BOOKS

Feminist on the couch

MELANIE KLEIN: HER WORLD AND HER WORK By Phyllis Grosskurth

ANN FINLAYSON May 5 1986
BOOKS

Feminist on the couch

MELANIE KLEIN: HER WORLD AND HER WORK By Phyllis Grosskurth

ANN FINLAYSON May 5 1986

Feminist on the couch

BOOKS

MELANIE KLEIN: HER WORLD AND HER WORK By Phyllis Grosskurth

(McClelland and Stewart,

5H pages, $35.00)

She was a dominant presence among Sigmund Freud’s followers, yet Melanie Klein remains little known in North America outside professional circles. The Viennese-born analyst, who died in 1960 at 78, was among a number of Europeans who immigrated to England in the 1920s and 1930s, transplanting Freud’s theories to British soil. There, Klein’s heretical ideas often drew the ire of her colleagues—but she also won many devotees for her pioneering work, particularly in the psychoanalysis of children. Currently, her champions include feminist interpreters of Freud. University of Toronto English professor Phyllis Grosskurth, author of an important 1980 biography of psychologist Havelock Ellis, has chronicled her determined, prolific, but unhappy life in Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work—focusing on the analyst’s bonewearying struggles to protect her professional reputation in a movement wracked by infighting.

Indeed, Klein’s protracted feuds with her rival Anna Freud—the master’s daughter and ideological watchdog—have an epic, if somewhat sour, grandeur. Grosskurth enlivens her accounts of the deadly serious proceedings of the British Psycho-Analytical Society with often fascinating details

about how, flanked by their grim supporters, Klein and Anna Freud glared at each other with open enmity across a tension-filled room. Unfortunately, that vivid picture of battling analysts is weighed down by the book’s poor organization and excessive documentation.

Despite her undisputed if erratic genius, and Grosskurth’s sporadic attempts to make her seem lovable, Klein emerges as a vain, stubborn tyrant. She eventually alienated most people around her —including her daughter, Melitta, a rival analyst who regularly hectored her mother at professional meetings. Grosskurth writes that on the day of Klein’s funeral, Melitta was elsewhere in London delivering a lecture “wearing flamboyant red boots.”

Grosskurth argues that Klein’s dark vision of the aggression-filled relationship between an infant and its mother was rooted in the analyst’s deeply troubled relationship with her own mother. But she devotes far too little space to explaining Klein’s theories clearly. Worse, she fails to locate them in the context of current debates about Freud’s cultural biases. Still, Melanie Klein provides a window into a lively era in the fractious history of psychoanalysis. That the subject herself emerges as a gloomy, sexually repressed despot does not detract from her crucial role in one of the century’s most revolutionary intellectual movements.

-ANN FINLAYSON