Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Professor Susie Orbach

Oration given on 15 July 2004

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the Degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon SUSIE ORBACH

Susie Orbach is a psychoanalyst, academic, author, journalist, political activist and feminist pioneer. Also may I say, a friend and colleague. For many who know little about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, Susie Orbach has for long been the public face of these professions. Many hundreds of thousands of people have bought her books, read her columns in the newspapers and heard her broadcasts. Her commitment to the spread of emotional literacy in the population and to the expansion of its key ideas and practices into the public sphere have rested on her supreme abilities as a thinker, writer and communicator. She takes very complex ideas – her own included – and makes them accessible to a wider audience. Yet she has never sacrificed the multi-layered and challenging nature of in-depth psychological perspectives in order to become a mere populariser. Quite the reverse. Susie Orbach has for thirty years been at the forefront of working out new directions in the psychology of women and fresh approaches to psychotherapy generally. These innovations may well have benefited women specifically at first but now, in their embrace of the perspectives of gender, culture and ethnicity, offer therapists the hope of a practice that truly does work with the whole person and not just with what is alleged to be the inner world.

None of this would have been possible without her commitment to and drawing from feminist thinking. In 1976, together with her co-author Louise Eichenbaum, she founded the Women’s Therapy Centre in London and later, in 1981, the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York. Speaking as an analyst myself, it is difficult now to recall the immense shock to the professional world that such a thing as a Women’s Therapy Centre could exist. Psychoanalysts, in particular, either thought that what they offered was just fine for women already or, when they encountered protests to the contrary, that there was something neurotic about the protesters. The Women’s Therapy Centre offered therapy to women of whatever background and economic condition (and still does). No referral was necessary and this contributed to a much-needed demystification of the process of psychological healing. The Women’s Therapy Centre has gone on to play a critical role in transforming psychotherapy in the direction of a greater sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality.

In 1978, decades before the Government’s current interest in obesity, Susie Orbach published her classic and best-selling book "Fat is a Feminist Issue". It is one of those consciousness changing books that virtually everyone has had a strong response to. Susie Orbach was among the first to recognise women’s eating problems as a psycho-cultural phenomenon stemming from women’s role in Western families as the providers of food and emotional nurture. At the same time, women learn in childhood not to pay attention to their own needs but to react to the needs of others. In working out these ideas Susie Orbach also confronted some of the myths that men believe in about themselves. In particular, patriarchal social arrangements give men the illusion that they are independent when in fact their emotional needs are often being satisfied quietly on the side.

Many of Susie Orbach’s concerns have, unusually for a psychotherapist, contributed to political culture in the form of campaigns and political activities. One thinks here of her co-founding of Antidote – the Campaign for Emotional Literacy and of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility – and, most recently, of AnyBody, a campaign for the acceptance of body diversity. Whether in alliance with others, or as a solo provocateur, she has challenged the notion of the psychoanalyst as a detached observer and insists that therapists offer back to their communities the salient lessons of their clinical experience.

In recent years, Susie Orbach’s intellectual and clinical interests have continued to focus on the body and, in particular, women’s bodies. She is in the process of reframing how we think of ‘the body’. moving from, but not ignoring, biology and cognitive neuroscience in order to think of the body as something one achieves as well as something that one has been given. As a psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach meets women whose bodies are not real to them and certainly not sources of pride or pleasure. The pathways by which these states might be healed are being mapped in this latest radical pioneering project.

One idea of Susie Orbach’s, developed with Louise Eichenbaum in their 1987 book "Bitter Sweet", is that of ‘separated attachment’. Unlike many psychoanalytic concepts, this one means what it says. To attach to another person, and hence to be able to love and hate them, you have to be separate enough to do so. Too separate and there is not enough depth of feeling or sense of attachment. Too close and the space for relational play of emotions is closed down. Again, although this theme was first promulgated with respect to women its applicability to men is becoming abundantly clear. What might not be so clear is the relational challenge to the one person psychology of psychoanalytic orthodoxy. Even today, many psychoanalysts still place autonomous separateness and what is called ‘a strong ego’ as the dependency- free pinnacle on the scale of mental health values.

Do not read this only as a debate within psychoanalysis. The political reference of a choice between attachment to others and self reliant autonomy are very important in today’s political conversation. Feminism asserts correctly that the personal is political. Susie Orbach greatly expands what we might mean by personal here to include the terrain of psychoanalysis: the unconscious, dreams, fantasy, sex, aggression. The title of a recent book published in 1999, "The Impossibility of Sex", and its experimental format, hovering between imaginative fiction and clinical narrative, shows clearly that the personal need not be restricted to what we already know about ourselves.

The political too is transformed in Susie Orbach’s treatment of it, treatment in both senses. It is therefore not surprising that the Government, the National Health Service and the World Bank make use of her insights and skills. Nor is it surprising that she has been appointed a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics in the suggestive field of ‘psychoanalysis and social policy’. But at the other end of the spectrum of prestige, if you are running a small counselling centre somewhere in Essex and you want a star speaker who won’t quibble about the fee, will give a brilliant talk and stay on after the official question period to relate to and mentor the audience, it would be wise to call Susie Orbach who says ‘yes’ to many such invitations each year.

Susie Orbach is a brilliant, lucid writer, who takes the reader with her every step of the way. In this regard, she follows in Freud’s ample footsteps as she guides us through the stages of her arguments. She respects her readers and does not condescend, but she knows that her subject matter is difficult, because psychological writing and psychological reading are, after all, personal confessions. When a psychoanalyst writes, the subject matter is the reader, not to mention the writer.

Susie Orbach has probably had a huge impact on the emotional lives of many here today, and not only women. She has changed the ways in which we think about the psychology of women, about relationships, about eating, about the body, about the connections between interiority and politics, and about the ideas and practices of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

On the personal level she can be confrontational, even to friends, yet she is always supportive, generous and loving when one is down. She is quick to acknowledge the contributions of others to her life and work, notably her husband, the psychoanalyst and academic Joseph Schwartz, and their two children. Above all, she is a courageous woman, passionately committed both to the emotional flowering of individuals and to social justice, and to showing us all how they cannot be, must not be, disconnected.

Chancellor, I present to you SUSIE ORBACH

Orator: Professor Andrew Samuels