A Good Doctor

The Piggle: An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl

by D.W. Winnicott, edited by Ishak Ramzy
International Universities Press, 201 pp., $10.00

I’m getting bigger and bigger. I’m going to be three. How old are you?” asks Gabrielle, nicknamed Piggle, who has been brought down from Oxford to London to see the great psychoanalyst, Dr. Winnicott. He tells her: “I’m sixty-eight.” Piggle says she’d like him to live nearer.

A year or so later, on another of her infrequent visits, she chatters, while playing by herself, about how long the train was. He (sensing she is dealing with the absence that implies death) tells her that the long distance is like the long time since she last saw him. And then:

He: Piggle is taking a long time to find out if I am alive.

She: When will your birthday be? I want to give you some presents.

He: What about my death day?

She: We will see what we can get for you. Mummy wrote a letter to France; it takes three hours, quite a day to get there.

He: If I were dead, it would take longer still.

She: You would not open it because you would be dead. It’s terrible.

Winnicott died in 1971. Opening The Piggle—the recently published “account” of his work with Gabrielle—will be for many, as it was for me, like opening the notebooks of someone you wish had been your teacher. There is much new interest in Winnicott since his death, here and in France. In England, Winnicott’s BBC talks (published by Penguin Books as The Child, the Family, and the Outside World), remarkable for their uncondescending simplicity, had made him a widely esteemed authority on infancy. Winnicott stood in the public imagination as an unpretentious defender of the dignity of caring for babies. But he had begun to have an international reputation by the early 1960s. He had discovered, so to peak, the significance of the teddy bear in the mental life of children: his term “transitional objects” was widely used to designate the class of which teddy bears and “security blankets” are the prime examples. He had also, from early on, been interested in the schizoid personality, and had put into circulation the notion of the “false self,” which R.D. Laing elaborated and popularized.

Teddy bears and false selves sound a whimsical combination, and might seem to place Winnicott and what he called the “area of transitional phenomena” somewhere in the English nursery tradition of Never-Never-Lands, Looking Glass worlds, and Learscapes. It was the other way around. Winnicott was concerned with how it is we come to feel more—or less—alive, whole, and real. He saw the teddy bear as marking a step in being able to find the world meaningful. The “false self” is a kind of opposite to the teddy bear. The social persona is a “false self” in so far as it arises out of mere compliance with parental demands that don’t make sense, where parents need to impose a reality that fails to overlap with the very young …

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