Alan Roland, 93, Psychoanalyst Who Cautioned Against Western Bias, Dies

Alan Roland, who brought new insights to psychoanalysis by calling out a Western bias in much of the field and factoring in differences in culture and upbringing among patients, died on July 22 at his home in Monterey, Mass. He was 93.

His wife, Joan Roland, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Dr. Roland was best known for “In Search of Self in India and Japan: Toward a Cross-Cultural Psychology,” an influential 1988 book in which he laid out his ideas.

A crucial moment in the evolution of those ideas came in 1971, when he was teaching at the New School in New York and a man from India sought him out for therapy.

“I was immediately struck in those therapy sessions that the quality of his mind was of a different cast than that of any American patient I had ever worked with,” Dr. Roland wrote. For instance, the familial relationships and expectations the man had grown up with differed from what he was encountering in the West.

Dr. Roland went on to live for significant stretches in India and Japan, absorbing those countries’ traditions and sensibilities. He saw the differences in the ways people communicate in those cultures, what was expected in familial relationships, and more — and how those forces differed from the Western emphasis on individualism.

“I came to see the psychological makeup of persons in societies so civilizationally different as India, Japan and America as embedded in the fundamentally distinct cultural principles of these civilizations and the social patterns and child-rearing that these principles shape,” he wrote.

He added, “This is quite different from the many psychoanalysts who tend to assume the primacy of psychic reality and believe that psychology determines culture and society — another form of psychoanalytic reductionism.”

American psychologists, he said in a 1977 interview with The Berkshire Sampler of Massachusetts, tended to be stuck in an approach based on Freud and medicine.

“They can’t understand psychoanalysis when it starts getting tied into philosophy, literature, linguistics, anthropology,” he said.

M Nasir Ilahi, a New York psychoanalyst, was a student in the 1970s when he first encountered Dr. Roland in his seminar on cross-cultural psychoanalysis.

“It turned out to be a momentous and in some respects a life-changing experience for me,” he said in a eulogy delivered at a memorial service on Thursday, “as for the first time I found someone articulating, in a way that made sense, the not so easy to grasp psychological differences between individuals from the radically different cultures of North America and that of my own South Asia.”

Sandra Shapiro, a psychoanalyst who taught at Queens College for many years and who attended the service, said by email that although she had long been familiar with his work, she met Dr. Roland in person only on the weekend of his death.

“His words to me that afternoon were that when he started to do therapy with culturally identified Indian and Japanese people, he would be open and ask them a lot of questions,” she said. “No arrogance there.”

Jacob Alan Roland was born on June 20, 1930, in Brooklyn. His father, Jay, was an artist who dropped the original family name, Goldstein. His mother, Lillian (Suttenberg) Roland, was a homemaker.

Dr. Roland graduated from Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn before earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Antioch College in Ohio in 1955 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University on Long Island in 1960.

He married Joan Gardner in 1962, when she was studying for a doctorate at Columbia University. (She became a history professor at Pace University in New York.) In 1964, they made their first trip to India, a six-week visit, vowing to return. Thirteen years later they did, by which time Dr. Roland was pursuing the research that became his 1988 book.

His later books included “Cultural Pluralism and Psychoanalysis: The Asian and North American Experience” (1996) and “Journeys to Foreign Selves: Asians and Asian Americans in a Global Era” (2011). He maintained a clinical practice, but his interests ranged far and wide. His son, Ariel, said Dr. Roland was a student of Eastern spiritual practices his entire adult life.

“It was an extraordinarily important facet of his identity and daily life,” he said by email, “while never significantly conflicting with his New York City Jewish background.”

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Roland is survived by a daughter, Tika Snyder, and three grandchildren.

Dr. Roland also wrote plays and sometimes wrote psychoanalytic interpretations of plays by others. And he was an artist whose watercolors and etchings appeared in numerous group shows and in several solo exhibitions. He saw connections between his artistic endeavors and his clinical practice.

“In analytic work you’re listening to someone talking, and something’s bothering him, but he doesn’t know really what it’s all about,” he told The Berkshire Sampler. “And neither do you. And you gradually have to construct something, a whole picture, that wasn’t there. Now this takes a degree of chutzpah. And as an artist you become used to working with chutzpah, because you are sort of going out and saying, this is my statement, this is the way I see things.”

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