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Once the favorite son of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank later became one of his mentor’s sharpest critics. From 1906-1926, the formative years of the psychoanalytic movement, Rank was Freud’s closest disciple and colleague, starting as Secretary of the fledgling Vienna Psychoanalytic Society at age 21. With his expertise in art, music, literature, anthropology, history, science and philosophy he became the most prolific author after Freud, who advised him not to go to medical school but to complete his academic education. Rank obliged. A locksmith from a poor family and largely self-educated, Rank finished academic high school (Gymnasium) and got his Ph.D. at 28, in 1912 at the University of Vienna. By then Rank had published books on art, mythology, incest, and Lohengrin. “Little Rank,” as Freud affectionately called him, became a leader in the psychological revolution that changed the way we see ourselves.
Otto Rank began to break away from orthodox psychoanalysis as he approached 40. Returning from New York in 1924 as an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Rank faced criticism from Freudians for The Trauma of Birth, with its emphasis on the mother-child relationship. Freud initially praised the book, which Rank intended as an extension of the father-centered approach, not as a criticism. At the same time, with Sandor Ferenczi, Rank developed a more active and egalitarian psychotherapy focused on the here-and-now, real relationship, conscious mind and will, rather than past history, transference, unconscious and wish.
Rank’s conservative rivals in Freud’s inner circle, especially Karl Abraham and Ernest Jones, pushed against him. Freud revamped his own theory of anxiety in response though he rejected Rank’s de-emphasis of the Oedipus complex. Freud viewed Rank’s interest in brief therapy as a sign of corruption by superficial American values. Rank backtracked, then finally broke from Freud in 1926 and moved to Paris. There he met Henry Miller and Anais Nin, who wrote about her therapy with Rank and their subsequent love affair. Otto Rank visited the U.S. several times before emigrating permanently in 1935. Orthodox Freudians required Rank’s analysands to be re-analyzed in order to remain members of the Psychoanalytic Association. Rank referred lectured widely, published books in English, taught at the University of Pennsylvania and practiced psychotherapy in New York. He loved his new country and adopted the nickname “Huck” from Mark Twain, his favorite author. His Art and Artist, Modern Education, Will Therapy, and Truth and Reality were published by Knopf. In October 1939, divorced and remarried, planning to become a citizen and move to California, Rank died suddenly at age 55 of a reaction to sulfonamide prescribed for a life threatening infection. A month earlier Freud had died in London at 83.
Brought to the attention of a wider public by Ernest Becker, Paul Goodman, Rollo May, Esther Menaker, Anais Nin, Carl Rogers, Jessie Taft, and Irvin Yalom, Otto Rank is regaining an audience interested in psychotherapy, creativity and the arts, humanistic psychology, feminism, and philosophy. Many of his ideas have entered the mainstream although his role as an innovator in interpersonal and existential psychotherapy has yet to be recognized in full. His writings brim with insights on art, myth, religion, education, will, soul, life-fear and death-fear, and psychotherapy.