Melanie Klein (March 30, 1882 – September 22, 1960) was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst, who devised therapeutic techniques for children with great impact on contemporary methods of child care and rearing.
Born in Vienna of Jewish parentage, Melanie Klein first sought psychoanalysis for herself with Sandor Ferenczi when he was living in Budapest during World War I. There she became a psychoanalyst and began analysing children in 1919. In 1921 she moved to Berlin where she studied with and was analysed by Karl Abraham. Although Abraham supported her pioneering work with children, neither Klein nor her ideas received much support in Berlin. However, impressed by her innovative work, British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones invited Klein to come to London in 1926, where she worked until her death in 1960.
As a divorced woman whose academic qualifications consisted of a teaching degree, Klein was a visible iconoclast within a profession dominated by male physicians. Although she questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of Sigmund Freud, Klein always considered herself a faithful adherent to Freud's ideas. Klein was the first person to use traditional psychoanalysis with young children. She was innovative in both her techniques (such as working with children using toys) and her theories in infant development. Stongly opinionated, and demanding loyalty from her followers, Klein established a highly influential training progam in psychoanalysis. Considered one of the cofounders of object relations theory, Klein and her followers have had a lasting influence upon child psychology and psychoanalysis.
Apart from her successful introduction of triumphant psychoanalytic concepts, Melanie Klein’s life was full of tragic events. She was the product of an unwanted birth - her parents showed her little affection. Her much loved elder sister died when Klein was four, and she was made to feel responsible for her brother’s death. Her academic studies were interrupted by marriage and children. Her marriage failed and her son died, while her daughter, the well-known psychoanalyst Melitta Schmideberg, fought her openly in the British Psycho-analytic Society and emigrated to America. Mother and daughter were not reconciled before Klein's death, and Schmideberg did not attend Klein's funeral. Melanie Klein was also clinically depressed.
Klein's theoretical work gradually centered on a highly speculative hypothesis propounded by Freud, which stated that life may be an anomaly, that it is drawn toward an inorganic state, and therefore, in an unspecified sense, contains an instinct to die. In psychological terms Eros, the sustaining and uniting principle of life, is thereby postulated to have a companion force, Thanatos, which seeks to terminate and disintegrate life.
Freud’s ideas concerning children mostly came from working with adult patients but Klein tried to allow children to express their own emotion. Klein took notice of children’s play as a mode of communication and took it into consideration as a possible site of therapeutic intervention. After observing troubled children play with toys such as dolls, animals, plasticine, pencil and paper, Klein attempted to interpret the specific meaning of play. She discovered that parental figures played a significant role to the child’s fantasy life and that the chronology of Freud’s Oedipus complex was imprecise. Contradicting Freud, she concluded that the superego was present long before the Oedipal phase.
Examining ultra-aggressive fantasies of hate, envy, and greed in very young, very ill children, Melanie Klein put forth the interpretation that the human psyche is in a constant oscillation depending on whether Eros or Thanatos is in the fore. She calls the state of the psyche, when the sustaining principle of life is in domination, the depressive position. The psychological state corresponding to the disintegrating tendency of life she gives the name the paranoid-schizoid position.
Melanie Klein's insistence on regarding aggression as an important force in its own right when analysing children brought her into conflict with Anna Freud, the other major child psychotherapist working in England at the time. Many controversies arose from this conflict.
Melanie Klein's works are collected in four volumes:
Other books on Melanie Klein:
Ronald Britton, (2003), "Sex, Death and the Superego", Karnac Books
Ronald Britton, (1998), "Belief and Imagination", Taylor & Francis LTD