Review- Hopkins, “False Self”

Linda Hopkins, “False Self: The Life of Masud Khan” (2006) – Masud Khan was a controversial British psychoanalyst. Born and raised in the British Raj in what would become Pakistan, he came to Britain as a young man and immediately got involved in the postwar psychoanalysis boom. From the beginning of his career to its ignominious end, he was both lauded and condemned for his high profile and unconventional style. Linda Hopkins, a psychoanalyst herself, tries to avoid both in this interesting biography, opting instead for an attempt at a deep, compassionate understanding of a profoundly difficult man.

Psychology is a subject that has interested me at various points but it’s subtleties typically escape me. I find it hard to concentrate on them. I find it easy to concentrate on history, however, including my own, so I’ll say Masud Khan reminds me of a number of people I’ve met during my long sojourn in alternative education and grad school after that: charismatic rich kids who make big gestures and have a tendency to lie. Khan came from a rich landowning family in Punjab and took British psychoanalytic circles by storm when he came to Britain and took part in the postwar analysis boom. Handsome and quick-witted, he quickly became a big figure, analyst to numerous stars (Hopkins won’t say who but I believe her), dinner party lion, hobknobber with celebrity, holder of important psychoanalytic institutional posts, heir apparent to the great (supposedly, I don’t know much about him) Donald Winnicott.

Hopkins has us exhilarate with the good years and reel with the bad. By the late sixties Khan’s penchant for lies (seemingly pathological ones, at least in that they seemed not to serve a practical purpose, but I’m no psychologist), drink, and other women (despite being married to the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet) caught up with him. He broke many of the rules of psychoanalysis, most notably socializing with — and sleeping with — patients. He did this for years and no one in British psychoanalysis did anything about it. Hopkins doesn’t make clear why- Khan did have some “lucky” timing, in between it being the sixties and seventies and his getting cancer at a key moment when the authorities were going to censor him. He recovered and went right back at it.

What finally killed his reputation was his last book, where he, among other problematic things, went on extended screeds against the Jews (despite having several of the proverbial good Jewish friends). Hopkins doesn’t quite bracket this off — she presents enough of a balanced picture to be realistic — but does suggest we put this, and his other misbehaviors, in the balance with the good Khan did. This is supplied by numerous interviews with patients who claim he helped them, and his many contributions to psychoanalysis. Hopkins doesn’t go into detail about the latter, and as someone who benefits from having psychological concepts explained to him as though he’s five, this wasn’t a helpful omission for me. As for the interviews, they appear to be roughly even between those who claimed he helped and those who claimed he didn’t, or that he hurt them- maybe there were more of the former but the latter made more of an impression.

Hopkins looks back more in sadness than in anger. This makes for good biography. The impression I was left with of Khan is mixed. On the one hand, I’m not immune from being charmed, including by the vaguely sociopathic when they take an interest in me. On the other, I scorn abuse of power, which is what sleeping with your patients is. Obviously antisemitism is wrong, though Hopkins argues was more of a symptom of his possible bipolar status than a real ideological stance- but charmers like Khan live and die by inconsistency, and I scorn that, too. He was consistent in his hatred of fat people, too, so overall my conclusion is that he could’ve used a swift ass-kicking, as an adult. But that wouldn’t make very good biography, and “False Self” is pretty good biography. ****’

Review- Hopkins, “False Self”

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