Melanie Klein Biography

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein was an Austrian-British psychoanalyst, and best known for her work in child analysis and the development of the theory of object relations. 

Klein was born in Vienna in 1882 as Melanie Reizes, planned to study medicine, but the university degree dream never came through. In 1926, she moved to London, where she died in 1960.

Personal life

Melanie Klein had a difficult personal life, marked by loss, conflict and unhappiness. She lost her sister, father and brother when she was young. 

At the age of 21, the Austrian-British psychoanalyst married a chemical engineer – Arthur Klein – but was not happily married. She had three children – Melitta Schmideberg Klein, Hans Klein, and Eric Klein. 

Melanie Klein became interested in Freud’s psychoanalysis and undertook analysis with Sándor Ferenczi.

She became one of the greatest psychoanalysts in history, especially in the field of child psychoanalysis.

Relationship with her daughter

The relationship between Melanie Klein and her daughter, Melitta Schmideberg Klein, was adverse and unfriendly. Melitta was Klein’s first child, born in 1904, when Melanie was just 22 years old.

Melitta Schmideberg Klein graduated in medicine and became a psychoanalyst following in her mother’s footsteps.  

Her daughter also joined the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1932 and collaborated with her mother on some of her work. 

However, Melitta started disagreeing theoretically and personally with her mother, especially over Melanie’s ideas about the theory of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, claiming that they were based on fantasies rather than clinical observations. 

Both mother and daughter never reconciled and maintained the animosity until Melanie’s death in 1960.

Writings of Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein wrote several books on psychoanalysis, especially on child development, the depressive position, envy and gratitude. Some of her best-known books are: 

  • The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), in which she presents her technique for analysing children and her findings on the Oedipus complex, anxiety and defences.

  •  Envy and Gratitude and Other Works (1946-1963) (1975), where she develops her theory on envy, the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

  • Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works (1921-1945), which presents her studies on the emotional development of the child, object relations, defence mechanisms and repression.

Melanie Klein and Anna Freud

The relationship between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud was tense and conflictive with disagreements in theoretical and clinical viewpoint. 

Anna Freud was Sigmund Freud’s daughter and advocated a more pedagogical and educational approach to child psychoanalysis. 

Melanie Klein, on the other hand, proposed a more direct and in-depth technique, based on the interpretation of symbols and children’s unconscious fantasies. 

They clashed over issues such as the Oedipus complex, anxiety, defences, envy and the depressive position. 

They also led rival groups within the British Psychoanalytical Society, which was divided between the Kleinians and the Freudians. 

Despite their differences, both contributed greatly to the development of child psychoanalysis and recognised the value of each other’s work. 

Melanie Klein considered herself a faithful Freudian, but regretted Freud’s indifference to her work.

Winnicott and Klein

Donald Winnicott was an English psychoanalyst who became interested in Melanie Klein’s ideas and was even her patient for a few years. 

He acknowledged Klein’s influence on his work, especially on early emotional development, anxiety and defences. 

However, he also distanced himself from some aspects of Kleinian theory, such as the emphasis on unconscious fantasy, the importance of the Oedipus complex and the aggressive nature of infantile impulses. 

Winnicott proposed original concepts such as the facilitating environment, the transitional object, the false self and potential space. 

Donald Winnicott became one of the main representatives of the so-called independent school of British psychoanalysis, which sought to integrate the contributions of Freud and Klein with other perspectives.

Melanie Klein envy

Klein was a psychoanalyst who gave great importance to the concept of envy in her theory. 

She understood envy as a destructive feeling that arises from birth and aims to attack the good object, which is the mother’s breast. 

Klein related envy to voracity, which is the desire to devour and empty the good object. 

She also considered that envy interferes with the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, hindering emotional development and the capacity for gratitude. 

Melanie stated that envy is one of the most important factors in the formation of character and in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. 

Melanie Klein proposed ways of dealing with envy in the psychoanalytic clinic, emphasising the need to recognise and elaborate on this feeling.

Melanie Klein splitting

Melanie Klein’s theory of splitting is a defence mechanism that consists of dividing objects into good and bad, according to the baby’s experiences. 

This splitting occurs in the so-called paranoid-schizoid position, which is the first phase of infant emotional development. 

In this position, the baby projects their aggressive impulses onto the bad object and seeks to identify with the good object, which is the mother’s breast. 

This split aims to protect the good object from destruction and avoid the anguish of annihilation. 

The split is overcome in the depressive position, which is the second phase of infant emotional development, when the baby recognises the totality and complexity of objects and seeks to repair the damage caused by their aggression.

Melanie Klein critique

Melanie Klein was a psychoanalyst who received a lot of criticism for her innovative and controversial ideas. Some of the main criticisms were: 

  • Melanie Klein was accused of deviating from classical Freudian theory and of introducing concepts that were not based on clinical observation, but on her own fantasies.

  •  She clashed with Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, over the technique and theory of child psychoanalysis. The two led rival groups that intensely debated their differences in meetings called “controversial discussions”.

  • Melanie was criticised for overestimating the unconscious fantasies of babies and for neglecting the influences of the environment and real relationships on personality formation.

  • Klein was questioned for her clinical technique, which consisted of analysing children’s toys and drawings as if they were dreams or free associations. She also used deep and frequent interpretations, which could be disturbing or confusing for patients.

  • She was considered pessimistic and gloomy for emphasising the destructive and aggressive aspects of the human mind, such as envy, hatred, guilt and fear of death.

Who were the main critics of Melanie Klein?

Melanie Klein’s main critics were:

  1. Anna Freud disagreed with the way Klein analysed children and her conceptions of child psychic development.

  2. The psychoanalysts of the ego-psychological school, who advocated greater attention to the role of the ego, the environment and adaptation to reality, in contrast to Klein’s emphasis on instinctual drives and unconscious fantasies.

  3. The psychoanalysts of the relational school, who criticised Klein’s view of the mother-baby relationship as being based on projections and introjections, rather than on real, affective interactions.

  4. The psychoanalysts of the Lacanian school, who questioned the validity of Klein’s concepts of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and proposed a different reading of the mirror stage and the paternal function.

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