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Controversial Discussions (Anna Freud-Melanie Klein)


The title, Controversial Discussions, refers to the protracted discussions between Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, their followers and members of the indigenous group of British analysts which took place in the British Psycho-Analytical Society between 1941 and 1946.

The Discussions involved scientific, educational, and administrative problems and had the aim of deciding whether the new views concerning child development and psychoanalytic technique to treat both children and adults proposed by Klein and her followers: Susan Isaacs, Paula Heimann, Joan Riviere, and others, were compatible with the classical view of psychoanalysis as understood by Anna Freud and her Viennese and Berliner colleagues: Willie Hoffer, Kate Friedlander, Barbara Lantos, Dorothy Burlingham, and others, or whether Klein should be expelled from the psychoanalytical community. The indigenous group of British psychoanalysts, composed of Ernest Jones, Sylvia Payne, James Strachey, Ella Sharpe, Marjorie Brierley, and others, tried to mediate between the two contenders and to reach a compromise which in the end managed to hold the British Psycho-Analytical Society together and led to the formation of three groups: the so called Freudians, the so-called Kleinians and the so-called Independents.

The Controversial Discussions were at the same time the peak and the symptom of longstanding tensions and disagreements between the British way of looking at psychoanalysis, mainly but not exclusively influenced by Klein, and that represented by the Continental analysts, gathered mainly around Freud and his daughter Anna. Those disagreements had already expressed themselves in the late twenties and the late thirties.

The tensions and divergences exploded when Freud and his family had to emigrate to London as a result of the Nazi persecutions and, after Freud's death in London, Anna and many Continental analysts decided to stay in England.

One should consider the various factors which contributed to the Controversial Discussions: longstanding personal rivalries, the difficult situation of Klein, whose daughter, Melitta Schmideberg, was in analysis with Edward Glover. Schmideberg became, together with Glover, one of Klein's fiercest critics, joining the group of Anna Freud. Also significant were the "prima donna" types of personalities of both Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, the objective tensions created by the war, the difficulties of mourning Freud's death for Anna and her group in those circumstances, but also the cultural background of the indigenous members of the British Psycho-Analytical Society, which allowed the debate to take place without it degenerating into a catastrophic ending.

In order to defend their views, the Kleinians were required to present four papers to an ad hoc committee of the British Psycho-Analytical Society made up of Edward Glover, Marjorie Brierley, and James Strachey, and chaired by Ernest Jones. The first paper was that of Susan Isaacs, "On the Nature and Function of Unconscious Phantasy" on January 27, 1943. Paula Heimann then read her paper on June 23, "Some Aspects of the Role of Introjection and Projection in Early Development." A third paper was given on December 17, 1943, by Isaacs and Heimann, called "On Regression." Finally, on March 1, 1944, Klein read her paper "The Emotional Life and the Ego Development of the Infant with Special Reference to the Depressive Position."

Also very important were the papers on technique which were written by Anna Freud, Klein, Sylvia Payne, Ella Sharpe, and Marjorie Brierley, to illustrate different approaches to the handling of the transference and the way to interpret the defenses of the patients.

The Controversial Discussions are now considered one of the most important documents of the history of psychoanalysis (King and Steiner, 1992). Indeed, they allow the study in vivo of the conscious and unconscious complexities of the emotional, personal, cultural, institutional, and political tensions of what on the surface appeared to be only a scientific disagreement between different ways of approaching the study of psychic development.

Riccardo Steiner

See also: British Psycho-Analytical Society; Freud, Anna; Glover, Edward; Isaacs-Sutherland, Susan; Jones, Ernest; Klein-Reizes, Melanie; Psychoanalytical Treatment of Children ; Transference in children.


Grosskurth, Phyllis. (1986). Melanie Klein. Her world and work. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Hayman, Anne. (1989). What do we mean by phantasy? International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 70, 105-114.

King, Pearl H.M., and Steiner, Riccardo. (1991). The Freud-Klein controversies 1941-1945. London and New York: Tavistock Publications-Routledge, New Library of Psychoanalysis.

Steiner, Riccardo. (1985). Some thoughts about tradition and change arising from an examination of the British Psycho-Analytical Society's "Controversial Discussions", 1943-1944, International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 12, 27-71.

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