The Freud Museum

Events Archive

29 October 2005

The Good-Enough Winnicott

Jointly organised with the Winnicott Clinic of Psychotherapy

Conference Report

Having left our mailing until only six weeks before the conference, it was testament to the continuing importance and popularity of Winnicott's work that 200 people attended this event. In fact we had to change the venue to fit everyone in.

The title of the conference summed up the attitude which inspired it. As chairwoman Valerie Sinason explained, we were hoping for a day in which both positives and negatives could be explored about the man and his work, without resorting to idealisation or denigration. Conference organiser Brett Kahr opened the proceedings with a short paper setting out what he saw as the 'enduring majesty' of Winnicott's work, noting that 'Only an idiot would try to discuss Winnicott's work in fifteen minutes - so here goes".

Brett argued that it was not just the original analytic concepts and technical innovations which were important. Ideas like 'transitional object', 'play', 'good-enough mother', 'facilitating environment', 'primary maternal preoccupation', the 'squiggle' technique and so on are now part of the psychoanalytic canon, but in a sense subsidiary concepts. Brett concentrated on other overarching ideas: Winnicott's adherence to the psychoanalytic tradition of aetiology and his challenge to orthodox psychiatry ('the first anti-psychiatrist'); the fact that Winnicot made babies interesting ('the first male child psychotherapist' according to Jones) changing the way we, as a culture, related to babies in holding, handling and object-presenting; his attitude to psychotherapy as a process which mirrors the develpment from dependence to independence; his emphasis on 'holding' and reliability rather than 'interpretation'; his introduction of infant observation as a training and diagnostic tool; his introduction of the 'multi-disciplinary team', including parents as auxiliary therapists. In all these ways Winnicott changed and challenged the environment in which psychotherapy and psychoanalysis was undertaken so that, beyond his theoretical contribution, his work still continues to flourish.

After this fascinating and rich introduction, Brett conducted an interview with the distinguished analyst Pearl King, with whom he is collaborating as her biographer. Pearl worked with Donald Winnicott for many years and knew him as a supervisor, as president of the British Society and as a friend. One of the first intake of analytic candidates after the War (along with Masud Kahn) she vividly recalled her studies in child psychotherapy with Winnicott and his role in establishing analytic training groups. Amongst the many interesting anecdotes and observations we were surprised and delighted to learn that the folk singer Joan Baez sang at Winnicott's seventieth birthday party while guests sat on the floor in their stockined feet. Near the end of his life Winnicott was also the driving force behind fundraising efforts to get the Freud statue cast, which was finally installed a few days before his death. It is always a delight to listen to Pearl reminisce about the early history of British psychoanalysis and this was no exception.

After the morning break, Brett was back on stage with his paper 'Rajah on the couch: D W Winnicott and the perilous analysis of Prince Masud Kahn'. Masud Kahn was and is a controversial figure in the history of psychoanalysis; brilliant on the one hand and borderline-abusive on the other. Using a mass of historical and biograhical detail, Brett argued that his downward spiral and near mental collapse was to some extent facilitated by an inappropriate analytic and personal relationship with Winnicott. Kahn became an unpaid secretary to Winnicott, also his analysand. Winnicott benefitted from Kahn's social circle (his wife was a famous ballerina) as well as his skills as an editor, yet another crushing blow to Kahn was that he was not mentioned in Winnicott's will. According to Brett, he had expected to be Winnicot's literary executor. A lively discussion followed Brett's paper. Some disputed the facts of the case (was Kahn in analysis with Winnicott for five years or fifteen years?), others the interpretation (might not Kahn have been in a worse state without Winnicott's support?). Controversial discussions continued well into the lunch break.

In the afternoon Abe Brafman began his talk with the observation that, with Winnicott becoming ever more popular across the world, there are now several 'Winnicot's'; paediatrician, theorist, a prescriber of theories and techniques. Brafman wanted to focus on one aspect - trying to help children in distress - which Winnicott did not achieve by the application of theory but by taking the standpoint of the child's experience of his problem. Brafman pointedly remarked that most psychiatric diagnoses (ADHD and such) say nothing about the child's experience. Winnicott's technique was flexible and, as the title of Brafman's paper made clear, his work was 'tailor made' to fit each child's experiences and feelings.

He illustrated the thesis with some delightful and insighful examples from his own clinical practice with children and their parents. These were simple cases in which the child's problem could be cleared up in a single session and the prarents given insight into some of the fears and unconscious fantasies that may be maintaining the problem. A child who feared dying in the bathtub like her goldfish had died; another who feared going to the toilet whose fantasies of anal birth were revealed through the use of picures made from cut out shapes of felt. As one mother said; "I only wish someone had helped me like this when I was a child". It seems to me that when we now have TV prohgrammes about 'supernannies' going into people's homes instigating regimes of control and punishment to regulate unruly children's behaviour, the kind of knowledge that sees children as complex creatures with an inner life is more necessary than ever.

The final paper of the day was another detailed biographical offering from Peter Rudnytsky, editor of American Imago and professor of English at the Uiversity of Florida. Rudnytsky focused on Winnicott's relationship to his two wives, Alice and Claire, and asked what impact his divorce and remarriage may have had on his theoretical work, as well as his five year clandestine affair with Claire. Rudnytsky maintained that Winnicott's writings were always autobiograhical, and became in effect, therapeutic acts. He traced Winnicott's struggle to reconcile inner and outer reality (the subject of his 'transitional objects' paper) through his love affair with Claire, and the problems posed by the clandestine nature of the affair. Rudnytsky maintained that the theoretical consequence was a confusion between normal and pathological phenomena - a confusion that Freud too apprarently suffered from. Although Rudnitsky did not mention the matter, I took this to suggest the argument that Freud too carried on a clandestine affair - a possibility that has exercised a number of Freud scholars in recent years. However to imply that this biographical possibility is the cause of Freud's insistence that there is no firm distinction between 'normal' and 'pathological' - that there should be only a single psychology that applies to both - seems to me to stretch the point too far. For one thing, psychoanalytic theory could not have been created without Freud taking that step, and for another thing it is the theoretical underpining for the basic rule of analysis to say anything that comes to mind. Biography is important but it is difficult to derive theoretical propositions (or even general outlooks) from specific biographical circumstances, and they certainly cannot tell us about the value of such propositions.

In his closing address, Cesare Sacerdoti, one of the trustees of the Winnicott Clinic, expressed much the same sentiment, and he thanked the audience for providing such a 'facilitating environment' for the speakers. I am sure that those who attended the conference will agree that it was a memorable day, and hopefully the first of many more collaborations in the future.

We would like to particularly thank Frances Hawkins, the secretary of the Clinic, who provided such support and assistance throughout.

For more information, a poster is available here (c.70 KB).

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