Marvin Zonis (1936-2020)
By James W. Anderson
Read at the Meeting of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society, 3/23/21
It is a great honor for me to speak about Marvin Zonis, who died this past November 15th at the age of 84. Marvin was imbued with the psychoanalytic perspective, and he radiated it in all his activities: while teaching for more than a half century at the University of Chicago, writing sparkling books and articles, and tutoring the public, the government, and corporations about international affairs.
He grew up in the Boston area where his father manufactured clothes and his mother was a nurturing presence in the family. Both of his parents were Jewish immigrants, his father from what is now Belarus and his mother from what is now Ukraine. The old world was very much alive in the Zonis family, as his parents spoke frequently about life in Eastern Europe. Spending a summer during high school in Greece, where he lived with a family through the American Field Service program, Marvin grew ever more interested in international affairs.
He attended Yale as an undergraduate, studied business at Harvard, and received a PhD in International Relations at MIT. In spite of his respect for those three institutions, he said at times that he preferred the University of Chicago, with its kinetic intellectual atmosphere, over the other three universities.
As a graduate student at MIT, it was not clear on what area of the world he would concentrate. A professor suggested that the time was right for a deep dive into Iran. Marvin expressed an interest though knowing next to nothing about Iran and ran home afterwards to see where Iran was on the map. He went on to study Iran, learn Farsi, and spend a good two years there researching the political system. His dissertation was so well regarded that it was published as a book by Princeton University Press.
A pivotal moment took place while he was teaching at UChicago. He had an enduring interest in leaders, but they puzzled him. They frequently made decisions that seemed wrong and senseless. How could that be? He realized that psychoanalysis had the answer. He became a research candidate at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and underwent an analysis himself. He felt that experience dramatically changed him. He came to understand himself deeply and also others, including, notably, leaders. Over time he wrote psychoanalytically informed biographies of the two most important Iranian leaders of the Twentieth Century, the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini. His answer to the question of how leaders made puzzling decisions was simple yet profound. They were human, and they had personal reasons for their decisions, as they were buffeted by their emotions and personal conflicts. Leaders, he concluded, try to take realistic factors into account, but often they are ruled by irrational feelings, including anger, envy, a desire for revenge, and arrogance.
During his storied career at UChicago, he taught in many areas, of which three stood out. He had a great interest in teaching undergraduates. They were enthralled by his charisma and his caring for them as individuals, and he contributed to many of them a sense of the inner life. He won both of the University’s awards for outstanding teaching, the Quantrell Award and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award.
A second area of involvement for him was the Committee on Human Development, where he taught and also served as chair for several years. It was there that I encountered him and had the great good fortune of having him as my dissertation adviser while I wrote a psychobiographical study of William James. The talk among us graduate students was that many professors were difficult: a number of them didn’t really seem interested in their students but only in their own research, they could be bossy or competitive with students, sometimes they even seemed to want to undermine their students. I found Marvin to be the perfect adviser. He was always supportive, and we had many long and inspiring discussions.
After I received my PhD we became friends and had regular discussions that continued to be as electric as those we’d had while I was his student. We talked about our families, his work and mine, and the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, which he served as a board member.
Marvin’s third area at UChicago was the business school, where he specialized in the teaching of leadership. Many of his former students have attested to his abiding influence on them. He took his knowledge of political leadership and shared it with these future leaders of corporations and non-profit organizations. His taught his students that they must know themselves in order to become successful leaders. He conveyed the central vision of psychoanalysis, that a leader must use one’s own emotions rather than being used by them. Emotions inform us what is important to us, but then it is our job to find the best way of handling those situations and not just to act out our feelings under the guise of rationalizations. In one of my last meetings with Marvin, he mentioned that he’d like to write a book on anger, because he found that to be the most troubling and troublesome of emotions.
I’ll just say briefly that Marvin did a great deal of consulting to government and businesses. His entrée into that area came through his expertise on Iran.
Many of you remember the great crisis that ensued after the Iranian revolutionaries took over the American Embassy in Iran and, flaunting all international norms, held 52 Americans hostage. ABC News started a nightly show talking about the crisis, and the co-host was Ted Koppel. ABC called on Marvin as a frequent guest. He had an awesome ability to convey the complicated happenings in Iran in an understandable way. In time, the show transformed into Nightline with Koppel as host, and Marvin continued to appear on the show from time to time. Both Koppel and Marvin Zonis became well-known figures. The hostage crisis was damaging to both Iran and the United States, and it played a major role in ruining Jimmy Carter’s Presidency. Koppel once said to Marvin, The Iran hostage crisis was only good for two people, you and me.
Marvin branched out from being a specialist on Iran to being an expert on the Middle East and on international business and was highly sought after by many corporations.
The Chicago Psychoanalytic Society and the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis could always count on Marvin to provide talks and to highlight conferences, such as one the Institute had on leadership. I’ll say a few words about a conference on psychoanalysis and Judaism, jointly presented by the Spertus Institute and the psychoanalytic institute and held at Spertus. Marvin spoke about Israel during lunch. He gave a dazzling analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He explained why self-defeating decisions by the leaders of both sides were preventing any resolution. I heard afterward that a number of the attendees were upset that he criticized the Israeli leaders as well as the Palestinian leaders. But, of course, he was right on target, and the years since have born out his analysis.
I’ll close with a few words about Marvin as a human being. It is easy to become preoccupied with his colorful career, but his qualities as a person matched his external achievements. His many friends, former students, and family relied on him for his warmth and caring and wisdom. He had a great sense of humor and a deep sense of how to converse in a real and connected and meaningful way. His high IQ was exceeded only by his EI (that is, emotional intelligence). My deepest sympathies go out to his widow, Lucy Salenger, and his daughters Brix Smith Start, Nadia Zonis, and Leah Zonis Harp.
Even though I deeply appreciated Marvin and regularly thanked him for his key role in my life as my dissertation adviser, I feel that I somehow took him for granted, and it is only now that he is gone I realize how unique he was. He entitled his book on the Shah, Majestic Failure. Marvin’s life, in contrast, was both professionally and personally, a majestic success.