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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Winnicott: Life and Work
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2255-2256. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2255
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Cambridge, Mass.

By F. Robert Rodman, M.D. Cambridge, Mass., Perseus Publishing, 2003, 459 pp., $30.00.

Donald Winnicott, the great British pediatrician, child psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, lived from 1896 to 1971. Much of his large output of work lives on and remains useful, stimulating, and much discussed within and well beyond the field of psychoanalysis. To a great many clinicians internationally, Winnicott, 32 years after his death, is currently not only important but even in fashion—yet he is of no single school and founded no school. He is something of an independent, who often wrote clear commonsense prose that, he admitted, he did not always bother to integrate into others’ contemporary vocabularies. He was not bound by Melanie Klein or Anna Freud or Sigmund Freud or anyone else—though many American analysts and psychiatrists went on for rather too long unjustly avoiding his work and considering him a Kleinian because of some of his early enthusiasm for, alliance with, and considerable entanglement with Melanie Klein.

His emphasis on the role of the real mother in infancy and childhood—major and useful work—was only one of several stands Winnicott took that were in large and central opposition to Klein and were scorned by Kleinians. Although he actually had considerable personal and theoretical rapprochement in his last 20 years with Anna Freud (on the other side of the stubborn British analytic divide of the mid-20th century), Winnicott remained somewhat distrusted and, in many ways, shunned by both major British camps for much of his life. Despite the reasonably prompt and widespread success of a few of his findings and concepts, such as "transitional phenomena," and despite his energetic private and institutional clinical work and extra-analytic teaching, many of his significant written contributions have had to wait for some time after his death to be considered powerful and useful, or even imperfect but interesting, in their own right.

As to Winnicott’s lasting contributions, I think, and I guess that a great many colleagues now think, that a partial list would include the following: the concept of transitional phenomena and transitional objects, and their relationship to play,art, and culture; the essential role of the mother in infancy; the good enough mother and the good enough environment; the holding environment for children and for relatively sick, needy, dependent patients; the roles of aggression and even hate; the roles of dependency and regression; true self versus false self; the capacity to be alone; the roles of guilt; the delusion of failure; the use of an object (where "object" has its psychoanalytic meaning of "another person"); the example he set of the useful interaction of pediatrics, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis; the example he set as a superb clinical player with children; the invention and use of the powerful therapeutic tool of squiggles.

Some colleagues, in partial praise but also in partial dismissal, called him a poet. Many considered him impish, playful, frank about himself, pragmatic, willing to be criticized, clinically powerful, with an unusually wide intellectual range, audacious, independent, uneven, often but not always clear, capable of puckish maliciousness, and capable of wit. A sample of his engaging statements might include his saying that there is no such thing as a baby; that we analysts want to be eaten; that the reality principle is an insult; that reality is created by the destruction of the object; that deep is not synonymous with early; and that we are poor indeed if we are only sane.

Dr. Rodman’s biography is the first full-scale biography of Winnicott and is more about his life than about his work. I miss deeper discussion of the work—there is nothing about some papers and at most a paragraph about many—but that would probably have required a book two or three times as long and, perhaps, several authors. The life itself is of considerable interest, and a brief outline or summary may be worth giving here. Winnicott was born in 1896 in Plymouth, England. His father was a successful hardware merchant who eventually became mayor and was knighted. About Winnicott’s mother, far less is known, and one feels the lack, in this biography of a person who wrote much about mothers and little about fathers. Among the very few memorable and probably powerful bits about Winnicott’s mother that Dr. Rodman provides are Winnicott’s statement that he was weaned early because his mother could not stand her own excitement during breast-feeding; and some evidence that his mother was depressed, and that young Donald probably saw it as his task to cheer her. For my taste, Dr. Rodman provides us with rather little about Donald’s childhood, although he does give us family history and milieu and a few pithy details, such as that Donald at age 9 decided he was "too nice" and set out to change; shortly after that, in 1910, Donald was sent to boarding school, partly because he had said "drat."

After studying biology at Cambridge (and receiving an undistinguished degree), he studied medicine at St. Bart’s during World War I, worked in pediatric hospitals, married Alice Taylor (in 1923; apparently a rather bad marriage), started a private pediatric practice, read and admired Freud, and, in 1923, began his analysis with James Strachey. His mother died in 1925. He became one of the first candidates in the British Psychoanalytic Institute in 1927, ended his Strachey analysis in 1933, graduated from the institute, got supervised by Melanie Klein, and at the same time analyzed her son. From 1936 to 1941, he had a second analysis, with the then rather Kleinian Joan Riviere. In 1941, he began working with Clare Britton, a social worker (and future analyst) working with children; about 1944 he apparently began an intimate relationship with her. In the late 1940s he had several heart attacks, his father died, and he separated from Alice (they had had no children together, although they had provided a home for two psychologically troubled foster children). Winnicott continued to write rather prolifically and wrote what is probably his most famous paper, on transitional phenomena (delivered, after delays, in 1951) (1). In December 1951, he married Clare, and this second marriage seems to have been largely successful and happy. From time to time several of his professional relationships—e.g., with Marion Milner, Melanie Klein, Masud Khan, and some severely ill patients—had what seem clearly to have been some burdensome problems with boundaries. Melanie Klein died in 1960. Winnicott went on writing energetically and creatively, traveled to America several times to give lectures, had increasing heart and lung problems and flu, and died Jan. 22, 1971.

Dr. Rodman’s biography tells us all this and much more about Winnicott. This biography is useful and welcome and will be of interest to many of the large number of clinicians and theoreticians who have been moved and influenced by Winnicott’s work. Dr. Rodman is a thoughtful psychoanalyst who knew Winnicott, who edited his letters, and who has worked hard and long at assembling many facts. In my judgment, however, he has not quite solved the dilemma of the analyst biographer. He is sometimes too intrusively analytic, as if Winnicott were his patient; and sometimes not quite in possession of the relevant facts and/or tidy continuity and summarizing statements we expect of a really good narrative biographer.

Finally, a note about something visual. Since Winnicott often drew and often used drawing and painting in his interpretive and communicative work, it may not be entirely odd to comment on the painting of Winnicott on the cover of the book. It is a catchy and in some ways skillful painting of Winnicott, apparently done (not by Dr. Rodman) after a photo that is reproduced in the book (just before page 305). The painting is striking, but its Winnicott does not catch the comfort and wisdom in the Winnicott of the photo; it seems to me a bit too anxious, too internally divided, and even perhaps a bit too crazy to be a good image by which to remember Winnicott.

Nevertheless, this is a very welcome biography. Perhaps, to adapt a Winnicottian phrase, one could say, without disparagement, that it is a good enough biography of an extraordinary man.

Winnicott DW: Transitional objects and transitional phenomena (1951), in Collected Papers. London, Tavistock, 1958, pp 229–242


Winnicott DW: Transitional objects and transitional phenomena (1951), in Collected Papers. London, Tavistock, 1958, pp 229–242

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