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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 over it all her life.

Though Melanie had wanted to be a medical student, she got engaged at eighteen and married at twenty-one to Arthur Klein, with whom she was “up to a point in love.” A daughter and then a son were born; but things did not go well. The couple had settled in an obscure town where Melanie found no congenial company; as well, her now widowed mother moved in with them. Melanie had “nerves” and traveled around to sanatoriums while her mother took over the children and deluged her with letters full of advice. The household moved to the more stimulating surroundings of Budapest, a third child was born. From this period, between 1913 and 1920, a number of poems and prose fragments by Melanie Klein survive; the gist of them is a longing for freedom and fulfillment and, at times, for escape by death.

By her thirties, therefore, Melanie Klein had experienced enough to make her ripe for the discovery of Freud’s work and of the presence in Budapest of a distinguished psychoanalyst, Sándor Ferenczi. By now her mother had died, and the ostensible reason for her starting psychoanalysis was depression aggravated by grief. Arthur Klein was away at the war, and the shaky marriage that had caused “nerves” was falling apart. She joined the Budapest Psychoanalytical Society and presented a paper on child psychology—based on her son Erich. The two older children had been partly brought up by their grandmother, but Erich was subjected to the full blast of psychoanalytical scrutiny. He had therapy sessions with his mother every day; not something that he enjoyed, he told Phyllis Grosskurth (“I’m glad I was spared Melanie Klein as my mother” was R.D. Laing’s comment to the author).

In 1919, after sixteen years of marriage, the Kleins separated, and a divorce took place a few years later. The following year, aged thirty-eight, Melanie Klein moved to Berlin (anti-Semitism was rife in Hungary) and set up as a psychoanalyst in earnest. Already she had strong convictions about the need to analyze very young children, and she developed her play-therapy techniques with the child patients she was seeing. She was still analyzing son Erich and, true to her beliefs, she ascribed his problems to sexual anxieties rather than to a broken home, a depressed mother, and a change of city. By 1924 Klein was a full member of the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society and having further analysis with Karl Abraham.

Which is where the Strachey correspondence of Bloomsbury/Freud comes in, being letters written from Berlin and London in 1924–1925. James Strachey was a member of the celebrated, cerebral family and brother of Lytton Strachey; his wife Alix, a bluestocking and a member of the same Bloomsbury set. They were not the only Bloomsbury members to be dedicated to psychoanalysis; Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother, and his wife Karin trained as analysts; Lytton Strachey, in a letter appended to this book, was congratulated by Freud on the insights in Elizabeth and Essex. Though Virginia Woolf was hostile to psychoanalysis, the two worlds of Bloomsbury/Freud were not as removed from each other as they sound. But there is, all the same, an incongruity about the juxtaposition that gives this correspondence a particular charm.

Alix Strachey was in Berlin, also being analyzed by Abraham, while her husband at home in London earned their precarious income from a few patients; they wrote each other several times a week. While James writes of amateur dramatics at Ham Spray (“It was a sort of Beaumarchais farce of extreme complexity, in which everyone’s sex was doubly disguised”), Alix reports on the Berlin analysts—Fenichel (“He’s migrated for a year or two from Vienna to get a little extra polish on his brain. A good idea”), Theodor Reik (“bound[s] like a jelly & snort[s] like a porpoise”), Hanns Sachs (“I went to the Union Palais de Danse with Dr. Sachs, & we, literally, hopped it together”). From England, Lytton is said to be writing a life of Jesus (“I can’t think it’ll be a very interesting work, though I suppose it may be amusing”); in Berlin, Alix takes the high Bloomsbury tone with the dreadful foreigners (“My good man, saving music & intellect—which may be everything—they are hopeless. They’ve simply not the remotest idea of how to conduct their lives”). James reports a letter to the press from Clive Bell accusing Dr. Freud of having the artistic taste of a housemaid; Alix is sighing, “Oh, for a select Bloomsbury party!”

Among the Stracheys’ claims to remembrance is their connection with Freud translations. James slaved over the work; Alix, with her degree in languages, advised. We see crucial phrases taking shape:

They want to call “das Es” the Id. I said I thought everyone would say “the Yidd.” So Jones said there was no such word in English. “There’s ‘Yiddish,’ you know. And in German ‘Jude.’ But there is no such word as ‘Yidd.’ “—“Pardon me doctor, Yidd is a current slang word for a Jew.”—“Ah! A slang expression. It cannot be in very widespread use then.”

Alix Strachey’s introduction of Melanie Klein to England was in its way to be equally far-reaching. “Die Klein,” as Alix calls her, was conducting her child analyses in Berlin but was dissatisfied with her position and with the resistance to her ideas on Frühanalyse (analysis of young children). Alix Strachey’s freewheeling descriptions of her form a splendid counterpoint to Grosskurth’s more sober picture; Alix was amused, impressed, yet patronizing in the ineffable Bloomsbury manner. On the one hand Melanie Klein “really is the only person who’s ever regularly analyzed children”—but she is “rather tiresome as a person—a sort of ex-beauty and charmer.” “Her mind really is an awful mess—tho’ I also believe it contains the key to many things”; and “She is rather limited, you know. It’s so odd when one constantly finds how perspicacious & really intelligent she is in her analyses”; and “She’s a dotty woman. But there’s no doubt whatever that her mind is stored with things of thrilling interest.” The “ex-beauty and charmer” aspect is caught in fascinating glimpses of Mrs. Klein at play. At a ball—

She was most elaborately got up as a kind of Cleopatra—terrifically décolletée—& covered in bangles & rouge…frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures…


a sort of ultra heterosexual Semiramis in slap-up fancy dress waiting to be pounced on, etc. etc.

These letters of Alix Strachey’s bring out a characteristic of Melanie Klein which is less apparent in the biography, a sort of appealing naiveté—compared, at least, to Bloomsbury sophistication.

Alix Strachey was impressed at once by the first lecture by Klein she attended. Klein’s theories, of course, were to evolve considerably. At this time she was arguing that, in Alix’s words, “children (from 2 3/4 upwards) were already wrecked by the repression of their desires & the most appalling Schuld bewusstsein” [awareness of guilt] but the Berlin opposition was arguing that “we mustn’t tell children the terrible truth about their repressed tendencies…. (a) They couldn’t understand & (b) They’ld faint with horror (!)” Alix was interested enough to send an English summary of the lecture for James to circulate:

The paper was based on a number of child-analyses carried out by Frau Klein herself, & showed how the same factors that existed in the psycho-neuroses of adults could be found in the obsessional acts, morbid anxieties & various inhibitions of children…. According to her experience the Oedipus-complex, in the sense of a marked object-choice, was to be found at a very early age; it was present in her youngest patient, a child of 2 3/4…. Her method was to allow her small patient the freedom of her room, & to encourage it to play with the toys in it, or to invent games with her, or to tell stories; while she herself would at the same time observe its acts & words & interpret their meaning as she thought the occasion suitable.

James Strachey’s reaction was decidedly different from his wife’s. “Her writing gave me a shock. What an awful woman she must be. I pity the poor kiddies who fall into her clutches.”

But the abstract of the lecture went down well with the psychoanalytic group in England (though it was suggested that Mrs. Klein might be getting reactions from the children through the power of suggestion). The English scene was then dominated by women analysts, and there was much interest in the treatment of children. And the crucial fact was that Ernest Jones, doyen of psychoanalysis in Britain, was “absolutely heart-and-soul whole-hogging pro-Melanie.” It would, wrote Alix, “be rather a score if we got her first.” The main point Mrs. Klein wanted to get across was that psychoanalysis for young children was quite separate from education—and also that ideally all children would benefit from being analyzed early. In July 1925, Melanie Klein gave her course of lectures in England (in a new hat, “a vasty, voluminous affair in bright yellow, with a huge brim & an enormous cluster, a whole garden, of mixed flowers”—Alix’s words again). It was a decided success.

She had been glad to get out of the atmosphere of Berlin. Skepticism regarding her vivid “discoveries” about the dramas of early childhood, and about the wisdom of interpreting them directly to such young patients, was being freely expressed. A criticism that was often to be repeated was formulated by an acquaintance of Klein’s: “It became more and more clear to me that Melanie Klein was mainly interested in the unconscious proceedings and connections, and paid little attention to the real, everyday life of the children.” And when she had a meeting with Freud in Vienna he showed considerable skepticism about her ideas. In England, however, she was a welcome novelty. “The three weeks that I spent in London, giving two lectures a week, were one of the happiest times of my life,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Those three weeks were very important in my decision to live in England.”

Karl Abraham died, sadly young, and the analyses of both Alix Strachey and Melanie Klein were abruptly terminated. There was nothing to keep Klein in Germany, and in 1926, with Erich, she settled in London. Soon she was analyzing Ernest Jones’s children. The first signs of what was later to become a major schism were appearing, however. Anna Freud published a book setting out her own ideas on child therapy; among many differences from Klein’s views, she believed that the external environment was important to the child, that depth interpretations should not be given straight away, that treatment should only be for disturbed children rather than applied as a prophylactic for all. Support and guidance were considered part of the treatment. Melanie Klein set about demolishing these ideas in a long paper, and other English analysts supported her. Joan Riviere, who was to become a leading “Kleinian,” summed up:

Analysis…is not concerned with the real world, nor with the child’s or the adult’s adaptation to the real world, nor with sickness nor health, nor virtue nor vice. It is concerned simply and solely with the imaginings of the childish mind, the phantasied pleasures and the dreaded retributions.

Freud wrote to Jones defending his daughter; Jones replied with a hint—the famous weapon that all these analysts used against one another—that Anna Freud had not been sufficiently analyzed (everyone knew she had been analyzed by her own father, as Erich Klein had been analyzed by his own mother). But “I hope she may prove as amenable as her father to further experience,” he added, with a politesse worthy of Freud himself. “Who is really sufficiently analyzed?” replied Freud angrily; “I can assure you Anna has been analyzed longer and more thoroughly than, for instance, yourself.” It was the first skirmish in what was later to become long-drawn-out warfare.

For some years, however, things in England seemed all to be going Melanie Klein’s way. In 1932 she published The Psychoanalysis of Children, in which she described the young child—the baby, in fact—as racked by hopes and fears, envy and destructiveness (Klein’s work is “full of castration and anal characteristics and mother’s penis and what not. To read her is like being in a graveyard with open putrefying bodies,” wrote the educationist A.S. Neill). More and more the “English school” of psychoanalysis meant the “Kleinian school” and if Freud, in Vienna, was uneasy, there was little he could do. There were, nevertheless, tragedies for Melanie Klein during these years: the death of her son Hans, the permanent hostility of her daughter Melitta, by now also an analyst. She was to write of her mother:

Mrs. Klein had postulated psychotic phases and mechanisms in the first months of life, and maintained that the analysis of these phases was the essence of analytic theory and therapy. Her claims were becoming increasingly extravagant, she demanded unquestioning loyalty and tolerated no disagreement.

Perhaps the grief Melanie Klein went through as a result of these experiences had a connection with her latest development in theory, the “depressive position” in the baby when he first becomes aware of aggression and remorse.

She was much more a powerful and charismatic figure in London than she had been in the Berlin days, however. Virginia Woolf, who met her in 1939, gives a penetrating description:

A woman of character & force & some submerged—how shall I say—not craft, but subtlety: something working underground. A pull, a twist, like an undertow: menacing. A bluff grey haired lady, with large bright imaginative eyes.

But trouble was in store, as the Thirties drew to a close. Refugee analysts were arriving in London from Vienna, devoted to Freudian orthodoxy; when the war began most of the English medical analysts went into the Forces, and others—including Melanie Klein—left London because of air raids. The refugees were not allowed to travel out of the London area and, headed by Anna Freud, they were left in control. From the time the two parties reassembled in London much of Melanie Klein’s story has to do with scarcely imaginable hostilities and schisms on the British psychoanalytic scene. Anyone naively expecting that psychoanalysis confers some wisdom or maturity on its practitioners is swiftly disillusioned.

An early round in the battle was Anna Freud’s statement to a psychoanalytic meeting that “Mrs. Klein’s work is not psychoanalysis but a substitution for it.” (Phyllis Grosskurth’s own view of Anna Freud is that she was “an expositor of her father’s ideas, but only of those ideas that could be scrutinized in clearly lit, well-ventilated places. Sin, cruelty, suffering she shunned. The witches of the night ride on broomsticks and converse with the powers of darkness in Klein’s work, but the Viennese spinster creates a tidy, reasonable world by vigorously sweeping away the cobwebs.”) Klein responded to Anna Freud’s statements as if called to a holy war. She actually reproached Ernest Jones for bringing the Freud family to London because of the “harm” it would do to psychoanalysis. As Phyllis Grosskurth remarks, she clearly saw the future of psychoanalysis as being in her sole keeping. With something approaching megalomania she compared the struggle within British psychoanalysis to the struggle against Nazism—“both have to do with the great irreplaceable values which one wants to protect.” It was James Strachey who expressed a plea for common sense that many analysts not committed to the battle must have felt:

My own view is that Mrs. K. has made some highly important contributions to gqα but that it’s absurd to make out (a) that they cover the whole subject or (b) that their validity is axiomatic. On the other hand I think it’s equally ludicrous for Miss F. to maintain that gqα is a Game Reserve belonging to the F. family and that Mrs. K.’s ideas are fatally subversive.

These attitudes on both sides are of course purely religious and the very antithesis of science.

He ended with a typical Bloomsbury half-joke: “Why should these wretched fascists and communists invade our peaceful compromising island?—(bloody foreigners).” But it was far from a peaceful compromising island.

For the remainder of the war years controversy raged on. Each time Klein added something to her theories she lost some supporters, but generally gained new ones. If Anna Freud worshiped at the shrine of Saint Sigmund, said a wit, Melanie Klein worshiped at the shrine of Saint Melanie. The situation differed from, for example, university in-fighting, in that trainee analysts could be expected to develop an emotional “transference” toward their training analysts and to propagate their views thereafter. Referrals of patients, too, tended to be made from Kleinians to Kleinians and Freudians to Freudians. “For a long time,” said Edward Glover, the leading anti-Kleinian, “I held the view that candidates should have sufficient gumption to see through the idiosyncracies of their teachers. Evidently this is too much to expect.” And colleagues who held opposing views could always be described as insufficiently analyzed or suffering from unresolved complexes. The scene, said an analyst who was in training at the time, was “an absolute hotbed of crazy fury.” To anyone not absolutely devoted to psychoanalytical explanations it is immensely tedious; but Phyllis Grosskurth is nevertheless right to set it all down for the record.

Time, eventually, brought about some reconciliation, some partial separation of the two schools of thought, and the emergence of a generation of analysts who could borrow from the Kleinian corpus without feeling obliged to declare total allegiance. “She’s the innovator,” said a tolerant Jungian to Phyllis Grosskurth, “but the innovators always get things wrong. They always overstate their case.”

Klein in her last years remained a powerfully matriarchal figure, still controversial, still so convinced of the importance of her work that she fell out with many followers who diverged in some respect or another from the Kleinian scheme. It was, Grosskurth was told by John Bowlby, the equivalent of a religious sect; one lapse from doctrinal purity and one was excommunicated. Yet many analysts spoke to Grosskurth of Melanie Klein’s charm and lovableness. Even her large-scale egoism had an endearing touch of naiveté in it. One analyst told a story of Mrs. Klein visiting her as a student analyst when her son was born. “How’s the baby?” Melanie Klein asked, and the mother, anxious to impress her teacher, proudly said, “He’s very paranoid!” Klein was most concerned.

It is difficult to summarize Melanie Klein’s theories in brief; told baldly, they sound even more bizarre than most psychoanalytic ideas. The central point, and the main stumbling block, is the ascription of deep feelings and fantasies to the first six months of life, which lay the foundation for the whole personality. In these months the baby is supposed to feel great aggression against and envy of the mother’s feeding breast because it is so often frustrating. The child introjects it, attacks it internally, and starts a cycle of destructiveness and remorse. The bad aggressive feelings are projected onto the mother so that the baby feels persecuted by an outside destructive force. Good psychological health depends on surmounting these vicissitudes and having a surplus of good “objects” within the mind over bad ones.

Academic psychology could be considered to lend Kleinianism some support, in that research on very young babies has shown them to be much more aware and sensitive than they were once believed to be. But clues to these early months are perhaps more plausibly to be found in the work of John Bowlby, who has studied attachment and separation in young mammals, and in that of D. W. Winnicott, who presents a less dark and demonic view of the baby’s relation to the mother. The Kleinian view shows little confidence in a biological adaptation between mother and child in which things go more or less right unless interfered with. There is also the question of whether therapeutic interpretations about such an early stage of life can actually ring a bell with the child or adult patient (and indeed whether interpretations are the most important thing in therapy). Phyllis Grosskurth, basically pro-Klein, sums up the difference between the Anna Freud and the Melanie Klein views by saying that the former’s approach “could be described as more in the tradition of nineteenth-century meliorism, where man can learn to be master of his fate”; Melanie Klein, on the other hand, “accepts darker and deeper levels of human consciousness.”

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