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Anna and Melanie and Richard and Hans

Mary Montaut

In the introduction to her Narrative of a Child Analysis: the conduct of the psycho-analysis of children as seen in the treatment of a ten-year-old boy (1961), Melanie Klein wrote:

“I was aware of my positive counter-transference but, being on my guard, I was able to keep to the fundamental principle of analysing consistently the negative as well as the positive transference and the deep anxieties which I encountered.”

It is a late echo of the grounds on which she had famously quarrelled with Anna Freud at the British Psycho-Analytical Society Symposium in 1927 (‘Symposium Paper on Child Analysis, 1927’ in Love, Guilt and Reparation, Virago, 1988). Among other things, their disagreement was about how the analyst should make use of transference, positive and negative, in analysing children. Anna Freud maintained that: “with a child, negative impulses towards the analyst – however revealing they may be in many respects – are essentially inconvenient, and should be dealt with as soon as possible. The really fruitful work always takes place with a positive attachment.”

This contention plainly enraged Mrs Klein. In her paper to the Symposium, she more or less accused Anna Freud of a kind of seduction:

“I believe that a radical difference between our attitudes to anxiety and a sense of guilt in children is this: that Anna Freud makes use of these feelings to attach the child to herself, while I from the outset enlist them in the service of the analytic work…”

In Klein’s paper, it becomes clear that what is really in contention is the different ideas the two analysts held of what a child is. Anna Freud saw the child within its attachment group, and the working relationship of a child with the analyst therefore as not directly comparable with that of an adult. If she were to define a ‘child’, perhaps she would view it as part of such an attachment system –

“The more tenderly a little child is attached to its own mother, the fewer friendly impulses it has towards strangers.” Plainly, ‘strangers’ include the analyst. She seems to be implying that Klein’s belief that children can form analytically useful transference relationships with the analyst is against the nature of childhood. This view of a ‘child’ as essentially differing from an adult and therefore requiring a different kind of psycho-ana lytical work is even clearer when Anna Freud is criticising Klein’s method:

“If the child overturns a lamp-post or a toy figure, she interprets if as something of an aggressive impulse against the father; a deliberate collision between two cars as evidence of an observation of sexual union between the parents.” She does not feel that giving such interpretations can be “justified” in working with children.

Although Klein protests that she would never “attempt any such wild symbolic interpre tations”, it is hard to deny that quite a few of the interpretations she does give to Richard in the Narrative of a Child Analysis are almost exactly as Anna Freud describes. ”(Richard) set both trains going and the goods train collided with the electric train. Suddenly Richard bit the tower of a house (which he called a ‘church’). Then the dog bit somebody and disaster followed. Everything collapsed and the dog was the only survivor…”

“In his play.., he had bitten the church tower and agreed to Mrs K’s interpretation that this meant eating what the lower stood for, ie Daddy’s genital… the dog, which was the only survivor, represented himself; but this meant that he (the dog) had eaten up the family.” (pp 17 & 84), Klein’s insistence on interpreting the ‘negative as well as the positive’ (in this case, Richard’s aggressive feelings towards his family) is genuinely at odds with Anna Freud’s idea of how to work with children. She strongly disagrees that analysis of the negative (mainly aggressive) aspects should be “dealt with as soon as possible”, and on the contrary believes that it is only by presenting these aspects to the child as clearly and continually as possible that the anxieties from which the child suffers can be alleviated. It seems to me that her definition of a child, if she were ever to make such a thing, would differ very little from her definition of any other type of person.

“I really can only emphatically combat Anna Freud’s statement that both the methods used in adult analysis, namely free association and the interpretation of the transference reactions…. fail us in analysing children.

“The argument was obviously about much more fundamental issues than technique, though they argued about that as well. In fact, the two women held utterly differing notions about children. Anna Freud, I infer, considered that children unlike adults were best analysed through emphasis on their good (positive) feelings – through having those feelings strengthened, encouraged and reinforced. There is a similarity here with educational ideas of what a child is. Melanie Klein, on the other hand, seems to have held the view that in children, as in adults, the struggle between the positive (life) and negative (death) instincts or ‘drives’ is the issue – in short, she held an analytical rather than an educational view of the child. It seems to me that both of these views are still present in psychotherapeutic theories and that they are still very often in contention with each other. For instance, in the work of Alice Miller, we read of her change from one side of the argument to the other and her relief at reaching a place where her own ‘child’ (imago) is quite idealised:

“Today I know that it was not the books I read, it was not my teachers nor my study of philosophy, nor was it my training to become a psychoanalyst that provided me with this knowledge. On the contrary, all these together, with their mystifying conceptualization and their rejection of reality, prevented me from recognising the truth for years. Surprisingly, it was the child in me – condemned to silence long ago, abused, exploited and turned to stone – who finally found her feelings and along with them her speech, and told me, in pain, her story…” [New Preface to The Drama of Being a Child, 1986]

If we for a moment ignore the rhetoric, we can see here the same opposition of views: she has switched from seeing herself (as a child) as an object for training (educating) to seeing herself (as a child) as the true authority. Under what she calls in another book “poisonous pedagogy”, she believes the ‘child’ is underdog, unvalued, unheard - enslaved. She reverses that, and – I believe by idealisation – puts the ‘child’ forward as the true voice. It seems to me that Miller is still caught up in the clash of her predecessors about what a ‘child’ in psychotherapy actually is.

I am aware that this is a peculiar question. After all, everybody knows what a child is - the Law, for instance, defines a child by its age. And then, when people of a young age commit heinous crimes (vide the recent revival of interest in the Mary Bell case), suddenly it seems as if a monster has arrived in the form of a child. We cannot, we say, understand it. The Law cannot work out what to do about it. The dear old Law has made specially adapted regulations for people under a certain age, precisely because they are not supposed to be ‘responsible’ or capable of such acts ‘in cold blood’. In some way, perhaps, the Law enshrines the idealised child (imago) which Alice Miller was so relieved to revive within herself, and reported in The Drama of Being a Child. On the other hand, it certainly defies common sense and humanity to require the Law to deal with children in the same way as it deals with older people. In this case, the Law (ass though it may be) clearly considers that in dealing with children, the question of what they are to become – not only what they have done – lies within its remit. When Anna Freud objected to Melanie Klein ‘interpreting’ the aggressive unconscious motivations of her child patients, it was surely on exactly such common-sense grounds. If they believed her ‘analysis’ of their destructive tendencies, what would they become? Should they not rather be ‘guided’?

However, Mrs Klein insists:

“In my analysis of a boy of five and a quarter I found (as all my later analyses confirmed) that it was perfectly possible and also salutary to probe the Oedipus complex to its depths and that by so doing one could obtain results at least equal to those of adult analysis. But, side by side with this, I found out that in an analysis so conducted not only was it unnecessary for the analyst to endeavour to exert an educative influence, but that the two things were incompatible.” (Symposium Paper p140)

She takes her cue from Anna Freud’s father, and in particular from her reading of his analysis of Little Hans (1909) where Freud tries out his method by proxy on the five- year-old. Freud was a friend of Hans’s father and when the little boy developed a phobia about horses, Freud ‘directed’ the father in analysing the child’s anxieties. Klein finds in this case the vindication of ‘profound analysis’ as a means to alleviate anxiety in children, but in Freud’s own account there are some interesting uncertainties expressed. He explains his idea that a child could be analysed on similar lines to an adult in a rather equivocal way:

“A child, it will be said, is necessarily highly suggestible… I do not share the view that assertions made by children are invariably arbitrary and untrustworthy. The arbitrary has no existence in mental life… Statements made by adults offer no greater certainty”… In short, the uncertainties involved in analysing a child just seem to him no greater than those involved in analysing an adult. At the same time, he clearly states that children are indeed unlike adults in important ways – for instance, he believes that children’s sexual theories are “extremely remote from the adult mind.” (The adult mind in question, presumably, is the analyst’s.) Klein’s decision to pursue forms of play interpretation and analysis with young children is clearly a major step on from Freud’s tentative work. Indeed, I think that Freud was probably rather less interested in the question of whether psychoanalysis would work with actual children than he was in exploring the idea that ”the child is father to the man”, as the romantic poet, Wordsworth, memorably put it. In a later paper on the origins of masochism [A Child is Being Beaten, 1919], he wrote:

“Anyone who neglects childhood analysis is bound to fall into the most disastrous errors. The emphasis which is laid here upon the importance of the earliest experiences does not imply any underestimation of the influence of later ones. But the later impressions of life speak loudly enough through the mouth of the patient, while it is the physician who has to raise his voice on behalf of the claims of childhood…”

It seems reasonably clear that, for Freud himself, the analysis of Little Hans was rather an exception and that on the whole, the ‘child’ he dealt with in his work was a therapeutic construct. This makes it all the more interesting that Melanie Klein took him at his word and started to work with young children in strict accordance with the analytical principles Freud was laying down for working with adults. In doing so, she seems to have moved away from the clear dynamic which Freud set up, however, whereby the ‘physician’ was speaking up for the therapeutically constructed ‘child’.

Clearly, in Mrs Klein’s work, any such psychoanalytical construct of a child cannot really become part of the transactions between therapist/analyst and client/patient. The ’child’ in her work is present, not putative. In her Narrative of a Child Analysis, she never seems to have tried to work with any aspect of Richard which she did not believe was demonstrably there in the present. There is no attempt to refer to an earlier version of himself, based perhaps on his experiences as a baby – even though, she tells us in the Introduction, she has enquired from Richard’s mother before beginning the analysis about the details of his birth, weaning and earliest years. Though her work in this analysis is, as usual, deeply concerned with the ways in which Richard suffers anxieties and defends himself by splitting and so on, even here she never tries to construct an alternative ‘child’ to the one Richard presently embodies. He is the authentic ‘child’ of the sessions, and in an extraordinary way, she leaves him in charge of the content of the sessions, no matter how strongly she may interpret what he says. The result is genuine dialogue.

Klein’s editorial assistant reported, “She probably devoted more intense care to the Narrative than to any other of her works, indeed, in the hospital, a few days before her death, she was still going through the proofs and index of the book. She wanted to leave as faithful an account as she could of both her practical and theoretical work.” It is indeed a monument to her work – I don’t think that there is any comparably complete and frank account in the literature, and the courage and confidence of publishing such a book is still extraordinary. However, the most impressive quality of the Narrative to me is not really its theoretical or even its practical originality and inventiveness – important though these are.  It is simply the way in which she allows Richard to speak for himself. When I describe the book as containing a genuine therapeutic dialogue, I mean that both parties to the dialogue are sufficiently characterised – dramatised, even – for the process between them to be clearly and very touchingly present to the reader. This is quite unlike the ordinary excerpts from ease histories which are published, where the dialogue is included as an example of the point the writer (therapist, usually) is trying to make. In this case, the leader is unlikely to perceive much about the client, whose contribution to the dialogue is only included to prove the writer’s (therapist’s) point in writing up the case. Quite the opposite effect is achieved by Klein in writing the Narrative: here Richard is constantly in focus as himself, talking, playing, drawing, worrying… while Mrs K. performs a counter-point, commenting, answering, putting up with, waiting for, adding notes to – what he says and does. There is no muddle between the two charac ters in this drama; their agendas are different, and their own. The way in which they understand each other – when they do – is electrifying: to me, it is therapy in action.

Richard meanwhile blackened the sky in his drawing and added a few strokes to the Nazi aeroplane. He explained that the sky was full of clouds and that the lightning had struck the Nazi plane. He had again become very anxious and looked pained, as if he were struggling with his emotions. He got up, looked at various things on the shelves, and walked about the room.

Mrs K interpreted that he was trying to escape from very painful thoughts.

Richard clearly made an effort to listen, though with great difficulty, at the same time picking up things from the shelves and moving about restlessly.

Mrs K. pointed out his strong doubts in psycho-analysis; he felt it to be very wrong. Because Mrs K. discussed with him matters which he thought improper and which he had even been taught to consider as improper, he felt she was tempting him and allowed him to experience sexual desires towards his mother and herself… He felt Mrs K. should not have given him this session on Sunday; he and she should have gone to church and this also meant that Daddy should have his due share of attention and love. At the same time he did want Mrs K. to give him an additional session.

Richard at this moment interrupted and said with conviction that the analysis was helpful.

Mrs K. added that, because of that, and because she stood for the good and helpful Mummy, it was so painful to him to suspect that she was also the improper and tempting Mummy…”

In a passage like this, the effect of Richard’s speech and actions is not in any way over laid by Mrs K.’s. The reader is even at liberty to chuckle a little at the skilled way in which Richard can interrupt his analytical mother – with a form of flattery to which she never fails to be susceptible. There is a sense that these two people are on an equal foot ing with each other, no matter that one is a child and the other an analyst. The reader is also quite at liberty to ‘analyse’ Richard’s part differently from the way in which Mr. K has analysed it, and even to ‘analyse’ Mrs K.’s contributions themselves. I feel sure that this is no accident; Melanie Klein worked her utmost on this book, and produced if from the fullness of her experience. It demonstrates much more than just her technique and theories, or even than the human presences of herself and Richard in the process of the work – it quite simply refuses the sentimental notion of what a ‘child’ is. When Richard is being nice, and calling Mrs K. “lovely” and commenting on her “lovely eyes ‘, he simultaneously draws a violently destructive picture. She stolidly interprets both in terms of transference. And as they leave at the end of the Sunday session,

Richard said that it would be good for the playroom to have a rest.” Mrs K. makes no comment.

It seems to me that, in the Narrative, Klein is offering a strong challenge to the common sense assumptions about what a child is. She is not concerned with what Richard will become, she is not training him – she doesn’t see in him a potential prime minister or mass murderer – she is speaking quite directly to him about her perceptions and beliefs in a way that is almost unheard-of. She doesn’t water down her ideas or language, or treat him as an innocent. She deals with him straight, even going so far as to write his part in the work in such a way that any reader is quite able to see his points as well as her own.

Bearing this in mind, I can’t help wondering about an omission – I’m sure a deliberate one – in what she says in the Introduction. She mentions that she is on her guard against her own positive counter-transference onto the patient (Richard in this case), however she makes no mention at all of her negative one. But perhaps this omission is no more than a last, ironic reference to the weakness of Anna Freud’s position.


Klein, Melanie: Narrative of a Child Analysis – the conduct of the psycho-analysis of children as seen in the treatment of a ten-year-old boy, 1961, published by Virago Press 1989.

Miller, Alice: The Drama of Being a Child, 1979, published in English by Virago Press 1987.

Freud, Sigmund: Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy (Little Hans), 1909, published in English in Penguin Freud Library Volume 1980.

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