Adolescence: Talks and Papers by Donald Meltzer and Martha Harris

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This volume contains a representative selection of talks and writings by Martha Harris and Donald Meltzer on the key developmental phase of adolescence, from their teachings both separately and together over many years. Similar books on this topic by these authors have existed for some time in Italian and in Spanish but not until now in English.

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1. Your Teenager

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Martha Harris

The struggle to find an identity is the central task of adolescence. It is a long and slow process during which are laid the final foundations for the personality of the future adult. These foundations, of course, were first begun long ago in the relationship between the baby and its mother and then in that of the infant to both its parents. They have been further developed by later interactions throughout childhood with parents, with brothers and sisters, with friends, school teachers and other important adults. They are affected at every stage not only by the nature of the new acquaintances but also by the child’s approach to these and from the expectations arising from the results of his first encounters with the world. These are then transferred to subsequent relationships.

The very first step in knowing people is to be able to identify with them, to feel your way into their minds, into their personalities, to sense their physical reactions and to learn in these ways what it feels like to be them. Little children do this quite literally when they step into Mummy’s shoes and shufe round the house pretending they are Mummy. The very first way of learning about yourself is also to project yourself, your unknown, unnamed needs and distresses, into your mother and (later) your father. From their greater experience of life and of themselves, and according to their openness to that experience, they may be able to respond to that need, to give you a name for it, a better acquaintance with it and therefore a better grasp of some aspect of yourself (p. 221).

 

2. Identifcation and socialization in adolescence

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Donald Meltzer

Surely, it will be said—and rightly—the analytic consulting-room, in its heat of infantile intimacy, is not the place to study the social behaviour of adolescents. But it can, through clarification of the internal processes—of motivation and expectation, identification and alienation—throw a special and unparalleled light upon social processes to aid the sociologist, educator, psychiatrist, and all those persons of the adult community whose task it is to preserve the boundaries of the adolescent world and foster the growth and development of those still held within its vortex.

Our times reveal more clearly than other historical periods the truth of the existence of an “adolescent world” as a social structure, the inhabitants of which are the happy-unhappy multitude caught betwixt the “unsettling” of their latency period and the “settling” into adult life, the perimeter of which may not unreasonably be defned, from the descriptive point of view, as the establishment of mating and child rearing. From the metapsychological point of view of psychoanalysis, stripped as it is of social and moral evaluation, this passage from latency to adulthood may be described most forcefully in structural terms, whose social implications this chapter is intended to suggest.

 

3. Adolescent psychoanalytical theory

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Donald Meltzer

Today I will talk about the concept of adolescence in rather an “ideal” way, as though it were something which always happens in a calm and natural way leading towards adult life, mental health, happiness and so forth—trying to understand how this might be possible and whether it ever is. Tomorrow [Chapter 4] Mrs Harris will present a case of a girl in analysis in order to highlight the difficulties of adolescent psychopathology. The day after tomorrow [Chapter 5] I will talk about the vast feld of adolescent psychopathology and the technical problems relating to the treatment of adolescents according to the psychoanalytic method.

First of all I believe it is important to point out that the psychoanalytic method is not particularly efcient for the investigation of adolescence in as much as adolescents live mostly in the external world of adolescents and are not naturally or comfortably in touch with adults. Our understanding of adolescence does not come so much from treatments of adolescents themselves as from successful and complete analytical treatments of children approaching the age of adolescence, from adult patients and from analyses of children which continue throughout their adolescence or beyond it. So today I will try to describe and discuss three diferent communities with you: the community of the child within the family unit, the community of the adult world and the community of adolescents which sets itself as a community outside either of these two. I will try to give you a picture of the internal world of the individual and of the way the adolescent moves backwards and forwards within these three communities, during the process of development and evolution of his internal structure.

 

4. Emotional problems in adolescence: an adolescent girl

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Martha Harris

Iwould like to explore further, using material from a particular adolescent girl, some of the problems of adolescents in general as introduced by my husband yesterday. It may be worthwhile first of all to rehearse briefy some of the general points that he made, and which she seems to illustrate.

First of all there is the adolescent’s disappointment about the latency child’s fantasy of knowledge as something concrete which he would be able to achieve, to have when he is grown up.

Then there is the fading, in adolescence, of the young person’s belief in omniscience and omnipotence, as attributed to his parents and to grown-ups in general; and in particular the omniscience and omnipotence that is attributed to sexual relationships—which almost always contain elements of disappointment for the adolescent when he first embarks on one.

Then there is the task which the adolescent has of getting in touch with the experiences that he has internalized from the past: the task of trying to get in touch with what we would call his good internal objects, and to become receptive as to what they have to teach him and the means they have to help him. I think my husband suggested yesterday some of the ways in which the adolescent is able to do this: in analysis in dreams, and in ordinary life through literature, music, the arts.

 

5. The psychopathology of adolescence

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Donald Meltzer

Adolescence can be viewed from a certain perspective as a place where we have been and which we have passed through during a phase of our lives. We are still trying to understand what happened at the time. We have seen the four “communities” within which the adolescent moves: the adolescent community; the family and the parents; the isolated adolescent; how the adolescent feels about the adult world which he desires to enter; and the continuous movement between these communities. As I have said, the individual usually moves between these four communities and eventually finds the path which proves to be the way out. I will now try to describe the psychopathological characteristics of an adolescent representative of each these four communities, bearing in mind the risk that he or she runs of remaining in a fxed position and not being able to emerge from it.

First I shall consider the adolescent who tries to remain within the family; then the adolescent who tries to make a rapid entry into the adult world; then the isolated adolescent; and finally the adolescent within the adolescent community. Of these four types, as I have already said, the ones who come to us for treatment are the isolated individual—whom everyone is concerned about—and the individual in the adolescent community who is sufering and who personally make the request to have treatment. We shall not see the other two types—the adolescent who remains in the family or the one who tries rapidly to enter the adult world—during their adolescence; they do not seek our help for the time being, but we do see them later on and when they come for treatment, we need to “construct” the period of their adolescence.

 

6. Adolescent sexuality

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Martha Harris

We have made the point that a child’s current relationships and his physical and emotional growth continue to be affected, if not determined, by his earlier experiences. This is especially true of the sexual development of the teenager, of his feelings about himself and his body, of his capacity to anticipate and finally enjoy sexual experience reciprocally with the partner of his choice.

His capacity to enjoy his body and to be able finally to integrate sexual feelings with tenderness is rooted in the early physical and emotional relationship he had as a baby with his mother. This goes for the girl, of course, as well as for the boy. Her very first physical closeness is also with her mother, in whose arms she first begins to feel some feeting physical identity and sense of what belongs to her body and what it looks like.

As we have already mentioned, a number of things can interfere with the mother’s capacity to accept the baby in a physical and emotional way, and there are difering factors in each baby which may inhibit its capacity to utilize and to respond to what he is ofered. These half-formulated secret shames about being unattractive, unlovable and lacking in love weigh very heavily on the teenager. Sometimes they lead him to rush prematurely into sexual experience and promiscuity; sometime they inhibit him from seeking it at all.

 

7. Infantile elements and adult strivings in adolescent sexuality

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Martha Harris

When I first came to write this paper I soon realized that its focus would have to be a much narrower one than the title allows. I also found that I was returning over and over again to analytic material from a fairly wide range of gifted adolescents who, as the world goes, were more than usually fortunate in their external circumstances: young people who from any external point of view might seem to have everything in their favour but who nevertheless seemed quite unable to enjoy their good fortune.

In all of them there existed a deep sense of unworthiness together with the quite opposite conviction of being special. There was evidence to suggest that they were regarded by one or both of their parents as special, and that they expected this treatment from the rest of the world although when it was forthcoming they could not use it to assuage their discontent. One could think of them as young people who were in the painful position of having to learn that their appearance, intelligence, emotional endowment, and social position were not evidence of innate superiority but gifts which had to be earned by carrying them and treating them as a responsibility. Difculty in learning this showed itself clearly in their sexual attitudes and behaviour.

 

8. The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions

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Donald Meltzer

The subject I have been asked to talk about today is for many the most central of the psychoanalytic developments linked with the name of Melanie Klein. As with all psychoanalytic concepts it seems to me that, to understand their signifcance, we have to put them in the context of their history. And studying the history of Mrs Klein’s ideas is difer-ent from studying that of Freud, owing to the fact that Freud is both a clinician and a theoretician, whilst Mrs Klein is almost exclusively a clinician who describes far more than she theorizes. The evolution of Freud’s thought is like a country that underwent two revolutions: the first being the fall of the theory of hysteria, and the second being the overthrow of the theory of the libido in the 1920’s and its substitution by the structural theory. The work of Melanie Klein on the other hand has grown in a way more analogous to the peaceful transformation that is characteristic of English political institutions. It seems to me that Melanie Klein, not having a particularly theoretical mentality, did not particularly take account of the changes that were taking place in her use of terminology, and the theoretical implications that she was putting forward.

 

9. Depression and the depressive position in an adolescent boy

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Martha Harris

The clinical material in this paper will be centred around a dream, reported by a boy of ffteen and a half years after some three and a half years of analysis. In its context the dream, which was an important and vivid experience for him, typically conveys, I think, the picture of a patient struggling against those aspects of himself that perpetuate depression and inanition. He struggles to be able to face the confict of ambivalence and the guilt it entails, and to maintain the depressive position—i.e. a state of integration, of responsibility for the conficting emotions and parts of himself in relation to valued objects.

I am assuming that pathological depression ensues from an inability to face pain and to work through the depressive anxiety occasioned by some experience of loss or disappointment. This inability then leads to failure to rehabilitate the lost object or the object which has betrayed one, within the personality. In the course of treatment, early anxieties about loss and defences against experiencing these, come to be relived in the transference relationship at every break, and in the case of patients who are seen four or fve times a week, at every weekend. The material which I would like to discuss in detail was stimulated by a forthcoming holiday.

 

10. From puberty to adolescence

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Donald Meltzer

This afternoon I would like to move on to the second phase: the transition from puberty to adolescence, which is usually characterized by the beginning of sexual relations. The external manifestation of the passage to puberty is a social one; it is accompanied by an emotional separation from the family. One is no longer a child living in the family but a member of the pubertal group. Going back to the loss of distinction between good and bad, described in Mrs Harris’s material, we can say that the pubertal group is really of a tribal type. The two tribes are principally the boys’ tribe and the girls’ tribe, engaged in a battle of the sexes, making incursions of a tribal nature against each other and returning with trophies which are the pride of the tribe. The dream presented by Mrs Harris in which Malcolm found himself in the ruins of his room while he walked up and down like a Nazi [pp. 95-96] clearly describes the spirit of this tribe. Its sexual aspect is an essentially sadomasochistic process and it is essentially homosexual in spirit.

 

11. Juan: a constant disappointment

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Jesús Sánchez de Vega and Donald Meltzer

Therapist: Juan is a ffteen year old boy, strong and well developed for his age but his face has a childish air about it and his clothes and his appearance are rather unkempt. In the last academic year he was doing agricultural studies, which he failed; this year he wants to do mechanics at a diferent professional vocational training centre. I have been seeing him for the last ten months on Tuesdays and Thursdays, face to face. He refused to use the couch at the very beginning saying that it reminded him of assassinated Roman emperors. He is very fond of drawing so he asked me in the very first session if he could do that. We have pen and paper available but he hardly uses them now.

As I open the door he has his back to it; he turns round suddenly and pretends to shoot me, as in a Western. He is smiling. He sits down, gives an enormous yawn and says “It’s hot in here”. He gets up and opens the window. He starts to drum his fngers. There are more yawns, then he says in a soft voice: “I’m collecting my marks tomorrow”. (He is referring to his exam results that will tell him whether he gets a place at the Technical College or not.)

 

12. Elsa: fear of the adolescent community

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Nouhad Dow and Donald Meltzer

Therapist: Elsa is seventeen years old. She was referred to me by the doctor who has been treating her for weight loss for the last fve months. She had also asked to have a surgical operation to reduce her breasts. The doctor described her as a patient who alternates between periods of good response to the treatment and others when, out of uncontrollable voracity, she can put on fve kilos in a short time, for example over a weekend. What worried him the most in the patient was her state of mind after those episodes when she expressed a lack of desire to live, she isolated herself and took in large doses of diuretics combined with other tablets. This was a health risk and alarmed those around her.

She came to the initial interview with her mother, a good-looking woman who seemed younger than she said she was. I let them into my ofce together. My patient had made herself up very carefully and she was wearing the latest fashions. You could say that she is striking. Her hands are constantly playing with her hair as she talks. She is neither fat nor extremely thin. During the first half hour, although I was talking to both of them, it was the mother who spoke. I was even struck by her answers in the plural form: “We have decided to come to you because the doctor said we should”… “We are trying to lose weight”… “We trust whatever the doctor says”… “We are very close”… etc. She seemed very anxious and at times it was as if she were asking for help for herself rather than for her daughter. During that time my patient said very little, as if letting her mother do the work of expressing her problems, but once she was alone with me her attitude changed, she became more communicative. She started by saying that as she was feeling upbeat today it was difficult to describe what happens to her when she is feeling the opposite. Her main worries were, she said, having always felt diferent from other people, her craze for losing weight, and the unpredictable nature of her changes of mood. She does not understand how they come about.

 

13. An adolescent voyeur

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Donald Meltzer

Ayoung man came up to Oxford six years ago, sent to analysis by his counsellor mother, saying that he did not intend to stay long but had come only to see what it was like, but sure the place was full of snobs. He was a well-built but rather coarse-looking fellow, speaking in a rather rough way with a heavy working-class accent: not in keeping, he admitted, with his family culture. He had obtained a place to read Human Sciences, to everyone’s amazement for he’d never worked at school. He sported a nose ring and looked generally uncouth.

However he did stay, obtained a first-class honours and generally improved in appearance over the next six years, transforming after an abortive attempt at a doctorate, into a medical student. The nose ring disappeared, the accent improved and the clothing became cleaner but the analytical work was a sticky afair. The central problem, silence, relieved only by a good recall of dreams, revealed itself as a consequence of a lack of interest in anything other than sex and boozing. He did very little studying and got a good degree he did not deserve, as his girlfriend told him, by his skill as an exam answering machine. He could soak up information efortlessly and intelligently perceived the answers required, padded out with a gift of the gab which never appeared in the analysis but was a relic of his years as an assistant disc-jockey at a night club.

 

14. The claustrum and adolescence

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Donald Meltzer

Undoubtedly the tendencies, through masturbatory processes, to enter into intrusive identification with internal objects, have their origin in the earliest weeks and months of post-natal life. That they have a connection, a reference to memories of life in the womb can be assumed, but the great diference has been traced. It has also been suggested that states of mind infuenced by intrusive identification may be very diferent from those related to a split-of part of the self which has not been born, left behind, a victim of premature splitting processes, like the little crippled boy who was left behind when the Pied Piper led all the children into the mountain:

Did I say, all? No, one was lame,

And could not dance the whole of the way;

And in after years, if you would blame

His sadness, he was used to say,

“It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!”

I can’t forget that I’m bereft

Of all the pleasant sights they see,

Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And fowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new; …”

 

15. A theory of sexual perversion

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Donald Meltzer

Last August, when I was discussing adolescent states of mind, and the linkage with the earlier emotional caesura of the entry of the child into the world, I tried to convey how the relationship of the child with his internal objects prepares him to address the external world and his relationships within it. Now, turning more particularly to perversions, we need to examine more closely the qualities and intricate details of those internal object relations, and the narcissistic manner in which a young person may attempt to bypass the pains of sexual diference and intimate relationships. While teenagers have to deal with the whole spectrum of confusion, when talking about perversions we need to focus on a particular type of confusion: the confusion, that is, between good and bad. While adolescents struggle intensely with a thirst for knowledge—the desire to understand, and the desire and efort to resolve confusion, we also note an opposing psychological force—the use of deliberate confusion, created as a defence, and used as a cynical attack on truth—as a means to consolidate a narcissistic defensive structure.

 

16. Narcissism and violence in adolescents

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Donald Meltzer

The second post-war generation has now reached adolescence, and the present adolescent community is the first to have been raised in the atmosphere of the sexual revolution following the turbulence of 1968. The changes in values and behaviour help us to separate out the cultural from the intrinsic factors in the adolescent state of mind. Gone is the Romantic Agony of the nineteenth century, but also gone is the tendency to fall in love Instead of the expectation that love will lead to sexual intimacy, today’s young people expect that the sexual activity will ripen into love. The earlier predatory pubertal gang sexual behaviour, in which the boys boasted to their fellows of the conquests and the girls faunted their capacity to attract and frustrate the boys, has given way to a more athletic mental-hygiene approach with mutual seduction. The brutality of “fucking” has yielded to the triviality of “bonking”. In its openness it has replaced the secrecy of masturbation.

Unfortunately, the young people who come to analysis are largely those who stand outside the active adolescent community for reasons of psychopathology. They yield us information about their incapacities but very little insight into the essential nature of the adolescent state of mind. This we have to gather at the other end of the analytic population, the people who cannot emerge from the adolescent community, its values, behaviour, and state of mind. They comprise primarily the upwardly mobile “yuppie” who comes for training, the ambisexual who cannot shake of his perversion, the woman who operated on the basis of negative identification with her mother in her attempt to raise her children. They have an adequately adjusted social carapace and yield themselves to the infantile transference with difficulty. But from them we reap a rich insight into the state of mind beyond which they have been unable to progress, despite evident success in their progress up the social ladder. They have been well adjusted indeed to the adolescent community, and its charms still hold them.

 

17. Adolescence: after the hurricane

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Donald Meltzer

As the dazed populace of the village of Puberty emerge from caves and storm cellars, rubbing their sleepless eyes in incredulity, they find themselves staring at one another as strangers, possibly as enemies in a world torn open like blown fowers inviting looting. Who can resist when “everyone” is doing it. A frantic type of excitement replaces the exhaustion of sheltering in the dark, listening to the barrage above.

Frenetic excitement simulates sexuality; needing only the drums in the night of jungle telegraph to spread, as the reinforcement of one element by another, wind by wave, whip the atmosphere into Walpurgisnacht.

Thus puberty has come to an unmistakeable end. Are the parents dead? Or gone on holiday? Or just sleeping in? Certainly no one is fxing breakfast for the children or hurrying them to school. Hurrah, it must be a bank holiday. Even the bank is broken open and inviting the looters. But wait a moment. Are those spots catching? Is it an epidemic? A wave of panic spreads. The plague, like in the fourteenth century. People are falling. Just exhaustion. The smell in the air is just from the uncollected rubbish, broken open by the dogs or by the scavengers. Where are the police? Or the rubbish collectors? They say they are the police. Call for volunteers. You must be joking. No one works without being paid, all whores and rent boys, suddenly, as the black market has sprung up like the wild oats in the barley. That is where all the money is, and with the drug “companies”. The anatomy of chaos. How can it end?

 

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