Finding God in Details & Defense Mechanisms
By Robert Coles
Review Author: Patricia Wesley
For many years Robert Coles has been talking with young people, and we have been listening in on those conversations to our benefit and delight. We have heard from Ruby, the little black girl attending a newly desegregated school in the South. Though repeatedly taunted and threatened by a mob, she could still say, “Please, God, try to forgive these folks — because they don’t know what they’re doing.” We have also heard from Tommy, the nine-year-old from Boston, who draws a picture of the Trinity, consisting of two faces and a rainbow. He describes his representational dilemmas to Coles: “The rainbow is the Holy Ghost, maybe!… God has a face, and so did Jesus…. Then there’s the Holy Ghost, and I never figured it had a face. Maybe a ghost does, like in [television] programs, or movies — ghosts run around and have faces and they talk, but I don’t think the Holy Ghost is that kind of ghost! No, sir! I’m sure the Holy Ghost must look different, but I don’t know how different — what it would be like to see the Holy Ghost. It’s only when we go to meet the Lord, then we’ll see the Holy Ghost, too, I think.”
By sharing such moments with children from many different classes, cultures, and situations, Coles lets us know his subjects — he would probably object to that term — in a way few other writers do, or even think it worthwhile to do. The result is a unique kind of biography, in which life stories are not so much written as spoken, first with Coles, and then to us.
A recent example of this Colesian genre is Anna Freud. It is part of the Radcliffe Biography Series, a collection of books about the lives of women, some well known to the general public, some less so. Coles’s biographies of Simone Weil and Dorothy Day are part of this series.
Coles’s first contact with Anna Freud came when he was a pre-med undergraduate at Harvard and attended one of her public lectures. His first article about her, “The Achievement of Anna Freud,” appeared in 1966 in The Massachusetts Review. It brought a gracious if slightly ironic and gently deflating response from Miss Freud, thus initiating a collegial relationship that stretched over the next decade and a half, sustained by correspondence and personal discussions during Anna Freud’s regular visits to Yale’s Child Study Center and other meccas of American psychoanalysis. Coles’s biography is rooted in the many hours these two friends of young people spent in conversation about young people, and about psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
Coles, who was trained in pediatrics and child psychiatry, fields upon which Anna Freud has had tremendous influence, structures his recollections of Freud around her various roles: teacher, theorist, healer, leader, idealist, and writer. This is a particularly apt framework from which to view her accomplishments. She never underestimated the power of the instinctual drives, those imperious tugs of desire and aggression with which we all struggle, in one form or another, all lives, but she never forgot that human beings can find more meaningful gratification within a social reality that has rules, imposes limits, teaches skills, and requires active and responsible participation in the world’s work. The final defense against those tugs, which Anna Freud described in her still seminal 1936 book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, is sublimation, “by which the ego…[diverts] instinctual impulses…to aims which society holds to be higher.” It is therefore altogether fitting that Coles focuses his recollections of Freud around her “sublimations,” those clinical and intellectual interests she pursued so ably all her life.
When asked in the early 1970s, a decade before her death, what she planned to do with the rest of her life, she remarked, “I don’t know anything else to do, but to be with children — and with those [adults] who also choose to be with children.” Of course, Freud did much in addition to “being with children,” although that was certainly the core of her life, dating from her early 20s, when she worked briefly as an elementary school teacher. Never university educated, her entry into the world of psychoanalysis was like entering into a family business, with all the unique psychological complexities such apprenticeships provide. That complexity was no doubt considerably exacerbated by the fact that her father was her “psychoanalyst,” an arrangement that, as Coles correctly notes, would be “unthinkable” today, precisely because of what Anna Freud and later analysts have taught about transference and counter-transference.
As her father’s secretary, representative, and confidante, Anna Freud became a powerful player on the Vienna psychoanalytic scene by her late 20s. Soon, however, her work with children in nurseries and schools, her development of child psychoanalysis, and her leadership in the growing international psychoanalytic movement gained her respect in her own right, however ambiguous it may have been rendered at times by her connection with her overly idealized father.
The Freud family escaped Austria in 1938, and settled in their London home, where Anna Freud was to live for the remainder of her long life, but where her father died during the opening weeks of World War II. With characteristic resiliency, Anna Freud turned that painful upheaval and loss, and later the severe trauma of the Nazi bombing, into an opportunity for helping children and learning from them. She was instrumental in setting up nurseries and clinics to care for the children of the blitz and the Holocaust, and founded and directed the renowned Hampstead Child-Therapy Course and Clinic in London.
In the later decades of her life, Anna Freud herself became a much-idealized leader in psychoanalysis, serving on prestigious editorial boards, filling important offices in analytic organizations, and traveling widely to present papers, receive honorary degrees and awards, and give talks to psychoanalytic candidates and graduates. Coles notes that she was very likely to shake up the troops on those visits, by pointing out that psychoanalysis, especially in its American incarnation, had become overly institutionalized and rather stuffy. These were uncomfortable messages for a profession that had become very comfortable and self-confident, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it was one of the dominant voices in the culture, and certainly the dominant voice in American psychiatry. The lay of the land is very different today. In many psychiatry residency programs, a psychodynamically informed understanding of human beings is seen as an amusing anachronism. This is partly attributable to the analytic profession’s tendency to regard its assumptions as received wisdom, rather than hypotheses in need of further inquiry. In this partly deserved fall from official academic grace, Anna Freud might very well detect new opportunities for a revitalization of the “impossible profession.”
Psychoanalysis has been recast many times since 1936, sometimes in valuable ways, sometimes not. Still, the balanced and dynamic view of psychic structure and function that Anna Freud and others developed, building on her father’s ideas, remains the bedrock of mainstream psychoanalytic practice today.
Anna Freud noted in The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense that psychoanalysis was initially a study of unconscious sexual and aggressive wishes. It was a more purely “depth” psychology. As analysts quickly learned, however, patients “resisted” the uncovering of instinctual wishes. We human beings are not, apparently, just “seething cauldrons” waiting to happily boil over. Rather, we all develop mental maneuvers to control, redirect, reshape, and disavow our wishes, and in some cases, totally erase them from consciousness. These mental maneuvers are the defenses Anna Freud described so lucidly.
Above all, Anna Freud taught that the psychological defenses we all employ are to be respected as well as understood as fully as possible in all their aspects: the adaptive benefits they bring to the individual and society, the psychic security they provide, and the price we can sometimes pay for that security.
This aspect of her work is captured in an exchange between her and Coles about Ruby, the child who coped with her fear and, presumably, her rage by asking God to forgive her tormentors. Anna Freud comments: “When the little girl tells you she feels sorry for the people in the mob…I’m sure she does. When she prays to God that He should forgive those people, I’m sure she means it…. Why can’t we [also] understand the defensive maneuvers of these children as a tribute to them — evidence of their capacity to survive? This child’s prayers are not tarnished or spoiled if you and I take note of their usefulness to her — apart from their moral and spiritual content.” When Coles protests that, given her strict Christian upbringing, Ruby might not readily take to such a view, Freud answers: “Well, all right, perhaps I don’t understand the religious life of Ruby’s family! But I have heard many Christians marvel at ‘the mysterious ways of God,’ and perhaps they — some of them — would find our defense mechanisms to be part of his ‘mysterious ways.’ No matter what happens, if you are a believer, God figures in it.”
Both Anna Freud and Coles have paid great attention to the details of children’s lives and behavior. For example, in the various nurseries and clinics she ran, Freud concerned herself with the food her charges ate, the toys they played with, and the cribs they slept in. The mundane was never beneath her notice. When Coles describes Tommy drawing his picture of the Trinity, he notes meticulously how Tommy takes the crayons out of the box, how he puts them back in the box, which crayons are used, in what order, with what aesthetic purpose in mind. This attention to the concrete mirrors the attachment children have to the objects in their environment, animate and inanimate alike, and captures something of the physicality of children’s lives. When it comes to understanding children, it helps to know that if God is in the defenses, as Anna Freud speculated, He is also most certainly in the details.
In his approach to Anna Freud, Coles also exemplifies the lessons she taught about what we can and can’t know about other human beings. Wisely, he attempts no deep psychological portrait of Freud, although he does not forego a few cautious speculations about how her deep attachment to her father may have affected her life’s trajectory. This tension echoes in an exchange between Coles and Grete Bibring, a member of the early Freud circle, who reminds him that it is not really crucial to know the details of Anna Freud’s personal life; rather, what is important is what she has done with her life. Coles agrees, but also points to the temptation faced by any psychodynamically informed biographer: “I also noted the irony: the essence of psychoanalysis is its interest in the exploration of motives, and so such an interest with respect to anyone, be it Anna Freud or the next patient that Dr. Bibring or I planned to see, would not seem to be merely indulgent or an exercise in sensationalism or prurience.” Coles and Bibring finally agree that since Anna Freud was never a patient of theirs, there is no way to know a lot about her deeper motivations, and that even after years of working with patients “who try to tell everything…there is plenty we don’t understand about them.”
Like the poets they both admire, Coles and Freud knew that the manifest and the mysterious, the surface and the depth, require each other for their very identity. This duality of human mental life always exists in a state of tension; it can never be fully resolved, and certainly never eliminated. Mindful of this truth, Coles has given us a deeply appreciative biography of a particular psychoanalyst and her ideas, as they were, shared with him in conversations over many years. In his own work with children, and especially in this biography, Coles brings these ideas into vivid realization. Anna Freud lives in these pages, just as she lived in Coles’s imagination after he first heard her lecture. From a student who became a colleague, no teacher could ask for a finer tribute.
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