Hedda Bolgar, Pioneering Psychoanalyst, Dies at 103

Hedda Bolgar, Pioneering Psychoanalyst, Dies at 103
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Dr. Hedda Bolgar, an extraordinary psychoanalyst, scholar, teacher, supervisor, lecturer, speaker, author and social justice activist, died peacefully Monday at her Brentwood home.

She was 103. She saw her final patient just a few weeks ago.

Over the course of an 80-year career, Hedda was instrumental in the founding and development of three significant educational institutions.

Hedda was born in Switzerland in 1909. Her father was a prominent historian and diplomat, and her mother was a feminist and a journalist, one of just two female war correspondents during World War I.

She received her Ph.D. in Psychology in 1934 from the University of Vienna, where she knew Anna Freud and attended Sigmund Freud's lectures -- one of the few people still alive in 2013 to do so.

Hedda fled Europe for the United States in 1938, the day the Third Reich annexed Austria. She trained at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute and was a faculty member of the University of Chicago. In 1956, she and her husband Herbert, who died in 1973, moved to Los Angeles, where she was Chief Psychologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital and where she established a postdoctoral residency program in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.

In 1969, Hedda helped found the California School of Professional Psychology. The next year, she co-founded Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies (LAISPS). In 1974, Dr. Bolgar and three colleagues -- including Dr. Allen Yasser, who is still the organization's executive director and has remained close with Hedda throughout the years -- created Wright Institute Los Angeles (WILA), which houses an internship and postdoctoral training program in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and a non-profit, mental health clinic offering intensive long-term psychotherapy at low cost.

Dr. Yasser said, "I've known, been mentored by, worked with, and loved Hedda for 45 years. She was a dear friend and like a loving mother to my family and to me."

As chair of the WILA board, I got to hang out with Hedda from time to time. She was always gracious, elegantly dressed and held forth in perfect, eloquent sentences about Bach, Godard, Freud, vegetarianism and politics. She reserved scorn for Tea Partiers, global warming know-nothings and people who were unkind to animals. She was especially critical of most of pop culture, which she saw as a source of depression for many women who become more and more obsessed with their physical appearance as they reach their 50s and 60s.

Hedda infused her work with a spiritual dimension. She disdained organized religion but loved Buddhism. We talked about the commonalities and differences between Buddhist practice and psychoanalysis. Each is a radical way of understanding oneself where nothing is hidden and nothing is good or bad, just meaningful. But Buddhist practice involves sitting and watching one's thoughts come and go without dwelling on them, while psychoanalysis encourages patients to follow their thoughts and feelings and find meaning through a trail of free associations.

Anyone who encouraged Hedda to slow down at, say, 90, 95 or 100 was met with incredulity. Until very recently, she kept a full schedule of patients, and still found time to teach, lecture and participate in writings and documentaries about aging. In her last years, most of her patients were women. Some were therapists themselves; others sought therapy for the first time. She specialized in treating people in their 70s and 80s, clients who could open to an empathic ear from someone who could have been a parent.

Hedda remained on WILA's board until her passing. The Institute's mission embodies her passions: rigorous training, intellectual depth, practical teachings, low fees and long-term care at a time when insurance generally reimburses, if at all, for one visit and a prescription.

I never heard Hedda talk about her own death, but she was a virtual insight machine with regard to her elderly patients' deep fears that soon they would deteriorate into a world of physical pain, economic hardship and the humiliations of navigating a world in which they could no longer function independently. She couldn't fix their physical or their financial conditions, but she could help assuage their fears, which could be more painful than their "real-world" challenges.

Hedda was no Pollyanna. She understood well that she was one of the lucky ones who enjoyed the good health that facilitated a pioneering career and an astonishing life.

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