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MARGARET MAHLER: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst


 

 

The Vicissitudes of Personal Experience and the Consequences for Psychological Theory: A Study of Margaret Mahler, M.D., American Child Psychoanalyst

A review of Margaret Mahler: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst

by Alma Halbert Bond
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. 239 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-3355-1.
$45.00


Reviewed by Marilyn S. Jacobs as December 2008


 

Margaret Schonberger Mahler (1897–1985) was a Hungarian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst
whose work focused on psychoanalytic developmental ego psychology. To a generation of
psychoanalysts of the 20th century, the theory of Margaret Mahler was crucial to
understanding child development and its derailments. Mahler created the phase-centered
separation–individuation theory of child development. Her theory was clinically relevant in


that she reasoned that difficulties with this maturational process would result in mental
disturbance.

In the 1950s, along with Manuel Furer, Mahler established the Master's Children's
Center in New York City. Her work was unique in that the mother would participate in her
child's treatment. Her theory was outlined in a work that has become a classic in
psychoanalytic developmental psychology (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). Mahler was
one of the first psychoanalysts to study psychosis in children. In her day, she was regarded
as one of the most prominent of American psychoanalysts.

Alma Halbert Bond, a psychoanalyst in New York, has written a fascinating and
engrossing biography of Margaret Mahler. This book is an intimate and personal one as the
author was a close colleague of Mahler. The work is based upon interviews with those who
knew and worked with Mahler as well as historical research and the author's own
experiences with Mahler. It is a colorful account, accentuated by photographs, anecdotes,
transcripts of interviews, and psychoanalytic theory. This rich texture reflects the complex
scholarship with which the author approached the task of the work.

Bond sets about to tell the story of the life of Margaret Mahler with an honest
awareness of her strengths and her weaknesses. Bond feels that the integration of these
contradictory qualities is a gift to the memory of Mahler. Mahler's courage is lauded as she
was able to create a major theory of psychoanalysis in spite of personal traumas, including
struggles with separation–individuation and dislocating experiences during the Holocaust.
Bond has a deep affection for Margaret Mahler and is sympathetic to her plight. At the end
of the biography, she tells of a dream that she had concerning Mahler in which Mahler spoke
to her, thus inspiring the biography.

The biographical details of Mahler's early life are contextualized by news reports
describing the actual historical events. These richly illuminate the larger circumstance within
which Mahler lived, especially as it concerns the rise of National Socialism in Europe. As
such, they provide a deeper understanding of Mahler's life.

Bond depicts Mahler as having suffered in her childhood at the hands of a cruel and
rejecting mother who married young, became pregnant soon after, and was unprepared for
motherhood. The author explains that Mahler's mother blamed Mahler for her plight and was
thus indifferent and apathetic to the child. Mahler was also caught up in a highly conflictual
sibling rivalry with her younger sister. And Mahler had an intense attachment to her father,
who was described as “the love of Margaret's life” (p. 15). These passions defined Mahler.
Mahler was never able to overcome these events and continued to act these out “all her life
with certain junior colleagues and children” (p. 11).

A framework that is helpful in understanding the biography of individuals who create
psychological theories derives from psychoanalytic phenomenology (Stolorow & Atwood,
1979). In this model, the inner world and psychic structure of each individual theorist are
seen as being embedded in his or her explanations of psychological phenomena. This theory
of subjectivity provides insight and illuminates how, given her developmental and historical


experiences, Margaret Mahler would choose to work with disturbed children and would
create a theory of child development that focuses upon the processes of symbiosis and
separation. It also explains the etiology of the interpersonal difficulties that she encountered.

This perspective has been expanded by Coates (2004), who compared the theories of
Margaret Mahler with those of the other highly regarded child psychoanalyst of the time,
John Bowlby. As with Mahler, Bowlby endured a traumatic development that influenced his
theory of attachment. Both of these theorists based their understanding on the nature of
experience and the development of mental structures. Both theorists seemed to know and
understand the experience of early childhood in a poignant way.

Mahler was a difficult and exasperating person. She had an inability to work alone, an
ambivalent relationship with the psychoanalysis of her day. She had very poor interpersonal
boundaries. She was prone to outbursts of rage. Bond reports that in her biographical
research, many of those interviewed expressed their hatred of Mahler. Mahler was regarded
as exploitative of others, cold, and lacking generosity. She could demean and shame others if
she was offended. Her powerful position in child psychoanalysis made those who suffered
under her unable to risk their careers by challenging her. Yet, many of those who knew
Mahler found her to be loving and charming and were devoted to her all of her life.

This book will be of interest to psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and child psychologists
as well as to the general reader who enjoys biography and who is interested in the history of
the 20th century. It is a valuable addition to the literature of child development. In particular,
Chapter 10, “The Master's Children's Center,” clearly and cogently summarizes Mahler's
developmental theory of separation–individuation. Also useful is Chapter 11, “Dr. Mahler's
Advice to New Mothers (1979),” which is a synthesis of a video interview in which Mahler
responded to the question of how her theories could aid in children's development. And
Chapter 17, “Margaret Mahler Today (The Present),” compares and contrasts Mahler's
theory with the contemporary theories of psychoanalytic child development that have since
appeared and been popularized. The work includes a glossary, which is a good resource for
those unfamiliar with psychoanalytic child development.

One aspect of this book that considerably diminishes it is the author's use of
superlatives in descriptions of events and persons. Examples of this tendency are “the great
research begins” (p. 111); “the great Jacob Arlow” (p. 162), “Margaret Mahler was a great
pioneer who single-handedly changed the theory and practice of child psychology forever”

(p. 216); “It was Mahler's genius that, despite the terrible misfortunes she had endured from
birth on, she was able to transcend her losses and become one of the great psychoanalytic
researchers and teachers of the times” (p.71); and “Margaret Mahler was to design and carry
through one of the great programs in child analysis in analytic history” (p. 97). I found that
these bullets trivialized the work.
Also, this type of a descriptor in a biography of a psychoanalyst relates to the
problems of the relationship between psychoanalysis and society. In his anthropological
study of four psychoanalytic institutes affiliated with the American Psychoanalytic


Association, Kirsner (2000) concluded that these institutes stifled inquiry and relied upon a
politicized received wisdom of truth. A culture had prevailed that idealized those regarded as
possessing ultimate knowledge. The idealization of Margaret Mahler that is apparent in
Bond's biography is evidence for this trend, which is not a good one for psychoanalysis.
Furthermore, although Kirsner focused upon the social level of analysis, he discovered
pathological interactions (nastiness, boundary violations, and power struggles) that arise in
this type of an environment similar to those discussed by Bond in her study of Mahler.

The book will likely provoke psychoanalysts to defend their profession as not having
only highly dysfunctional theorists and senior clinicians. However, a certain historical
relativism is needed in considering this biography. Since the time of Margaret Mahler,
psychoanalytic institutes have certainly evolved. The behavior described by Bond would
likely now not be tolerated. Psychoanalytic practice has become more directed by ethical
considerations. Independent psychoanalytic institutes have been founded that attempt to
function with participatory democracy. The Psychoanalysis Division (Division 39) of the
American Psychological Association (APA) has become a decisive force in the
determination of American psychoanalytic practice and the requirement that APA ethical
standards be adhered to with colleagues and patients. Through the Psychoanalytic
Consortium and the Accrediting Council for Psychoanalytic Education, Division 39 has
collaborated with other psychoanalytic organizations to create standards for psychoanalytic
education and practice.

Alma Halbert Bond has provided us with a work that will stimulate much discussion
on many different levels regarding child psychoanalysis and the relationship between a
theorist's personal history and his or her scholarship, as well as with a compelling chapter in
the history of American psychoanalysis.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

References


Coates, S. W. (2004). John Bowlby and Margaret S. Mahler: Their lives and theories.
Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54(2), 571–601.

Kirsner, D. (2000). Unfree associations: Inside psychoanalytic institutes. London: Process
Press.

Mahler, M., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant:
Symbiosis and individuation. New York: Basic Books.

Stolorow, R. D., & Atwood, G. E. (1979). Faces in a cloud: Subjectivity in personality
theory. New York: Jason Aronson.


PsycCRITIQUES December 3, 2008, Vol. 53, Release 49, Article 3
1554-0138 © 2008, American Psychological Association
 



 

The Atkins Chronicle, October 22, 2008

Book Review by Annielaura Jaggers

 

Margaret Mahler: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst

Author:  Alma Halbert Bond

 

            In an effort to persuade readers of the significance of the contents of this book, Margaret Mahler: A biography of the Psychoanalyst, I can think of no better way than to invite them to stretch their imaginations to picture each of them possessing a preschool child who was suffering from a tic that about every thirty minutes would jerk the child's head to one side and cause him or her to emit a disagreeable squawk.  I ask, "Wouldn't you be happy to know that there were qualified, licensed therapists who could cure the ailment?"

            I can assure any reader of this work that he or she will learn much about the topic of psychoanalysis for children.  Alma Bond has placed the subject matter squarely in the history of the last hundred years and by means of full interviews she conducted, she has given ample evidence of its importance to other psychoanalysts as well as clients.  When Bond acknowledges and thanks various sources, she lists forty persons whom she interviewed which, she admits, reads like a "who's who in psychoanalysis," friends and colleagues of Mahler. This section also lists the number and location of the archives researched and related works read.

            A number of photographs, an adequate glossary, chapter notes and bibliography, and an index all complete the thoroughness of Bond's biography.

            Bond relates the geographical setting of Mahler's life.  She was born in Sopron, a small town near Budapest, Hungary, to a Jewish family.  She perceived that her mother loved her little sister Suzannah more than her, a fact that caused her to give her love to her father, Dr. Gustav M. Schoenberger, thus developing an Oedipus complex.  He did not reciprocate more than being proud of her mind and encouraging her to develop it by emphasizing excellence in math and science.

            Mahler's first six years of schooling were in Sopron, but despite there being four high schools there, girls were not admitted.  Even though she was only fourteen years old, her parents allowed her to go to Budapest to live with her Aunt Irma and enter high school there.  Neither Margaret nor Aunt Irma liked one another, and she was allowed to spend much time in the home of her good friend, Alice, whose mother was Vilma Kovacs who welcomed Margaret almost as another child.

            Margaret is to say later, "I am more and more aware that my Budapest time was by far the most important influence for my later professional life."  Vilma Kovacs welcomed any number of lay psychoanalysts into her living room resulting in a sort of salon.  Margaret and Alice were allowed to attend and each was inspired to become psychoanalysts as were the adults.  They met some important persons other than the student psychoanalysts, for instance, Geza Roheim, a famous anthropologist, and the artist Robert Bereny who became famous for his caricatures of psychoanalysts in that early period.

The girls met Sandor Ferenczi who encouraged them to read Freud.  Alice purloined her mother's copy of  Ferenczi's essay which he wrote to deliver when he was invited to speak at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts; its topic, Freud's Analytic theory. They read it secretly under their desks.  These 15-year-old girls procured another of mother's forbidden papers to read "under the bench."  It was Freud's "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." They devoured this material like hungry puppies.  Margaret said of this period, "We dwelt among the Titans."

After graduating from High school, Mahler enrolled in the University of Budapest to study art, but soon found that she didn't have the talent or the interest.  She wanted to become a medical doctor, but for some reason thought her father would not like it, but because of her experience in the art department, she decided to tell him, and much to her surprise, he approved her studying medicine.  She and Suzannah moved to Munich.  It took some insistence for her to be admitted because she was Jewish, but the admitting officer was impressed with her demeanor and academic record, so he admitted her in the midst of the term. 

Margaret was talented in exploring and learning of the best teachers.  She found that Professor Meinhard von Pfaundler was one of the leading pediatricians of the times and was the director of the Munich University Clinic.  She applied for a position in his clinic and was appointed as a co-Assistentin in the children's clinic.  She ended up working with Dr. Rudolph von Degkwitz in his pioneering work in developing a serum to prevent measles.  It was Margaret's first experience in research and she was marked for life with a fascination for it.

By this time the anti-Semitism had intensified to the point that Margaret knew she would have to leave Munich. She chose the university at Jena and had to call on officials of the Weimar Republic to sponsor her.  She was harassed because of this help and other similar incidents; however, she prevailed and became a doctor.  Dr. Jussuf Abrahim who was the foremost child neurologist of the day sponsored her graduation. 

After finishing her work at Jena, she studied at Heidelberg for two semesters, but it was a stressful period for her because she had severe reoccurring abdominal pain because of a poorly performed appendectomy in her early teens.  She finally had the needed surgery and learned that extreme adhesions were causing the pain.

At Heidelberg she had a repeat of participating in a salon similar to the one she had enjoyed in the home of Vilma Kovacs.  Friedrich Gundolph, a poet, and Dr. Emil Lederer, a professor of economics, held open house regularly.  Here she met a number of people prominent in their respective fields, for example, Karl Jaspers, philosopher, who did pioneering work in psychopathology, Max Weber, sociologist, Karl Manheim, famous scientist, and his wife, Julia, who was from Hungary and later became a psychoanalyst.  Margaret was always welcome; she read every book that would render her conversant in their deep and broad discussions.

Margaret Mahler graduated in 1922 with honors, and in applying for her license to practice medicine, she turned from pediatrics to psychiatry, and entered the required training analysis with Helene Deutsch, who had had Freud as her analyst. (One's status in the community of psychoanalysts was highly influenced by the identity of one's analyst.)  Mahler adored Helene, but Helene eventually dismissed Mahler, a fact that pained Mahler all her life. Alma Bond thinks that Helene handled the dismissal badly and attributes it to the fact that they were too much alike.

Mahler procured work as doctors' helper working with children, and was often recruited into other research.  Some of her experiences contributed and some detracted from her goal, but finally after seven years of hard work and persistence, Mahler was accepted as an analyst.

During this period as doctors' helper, she was associated with many children's clinics that gave opportunities to learn and took her closer to forming and supporting her own ideas about children's development which became the core of her contribution to the knowledge of the psychoanalysis of children. 

She worked with Dr. Clemens Van Pirquet, a baron, handsome and capable of listening to Margaret, but not hearing her.  In Vienna, he ran a school for problem children that included some child psychiatry, but that Margaret regarded as primitive.  Her next work was also in Vienna, at the Moll Well Baby Clinic or the Mothers' Advice Clinic.  Here Margaret received reinforcement for her ideas about the importance of the mother-baby relationship.

She was qualified to practice pediatrics so started building a clientele, but wanted to move her career toward psychiatry, so she enrolled as an extern at Steinhof, a state institution connected to the University Psychiatry Clinic.  She also worked as a health and welfare physician in the school system of Vienna and eventually headed a well baby clinic.  This employment by the city brought her in contact with August Aichhorn, author of the famous book, Wayward Youth, on the topic of juvenal delinquency.  Despite the advice of Ferenczi and the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, she asked him to become her analyst in training.  He was attracted to her and readily agreed.  They immediately became lovers.

He had developed a rare technique for treating both boys and girls and got unusually impressive results.  Mahler watched him work and considered him one of her greatest teachers even though their relationship merely intensified her oedipal complex.  They both realized that she needed a more objective analysis and settled on the plan of asking Willi Hoffer to take over.  She stayed in analysis with him about four years. 

He did not cure her of all her idiosyncrasies---for example, bad temper, paranoia, depression and the like---but he did remove enough of her avoidance of men that she accepted the courtship of Dr. Paul Mahler, a chemist.  She was thirty-nine years of age.  Her father had discouraged her from accepting the interest of any young men, telling her she had no need of marriage.  Willi Hoffer gave her permission to marry.

           It soon became clear that Paul Mahler was not able to pay his way.  He belonged to a family business that was doing badly, and he actually used money that Margaret made to put into it.  He became a son to be cared for rather than a husband.  They eventually divorced; however, Bond sees her as having genuine affection for him because she saved his ashes and had them buried with her.   

During this period, Hitler came into power, invaded Austria, and started his horrible program of killing or sterilization of inferiors.  Jews were judged inferior, meaning that he sought the elimination of all Jews.  She was no longer able to communicate with her parents or Suzannah.  She later learned that her father had died before the aunschloss, but that her mother and several cousins and many friends were among the 26,000 Jews who were arrested and consigned to Auschwich.  Margaret would never say that her mother died, rather that she was murdered by the Nazis.  She and Paul were marked with a "J." Life became so difficult she knew they would have to leave.

She knew that she and her husband should get affidavits from Nazi Germany but were not able to.  She had acquired a fair number of analysands, and among them was the niece of Lady Leontine Sassoon, the widow of the viceroy of India.  Margaret asked her to send a letter to the Viennese Home Office of the British Embassy informing them that she would like the Mahlers to be allowed to go to Great Britain as her guests while making arrangements to go to the United States.  Permission was given, and they left in 1938.

In London they were guests of the British Psychoanalytic Society who paid for their room and board in a house in Greencroft Gardens.  The society took the responsibility of reassigning them and chose the United States.  After five months, they went to New York.  While in London, Paul was not able to find any work, but Margaret was able to establish a small group of students so that they were not totally dependent on the Society. One of them, a little boy, saw her grappling with English language so decided to teach it to her.  She said of him that he was her first competent English teacher.  The Mahlers had a pleasant time in London because a number of psychoanalyst friends from Europe were also there.

Dr. Ernst Jones, biographer of Freud, was one of them.  So that they would not be curtailed in getting established upon arriving in America, he saw that they had enough money. The demands of adjusting to her new country brought out and crystallized the sum of Margaret's body of knowledge into an original compendium of published work.

Despite her heavy Viennese accent, Margaret studied hard and passed all the tests needed to be awarded her license to practice medicine and psychoanalysis in New York.  She wrote an original paper, "Pseudoimbecility: A magic Cap of Invisibility," and the success of it marked her acceptance in the New York Analytic Society and was eventually published in the "The Psychoanalytic Quarterly."

Alma Bond was able to say with confidence that Mahler was on a roll. 

Mahler was finally at a point in her life when she was able to believe with confidence that she could do research.  She became acquainted with Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was also a pediatrician and psychoanalyst.  He introduced her to Caroline Zachary, head of the Bureau of Child Guidance, who invited her to give some lectures there.  This yielded her a number of clients.  She was invited to head the outpatient department of children services of the New York Psychiatric Institute.

Another great windfall was that Dr. Nolan Lewis, Chairman of the Columbia University Psychiatry Department, told Mahler that Dr. Reginald Lurie had been called into military service  which resulted in his not being able to utilize the grant money furnished by the Masonic Scottish Rights Funds; therefore, she could have access to it for a project of her choosing.

She chose to continue work on her tic studies. She with co-workers, Sam Ritvo, Irma Doiss, Jean Luke, and W. Daltroff, published papers a number of which are considered classics today.

Alma Bond carefully describes Mahler's continued success in research and publication and the special work with Dr. Manuel Furer at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  They worked together on a treatment program called Symbiotic Child Psychosis.  Furer was testament to many facets of Mahler's Personality.  A number of publications were produced.  A grant was received, but unbelievably turned down by Mahler because she would have to give several hours to the department in addition to what her research required. They finally received one which supported the establishment of the Masters' Children Center.

The biographer, Alma Bond, introduces herself and explains her position as observer for Margaret Mahler in Chapter 12.  Mahler was working and researching at the Master's Children Center with an arrangement of employing what she called "participant observers," young students of psychoanalysis who would observe well mothers and babies and make notes a certain amount of time each week.  Alma, having become acquainted with Mahler's work through her writings, thought of no better experience than to become one of those "participant observers."  She applied for the job and got it.  She relates the pertinent facts of that direct experience with Mahler.

Bond describes her first interview with Mahler and the friendly relationship they developed fairly rapidly.  Mahler described to Bond her duties as a "participant observer" and read Bond's reports showing interest in Bond's response to her observations.  In a fairly short time Mahler put Bond on the payroll.  On a more personal level Mahler would invite Bond to go walking with her, to lunch with her, and would give her rides in her car.  Altogether, she gave the impression that she liked and admired Bond.

Bond explained another experience because she thought it shed light on the work there at the center, revealing much about the psyches of herself, Mahler's, and a child, Hilary, who was attracted to Bond and formed an attachment to her as well as her attachment to her own mother.  Hilary's development followed Mahler's pattern of child development quite closely and led to Mahler's abrupt termination of her relationship with Bond.  She describes this in great detail.

No child psychoanalysts existed until Margaret Mahler developed the idea of a psychoanalytic method of treatment for children, even babies.  She was the first advocate to do so.  Freud himself felt that one had to be an adult to profit from psychoanalysis.

Margaret Mahler based her theories on her own experiences; however, she was far too thoroughly scientific to allow that to suffice.  She studied thousands of mother-baby relationships before claiming objectivity.

Alma Bond was one of the many people who furnished Mahler with many hours of objective data.  Bond was pleased with her relationship with Mahler until the day she realized that it had come to an end.  Margaret had expressed interest in Alma Bond's husband's acting career so that when his play, "The Big Man," opened, Alma sent Margaret copies of favorable reviews and tried to call her to make arrangements for them to attend together.  It was as if a wall had been constructed around the great lady.  Bond could not get through to her.

It was a painful realization to Alma that despite what she felt to be the beginning of a warm trusting, relationship, it was not so.  Bond said, "The truth is that she dropped me like the iron that had scarred her sister's cheek. . . I did not understand. . . Couldn't she have explained to me?"  She continues.  "I, like Hilary and Mahler herself, had been weaned traumatically. . . In terms of healing the repetition compulsion, I had to relive my infantile symbiosis and have it end differently, so I could overcome the ill effects of the trauma and pick up and go on with my development. . .  Such was the therapeutic genius of Margaret Mahler.  It seems that our relationship, painful as it was for me, was a therapeutic symbiosis.  Although her 'technique' was a bit drastic, it turned out to be a 'cure.'  I suppose I should be grateful.  She saved me a lot of analysis."

But before Mahler could adequately announce and support her theories, she had to experience two more situations.  The first was the inevitable divorce from Gustave Mahler.  They were completely incompatible.  He never earned enough money to pay his way, and it was impossible for him to discard his beliefs in the traditional male-female roles in marriage.  He would not perform any household duties; he wanted financial settlement declaring that despite the fact that he did not contribute to the purchase of their homes, he had worked on them.  She finally agreed to pay him $300 a month and divorce was finally achieved in 1953.  When he died, Margaret acquired his ashes in a bronze container and had them buried beside the place where she would be buried.  The second was dealing with the offer from the Philadelphia Analytic School to come and teach.  Both situations were very strenuous.

She suffered from having an oedipal complex which she attributed to her experience of being extremely jealous of her baby sister Suzannah. (Margaret Mahler was born to Eugenia Weiner Schoenberger, a nineteen-year-old young woman, exactly 9 months and ten days after her wedding day.  Eugenia regarded herself as too young for motherhood so rejected baby Margaret and had as little to do with her as possible.)

When Suzannah was born four years later, her mother welcomed her and gave her much love and affection.  Little Margaret observed Suzannah feeding at her mother's breast and was overwhelmed with jealousy despite that she had turned to her father for love and enjoyed the fantasy that she had been born from his head as had Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and orderly battalions, been born from the head of her father, Zeus, the king of the gods. Mahler's relationship with her father was satisfying; however, it never made up for the longing she had for the love and approval of her mother.

It was acknowledging to herself that she was an excellent teacher, as well as being a successful practitioner, that gave her the courage to publicize her theories which were more and more being sought after.

The Philadelphia School invited Margaret to be in charge of its department of Child Analysis.  She accepted and in this capacity, she designed and implemented one of the great programs for child care.  However, she was unwilling to leave her clientele in New York City and the work at the Masters Children's Center. 

Thus began an extremely physically stressful period of Mahler's life.  She travelled to Philadelphia from New York City and worked full weekend days and nights packed with classes and consultations then returned to the city to begin a full week's work there.  Out of these strenuous years came the establishment of her knowledge of child development based on the phases of separation-individuation fully described and illustrated by telling of the child's behavior.

Other results from the research and experience were contributive: one, some excellent teaching methods later adopted by many psychoanalytic training schools; two, the dispelling of the prevalent attitude that the behavior of mothers was the cause of autism and other serious problems in a child's development; three, the gathering of a compendium of guidelines for the use of mothers and fathers.

The establishment of the Margaret Mahler Foundation came along in this period. Many leaders of rich foundations were looking for innovative personalities in whom they could finance with confidence.  Another result was the publication of a valuable book, On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation: Infantile Psychosis, a book which affected psychoanalysis permanently.

Mahler's advice to new mothers contained this profound idea, "There is no point in the life cycle that constructive intervention would not be feasible and useful.  We are never quite ready.   Development goes on from the cradle to the grave."

Mahler became the great researcher and teacher she had always wished to be despite her unhappy childhood and adult experience with Hitler's Holocaust.  But her greatest ambition was to be the infant partner in a relationship of dual unity (where two, mother and infant, become one).  This was of course impossible for her or anybody to achieve.  Mahler's ability to sublimate these conflicting themes in her life brought her quite close to being an integrated human being.

Bond tells of attending a party that was given by Mahler's personal secretary when she retired from having worked for Mahler for twenty-five years.  About twenty women were invited all of whom had worked with Mahler.  If Mahler was invited, she did not attend so it ended with these women sitting around telling Mahler stories.  All had experienced some traumatic event with her; nevertheless, each of them saw and related positive traits in her personality.

They all were able to ask themselves why they stayed with the various lengths of time and concluded that they were able to see the value of her work.  Bond names and quotes these people.  Bond also interviews other colleagues.  All of them speculate on what might be the reasons for Mahler's chaotic and intemperate behavior and they come up with various positions.  One asserts that is a common trait of Hungarians, another thinks it comes from the anger engendered by her mother's murder.  Another attributes it to her Acquired Situational Narcissism.  And there were many other theories all related to low self-esteem.                    

Alma Bond prepares to conclude the biography by devoting a final chapter to more testimonies of Mahler's friends and fellow psychoanalysts: those who love and respect her and those who thoroughly despised her.  Another sad chapter is about her last days and her death in the Lenox Hill Hospital on September 27, 1985, on the same day that Hurricane Gloria slammed into Long Island outside New York City.  It was an intense, violent storm, the 16th worst on record in the United States to that date.  Only one friend was with her.  Others had tried to get to her bedside, but could not on account of the hurricane.

"The Mysterious will of Margaret Mahler," the next-to-last chapter, was devoted to her will which was truly a puzzle. Many of her colleagues were disappointed, particularly those who had expected her to donate to various enterprises that would enhance their profession.  Instead, she left the most of her wealth to the Gray Panthers. The reason for that was a matter of speculation.  She did appreciate their work.  The Foundation bearing her name thought they would get some of her money, but some thought she didn't want her work there to go forward without her.  She left a considerable amount to the cemetery maintenance in Sopron, Hungary, the location of her father's, her husband's and her graves, and any number of smaller behests.

Bond's final chapter is entitled "Margaret Mahler today."  In it she interviews several of Mahler's critics.  She concludes with stating the question so where does the work of Margaret Mahler stand in the hierarchy of psychoanalytic thinking? 

The consensus is that her contributions, like those of Freud, are on a slippery slope.  The jury is still out on which of the theories will, if ever, become permanent."

But Bond says that all interviewed for this final chapter, say that whether or not her theories are in vogue or not, all concede she was a great pioneer who with little or much help changed the practice of child psychology now and into the future.

My personal opinion is that Bond has neglected no significant information about the life of Mahler unless you wanted to know what brand of toothpaste she used.  She included information about all phases of maintaining her health, the stresses in doing so, even including her sex life.  Mahler was not an activist in politics, but Bond shows how the political life of Europe affected her and her family.  Much is told about her aesthetic leanings and what superior taste she shows in her choices of works of art. Her attitude toward religious faith was godly as were her notions of true wisdom.

Bond has this to say finally: "Margaret Mahler's persona was like a stained glass window which is made up of shards and chinks.  The fragments are precariously soldered together, but have no real connection with each other.  Odd that such disparate pieces could result in a creation of beauty.  Odd, too, that the essences of Margaret Mahler, like a stained glass window, evolved into a work of art.  It reminds one of Thomas Wolf's remarks: "a beautiful disease of nature, like a pearl in an oyster."

 

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Margaret S. Mahler - Larger then Life, September 11, 2008
By  Kathi Stringer (Kathi's Mental Health Review)

 

To the outside world, Mahler was a gifted researcher and analyst who had authored many groundbreaking papers and books that revolutionized how we view child development. Her insight was heralded as the golden key to understanding child pathology. Many of us came to love Mahler through her innovative work and her words. And now, after decades of research, author Bond (who worked for Mahler) has given us a look of the woman behind the mask.

As Bond's lens focuses on Mahler, we begin to see into the dark depths of this complex woman. We are exposed to her quick temper and intolerance of anything less then perfection. She was a woman on a mission. We discover there were myriad conflicting interviews and memos--many hated her, but many loved her, as well. And all the while, whether they loved her or hated her; they surrounded her and basked in her status as a "living legend."

It is said, "Eyes are the mirror of the soul." Bond relates how in infancy Mahler had the ability to stare down her wet-nurse with the eyes of a lynx so she would continue to cradle her. A lynx has the ability "to immediately tell truth from error," according to author Bond. The infant Mahler was born equipped with the observation tools she needed to fulfill her destiny.

Bond begins with Mahler's birth in Hungary and parallels her life with the relentless advancement of Hitler's war machine. Her mother was only a teenager when she became faced with the pregnancy of an unwanted child. Years later, her mother gave birth to another daughter, whom her mother favored. To emotionally survive, Mahler became attached to her father, and she idealized and emulated him on an intellectual level.

We see how Mahler overcame early academia hurdles at a time when girls were not allowed in high school. But in typical Mahler fashion, she found a way. She left home, completed her studies, became a medical student and earned her diploma. Later in analysis, her bungling analyst rejected her and said she could not analyze her, which was a requirement in Malher's profession. It nearly cost her a place in the coveted Vienna analytic community. Mahler had shared her all only to be horribly rejected. This seemed to be another piece of Mahler's life that impacted the formation of her developmental concepts

As Hitler unleashes his storm troopers, Mahler escapes with only the clothes on her back, leaving her family behind in peril.

Far away in America, Mahler eventually secures grants to begin her research and her conceptualization of the pre-Oedipal phase, namely "symbiosis," the four sub-phases of "separation-individuation," and then "on to object constancy." These developmental blueprints emerged from years of research done by a team that observed mothers and their children. Theory formulation, of course, did not happen in a vacuum and the author makes clear that Mahler's concepts grew out of intellectual conversations with her colleagues. She didn't like to think alone and surrounded herself with professional peers and friends. Bond implies that this served as a sort of "trial symbiosis," a need that was unresolved from the relationship with her mother.

Bond illustrates for us how Mahler's arrested developmental framework from her childhood was perhaps the original template for her theories, which was reflected in her research. It was if she knew where she was headed all along - driven by instinct and insight from her own unfinished developmental business. Mahler seemed to oscillate between the symbiotic libidinal pull and the resolution of the rapprochement crisis. Bond sprinkles bright commentary throughout and correlates Mahler's own developmental snags and milestones to Mahler's theories.

The author brings us ringside to the embattled personal, brilliant, and complicated life of Mahler through photos, memos, interviews, data, her professional publications and more. She depicts Mahler much like a courageous explorer who discovers the world is indeed round and then, in certain elite professional circles, is snubbed for it.

To my surprise, author Bond includes a chapter on highlights from a film interview with Mahler as she candidly dispenses concerned advice to new mothers. Many of the questions directed at Mahler were challenging, e.g., in addressing the importance of the mother-infant dyad, she was asked, "What about mothers that have to work and are not available to their children all the time?" Good question, and as is well known, theories formulated within a nice tidy framework can often be impractical in actual application. The interview questions challenged Mahler, but she unfailing responded to the "what ifs" with clarity and an almost uncanny personal insight.

All in all, Bond shows us how the name of Margaret Mahler became bigger then one woman. Her theories seem infallible, unlike the woman behind them. It brings to mind a saying I recall: "Keep your heroes afar because if you get to know them, then you will find out they are really human after all." I think the Dr. Sam Vaknin said it best, "For she was Eve, no less, in the field of child psychology and therapy."
Kathi Stringer, author of the book "5150, The One Who Flew Into the Cuckoo's Nest"

 
 

 

 

Sam Vaknin, author of "Malignant Self-love:
Narcissism Revisited'"

 

Mahler: The Eve of Child Psychology

This is the story of a child unloved by her mother, adored by her father,
rejected by her peers, admired by her students, hated by her ostensible
friends. A tough, no-nonsense European forced by the Nazi cataclysm into a
tough and no-nonsense New World where she flourished and created one of the
most insightful theoretical bodies of work in psychoanalysis. Never really a
therapist, Mahler was at her best teaching and researching.

On the surface, the book is merely a recounting of her times, life, and
work. But, it is much more than that. It is a fascinating study of the
founts of creativity and of the inevitable and agonizing interaction between
one's inner dynamics and outer circumstances and one's output and art. For,
Mahler was an artist whose raw materials were her observations of mothers
and children in the wilds of her itinerant laboratories.

The book delicately and empathically - but never sycophantly - traces
Mahler's battle against a legion of inner demons (her "Repetition
Compulsion"). She was a tortured soul who sought to alleviate her torment by
deciphering and deconstructing the mechanics and dynamics of early infancy.
Motherhood looms large in this barren woman's work as do love (of which she
was consistently deprived) and freedom. Her lasting theoretical
contributions, the Separation-Individuation subphases, and the scores of
child therapists she had trained over the years are her true offspring. She
never felt a real woman. Well, she was wrong. For she was Eve, no less, in
the field of child psychology and therapy. Sam Vaknin, author of "Malignant
Self-love: Narcissism Revisited".


 

 

Alma Halbert Bond                                                                                                                                                               
McFarland (2008)
ISBN 9780786433551
Reviewed by Karrie Grobben for RebeccasReads (6/08)

Margaret Mahler grew up in an oppressive and difficult period for women and for Jews—she was both. Anti-Semitism was steadily rising in the wake of WWI, from which Hungary had suffered bitter effects and women, especially well brought up upper middle-class women, were not expected to doggedly pursue higher education and a career. Mahler may have been at still more of a disadvantage, having been exposed to her mother’s indifference and blatant favoritism of her younger and more feminine sister. Yet Margaret, even as Hitler steadily grew in popularity, overcame every hurdle to pursue her doctorate and study what was still a relatively new field: psychiatry. Later she would be known for many things: her brilliant work with children, the development of separation-individuation theory, her ambition, her oddities and ultimately, her humanity.

The story of Margaret Mahler, as author Bond announces in the opening pages, “encompasses her shortcomings as well as her strengths,” and indeed, Mahler has plenty of those. Many accounts of her behavior suggest stubbornness bordering on pigheadedness as well as self-absorption and insensitivity. Many of even Mahler’s closest friends had to admit that where there was genius, there was an equal amount of eccentricity. Even so, I found it difficult not to be fascinated by this strange character, whose upbringing clearly scarred her at an early age and yet really kindled her thirst for knowledge and eventually became the inspiration for the development of her groundbreaking concept of separation-individuation. Beyond this, how can you help but respect and admire a woman who defeated every obstacle and ultimately got what she wanted?

At least, she attained the goals she set for herself as a young woman. Mahler was always intrigued by Freudian theory and though she would eventually achieve the most professionally through psychoanalytical research, she did earn her clinical degree as an analyst. She became well known for her innovative approaches in the field and her theories, according to some noted psychoanalysts today, remain relevant. Yet she never resolved the unsteady, though loving, relationship with her father. She never forgave or stopped being obsessed with the relationship between mothers and small children, after having felt so disconnected to her own mother. Her personal relationships, with lovers, husbands and friends continued to be dysfunctional. The book is not afraid to show both sides of Mahler: both how charming she could be and how warm, how much some loved her and still do, as well as her flaws.

There is a glossary of terms in the back of the book and a comprehensive list of resource materials used. Even so, some readers unfamiliar with psychoanalysis may find the use of psychiatric terms to be overwhelming. In order to really enjoy this read, you must be interested in more than her achievements and actions—this is, to some extent, a genuine analysis of Margaret Mahler as a person and as a psychoanalyst. As such, Freudian psychoanalysis of that period is discussed, explained and compared to modern psychoanalysis where it is called for.

I recommend this book particularly to readers with an interest in Freudian psychoanalysis and its workings but I also urge those unfamiliar with it to give it a try. Above all else, even her professional success, Margaret Mahler was a fascinating woman.

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