Of daughters, damage and destruction; is that the legacy of Mrs Klein?

Melanie Klein might be said to have founded the British School of Psychoanalysis, though it was never as formal as that. There was a never a ‘concrete school’ more a movement dominated by the ideas and interpretations of Mrs Klein. 

Psychoanalysis was (and still is) very incestuous.  There were not many psychoanalysts and most of these lived and practiced in NW5, near Maresfield Gardens where Freud lived and worked.  They still do. They were all in supervision or analysis with each other.  They reinforced the ideas of their ideological leader, but at the same time were intensely jealous of each other.  Given the Jewish origins of psychoanalysis, it is surprising to encounter how much psychoanalysts cling defensively to ideological dogma, despite evidence that it may damage some people and how suspicious, dismissive and paranoid, they can be to those who do not share the beliefs.

Although Mrs Klein was not as profilic, wide ranging or eloquent as Professeur Docteur Sigmund  Freud, her work has been very influential.  She was the first to appreciate that the child, even a child as young as two or three, inhabits a symbolic world of meanings, phantasies (her spelling)  and needs the agency of the ‘mother’ to understand and work through it.   In particular, Klein postulates, young children find it difficult to reconcile  contradictory elements in their mothers’ behaviour.  They split them apart.  There is the loving mother and the disapproving mother; the good breast and the bad breast.  She called this the paranoid – schizoid position.  We all know it well. The suspicious and defensive, remain locked into all their lives and the media encourage such splitting;  the government is either good or bad, wrong or right.  Most of us return to such polarized attitudes at times of stress.  Anger, envy, resentment, grievance, condemnation and lack of compromise are, if not everyday, at least frequent examples of this. 

The project of Kleinian analysis might be said to be the reconciliation of the polarities of human behaviour to achieve what she called the depressive position.  This doesn’t sound much fun and it’s not, but the concept is crucially important.  It is only by healing the split, that we gain understanding, empathy, concern, forgiveness and reconciliation.  We learn to accommodate and integrate our own behaviour and that of others.  We find ways of working with other people. But we have to experience the depressive position time and time again.  Every time we experience a loss, we have a choice, either withdraw and cut off or find a way through.  It’s a state of mourning.  Klein would say that we mourn the loss of the idealized ‘mother’ and discover the reality.  ‘Is that all there is?’  

But working through The Depressive Position,  leads to personal growth.  Loss is often associated with change and a burst of creativity. 

Klein drew on her own family extensively for her ideas; her archetypical Jewish mother, her unhappy marriage and her children.  The children were her first analysands. Melitta, her daughter, has 370 hours of analysis with her mother before the age of 9.  The idea seems repellant.  It is a wonder she survived it.      

Nicholas Wright’s powerful and disturbing play is about mothers and daughters.  It is 1933. Mrs Klein, powerfully depicted by Clare Higgins, has just learnt of her son’s death in a climbing accident.  Paula, a refugee analyst, fleeing from Germany, has offered to be her secretary.  Melitta (little Melanie) her daughter, also an analyst, arrives with a letter that she has written, informing her mother that Hans has committed suicide, but this is the latest and most powerful act of vengeance on the hated mother. . 

Melanie found Melitta interesting as a child, but could not show her the love she needed.  It seems that she suffered post natal depression after the birth of her daughter and went away for an extended period leaving Melitta to be brought up by her baba (her grandmother).  And when her mother returned, she didn’t so much love and care for her daughter; she analysed her. Klein inaugurated the British School of ‘object relations’  The chilling aspect of the play is the realisation that Melitta is an object, an object of interest and curiosity. There is interpretation but no human warmth.  

As she later complained, Melitta had no life of her own.  Her mother has appropriated it; her marriage, her career, everything.  Wright’s play shows her locked into an unresolved rebellion with her herself, caught between the mother she idealises and the mother whom she hates.  She cannot reach the depressive position.  She has to attack the mother she hates while craving the affection of the one she loves.  The letter about Hans suicide is a murderous attempt to rid herself of the mother who dominates her life.  Melanie, for her part, is also split, she wants her daughters love, but hates her betrayal.  In the  transference, Melitta assumes the symbolic impact of her baba, her mothers mother.  As the situation builds to a crisis,  provoked by the disclosure that Melitta has gone into analysis with a competitor, consorted with the enemy as it were, Mrs Klein throws a glass of wine at her and rubs the torn up letter in the waste paper bin in her hair. As Paula notes, she makes a symbolic attempt to drown her daughter in urine and rubs faeces in her hair.  The awful irony is that we can only understand this because of the writings of the mother.  There was no father to rescue either of them, to find the third position, to make sense and space off the pernicious diad, to lead them out of the claustrophobic forest onto the savannah.     

And what of Paula?  She plays the role of the good daughter with Melitta locked out of the house as the bad daughter. She selects Melanie as the idealized mother, she never had.  The play ends with Paula in her first session of analysis with Melanie, which cannot be interrupted while Melitta rings the door bell.             

So should we think any less of Melanie Klein because of the way she damaged her daughter?. Theory is all very well but a child still needs to know she is loved. And doesn’t the analysand, the symbolic daughter, also need containment and support to gain the confidence to grow.  Surely to withhold that can lead a fragile person into a unhealthy state of dependence.

Or should we think more of Mrs Klein because she had worked through her own  depressive position and offered her insights so that the rest of us might understand? 

Or should we just accept and make a balanced appraisal? Understanding  doesn’t mean we have to follow the teacher.  That must be a reconciliation of our depressive position.