Merton Gill: A Sketch of His Life and Some Reminiscences

Robert R. Holt

[Paper presented on June 10, 1995, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group]


When I first met Mert, in 1946, he was 32 years old - only 3 years older than I - but he seemed much more my senior than that. Only 8 years had passed since he had received his M.D. from the University of Chicago, where he also did his undergraduate work. After an internship at Michael Reese Hospital, he had gone to Topeka to take a residency at the Menninger Clinic, then a much smaller and less famous place than it has become since. He had first become a staff member and, by 1946, had for a year been Chief of the Outpatient Department and had newly become Assistant Director of the Research Department, David Rapaport's right-hand man. Moreover, he was almost through his psychoanalytic training; he graduated from the Topeka Institute the next year - a pretty rapid rise for someone so young, but no one spoke of Mert as a "boy wonder" or "whiz kid." He was mature for his years, and clearly possessed not only intellectual brilliance but a charismatic personal quality that drew people to him from the beginning.

At first, I knew him only through his participation in the evening lectures, held almost weekly under the auspices of the newly founded Menninger School of Psychiatry. Outside speakers, often of considerable distinction, came through Topeka to speak about their specialties, each time followed by open discussion. One after another, the heavy hitters of the home team would come to bat with comments or critique, some - like Karl Menninger, David Rapaport, and Robert Knight - already with great reputations, others yet to receive renown but equally cogent and articulate, like Margaret Brenman, Sybille Escalona, Milton Wexler, and Lewis Robbins. None of these stars could upstage the young Gill, however. The substance of what he said was always thoughtful and insightful, but it took on added impressiveness from his gift of speaking in well-framed and fluent sentences delivered with flashes of cutting wit in the deep, orotund, mellifluous, bass voice we all recall so well.

I believe that it was Rapaport who finally got us acquainted on a one-to-one basis, but our friendship grew slowly. I found Merton fascinating but not very approachable; he could make you laugh a lot, but there was often a sharp edge to his sense of humor. I suspect now that he was less secure and more defensive than I realized at the time.

The first period of Gill's publications began in Topeka with a few clinical papers and a landmark collaborative study: Diagnostic Psychological Testing (Rapaport, Gill, and Schafer, 1945-1946). Mert always tried to make it plain that he knew little about testing and that his collaboration had been limited to two exercises of his psychiatric skills: interviewing the Kansas highway patrolmen who served as the control group for the research, and helping to review the clinical data on the hundreds of mixed psychiatric: cases and to assign them to a standard set of nosological categories. (All subjects, normal and abnormal alike, had been given the same battery of psychological tests, on which the research was focused.)

His other main collaborator in Topeka was Margaret Brenman-Gibson, who drew him into her exploratory research on hypnosis and hypnotherapy. They published a number of joint papers and an acclaimed book, Hypnotherapy (Brenman and Gill, 1947).

To my personal disappointment, as well as that of many others, Mert left Topeka in 1948 to accompany Bob Knight to Stockbridge as part of another exciting institutional renaissance, at the Austen Riggs Center, along with Margaret Brenman, Roy Schafer, Alan Wheelis, and Erik Erikson. (Rapaport followed a year later.) The work on hypnotherapy continued, culminating in a second, more definitive book, Hypnosis and Related States (Gill and Brenman, 1959), which made notable theoretical, as well as clinical, contributions.

Considerably before that, however, Gill had moved on to the Yale Medical School's Department of Psychiatry, where he began another collaborative research project, this time on the initial psychiatric interview (Gill et al., 1954). While still in Stockbridge, he had become one of the founding members of the Western New England Psychoanalytic Society. He became a training analyst in its institute in 1950, as well as vice president and then president of the society.

In 1953, he moved to Berkeley, where he settled for a decade. I'll skip over this period, since I was mostly far away. But one of the best things about my year in Palo Alto (1960-61) was the opportunity to see Mert fairly often, exchanging manuscripts and having stimulating talks about our mutual fascination with metapsychology. I recall with special pleasure a beach outing with Mert and his second wife Charlotte, with little Ben and his two older half-brothers Rod and Kim (whom Merton adopted). It was one of many occasions on which I could see the warmth and kind firmness with which he interacted with his children. He maintained frequent contact with all five of them, including two daughters from his first marriage, whatever his fallings out with their mothers. David Rapaport's sudden death that year also brought us together in joint efforts to handle the immediate practical aftermath and the longer task of surveying his literary remains and preparing to publish much of it, as well as the immediate project of organizing a memorial volume, Motives and Thought (Gill, 1967b), to which Merton contributed a paper.

Let me say a little about the working relationship between Gill and Rapaport. Both men had an unusual capacity for collaborative work, which is possible only between mature persons who are capable of subordinating individual competitive ambitions to the requirements of an intellectual challenge. There can be no question that Gill was fully able to write important contributions completely on his own; his bibliography attests to that. Nevertheless, it also contains an unusual number of substantial pieces of work done in partnership with one or more colleagues. Nowhere was Mert's special talent for teamwork more evident than in the work he did with his mentor, that extraordinary intellect and remarkable human being, David Rapaport. When they were not in the same institution, they continued a warm and close personal relationship, with a steady exchange of long letters and phone calls, punctuated by working visits. Those would typically be intensive weekends of sitting together until late into the night over notes and manuscripts, full of vigorous argument and productive work, but with a great deal of often uproarious comic relief. Those who were privileged to hear the exchange of jokes between these two legendary raconteurs have never forgotten it. A notable product of this long-distance collaboration was the groundbreaking paper, "The Points of View and Assumptions of Metapsychology" (Rapaport and Gill, 1959).

Rapaport's tragically untimely death in 1960 interrupted a major undertaking, which Gill (1963) completed alone, a further rational reconstruction and extension of metapsychology. It was followed by a masterly summary of Rapaport's contributions (Gill and Klein, 1964) and his editing of a massive collection of Rapaport's papers (Gill, 1967a).

In 1963, a move to New York inaugurated a new period of Merts professional life, first at the Downstate Medical Center of the State University of New York, where his research was in collaboration with Justin Simon and other medical psychoanalysts. Starting in 1969, to the delight of George Klein, myself, and our staff at the Research Center for Mental Health (RCMH), he spent two years at New York University (NYU) as a Special NIMH Fellow. During these New York years, his research focused on the intensive study of the process of psychoanalysis via tape recording. He devised a technique of making the huge data base of a recorded analysis (whether fully transcribed or not) usable by means of nested summaries. He would listen to the tape of an hour, then dictate a carefully planned abstract of the entire proceeding and an even briefer precis using a controlled vocabulary of key words. These documents made it possible to review many hours quickly to find necessary data for a specific study, a method that has enabled several other people to do good research using his cases. His two reports on this work (Gill et al., 1968; Simon et al., 1970) join a small, but valuable, corpus of reflections on clinical research methods, which he published over a period of about four decades.

During his two years at NYU, Mert intensified his friendship with me, but even more so with George Klein, a camaraderie that dated back to Topeka days. George and I had gone there as Rapaport's students and proteges and, beginning in 1953, had developed the RCMH as a center of empirical and theoretical research on psychoanalytic psychology. Gill joined at a time when Hartvig Dahl had begun a new line of work on the analytic process using tape recordings; now George became actively involved. The focus was a regularly meeting working group, which I and a few others joined, where we discussed work in progress. Mert was trying the audacious idea of experimentally introducing into an ongoing analysis deliberately off-target interpretations, followed by "correct" ones at a long enough interval to compare effects. He was able to do so with such conviction that "blind" observers could not tell which interpretations were appropriate and which inappropriate.

Since the death of our mentor, Rapaport, we had been going through a period of fundamental questioning of the Freudian metapsychology in which all three of us had been so thoroughly drilled. I don't know to what extent George and I infected Mert with our skepticism; basically, however, we were all responding to real problems with the texts, for which only David had always been able to find an extenuation or explanation. George was writing a series of revisionist theoretical papers at the time of his sudden and early death in 1970, which was, of course, a heavy blow to the NYU working group. Gill and Leo Goldberger undertook the editorial task of making a publishable book (G.S. Klein, 1976) from George's manuscripts, and with Phil Holzman, Mert organized and edited a posthumous Festschrift in George's honor. That collection contains "Metapsychology is not psychology," Gill's (1976) first explicit turning away from the endeavor to salvage and rehabilitate this general or non-clinical theory of psychoanalysis, toward what he hoped might be a hermeneutic science.

That was only one of several instances in which Mert had the courage and intellectual integrity to admit that he had been wrong, even that a line of work was fundamentally flawed, despite the fact that he had devoted many years to it. In my estimation, anyone who has the guts to admit error on an important theoretical or metatheoretical point displays the kind of intellectual heroism often attributed to Freud. But this is only one of the qualities that endeared Merton Gill to those who were fortunate enough to be his friends. He was steadfastly loyal, absolutely reliable, unfailingly helpful, and emotionally supportive - no wonder he was such a fine therapist!

My wife Joan and I cherish the memories of one time when we had an opportunity to be steadily together with Mert and Ilse for a little over a week. They accepted our invitation to spend some summer vacation time with us in our house in Truro (Cape Cod) toward the end of August 1971. There was plenty of time for good conversation, enjoying the beauties of Cape Cod together, relaxing on the beach, and enjoying good food - especially when Ilse displayed an unsuspected talent for baking.

That fall, Chicago welcomed the return of a prodigal son (though I mean it in the sense of his being extremely abundant and generous, rather than profligate), if not with a fatted calf, then at least with another professorship of psychiatry at the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine, plumped out with a Research Scientist Award from NIMH. That was to be his last move.

To go back to our shared vacation, I remember being struck at the time by the developmental change in Mert over the many years I had known him. From being the kind of brilliant young man who simultaneously attracts people and frightens them away by a mordantly witty tongue, he had become a wise, maturely loving and beloved person of remarkable benevolence, who made no effort to conceal his own human vulnerability. At times, to be sure, he could still be a rascal, a clown, even a curmudgeon. He lived life fully, knowing the depths of despair and depression, as well as the heights of love and widely acclaimed achievement. But he never seemed impressed with himself, always wryly self-deprecatory and aware of his own limitations.

In November 1983, he wrote to me:

We get older and the damn flesh asserts itself at the very time when we feel we should, and can, use what we have learned to justify what we were given - and I don't mean to belittle the pleasure in showing what we can do as well as to stick out our tongues at fate. I will be 70 next summer and I think from time to time that I don't want to "go quietly into the night."

As his body began to give out in the final decade, he faced his mortality with his usual ironic humor. He went through enough misery in those final months for all of us to be glad he is released from it, despite our personal grief.


Brenman, M. & Gill, M.M. (1947), Hypnotherapy: A Review of the Literature. New York: International Universities Press.

Gill, M.M. (1963), Topography and Systems in Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychological Issues, Monogr. No. 10. New York: International Universities Press.

Gill, M.M., ed. (1967a), The Collected Papers of David Rapaport. New York: Basic Books.

Gill, M.M. (1967b), The primary process. In: Motives and Thought: Psychoanalytic Essays in Memory of David Rapaport, ed. R. R. Holt. Psychological Issues, Monogr. 18/19. New York: International Universities Press, pp. 259-298.

Gill, M.M. (1976c), Metapsychology is not psychology. In: Psychology vs. Metapsychology: Psychoanalytic Essays in Memory of George S. Klein, ed. M. M. Gill & P. S. Holzman. Psychological Issues, Monogr. No. 36. New York: International Universities Press, pp. 71-105.

Gill, M.M. & Brenman, M. (1959), Hypnosis and Related States: Psychoanalytic Studies in Regression. New York: International Universities Press.

Gill, M.M. & Klein, G.S. (1964), The structuring of drive and reality: David Rapaport's contributions to psychoanalysis and psychology. Int. J. Psycho-Anal, 45: 483-498. (Also in Gill, 1967a).

Gill, M.M., Newman, R., Redlich, E.C. & Sommers, M. (1954), The Initial Interview in Psychiatric Practice. New York: International Universities Press. (Published with phonograph records)

Gill, M.M., Simon, J., Endicott, N.A. & Paul, I.H. (1968), Studies in audio-recorded psychoanalysis. I. General considerations. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 16: 230-244.

Klein, G.S. (1976), Psychoanalytic Theory: An Exploration of Essentials, ed. M.M. Gill & L. Goldberger. New York: International Universities Press. (Italian transl.: Teoria psicoanalitica. Milano: Cortina, 1993).

Rapaport, D. & Gill, M.M. (1959), The points of view and assumptions of metapsychology. Int. J. Psycho-Anal, 40: 1-10.

Rapaport, D., Gill, M.M. & Schafer, R. (1945-46), Diagnostic Psychological Testing (2 vols.). Chicago: Yearbook Publishers (out of print). Also see: Rapaport, D., Gill, M.M. & Schafer, R., Diagnostic Psychological Testing (revised edition by R. R. Holt). New York: International Universities Press, 1968. (Italian transl.: Reattivi psicodiagnostici. Torino: Boringhieri, 1975).

Simon, J., Gill, M.M., Fink, G., Endicott, N.A. & Paul, I.H. (1970), Studies in audio-recorded psychoanalysis: 2. The effect on the analyst. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 18: 86-101.

[Note: An Italian translation if this paper, titled "Merton Gill: un profilo della vita e alcuni ricordi", appeared in Ricerca Psicoanalitica, 1998, IX, 1: 51-58. A later version appeared in D.K. Silverman & D.L. Wolitzky, editors, Changing Conceptions of Psychoanalysis: The Legacy of Merton M. Gill, Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2000, pp. 25-30; European distributor: Eurospan. We thank for the permission]

Robert R. Holt, Ph.D.
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