Playing and Reality
Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry
Although his ideas have as yet made little impact in the United States, D.W. Winnicott, who died early last year, was for the last fifteen to twenty years of his life by far the best known psychoanalyst in the British Isles. This was partly due to the mere fact of his being very English—to date most British analysts have been either émigré (Melanie Klein) or refugee (Anna Freud) Central Europeans, Scotsmen (Edward Glover and W.R.D. Fairbairn), or Welshmen (Ernest Jones). But the reason for his reputation also and more particularly was that he possessed to a remarkable degree the capacity for describing even highly sophisticated psychoanalytical ideas in simple, vivid, and homely language. As a result he was widely appreciated not only as a writer but also as a broad-caster and public speaker.
His gift for popular exposition was combined with another quality which must have derived from his own genius and not from his clinical experience or his knowledge of psychoanalytical theory. This was an extraordinary intuitive understanding of both mothers and babies, which enabled him to describe what mothers feel about their babies and what babies feel about their mothers with an intimacy and immediacy that was uncanny. When reading his The Child and the Family,1 particularly its first section, “The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby,” it comes as a repeated shock to remember that as a man Winnicott can never himself have been a mother, and that he could presumably no more remember his own babyhood than the rest of us can.
Although, when speaking professionally, Winnicott attributed his insight into mothers and babies to his analytical familiarity with transference and counter-transference phenomena encountered during the treatment of regressed patients and to his experience as a pediatrician—his Collected Papers2 are correctly subtitled “Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis”—he also openly admitted to a strong maternal identification in his own personality, even allowing Katherine Whitehorn to describe him as a Madonna in an article she wrote about him in the London Observer.
Not surprisingly, his unusual gifts and personality turned him into a cult figure with a “following” largely but not entirely consisting of adoring women. In both books under review, his descriptions of patients make it clear that a high proportion of his adult patients came to him already familiar with his ideas, and with faith in him personally, and that many of the children he treated were those of former and grateful patients. He was, indeed, one of those rare creatures who are correctly designated charismatic, a fact which creates difficulties in assessing the scientific value of his work.
There were, however, disadvantages in being an intuitive, English Madonna. First, it made him somewhat of an outsider, a loner within the psychoanalytical movement, with its predominantly intellectual, rationalist, and Central European style of thinking. He had no time for impersonal, mechanical abstractions such as the mental apparatus or cathexes and countercathexes, and in spite of his preoccupation with infancy, he was unable to accept…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.