Clutching at Insanity

Frank Kermode

  • Winnicott: Life and Work by Robert Rodman
    Perseus, 461 pp, US $30.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 7382 0397 1

Modern biographers aspire to tell all, and psychoanalysts writing the lives of psychoanalysts should be better at this than most. But there are those who may doubt the propriety of their revelations and investigations. Even when the subject is a fairly ordinary mortal they feel that he or she has a right to some posthumous privacy; and the psychoanalytical profession would presumably claim to be at least as ardently insistent as their orthodox medical colleagues on the preservation of strict confidentiality. But it seems widely accepted that the fame or notoriety of the subject eliminates the need for such discretion.

It is true that in the early days the profession was small and rather isolated so that something must be allowed to family gossip. Freud, admittedly an exception, since he had no predecessor, had to analyse not only his daughter but himself. Donald Winnicott was the analyst of Melanie Klein’s son Eric, so couldn’t go to her himself, but his analyst was Joan Riviere, very close to Klein, and his wife was a patient of hers. Readers of this journal may recall Wynne Godley’s complaint that his analyst, Masud Khan, was himself a patient and confidant of Winnicott – Robert Rodman even conjectures a homosexual attraction – all the time he was treating Godley in such extraordinary ways.[*] And Godley’s stepdaughter was another of Winnicott’s patients.

Khan was by any standards and in any company a wild and perhaps even a dangerous character, but Winnicott was nothing of the kind. Though occasionally capable of anger and mildly eccentric, he was noted for his normally gentle temperament. He was described as imitating or reflecting in his own attitude to his patients the role of his famous ‘good-enough mother’. But it has become obvious that he was capable of potentially harmful moments of indiscretion. Only the other day I was told of a paper of his in which he cited the case of a literary person and left him clearly identifiable by a good many people. There was of course strong official disapproval of such careless exposure; in his youth Khan had been reprimanded for giving a paper in which he inadequately concealed a patient’s identity. That Winnicott ‘socialised’ with Khan gets him a black mark from Rodman, who thinks it possible that in his more extravagant ‘socialising’ Khan was following the senior analyst’s example.

Although the formal commitment to confidentiality was very considerable, within a small circle of gossiping friends, associates, supervisors – and of course one’s own analyst – it must sometimes have been difficult to observe. Anna Freud argued that it was technically wrong for an analyst to accept a patient from his circle of acquaintance, or to have similar interests, or to discuss the patient with others, or to manipulate him, or to permit the patient to identify with the analyst personally. Yet, she added, ‘we commit every single one of these deviations from the classical technique when we analyse candidates. Further, we do not inquire frequently enough how far these deviations complicate the transference and obscure its interpretation’ (quoted by Jacqueline Rose in On Not Being Able to Sleep). Rodman conjectures that while Riviere was Winnicott’s analyst she couldn’t not have discussed him with her mentor, Melanie Klein. He admits there is no documentary evidence for this, but clearly regards it as close to inevitable.

John Forrester argues, more radically, in Dispatches from the Freud Wars, that the founding ambition of the psychoanalytic movement, rightly understood, was to overthrow conventional ethics, leaving no trace except an absolute obligation to tell the truth. He gives in evidence the behaviour of Ferenczi, Jung and others, and the fact that Freud made no objection to incest. Their behaviour, he claims, makes ‘love, the most important thing in life, the victim of truth’s callous disregard for human beings’. Breaking a confidence might on this view be seen as an act of love.

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[*] See the LRB of 22 February 2001.