Kohut’s discussion of the mother’s liaison in “Mr. Z,” when she was “intensely involved with another man, a married friend of the family,” dates the affair from the time when Heinz was approximately ten and Else was clearly in the wake of the deterioration of her relationship with Felix. After the war, Else and Felix fought all the time and the tension in the household was palpable. At eight Heinz got his own bedroom and his parents moved into separate rooms of their own. Either implicitly, or very likely explicitly—in a way that was quite common then in Vienna—Felix and Else agreed that their relationship had ended and that they would stay together as a family but ﬁnd intimacy with others. Through these crises with Felix, Else kept Heinz by her side all day, every day, out of school, in sight and separated at most by a room when he would be with the tutor. But as the end of his ﬁrst decade approached she knew she had to relent and send her son off into the world. She had to recognize that his developing needs required at least a measure of independence from her. At just that point, she in turn got “intensely involved with another man.”
Things were never the same from sometime toward the end of Heinz’s first decade. Everybody in the family started moving in separate directions, a process that only accelerated with time. Within a few years, for example, everybody in the family was taking separate vacations throughout Europe, including Heinz when he got a little older; the adult Kohut was to recall how he often received postcards from his parents from different ends of Europe. It all left him with a great sense of loneliness, which is the one term he always used to characterize his childhood. His adult friend, Ernest Wolf, reported that Kohut “did not talk very much about his childhood, hardly at all.” Even celebratory events in his childhood were lonely. The adult Kohut once referred to “the emptiness of my birthday parties as a child,” for which “the reason lies deep.” “It was very sad,” his widow said of Kohut’s childhood. “When he talked of it I would cry.”
And yet Heinz survived the fragmentation of the family remarkably well, in no small part due to the lucky presence of a warmhearted tutor named Ernst Morawetz, who entered his life just as his mother left it. There had, of course been many tutors in Heinz’s life up to that point. He was quite familiar with adults coming into the house to instruct him in everything from math, to art, to French, to history. For the most part, as best one can tell, those tutors were terminated when he started school. But Else, it seemed, wanted Heinz to do exceptionally well. He was special. Perhaps she also empathized with his loneliness, not to mention feeling a good dose of guilt, as she moved outward for love and meaning and the family disintegrated. Her solution was to hire yet another tutor, only this one was mainly to be a companion. It was the spring or summer of 1924 and Heinz at the time was ten or eleven, while Morawetz, a university student, was somewhere between nineteen and twenty-three.
Morawetz apparently had no formal educational tasks to accomplish with Heinz; that, after all, was being taken care of in school, where he was doing well. Morawetz’s “job,” it seems, was simply to provide extra intellectual stimulation for his young charge. Most afternoons after school, which finished at 1:00 p.m. in Vienna at the time, Morawetz would show up and take Heinz to a museum, an art gallery, or the opera, or they would read together or simply talk about interesting subjects. They developed a deep rapport. They communicated as much nonverbally as with words. One intellectual game they played was to think through how things might have happened differently if some important historical event were altered. The game required extensive knowledge and creative leaps of imagination. One person would wonder, for example, how the architecture of Vienna would have been altered if Socrates had not died. The one could follow the other through two millennia of cultural history with but an occasional question.
Morawetz seemed at the most important level to have been a savior for his intensely lonely charge. As Kohut later put it:
I had this private tutor, who was a very important person in my life. He would take me to museums and swimming and concerts and we had endless intellectual conversations and played complicated intellectual games and played chess together. I was an only child. So it was in some ways psychologically life-saving for me. I was very fond of the fellow.
Morawetz was Heinz’s first real friend. The boy’s entire life up to then had consisted of older tutors, the ever-present Else, and a distant Felix. In Morawetz Heinz found companionship, connection, and deep empathy. Heinz learned a huge amount about the world from his older friend. In “Mr. Z,” Kohut describes those years with the camp counselor/Morawetz as “extremely happy ones,” maybe “the happiest years of his life, except perhaps for his early years when he possessed his mother seemingly without conflict.” The boy idealized the older man, who was a “spiritual leader,” able to share his “almost religious” love for nature, as well as teach him about literature, art, and music.
The relationship between Morawetz and Heinz was also sexualized. As Kohut puts it in “Mr. Z” in a long dependent clause: “overt sexual contact between them occurred occasionally—at first mainly kissing and hugging, later also naked closeness with a degree of tenderly undertaken manual and labial mutual caressing of the genitalia ... .” If we take that out of its Latinate armor, what happened is that they began by kissing and hugging each other and moved to lying naked, tenderly fondling each other and sucking on each other’s penises, apparently without ejaculation. Kohut also reports that the relationship ended when Z/Heinz reached sexual maturity and the counselor/tutor once tried unsuccessfully to enter him anally and another time came when Z was caressing him. Besides the discussion in “Mr. Z,” Kohut once also told his colleague, Ernest Wolf, of “some sexual acting out as an adolescent” in which he had engaged. There seems little doubt that the relationship with Morawetz was sexualized. The question is what does it mean?
Heinz probably put his experience with Morawetz into the context of the ancient Greeks, about whom he was beginning to read in depth. For the Greeks, it was normative for grown men to have sex with prepubertal boys in ways that did not interfere with their adult heterosexuality, or the future sexual orientation of the boy. Such sexual experiences were an extension of the self, not a limiting of it. Vase paintings of homosexuality, for example, are celebrations of maleness, not depictions of something corrosive or subversive. The Greeks expected and welcomed homosexuality. It realized something between men and did not close off possibilities in other areas. Ancient Greece, however, was not the same as contemporary Vienna. As elsewhere in Europe, a sense of evil pervaded notions of homosexuality. It was not a form of sexual activity tolerated as normal, though Freud’s theories were beginning to alter attitudes. A sexualized relationship with another male carried with it elements of shame. At the very least, Heinz had to have been ambivalent in his feelings about what he and Morawetz were doing, feelings that probably became clearer as he matured.
At the same time, Heinz’s relationship with Morawetz was vital, loving, intimate, and deeply empathic. In his eyes the tie to the tutor was a wonderful and helpful one that sustained him through the second worst crisis (the first being when his father left for war) of his intensely lonely childhood. As he seems to have experienced it at the time, and certainly conceptualized it later, Heinz felt that the sexualization of his relationship with Morawetz was incidental and meant little to his own sexual identity. This understanding of the meaning of emotional connection and the devaluing of sex per se was to play a huge role in Kohut’s later theories about the self. His position has often been misunderstood. He never questioned, for example, that there are drives. He once pointedly stressed in a taped interview intended for publication that “man wants to fuck and kill.” But the point of his disagreement with Freud is that our need for connection precedes and transcends our sexual or aggressive drives. The way we love sexually symbolizes and concretizes our deepest needs. The self is not, as Freud would have it, an accidental by-product of the vagaries in the development of the sexual instinct. Kohut sought to reverse that sequence and in the process create a psychology of the self.
Kohut’s understanding of his relationship with Morawetz, in other words, yielded quite signiﬁcant theoretical gain. And yet, at the same time, by current standards what went on sexually between Heinz and Morawetz can only be defined legally as childhood sexual abuse. Their sexual play was not the kind of casual and occasional homosexual activity that is often part of the experience of prepubertal boys. It was far more important and prolonged. Heinz’s ﬁrst love, one can say, was Ernst Morawetz. If such a seduction of a prepubertal boy by a man around twenty or older were to occur in contemporary America and become known, the man would most likely be punished and possibly incarcerated. It is called pedophilia. It may be that Kohut was deluded about the nature of his own victimization and confused about the way tender feelings are often an integral part of exploitation. But we also need to take seriously Kohut’s own interpretation: “He [Mr. Z] insisted that sexuality had not been prominent: it was an affectionate relationship.” Heinz Kohut, the lonely preadolescent, idealized Ernst Morawetz, the university student who filled a huge hole in his life at just the right moment. The two merged to a remarkable extent, as Heinz clearly met as well some powerful self needs in Morawetz. What mattered in their relationship was the empathy and affection. It seems a reasonable argument. This is not to defend child abuse, which is abhorrent. But it may well be that our sense of the exploitation of children has become too ideological and leads us to miss the subtlety of love and connection that can arise even in deeply unequal relationships.