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.

It is easy enough to see why so many celebrated or notorious practitioners were seen by some as rebels, rule-breakers, enemies of the nascent institution. Though not given to extravagant behaviour – a few foibles and oddities apart – Winnicott was, or could be seen as, a rebel of this kind, as he assumed more and more intellectual independence. It seems he was not a great reader, of Freud or anyone else, and although he could not avoid the ideas of others when they were implicated in, or resistant to, the movement of his own thought, he seems to have developed the themes of his innumerable papers and books largely from his own clinical experience and private musings. Some believe the kind of psychoanalysis he developed – a ‘master-plot of human development’, according to Adam Phillips – is incompatible with Freud’s, and it certainly came to differ critically from that of Melanie Klein, from whom he nevertheless learned a great deal. Indeed Phillips says that his work ‘cannot be understood without reference to Klein. It is a continuous, and sometimes inexplicit, commentary on and critique of her work. The importance of the internal world and its objects, the elaborate and pervasive power of fantasy, the central notion of primitive greed – all these ideas Winnicott takes over from Klein and uses them in his own way.’ But in the end the institutional rigidity of Klein’s system repelled him. As between people enslaved to a doctrine and a method, and people who work things out on their own, Winnicott strongly preferred the latter, and thought the practices of the former likely to inhibit rather than encourage personal development. Like many another genius, he knew how to find – or, as he put it, ‘steal’ – and use what he needed. Rodman does not fail to consider the significance of this word ‘steal’, used when most of us would prefer a more neutral expression.

Winnicott is often described as the greatest psychoanalyst of his time – or even the greatest English psychoanalyst – though some, perhaps especially the more doctrinaire Kleinians, reject that opinion, occasionally with contempt. The clearest introductory account of his work, providing reasons in support of the favourable judgment, is Adam Phillips’s short Winnicott, published in 1988. Rodman’s ‘first full-scale life’, as the blurb calls it, is three times as long as Phillips’s book, has more to say about the clinical work, and much more about the life, especially about Winnicott’s marriages and his endless, though usually civil, disagreements with his colleagues.

The first marriage, which lasted for years, was sexless, either because Winnicott was impotent or because his first wife was averse from sex; or perhaps both. The second, though not restricted in this way, remained childless. These are private matters, but cannot fail to interest a biographer, least of all a biographer as industrious and astute and professionally alert as the generally sympathetic Rodman. So keen is his scent, so candid his interpretations, that it seems odd to find him turning away from consideration of an affair Clare Winnicott may have had when Winnicott felt he had to wait for his father’s death before he could marry her. ‘It is none of our business, anyway,’ Rodman says. Coming from a biographer who sees practically everything else as his business, this is a strange disclaimer.

Rodman knew Clare Winnicott, and gives a good account of this strong and intelligent woman, perhaps rather forbidding when dealing with her husband’s biographers. In general it is not his way to allow anything odd or quirky to pass without comment, but this is probably inevitable in psychoanalysts. For example, Winnicott had a comfortable middle-class, well-to-do background and can never have been short of money, but it seems that in an odd way he was rather stingy. His first analyst was James Strachey, the translator of the Standard Edition of Freud. When Strachey’s wife, Alix, was living in Berlin enduring or enjoying analysis with Karl Abraham and making friends with Melanie Klein, James wrote to her almost daily. Among the chatter and gossip one finds an account of Winnicott’s reluctance to pay Strachey’s fee. Strachey was poor at the time and was obliged to insist on immediate payment at each session. One day he observed that Winnicott lingered on the stairs outside the consulting-room door, where, as Strachey correctly guessed, he was writing a cheque, an act he had deferred to the last possible moment.

He rushed in & pressed it upon me – die Tinte noch nass – threw himself upon the sofa & started off feverishly with ‘There’s someone whose name I keep forgetting.’ And then long talks about why he should forget names – other people whose names he forgets, etc. It flashed into my mind that he’d made some mistake over my name on the cheque, & I nearly risked the coup de théâtre of walking over to the writing-table where I’d put it down, & looking at it. However, I restrained myself. When he’d gone, I went and looked at it. He hadn’t signed it!

Strachey evidently enjoyed this proof of his own interpretative shrewdness. Rodman gives examples from later in Winnicott’s life of this presumably significant stinginess. After he contracted to pay Riviere, his second analyst, below the standard rate, she wrote him a dignified letter complaining that he had misled her about his financial position. ‘There is no speculation on the transference meaning of this behaviour,’ Rodman writes, ‘that is, on why he wouldn’t seem to want to pay his bills.’ It would be shallow to assume, as a non-psychoanalyst writing about a non-psychoanalyst might, that it wasn’t simply that he disliked paying bills, a reluctance shared by a great many ordinary people, but that he only wanted it to seem as if he did, which is more complicated and might lead to more gratifying interpretations. If one then adds the consideration that in most respects Winnicott was, or seemed to be, careless about money, there is even more to discuss. For example, he enjoyed urinating into the ocean, and that could conceivably be made relevant, though it might strike the laity as having more to do with dispersion than retention.

Winnicott himself attached importance to the fact that his father had so disliked the quasi-sexual excitement experienced by his wife when breast-feeding baby Winnicott that he made her give up the practice. The analyst Marion Milner was one of those who thought that this prohibition had a lifelong effect on the child, in particular during his long struggle to persuade Klein that mothers really matter (objectively, constituting a ‘holding environment’). This effort ‘was the adult equivalent’ of the baby’s ‘struggle to get milk out of his own mother’. His father’s attitude perhaps also contributed to the most celebrated lacuna in Winnicott’s work: until very late in his life he assigned no role whatever to fathers. Rodman naturally has much to say about this partial blindness, or, in a piece of jargon he borrows from Winnicott, this scotoma.

Winnicott had qualified as a doctor and then specialised in paediatrics. His celebrity as an analyst rests in large part on his treatment of children. Like Klein, he disagreed with Anna Freud, who believed that children could not free-associate or form transferences. Fortunately there is among the great mass of his writing a short, accessible, posthumous book called The Piggle, which gives a detailed account of the analysis of a little girl, between the ages of two years and eight months and five years. It provides a good impression of what Rodman calls ‘playful attentiveness’. The analyst plays, is co-operative and certainly attentive, but he is also reticent, unwilling to interfere, clear up confusions, and so on. Yet at the end he claims that the little girl had ‘reorganised her entire life in terms of the experience of a positive relationship with the subjective figure of the analyst’. And he said to her, by way of farewell: ‘So the Winnicott you invented was all yours, and now he’s finished with. And no one else can ever have him.’ He told her she loved him, and he evidently loved her.

Winnicott’s priority was always the patient; he evidently thought well of his powers but had a horror of exercising them at the analysand’s expense. The idea of ‘holding’ was important to him, as he argued it was to mothers. The development of a child, or of an analysis, was a process easily impeded if there was no holding environment. Reading him one can sense great intellectual and emotional strain. Critical moments, as when an adult patient has regressed to utter dependence, are truly exhausting to the analyst.

It seems right that the general idea of him is of a doctor who had an extraordinary gift in dealing with children. His account of the mother-child relationship is not as stark as Klein’s, but it stresses the emotion of the mother – he sometimes defines it as hatred and regards it as a feature not only of the mother’s attitude but also of the analyst’s in the counter-transference. It is one of the inevitable difficulties that occur in the process of development. On a superficial view one wouldn’t expect him to confess so readily to the experience of hatred, but despite his gentleness he admitted to having a strong aggressive streak. Rodman quotes some pretty aggressive letters, sometimes addressed to embattled Kleinians, for which he often apologised later. Aggression was part of the psychic given and coexisted with gentleness. It seems he would sometimes physically hold a patient during a session, a practice deplored by colleagues as very bad ‘technique’; his use of it illustrates what he took to be the critical importance of ‘holding’ but also the independence of his thought and practice.

He is famous for talking about the ‘good-enough mother’, and for his insistence that to exact compliance from the child is to create a False Self and inhibit the development of a True one. ‘Good-enough’ sounds placid and conciliatory, but it is a rather stern requirement. The child must have the conditions for ‘going-on-being’, and providing them is a delicate matter. The reward for success is a True Self, as opposed to the False Self that can be developed in a medium that distracts the infant from the business of development. Expressed out of context, these notions may sound thin and banal, but they are part of what turns out to be a complex and ever developing chain of thought based on subtle clinical observation.

For most of us the best known of Winnicott’s ideas is that of the ‘transitional object’. He states this idea in what Rodman rightly describes as ‘deceptively simple terms’. Winnicott’s language is indeed deliberately simple, avoiding most of the meta-psychoanalytical terminology, but its simplicity often promotes an obscurity that is sometimes, I feel, avoidable. Those teddy-bears and scraps of blanket are similarly deceptive, simplicities covering dire necessities. The baby can feel that he or she has invented the object and must at all costs not be prevented from feeling so. It is the means by which the child moves out of subjectivity and omnipotence into a world made by others. The space in which the objects operate is the space in which the personal life, as Rodman puts it, must join ‘the vast inherited culture to which an individual may contribute and from which he may draw. The bodily experience with which life begins thus becomes linked to the accumulation of other people’s creative discovery.’

This much elaborated and central interest of Winnicott’s is an indication of how far his methods differed from the orthodoxies. It has the merit that most parents can observe transitional behaviour for themselves. I remember that my daughter never parted with a torn piece of blanket; that when it grew dirty and smelly we ignorantly took it from her and washed it, but she was heartbroken when we gave it back clean. It was no longer her invention. (I ought to add that her twin brother took no obvious interest in such objects. Perhaps his T.O. was his sister.) Although Winnicott had no children he had many infant patients, and Clare Winnicott still kept the little doll that had served her as a child.

The point here is that in spite of his whimsies and oddities Winnicott’s principal thinking belonged to a world ordinary people could recognise without going into such matters as the Oedipus Complex, or Kleinian bad breasts. Sometimes he is oracular: ‘without the initial good enough environmental provision, the self that can afford to die never develops.’ This is what Rodman calls a ‘typical startling Winnicottian extension of thinking into uncharted territory’. But he uses fairly ordinary language, and though often he makes it sound a bit peculiar it also connects with existential and ethical notions with which the laity can claim some first-hand acquaintance.

He was quite like everybody else, except that he made of himself an environment in which a patient might at last be able ‘to take the risks involved in starting to experience living’. It is also evident that he was capable of extraordinary dedication, and in spite of a long succession of coronaries exhausted himself in his care for patients, especially the regressive and the suicidal.

He admitted to a transgressive streak and said he was glad that by means of his analysis and self-analysis he had ‘achieved some measure of insanity’. He wanted to be liked and praised, but also allowed the patient the right to call the analysis a failure even when it wasn’t. And it may be that this willingness to let patients prevail even when the long business ended in what they took to be disappointment, to allow the little girl who made her own Winnicott to discard him and proceed to other loves, serves to explain something of the man himself. He was loved but also mistrusted, he was sociable – sometimes when he ought not to have been. The person was usurped by the analyst, and he was habituated to dissent, rule-breaking, boundary-crossing, and that habit must be relevant to the association with Masud Khan.

Khan, whom I knew quite well, misbehaved continually, but I was not in his business, and had I wanted not merely to laugh at and occasionally admire him but also to fool about in imitation of him, it would not have mattered much to anybody else. As we know, this proved not to be true, could not have been true, of his relationship with Winnicott. Some would say that confidentiality is as important as that requirement to tell the truth so unanimously and virtuously insisted on, but evidently psychoanalytical biographers claim a certain licence. Armed with that licence, Rodman performs admirably. He makes a few slips from which an English editor would have saved him. He places Battersea in the East End of London. He supposes that when Winnicott, writing from his hospital bed in New York, says he will come home like Cathy, he is making an erudite allusion to Wuthering Heights. These are evidently just mistakes, and in time to come Dr Rodman’s biographer, though with no constraint of confidentiality, will be hard put to it to interpret them as parapraxes.

[*] See the LRB of 22 February 2001.