D W Winnicott (1896-1971) was a pioneering paediatrician and psychoanalyst who dedicated his life to the field of child development. Adam Phillips’ book, Winnicott (published by Penguin), provides a thorough overview of the man’s life and achievements.
I must admit that, until I picked up this book, I knew next to nothing about D W Winnicott. But Adam Phillips (himself a child psychotherapist) corrects that gap in my knowledge with this affectionate – though not uncritical – exploration of a very significant figure in the history of child psychiatry and psychology.
Phillips covers Winnicott’s early life, starting with his birth and upbringing in Devon, where he was raised in the non-conformist Wesleyan tradition. Phillips identifies this as noteworthy because Winnicott borrowed from the tradition’s eighteenth century founder, John Wesley, the desire to make his work accessible by using plain language – he did not believe that presenting his message in a popular way weakened it. But unlike Wesley, Winnicott rejected the aim of converting his audience, because he came to see it as a sign of madness to make such big demands on other people’s trust.
Given that Winnicott had a preference for plain language, it is regrettable that Phillips’ preface and fairly lengthy introduction are rather dry in style, which may put off more casual readers. Fortunately, his writing style is more easily manageable in the main body of the book (though in quoting the work of other thinkers, he isn’t afraid to repeat what some readers might see as ‘psychobabble’).
As Winnicott’s focus was always on child developmental issues, it is more than appropriate that Phillips considers not only the facts of Winnicott’s upbringing, but also Winnicott’s own view of it (as expressed in published comments). For instance, Phillips makes a point of comparing apparent characteristics of Winnocott’s father (e.g. as a potentially humiliating presence) with his son’s positive and justifying view of him. But while Winnicott’s comments on his father gained wide circulation, he published very little about his mother until he was in his late sixties, when he reflected on her suffering of depression. Phillips does not let the reader miss the possible correlation of such remembered experiences with the emphasis on the mother-and-child relationship in Winnicott’s professional work.
Phillips places Winnicott’s activity within the context of psychoanalysis in general, as bequeathed to world by Sigmund Freud, and as subsequently applied in connection with children by the likes of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein in the late 1920s. Winnicott, while learning much from these practitioners of the late ’20s, also deviates from them, not least in the way he resists their rigid adherence to their (often opposing) dogmas.
One particular chapter especially grabbed my attention. This is the one which looks at Winnicott’s observations about children evacuated from their homes during World War II. In this chapter, Phillips examines how these unfortunate (and damaging) circumstances gave Winnicott the opportunity to learn a great deal about children’s behaviour. It would not have been possible to make the same discoveries in peacetime, as it would obviously have been unethical to remove children from their homes and place them in hostels simply for the sake of research. What fascinates me personally is the parallel between these wartime experiences (and discoveries) and my own interest in the situation of children removed from their homes and placed in psychiatric units (in the post-war years up until the mid-1990s).
Also of special interest for me, given how little I knew of Winnicott previously, is how familiar many of his ideas appear. For instance, he sees common childhood symptoms, not as evidence of disorders, but as part of a child’s expression of identity. Such symptoms, however, come to indicate disorders when they continue to be used despite being useless as forms of communication.
Phillips particularly refers to Winnicott’s example of bed-wetting. This may represent a child’s protest against overbearing control, in which case it cannot be considered a disorder. But if the bed-wetting fails to communicate that protest effectively, but carries on anyway, then it should indeed be regarded as disordered. So, it is the context of a symptom that determines whether or not there is a problem. Many parents will be familiar with (and sometimes sceptical of) ideas of this kind from child rearing self-help books and parenting ‘experts’ (health visitors, TV child care ‘gurus’, etc.).
For me, this book is a useful introduction to D W Winnicott and his work. The author has succeeded in bringing his subject to life on the page, revealing a good deal about Winnicott’s possible motivations, hopes and aims. Given how empathetic and caring a figure Winnicott appears to have been, it is perhaps disappointing that these aspects of his approach were less influential in children’s post-war mental health care than were his theoretical contributions.
Winnicott by Adam Phillips is published by Penguin
Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
For more information visit www.davidaustin.eu