The psychoanalytic evolution of Anni Bergman and her work with Margaret Mahler

A conversation between Anni Bergman and William Fried on Bergman’s development as a psychoanalyst and especially on her work with Margaret Mahler and the psychoanalysis of children

By William Fried

I've known Anni Bergman for many years. We are both long-standing members of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research [IPTAR]. Until recently, however, when I asked her to write or collaborate in the writing of a piece about her work with Margaret Mahler, we were only acquaintances. I called Anni about the project in May 2011. She expressed keen interest and enthusiasm. Early in June we met for lunch and I described, briefly, some ideas I had for the work. I asked her either to write an article about her experiences with Mahler or to engage in an interview with me by which we might explore her recollections of that period of her life. We left her decision open until the next time we met.

At Anni's invitation, I met her again at her home in Chelsea on June 28. She gave me a brief tour of her office on the top floor of the small building where she lives and works. Not long ago, an image of it appeared in a New York Times article about an exhibit of photographs of the offices and workspaces of several psychoanalysts. It looked smaller than in the photograph, but the warmth and patterned color of the décor had been accurately reproduced. The pleasing floral and leaf motif was not confined to Anni's office: variations of it suffused all the rooms and lent them a bucolic airiness. It was as if she lived in a Bonnard interior.

Anni is an attractive and startlingly energetic nonagenarian. Her shoulder-length gray hair frames a face unadorned by makeup despite the lines etched by the years. There is a candor and straightforwardness in her expression and her eyes are alert and observant behind the large lenses of her glasses. She negotiated the steep staircases of her triplex with ease and, later, when we walked a few long blocks to an electronics store where I bought a fresh tape for my cassette recorder, she easily outpaced me.

On our return, she asked me whether I'd care for a cup of exceptionally good coffee and, when I said I would, she led me to a small shop next door to the entrance to her building where some of the best coffee in the city is brewed. We both ordered cappuccino but, when I offered payment to the young woman who had served us, she refused, explaining that, because of a special relationship with Anni, the coffee was on the house. Anni later told me that prior to its being a coffee shop, the premises had been a psychoanalytic bookstore that eventually went out of business.

After coffee, we repaired to Anni's dining area, where her housekeeper had set a simple but elegant lunch of chilled soup, salad, and vegetable dumplings. As we ate, I asked Anni to elaborate on some of the things she'd begun to tell me about herself during our walk.

Born in Vienna, Anni came to the United States in 1939 at the age of 20. She came alone, by boat, through the Panama Canal and then north to Los Angeles, where a cousin lived who had agreed to sponsor her. The cousin was married to Ernst Toch, a well-known classical and film music composer. Her stay in this household was abruptly curtailed when her cousin realized that her husband was paying rather too much attention to their attractive young guest. As a result, she took a number of au pair jobs while exploring ways of furthering her education. She lost the last of these when the pregnant mother for whom she worked refused conventional prenatal care because she was a Christian Scientist, and consequently lost her baby.

Anni's next job was to assist a physically disabled psychoanalyst, Christine Olden, a match that would have a profound impact on her future. Her work with Olden included editing the papers she submitted for publication, Anni having a gift for good, clear writing. While doing this, she attended UCLA, studied music, and played the piano with sufficient talent and skill to contemplate a career as a musician.

One of her instructors at UCLA was Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Despite his stature, he taught beginning music courses and, as Anni recalls, was dismayed at the musical ignorance of his students when they were unable to answer the most rudimentary questions he put to them. An interesting sidebar to her experiences with talented musicians on both coasts is that many were interested in the theories of Wilhelm Reich and some even partook of Reichian therapy. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in music, she taught music to children and devised a method of teaching rhythm through body movement. She also wrote and published a book, together with a fellow teacher, instructing children to play the recorder. This book remains in print today. The reason for writing the book was that the existing books were too complicated for young children. The book illustrates an important aspect of Anni's character, the inclination to answer an un met need by designing a solution. This creative impulse was always a source of excitement for her. Much later in her life it found expression in her desire  to work with very disturbed children who required constant intervention to help them navigate the world.

Around this time, she met and became acquainted with such analytic luminaries as Edith Jacobson and Annie Reich, colleagues of Christine Olden. It was exciting for her to engage with these women, so different from the women she had known in Vienna, who were more firmly entrenched in the bourgeois world. Of special interest in this context is that Olden had been a student ("candidate" in today's nomenclature) in the group of analysts headed by Otto Fenichel in Prague between 1935 and 1938. It should be recalled that Fenichel was among the two or three leading psychoanalysts, along with Wilhelm Reich and Ernst Simmel, holding a Marxist perspective. Fenichel was also the author of an underground newsletter titled Rundbriefe that was circulated among like-minded left leaning colleagues for a period of nearly twelve years. Parenthetically, Fenichel was also instrumental in helping Anni's (future) husband, who was not an analyst, to emigrate to the United States. Another student member of the Prague group, Elizabeth Gero, later became a colleague of Anni's at the New York Freudian Society.

In due course, Anni met the man she was eventually to marry, a fellow refugee, but from Poland, who had traveled from Europe to California by a different route than Anni, on the trans-Siberian railroad and then by boat to California. They lived together for a time and then decided to move to New York because Anni's husband- to-be had many connections there to people who had also emigrated for political reasons, having been a part of the left wing movement in Europe. In New York they were married and, over the next few years, had two sons who are now grown, with children of their own. As these children grew up, Anni became free to pursue her career interests.

Eventually Anni developed a deeper interest in psychoanalysis and wanted to have a career in that field, rather than continue to teach music. At an opportune moment Anni met an old friend, who had just come back from London where she had studied with Anna Freud, and she told Anni she'd been offered a job working with a rather famous psychoanalyst named Margaret Mahler who was initiating a project to study autistic and normal children and their parents. She added, however, that she would refuse the job because she'd learned that Dr. Mahler was a difficult person. Anni asked her friend whether she'd mind if she were to apply. Her friend readily agreed and Anni phoned Mahler to arrange to be interviewed.

Mahler accepted Anni very early in the interview on the strength of her intelligence and enthusiasm but also because she'd had the advantage of a personal analysis. Anni added, with amusement, that she formed an instant and reciprocated fondness for Mahler's dog, and that this, as much as anything else, influenced Mahler's decision to hire her. The interview took place at Mahler's spacious apartment on Central Park West, but the research was conducted at the Masters Children's Center on Horatio Street in Greenwich Village.

Anni explained that Mahler had an interest in the early development of the mother-baby relationship and also in autistic children, where the relationship to the mother breaks down because of the immense challenge that autism presents. Autistic children make mothers feel unloved and helpless. Mahler understood this catastrophic situation and felt that the children could only be helped if some kind of relationship could be established. Mothers of autistic children have to face constant rejection and feel unrewarded when their love is not reciprocated by their children. Therefore, Mahler developed a tripartite treatment design, in which the therapist provided attention to both mother and child and tried to forge a relationship between them.

Anni considers herself fortunate to have worked on both of Mahler's projects: the work on separation-individuation that entailed observation of the early years of a child's life with the mother, and the project that dealt with childhood autism and psychosis, where a relationship had to be created in order for further growth and development to become possible. Mahler gave Anni freedom to organize the observational studies of normal development in accordance with her own predilections. There were two units on separate floors of the building, one for the autistic children and the other for the normal children. The two populations were never put together.

The observational study of the separation-individuation process took place in a large playground like setting, in which mothers took care of their babies and toddlers in the presence of participant observers who were free to interact with both mothers and children. These observations were frequently discussed in staff and research meetings and were used to create the theory of separation-individuation.

Anni emphasized that both studies were essential building stones of her developing career as a psychoanalyst of children and adults.

It was with considerable pride and personal satisfaction that Anni described her successful treatment of the severely autistic daughter of a major artist and his wife. In addition to seeing the child for two-hour sessions four times a week, Anni also saw the mother regularly for supportive therapeutic sessions, which resulted in her becoming less tense and rigid and better able to interact with her unusually difficult child. Seeing both mother and child in joint treatment sessions was part of the treatment design originally formulated by Mahler and Manuel Furer.

The treatment sessions took place in a brownstone. Because the child was exceedingly active and could not accept confinement to one place, she would race through the building, up and down staircases, and through the rooms at the various levels. Anni described her as a wild child, but quickly appended her conviction that her actions always had meaning and that she always interpreted the girl's behavior in the context of their relationship as well as the child's relationship with her parents. On one occasion, the treatment was interrupted when the child was sent to a summer camp because the mother needed a rest. This absence corresponded to the period of Anni's vacation. When therapy was resumed after the separation, the little girl had lost all of the language that she had so painstakingly acquired over months of work with Anni. She was once again mute and unrelated. When she and Anni played in the sandbox, and she buried a doll in the sand, Anni interpreted the child's acutely painful reaction to the separation with patience and persistence until she began to talk again. She told the child that she felt as though she'd never see her or her parents again and so it seemed as though she were being buried.

Anni repeatedly made the point that autistic children need to be understood, not managed, and that their seemingly incomprehensible behavior must be translated into words: "They can't tell you with words, so you have to interpret their actions."

In addition, she conceived the idea of having the child accompanied by a therapeutic companion who could help the child negotiate the places and situations she wished to explore. For example, the child conveyed that she wanted to ring the doorbells of all the apartments of the building where she lived. The parents at first objected to this as inappropriate, but Anni explained that it was a gesture in the direction of socialization for the child because she wanted to connect with her neighbors: it was an expression of her curiosity about other people. With the parents' reluctant agreement, the companion escorted the little girl through the building and explained to each tenant, in turn, that this was in the nature of a neighborly visit. Another example involved the wish of a different autistic child to take items down from the shelves of a supermarket. Again, there were objections and embarrassment from parents, but Anni spoke to the supermarket manager, who was surprisingly cooperative, especially when the therapeutic companion agreed to reshelve all of the items. This, too, Anni saw as an attempt to reach out to some aspect of external reality. The behavior conveyed multiple meanings centered on the processes of destroying and recreating order.

Anni asserted that it is important to realize that autistic children are not bizarre, that they want the same things everyone wants, but that due to their inability to express their wishes in a normal way, their intentions require a special kind of interpretation before they can be made intelligible. Referring again to the artist's child, she said she did not recall what her first words were but that they were not Mommy, Daddy, or any equivalent.

She also recalled that, when the child began to speak, she informed Mahler, who was, at first, reluctant to believe that this had really happened, but later bore witness to the accuracy of Anni's observation. One of the beliefs about autistic children that Anni pointedly challenged was that they are unable to form object relationships. To refute this, she described how, on one occasion, when she had failed to live up to the child's legitimate expectation to see her at a specific time, the child phoned to ask what had happened. The entire treatment of this child and her family was based on the assumption that in spite of all the disturbance the child deeply cared about her parents and suffered as any child would when her parents ignored her.

Owing to the success of the treatment, the girl was eventually able to go to college. There, she met an Indonesian man whom she married. They moved to Indonesia and had two children. The relationship did not work out and eventually she returned to New York with her teenage son and daughter. Her children adjusted well to the change and are now both successful in activities that draw upon their artistic talents.

Before we parted that afternoon, Anni said that her principal virtue in working with autistic children, indeed with all people, was patience, which she defined as the ability to wait for the time when the patient can make use of the analytic process.

On July 25, I met with Anni again at her home. She told me she'd reviewed the notes I'd sent her of the second meeting and had a few corrections. We didn't get to them, however.

Anni was very excited about a consultation she'd conducted a few days before, with three generations of a family, a child accompanied by her mother and grandmother. The ostensible purpose of the consultation was to determine whether the child was autistic. It was Anni's guess, after this first contact, that she was not, but that the mother was depressed, and that her depression was associated with having been preempted by her own mother as the child's primary caretaker. During the interview, the child came to life in response to Anni's attentions to her. Although separate from our central focus, Anni's description of this very recent clinical experience gave me a sense of the enthusiasm and excitement that she brings to her work, as well as the acuteness of her observations and her keen sensitivity to emotional nuances.

Returning to her account of her own life, I asked what her parents were doing when she embarked for the United States in 1939. She replied that, by that time, both of her parents had died, her mother when she was 10 and her father when she was 17. She recalled that when she left on a trip to London, her father had given her a cigarette, a symbol of her attainment of adulthood. Unfortunately, that was the last time she would see him alive.

She had an older brother who had emigrated to London and established a business there. After the death of her father, she could have moved to London but chose, instead, to go to Los Angeles. This decision was motivated by a wish to join a boyfriend whom she believed would be going there, himself, to study music with Arnold Schoenberg who, as mentioned earlier, was on the faculty of UCLA. Ironically, the boyfriend never made it to the City of Angels, but Anni did and, eventually, it was she who studied with Schoenberg.

After coming to New York, marrying, and having a baby, Anni decided to begin a personal analysis because she wanted to avoid communicating her anxiety to the child; she'd noticed that a friend's baby, born around the same time, was much affected by its mother's anxiety.

Anni was on the CUNY Clinical Psychology faculty on the strength of her work with Mahler and her contributions to the literature, but she had not taken a PhD. Urged to do so by Larry Gould, the department chair, she was mentored by Steve Ellman in writing her dissertation, and earned the degree in 1983. She taught there, at the New York Freudian Society and at IPTAR, where she is still the director of the Anni Bergman Parent-Infant Program. Anni continues to take courses and attend conferences. She is a good friend of Beatrice Beebe's, whose work she admires.

She observed that Mahler would have liked to have had at her disposal some of the tools that Beebe is able to bring to her research, for example, the sorts of microanalyses she applies to infant and child behavior. She mentioned that Mahler had considerable admiration for the work of Daniel Stern for the same reason.

Anni indicated that Mahler tended to idealize certain people but, after getting to know them, was frequently disillusioned and terminated her relationships with them. To illustrate, Anni described how, captivated by the demeanor of a psychologist she'd just met, Mahler hired her and admonished Anni to make a special effort to get along with her. Before long, Anni discovered that this would not be possible for her, and tendered her resignation. A couple of weeks later, she received an urgent call from Mahler requesting that she take her job back: the "wonderful" new psychologist had been hastily fired. Anni then resumed her work at the Masters Children's Center.

"She had a Hungarian temper," said Anni, but she was also insecure about her acceptance by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and especially by Anna Freud. Furthermore, she felt that was identified with the Hungarian analysts, such as Ferenczi, Balint, and Rado, whose reputations were not as impeccable as the Brahmins of the New York Institute might wish. Nevertheless, Mahler pursued her research in an intuitive and spontaneous but disciplined way; it was naturalistic and conducted with sufficient freedom to exploit her own and her collaborators' creativity. Furthermore, she was not doctrinaire and was receptive to many points of view, including those of Melanie Klein and attachment theory. An illustration of this flexibility was her retraction of the notion that there is a normative autistic developmental stage in early infancy.

The research project that Mahler conceived on autism had its origin when she and Emmanuel Furer worked together as consultants to a school where they noted that certain kids exhibited deviant behavior, and they began to study them. Their assumption was that something had gone awry in the process of attachment, that the children's autistic behavior was a defense against this disconnection, and that the therapeutic goal was to repair the broken bond between mother and child. Mahler posited a distinction between primary and secondary autism, the latter being a regression.

Anni liked her principal coworkers, Furer and Pine. She recalled that Fred Pine would join the group once a week as a kind of research consultant. Though he was a well-known clinician, he never worked as one in the Masters project. She asserted that she contributed to the conceptualization of separation-individuation theory, working closely with Mahler. Anni also emphasized that Mahler always gave credit to her collaborators for their original work.

The Masters project was separate from the one begun earlier by Mahler and Furer, as it focused on normal mother-baby dyads who came from the local community. The first of these dyads consisted of a woman and her baby who were recruited in a park near the center. She helped spread the word to other mothers who were pleased to bring their infants to the large, well appointed, and well-equipped space where the observations took place. The children varied in age from neonates to toddlers.

When I again visited Anni on October 30, 2011, she had just returned from a conference on autism in London, where she had been given the opportunity to show a film on the separation and individuation process and her own work with autistic children, which differs in some respects from the work done by the British School. Even though there has been a rapprochement between Kleinian and non-Kleinian analysts, Anni feels it important to recognize and respect significant differences between Klein and Mahler. In Kleinian analysis with autistic children, the mother is not included; the inclusion of the mother in the treatment, which was named the tripartite design, was important to Mahler, has remained important to Anni, and is taught in the parent-infant program that she created with her colleague Rita Reiswig and developed further with the collaboration of Sally Moskowitz.

At our last meeting, we'd begun to watch the films illustrating the work of the Masters Children's Center and the book titled The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, authored by Mahler, Pine, and Anni herself. As we sat together, Anni would offer comments about the visual material. When she did this, I paused the DVD player so that we could discuss the ideas she was sharing in a leisurely, open-ended way. The next time we met, we continued with further work in understanding separation in dividuation theory.

Among the many salient thoughts Anni expressed was the observation that contemporary developmental research tends to focus on face-to-face interactions between mother and child, ignoring the child's activity away from the mother, as well as the nonfacial physical aspects of the child's behavior. She also pointed out that some current researchers begin to observe mother-child engagement when the child is 4 months old rather than from birth, her point being that a great many crucial behavioral events begin in the earliest days of the baby's life. She also pointed out that, in contrast to today's highly organized structures for observing mother-baby interactions, such as the "strange situation" in attachment theory, Mahler and her team preferred a minimally structured, free-flowing approach that could take advantage of spontaneous and unforeseen events that might become the basis for fresh conceptualization. In this connection, she wished someone interested in infant studies might review the films we were watching systematically, without listening to Mahler's voice-over, to mine them for nuggets of data that have not been previously used or considered.

That Anni retains a vital and active interest in the field is attested by the excitement and enthusiasm that she brought to the relatively long and concentrated hours of our work together. Our roles as interviewer and interviewee were often reversed when she would express a warm interest in my professional and personal experiences and in my opinions of the matters that were central to our discussions. I came away from the project feeling that I'd participated in something inestimably valuable.