Sam Stein

The death of Sam Stein is a great blow to the Australian Psychoanalytic Society and particularly to the Adelaide Branch of the Society. I would like to acknowledge both the enormous influence Sam has had on our psychoanalytic life and the deeply felt esteem in which he is held in Adelaide. Writing this tribute provides me with the opportunity to ponder on the reasons that I found Sam such an inspiring and engaging mentor, teacher, and companion in my development as a psychoanalyst.

At the time that Sam and his family arrived in Adelaide from Johannesburg in 1978, a small group of psychiatrists was establishing a psychoanalytic psychotherapy society. Sam joined us, and his enthusiasm did much to kick the group into life. He took on the task of scientific secretary – that is, he listened with analytic skill, and offered a rich summary of the discussion of clinical material at each meeting. His warmth and enthusiasm, and his clinical acumen, always enlivened the presentation of what may often have been quite desultory clinical presentations. He had a special knack for capturing a moment in the presented material – most commonly as it was revealed in the reported interactive exchange – and using it to illuminate the transference-countertransference situation. He also had a facility for using the presented material to demonstrate dynamic shifts in the patient, and a sense of change and development which was quite thrilling. For us neophytes, he was a wonderful ambassador for psychoanalysis. And this despite the fact that, even in those early days, we would have been aware of Sam’s scorn for the political orthodoxies of psychoanalytic theories. It was not until later years that I realised what a depth of knowledge underpinned Sam’s eager clinical commentary. In the context of this newly formed group, he always wore his intellectual and theoretical understanding with an easy grace – never patronising his students, always enthusing us.

Sam was concerned that the psychotherapy group should establish its own autonomous and independent existence. In my awareness, Sam had a distaste for the role of “leader” who is in any way idealised, who becomes the guru, the head of a political group or movement whose followers slavishly take on his ideas. (Freud and Bion wrote about these group phenomena.) It is my impression that Sam fastidiously withdrew from the group once he felt there was any hint of that sort of dogmatic ideology emerging.

Sam’s arrival in Adelaide allowed psychoanalytic training to go ahead in a simpler way. (Two stoic candidates had already undertaken arduous training involving extensive interstate travel.) As theoretical and clinical teachers and supervisors, Sam Stein and Janet Nield added an enormous zest and intellectual rigour to the training available in Adelaide at that time. Sam was a teacher who used warm encouragement as a teaching tool. For Sam, psychoanalysis was an intellectually rigorous, but humane, exercise. As a candidate, I now had access to Sam’s marvellous fund of stories about the people with whom he trained. He maintained a lively interest in the affairs of the British Psychoanalytic Society, and recalled his training years in London with great pleasure. His teaching was spiced with many vignettes from those days. Thus, one could develop a marvellous sense of continuity with the British tradition, as Sam told instructive and cautionary tales about Melanie Klein and the Kleinians, Anna Freud, Willi Hoffa, Paula Heimann, Herbert Rosenfeld and others.

After graduating, I gradually became aware of more complexities in the character of Sam Stein the psychoanalyst. Now I was to meet Sam the psychoanalyst who had a sharp critical intellect. As I grew into my own sense of a psychoanalytic identity, I came to a better understanding of Sam’s love of the truths he found in psychoanalysis, and his impatience with the humbug of politically correct orthodoxy. I think this shines through in the paper* he published at that time on the influence of theory on the analyst’s countertransference.

Sam disliked aspects of organised committee life. Members of the local branch remember gratefully that Sam was prepared to put aside his dislike for committee work, in order to continue to serve on Society committees for the benefit of our candidates.

Another Adelaide psychoanalyst, Robin Chester, has offered his view on Sam’s approach to psychoanalysis. He remembers Sam as a man who thought deeply about psychoanalysis, read widely and determinedly, and who discussed analytic issues with committed interest, as any member of a discussion group that included Sam would attest. His perspective on the theory and practice of psychoanalysis was open and thoughtful and any attempt to pin Sam down to any definite perspective would seem inappropriate. However, the need to understand the patient’s inner experience was pre-eminent in all his thinking. He was particularly critical of analysts who seemed so “soaked in theory” that they attended to their theories rather than to their patients. (Sam had a marvellously intelligent and creative critical mind.) His own clinical practice was conducted with warmth, sincerity and open-mindedness.

Sam was always a private man and was never boastful of his achievements. He was a brilliant scholar. He graduated M.B.B.Ch. from the University of Witwatersrand at the age of 23, gained his D.P.M. in London three years later, and had completed psychoanalytic training to become an Associate of the British Institute of Psychoanalysis by the age of 32. The following year, he completed his training in Child Psychoanalysis with the British Institute. (His awareness of the child within the adult patient always informed his teaching and supervision.) He emigrated with his wife and three children to South Australia in 1978, and was awarded Membership, and then Fellowship of the RANZCP.

He also had an astonishing range of intellectual and sporting interests, to which he brought his own passion, as well as a passionate analytic understanding. He read philosophy and tried to marry the principles he found there to psychoanalysis. He was enthusiastic about recent science and research into infant development, neurological science and attachment theory, and was always eager to pass his ideas on psychoanalytic theory through the rigorous sieve provided by these discoveries. Other interests included his deep love and knowledge of the repertoire of classical music, and his particular devotion to chamber music. In the arena of sport he loved horses and horse-riding. He playfully and seriously compared horse breaking with psychoanalysis. He was also a keen and vigorous bush-walker, a soccer player, a lawn bowler and a golfer.

In writing this, I am paying affectionate tribute to the public Sam whose loss I now mourn. But throughout his long years in Adelaide, we have always been aware of his love and respect for his family, and we have known of his deep loving pride in them. He bore his final illness with great stoicism, keeping in touch with us (his former analysands and his colleagues in the reading group) while he was able to do so. But finally he withdrew with dignity to the comfort of his loving family. He died peacefully at home in the comfort of their presence.

Sam Stein died on Sunday December 2, 2007, at the age of 81. A private family funeral was held on December 6th. Our thoughts and condolences go with his beloved wife Jill, his son, two daughters, and four grandchildren.

*STEIN, S. (1991) The influence of theory on the psychoanalyst’s countertransference. Int. J. Psychoanal., 72:325-334.