Helen Meyers—A Personal Appreciation

By Ellen B. Rowntree, MD

Don and Helen Meyers have been an integral part of the identity and development of the Center for many years. Many will testify to their devotion to psychoanalysis and the analytic community, not only at Columbia but nationally and internationally. I too applaud their many combined contributions and the important individual contributions that Don has made over the years. It is because she has meant so much to me as teacher, supervisor, mentor, role model, colleague and friend over the past twenty years that I want to use this space to express my very deep appreciation of Helen.

Helen as Teacher: Helen had the most impact on me of all my analytic teachers. I was first exposed to the clarity of her thinking and the intuitive wisdom of her clinical perspectives before I became a candidate, during a period in which I worked at the Riverdale Mental Health Center. But it was during those first year Saturday morning classes that I fell completely under her spell. Here was an analyst who was unambivalently and unambiguously analytic. She answered our early questions comfortably with an authenticity and conviction which came from rich clinical experience. She was never hesitant to argue for her perspectives, but she encouraged questions and she respected alternative points of view. Fortunately for me, while I was a candidate, she was teaching quite a few courses, either in the core curriculum or as electives. Helen was grounded in Freudian theory and post Freudian ego psychology but she was already exploring and integrating self psychology and object relations theory (remember that this was twenty years ago) and she was teaching critical appraisals of earlier theory (as in her early elective on Female Psychology). I remember lively discussions and heated debates during all of her courses. I also remember how respectfully we listened when she talked about psychoanalysis, so effortlessly bringing the analytic experience to life. A talented clinician, she was equally at home in discussions of theory and technique and she had the enviable ability to integrate metapsychology and clinical theory at all levels of analytic sophistication.

For as long as I have known her, she has been interested in a wide range of analytic ideas and involved in analytic activities both nationally and internationally. During her tenure as Chair of the Curriculum Committee at Columbia and when she was President of the APM, she was instrumental in broadening the exposure of both candidates and faculty to a greater diversity of analytic thinking than was generally available at that time at other institutes in NYC or nationally. Candidates at the other institutes envied the richness and diversity of our analytic curriculum and our freedom to engage in intellectual debate. Long after I graduated from the Center, Helen won the first Teacher of the Year Award which is now given by our candidates; this is evidence that my feelings about her have been shared by many other candidates over the years.

Helen as Supervisor: When I was a candidate, I was fortuitously assigned to Helen for supervision on my second case. I worked with her for four years, choosing to continue for a time after graduation, wishing to integrate her analytic and supervisory perspectives more solidly into my own analytic and teaching styles. Helen was an exquisite and intuitive listener in supervision. She had an unbelievable memory for clinical detail and an uncanny talent for saying exactly what was needed to prompt new insight into the analytic process. She created a safe space in supervision which allowed me to think out loud, to voice my doubts and questions, to consider alternate ways of understanding the material, to integrate what I was learning in my personal analysis with what I was encountering in my class work. She tolerated, with quiet acceptance, what I chose to share with her from my analysis and my personal life. This will be under-stood by anyone who has been in supervision with Helen. She communicates a trust in the supervisory process with its potential for analytic growth which parallels her profound trust in the healing capacity of the analytic process. Helen never encourages personal rev-elation in supervision; it occurs spontaneously because of her genuine interest in the potential inherent in her supervisees and her respect for their efforts to find their way to a genuine appreciation of the personal nature of the analytic interaction. When I was appointed a advisor for those first years. I now know that many colleagues have turned to her for confidential advice in complicated treatment situations.

Helen as Mentor and Role Model: Helen’s importance to me extended beyond her influence as a teacher and supervisor at Columbia. From early on, she encouraged my interest and involvement as a candidate and a graduate in both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the IPA. In almost all the areas in which I have been involved in both organizations, Helen has been there before me and she has left her mark, particularly in areas related to analytic education. Over the years her interests have been many, her influence has been widespread, and her energy seemingly without limit. If truth be told, I don’t think there is an aspect of either organization in which she has not been involved in some way. She has more friends in the analytic community at Columbia, in New York, throughout the country and worldwide, than almost anyone I know. And she is very generous in those friendships. I have fond memories of interacting with her at the Regional Conferences at Mohonk. I remember sharing a breakfast table with her and her family at the IPA meeting in Rome. I remember the evening she and Don met Peter and me on the side-walk on the way to a party being given by a senior analyst at the IPA meetings in Buenos Aires; she enveloped us in the warmth of her inclusiveness and took us along to a memorable evening with distinguished international analysts at an Argentinean tango taverna. Helen embraces people with the same joy with which she lives and breathes psychoanalysis; she embraces the worldwide analytic community as an extended family.

Helen served me in another important way during my development as an analyst. My early grounding in her love for psycho-analysis and her analytic perspectives gave me the solid base I needed to move away from some of what I was taught to find my own analytic voice in my work with patients. Many of my ideas formed in relation to hers, including those which consolidated in ways which were different. Her respect for my differences of opinion with her on clinical or educational issues gave me the space to confidently differentiate my own identity as analyst, teacher and supervisor, an identity I could recognize as profoundly influenced by her but equally and genuinely my own. From my perspective, this is the gift of a great teacher and mentor.

Helen as Colleague and Friend: Over the years, as my idealizations of Helen have inevitably faded, as all idealizations should, and they have given way to a more realistic appreciation of her, I have come to value her truly as a respected colleague and a loved friend. This includes having seen some of her fears as she has faced illness and her vulnerabilities as she has faced disappointments. It includes knowing the deep pleasure she derives from her involvement in the lives of her grandchildren, the happiness she experiences during her summers in Provence, the pride she feels as she masters a little more of the French language, the fun she has going out to dinner, the opera or good theater with Don and friends, the pleasure she derives from opening her home on so many occasions to so many people. I am thankful that I have known her and I am grateful to her for what she has given me as teacher, supervisor, mentor, role model, colleague and friend.