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Wolfenstein, Martha (1911-1976)


Martha Wolfenstein, a psychoanalyst and writer, was born on November 10, 1911, in Cleveland, Ohio, and died on November 30, 1976, in New York. She graduated from Radcliffe College, and then earned an MA in psychology and a PhD in aesthetics from Columbia University. She was analyzed by the art historian and lay analyst Ernst Kris and attended classes at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute between 1948 and 1953. A lay psychoanalyst, she was not a member of a society belonging to the American Psychoanalytic Association, but nonetheless was a widely admired teacher and supervisor in New York City.

Wolfenstein's mother died when she was a child, and there is a history of parental (especially maternal) loss extending back several generations in her family. Ellen Handler Spitz has written insightfully about this history and its role in Wolfenstein's work. Wolfenstein wrote three classic papers on childhood bereavement: "How Is Mourning Possible?" (1966b), "Loss, Rage, and Repetition" (1969), and "The Image of the Lost Parent" (1973). She also wrote important studies of two artists: René Magritte and Francisco de Goya. In her paper, "Goya's Dining Room" (1966a), she explicated the psychological fantasies portrayed in Goya's paintings and argued that for Goya the loss of his hearing was linked to his earlier losses, in their infancy, of all but one of his five children. She linked themes of grief, rage, and sexual guilt to the horrifying images that characterize the paintings that Goya painted after his illness in 1792.

Wolfenstein books include Movies (1950), Children's Humor (1954), and Disaster (1957), a seminal analysis of the impact of catastrophic events on individuals. With the anthropologist Margaret Mead, she edited Childhood in Contemporary Cultures (1955). This volume grew out of the project Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures, led by Mead and Ruth Benedict. As a member of this project, Wolfenstein made two trips to Paris in 1947 and 1953. While in Paris she observed the behavior of parents and children in parks and noted in her paper "French Parents Take Their Children to the Park" (1955) that French children quickly learn that displays of physical aggression are not permissible, and that verbal disputes are substituted. She concluded that for the French, childhood and adulthood are very distinct, and that the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in France and in America. In America, childhood is viewed as a nearly ideal time, and adults feel nostalgic for their childhood. Adulthood is a ceaseless round of work, and the enjoyment of immediate pleasures is nearly lacking. For the French, the opposite is true: it is in adulthood that one can live in the present moment and that sensuous pleasures become ends in themselves; concern with such pleasures and ingenuity in achieving them are persistent themes of adult life.

Wolfenstein's books and essays are exemplary for their use of psychoanalytic insights as a prism with which to illuminate and connect the origins and vicissitudes of cultural values and attitudes to psychological imperatives. Her papers on childhood bereavement were important clinical contributions because they demonstrated that the child's or adolescent's inability to fully engage in mourning the loss of a beloved object, as opposed to adapting, is inextricably linked to their particular stage of development at the time of the parent's death.

Nellie L. Thompson


Spitz, Ellen Handler. (1998). Martha Wolfenstein: Toward the severance of memory from hope. Psychoanalytic Review, 85, 105-115.

Thompson, Nellie. (2001). American women psychoanalysts, 1911-1941. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 29, 161-177.

Wolfenstein, Martha. (1954). Children's humor: A psychological analysis. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

. (1955). French parents take their children to the park. In Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein (Eds.), Childhood in contemporary cultures (pp. 99-117). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

. (1957). Disaster: A psychological essay. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

. (1966a). Goya's dining room. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 35, 47-83.

. (1966b). How is mourning possible? Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21, 93-123.

. (1969). Loss, rage, and repetition. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24, 432-462.

. (1973). The image of the lost parent. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 28, 433-456.

Wolfenstein, Martha, and Leites, Nathan. (1950). Movies: A psychological study. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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