When Life Calls Out to Us: The Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankly by Haddon Klingberg, Jr.

reviewed by G. Timothy Johnson

When Life Calls Out to Us: The Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankly by Haddon Klingberg, Jr. Doubleday. 312 pp. Hardcover.

Like many who went to college in the middle part of the last century, I was required to read Viktor Frankl’s moving memoir of his Holocaust years, Man’s Search for Meaning. I was obviously not alone: the book has been translated into 27 languages and read by many millions. Even though I can remember being deeply stirred by the book as a North Park student, I sheepishly admit that I could not remember many of the details of the book—or of Frankl’s then relatively new psychological theory known as logotherapy. So when I received a copy of Haddon (Don) Klingberg’s new book about Frankl, I looked forward to reviving and expanding my knowledge about the man and his work.

I was not disappointed. Indeed, the book went far beyond my rather narrow expectations. The title page, in short, says it all: When Life Calls Out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl (The Story Behind Man’s Search for Meaning). This book is as much or more about the remarkable relationship and 52 year marriage of Viktor Frankl and Elly Schwindt as it is about Viktor’s expansive professional career as a psychiatrist or his philosophical career as the founder of a new school of existentialist psychology. I found the story of the Frankls’ life together to be inspiring and fascinating; I found the discussion of Viktor’s professional life and work to be less so, but that could well be because my appetite for psychological theory has always been limited. Put another way, I am a sucker for a good love story—and the Frankls’ love story is very good indeed—but more interested in solid biology than psychology.

Even a brief sketch of Viktor Frankl’s life reminds us how truly remarkable a man he was: a precocious intellectual as a teen-ager who would rather go to lectures by famous psychiatrists in Vienna than play sports; a survivor of three years in four different concentration camps during the Holocaust; and a pioneering neurologist/psychiatrist in Vienna following the War. Frankl was the controversial founder of a new school of psychological thought which was never accepted by the establishment, but usually welcomed by ordinary people. Though often pilloried, he was a courageous criticizer of the collective guilt movement against the German people and he was a complicated but definite sympathizer toward the religious impulse.

Klingberg does a thorough job of detailing, sometimes in excruciating fashion, all of these themes in Frankl’s life. But what really makes the book come alive is the even more detailed account of the incredible life partnership that developed between Viktor and his second wife Elly, a nurse he met shortly after returning to a hospital position in Vienna after the war. (His first wife died in a concentration camp.) Klingberg conducted and taped hundreds of hours of conversation with the Frankls during the mid 1990s which deeply inform both the personal and the professional accounts of their lives.

Herein lies a story of particular interest to North Parkers. Don Klingberg studied under Viktor Frankl in Vienna for a brief period in the early 1960s. Then, as the saying goes, they went their separate ways. Don earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, headed the Klingberg Family Centers in Connecticut for 20 years, and currently is Professor of Psychology at North Park University.

At Don’s urging, North Park decided to award the Frankls Honorary Degrees in 1993. Viktor, however, insisted on not receiving a degree so that Elly could be singularly honored, a gesture that was truly characteristic of their relationship in later life. This occasion marked a sudden and dramatic renewal of the relationship between Don and the Frankls and it led to an intense friendship for the remaining four years of Viktor’s life. Their friendship became the fertile soil for the growth of this book.

In his opening, Author’s Note, Klingberg writes: “I am neither a Holocaust scholar nor historian and this book is neither comprehensive nor critical biography. Rather, it is an unabashedly sympathetic rendering of their story as Viktor and Elly told it to me.” So, we are fairly forewarned of the author’s mindset and heartset. At this point, full disclosure is appropriate: I have known Haddon Klingberg, Jr. (who will always be “Don” to me) for decades and regard him as a friend. Therefore I find it hard to address some of the limitations of this book, resulting as it does from the close relationship between author and subjects just described. To put it bluntly, the book is devotional if not downright worshipful in attitude.

That said, I also think that Don is too critical of himself in his opening warning. In fact, he has done an outstanding job of mastering the details of the Holocaust years and of dissecting the lives of both Viktor and Elly. And while he is indeed ultimately “unabashedly sympathetic” to their story, it does not prevent him from dealing honestly with Viktor’s (primarily) faults, both personal and professional. For me, and I would guess for most of you in Pietisten’s audience, it is a book well worth reading—informative of mind and elevating of spirit.