Born in Vienna of Jewish parentage, Melanie Klein first sought psychoanalysis for herself with Sandor Ferenczi when he was living in Budapest during World War I. There she became a psychoanalyst and began analysing children in 1919. In 1921 she moved to Berlin where she studied with and was analysed by Karl Abraham. Although Abraham supported her pioneering work with children, neither Klein nor her ideas received much support in Berlin. However, impressed by her innovative work, British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones invited Klein to come to London in 1926, where she worked until her death in 1960.
Melanie Klein had a major influence on the theory and technique of psychoanalysis, particularly in Great Britain. As a divorced woman whose academic qualifications consisted of a teaching degree, Klein was a visible iconoclast within a profession dominated by male physicians.
After the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalyst daughter, Anna, in London in 1938, Klein’s ideas came into conflict with those of Continental analysts who were immigrating to Britain. Following protracted debates between the followers of Klein and the followers of Anna Freud during the 1940s, the British Psychoanalytical Society split into three separate training divisions: (1) Kleinian, (2) Anna Freudian, and (3) independent. This division remains to the current time.
Apart from her professional successes, Melanie Klein’s life was full of tragic events. She was the product of an unwanted birth - her parents showed her little affection. Her much loved elder sister died when Klein was four, and she was made to feel responsible for her brother’s death. Her academic studies were interrupted by marriage and children. Her marriage failed and her son died, while her daughter, the well-known psychoanalyst Melitta Schmideberg, fought her openly in the British Psychoanalytic Society. Mother and daughter were not reconciled before Klein's death, and Schmideberg did not attend Klein's funeral. Melanie Klein was also clinically depressed (Grosskurth 1986).
Although she questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of Sigmund Freud, Klein always considered herself a faithful adherent to Freud's ideas. Klein was the first person to use traditional psychoanalysis with young children. She was innovative in both her techniques (such as working with children using toys) and her theories in infant development. Strongly opinionated, and demanding loyalty from her followers, Klein established a highly influential training program in psychoanalysis. She is considered one of the co-founders of object relations theory.
Klein's theoretical work gradually centered on a highly speculative hypothesis eventually accepted by Freud, which stated that life may be an anomaly, that it is drawn toward an inorganic state, and therefore, in an unspecified sense, contains a drive towards death. In psychological terms Eros (sex drive), the postulated sustaining and uniting principle of life, is thereby presumed to have a companion force, Thanatos (death drive), which allegedly seeks to terminate and disintegrate life.
While Freud’s ideas concerning children mostly came from working with adult patients, Klein was innovative in working directly with children, often as young as two years old. Klein saw children’s play as their primary mode of emotional communication. After observing troubled children play with toys such as dolls, animals, plasticine, pencil and paper, Klein attempted to interpret the specific meaning of play. She realised that parental figures played a significant role in the child’s phantasy life, and considered that the chronology of Freud’s Oedipus complex was imprecise. Contradicting Freud, she concluded that the superego was present long before the Oedipal phase.
After exploring ultra-aggressive phantasies of hate, envy, and greed in very young, very ill children, Melanie Klein proposed a model of the human psyche that linked significant oscillations of state, with whether the postulated Eros or Thanatos drive was in the fore. She named the state of the psyche, when the sustaining principle of life is in domination, the depressive position. The psychological state corresponding to the disintegrating tendency of life she called the paranoid-schizoid position.
Melanie Klein's insistence on regarding aggression as an important force in its own right when analysing children brought her into conflict with Freud's own daughter, Anna Freud, who was one of the other prominent child psychotherapists working in England at that time. Many controversies arose from this conflict, and these are often referred to as the controversial/scientific discussions.
Today, Kleinian psychoanalysis is one of the major schools within psychoanalysis. Kleinian psychoanalysts are members of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Kleinian psychoanalysis is claimed to be the predominant school of psychoanalysis within Britain, in much of Latin America, and with the possible exception of Lacanianism, in much of continental Europe. Within the United States of America, the Psychoanalytic Center of California is the major training center that follows the work of Melanie Klein. Kleinian psychoanalysis with adults is characterized by a very traditional technique using an analytic couch and meeting four to five times a week. Kleinian analysis focuses on interpreting very "deep" and primitive emotions and phantasies.
Melanie Klein's works are collected in four volumes:
Other books on Melanie Klein:
In Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series of novels, Irene Pollock, the overbearing, interfering, and pseudo-intellectual mother who torments her six-year-old son Bertie with her smothering over-involvement, is an ardent adherent of the theories of Melanie Klein.