Scholar, Singer, and Psychoanalyst

Photo by Jessica ScrantonPhoto by Jessica Scranton
By Pat Harrison

Priscilla Fierman Kauff '62 has always loved libraries. As a child growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she would ride the bus to the grand old Berkshire Athenaeum, where the reference room librarian would help her find what she was looking for. As an undergraduate, Kauff studied in the Radcliffe College Library—housed in the building where the Schlesinger Library is now located—which reminded her of that childhood experience.

In the 1990s, Kauff was invited to a luncheon in her home city of New York, where she met Mary Maples Dunn, then the director of the Schlesinger. "Mary talked about curating and how you figure out what will be historically meaningful 50 years from now—in other words, collecting," Kauff says. She became fascinated with the Schlesinger's mission of assembling material about the history of women in the United States.

Kauff introduced her mentor, Henriette T. Glatzer (1906– 2001), an early psychoanalyst and analytic group therapist, to Mary Dunn. "I was delighted when Mary accepted Henni's papers at my suggestion," Kauff says.

Today, Kauff serves on the Schlesinger Library Council, which she joined in 2005, and travels to Cambridge as often as she can. In New York, she juggles a host of commitments—including teaching as a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Weill Medical School of Cornell University, supervising and training mental health professionals in China as a faculty member of the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance (CAPA), and maintaining a private practice in individual and group psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.

Her work in China began in 2006, when a colleague at the Massachusetts General Hospital—also a specialist in analytic group psychotherapy—invited Kauff to teach with her at the Shanghai Mental Health Center for three weeks. "It became obvious very fast that what the Chinese could use from us was an introduction to psychoanalytic group psychotherapy," Kauff says. "They didn't want us to lecture about psychoanalytic theory—they had people coming from Germany to do that—they wanted to hear about groups." Kauff continues to supervise people she met on that trip; she began by using e- mail and switched to Skype when it became available.

Kauff says there's a lot of controversy in her field about whether psychoanalysts can work effectively on Skype or whether the video software interferes too much with the process of treatment. "But if you think about it," she says, "Freud was really the first to try something different when he had patients lie on the couch—neither he nor the patient had eye contact any longer. I see that as an early paradigm for what has now become an ever more complicated situation. The use of Skype in treatment is in its earliest stages, and its impact remains to be explored. Its use as a supervisory and teaching tool is less complicated and very exciting."

When she's not teaching or conducting her private practice, Kauff sings in the Collegiate Chorale, a sophisticated amateur group that regularly appears at Carnegie Hall and similar venues. She also serves on the board of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where she is the chair of the education committee.

And then there's work on the 50th reunion committee of her Radcliffe class, which includes an effort to encourage her Radcliffe classmates to designate their gifts for the Schlesinger Library. She also has plans for a book about group psychotherapy and spends time visiting with her two children, three stepchildren, and several grandchildren.

"I'd love to spend more time in Cambridge," Kauff says. "My memories of being a student there are wonderful. I realize in retrospect that there were many limits on us as Radcliffe students—you couldn't be on the Crimson or have access to all the libraries or houses. But that said, I'm back, and I love being affiliated with the Schlesinger Library." 

Search Year: 
2012