It is sad for me to tell you of the death of a pioneer of American psychoanalysis, Harold F. Searles, M.D. (1918-2015).

Dr. Searles was a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute and President of its Society (1969-1971) in Washington DC, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Department of Psychiatry, and Consultant in Psychiatry for The National Institute of Mental Health. World-wide, mental health professionals know Harold Searles from his collected seminal papers on schizophrenia and borderline conditions and on the use of countertransference as the key to understanding the clinical situation.

Prior to his retirement to California, Harold worked in private practice of psychoanalysis at the Air Rights building in Bethesda, Maryland. In the 1950s and 60s, he had worked at Chestnut Lodge in Rockville, Maryland where his understanding of psychosis was influenced by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Incorporating ideas from the interpersonal and British object relations schools, Harold was a crucial force in moving the field of psychoanalysis in the United States beyond ego psychology.

Locally, we knew Harold as an astute clinician and supervisor who took delight in acknowledging feelings that others disavowed. He thought that patient and analyst share immense ambivalence about being together. They try to avoid establishing an oceanic symbiotic relationship, the very thing that Harold regarded as the core phase in the treatment of neurotic and psychotic patients. He found that the analyst who consciously strives to help his patient recover and grow is unconsciously equally devoted to keeping him ill, especially when the patient shows any signs of improvement. In this way the analytic couple can continue in a mutually dependent, consciously frustrating but unconsciously gratifying relationship, thus delaying recovery and the eventual loss of the analytic relationship. Harold urged analysts to take responsibility for these intensely ambivalent feelings, and engage in a process of reflection in which we would welcome our unusual and private emotional responses as relevant data to help us understand the subtle modes of interaction between analyst and patient. As the symbiotic phase gives way to mature relatedness, analyst and patient emerge, each having been healed by the other.

I was assigned to Harold for supervision during my training at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. My clinic case paid $20 a session and Harold charged me the same. Rather than making me at ease, he pointed out that I seemed ambivalent about entering supervision. I agreed that I was nervous because his reputation as a clinician of devastating insight in demonstration interviews had preceded him. He smiled slyly at that reply, went into his office closet, and removed a folder from his file cabinet. He wanted to show me the letters of rejection he had received from academic journals, despite his work having been translated into many languages. He then inquired about my situation. I told him that I had left my parents in Scotland to live in London, then moved to Washington to marry my husband, and was now working part-time, while caring for young children. Asked about my other interests, I mentioned theatre and writing, but with young children and analytic training, I had less time for writing or acting. That reminded him of his married daughter, an actor who had made the reverse journey from her parents in the United States to live in London with her husband. Harold was tickled that her husband had played the role of Dr. Who. After all Harold felt that he himself had been playing the part of Dr. Who in every analysis. We shared a chuckle at that, and I began to relax. With that personal basis established, I proceeded to present my case.

Getting through 4 sessions of analysis in one supervision hour meant that I had to summarize some parts of each session. One day I reported material that let me make an interpretation I was pleased with, and then I told Harold that the patient went on about various boring things for a good while. Harold pounced. “A good while? So, you thought it was good that the patient was boring so you wouldn’t make any progress.” This intervention about our shared ambivalence led to a deep understanding of my participation in this patient’s fantasy of fusion, its purpose being to avoid Oedipal guilt.

Harold was so immersed in clinical work and writing that I was stunned when he announced his retirement. “It is something I always promised Sylvia. She has put up with my work all these years, and now it is time for her.” I was used to Harold speaking uncompromisingly about his sadism and hatred, and now I was surprised and touched to hear him as comfortably speaking of loving commitment. Harold and Sylvia retired to California. I mourned Harold’s departure then, and I feel the loss again now. Assigning his articles on supervision as some of the readings for the supervision seminar at the International Institute for Psychoanalytic Training lets me stay close to his ideas and share them with a generation that did not know him. I am pleased that Psychiatry, the journal of the Washington School of Psychiatry, devoted a recent issue (78(3):199-291, Fall 2015) to Harold’s 1955 paper “The Informational Value of the Supervisor’s Emotional Experience.” Discussants include Dick Fritsch, Rick Waugaman, and Bob Winer of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Mike Stadter of the International Psychotherapy Institute contributed his thoughts on the use and overuse of the reflection process.

Although work and psychoanalysis had seemed to be his life, Harold lived on for many years after his retirement, until his death at the age of 97. I am told that Harold is survived by his daughter, two sons, five grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. The International Psychotherapy Institute joins with other institutions, colleagues, former patients, and trainees in mourning the loss of one of the most remarkable contributors to psychoanalysis and in expressing our sympathy to his family in their bereavement.


Submitted by Jill Savege Scharff, MD

Leave a Reply