Melanie Klein is perhaps the most important woman psychoanalyst who ever lived and yet is probably the least well-known to American psychologists. The names of other women analysts such as Anna Freud, Karen Horney, and Helene Deutsch are probably far more familiar to you despite the fact that Melanie Klein’s contribution to psychology has been far greater than theirs. Through the development of her own distinctive approach to psychoanalysis Klein inaugurated the school of psychoanalysis known as object relations theory, which places the mother-infant relationship at the center of personality development, and influenced the work of prominent psychologists like John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Her impact on developmental psychology has thus been indirect but profound.
Melanie Klein (nee Reizes) was
In 1918 when the International Psycho-Analytic Congress was
In London Melanie Klein found her intellectual home among the British psychoanalysts, who embraced her new ideas and were eager to learn her play technique. She spent the rest of her life there developing her theory of child development into a new school of psychoanalytic thought and training future analysts in her theory and technique. Klein’s first theoretical innovation was to incorporate the idea of the death instinct into her account of the development of an early superego, prior to the resolution of the Oedipus Complex. This challenge to Freud’s theory of development coupled with her new play technique led to some controversy between the British analysts and the Viennese Society where Anna Freud was putting forward her own views on child analysis. The 1927 Symposium on Child Analysis published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis was the result. Klein followed this debate with some of her most important work over the next decade.
Klein’s 1932 book The Psychoanalysis of Children proposed that the infant has a primary object relation to the mother and experiences a psychic life dominated by sadistic phantasies deriving from an innate aggressive drive. Then in a seminal paper entitled “A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic depressive states” (1935/1984), written a short time after the death of her son Hans, Klein explored the relationship between mourning and primitive defense mechanisms and introduced her idea of two fundamental phases of development: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. Klein’s ideas about schizoid defense mechanisms aroused fierce debate within the British Society, which held a series of controversial Discussions during the war years to decide whether “Kleinianism,” as it was now known, was really psychoanalysis or whether it diverged too far from Freud’s original theory. The debate resulted in an agreement to teach two schools of thought: Kleinianism and Freudianism. Thus Klein was the first psychoanalyst to challenge Freud’s account of psychic development and remain within the psychoanalytic movement.
By this time Klein was a powerful figure within the British Society: she was a member of the Training Committee, a training analyst, and leader of the Kleinian group, which included for a while John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. However her victory came at a cost: her daughter Melitta had opposed her during the Controversial Discussions and they remained estranged until the end of Klein’s life. In the face of the loss of two of her children Klein found solace in her work. She continued to develop her ideas about schizoid defense mechanisms, including splitting, and the role they play in borderline conditions. Her final work explored the themes of envy, gratitude, and reparation in the mother-infant relationship, themes which were so central to her own experiences as a daughter and a mother. Her last important book Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961/1984) a detailed case history of the analysis of a young boy during the war, was published after her death from cancer in 1960.
P. (1986). Melanie Klein: Her world and
Klein, M. (1984). The psycho-analysis of children (A. Strachey, Trans.). R. Money-Kyrle
(Ed.), The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 2).
Klein, M. (1984). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive sates. In R.
Money-Kyrle (Ed.) The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1, pp. 262-89).
Klein, M. (1984). Narrative of a child analysis. R. Money-Kyrle (Ed.), The writings of
Melanie Klein (Vol.4).
*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 29, Number 3, Summer, 2002. Appearing with permission of the author.