Attachment, Play and Authenticity: A Winnicott Primer (Book Review)

Author:  Tuber, Steven 
Publisher:  Jason Aronson 
Reviewed By:  Benjamin H. Harris, XXIX, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 43-45

Playing with Winnicott

While in graduate school, I was blessed to have exceptional supervision. Invariably, with each difficult clinical case I encountered, I was instructed to read “Hate in the Countertransference,” the classic paper by Donald W. Winnicott (1947). It was as if this simple, yet evocative and powerful paper was some sort of universal backup system for any good supervision. To be sure, the paper—my copy of which is now underlined, creased, and threadbare, helped each case that called for its use, and each in its own way. Each time I returned to it, I gleaned something new as my understanding evolved and deepened. Even still, Winnicott’s thinking can be as ineffable as his writing is elegant. As much as the truth and beauty of his papers have helped me to see the trees as well as the forest, there has remained a vague sense that his whole meaning is always just out of sight.

Steven Tuber’s beautifully written Attachment, Play and Authenticity is a tight, smart, and inherently readable volume that serves as a user-friendly guide to the master theoretician and clinician. The CUNY professor addresses his reader in a way that is commensurate to the topic at hand, with humanity true to the spirit of Winnicott. Tuber prefaces the book by alerting the reader that he is, in true Winnicottian fashion, going to “play with Winnicott.” And play he does.

“In attempting to ‘play with’ Winnicott’” writes Tuber, “I chose a particular heuristic.” His method is to foreground the notion of a dyad in all its complexity. The mother and the baby, both as individuals and as a whole, move together through the book. Indeed, this metaphor can be stretched to encompass the attitude of the book, as the papers exist within the context of the theory and the book exists almost in a potential space between them.

Tuber’s writing matches the spirit of Winnicott. He plots out the development of Winnicott’s theory in a manner that allows for it to unfold in the best sense of the word. His tracking of Winnicott’s thinking proceeds without hurry; there is ample time for the book to develop at its own pace, and ample time for the reader to double back and revisit the works. Reminiscent of one of Winnicott’s case consultations, Tuber’s prose and pacing mirror an attitude of patience and faith; doors will open, answers will arrive, and development will proceed in “bits and pieces.” Furthermore, his placement of the papers in context maps neatly onto the concept of the dyad. The chapters themselves are sequenced in a way that build upon each other to both round out and deepen the presentation of the voluminous work of Winnicott.

Tuber uses a clever and, aptly enough, holding way of organizing the book. He begins each chapter with a stated dilemma or paradox, and then wraps each of these in a paper or two of Winnicott’s. In each chapter, Tuber discusses the specific issue at hand, situating his discussion of these specific issues within the context of the whole of the theory of Winnicott. One example is the chapter on what Tuber identifies as the most significant contribution of Winnicott: the meaning and power of play. Tuber states the dilemma of this chapter as: “How does learning to play enable life to proceed?” This is a manageable enough question, indeed one that can likely be addressed by a careful reading and rereading of the paper at hand. Tuber takes it a step further; his discussion of the paper and the dilemma stated within has been carefully and deliberately set up by the previous seven chapters. Consider for a moment the six paradoxes Tuber has raised and played with in the previous chapters:

  1. A baby has instinctual urges and predatory ideas—how are both possible and where does it leave the mother? (p.17)

  2. A good object is no good to the infant unless created by the infant…yet the object must be found in order to be created. (p.31)

  3. Precocious compliance leads to a False Self, yet the baby’s utter dependence promotes compliance. (p.49)

  4. If we are essentially isolates, how do we develop the capacity to be alone? (p. 67).

  5. A mother only becomes real to her baby by being hated, thus the world only feels substantial if the baby’s attempts to destroy mother are survived, so how does she do it? (p.85)

  6. How can Winnicott’s theorizing be understood in the context of clinical work? (p. 101)

Tuber spends nearly half the book (and nine seminal papers) carefully and patiently playing with these dilemmas and paradoxes before fully getting to the meaning of play. I leave the reading and synthesis of these papers as well as the playing with the dilemmas and the paradoxes within to both the reader and to Tuber. In order to get to the importance—indeed the singular hallmark of health—of play, Tuber reminds us that Winnicott’s complex theory of child development is based upon the idea that when child development goes according to plan, the capacity to play comes with it. Thus the first half of the book is spent laying the foundation for the development that is necessary for this benchmark.

After celebrating the development of the capacity to play, Tuber builds further, expanding upon the idea of play to develop the concepts of transitional space and transitional phenomena. With the ideas of play and transitional phenomena laid out, he tackles Winnicott’s use of aggression, hate and the antisocial tendency. Because they come towards the end of the book, the reader, now freshly steeped in Tuber’s take on Winnicott’s theory, is primed to incorporate them in the context of the mother-baby dyad. Ideal playing takes place in the space within an ideally good enough holding environment. This heuristic is at play in each chapter.

For instance, Tuber shows that the significance of “Hate in the Countertransference” is best understood by first laying the groundwork of several other important aspects of the theory. All of us can likely hearken back to the first reading of this seminal work in which Winnicott essentially argues that as clinicians we are free—if not urged—to experience not just negative feelings but hatred towards our patients as Winnicott does in a chillingly evocative1 vignette about a disruptive nine year-old boy. Winnicott permits the therapist this necessity by couching it in the mother/baby dyad. Central to this is a point that Tuber has been explicitly and implicitly making throughout the whole of the book. Winnicott posits a faith in the baby’s capacity to tolerate the mother’s hatred as well as faith in the mother’s capacity to find ample room to love and mother this baby, not only despite the hatred, but because of the freedom it affords her to love and mother. This in turn provides the baby the freedom to realize his true self.

As per usual, this formulation is a simple, yet dazzlingly complex paradox put forth by Winnicott. Where Tuber stretches this beyond the four walls of the paper is to put the mother’s hatred, the baby’s hatefulness, and the interaction between the two in the context of other parts of Winnicott’s theory that are not explicated in the paper itself, but in other papers and thus within the potential space between papers and the theory. Notions of true and false self are essential to a fuller understanding of this idea, as are the ideas of good enough mothering, the use of an object and the crucial developmental significance of impingements on the holding environment.

In this way Tuber positions the dyad of the theory and the individual papers in much the same way he positions the dyad of the mother and the baby. The baby has to find the mother in order to develop in a true fashion, the papers have to find the theory in order to live in their truest fashion; and the playing and interaction with both theory and individual papers can take place in the space between the two. Once they have found each other, both the individual papers as well as the comprehensive treatment of the theory can fully breathe, come alive, and ultimately do the work, both in the mind of the reader, as well as in the consulting room.

In many ways, this book serves as a transitional object itself for clinicians, and not only beginning ones. The seasoned clinician is not immune to the need for a dose of Winnicottisms, no matter how long he has been practicing. Whenever I was directed to one of Winnicott’s papers by a supervisor, I could never escape the thought that just as I was discovering the paper for the first time, the supervisor recommending the paper was rediscovering something anew. Indeed, if one takes Tuber at his instruction and returns to the paradoxes and dilemmas throughout the book, one finds that he is continually playing with their meaning and application in new and surprising ways.

For this reason, Tuber’s use of the term “primer” in the subtitle is misapplied. Primer implies a basic reading, one that stops at summary. In fact, this book is too meaningful, too complex and too thoughtful to be a simple primer. Tuber’s elegant and evocative language sings with the spirit of Winnicott; his treatment of the work is paradoxical, in the truest Winnicottian sense of the word. Moreover, besides being the only book in the field to address the complexity of Winnicott in this manner, it is a book that is meant for all levels. Just as the baby is given room to develop in the context of good-enough mothering when he can be “gathered up,” the papers are given room to develop in the context of good-enough mothering when they are gathered up by the book. The fullness and depth of the theory allow the therapist to tolerate the paradoxes and dilemmas of a treatment; it allows the therapist to “go on being.” This is just as true for the first year graduate student as it is for the seasoned clinician.

Furthermore, this is an unusually personal and humanized work. While written primarily for the mental health professional, Tuber peppers the book with references to universal events that bear upon not only his role as a clinical psychologist, but as a teacher of graduate students and a parent of children. In this way he achieves his goal set out in the preface to approach the work dynamically. Alongside the most famous “Winnicottisms,” we are treated to Traci Chapman and Bruce Springsteen lyrics, a playful spin on Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Potter references, reflections on nearly 25 years of teaching psychodynamic clinical psychology to graduate students, and tales of his own experiences of parenting.

As such, the book has a very personal feel to it. The teachings of Winnicott ring true whether discussing clinical material, children’s literature, or popular music. Tuber manages to pull this off without diluting the power or the elegance of Winnicott’s work. Indeed the reader is invited to “play along” with Tuber as he bounces between the seemingly magical squiggle games Winnicott played with Ada (1971) and the hide and seek games Tuber played with his own infant sons. We are in turn free to imagine and to reimagine ourselves engaging in these behaviors, professionally, personally, or in the space between.

In the last paragraphs of the book, Tuber reflects upon his own treatment of the work, and his own love of Winnicott, hoping aloud that he has done him justice; indeed he has. Tuber has succeeded in making this book the very kind of object in which Winnicott would discover and rediscover delight. It is thoughtful, complex, and paradoxical; it is playful, meaningful, and authentic. True to his task, Tuber’s work sets up the conditions under which development can continue the work of unfolding, whether the reader is a beginning graduate student, a relatively new clinician, or a seasoned veteran coming back for some reminders of the singular creative elegance that is the prose of Donald Winnicott. Justice has been served, and then some.

Footnotes

1Indeed, in his discussion, Tuber mentions the nearly universally strong reactions this paper causes among his graduate students each time he teaches it.

References

Winnicott, D.W. (1947). Hate in the countertransference. In D.W. Winnicott (1965). Through pediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). The Case of Ada (1971). In D. W. Winnicott (1971). Therapeutic consultations in child psychiatry: New York: Basic Books.

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