All the Things We Could Be if Melanie Klein Was Our Mother

This is the case with Klein. Rather than banning or exorcising her, we must ask her to go to work, force her thought and her theory to work for us.

Jean Laplanche, “Should We Burn Melanie Klein?”


Should we burn Melanie Klein? Jean Laplanche, a French critic and psychoanalyst, asks this provocative question of the notorious post-Freudian psychoanalyst whose work haunts how one thinks about their baby days. Laplanche, who perhaps is the best interpreter of Sigmund Freud’s work, answers his own question by juxtaposing Klein’s ideas to demonology and witchcraft. This juxtaposition is ultimately used as a metaphor to bring Klein into light and forgive her controversial contributions to psychoanalysis, particularly if children should be analyzed like adults.


Who was Melanie Klein, and why should we “burn” her? Like Freud, Klein was born in Austria and lived in Vienna. Her interest in psychoanalysis began after her divorce when she discovered Freud’s “On Dreams.” She then sought out and joined the psychoanalytical circles in Austria, made contact with and taught by key analysts Karl Abraham and Sándor Ferenczi, and was analyzed by the latter. Like Freud, she moved to Great Britain to continue her work, focusing on children. Coincidentally, Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, also living in Great Britain, was doing the same work, and they ---- in a way ---- became rivals.


Klein’s work, as mentioned previously, focused mainly on applying adult analysis techniques to children. An aspect of play was involved with each session. Klein sat with the children and gave them toys to play with. The toy objects were key to her analysis as some toys represented things that plagued the children’s minds. For example, in her case with a child named Dick, Klein used toy trains to represent Dick’s parents and themselves. Dick hid the trains in tight, dark places which communicated to Klein that there were disturbing things taking place in Dick’s mind in regard to his parents. This “play” technique became controversial because of Klein’s conclusions and her taking serious information from the children’s interactions with the toys.


It’s also of note to mention that though Klein worked with children, her legacy and major ideas deal with human destruction and negative feelings. The terms created by Klein and most associated with her are the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. Unlike Freud, who theorized that the death drive appearing in the toddler years caused the Oedipal complex to erupt, Klein claims that it happens long before, when the person is an infant feeding on their mother’s breast. The baby as a being associates meaning to their mother’s breasts as either a good or bad entity. As a “good breast,” the baby understands that the breast/mother is a nurturing source of love and thus makes the baby feel satisfied with pleasure. The “bad breast,” however, becomes an object of fear and destruction. The baby through their phantasy ---- which is unconscious unlike “fantasy” ---- wants to destroy the breast/mother. These two positions begin to appear while the baby negotiates the mother’s breast and other objects in their world such as their father, siblings, and round objects. The paranoid-schizoid position suggests that the baby is fearful of the mother’s breast. The breast is out to get them and destroy them so the baby reacts negatively when being fed; being frustrated, angered, or crying. The depressive position which happens later transforms the feelings from internal to external: now the baby is worried that things are out to get their mother and cause harm to their loved objects.


One of her current legacies deals with her term and idea called “reparation.” In short, reparation takes the negative and attempts to repair through doing. For example, if a child was raised with an abusive mother, then the child may grow up to be a better mother to their own children, in order to undo damage inflicted upon them. Reparations first appear in one of Klein’s most accessible works titled “Love, Guilt, and Reparation.” This piece will now perform a close reading of the text, which you may access here if you, the reader, would like to read for yourself. Using quotes that resonate with me, I hope to get closer to this text and do my own reparation. Should we burn Melanie Klein? Laplanche and I say no, but we must put her theories to work for ourselves.


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I canceled my therapy session today. Due to being with you. I need a place to talk and keep myself together.


The power of love – which is the manifestation of the forces which tend to preserve life – is there in the baby as well as the destructive impulses, and finds its first fundamental expression in the baby’s attachment to his mother’s breast, which develops into love for her as a person. My psycho-analytic work has convinced me that when, in the baby’s mind, the conflicts between love and hate arise and the fears of losing the loved one become active, a very important step is made in development. These feelings of guilt and distress now enter as a new element into the emotion of love. They become an inherent part of love and influence it profoundly both in quality and quantity.


I came home today after spending the night at your place. The sex is always great. In fact, I find it healing. Each time we fuck, the demons from my sexual past disappear. Demons of my discomfort, from the men who used to have a hold of my body, from the words that I always hold in my body. But as I let the day progress, new demons entered and caused me to have a mental break. I lie paralyzed on my bed, naked, and thinking of you. Thinking that I do love you but also how much hurt you caused me and how destroyed I feel always. But I am afraid that every time I leave your place, it’s going to be the last time. You’ve said goodbye to me before and didn’t want to see me again. I’m afraid for that to happen again. I’m afraid to lose you. I don’t know why. I never understood why. I hate that I canceled my therapy session because I was still in your bed. I talk about you too much in there. I think about you way too much.

Art by Maddy Sutka

The immediate and primary means by which relief is afforded to a baby from these painful states of hunger, hate, tension, and fear is the satisfaction of his desires by his mother. The temporary feeling of security which is gained by receiving gratification greatly enhances the gratification itself, and thus a feeling of security becomes an important component of the satisfaction whenever a person receives love. This applies to the baby as well as to the adult, to the more simple forms of love, and to its most elaborate manifestations. Because our mother first satisfied all our self-preservative needs and sensual desires and gave us security, the part she plays in our minds is a lasting one, although the various ways in which this influence is effected and the forms it takes may not be at all obvious later in life.


Talking in circles has become a skill that I have attained in therapy. Getting back to the point. Going back to the beginning. Trying to connect every little dot I make. I do get stuck all the time. I do get stumped. I get stumped when I talk about why I love you. Or why I do love. I always land on this: security. That’s what you give me, I believe. I don’t know what to feel secure about because it seems that my default is to feel insecure. Not in the sense that one feels about their body, but rather a sense that there is instability to the security I have. I am trying to build that within me, but I slip so many times. I look at my life and see the shaking ground. I feel like I have been falling since I was nineteen, both within myself and outside in the world. I feel like you give me the grounds outside of me to land. You feed me. I love your cooking a lot. You did keep me from feeling lonely. But I don’t know if any of this points to security. You make me feel safe.


Hatred and aggressive feelings are aroused and he [the baby] becomes dominated by the impulses to destroy the very person who is the object of all his desires and who in his mind is linked up with everything he experiences – good and bad alike.


Love and hate are struggling together in the baby’s mind, and this struggle to a certain extent persists throughout life and is liable to become a source of danger in human relationships.


I do the dumbest shit when I hate you. I do better shit when I hate them. I feel like I fucked up, and I know that it may cause an end to this all. I’m having a hard time reading myself. I want to say that I feel depressed and down, but I feel like something is going to come up and ruin me. And ruin my relationship with you. I am so paranoid. Anxious. Worried. I have a hard time breathing. I take a pill whenever I feel the anxiety like I do now. You’re texting me now, and we’re having a serious conversation. I am a wreck.


The loved and hated father, the loved and hated mother, are, as I have already said, originally the objects of both admiration and of hatred and devaluation.


I think it’s too early for me to write about my parents or even my family. I do not talk about them, and I rarely talk to them. I’m still hurt. It took me a long time to realize this hurt. I don’t know what to do with it. They say that you should make a family of your own. Practice queer kinship, but that’s really hard when you have a broken view of kinship yourself. Maybe that’s what attracts me to you? You have a family. You love your family. You told me that if you didn’t have anything, then at least you have them. I cannot say the same. When I entered your place yesterday, it felt like we were family. I remember feeling the sense of “home” for the first time since I was 18 when we were building your furniture. You just moved into your new place. You bought a place in New York City. Empty, you soon filled it. And I helped with the filling. I remember feeling my soul smile that day. I feel at home with you always. Maybe that’s the security, but why do I feel that with you?


Although love-relationships in adult life are founded upon early emotional situations in connection with parents, brothers, and sisters, the new relationships are not necessarily mere repetitions of early situations. Unconscious memories, feelings, and phantasies enter into the new love-relationship or friendship in quite disguised ways. But besides early influences, there are many other factors at work in the complicated processes that build up a love-relationship or a friendship. Normal adult relationships always contain fresh elements which are derived from the new situation – from circumstances and the personalities of the people we come in contact with, and from their response to our emotional needs and practical interests as grown-up people.


What is a normal adult relationship? I will never know because it seems like it has to do with the naming rather than the doing. I never had an official partner, but I don’t think that excludes from saying I never had one. Next month, it’ll be two years. I don’t think I ever had anything that lasted so long. Two years of living in New York City. Two years of living in this apartment. Two years of being with you. Two years thinking about you. Two years obsessing and being paranoid. Two years, a marker of time for whatever security I am trying to gain by just not moving.

Art by Maddy Sutka

The process by which we displace love from the first people we cherish to other people is extended from earliest childhood onwards to things. In this way, we develop interests and activities into which we put some of the love that originally belonged to people. In the baby’s mind, one part of the body can stand for another, and an object for parts of the body or for people. In this symbolical way, any round object may, in the child’s unconscious mind, come to stand for his mother’s breast. By a gradual process, anything that is felt to give out goodness and beauty, and that calls forth pleasure and satisfaction, in the physical or in the wider sense, can in the unconscious mind take the place of this ever-bountiful breast, and of the whole mother.


Klein makes me think more about my own mother and my tumultuous relationship with her. I don’t think I am ready to write why just yet, but I will say that it hurt me to see her go through divorce. How does the person who’s been a bad breast most of your life lose all that power? It was hard to leave after I helped her move back to Japan. It was hard to leave anything that day in July. To leave your mother in a different country, not knowing when you will see her around your birthday. It is as if the baby inside me was snatched away from my mother’s breasts during feeding.


I have so much fear in losing you.


In not severing their connection with her they keep alive the image of the mother of the early days.


Do I preserve my mother in you? Do I want to be a mother to you? I don’t think I am anything like my father to you. I don’t think I act like a father towards you. I wonder if you act like a mother or father towards me.


Now this interchangeable child-parent relation which we manifest in our attitude to people is also experienced within ourselves to these helpful, guiding figures whom we keep in our minds. We unconsciously feel these people who form part of our inner world to be loving and protective parents towards us, and we return this love, we feel like parents towards them.


Contigo quiero despertar/ Hacerlo después de fumar/Ya no tengo nada que buscar/ Algo fuera de aquí/ Tú combinas con el mar/ Aceleraste mis latidos/ Es que me gusta todo de ti/ De to'as tus partes, ¿cuál decido?/ Es que me gusta todo de ti


If we have become able, deep in our unconscious minds, to clear our feelings to some extent towards our parents of grievances, and have forgiven them for the frustrations we had to bear, then we can be at peace with ourselves and are able to love others in the true sense of the word.


All the things we could be...


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