Psycho-Mom

Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work

by Phyllis Grosskurth
Knopf, 515 pp., $25.00

Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–1925

edited by Perry Meisel, edited by Walter Kendrick
Basic Books, 515 pp., $25.00

Limbs shall trample, hit and kick; lips, fingers and hands shall suck, twist, pinch; teeth shall bite, gnaw, mangle and cut; mouth shall devour, swallow and ‘kill’ (annihilate); eyes kill by a look, pierce and penetrate; breath and mouth hurt by noise, as the child’s own sensitive ears have experienced. One may suppose that before an infant is many months old it will not only feel itself performing these actions, but will have some kind of ideas doing so.”

This is the Kleinian baby, in a graphic account written by one of Melanie Klein’s followers. It is certainly a far cry from nursery life as it has been viewed through the ages. The quotation encapsulates the theories about early child development which Klein has contributed to psychoanalysis and which—in Britain—have caused immense dissension. It is a different matter in the United States. (An American would-be analyst who wanted to train in London in the Fifties was told, “You will never be accepted in American psychoanalysis. Mrs. Klein’s theories are all wrong.”) In this thorough and scholarly biography Phyllis Grosskurth for the first time pieces together, with the help of Klein’s son and the British analysts she interviewed, the life of this extraordinary woman and the factors in it that influenced her theories.

Melanie Reizes was the daughter of a Polish Jewish dentist and was brought up by a powerful and difficult mother. She left an unfinished autobiography in which she describes her mother glowingly—“My relation to my mother has been one of the great standbys of my life. I loved her deeply, admired her beauty, her intellect, her deep wish for knowledge”—but this is one of the many distortions in the autobiography, and the family papers Phyllis Grosskurth has consulted reveal a very different picture of her mother as interfering, dissatisfied, and possessive. Weirdly, she helped to make ends meet by running a shop that sold snakes—but had a horror of them. Melanie was the youngest of four children and fought fiercely not to be outdistanced. “I absolutely was not shy,” she declared of her childhood days (people who knew her later in life could certainly scarcely imagine Mrs. Klein as ever having been shy). She was an unplanned child, though, and felt neglected by her father. In view of her theories which make so much of the child’s relation to the breast, it should be noted that she was breast-fed—on demand—by a well-endowed wet nurse.

From the envy, aggression, and sibling rivalry within her own family, Melanie Klein had an abundant material from which to formulate her later theories,” says Grosskurth of the Reizes family. Melanie tried to turn her mother against her elder sister. Her brother Emanuel was at odds with their father, who made a favorite of the elder sister. Emanuel and Melanie were very close, and he wrote her adoring letters. He died of tuberculosis when she was twenty, and she was to grieve …

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