Book Review: The Beast in the Nursery – Adam Phillips

Faber & Faber 1998


Comprising four short essays, this book by the former principal child psychotherapist of London’s Charing Cross Hospital is a fascinating work, full of daring hypotheses and poetic vigour. Yet it is by no means an easy collection to read. Phillips’ dazzling rhetoric and radical insight make considerable demands on the reader’s imagination as one tries to match his boundless enthusiasm for revisioning Freudian and post-Freudian theory and practice.

In this unusual psychoanalytic critique, Phillips’ ability to rephrase the commonplace, to re-invent his own thesis time and time again, taking one of his own beloved hints and reconstructing an audacious argument around it, is reason enough to read him. In many respects his work is reminiscent of the equally challenging Jungian James Hillman, who also stretches theory and criticism to new limits.

Yet for all that, we can clearly see the elements of Freudian orthodoxy, where couch and castration complex are the order of the day, at least with the older generation of client. Like Freud, he champions the childhood imagination, the dreamer faced with the threat of adapting to the reality of civilisation and the cultural restrictions of adulthood. Drawing on a range of literary sources to support his arguments, he re-examines subjects such as humiliation, rage, sublimation, language acquisition and morality with a refreshing novelty and compassion for the child’s dilemma. He highlights the constant clash of internal ideals, the wish for worldly competence, and the need to mourn imaginative freedom to attain it. He views the child as being totally engrossed in life, and supports this passionate involvement.

“In other words, the child does not suffer from a lack of commitment. Tantrums are only for the engaged.”


Curiosity and interest, which Phillips considers are dominantly sexual in origin, form the bedrock of the child’s vitality and uniqueness. In the essay entitled, ‘A Stab at Hinting’, we are warned of the dangers of the child/client succumbing to teachings and certainties.

”I want to suggest that analysis – unlike teaching and seduction – is an education through hinting, about hinting. The best kind of teaching like the worst kind of seduction is all hinting. For some people it would be the other way around.”

In perhaps the most accessible of the four essays entitled ‘Just Rage’, he probes deeply into our difficulty and ambivalence around humiliation and rage.

In my bad temper, I expose not merely my loss of control – that so much wished for transgression – but far more shamefully I expose my furtive utopianism, my horrifying, passionate ideal of and for myself. The one person I can never mourn the loss of is my ideal self. Anything, even the shameful excitement of humiliation, is better than that. That we can feel humiliated reveals how much what matters to us matters to us. Our rage is itself a commitment to something. Our betrayals, our travesties are forms of awkward untimely revelation. It is as though our morality, as disclosed by our anger is a kind of private madness, a secret personal religion of cherished values that we only discover, if at all, when they are violated.”


This author’s cherished values, the almost hedonistic affirmation of appetite and pleasure, draw us back finally to the raw inspiration of the curious child, to ‘the beast in the nursery’, where it might seem wiser to use hints rather than orders, where we too can learn to help 
the child not to grow out of things but to grow into them time and time again.

Tim Hannan