John Kerr, an editor, literary muse and confidant for a generation of Freudian scholars and the author of “A Most Dangerous Method,” the book that became the basis for a play and a movie about the famous feud between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, died on July 18 in Portland, Me. He was 66.
His brother Gil said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
Mr. Kerr was a graduate student in psychology at New York University when he discovered the subject that would become the touchstone of an influential scholarly life. The screenwriter Paul Schrader, of “Taxi Driver” fame, had been looking for a research assistant to develop a script about the contentious relationship between Freud and Jung, and Mr. Kerr signed on.
Later, in 1981, Mr. Schrader abandoned the project, but his assistant dug in and made the work his dissertation. Mr. Kerr turned the project into a book, “A Most Dangerous Method” (1993), that drew on private letters of Jung and Freud, who had been a mentor to Jung. Mr. Kerr argued that the falling out between the two theorists and former friends was due in part to a woman, the analyst Sabina Spielrein, with whom Jung had an affair.
The book inspired the 2002 play “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay for “A Dangerous Method,” the 2011 film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg.
Mr. Kerr’s interest in the relationship had initially led him to join a seminar at Cornell University exploring the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. There, he met a medical historian, Paul E. Stepansky, who soon hired him as an editor at The Analytic Press, a book publisher that through the 1980s and 1990s functioned as part incubator, part finishing school for books written by therapists.
“He was a dazzling intellect, and the two of us ran the place with a staff of five or six,” Dr. Stepansky said. “I would give him manuscripts to review, and the reviews were these wide-ranging meditations, stylistic gems, with commentary that was often more illuminating than the manuscript itself.”
In one, Mr. Kerr identified the sinkhole into which so many Freud critics have fallen. “I think Freud writes so well, and writes his particular brand of theoretical gobbledygook so especially well,” Mr. Kerr wrote, “that all his would-be detractors are forced to go laboring after him with half his speed and one-tenth his grace.”
Word about his reviews got around, and aspiring authors gravitated to him.
“I knew nothing of French history and culture when I wrote the chapter of my book on psychoanalysis in France during the Shoah,” Emily Kuriloff, the director of clinical education at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology in Manhattan, wrote in an email. “He was a treasure trove of facts and ideas.”
John Michael Kerr was born in Washington on Jan. 31, 1950, and grew up in Larchmont, N.Y. His father was the prominent New York drama critic Walter Kerr; his mother, Jean Collins Kerr, was a magazine writer whose best-selling book about raising six children, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” became a movie and a TV show.
In addition to his brother Gil, Mr. Kerr is survived by two other brothers, Colin and Greg, and a sister, Kitty Kerr Mahin. His eldest brother, Chris, died in 2010.
After graduating from Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island, Mr. Kerr received a degree in political science at Harvard before entering N.Y.U.’s graduate psychology program. He never got his doctorate — he had neglected to pay the registration fee, he later said — but nevertheless became a visiting scholar at Cornell, Harvard, the Austen Riggs psychiatric treatment center in Stockbridge, Mass., and the William Alanson White Institute.
“He was a true scholar and intellectual, interested in ideas, interested in conversation, interested in everybody,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist in New York. “Everyone in the world of psychoanalytic scholarship knew him.”
Colleagues recalled him as generous with his guidance, both scholarly and otherwise.
“We would be talking on the phone about some abstract point of metapsychology,” said Dr. Stepansky, “and he would say, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to get to the tavern; the baseball game’s about to start, and my blind friend Tony relies on me to provide the play-by-play.’”