Enabling and Inspiring: A Tribute to Martha Harris

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Martha Harris (1919-1987) was one of the most influential and also one of the most loved psychoanalysts of the generation that trained with Melanie Klein. She also worked with Wilfred Bion, and wrote many books and papers on psychoanalytic training and child development. Her colleague James Gammill cites Mrs Klein as saying: "She is one of the best people I have ever known for the psychoanalysis of children ... and she has a mind of her own." Harris was responsible for the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic from 1960 onwards, developing laterally the method founded on infant observation that had been put in place by Esther Bick. She established cross-clinic work discussion groups, a pioneering schools' counselling course (in collaboration with her husband Roland Harris), and individual work with disturbed children in the school environment. Her belief that psychoanalytic ideas could and should "travel", both geographically and across the professions, led to her seeding the "Tavi Model" in many other countries through regular teaching trips, in company with her later husband Donald Meltzer.Her influence was not as a theorist, but as a teacher with an extraordinary capacity to engage processes of introjective learning in both students and readers. This tribute by some of those who studied with her is not simply testimony to a remarkable teacher and clinician whose wisdom has been rarely equalled; it also offers inspiration to others who may be struggling to find ways of using psychoanalytic ideas imaginatively in a variety of contexts - clinical, social or scholarly - in what can at times appear to be an unreceptive world.

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1 Mattie at work

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Gianna Polacco Williams1

As you may read in the biography written by Meg Harris Williams (1989), Mattie’s grandfather was called Mazzini McClure and it sounds as if he was a man worthy of his revolutionary name. The revolution that took place in the courses Mattie was responsible for in the 60s and 70s is evidence that she was worthy of her grandfather’s name. The four-year course in Child Psychotherapy that Mattie inherited from Esther Bick in 1960 was a course with limited places. Two or three people started every other year, with very rigorous selection. This included a session with a psychiatrist. In the early days, whoever was accepted was, from the start, a student in Child Psychotherapy, although they only started their clinical work after a period of Infant Observation and Theory seminars. Gradually, Mattie adopted a totally different approach, offering much freer access to a two-year course. It was initially called the Pre-clinical Course, but gradually acquired greater autonomy and became a course in its own right. The first title of the new ourse was Course in Observational Studies and the Application of Psychoanalytic Concepts to Work with Children, Adolescents and Families.2 As the title was so long, it was often referred to as the Observation Course or M7 (this was the code used by the training office when referring to the course). The outline of the original course in Child Psychotherapy was radically modified.

 

2 Mattie as an educator

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Margaret Rustin

Mattie was my most beloved and inspiring teacher. She had a wonderful mind. She could reach deep into herself and use the richness and fluidity of her contact with her own emotional being to understand others. Her students were given a remarkable experience, for they were safely held by her breadth of attentiveness while being brought close to the exhilarating, frightening, exciting, beautiful, astonishing ways in which babies feel and begin to think. Mattie’s love and enjoyment of children and life and her devotion to psychoanalytically inspired exploration of the early development of mind came together in a particularly faithful way in her teaching, and shaped a whole generation of child psychotherapists.

Seeing the lovely gardens she could create, a glorious blend of colour in which the relative wildness of herbaceous borders and free-growing shrubs concealed the very hard work and patient care of the gardener, was for me a source of perceiving how she worked at the Tavistock.

 

3 Mattie’s teaching methods

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Ann Cebon

During a most enjoyable meeting (over dinner, of course!) Eve Steel, Pat Kenwood, Herb Hahn and I – Mattie’s group from Melbourne, Australia – talked about our recollections of Mattie and her teaching methods. We agreed that we shared with each other the extent to which her methods permeated our lives: not only our professional lives at all levels, but also our relations with each other. We share values, curiosity, a love of honesty and forthrightness. For me, there is a thread linking back to Mattie’s mind and Mattie’s room at the Tavi, where I still vividly remember the first meeting of my group for our first infant observation seminar, with Mattie, in the autumn of 1967.

My intention, while writing my personal anecdotes and memories of Martha Harris, is to attempt to convey her unique qualities as a person, teacher, and supervisor. Writing this short piece has again put me in touch with her way of teaching, one could say her way of being, which was not by theory but by practice. What she gave was truly both “pure and applied” as the mathematicians say, and we, her students, imbibed. She was a truly thoughtful and an ethical person, with total integrity, and this conveyed itself to us. The impact Mattie had on me began with my first meeting with her. While I have now come to think of her as “Mattie”, during my nine years in London, and in my subsequent correspondence with her, I always addressed and thought of her as “Mrs Harris”.

 

4 Mattie’s contribution to the study of infant observation

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Janine Sternberg

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Mattie Harris on Tavistock-trained child psychotherapists of my generation (the mid-1970s). In a way that feels similar to my experience of studying psychoanalysis, having been a student of English literature, and finding that nothing that I subsequently learned about human behaviour had not already been realized and alluded to by Shakespeare, so I found in my later research into infant observation that nothing I was discovering had not already been indicated in Mattie’s 1976 paper “The contribution of observation of mother-infant interaction and development to the equipment of a psychoanalyst or psychoanalytic psychotherapist”. This chapter revisits that paper in the hope of reintroducing readers, however familiar with it, to the wealth of useful thoughts that it contains.

Readers of Mattie’s papers will know her written style: of course lacking the hesitations and idiosyncrasies of her speech patterns, but still delightfully feeling as if the reader is in direct conversation with her, not being lectured at. Defences and manoeuvres, undesirable attributes, are all named, but in a low-key, straightforward way, that never sounds critical. In a later paper also on infant observation (“A baby observation: the absent object”) she refers to a baby “putting emotions away because they could not be dealt with” (1980a, p. 167) – a phrase which in my mind has such a depth of humanity contained within it. A compassionate, non-judgmental view suffuses the straightforward narrative. The same fluid, almost conversational style, is also employed in the paper on which I am concentrating.

 

5 A psychoanalytic revolution from a speculative to an empirical point of view

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Didier Houzel

With Donald Meltzer, Martha Harris was one of the architects of the GERPEN. They were invited to Paris by James Gammill, Geneviève Haag, and Jean and Florence Bégoin for the first time during the winter of 1974. The first work session that we had with them was a private one, in the Bégoins’ apartment, in which some twenty or so of our colleagues took part. That work session turned out to be so interesting that we decided to invite them several times per year from then on. The number of participants increased steadily, and we came to realize that we needed a more structured organization in order to manage the weekends properly. It was for that reason that the GERPEN was set up in 1983.

Those weekend sessions were highly successful, thanks in no small measure to the teaching and exceptional creativity of Donald Meltzer – and also to the presence by his side of Martha Harris, who would always add a personal note to what Meltzer was saying. Sometimes, indeed, she would moderate his standpoint if she felt it to be too cut-and-dried, too indicative of a masculine desire to take a firm stand on things. Don and Mattie, as we called them informally, were a well-balanced and creative couple who gave the impression that they were constantly and deeply in love with each other and shared a real passion for psychoanalysis. We were extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from their joint teaching several times per year, from 1974 until 1983.

 

6 The role of Martha Harris from the beginning of the GERPEN

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James Gammill

Some of those who came in the first years of our seminars centred on the psychoanalytical psychotherapy of children considered that the central role was given to Donald Meltzer, with only an accompanying role to his wife, Martha Harris. For me, however, the true and dynamic dialogue that focussed on case presentation and analytic theory was of central importance, and was transmitted to our audience.

I made the acquaintance of Martha Harris in the autumn of 1958, thanks to Melanie Klein, who was then supervising my analysis of a boy of three. One day Mrs Klein said to me,

I want you to meet Mrs Martha Harris who is also having supervision with me. She is one of the best people I have ever known for the psychoanalysis of children. With her there is always a veritable discussion of the material of the sessions, an authentic dialogue. And she has a mind of her own.

Mrs Klein did not appreciate those who seemed too submissive to her theories or to what she formulated in supervisions about technique. At about this time she had spoken to me about reading Le Temps Retrouvé of Proust during her summer vacation and had indicated to me a passage in the book in which Proust speaks of the readers of his work: “I would ask of them neither to praise nor to denigrate me, but only to indicate whether the words they read in themselves correspond to that which I have written” (my translation).

 

7 Martha Harris: an indelible creative memory

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Carlo Brutti and Rita Parlani Brutti

Friendship is a hermeneutic tool which has been neglected in favour of an almost manic preoccupation with scientific objectivity, or an unjustified recourse to subjectivity. Friendship is a hermeneutic tool because it makes the interpreter and the message part of the same structure.

(R. Panikkar, 1990)

What makes the memory of a person indelible? It is when memory depends not only on the shared events of a long time ago, but becomes living and operative in ourselves, as part of our personality and way of being, nourishing our internal world – something which we have constructed together. The relationship with this person does not then consist of sporadic or occasional memories which might remain circumscribed by their circumstances; instead it persists as an ineradicable creative memory. What can one say about such an experience without fossilizing it, unless one is a St Augustine or a Rousseau – a type of spiritual biographer so rarely to be found?

Martha Harris has a significance for us that we do not regard as past, but rather as continuing in a way that permits an ongoing affectionate internal convivere with this friend and teacher. We would like to make explicit this living dimension of a relationship that, as with every true teacher, has become unconscious and inspires our work without our needing to consciously recall it.

 

8 Made in Hampstead and exported throughout the world: Germany and Austria

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Ross A. Lazar

Leaving London and the Tavistock after studying and working there so intensively for more than seven years was not an easy thing for me to do. But having qualifed as a psychoanalytic child and adolescent psychotherapist under the superb guidance and professional expertise of Mattie Harris as course organizer, mentor and “motherly friend”, it was finally time for me to move on. And because of my “previous life” as a student of the History of Art and German Language and Literature in Munich – not to mention the fact that it is my wife’s home – Munich was a logical place to look to in order to open the next chapter in our lives. This part of the decision was made easier by the worsening economic conditions in England at the end of the 1970s, the advent of Margaret Tatcher, and the fact that Germany was booming and greatly in need of well-trained child psychotherapists. Trough a great stroke of luck, I was offered a job at the Biederstein Zentrum, a newly opened outpatient clinic for child and adolescent psychotherapy which Professor Jochen Stork – a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst trained in Paris – had established the previous year in the medical faculty of the Technical University of Munich. But how to even think about leaving the relatively safe haven of the Tavi, of both orthodox Kleinian and the invigorating developments in “post-Kleinian” thinking and practice (as it was coming to be referred to back then), and go out into a strange world to attempt to practice psychoanalytic psychotherapy in a foreign language with children and adolescents whose backgrounds and life circumstances were so very different from my own? The idea both daunted and terrified me! But the decision had been made: we were going. In my insecurity and anxiety, I turned to Mattie to ask for advice, to gain support, and to assuage my fears that I was making a big mistake.

 

9 Mattie in Bombay

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Sarosh Forbes

Imet Mattie first when she and Don came to Bombay to teach the group here. They were the first British analysts to be invited to teach our group. At that time I was already making preparations to go to London as an overseas guest of the British Psychoanalytical Society. I was by then a qualifed analyst but I did want to get some more experience in a personal analysis and supervision with adult cases along with seminars at the BPS. When I arrived in England a big problem facing me, my wife and our two children was how to finance everything. My wife fortunately got a job with Air India in London but this was not enough to sustain us. This is where Mattie came in. Since I knew her from Bombay I met her and conveyed my problem. She was of enormous help in three most important ways.

First, she suggested that I train as a child psychotherapist, which would not only help me financially but also she felt it was essential in analytic work to have experience with children. And she said that since I was already a member of the IPA I could be a trainee immediately through section 5 of the ACP. I had no clue about any of this and her advice enabled me to get two jobs: one in a school for disturbed children and the other in a child guidance clinic. I took a weekly supervision with Mattie, an experience which I treasure and which will always be with me. During this supervision I had a particularly difficult autistic child in therapy. I still remember her words when I thought this child was not helpable – he had no speech apart from his tantrums, etc. She said never stop thinking, never stop trying to think and understand. This child began speaking and his overall improvement was dramatic. And I became a member of the ACP.

 

10 Turning points enabled by Martha Harris

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Marja Schulman

We arrived in London in the early autumn of 1973, when my husband Gustav started his studies at the Tavistock Clinic in the Adult Department. He chose to do an Infant Observation seminar led by Mrs. Martha Harris. I had never heard about baby observation. When I listened to his accounts of the seminar, I felt an irresistible urge and need to get involved. He managed to convey to Mrs Harris that his wife was passionately eager to join in. I was a newly qualifed clinical psychologist. Could she somehow do it? Mattie said it was ok, that I could visit the family with him. He went once a week to a working class family with a baby and the little two and a half year old girl. The mother seemed friendly and said it was fine if I came along.

I remember well our visit to the family. The house was clean and straightforward, no fancy things. I thought Mrs A probably felt it was very natural for Mrs Schulman to come. There was nothing awkward about it – on the contrary. My observations concentrated on the little girl: the big sister who put a little ball under her blouse, pretending she was like Mummy with breasts. I remembered doing that myself in my childhood. The baby´s nappies were changed by the competent mother according to routine. He was not breastfed.

 

11 Growing points and the role of observation

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Meg Harris Williams

The title of this chapter is taken from my mother’s last paper, published in 1982: “Growing points in psychoanalysis inspired by the work of Melanie Klein”. Here she reflects on the influence of Mrs Klein and selects what she considers to be genuine subsequent “growing points” in the history of psychoanalysis itself; Bion would call these points of “catastrophic change”.

What is a growing point? To pursue her botanical metaphor, a growing point is a place where all the essential genetic information for development is concentrated, ready to sprout or branch outward. It is a point at which different influences converge, meet, and create another shoot (a new idea or “baby”), and there is of course an implication of inevitable “growing pains”. She uses the term “inspired by”, which always implies a sense of responding to a life-force beyond any single person’s control – “the force that through the green fuse drives the fower” as Dylan Tomas expresses it (Fern Hill). The historical growing points since Klein that she lists in her paper are very few: firstly, Bion’s idea of the thinking breast that operates through normal projective identifcation; secondly, Mrs Bick’s of normal unintegration and integration; thirdly Meltzer’s distinction between three- and two-dimensionality. These are all concepts that enhance our capacity to observe the complexity of normal development, marking the seismic shift in psychoanalytic thinking from its earlier preoccupation with psychopathology and diagnosis.

 

12 The experience of supervision

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Catrin Bradley

Ihad individual supervision during my training with Mattie for the two terms leading up to the summer of her accident. Mattie was someone I had known all my life as our families were close, and her inspiration certainly played a part for me in deciding on the career change which brought me into this work. In training I attended her Personality Development seminars, Bion seminars and clinical seminars, and her influence in all these contexts joins together in my mind with the experience of the individual supervisions to make a composite presence, at the root of my therapeutic work. In my contribution to this book I want to think about one aspect of my experience of the supervision I had: the way in which my patient’s material, initially so unpromising, fourished so that he (and she – I will give two examples) became able to convey their emotional experience movingly, with powerful imagery. How did this happen?

Mattie paid close attention to the write-up of the sessions I brought to her, getting me to repeat or explain things so that she would have it clear in her mind, and usually we thought about two or even three sessions together. What I said (or didn’t say) was never the focus, but the child’s material: what direction it was going in, what it might mean, and her mind was full of ideas about it. It felt to me that she sometimes anticipated what was going to happen, as if she could see what was coming next, but reading the notes over now I can see that it appeared like that because she was talking about things I had missed! After she talked about them, then I could see it, next time.

 

13 Mattie as “maternal container” for a trainee

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Evanthe Blandy

Mattie was there for me at my beginning, but not at my end. In terms of the training, that is. I did not say goodbye to her. After her accident, I thought about visiting her, but could not bear to see her with her spirit dimmed. Also, I did not feel it was my “place”. Only in thinking through this piece, which has taken me over a year to produce, have I come to understand what a live person she is in my mind. Perhaps I have had to come to terms with her loss. I am grateful here, though late in the day, to have the chance to acknowledge the debt of gratitude I feel towards Mattie.

I began my training in child psychotherapy in 1974 at the Tavistock Clinic at the age of 27. My first experience of learning about the human psyche from observation was with Martha Harris, known to all who worked at the time at the Tavistock Clinic, as “Mattie”. Mattie was the first person I encountered there as she had interviewed me. When she told me, after 20 minutes, that I was accepted onto the course, I felt I had to tell her that I had applied unsuccessfully three times for another training – in effect that the Tavistock was my second choice. Perhaps I could not believe my luck, but this was hardly an appropriate time to be transparent! But she countered my doubts by saying that what mattered was that as many people as possible train in this kind of work, wherever. I subsequently learned that she believed candidates choose themselves, in effect. She understood that people come into this work because it is their vocation. She must have seen it in me at that time, although I did not know it myself. Her lack of ego, in the colloquial sense, struck me forcibly from the start.

 

14 A glimpse of prenatal life

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Romana Negri

Imet Martha Harris for the first time in 1970, at the Institute of Infant Neuropsychiatry of Milan University, where she gave periodical seminars up to 1973. I was struck by the profundity and subtlety of her comments regarding the supervision of some little girls who were the subject of play observations. Her perceptions enabled her to modify the diagnostic and prognostic evaluations which had been hypothesized. We had also proposed that she supervise some single observation sessions of newborn infants. Although it had not been possible to offer her all the material and there was insufficient continuity with the observations of the infants at home, I was all the same struck by her ability to capture these earliest mental experiences together with the dynamics, intensity, and undertones of the mother’s feelings.

Up to then my interest in newborn infants was mainly concerned with the neurological aspects. I had also started counselling sessions in the intensive care unit of Seriate Hospital (Bergamo), aimed at the early detection of cerebral palsy in little patients recently discharged from hospital. My work consisted o making a neurological evaluation of the infant before discharge and then following it up to two years of age.

 

15 Assessment of a little girl and her parents

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Simona Nissim

Coming back to this case that I presented many years ago to Martha and Donald Meltzer, has given me the pleasure of thinking that I am leaving live, fresh, enjoyable memories to students and younger readers. Mattie and Don are no longer with us, but their ateliers – gathered viva voce by craftsmen-students who had the privilege of sharing their experience with them – are precious material to be handed on.

I am going to present two consultation-assessments of a little girl, Serena, 16 months old, and her parents (mostly her mother); and one can see how clinical material through its nuances may merge into infant observation. The special interest of this work lies in the interaction between Mattie and Don, both very close to the emotions of the baby and her parents – often in a synergistic confirmation of common thinking, rich and complementary; at other times in a sort of counterpoint, with reflections coming from a different vertex. In their free, cultured and never compliant mix of thoughts and hypotheses, I was moved to find a demonstration of the dual characteristics that Meltzer loved to emphasize were an inherent feature of the technique of interpretation: the “hunting” aspect fulfilled by himself, while the “gardening” qualities belonged to Mattie.

 

16 Supervision of a five year old boy

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Andrea Watson

The decision of Dr Meltzer and Mrs Harris in 1977 to split their analytic practice and to work half-time teaching and analysing in Oxford was one that had a transforming effect both professionally and personally on many people’s lives, including mine. I was able, as a psychiatric social worker working in the Child Guidance Clinic in Oxford to attend the clinical seminars that Dr Meltzer began leading. It was the experience of these that convinced me that I both wanted and needed to undertake an analysis for myself. Dr Meltzer referred me to Doreen Weddell and I began my analysis with her in July 1979.

At this point I had absolutely no thought of training as a child psychotherapist, but this began to change gradually under her influence and encouragement. Looking back, I believe that she anticipated that she probably would not live long enough to complete my analysis and she wanted to leave me in safe analytic hands before she died. She had already suffered a number of strokes that had left her with physical though not mental impairment. She died after I had been in analysis with her for 18 months, but within that time she insisted – and I think that is not too strong a word – that I undertake an Infant Observation with Mrs Harris and also that I entered supervision with her for the work with children that I was beginning to do.

 

17 Revisiting some lessons learned from Martha Harris

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Dina Vallino

Imet Martha in the mid-1970s when, invited by Lina Generali Clements, she used to visit the Centro Milanese di Psicoanalisi. I had the great fortune of having both the supervision of Martha Harris (assisted by Donald Meltzer) for an infant observation, and of attending seminars led by her. Martha’s supervision of Luca alternated on a monthly basis with that of Lina Generali Clements. During this same period, Mattie also supported me through her supervision of a number of severe cases that I had in psychoanalysis at that time. When she was unable to stop over in Milan, I used to go to the airport where, between fights, she would give me her supervision over a cup of tea. She always offered me, unfailingly, all the understanding and help that a young analyst might hope for when starting out. Profound and firm in her ideas, Martha was also kind and approachable, and I feel an enormous sense of gratitude towards her.

In 1989 I published, in issue 18 of Quaderni di Psicoterapia Infantile – which was devoted entirely to Martha Harris – several supervisions which she gave me on the case of a girl called Lucia. Lucia was ten years old and affected by severe epileptic seizures, and had started intensive analysis with me (four sessions a week) at the age of five. The session and supervision from 1981 of which I here provide the transcript was recorded by some friends who were also present; and transcribed by Maria Pagliarani, Adele Pavia and Iolanda Galli. In my view it is highly representative of Mattie’s style of working. I have also added a few comments on how I developed as an analyst and on the significance, to me, of Martha Harris’s teaching.

 

18 Reminiscences of an infant observation with Martha Harris

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Angela Goyena

In November 2010, on the occasion of a homage to Martha Harris in Paris (by the GERPEN)1, Meg Harris Williams asked me if I would like to write a paper based on my experience of infant observation when I was supervised by Martha Harris. I was lucky to find some of my notes and typewritten records, and also tape-recordings of a few of the supervisions, which I have pieced together in order to describe this immensely important learning experience I am so grateful to have had.

Just before beginning my psychoanalytic training in Paris I was working as a psychotherapist with adult and adolescent patients. I attended with a small group of colleagues seminars given by Dr Herbert Rosenfeld, who was supervising our clinical work. He strongly advised me to consider doing an infant observation as this would help me to gain understanding about the development of young children. He also emphasized that the experience of infant observation was very helpful in developing awareness of infantile experience and non-verbal communication in our patients. Some time after, taking up Dr Rosenfeld on his suggestion, I asked Martha Harris for supervision of my observations which were due to begin a few weeks later. She agreed to see me for individual supervision on a monthly basis.

 

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