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Review of "Winnicott"

By Robert Rodman
Perseus Publishing, 2003
Review by Petar Jevremovic on Sep 3rd 2003

Donald Winnicott is, undoubtedly, one of the most influential psychoanalysts of our post-Freudian epoch.  The originality of his thinking, his openmindness, his fresh and practically valid conceptions, makes him still very important among great number of modern analysts of various orientations.  

Robert Rodman himself, the author of this biography of Donald Winnincott, is a well known author. For example, thanks to him today we can read a very good and instructive selection (or we could say edition) of Winnicott's letters. Rodman is well informed in psychoanalytic matters in general -- he knows its theory, he knows its history, he can think and feel its practice, but of course, he is at his best when Winnicott's work is in the question.  His style is well balanced, coherent, and easy to follow.  The book is logically composed, eloquent, and well documented.

Rodman's book on Winnicott is important.  It is not an easy task to write the autobiography of one of the greatest psychoanalysts of our time. There are various challenges, many potential impasses, many problems.  The matter is rather delicate. One must avoid being voyeuristic, sensationalistic, nihilistic, destructive or too much idealizing. Any biography (as narrative form) is dealing with the facts. We need the facts if we wand to write a biography. But facts are newer enough. There is always a need for a living personality. And offcoures, we must always have it in mind, Winnicott's personal history is an important part of the (official and unofficial) history of the British Psychoanalytic Society. Having all this in mind, we must conclude that Rodman's book could be important in two parallel ways. As a contribution to our understanding of one of the greatest psychoanalysts of modern time, and also as decent (and rather original) attempt to understand one of the most turbulent periods in history of the British Psychoanalytic Society.

Donald Woods Winnicott was born in 1896 in Plymouth, Devon, a stronghold of the noncomformist Weslyan tradition. His father, a successful  and much-admired merchant and mayor of his town, was knighted for civic work. Winnicott himself was the youngest of three children. He studied medicine, and in 1923 he become physician in the Paddington Green Hospital, where he worked as pediatrician.

Winnicott started his own analysis in 1923, when he was twenty-seven years old. He had become aware of Freud's theories while in medical school, but did not seek out analysis for himself until the year of his marriage.  He sought help for personal problems from Ernst Jones, the founder of Biritish psychoanalysis, and was given a list of analysts from which to chose, but he could not make a choice. He was then referred to James Strachey, himself recently back from Vienna.  A few years latter, Winnicott become one of the first candidates in the Bristish Society.  In 1935, Winnicott began six years of supervision with Melanie Klein. He wanted to be analyzed by her, but this would have made it impossible for him to do what she wished: to analyze her son under her supervision. Winnicott refused this proposal, but did become her son's analyst a few years later. He was not yet knowledgeable enough to have developed a point of view about the issues of the day, but eventually his own temperament and grown stock of observations drove him into a deep, lifelong absorption with basic questions of human psychology. He become one of psychological and philosophical thinkers, and was a clinician of extraordinary skill.

Winnicott's independence of mind can best be appreciated against the background of controversy that had been a part of the history of psychoanalysis from its beginnings and then took a particular turn in the British  Society in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The well­known schisms between the young Freud and his associates Carl Jung and Alfred Adler had marked the field. Other breaks with Wihlem Stekel, Wilhelm Reich, Otto Rank, and Sándor Ferenczi followed. An older Freud, now aficted with cancer of jaw, oversaw but kept a degree of distance from the conflict that arose between his daughter Anna and Melanie Klein. Their disagreements are central to an understanding of the history of child analysis, and to the individual development of Donald Winnicott.

There in no doubt that Rodman feels strong human affections for Winnicott. His book is not just a biography. It is a book of someone who cares.  His treatment of Winnicott is at the same time personally warm and (as much as it is possible) objective. Rodman is rather well informed in the various psychoanalytic matters. The book is rich in various details. Different schools and different concepts, as well as great many of the leading figures of the psychoanalytic tradition (just to mention Freud, Jones, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Lacan...), had found their place in Rodman's discourse.  His Winnicott is not (like Freud himself in the book of Ernst Jones) almost an absolute saint. Also, he is not (like Lacan in the work of Elizabeth Rudinesco) the worst sinner among the mortals. Winnicott's personal drama and his doctrinally contributions to the modern psychoanalysis are two poles of Rodman' discourse.  And there is a good balance between them...

One very interesting quality of Rodman's book lays in his attempt to situate Winnicott in much more wither context that it is usually done. In this book Winnicott is pictured not only as pediatrician, psychoanalyst and child psychologist. Rodman's Winnicott is sometimes poet, sometimes philosopher, or even theologian. His cultural ancestors were, according to Rodman, the English Romantic poets, who embraced the role of imagination in the construction of reality. This could be one of the reasons he was so unacceptable for predominantly empiricist spirit of the British Psychoanalysis. His well known concepts like transitional object, transitional phenomena, transitional space, true and false self, holding, could be located somewhere in between (developmental) psychology and highly speculative philosophy. He is thinking about human development, about theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Also he is writing about life and death, about love and destruction, about religion. At the same time, his thought is purely descriptive, almost phenomenological, and very much theoretically-constructive.

This book will be of interest for psychoanalysts, psychologists and for all others that are seriously concerned with psychoanalysis. It could be read as a testimony of somebody's (Winnicott's) personal individuation. It could be also read as a good introduction to some of the key concepts of the developmental psychoanalysis.



© 2003 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

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