Margaret Mahler: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst (Book Review)

Author:  Bond, Alma Halbert
Publisher: McFarland & Company, 2008
Reviewed By: Mia Biran, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 43-44

Separation Individuation Throughout Life

I was drawn to reading this book because of my long-standing fascination and appreciation of Mahler’s contributions to psychoanalysis. Studying her writings about the process of separation–individuation in the life of the toddler and the centrality of the rapprochement crisis helped me understand the dilemmas of many of my borderline and other personality-disordered patients. I perceived her as a sensitive and insightful observer of the mother–child interactions.

The book managed to mar the experience of learning about Mahler’s life and her numerous professional and personal encounters. The writer of the book worked with Dr Mahler as a participant observer trainee in her research projects at Masters Children’s Center in New York (see chapter 12: “Alma Bond, Participant Observer, 1966”). She started with great excitement and devotion and ended leaving the Center with bitterness and profound criticism of Mahler’s alleged arrogant personality and harsh treatment of most everyone around her. I cannot imagine that Alma Bond was neutral in collecting and editing pieces of information about Dr. Mahler.

Eleven of the 17 chapters of the book review different stages in Mahler’s personal and professional development in a chronological manner. From the beginning of the book we are introduced to the perception of Mahler as a girl rejected by her mother and invested in a doting father who served the needs of the child for both a mother and a father. We are told that due to her attachment to and identification with her father, Mahler pursued the then perceived “masculine” path of training as a physician with determination and persistence, in spite of many obstacles in her way. Bond describes Mahler as “stubborn” and “rough” due to lack of adequate symbiotic tie with her early mother. According to Bond Mahler exhibited the fixation Freud (1961/1923) described as a “masculinity complex.”

Britton (2003) explained that this fixation is often at the expense of the daughter’s relationship to her mother and thus, her relationship to herself as a woman. Britton perceives that the problem derives from difficulties in the infantile maternal relationship and hence the need for compensatory idealization of the relationship with the father. The above interpretations of Mahler’s personality do not take into consideration her deep interest in child psychology and child analysis, and her devoted relationships with her analytic student candidates, many of whom became prominent figures in the field of child development and child analysis. One of her star students was Selma Kramer, a prolific writer and analyst. The relationship between the two was loving and mutually supportive.

The early relationship with the mother notwithstanding, it is quite possible to understand Mahler’s “roughness” as an outcome of the many battles she had to fight throughout her career. She was a female student among male students in medical schools and residencies. Her interest in research was often blocked by other academicians. She had to immigrate to the USA and leave behind family and personal connections, never to see them again. She never lost her Hungarian accent and style, and was likely perceived as a “foreigner” by Americans surrounding her who could not understand this intense woman.

She was treated horribly by her first analyst, Helene Deutsch, who abruptly dismissed her from treatment, and by other female analyst competitors (e.g., Berta Bornstein). She was dismissed and rejected by classical analysts who saw her work as deviation from the pure “drive” approach to the mind (including Anna Freud). She married a man who proved to be a very disappointing husband and had all her life to manage her financial and practical matters by herself. And she was getting older and sickly while still working hard carrying her research, writing, and students.

While Bond makes references to all of the above, she persists throughout the book in depicting Mahler as suffering from early childhood problems and from “acquired narcissism.” The picture is balanced only by the lengthy summaries of Mahler’s theories and research findings about the stages of development of the child toward separation–individuation and psychological birth.

The next six chapters of the book are devoted to deeper and rather extensive attempts to expose Mahler’s characterological issues. Bond presents many pieces of interviews with people who knew Mahler closely or from a distance. Opinions about Mahler’s character vary, but on the whole, the picture emerges of a person caught in endless struggles depicting issues from the rapprochement crisis stage of development: wanting and needing people, and also hating people and pushing them away. Bond emphasizes Mahler’s need for “dual unity,” the need to be constantly mirrored by others regarding her value and centrality which ended up many times in lack of boundaries, and explosive rage and rudeness. As I read these chapters I felt ashamed for Mahler and resentful of the author voyeuristic approach. Biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective often deal with the personality of the hero and its early roots in childhood.

But their main source of information is the actions carried out by the person in his or her life, not what everyone said about them. Margaret Mahler’s life was extremely creative. Her professional progress proceeded without interruptions in spite of external difficulties. None of her actions or behaviors hurt the life of people around her or caused them professional troubles. We all are targets of “good” and “bad” opinions carried about us by different people. I believe the book is highly biased in concluding that the woman who wrote about separation–individuation was afflicted with unresolved separation issues.

On a more positive note, the book provides us with the fun of learning about the history of internal struggles in psychoanalytic institutes and between analysts, reflected through the comments of many famous figures in the field of psychoanalysis.

Mia Biran
Cincinnati, OH

References

Britton, R. (2003). Sex, death, and the superego: Experiences in psychoanalysis. New York: Karnac.
Freud, S. (1961). The infantile genital organization: An interpolation into the theory of sexuality. In J Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19 pp. 141-148). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published in 1923)

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