is unique is that it happened in this family with this giant at its head. Ms. Venier Alexander has since found family previously unknown to her, uncovered long kept secrets, and now feels only compassion for her family, especially her grandfather.

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Chapter One: The Curse of Wealth, Privilege, and Absent Mothers

ePub

I am the granddaughter of Franz Alexander, noted psychoanalyst and student, friend, and colleague of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and thought by many to be among the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most important among them. Because of my grandfather's contributions to the field of psychoanalysis—some say he was the most important American analyst of the twentieth century, I am considered “psychoanalytic royalty”. Ironically enough, my grandmother, Anita Venier Alexander, was truly noble and from an old Italian patrician family, the house of Venier. She and I are descended from three Venetian doges (Antonio Venier who ruled in the fourteenth century, Francesco Venier who ruled from 1554 to 1556, and Sebastiano Venier whose rule was more recent, in the seventeenth century) and her father was a count. She was raised in a convent school, outside Trieste, as was the custom for daughters of noble families. This practice was known as “giving the daughter up to the Church” and these girls were never expected to marry. The convent was administered by the Ancelle di Gesu Bambino which was established by Elena Silvestri in 1884.

 

Chapter Two: The Chaotic Beginnings

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My name is Ilonka Frances Venier Alexander though it was not always. I began my life as Nina Alexandra Rotariu, but that is a long tale and will be told later. I was born in Chicago during the last months of World War II and can be labelled a baby boomer; for the most part, much of my life's experience has been of that generation. What makes my story different and perhaps unique is the family into which I was born. My family is one of a world-famous psychoanalyst, a student, friend, and colleague of Professor Sigmund Freud, who made his own mark as a researcher, a scholar, an academician, a clinician, and can be called, in my mind, a progressive visionary. That may seem inflated or over the top but such are the words often used by others to describe him.

I always thought of Franz Alexander in superlatives. This giant of a man was my grandfather and I called him Big Papa. Big Papa adopted the role of my father. I assume the nickname was because I held him in such high regard and even as a child I knew he was an important man. I idealised him my entire life. In fact, I still do. He was for all intents and purposes my father and, in fact, suggested to my own father in an attempt to bribe him that he should stay away from me. I asked my father soon after I met him when I was twenty, “Why did you stay away?” His answer was that “Dr Alexander thought it was best. He was the expert.” And while he may have thought being raised without a father's important influence was perfectly alright for his young granddaughter, and so he stepped in, it was he who orchestrated the loss of my father in the beginning. My grandfather was initially and remained the only consistent male in my life and I knew him well. I was nineteen when he died. He started to shape my life from its very beginning.

 

Chapter Three: Rolling Hills, Horses, Surfers, and Dolphins

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My mother attended private schools and most of her cousins did as well. It was the norm for upper class intelligentsia parents to send their children off to private boarding schools. When it became clear to my grandfather that my mother was unable to provide a suitable environment for me, that she was unable to parent me effectively, he went looking for a new home, a home that would provide structure and consistency in an academic setting. Parenting concepts were foreign to my mother as she was impulsive and thought mainly of herself. She was unable to form an attachment to me and did not consider my needs, as a young child, at all. My grandfather researched all the schools in the southern California area and chose a private boarding school much like those my mother's cousins attended in the US and in Europe. Chadwick School was to become my adoptive mother and long-term home away from home.

Pop culture sometimes paints boarding schools in a way that isn't necessarily accurate or favourable. While the depictions are exaggerated examples of what the reality of boarding school life is truly like, films, TV, and books have left people asking and wondering: why would anyone want to go to a boarding school? Why would parents make the decision to place their children out of the home? And particularly, why place a child in a boarding school at such a young age?

 

Chapter Four: The Teen Years…Big Papa to the Rescue

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Sometime during my ninth grade in school, and just after leaving Chadwick, my mother's third marriage broke down. Of course, I knew nothing of what was transpiring, had never seen or heard arguments, or felt their discontent (how could I, I did not live with them full time), and was surprised when, all of a sudden, we were moving again. This move meant that my survival was to be placed in the hands of my grandfather and I would be able to seek my emotional needs from him.

When my mother's marriage broke down I was happy to learn that we would leave behind the Grays permanently. I knew I would never again be exposed to their disapproval and their unspoken desires that another child should be in their home instead of me. It never occurred to me at the time that another move would also mean more chaos, the challenge of making new friends, and an adjustment to an alternative school after so many years, happy years, at Chadwick. However, when my mother told me that we would be moving in with my beloved grandfather, Big Papa, I was ecstatic and pleased. All of a sudden I had something to look forward to and I hoped for good times for my mother as well. As I revealed earlier, I was always hoping for a different ending with my mother, a close mother-daughter relationship. I know now that this is what therapists call magical or crazy thinking. I call it wishful thinking.

 

Chapter Five: The Fear of Failure, Again

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On an early and bright Sunday morning in March 1964, while living with my aunt and uncle, Kiki and Jack, I heard the phone ring. It was before 7 am. The call came from my grandmother in Palm Springs to tell us that my beloved grandfather, Big Papa, had just died. I remember dressing hastily and climbing into the back of my aunt's VW bug to travel the 100 miles to The Springs. Kiki ran every red light and stop sign in order to make good time. I do not recall if there was conversation during the trip and I do not recall a discussion about what would happen next.

Although I was at the time nineteen, a college student, and in some cultures nineteen is considered an adult, I was treated like a child by my family. I was never included in considerations concerning my future or anything else significant regarding other family members. When we arrived in Palm Springs my aunt informed me that my grandmother “was too upset for me to come to the house” and therefore I would need to stay in a hotel, alone, until the funeral a few days later. When I begged, through tears, not to be left alone, I was silenced with money, as was often the case, and told to be a good girl. Hell, I was always a good girl: I did what I was told, I did not answer back to parents or adults, and I studied hard and attained good grades. I do not know who made the decision to sequester me away in a hotel while the family gathered at the house or when the decision was made. At the time it never occurred to me to question the edict though I wish now, years later, that I had been more assertive. I was taught to keep my mouth closed in the company of adults. I was literally taught to not speak until spoken to and acknowledged. I almost always did what I was told. I feared rejection if I did not do what was expected of me.

 

Chapter Six: Big Papa to the Rescue Again

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During my social work schooling my grandmother died. This was another funeral that I was not allowed to attend, and to make sure, my aunt and mother told me of her death after the burial had taken place in Santa Monica in November of 1984. I was in my second year of social work school at USC. This brought about questions as to why the important women in my life could be so insensitive and cruel. Not long after the funeral I received a phone call from none other than Hedda, the analyst who had followed Big Papa to LA from Chicago. She had been a friend and confidante when I lived with Kiki during my college years.

From Hedda I learned these women, my grandmother and my aunt and my mother to a lesser degree, all suffered from borderline personality disorder. I knew enough then to recognise that this poor coping strategy is often passed on in families. I wondered why I had not embraced these coping mechanisms myself. My grandfather's colleague told me at the time, “You were away at school. You were not raised by these women. You were saved. You are stronger. Kiki has a borderline personality disorder but I love her anyway.” Despite the encouraging words from a well-respected psychoanalyst, I still felt alone, not good enough, and somehow bad because I was excluded from Big Mama's funeral. The unanswered questions from long ago began to haunt me again: how could this level of pain and psychological abuse occur in this family? How could this happen in my family, a family of highly educated psychologists and analysts? In Big Papa's family? I was not to learn the truth for many years and I would remain perplexed until the secrets were uncovered.

 

Chapter Seven: Boston and the Time of My Life

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In August 1986 I found myself on a plane flying from Los Angeles to Boston after a brief stopover in Reno to visit my mother. My belongings were on a Bekins moving van and my new car was on one of those huge trucks that transport new cars to dealers. This time the new car was mine and moving from LA to Boston, like me.

I remember arriving in Boston late at night, just before midnight. It was hot and steamy at Logan Airport as I waited for my baggage. I was excited and I could feel the heat of the summer on my face. I already had my most important bag, a carry-on with my ten-year-old cat Cinderella. She was allowed in the cabin with me and as we stood waiting for the other luggage—actually I stood and she sat next to me, I wondered to myself, “What in the Sam Hell are you doing here? What are you trying to prove?” I remembered feeling the same thing when I entered Orientation for social work school at USC four years earlier. I also remembered that I had been able to cross those waters successfully. The enormity of what I was undertaking hit me at that moment. Less than a month earlier I was in my condo in Redondo Beach, enjoying my job with the Veterans Association in West Los Angeles and now I was in Boston, my favourite US city, about to begin anew, again. I was eager for it all to begin and a bit fearful as well. How nice it would have been to contact someone for reassurance, but I had nobody.

 

Chapter Eight: Saying Goodbye to the Past

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In mid-1992 I returned to California as a supervising social worker at the Loma Linda Veterans Administration Medical Center. I found a nice condominium in Redlands, California but despised the area. Redlands is out in the middle of nowhere, near the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, and the Angeles National Forest, more than halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. It is barren, hot as Hades in the spring and summer, and more desert-like than I prefer.

The area now occupied by Redlands was originally part of the territory of the Morongo and Aguas Calientes tribes of Cahuilla people. The Aguas Caliente also went to settle in Palm Springs. Expeditions sought to extend Catholic influence to the indigenous people and the dominion of the Spanish crown into the area in the 1770s. The site of a tribal meeting was chosen for a mission outpost. In 1851, the area received its first Anglo inhabitants with the arrival of several hundred Mormon pioneers, who had already travelled from Utah and founded nearby San Bernardino. The Mormons established a prosperous farming community.

 

Chapter Nine: Finding My Roots

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During a vacation in the spring of 2008 with my friend Julia, an epidemiologist with whom I had worked in Boston decades earlier, I took an early morning boat ride to see the horses on the island of Assateague in the lowlands of Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay. On this particularly beautiful Sunday morning, with the early sun shining on the water and on us, she asked me what I was planning to do when I turned sixty-five in late 2009. I said I had hobbies and she said to me, “I don't think you will sit and do needlepoint.” She then suggested to me that a worthwhile hobby was to find out more about my family as I considered myself the last in a line of Alexanders and had grown up without knowledge of any cousins, aunts, or uncles. I always knew intellectually that my grandfather's siblings most likely had children, but I had no information. All this was kept from me. Purposefully and systematically kept from me. As we often do when something uncomfortable is mentioned, I told her “Yes” to keep her quiet without any real intent to follow through.

 

Chapter Ten: Fulfilling My Destiny

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What do we mean by destiny and fate? Fate is defined as the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future, as in “She was unable to control her destiny.” It is also thought to mean the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future, your fate: “He believes in destiny.” “Your destiny is shaped according to the combination of conditions pre-determined at birth and other factors that you are able to change through your own efforts” (The Essence of Buddha: The Path to Enlightenment, by Ryoko Okawa, p. 140: Little, Brown, New York, 2000). It has been in the last few years that I have come to accept my destiny.

I believe that fate brought me to this important place and I am grateful I am no longer afraid. I believe it is essential to embrace what comes to you; that which may eventually bring fulfilment and serenity. Researching the Alexander family, the family of my grandfather, my great grandparents and those before them, making connections, watching as others forged relationships and reconnected with lost relatives, has been the essence of my lifelong search. It is no accident that this has become my life's work. It is no accident I had no real family and realised early on that family was the singularly important element missing in my life. Fate or destiny is often regarded as the “course that life takes” and karma is one of the factors that influence this course. People often believe that fate is predestined and nothing can be changed, but is this really true?

 

Chapter Eleven: A New Beginning, at Long Last

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In 2012, after the second Broessler reunion was held, this time in Europe, my task was to write the biography of my grandfather. A biography and tribute that I had thought of doing when I was still an undergraduate student, just after his death in the mid-1960s. It was then, and always was since then, a lofty idea and one that I thought would never really be accomplished.

If there is one single lesson that I have learned throughout the years, it is the lesson of the importance of timing and how that plays a role in decision making and the eventual execution of ideas. The importance of timing first presented itself to me when I made the choice to continue in the field of my Big Papa: mental health and to pursue an education in clinical social work. That decision provided me a pathway to freedom, both financial and professional, and also provided, at long last, that bit of the confidence I so lacked and needed. I realise now just how afraid of failure I was for far too long.

Idries Shah, an Indian writer of philosophy and psychology, said, “Right time, right place, right people equals success. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong people equals most of the real human history.” I took that to mean that unless the people, place, and time in your life are in alignment, success will most likely elude you. I had spoken about writing a book many times. The first time was in the 1960s. I put away the idea until 2008 when my friend, confidante, and travelling companion, and honorary Broessler family member, suggested to me, after discovering my family, that there was something important to say. Julia helped to convince me that the timing was right for me to dedicate my energy and talent to such a task.

 

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