Broken Bounds: Contemporary Reflections on the Antisocial Tendency

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In 2009-2010, The Squiggle Foundation, whose aim is to stimulate interest in the work of Donald Winnicott, organized a series of lectures on the theme of "the antisocial tendency". These lectures are offered here to the wider public much as they were originally given. The speakers, each one an established figure in child care policy or in the residential and therapeutic management of disaffected youngsters, reflect on society's changing attitudes towards antisocial behaviour and its manifestations over the past half century. They consider how altered childrearing practices, the greater incidence of family break-up, and the increasing part played by central government in the determination of child care policies, have contributed to a shift towards the more punitive attitudes towards "wayward youth" prevalent today. Brief, pointed, and accessible, these lectures address topics of contemporary social concern by identifying some of the underlying questions to be asked regarding the child, the family, and society in a mass-communication and mass-organized environment.

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LECTURE ONE: Learning to live with the antisocial tendency: the challenge of residential care and treatment

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Adrian Ward

This paper explores Donald Winnicott’s formulation of “the antisocial tendency” in terms of its implications for the residential care and treatment of children and adolescents. In the context of the political “hot potato” of antisocial behaviour it is instructive to return to Winnicott’s conceptualization of the issues in terms of the emotional needs of young people, the origin of these in early childhood, and the ways in which they may be triggered, and by this route to gain clues about helpful ways to respond to young people. The other contextual element is the more recent but incontrovertible evidence about the mental health needs of young people in the care system, many of whom may be viewed as having a “conduct disorder”, which as we shall see is very close to the concept of “the antisocial tendency”.

Winnicott was unusual in many ways, and especially, for the purposes of this paper, in that he had direct experience through consultancy of the needs of children in residential care. During World War II he became responsible for a group of five hostels for particularly troubled children evacuated from London, and with Clare Britton, whom he was later to marry, he provided support and consultancy to the staff and heads of those hostels. He wrote a number of papers based on this experience and in particular his article on Residential Management as Therapy (Winnicott & Britton, 1947) remains one of the few papers from that era which still speaks directly to today’s residential practitioners.

 

LECTURE TWO: Responses to antisocial youth: does Donald Winnicott have messages for us today?

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Olive Stevenson

The first part of this paper discusses my understanding of Donald Winnicott’s writing about the “antisocial tendency” and, related but distinct, about delinquency. I come to all this from a particular angle and I cannot claim the expertise which many here today will have; I am not a Psychoanalyst nor have I specialized in matters such as forensic psychology or criminology. In fact, even within my professional expertise, that of social work, I have given less time to the issues surrounding “antisocial youth” than some other pressing problems of our time. There are a number of complex reasons for this but one is a deep uncertainty about, and, latterly, repugnance at, the use of this term and at our social responses to this group of young people. The invitation to give a lecture on this theme helped me to face up to my profound concern about the present position in the UK.

The second personal element which affects the content of this paper is, of course, my relationship with Donald and Clare Winnicott. In 1952, Clare was my tutor at the LSE when I took the then pioneering child care course. Both were remarkable teachers. Their home was the centre of splendid parties offering something fresh, exciting, and fun in our grey post-war world. They used these events to mix students with recently qualified social workers, which enhanced a sense of camaraderie in the small group. These two people were the most influential teachers in my life, far outstripping even some excellent tutoring for my first degree in English literature. Looking back (and confirmed by what I have subsequently read about them), I see that they were both essentially creative, artistic people. In some ways they offered a familiar, congenial path to my further intellectual development. Sometimes, Donald was not an “easy read”; many of his theoretical assumptions were then totally unfamiliar to me. But, whether “face-to-face”, or, later, in the written word, there were always what I can only call “moments of truth”, when impact is immediate, and memorable, in a way which shapes one’s further thinking. In this sense, of “the imaginative leap”, Donald’s writing is at times poetic.

 

LECTURE THREE: Can the state ever be a “good-enough parent”?

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Christopher Reeves

My starting point is a commonplace. It is this: In British society there currently exists a pervasive unease over children and their upbringing, especially the more marginalized and vulnerable young people in society. This unease encompasses both what “wayward youth” inflicts on society, and what certain adults in society, parents or carers, perversely visit on small and defenceless children. It is not new, but the anxiety invested in it is. It registers in the shocked reaction to the recent phenomenon of teenage gangs rampaging and causing damage in city centres, acting as if apparently quite independent of, or oblivious to, parental controls; and also in revulsion at widely publicized cases of child abuse. Here, the recent tragic case of Baby Peter continues to resonate in the public mind.

In this lecture, I shall be addressing this last mentioned area of public concern, where the child or young person is seen as victim, not as victimizer. Other contributors in this series will be concerned with the phenomenon and challenge of “wayward youth”.

 

LECTURE FOUR: Winnicott’s delinquent

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Ann Horne

T“he Antisocial Tendency”, a paper given before the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1956, is neither Winnicott’s first nor last word on the subject of delinquency and antisocial behaviour. It could, however, be said to be the Winnicottian “word” most remembered by his readers on the subject. You may recall the child whom he describes in that talk: his first child analytic training patient. Winnicott had thus not only trained in medicine and specialized in paediatrics but had completed his psychoanalytic training and was commencing the further two years of supervised child and adolescent work necessary to become a child analyst at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. One can understand why trainees find this paper both helpful and extremely reassuring: Winnicott describes how the boy broke into his locked car, jump-started it in the driveway of the clinic, bumped it down to the bottom, flooded the clinic basement and, as Winnicott confesses here and in a later paper, bit Winnicott on the buttocks—three times. As a trainee, I often thought, “But why doesn’t he sit down?” That is, when I wasn’t thinking, “Well, if Winnicott can describe so honestly his struggles with an acting-out lad, the tussles that I am having may just be worth it!” It was many years later before I began to wonder about the clinic—the Institute of Psychoanalysis itself—that had forbidden Winnicott’s continuing with this disruptive lad, whether it had been drawn into a response to delinquency that we find all too often in societal reactions today.

 

LECTURE FIVE: Heroic delinquency and the riddle of the Sphinx

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Jenny Sprince

Judith Trowell

In his paper “The Antisocial Tendency” (1956) Winnicott states that “the antisocial tendency implies hope”. He is suggesting that antisocial behaviour calls attention to an unmet need. When it is not met, the individual can go on to become a delinquent.

Winnicott believed that the best treatment for such individuals was not individual psychoanalysis but something he calls “management” (p. 308). He goes on to talk about it being a sign of hope: the young person is looking for something or someone to help; and is needing the environment to be stable enough to cope with his or her behaviour.

I have been reflecting for a long time on delinquency: it is an area of huge public concern as well as one that presents problems for those of us who work psychoanalytically. I am passionately interested in the internal world of children and young people and how we can encourage change when they are in trouble, through interventions that keep in mind both the internal and the external world.

 

LECTURE SIX: Society and the antisocial tendency: “physician, heal thyself!”

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Richard Rollinson

This being the last lecture in this series, I am aware you do not need telling, or even reminding, about Winnicott and the antisocial tendency. Therefore, I shall operate here as “the Fifth Business”, to take a phrase from the celebrated novel by Robertson Davies (1970)—that is, as the one whose role in a drama is supposedly that of being neither Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but still essential for the dnouement of the plot. In this guise I plan to speak in rather extempore fashion in a way I hope Winnicott himself would approve of. I shall play around with a number of important ideas about young people and society from his times and his perspective as a way of tackling some serious current issues in our own.

Dr. Winnicott delivered his paper, “The Antisocial Tendency”, fifty-four years ago on 20 June 1956 before the British Psychoanalytic Society. What else was happening during that year?

In no particular order of significance:

I was seven years of age and a New Yorker. That was my world, the world as far as I was concerned.

 

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