Sechehaye, Marguerite (1887-1964)

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Swiss psychologist Marguerite Sechehaye was born on September 27, 1887, and died in Geneva on June 1, 1964.

The child of an authoritarian mother and an egalitarian father, Marguerite Burdet received a Protestant education, attended a secondary school for girls, and graduated with a diploma in literature and pedagogy. While at the university, she attended Ferdinand de Saussure's lectures on linguistics and, thanks in part to her notes from that course, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, her husband, established the famous Course in General Linguistics. She also studied psychology and professional orientation at the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was directed by psychologistÉduard Claparède. After graduation, she became Claparède's assistant and opened a private practice as a psychologist.

Psychoanalyst Raymond de Saussure was friends with Marguerite and Albert Sechehaye and, according to their adoptive daughter, Louisa Sechehaye-Duess, "Saussure once asked Marguerite why she would not undergo psychoanalysis. She refused on the pretext that psychoanalysis was too concerned with sexuality and that her religion forbade it. When Saussure replied that she ought not judge a method without having experienced it, Sechehaye quickly admitted as much and the next day began a training analysis with Saussure. According to her own emotional reactions at the time, she seems not to have considered it a serious analysis. This was during 1927-28. Soon thereafter, Saussure advised her to take on cases of her own, to analyze them first under control, then he let her practice on her own."

A group of analysts used to meet, during the 1930s, at the homes of Saussure and the Sechehayes, including Charles Odier, Henri Flournoy, Gustave Richard, and Georges Dubal. This gathering represented the first circle of analysts in Geneva after those of Charles Baudouin and Sabina Spielrein, who had analyzed Jean Piaget. Louisa Sechehaye-Duess wrote that Sechehaye "had a special influence among this group, gained by daring to show her ignorance while proposing very modern ideas. Everybody admired her mind and her beauty, knowledge, and modesty."

Marguerite Sechehaye was an attentive reader of Freud and Piaget. Analytic practice with schizophrenic patients led her to develop an original method of psychotherapy. When Freud learned of her research, he wrote her an encouraging note, but also informed her of his doubts. The method she called "symbolic realization" would become her tool in psychotherapy with schizophrenics. In 1950, she published her major work, Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, in which she demonstrated, directly and indirectly, the essentials of her method applied to her patient Renée, whom she would eventually adopt and who would later become a psychoanalyst. Marguerite Sechehaye agreed with Melanie Klein on many issues. For both, the quality of mothering was essential. They corresponded on the decisive importance of the earliest stages of psychic development. Sechehaye had also frequent contacts with renowned analysts such as Marie Bonaparte, René Spitz, Anna Freud, and Donald W. Winicott.

In 1951-52, at Zurich University, assisted by her daughter, she gave a series of lectures to the physicians of the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic. She examined several schizophrenic patients in the presence of the house physicians and taught them the steps of her psychotherapeutic method. Sechehaye also published articles and refined her concept of symbolic realization. In 1962, psychiatrists in Milan honored her with a gold medal. On January 1, 1964, several months before her death, Christian Müller honored Sechehaye with a stirring homage before the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society, noting her influence upon young Swiss psychiatrists and psychoanalysts.

Mario Cifali

See also: Psychoses, chronic and delusional; Schizophrenia; Switzerland (French-speaking); Symbolic realization.


Sechehaye, Marguerite. (1951). Autobiography of a schizophrenic girl. New York: Grune and Stratton.

. (1956). A new psychotherapy in schizophrenia: Relief of frustrations by symbolic realization. New York: Grune and Stratton.

. (1970, [c1951]). Symbolic realization. New York: International Universities Press.