Hidden Histories of British Psychoanalysis: a review of Brett Kahr’s book on the lesser known tales
To the uninitiated, psychoanalysis is one thing, a single theory that started with Freud and continues to this day unchanged. The initiated, however, know this is not true. In fact, Aristotle’s maxim that the more you know the more you realise you don’t know is never more true than with psychoanalysis. Every time you feel you’ve got the measure of it, it surprises you again. This is why I love it so much. Professor Brett Kahr's new book, Hidden Histories of British Psychoanalysis, opens yet another window on what we thought was well-tread ground.
Our geopolitical past plays a major role in the plurality of psychoanalytic theories that exist today. In the early years of the last century, psychoanalysis was centred in and around Vienna where it was founded in the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the end of the First World War its ideas were gaining ground across Europe and elsewhere, but the The Second World War was like a giant boulder dropped into the psychoanalytic pond splashing and rippling across the globe. The vast majority of its theorists and practitioners, who were mostly Jews, dispersed across the globe, seeking safety and setting up shop. The versions of Psychoanalysis they developed, far from their indefatigably rigid master and ancestral home, took on a shape of their own, coloured by the personalities of their thinkers, and the cultures in which they were seeded.
Britain had, for a long time, been a key player in the development of psychoanalysis due to being the home of Ernest Jones, Freud’s champion and biographer, as well as James Strachey and The Hogarth Press, translator and publisher of Freud’s works into English. London, reluctantly, became Freud's home in the final year of his life, as well that of his daughter Ann and other noteworthy contributors to the development of Psychoanalysis such as Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, John Bowlby, and many others.
The development of British Psychoanalysis is one that has been voluminously written about, so it comes as a great delight that the self-proclaimed “lover of deceased psychoanalysts”, Professor Brett Kahr, offers us a new behind-the scenes take of an old story.
Hidden Histories begins with an ending: Freud’s. Increasingly unwell, Freud spent is final days in his office and consulting room, now preserved in The Freud Museum London where he met his end on September 23rd, 1939. This was by no means the beginning of British Psychoanalysis, but it was an important symbolic turning of the page when the world said goodbye to Psychoanalysis’s founding father and started to look forward.
The development of child analysis was well underway by Freud’s demise, moving in two very distinct directions headed on the one side by Freud’s daughter Anna, and on the other by Melanie Klein who’d moved to London from Berlin more than ten years earlier. The impasse between the Kleinians and the Anna Freudians would be tempered, somewhat, by the kindly paediatrician, Donald Winnicott.
While Winnicott is a giant in the field of psychoanalysis today, we learn from Professor Kahr that he was a much less distinguished doctor, middling his way through medical school and landing in the rather unglamorous field of paediatrics, which at the time garnered little professional respect. He was also ensconced in an unhappy marriage, one that we know from an indiscrete correspondence between his analyst James Strachey and his wife Alix, was sexless (his book contains many such instances of un-respected clinical boundaries in the early days of psychoanalysis). His second marriage to Clare Britton in 1951 was fortunately a much happier one.
Winnicott appears to have been a man who blossomed in the second half of his life. Perhaps this is due to his capacity to combine his experience as a paediatrician with his growing exposure to psychoanalysis and finding great creativity and satisfaction at that nexus. We gather that Winnicott was consumed with his work and had a packed schedule right until the end of his life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he treated one of his most famous child patients. "The Piggle" irregularly - seeing her for about a dozen sessions over a period of many months rather than the usual five-day-a-week style usually ascribed to psychoanalytic work at that time. This was also pragmatic since Winnicott was based in London and "The Piggle" in Oxfordshire.
This innovation wouldn’t be the first that earned Winnicott derision from some of his colleagues due to his unconventional “on demand” approach to psychotherapy. Winnicott referred to this method at least once as “snack-bar psychotherapy”, and didn’t shy away from the possibility of officially offering briefer forms of therapy asking in a 1962 paper:
In analysis one asks: how much can one be allowed to do? And, by contrast, in my clinic the motto is: how little need be done?
By all accounts, “The Piggle” was very happy with her snack-bar therapy, and remembers Winnicott fondly to this very day. Professor Kahr reminds us that despite the ideas we’ve inherited from the founders of psychoanalysis, there were many who operated this “snack bar” when required, including Freud himself, Theodore Reik, Dr. Ruth Mack Brunswick, Dr. Karen Horney, and Ernest Jones. It bears remembering that in psychoanalysis the message often seems to have been "do what I say I do, not as I do". In this text, and others, we hear many tales of dual relationships and odd boundary choices, like dining or holidaying with analysands, that today would be considered a clear breach of protocol
Another pioneer in the psychoanalytic treatment of children was John Bowlby. And like Winnicott, one that often provoked ire from his colleagues, classical analysts who were uncomfortable with his innovations that, informed by direct observation, frequently undermining theoretical conclusions that had been derived from abstract theory alone.
Ultimately known for being the founder of Attachment Theory, Bowlby was promulgating attachment-like ideas from the start - notably bringing attention to the UK government to the potential harms of separation in a letter he penned alongside Winnicott warning of the psychological dangers of the British children’s evacuation from the cities at the start of the Second World War. In close resonance to more recent concerns about the mental health concerns of Covid-19 lockdown, the authors of this letter shared their apprehension of the psychological consequences of evacuation being ignored in the rush to protect children's physical safety.
Professor Kahr notes that Bowlby’s concern about consequences of separation can be traced right back to his own childhood. In his interview with Bowlby's wife, she disclosed that their son, Ricky, once asked his father why he became a child psychiatrist, to which John Bowlby replied that it was due to his difficulties in childhood, notably having been sent to boarding school.
We learn from Ursula Longstaff Bowlby more about the unorthodox boundaries in the early days of psychoanalysis, such as Bowlby sometimes having supper with his analyst Joan Riviere after analysis. She also shared some strong feelings about the well-known animosity between the Kleinians and Bowlby, describing Melanie Klein as “a wicked old woman” partly due to the fact that she was so dismissive of the realities of the environment of one of the child cases she was supervising (a striking example of privileging the inner world over the actual one). There was also clear bad feeling remaining about the internecine politics at the time in which Bowlby was labelled a “traitor” due to his “heretical” contrary beliefs.
Professor Kahr’s chapter on Marion Milner is perhaps the most touching because it conveys both the warmth of the elder Milner, as well as Kahr’s, who was a curious and admiring student at the time he interviewed her. He shares her untiring curiosity (attending conferences as an octogenarian) as well as her generosity with her memories of the early days of psychoanalysis.
Milner disclosed the surprising fact about her “ferocious anger” at her own experiences with her analysts for their not having helped her process the trauma of the First World War – revealing that in the end, she sought out a psychodramatist whom she said was much better at helping her resolve this trauma. She noted on several occasions that many analysts though bright on theory, often lacked empathy. She also disclosed that Donald Winnicott not only treated her husband, but also Marion herself, and that she had a strong erotic transference towards him.
Winnicott once disclosed to Marion something about himself that perhaps would have forever remained unknown had Brett Kahr not interviewed her, Winnicott's secret wish to write an operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan!
Kahr also revealed, with some embarrassment, that shortly after The Freud Museum in London opened (naturally he was closely involved!), he invited Milner in for a special visit, offering her the rare opportunity of sitting at Freud’s desk in order to sign a book for him. Thinking this was allowed for such an august visitor, he was soon dissuaded of this when the curatorial team descended upon them with a verbal slap on the wrist saying that nobody got to touch Freud’s chair and desk!
While many are more familiar with her husband’s Michael’s work, Professor Kahr gives ample space to his wife Enid, whom he credits for virtually creating the field of couples therapy. It seems that until Enid’s time no psychoanalyst had considered treating a couple at the same time but only separately, something which today seems so obvious. At the moment that the NHS was being launched in 1946, Enid Balint was the major force behind the development of the Marriage Guidance Council aiming to launch a series of Marriage Guidance Centres across the UK to support struggling couples (Michael was her second husband).
This work would eventually join forces with the Tavistock Clinic, and through various incarnations (changing its name more than a dozen times over the years!) become what is today, Tavistock Relationships. At the time these centres were launched with very little idea exactly how couples sessions would actually be run and by whom and with what training! Many of the case workers (for a period called “secretaries”) learning the job on the go, only incorporating psychoanalytic thinking and practice later down the line.
It seems that the developing of these centres, for a period called Family Discussion Bureaux (FDB), was like building an aeroplane as it taxied to the runway. However thrown-together this was at the start, Enid Balint’s determination saw their development and proliferation across the country, ultimately integrating social work and psychoanalysis to create a supportive model for couples to engage in a therapeutic manner that was a real innovation for marriage and couple support.
Perhaps the most salacious chapters belong to those that Kahr refers to as the “bad boys of psychoanalysis”, Masud Khan and R.D. Laing. Much has been written about both, but Hidden Histories offers another important angle into each.
Many will be familiar with the scandalous stories about Masud Kahn, from accusations of sexual misconduct with patients (both male and female), physical assaults, alcoholism, and the rabid antisemitism that was ultimately publicly exposed in the publication of his book When Spring Comes: Awakenings in Clinical Psychoanalysis. As the growing cacophony of rumours and reports of his behaviour grew, Kahn was eventually prevented of working at a training analyst, but surprisingly and shamefully allowed to carry on working as a member of the Institute for some time longer.
Perhaps Kahn’s staying power was partly down to his undeniable creativity and deep links to the cause of Psychoanalysis – not to mention his pedigree. He was supervised by both Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, studied with lions in the field like Dr. Paula Heiman, Joan Riviere, and Marion Milner, and was analysed by Winnicott among other first- generation analysts. His knowledge of Freud was second to none, and he claimed to read the whole of the Standard Edition every single year. He was also described at the time as one of the most creative minds in psychoanalysis. None of this excuses what we’ve come to know about him, but it does give us a window into a complicated man and his disruptive impact on British Psychoanalysis at the time.
The list of Khan’s shocking indiscretions and harmful behaviour runs very long indeed. They include the breaking of confidences in private, and shaming colleagues and patients in public; regularly and shamelessly pilfering books from the Karnac Bookstore; physical abusive; sexual predation with patients and colleagues (resulting in at least one pregnancy); and in one instance, acquiring and shooting a gun (apparently no one was hurt.
Professor Kahr struggles to understand this complicated and dangerous man – and points to difficult childhood experiences that may infer, he wonders, some sexual abuse he may have experienced himself. What we do know, and Kahr places great importance on this, is that Khan lost three analysts – two died while he was in treatment with them, and the third, Winnicott, after his analysis but in the midst of a close and collaborative relationship.
His relationship with his second analyst John Rickman has been described as “close” – even “unhelpfully close” – the two would often coffee together after sessions. Rickman's sudden death of a heart attack must have come as a great blow to Khan. He then became closely attached to Winnicott, who would also later die of coronary disease. Kahr wonders about the effect of these multiple losses, especially in relation to Khan's own difficult childhood (he lost his father and sister while in adolescence). Kahr notes Kahn’s damaging and erratic behaviour became widely known after Winnicott’s death, and wonders if it were this event that unleashed long unresolved pathologies that had been previously kept somewhat at bay. Khan's final violence erupted, sealing his fate yet begging far more questions, with the curious publication of his deeply offensive book which threatened to bring the whole of psychoanalysis into disrepute.
Our final subject is R.D. Laing, a divisive figure in psychoanalysis of whom, it has been said two contradictory things:
“[his ideas might] lead to the discarding of any of the basic findings of psycho-analysis, as too often happens with the introduction of ‘new’ ideas.”
“Apart from the terminology there is nothing in Dr. Laing’s presentation which is not recognized daily by the practicing psychoanalyst.”
Funny how one can at once be a threat with new ideas while at the same time saying nothing new. Either way, nobody can say that Laing did not make a massive splash – though perhaps more so in the wider culture than in psychoanalysis itself. Much has been written about him, so for our purposes, let’s just share an interesting anecdote that was experienced by our author and guide Professor Kahr.
Way back in 1983 Kahr (not yet Professor) invited Laing to speak at the Oxford Psycho-analytical Forum. At this time in his life we understand that Laing was intermittently alcoholic and behaviourally unreliable. I know of two personal colleagues who went to see him for supervision when he was clearly drunk. On the advice of colleagues, Brett was told not to rely on Laing showing up for the talk independently due to his notorious unreliability at this stage, but that Brett should collect Laing and bring him to the talk himself.
Having sold out all the tickets by this stage, Brett was anxious not to disappoint the audience, so he nervously drove down to London on the day of the talk to pick up the notable speaker at his Chalk Farm home. He arrived to find Laing already inebriated. He nonetheless piled him into the car for the long journey west. He remembers:
“In the car ride to Oxford, [Laing] proceeded to produce a large cigarette from his coat pocket, containing special Lebanese marijuana, and, to my utter shock, Laing then smoked this in an insouciant manner, after which he began to swig some strong Calvados!”
Knowing Brett quite well myself, I can imagine him quite out of his element in this situation. I’ll leave you to read the gory details in his book, but let’s just say that it didn’t begin, or end well. As the title already gives away, there is a missing tooth involved. This missing tooth, the later and more reflective Professor Kahr explains in his book, has a history, both real and symbolic, that says much more about this memorable day.
Hidden Histories of British Psychoanalysis - In Conclusion:
I fear I have done Professor Kahr a disservice by sharing so many spoilers from his magnificent book. But in my defence, I have shared them with you as an encouragement for you to read it yourself. What Hidden Histories conveys is less about gossipy tidbits from the hidden histories of British Psychoanalysis (even if I have delivered them as such), but the devotion that Kahr has to preserving even the marginalia of the now-gone participants in a field which he demonstrably loves so much.
His commitment to this project shines from his loving descriptions of Marion Milner’s home (it needs a good clean) to his open-minded inquisitiveness into the potential motivations of those like Khan or Laing who can so easily be dismissed as heroes or villains. Like so many of his books Kahr's voice comes across as endearingly Victorian: as is if commitment to the age seeps through his keyboard. As a testament to this, when we last communicated I joked with him that he probably recorded Milner’s interview in a little notebook rather than the more sensible option of bringing along a tape-recorder (it was the 1980s after all). Brett admitted that this was so, saying in a text, “I am not a technologist as you know”. That he does text says something, that he prefaces each text with "Dear Aaron" says it all. I have always found that this Victorianism is a great source of Brett’s charm and it comes across in many of his books (especially the historical ones).
In the conclusion of Hidden Histories Professor Kahr speaks about the importance of knowing our histories, especially our analog histories, especially in today’s hyper-connected world. In the words of this text Brett communicates his deep enthusiasm for the hidden histories that, due to his diligence, are no longer hidden. After all, this book is the result of his exhaustive archival research alongside the interviews he personally conducted, be they with "The Piggle", her mother, or from Marion Milner herself . He notes in the conclusion:
“So we all have much to learn from our ancestors, whether they behaved well or whether they behaved atrociously.”
If there is anything that all the strands of psychoanalysis have in common, it is this, the will to understand, and to learn from our past.