Helen & Don Meyers

by Meriamne Singer, M.D.

Helen Meyers was born Helene Karoline Kestenbaum into a well-to-do, liberal, Jewish family in Vienna, very much a part of the Viennese intellectual circle. Her father, Dr. Alfred Kestenbaum, was an internationally renowned neuro-ophthalmologist and ophthalmic surgeon and a prolific writer. He was in Helen’s words, ‘‘a kind and loving man as well as a strong and brilliant man,’’ very much the center of his large family. He doted on Helen, and was a major inspiration to her. Helen’s mother, Ada, a devoted physician herself, was ‘‘warm and easy-going, and made everything easy.’’ She was also vibrant and socially prominent and gave large parties where she entertained guests with her singing. Ada was interested in ophthalmology, but specialized in dermatology to avoid competition with her husband. No stranger to competition in other arenas, she was a long distance car racer and medal winning bridge player. She also gave speeches throughout Europe for the Women’s International Zionist Organization. The parents adored each other. Helen has a brother, William, 4 years her senior, whom Helen describes as smart and athletic, and as having been very protective of her, when he was not beating her up. He is now a research engineer with numerous patents to his credit.

The family was blessed with a variety of talented artists. Alfred’s sister was an accomplished pianist, Ada sang, and Ada’s sister, Rosl, was a playwright and journalist. After a troubled marriage, Rosl moved in with the Kestenbaum’s with her son, Henry, who is 2 years older than Helen. Rosl wrote a play for each of Helen’s birthdays, starring Helen as the princess or someone of equal prestige. After rehearsing for a year, Helen, William, Henry and Helen’s friends would perform for 300 guests. On one occasion the play was so well received that the children performed it publicly. Helen’s other public appearances included ballet performances at the Viennese State Opera, and her behind-the-scenes life was also rich with fun and fancy as she participated in gymnastics, skied, hiked and traveled in the Austrian Alps and Italian seashore, and vacationed with her family at the mountain estate of family friends and enjoyed literary and musical evenings with her family.

Helen’s academic life was stellar from the start. William had taught her to read and write before she went to school and she was always at the top of her class. Henry took over her education from William and put her on a rigorous reading program of Schiller and Goethe, Mann and Dumas, Shakespeare, Karl Marx, and introducing her to Freud’s works. As the neuro-ophthalmologist for the Psychiatric Institute of Vienna, Alfred was interested in psychoanalysis; Ada was intrigued with psychology. They lived two blocks from Sigmund Freud. In this setting, Helen’s verve for psychoanalysis took root.

March of 1938 brought the German occupation to Austria. Immediately upon hearing the news, Helen’s parents decided to leave Austria. Hitler invaded Vienna the next day, appearing in the beautiful section on the Ringstrasse where the Kestenbaums lived. Swastikas covered the view outside Helen’s window. The apartment owners before the Kestenbaums had found the ceilings too high, and for aesthetic reasons had built false ceilings which the Kestentaums used after the Anschluss to hide supplies. They thought they might have to hide there themselves in case of a pogrom—a Nazi raid—but fortunately that did not come to pass.

When a former American student of Alfred’s offered to sponsor the Kestenbaums in America, they booked first-class tickets on the Normandy, the only money they could take out of Austria. Helen says that her parents exuded such confidence and optimism, however, that she always felt safe; to her, the experience of leaving Austria and moving to America despite all its horror, losses of homeland, friends, money and an elegant way of life,—a total upheaval—felt almost like an adventure. She has always felt that the fact that she and her whole family escaped the Nazi terror and extinction unscathed was such an enormous miracle—to which to say ‘‘dayanu,’’ translated as ‘‘it would have been sufficient’’—that she needed no more than that, and that any other good thing that happened to her afterwards was wonderful but not necessary—more like a bonus. Disappointments do not count for as much or last as long in light of this, to her, one overwhelming miraculous fact of survival. This may also contribute to her general good mood and her every-ready sense of humor. ‘‘Life is good.’’ Of course, she has also often wondered how easy, satisfying, even perhaps glamorous, life would have been if circumstances had been different in Vienna. Upon reaching New York, Alfred’s student greeted the family with the affidavit they needed, told them he had to introduce them to an American institution, the Horn & Hardart Automat, bought them vanilla ice cream, escorted them to the two rooms he had rented for them in Washington Heights, referred to as ‘‘the fourth Reich,’’ and disappeared from their lives.

Alfred passed the English and medical exams in record time, set up practice as a neuro-ophthalmologist, taught at Columbia and NYU, where he won many teaching awards as well as publishing several more books and gaining even greater international recognition for his achievements. Ada worked as a doctor in old age homes. She learned English from the movies, and amused everyone by talking like the tough guys in the films. She also worked as a camp doctor over summers, and was at one time responsible for the health and well-being of a young camper, Jonah Schein. Helen, William, and their parents lived in an apartment on Riverside Drive, where they put up many of their friends as they emigrated from Europe. They were joined in New York the following year by Rosl and Henry, and the year after that by Ada’s 84-year-old mother who came over on her own.

Helen was placed in the local P.S. 164 in sixth grade. She knew much more than the work required and pleaded to be moved to a higher grade. Her request was denied. After her first year, she looked up high schools in the telephone book, trudged around to different schools with her Viennese records, and found Haaren High School near Columbus Circle, which was just converting from an aeronautics school and was accepting new students. Impressed with her records, they accepted her for 10th grade, which enabled her to graduate high school at age 16.

Helen went on to Hunter College, where she developed her interest in writing and journalism. She wrote for and edited the school newspaper, and several of her short stories were published in Scholastic Magazine. She and her best friend, Eleanor, started a ballet company and performed at college. They amused themselves by regularly sneaking into the ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House by entering through a Ladies Room in a neighboring building, and climbing across to the Ladies Room at the Met. They also held weekly dances for the lonely USO Officers, often holding these soirees at Alfred’s office. Helen was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year, and graduated summa cum laude at the age of 19.

After NYU Medical School, a rotating internship at King’s County, and a year of medical residency, Helen settled into her psychiatry residency at Bellevue/Manhattan V.A. One Christmas season in the early 1950’s, she noticed a fellow resident inviting people she knew to a party at his girlfriend’s home. The resident, Don Meyers, was drafted into the Army shortly thereafter. In 1954, after Don’s return from serving as an Army physician in New Jersey, Helen and Don met again at the ballet. The next time Don had tickets to the ballet, he invited Helen. At dinner at the Cafe Brittany they enjoyed the best escargot and frog’s legs they have ever eaten to this day. Helen says these dishes had the perfect amount of butter and garlic, but perhaps there was another magic ingredient ....

After discovering that they shared a passion for ballet, music, skiing, sailing, good food, psychoanalysis and each other, Don and Helen lived it up. They traveled all over Europe for two months during the summers, staying in the most elegant hotels and comparing escargots, whipped cream, breaded veal cutlets, caviar and foie gras, Die Zauberflotte, La Boheme and Mme. Butterfly in various places. They were avid skiers in the winter months and sailors and hikers in the Swiss Alps in the summer months. In January of 1961, after several years of being in love, Helen and Don were married at the Hampshire House by the Rabbi who had performed the wedding ceremonies for Don’s parents and grandparents. Helen had finished her analytic training at Columbia, where Don was soon to graduate, and they began practicing out of their house in Riverdale, which they bought in 1962. There they started to have large parties in Helen’s mother’s tradition for their many friends from Europe and America, as well as indulging in Helen’s love for small intellectual discussions with their friends, in Helen’s father’s tradition. They were thrilled when Andy was born in 1963 and have adored him ever since. ‘‘He is simply great’’ says Helen. Helen was able to spend so much time with Andy that when he was a young child and was asked what his mother did, he answered, ‘‘She’s a housewife.’’

As Andy grew older, Helen devoted more time to her career, which is only partially conveyed in a 15-page single spaced curriculum vitae. Several themes characterize her accomplishments:

1) Her extraordinary scholarship and depth and breadth of knowledge, together with a spirit of openness, curiosity and inquiry about the new and innovative.

2) Excellence and clarity of teaching, making complex ideas digestible at all levels of discussion.

3) A keen, disciplined and creative mind, in constant lively pursuit of ideas and a love of intellectual interchange. 4) An indefatigable energy.

5) An exceptional range of participation in all facets of psychoanalysis— clinical, educational, political and administrative; with people at all levels, from residents and candidates to senior training analysts; on institute, regional, national and international levels.

6) A monumental dedication to education, both clinical and theoretical, with a particular love of teaching theory.

7) An extension of her desire to educate candidates into the realm of creating and nurturing new institutes and evaluating and insuring their success.

8) A striving towards new integration, not only of different groups with each other, but also of psychoanalytic concepts. A particular love of hers has been theorizing on pluralism, creating a theory which both integrates and differentiates different analytic frameworks.

Helen graduated from analytic school in 1960 and became a training and supervising analyst soon thereafter. She has always had a busy practice which she loves. She is an extraordinary analyst, a much sought after supervisor, consultant and teacher. She has taught every major course, theoretical and clinical, in both the adult and child programs, including psychopathology, basic concepts of ego psychology and object relations theory and advanced theory, all levels of clinical theory and phases of technique, child and adolescent development, and principles of child and adolescent analysis, as well as electives including ‘‘Feminine Psychology,’’ ‘‘Current Views of the Superego, ’’ ‘‘Comparative Frames of Reference and Their Clinical Application, ’’ and ‘‘Intersubjectivity.’’

Helen has been a member or chair of every major committee at the Center. To name a few: she was Chair of the Progression Committee, the Associate Director of the Center, Director of Education and Chair of the Curriculum Committee. She revolutionized the curriculum at Columbia, and when other institutes heard about the curriculum, she was drafted by them to revise their curriculum. Her work on the curriculum was made even more exciting by the large cadre of other extraordinary teachers at Columbia, some of whom she was instrumental in bringing to Columbia. She chaired the Committee on Analytic Supervision and Training Analysis, and served on the Executive Committee for over twenty years. She has been very active in all aspects of the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine, including serving as Program Committee Chair, Chair of the RAPS groups, as the Bulletin editor, and Secretary and President of the Association.

For twenty-five years, she was the Director of the Riverdale Mental Health Center, a community center, which she developed from a small 4 person clinic with a $30,000 budget to an imaginative, all-inclusive center with a large staff and several million dollars budget, for which achievement she received three awards from the Mayor of New York. She also, for a while, served as Chair of the Planning Committee for Mental Health and Retardation services in the Bronx, and Children’s Services in Manhattan.

On a psychoanalytic local level, she has been Chair of the Regional Council for years, bringing together the six institutes of greater new York and Philadelphia at a yearly scientific and social retreat. Nationally, she has been extensively involved in the American Psychoanalytic Association, serving for years as Fellow on the Board of Professional Standards and as Representative on the executive Council, where she also was elected as Councilor-at-Large. For many years she chaired a study group on Supervision, and has worked on many different committees including New Training Facilities, Certification, and COPE. She helped set up the curriculum and the new training facility at Emory and taught the initial courses there, as well as sponsoring the Miami Institute.

Currently, she participates in the American on the Committee on Certification, and chairs the International Relations Advisory Committee. She has just finished two terms on both the Program Committee and the Editorial Board of JAPA. In the International Psychoanalytic Association, with which Helen has been involved for some years now, she served as Secretary for the 1995 Congress in San Francisco, is on the Committee on Psychoanalytic Education and the Committee on new Training Facilities, as well as being the American Chair for the International Committee on Women, of which she was one of the founders. She was one of the people responsible for setting up the House of Delegates in response to a wish on the part of the Presidents of the various international societies to have more input in the IPA, and served as one of the first North American delegates, as well as the representative in the Executive Council of the IPA.

She has won numerous awards, including the Goldman Award for psychoanalytic education in 1986, the Daniels award for outstanding contributions to psychoanalysis in 1989, the 1994 Rado Lectureship, and the 1st annual Howard Klar Award for teacher of the year given by the candidates in 1994. She is extensively sought after as a speaker (the plenary speaker at the IPA Congress in Barcelona in 1997), panelist and discussant and has well over 100 public presentations to her credit. She has over 30 publications including the book, Between Analyst and Patient: New Dimensions in Countertransference and Transference, which she edited and for which she wrote two chapters, and an earlier book, The Anatomy of Psychotherapy. She is now working on a book on ‘‘Supervision’’ and another on her integrative theory. Helen and Don have had their house in the south of France since 1986, from which they enjoy a view of the Mediterranean from Cap Ferrat to Cap d’Antibes and exquisite food, music and art, and a steady flow of international friends and family whom they regale in Bacchanalian style.

Andrew, has a B.A. from Princeton, a Masters in Architecture from Yale, and a Masters in Urban History from Columbia, and is now getting his Ph.D. in Urban History at Columbia. He teaches and writes about architecture, art history, and all aspects of urban history and development, which he combines with the history of economics, politics and philosophy. In 1989, after a similar number of years at courtship as his parents, he married Beth whom he had known since his first day as a Princeton undergraduate, where she had majored in English. Beth had her medical training at Yale and graduated from the psychiatric residency at Columbia, and is now a candidate at the Columbia Center, as well as attending on the psychiatric unit at New York Presbyterian and maintains a private practice. Andy and Beth have two beautiful daughters, Rennie 6, and Madeleine, 4. Helen and Don are extremely proud of their family and consider themselves extraordinarily lucky.

Students, colleagues, patients and others dear to Helen enjoy and take inspiration from the fruits of her robust life that Helen brings to psychoanalysis and to her personal relationships: grace and lyricism, a love of bringing people together—even across international boundaries—the incisiveness of a journalist, the imagination of a creative writer, a mischievous spirit, ardent discipline, great generosity and joie de vivre.