Compared to the impact of the work of Melanie Klein on the history of psychoanalysis, the contributions of her daughter, Melitta Schmideberg, passed almost unnoticed. At present, Schmideberg is solely remembered for having harshly attacked her mother at the start of the Controversial Discussions of the British Psycho-Analytical Society and for having coined the fitting expression “stable instability” in order to describe borderline and asocial personality disorders. However, the author discusses how the early groundbreaking discoveries of Klein with regards to primitive anxieties were the result of the joint work and thinking of Melanie and Melitta. Moreover, he argues that the conflict between the two, along with the subsequent polarization of their views, did not facilitate the development of psychoanalysis, neither did it help the analytic community to recognize the value of Melitta’s contributions to psychoanalysis.
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In an interview with Pearl King, Eva Rosenfeld—a Viennese analyst who, after her first analysis with Freud, moved to London and had a second analysis with Klein—provided the following description of the meetings held at the British Society at the time: “At the meetings I could only see something quite terrible and very un-British happening, and that was a daughter hitting her mother with words and this mother being very composed, quite quiet, never defending herself, but having such a power in that society, being so powerful that it really didn’t matter what Melitta said. We knew only that we would be the victim of this quarrel and we were and the society was, and there was no doubt about it” (Grosskurth, 1986, pp. 242–243).
Melitta Klein was born on January 19, 1904, the first child of Arthur and Melanie Klein, just 10 months after their wedding. Melanie was 22 years old. On March 2, 1907, Hans was born. He died in April of 1934, while hiking in the mountains in Slovakia. There were rumors that he committed suicide, but this was never proved. The third child of Melanie, Erich, was born on July 1, 1914. Melanie entered analysis with Ferenczi later that year, shortly after her mother, Libussa, died.
This “diagnosis” had been made public by Melanie Klein in a letter she sent to her followers in one of the most heated moments of the Controversial Discussions. In that letter, Klein urged the members of her group to stop replying to Melitta’s furious attacks on her in so far as she deemed her daughter to be irreparably “ill” (Grosskurth, 1986, p. 423).
Melitta Schmideberg was one of the first analysts to treat patients with severe “a-social” and borderline personality disorders (Millon, 2011, pp. 896ff). She described the violent and depriving environment in which they grew up (Schmideberg, 1931) and discussed the deep implications of their propensity to stealing, lying, seducing in a manipulative fashion, not eating (or having irregular eating habits) and, more generally, opposing what their environment asked them to be and do (Schmideberg, 1933b). Moreover, she proposed a number of innovative and modern changes to psychoanalytic technique (see Balsam, 2009) in order to meet the needs of these types of patients (Schmideberg, 1935a, 1935b, 1938a, 1938b, 1939, 1947). Here is an example form the classic paper, ‘The treatment of psychopaths and borderline patients’ (Schmideberg, 1947), which was included in Michael Stone’s Essential Papers on Borderline Disorders: “The main thing is to establish immediate contact. I never aim at a systematic anamnesis or diagnosis to try to get full information in the first interview, but try to establish contact. I talk spontaneously and appear as nonprofessional as possible. If a patient finds it difficult to talk, I ask questions or talk myself, attempting to put them at ease. If necessary, I discuss generalities or any subject he might be interested in, I never try to impress the patient, quite the contrary.” (Schmideberg, 1947, as reproduced in Stone, 1986, p. 93.) But the whole paper is a description of the flexibility Melitta reached in her setting in order to “establish contact” with those very unstable and difficult patients.
It is not clear whether as a child, Melitta had been analyzed by her mother (see in this respect Frank, 2009). At any rate, having had her first “official” analysis with Karen Horney, when the latter moved to the United States in 1932, Melitta in turn moved to London and started an analysis with Ella Sharpe, then a follower of Klein. The analysis did not last long: not more than a year, according to Sylvia Payne. In Payne’s view, this is because Sharpe thought that Melitta was “an impossible person to analyze” and she felt that “she could do nothing with her” (Roazen, 2000, p. 107). Melitta might have been a carrier of too virulent parasites for Sharpe to be able to keep them at bay. Parasites, that not even her subsequent analyst, Edward Glover, would succeed in approaching without ending up “infected” himself and un-analytically involved in Melitta’s rage against her mother (Roazen, 2000, p. 107; Spillius, 2009).
In a beautiful account of a play-analysis of a 3-year-old girl, Melitta points out: “I think there is no doubt that the general attitude and the everyday happenings are quite as important as any outstanding events occurring only once” (Schmideberg, 1934, p. 258).
Hans Klein was Melanie’s son and Melitta’s brother. He died in 1934 and after his tragic death Melitta became increasingly critical both of Melanie Klein’s work and her behavior. (King, 1991, p. xix.
It is no coincidence that, before long, Melitta started to propose to the British Society (and therefore to her mother as well) her pioneering contributions on the importance of reassurances in analysis Schmideberg (1935a). It was Sándor Ferenczi who had first highlighted the crucial developmental role of the security principle, inaugurating a theoretical tradition whose main protagonists included the likes of Imre Hermann, Alice and Michael Balint, Endre Petö, and Ian Suttie. It is within this tradition that notions such as Bowlby’s secure base (Van der Horst, 2011) and Anna Freud’s and Joseph Sandler’s background of security (Sandler, 1959) are rooted.
As it is well known, part of criticism of Melitta against her mother concerned the influence of environmental factors. Yet, we may risk a rough polarization in thinking that Melanie did not take into account environmental factors while Melitta did not take into account unconscious phantasies. What was distinctive was the interaction between the two. In a later paper entitled “The Assessment of Environmental Factors” (1936), in fact, Melitta insisted that the influence of the environment should not be regarded in isolation, but always in the interplay of unconscious factors and mechanisms, and went on stressing what she meant by the environment: “(a) the genetic importance of more continuous factors (in contrast to “traumatic” ones), operating even in the average of favorable environment; (b) the role of specific environmental factors in the first months of life; (c) the emotional attitude of the attendants, so often in contrast to their professed […] ideas; (d) that events repeatedly affecting derivatives of primitive instincts may exercise as marked an influence as […] the primary instincts themselves (Schmideberg, 1936, cited in Glover, 1945, p. 92).
In 1927 Ferenczi had presented in London “The Adaptation of the Family to the Child,” where he maintained that “the adjustment of the family to the child cannot take place until the parents first of all understand themselves”, and that “the first mistake that parents make is to forget their own childhood” (p. 62). During the discussion, Klein asked how it is possible to moderate the omnipotence of infantile phantasies and teach psychoanalytic symbolism to little children who have not yet developed the intellectual abilities necessary to understand it. Ferenczi replied in this way: “In reply to Mrs. Klein I can only agree that full freedom in fantasy would be an excellent relief for the whole of life, and if this could be granted to children they would the more easily adapt themselves to the required changes from their autistic activities to a life in a community. Therefore it is very good to allow children to have full freedom of fantasy, but in order to have it the parents must be on an equal level with the children and acknowledge that they themselves have the same sort of fantasies: this, however, does not excuse them from teaching the child the difference between fantasies and irrevocable actions. Where this freedom is granted there is a greater probability that the emotional difficulties of later life will be lessened. You must permit the fullest freedom to fantasy, that is to say you must lead the child to acknowledge in his fantasy that he is allowed to imagine superiority that he actually has not. He will try to take advantage of the situation, and then perhaps comes a point where you have to use your authority. Only unjustified authority is not permitted by psycho-analysis. […] With regard to the question how to translate symbols to children, we should in general learn symbols from children rather than they from us. Symbols are the language of children; they have not to be taught how to understand them. They have only to feel that the other person has the same understanding of them that they themselves have when acceptance becomes immediate” (Ferenczi, 1929, pp. 75–76).
Melitta writes in 1947: “ Such patients are unable to stand routine and regularity. They transgress every rule; naturally they do not attend treatment regularly, are late for their appointments and, when they do appear, are unreliable about payments. They do not associate freely and often do not talk at all. They refuse to lie on the couch. They often come for analysis only under persuasion or pressure and even when they come on their own their insight does not last nor carry them through difficulties. Even when they try to cooperate, they cannot sustain the effort. In their lives something always happens, entirely out of the blue.” Schmideberg wrote about the difference between the works of London and New York psychoanalysts: “I don’t know enough about New York analysts to compare, but I have the impression that, on the whole, the London analysts take more difficult cases. Most of them treat perversions and Glover, Carrol, Walter Schmideberg, and others, have treated psychotics and borderline cases. The analytic theory held by the London analysts is somewhat different and places more emphasis on pregential cases.” In general, she emphasized that “too little has been written about psychoanalytic methods in concrete detail; e.g., on the form and timing of interpretations, so that it is difficult to compare my method with others.” (from Schmideberg’s, 1947 paper, as reproduced in Stone, 1986, pp. 92–118).
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1Gabriele Cassullo, Ph.D. is Clinical Psychologist, Doctor in Research and a Non-Tenured Professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Torino, Italy.
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Cassullo, G. THE PSYCHOANALYTIC CONTRIBUTIONS OF MELITTA SCHMIDEBERG KLEIN. MORE THAN MELANIE KLEIN’S REBEL DAUGHTER. Am J Psychoanal 76, 18–34 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/ajp.2015.57
- Melitta Schmideberg
- Melanie Klein
- history and theory of psychoanalysis
- persecutory anxiety
- a-social children