Review: ‘Ink in her veins: The troubled life of Aileen Palmer’.


, , , , ,

Sylvia Martin, Ink In her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer, University of Western Australia Press, 2016.


It is difficult to not turn away when someone’s life is not working out well. It’s easier to shun. Work colleagues, unable to cope with difficult behaviours, might ease the person from their midst. A family might  banish that brother, sister, son or daughter to a silent place. When respectability is everything  mental distress can shake  to the core.

Sylvia Martin takes us into these shadowy silences in her biography of Aileen Palmer, a translator and talented poet and novelist. Plagued by mental illness  during the second half of her life- or was it, in part, the mental distress of wartime trauma? – Palmer never truly flourished as a writer despite the talent of her youth. Instead  she remained within the protective cowl of her family: her parents, the writers Vance and Nettie Palmer and her sister, Helen Palmer. Regarded on a par with royalty in the Australian literary world from the 1930s the Palmers  moved with socialistic, communistic elite. They held a central place in Melbourne’s literary circles which included Clem Christesen, the founder editor of the journal Meanjin, his wife, Russian born, Nina Maximov Christesen who launched the study of Russion and Slavonic Studies at the University of Melbourne and the historian Brian Fitzpatrick . Nettie Palmer’s biography of the writer, Henry Handel Richardson certainly underlined Richardson’s importance as an Australian author who centred her work  on the colonial experience and the vexed question of identity. The author Katherine Susannah Pritchard was  a presence in Palmer family life – and a mentor to Aileen.   Vance Palmer’s books: The Passage published in 1930 and The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories, published in 1957 sold more than 50,000 copies each between 1959 and 1974. The Passage found its way onto high school reading lists.  Helen Palmer, an educationalist, sometimes poet and, along with her sister,  a member of the Communist Party , also has a place in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in a biographical written by fellow Communist Party member, Robin Gollan a historian of the Australian left. Aileen, it seems, was put away. Until Sylvia Martin found her.

Aileen Palmer was born in 1915, Helen in 1917. At the time her parents were struggling to make their living from writing. Neither had an independent income: both came from middle class families.  Nettie’s own background centred upon the Baptist Church where good deeds were prized over monetary gain.  Vance’s family valued respectability and decency.  Rebellion, if that was what it was, did not venture much beyond these bounds despite the couple’s professsed political radicalism. Neither entirely came to terms with Aileen’s choices including her sexuality. Both sisters appear to have struggled against the strictures of their parents’ iron grip. Aileen was the one who did not get away.

When Aileen was a small child the family moved to Queensland  so Vance and Nettie could afford to live on their writing. During her teens  she attended Presbyterian Ladies College in Kew, Melbourne,  and went on to the University of Melbourne to study French literature along with German, Spanish and Russian. She graduated with a first class honors degree in French in 1935. All the while she wrote. Her semi autobiographical novel, ‘Poor Child’, was written during her late teens, explored her passion for a beautiful teacher – part of a rite of passage as she grew into adulthood. At university she was part of a friendship group of women whose political and literary views, if not their sexuality, appealed to her. Aileen was a young woman in formation – using the space that university life provided to explore ideas and identity.

After her graduation the Palmer family  went first to England where Aileen immersed herself in the local politics. She travelled alone to Vienna working as a translator at the while Hitler’s fascism asserted its power. She rejoined her family in Barcelona at the time of the July 1936 insurrection. After her parents departure Aileen volunteered  for the Communist led International Brigade and worked as an interpreter at the English Hospital at Granén on the Aragon Front. She returned to London, and drove ambulances during the Blitz. She appears to have had a serious love affair with ‘B’, who while never identified, appears to have been a woman. Nettie Palmer, her mother, may not have known about this even though, Martin notes, Aileen’s preference for women was clear.

Aileen’s years in Spain and London were the time of her life. It ended in 1945 when she returned, reluctantly, to Australia at her sister’s request after her mother suffered a mild stroke. Helen promptly moved to Sydney leaving Aileen with their parents in Melbourne – subject to their ways that stifled Aileen’s creativity and sexuality. Nor did the milieu in which she lived help.  Aileen’s life was built upon the conventions, constraints and assumptions of elder daughterly duty. Unable to reconcile herself with unconscious strictures  within her family’s life, Aileen broke down. She became an alcoholic; her mind snapped, and for the rest of her life she was admitted to hospital for long periods where she  was treated with new and experimental forms of psychiatry. She attempted psychoanalysis and tried to write.

But this writing, unlike her juvenilia, was often designated the product of a mentally ill person with signs of manic behaviour (p. 276)  and was not taken seriously. Martin does not agree with this view. Nor, eventually, did her sister who began to see the beauty in Aileen’s poetry, and the rhythms and cadences of her writing ( p. 276). Aileen was able to put her emotional experience into words, Martin says. Is it that the clumsiness of psychiatric treatment of the day has obscured talent? This is not to say that the treating psychiatrists were ignorant of such qualities in their patients. But  good work has been lost even if talent has not been undermined. I have heard of paintings, given to carers in gratitude by such talented people, destroyed because they were  thought of as ‘mad art’. Fortunately someone was wise enough to keep Aileen’s work and donate it to a library.

Martin’s  archival mining has produced a number of Aileen’s poems including this one: ‘The dead have no regrets‘ read at the 2016 commemoration of the British and Irish volunteers who went to Spain from 1936 to 1939.


Maybe Aileen Palmer absorbed her mother’s ambivalence  about the entire literary enterprise. Palmer had put aside her poetry Aileen was born. She hoped, too, that her daughter would not have ‘ink in her veins’ suggesting that her experience as an author had led her to conclude that a writer’s life was not a desirable one. Palmer continued to write and promote other authors, helping describe Australian literature to the rest of the world and Australia itself.

Aileen may not have known, consciously, of her mother’s doubt, but absorbed it, as if by osmosis.  She wanted more than anything to be remembered as a poet, Martin writes. But  her mother’s injunction, internalised from the the cradle, confused her.  Her more emotionally robust younger sister was not as encumbered. Nor did she suffer, as Aileen did, the mental illnesses that also plagued their uncle, ‘Wob’, Vance Palmer’s brother.  When Aileen finally published her book of poetry, World Without Strangers, it almost co-incided with her mother’s death in 1964. As if by then, Martin writes ‘she could cast off her mother’s shadow’. ( p. 265).

While Martin’s portrait of Aileen takes us into the Spanish Civil War and to the London Blitz, her writing about  1940s and 1950s Melbourne intellectual circles adds much to the historical record. In 1940, true to form for she was always in the front line when it came to doing good,  Nettie Palmer volunteered to assist with the Victorian International Refugee Committee and began teaching English to newly arrived Europeans refugees – among them doctors and architects. One of them was Melbourne psychoanalyst, Hungarian doctor Clara Lazar Geroe who had arrived in Australia in March 1940 with her husband and son after intense lobbying  by a group of doctors and their supporters. These included   Sydney psychoanalyst Roy Coupland Winn and in Melbourne, Paul Dane, Norman Albiston, Reg Ellery and Guy Reynolds. These were Melbourne’s leading psychiatrists working at a time when new ideas and treatments were developing: electroconvulsive therapy, insulin treatment and other medications. Such methods were revolutionising psychiatric treatment – particularly for those suffering psychotic illnesses. Ostensibly  this new medication relieved symptoms enough for people to be treated on an outpatient basis, rather than incarceration. But not without severe side effect and wild experimentation such as the sleeping cure; with lithium where learning about side effects was part of the process. Patients still had long spells in hospital: but months rather than years. At times treatment must have felt worse than the illness. And if Aileen told her story about her life in Spain and England it appears that her carers regarded this as part of her delusional system. Martin relates these events without judgement. Rancour is left to the reader.

Even more so upon reading Martin’s account of Aileen’s psychoanalysis with Clara Geroe. Nettie Palmer had taught  English to Geroe – well enough for her to begin practising psychoanalysis in 1941. At this time Nettie recorded conversations with Geroe: about her frustration about her refugee life; her inability to move about the community without a permit and the prejudicial behaviour she had experienced at the hands of a police officer.  ” You say your’re a doctor! Can’t you read the rules? Says it’splain hatred of the intellectual”. ( p. 237).  Geroe’s dissatisfaction with her emigration and loss of her intellectual world is apparent.

Aileen was to remark that her treatment with Geroe did not help. In fact it made her more depressed, she said.  Geroe did her own bit of undermining. She employed Helen Palmer as a typist requesting that Aileen not be told. She seems to have wanted to be part of the Palmer’s lives. One wonders whether such fragments, recorded in Nettie’s diary, are clues to another story about Geroe’s longing to connect with the world she had lost. Was it that Geroe wanted to recover the place she had left behind in Budapest more than she wanted to practice as a psychoanalyst? Or was it that her ideas about psychoanalysis and how it is practiced are no longer in favour – if they ever were? Geroe was a long way from the land of her birth, training and the accountabilities these implied. Aileen, shocked by her Spanish and English experiences, and by her subsequent emotional collapse, appears not to have found the treatment she needed.

There is much to learn from this biography about a very troubled person who tried so hard. Martin’s accumulation of evidence, carefully collated, is written without judgment but all the while building a portrait of a woman interacting with her world, conscious and unconscious. I walked the streets Aileen. I rode beside her on the battle fields and stood watching, shocked while she pulled bodies from the rubble in London. And then there was the downhill slide…

I finished this book with sadness for a life and talent not realised. I wanted more for Aileen Palmer.  A biographer cannot do better.




Deborah Jordan (2013), ‘In defence of Vance and Nettie’, Overland, No. 10, October 2013.

What is psychoanalysis? Explained.

My piece about psychoanalysis for the Australian edition of the online daily, The Conversation was published last Friday. It has had a good reception, I think. I will leave it to you to decide.

Here is the link.

”The Conversation’, by the way,  draws its authorship from academia. With the assistance of an excellent editorial team who tolerate the vagaries of non journalists writing journalism, it covers a broad range of issues with intelligence and depth.


Wrongful Committal: The Psychoanalyst, his wife, the Judge and the Asylum – Melbourne 1954

A serious, sad scandal…

In the course of a lifetime things happen that some would rather not remember. If they reach the public domain where one is the object of scandal and controversy and each prurient detail of life at the moment is published in the mainstream press, there is comfort in the idea that, in time, people will forget. Life will move on and memory will disappear into the archives.

Until recently.

Since 2010 the National Library of Australia has been digitizing its entire newspaper collection. A search engine has been developed and as a result the past is at our fingertips. Time is collapsed. So too is distance as we learn that newsmakers in one state were also celebrated in others. It is possible to see what made news sixty years ago. And despite uneasy questions about privacy, intrusion and boundaries, particularly when the subject matter concerns a well-known identity in the professional or social world, such events are all in the public domain. For historians, such as me, searching in this case for information about the psychoanalyst Clara Geroe, the possibility of stumbling upon something else of interest is increased. The question? Why is it important? Or is it all merely salacious gossip? Does writing about such matters some sixty years after the event increase understanding of the development of psychoanalysis in Australia? Certainly it is a glimpse into the culture of the day and, I suggest, into changing ideas about women, their place in the community and in marriage. And probably it also points to changing ideas and anxieties about mental illness, psychoanalysis and psychology and the power of psychiatry. For if a doctor could certify his wife, what did this mean for the rest of us?

The publicity surrounding the marital breakup of Frank and Nell Graham was the stuff of Hollywood legend where the marriages of movie stars featured on the front covers of magazines and, often enough, their divorces too. It had all the glamour of Melbourne’s elite. A handsome profile of Frank himself was published in the newspapers. It was reported in the interstate press and made it into some of the regional papers. The year was 1954. Frank Graham was a respected psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Nell, as was the custom of the day, had listed herself on the electoral roll as undertaking ‘Home Duties’. The couple had one son aged about seven. If the papers are to be believed, Nell’s version was that the marriage breakup was due to Frank’s obsession with psychoanalysis – a subject on which, she told reporters, they vehemently disagreed. Frank’s response was that he wanted to help his wife whom he genuinely considered to be mentally ill. Nell Graham did not agree with that either. Neither did her family nor it seems did Joan Rosenove, the first woman Barrister in Victoria who represented Nell Pro Bono in the ensuing court case along with Mr D M Campbell QC. It may be that Dr Richard Ramsay Webb, the Superintendent of Royal Park Hospital, where Nell Graham was admitted, and Justice Martin, the judge who heard the case, also did not agree with Dr Graham’s assessment.

At the time Frank and Nell Graham had been married for thirteen years and had had a son together.They had moved to Victoria from Sydney shortly after their marriage in 1940. Frank, a newly graduated doctor had sought psychoanalysis from Roy Coupland Winn from whom he had heard about the arrival of the Hungarian psychoanalyst Dr Clara Lazar Geroe and, in 1941, her appointment as a training analyst for the British Psychoanalytical Society. He found a job at Melbourne’s Royal Park Hospital, and asylum for the mentally ill.  The job also provided accommodation for medical staff in the  hospital grounds. In this way Frank commenced analytic training: – sessions of analysis, supervisions and seminars with Geroe. Nell was a trained nurse. But, as was the path of women of the day, she stayed at home to look after the house and, eventually, to care for their son. It is also relevant for readers to be aware that Frank Graham, who had suffered from Polio as a child, walked with the support of a stick.

By 1946 Graham had commenced practice at 110 Collins Street in Melbourne – the same address as Geroe. In 1951 Graham was an Associate Member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He had published papers on group analysis in the Australian Medical Journal, was active as secretary of the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis and the newly formed Psychoanalytical Society of Australia.

What follows next can be deduced from the newspapers which, for the benefit of readers, reported every skerrick about a marriage in trouble. Nell had been unwell for some time during 1950. Frank believed this was psychosomatic and wanted her to consult “Madame Geroe”. She declined. On one occasion, after she asked her husband to find a masseur he had, she said, engaged Madame Geroe who visited their home, given her a massage with the result that Nell had begun to feel better. There were arguments over Frank’s obsession with psychoanalysis, a practice Nell disliked and with which she disagreed and thought to be ‘a fad and a fetish’. Nell did not like the fact that her husband consulted with women, and in an affidavit said she “believed her husband had had improper relations with his women patients as she I had seen him at his professional rooms with lipstick all over his face”. Frank Graham had become angry with his wife’s opposition; he had threatened her with his walking stick, roared at her that he wanted to cut her throat from ear to ear and called her a witch. It appears that the couple had separated by the beginning of 1954. Nell said she believed he had ‘found a new girlfriend’, a psychologist who was also undergoing psychoanalysis. Frank, Nell said, had told her of his hope they would have the ‘perfect child’.

Matters came to a head on 27 April 1954 when, it was reported in the press, a taxi pulled up outside Nell’s home, close to the back-yard.  A woman emerged from the vehicle and went to the back door. Nell tried to flee through the front door of the house but was grabbed by the woman, forced into a taxi and taken to Royal Park Hospital. She was certified by two of her husband’s colleagues. Nell said she believed this had been instigated by her husband.

 After eight hours in the admissions unit, the superintendent moved Nell to an open ward. She was not longer a certified patient. She was able to contact her brother and also her lawyers.

A writ of Habeus Corpus was issued, requiring Nell to be brought before the court especially to secure her release unless lawful grounds were shown for her detention. In her affidavit Nell declared she was perfectly sane and had been wrongfully committed by colleagues of her husband without a proper examination. She alleged they had been sent by her husband with whom she was in dispute about the custody of their child. Evidence was given by Dr Janet Pierson Cooper. She had examined Nell in June and December 1953 and during Nell’s admission to Royal Park. She could find no evidence that she was mentally ill. The question for the judge to decide was whether Nell Graham should remain in hospital.

After an initial hearing in his Chambers, Justice Smith referred the matter to Justice Martin whose careful consideration of the events set aside the emotional war raging between the couple. His question was whether the requirements under the Mental Hygiene Act had been followed.

He deduced the following: Nell been admitted to Royal Park, and as was the procedure for certified patients, placed in the reception unit gazetted for such purposes.  She remained there for eight hours. She was then removed, on the instructions of the Superintendent of Royal Park, Dr Ramsay Webb, to another part of the hospital which, ‘it so happened, was not gazetted under the act’. Was she still under certificate? Did she have to remain in hospital?  Rosenove  and Campbell argued that she was not. The Superintendent left it to the court to decide.

Counsel for Dr Graham argued that there had been little or no opportunity for his client to reply. Allegations had been made which were not true, he said.  There was also the question about whether Nell should be required to remain in hospital for a month pending further examination. Justice Martin declined. The matter before the court was whether Nell Graham was ‘improperly detained or not’. After more argument from Dr Graham’s Counsel, that she should be retained in hospital because it was believed she was mentally disturbed, Justice Martin found that as Nell had not been kept in the receiving house at Royal Park the entire basis of her being kept in hospital ‘had fallen to the ground’. By moving her from the receiving house the Superintendent had nullified her certification under the Act. Nell was released.

Nell Graham was far from mad, I think.  She was certainly distressed. And so was her husband whose belief and commitment to psychoanalysis his wife bitterly resented. They were a couple at war whose battles, momentarily, had reached the front pages. The fact that Frank Graham was a doctor who had tried to certify his wife was part of the interest.

After the court case was over the press, Hollywood style, waited for a statement from Frank Graham. It was finally released on 5th April, 1954. He tried to make light of the events. After all he loved his wife and Nell had always been ‘only girl for me’, he said. But he remained true to his belief in his diagnosis which was recorded in affidavits that would not be released to the press. There was the matter of their son’s custody to consider and, quite sensibly, he declared the matter closed.

By the end of 1954 Nell Graham took her husband to court again. Her complaint was that he had not provided sufficient means of support. It is was decided between the pair, with the assistance of legal representatives, that Nell would be paid 13 pounds a week. Graham was ordered to pay costs.

So why is this very sad and tragic tale of a marital breakup important?

First there is the sensationalism of the reportage. From 1940 Frank Graham had pursued a new professional identity as the first Australian trained psychoanalyst under the new arrangement with the British Psychoanalytical Society. Together with Clara Lazar Geroe and several other colleagues he was involved in the dissemination of new ideas about the mind – involved in holding psychoanalytic conferences and lectures and seeing patients. This might have created uneasiness in the broader community. Perhaps Nell Graham reflected this unease. For most people, maybe, psychoanalysis was for Hollywood movie stars; about Freud, the Oedipus complex and dream interpretation – if it was thought about at all.

Secondly there was the sober and serious question about the rights of patients and the power of doctors to decide whether a person was insane or not. Justice Martin’s concern was whether Nell was being wrongfully treated when she arrived at Royal Park. The Superintendent, Dr Ramsay Webb, appeared to have concluded that there was no reason for Nell to remain in the gazetted unit after eight hours. Was he also signalling that he did not agree with his colleague’s certification of her?  It seemed that Dr Graham had certified his wife because he thought she was ill. Was she not protesting about her treatment from him in the only way she could? She thought him to be violent at this stage. She had been spurned and faced losing custody of her child. There was little support for single parents let alone women stigmatized by divorce in those days. But in the intensity of a marital dispute, if not breakup, emotions run high and words uttered that should not be. The matter needs more investigation.

Then there is the question of the woman’s place in marriage. One interpretation is that Nell was failing to support her husband in his chosen work. By not remaining silent she was bringing him and his profession into disrepute. But she was also challenging his assumed power over her. By speaking up against the accusation she was insane, gaining the support of two respected legal professionasl and also perhaps, through the act of removing her from the locked ward at Royal Park the judgement thrust upon her by her husband, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was in dispute.

Nell Graham had refused to co operate.

Finally there is the story of psychoanalytic training in Australia. It was still new, a little more than thirteen years since its commencement in Melbourne. A new branch had begun in Sydney in 1951 and they were working together to form an Australian group. When the Graham’s marital brawl reached the front pages the consulting room door was opened and humanity appeared at its most raw. It was packed away quickly when Graham made the statement that there would be no statment. But in the longer term?


Release from mental home sought ‘I was grabbed, forced in taxi’ (1954, March 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

WIFE’S CHARGES AGAINST DOCTOR HUSBAND (1954, March 31). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Now in mental home Doctor’s wife asks court: ‘Set me free’ (1954, March 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 1. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Charge Against Doctor (1954, March 31). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 1. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

BASIS Or HOMES HOLD FALLS TO GROUND—JUDGE Royal Park told to let doctor s wife go (1954, April 3). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

COURT ORDERS RELEASE OF MRS. GRAHAM (1954, April 3). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 4. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Dr. Graham releases his statement (1954, April 5). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Judge Ends Order on Mrs. Graham (1954, April 6). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

He wants his son (1954, May 29). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Doctor Seeks Son’s Custody (1954, May 29). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 3. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Doctor to Pay Wife’s Maintenance (1954, December 10). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), , p. 10. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Matilda’s Therapy – London, 1944

Session III : Thursday 18 May 1944

Matilda is living near Belsize Park Road, part of a community of German-Jewish refugees who had fled Hitler in the early years of the war. After a period working as a fire watcher during the Blitz she was employed as a clerk in an organisation assisting refugees.

Recently she has been romantically involved with  two men – Robert whom she met several months ago and Monty, with whom she has been going out with for a long time. Both are serving in the military forces in some way. It means they are away, overseas, for long periods.  There are long gaps between meetings.

She has been puzzled about her response to Robert with whom she had felt, upon meeting, that there was much to bind them together. Potentially. She had felt herself to be in love, but doubted her capacity for this. But then? She is writing in her second language, or her third. It is difficult to decipher meaning as a result. Her thoughts seem disjointed, her tenses are all over the place. She might be unable to write down her thoughts. The intense feelings are too much, maybe.  The mind, I think, is not an orderly space. She writes,

I have some of that feeling of panic and emptiness.  I vaguely feel that something is wrong with Robert and wonder at the same time whether this is not a projection on to him of my own vacillating emotions?  With Monty I feel warm and comforted in that warm and paternal presence, although I often come across traits that  disturb me: sentimental, self dramatising, petit-bourgeois. But there is a kernel which is good and comforting. It is not for me a feeling of ‘This is what I have been dreaming of long ago’, as it was when I met Robert, but it is positive nevertheless.

My thoughts and feelings got curiously merged; I did not know to whom my tenderness and my desire went… I was surprised how small and far away Robert became, and then again when I talked to Mother at Guildford there was only Robert. Now he is far away again. And I feel alone.

Yet I don’t want to break the physical aloneness. Why? Seriousness perhaps? Or [am I, to be honest,] merely husband hunting? I feel I must tread softly with Monty and feelings may develop. But in almost everything he does I compare him with Robert…

28th December 1943

Suddenly it seemed a terrific problem. Monty is intense and – I still cannot help feeling –  his somewhat self dramatizing letters which sweep me away on waves of emotion… leave me somewhat high and dry. And then again the knowledge that I don’t want him profoundly. That I am longing for Robert and yet might perhaps just as well give him up.

I feel I ought to marry but I don’t know why; that a lover seems preferable to a husband but at the same time needs more sefl confidence in me. That I wnat children but don’t want them now and am loth to accept the responsibilities…

Matilda’s journeys into inner London, to Harley Street to see Dr W, become central to her. She needs to explore these  quandaries – about men, lovers, marriage and, through her dreams, her experiences as a German Jewish woman, a refugee, in London. This is her third session with Dr W.

I tell him about my fainting fits.

W: The easiest way to escape facing a situation. There must have been an unconscious emotional crisis.

She then tells him about a dream about Robert, and her wish that W solve this problem for her. After all, H,  an old  friend, or perhaps another therapist,  was somebody who solved my problems for me.  W. wont.  

W:  We move round and around the same problem until we outgrow it. -We have found that Mother is a very great influence.

M : Why?  Because I open the door for her. Why do I?

Matilda does not seem to like the thought that her mother is so central to her.

Session IV: Tuesday 23 May 1944

Matilda tells Dr W about her reflections between the sessions…

Matilda: On the one hand I ask Mother about things I don’t really think her competent to

. I ask her about small things and put the full responsibility upon her if things go wrong. On the other hand I don’t tell her anything at all and resent all… interference.

W: Both are symptoms of immaturity.

This comment stays with her long enough for Matilda to record. We do not know what transpired next. We are working with the gap between event and memory. What has been suppressed?

Matilda: I felt completely lost last Monday after leaving Robert.

W: That feeling can not be got rid of so quickly.

Matilda: Query: Was it sexual because of F.l?

I wonder whether she is referring to ‘Father Love’ here.  Is she beginning to doubt the reality of her connection with Robert, seeing it as a enactment of her internal life?

W: No.

Matilda: Dreams. Element of conflict. Mother on one side,  [her father?] on the other. Neither is myself….

Matilda’s diary is hard to follow. Like the analyst we must follow these residues of  her thought and find a pattern.  She seems to be freely associating as she converses with herself about herself and about her experience of Dr W.

She begins with two dreams – about a man on a bike and an association: Unsolved question: Who is the man I feel is interfering?

Dream about railway station: Conflict of wanting to make contact with Robert but not quite daring. There is a dream about a flower, her feelings; an element of the emotional  connection she is making with Robert.

W: I am not interfering in your relationship with Robert in any direction.

Matilda: I feel better about it since now I don’t feel I ought to marry,  and can carry on for the time being. There is probably a lot of egoism in it in that I want to keep him, (Robert) until I  can do without…







The doctor -patient relationship – 19th century writings

This is a guest blog by Alison Moulds, second-year DPhil student at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Her thesis examines the construction of the doctor-patient relationship, and the formation of a professional identity, in nineteenth-century medical writing and fiction … Continue reading →

via Representing emotion in the doctor-patient encounter in Victorian medical writing — The History of Emotions Blog

A diary of an analysis 1: Meeting ‘Dr W’.


, , ,

The patient, a woman aged 25 when the analysis begins, is a Londoner. I shall call her ‘Matilda’. Her diary begins in May 1944 and continues until the end of the war.

I met Matilda for the first time when she was in her eighties during one of her visits to Australia. Perhaps her awareness that I work as a psychotherapist prompted her to speak about her own experiences in analysis. He was a Jungian, she said. She recollected seeing him in the early 1940s, several years after her arrival as a refugee from Nazi Europe.

This is her first session. I will use italics for her actual written words.

London: Wednesday 10 5 1944

No couch – relieved. Comfortable chair. Fatherly, not very interesting man, looks more business than doctor.

Dr W’  asks for her name, age and about her parents whether they are living or dead. She has a brother and sister? and her work? Does she like it? and does she have a boyfriend? He asks her about her school and leaving Germany.

To her surprise he asks about my scar; thinks this is an important incident ( I had not mentioned it all, never thought of it). Asks whether boyfriend is ‘first and only’…what interests? Is graphology a deep interest?

Conclusion: No firmness, psychologically non-existent, swimming about. Thus no firm relationship is possible. Must become… ?  and develop firm feelings. It will take a little time.

I say I have no patience.

You must learn it, he says. It is like the growth of a plant. It cannot be rushed. One can work if one knows what for.

Dr W advises her not to talk to anybody about her analysis. He warns her that it disturbs the progress if a third person takes part. It is to be between the two of them. Matilda continues her reflection.

On the conscious level I seem all right. [The] problem lies somewhere else.  I have to find and keep… [the] secret of myself.

Matilda attends a week later. She full of dreams, ideas and associations. I do not know whether she has read Freud’s work? But here she is curious… it is as if she has begun the work.

Dreams  – underlying factors – She feels there is no basis, the diary records. She is running about in a terrrific inner muddle. Floating from one thing and one person to another.  She has put her bag on a chair – in a dream or in the consulting room? It indicates that I want to occupy a place somebody else has.

Dr W asks Matilda about her mother. She was distant and aloof when I was small and needed her. It made me suspicious of love and unable to accept it. He explains that there is the parallel with a  dog  who after being shut in a dark room, starved and beaten is coaxed by the same and other persons. He will be perplexed and run away. 

How frightened Matilda must have been when she was a little girl. She continues,

I mention the element of cheating that goes through my dreams. Dr W replies.. if I do not know who and what I am I cannot face [matters] and am bound to cheat.


Who, I wonder, is Dr W?  Matilda described him as a Jungian. If this is so, then  Dr Ambrose Cyril Wilson is a possibility. I find an obituary for him written by D W Winnicott in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol 29, 1958, page 617. I have made inquiries and excluded Winnicott himself.

Wilson  was the son of Ambrose Wilson, headmaster of Melbourne Boys Grammar School in the 1890s. The family had travelled from London, to Cape Town then Australia before returning permanently to London where Cyril matriculated and decided to study medicine.

Cyril Wilson qualified in medicine at Barts in 1908. He served in the Army during WW1 and then had a stint as an actor. He was an early member of the British Society of Psychoanalysis from 1924.   He began analysis with a Jungian, Robert Young.  After two years he had transferred to Ernest Jones and thence to membership of the British Society after qualifying. After a period of financial strain during which he looked into analysis with James Glover, Winnicott continues,  Wilson was in  analysis with Melanie Klein for seven years. He was on the staff at the Society’s clinic, the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis until 1945.

The dates add up and the little bit of information Matilda provided about her analyst’s identity points to Wilson. As a refugee Matilda would have had some financial constraints upon her… it is not impossible that the London Clinic was her preferred option when she decided to seek analytic help.

Winnicott seems to have respected Wilson’s ability. He wrote of him:

Although Wilson never contributed significantly to psychoanalytic theory he did a good deal of original work on the paternal aspects of the superego. This he never assembled in written form nor could he be persuaded to write up his findings after his appointment by the Home Office to study homicide cases at the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum.

Wilson had a fighting sense of rectitude, Winnicott continues. He gave himself almost solely to his patients, and was militantly independent and in the Society eschewed politics.  He was particularly interested in the treatment of offenders and was an early member of the Institute for  Study and Treatment of Delinquency and in the final stages of his career a consultant to the Portman Clinic in London.

I am intending to follow Matilda’s progress session by session, placing it alongside  historical material that could help contextualise her experience. It is a glimpse into the world of British psychoanalysis in the last years of the war … It will be interesting to see what happens.







Robert Kenny’s Essay: ‘Freud, Jung and Boas: the psychoanalytic engagement with anthropology’. revisited,


, , ,

Robert Kenny, an Australian scholar, poet and writer, has a paper entitled, ‘Freud, Jung and Boas: the psychoanalytic engagement with anthropology revisited’, in the June 2015 edition of the journal Notes and Records: The Royal Society of the History of Science.  It is a cogently and carefully written piece challenging accepted interpretations, if not wisdom, about Freud’s development of his social theories in the 1910s. The essay is part of a larger project Kenny has been working on since, at least, the publication of his book, The Lamb enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the ruptured world in 2007.

Kenny’s argument centres upon Freud’s and Jung’s visit to the United States in 1909 to attend and lecture at a Congress at Cark University.  It is no co-incidence, Kenny argues, that their encounter with  the personage and the anthropological  work of Franz Boas, who also lectured at the  Congress, that there was a shift of focus to anthropological interests in the months and years immediately afterwards. In his lecture, Kenny writes, Boas challenged social darwinist ideas placing humanity of a scale of development from savage to civilised, arguing that culture was a response to environment and, essentially, throwing Spencerian theory out of the window. This culminated, in Freud’s case, the publication of Totem and Taboo and in Jung’s his book, Transformations. Kenny’s abstract reads:

Sigmund Freud’s and C. G. Jung’s turn to evolutionist anthropological material after 1909 is usually seen as a logical progression of their long-term interest in such material. It is also seen that they used this material ignorant of the significant challenges to the evolutionist paradigm underpinning such material, in particular the challenges led by Franz Boas. This paper argues otherwise: that both psychologists’ turnings to such material was a new development, that neither had shown great interest in such material before 1909, and that their turnings to such material, far from being taken in ignorance of the challenges to evolutionist anthropology, were engagements with those challenges, because the evolutionist paradigm lay at the base of psychoanalysis. It argues that it is no coincidence that this engagement occurred after their return from America in 1909, where they had come into first-hand contact with the challenges of Franz Boas. 

Analysis of cultural subjectivity is central to Kenny’s historical writing. Very much influenced by the ethnohistorians, Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac and Inga Clendinnen, Kenny’s 2007 book, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, traced the life of  Nathanael Pepper of the Wotjobaluk people, who was born as the first white pastoralists were driving cattle and sheep into Victoria’s Wimmera region. The book opens one’s mind to the ways these pastoralists and the Wotjobaluk people thought about and responded to one another. Following Dening’s analysis of the encounter with cultural specificities across time and place Kenny argues for recognition of the respective, and unconsciously held, subjectivities of the pastoralistd and Wotjobaluk. If the social unconscious is framed by those unconsciously held constraints and restraints that shape action and response: if neither pastoralist or Wotjobaluk were able to find in the other affirmation of preconceptions shaped and held from birth, then it would have been difficult for either side to recognize, let alone think about the other, other than in their own terms.

Kenny’s latest essay opens further the question of how  unconsciously held European subjectivity – particularly the formation of darwinist theory – influenced the way the development of the mind and the social was understood. Boas provided the inspiration and impetus to look at accepted ideas more closely, if not to see them in the first place.  And in that sense Kenny’s essay also adds to a growing body of writing – Rudnytsky comes to mind – recovering the voices and writers that ultimately, and also found expression in Freud’s work.



Greg Dening ( 1980), Islands and Beaches: Discources on a silent land: Marquesas 1774-1880, Honolulu, Hawaii, The University Press of Hawaii.

Robert Kenny (2007), The Lamb Enters The Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World, Melbourne, Scribe Publications.

Robert Kenny (2015), Freud, Jung and Boas: the psychoanalytic engagement with anthrpology revisited, Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, Vol. 69, Issue 2.

Peter Rudnytsky (2011), Rescuing psychoanalysis from Freud and other essays in re-vision,  London, Karnac.

Some thoughts on W R Bion, psychoanalysis, shell shock, and the Great War.


, , , , , , , ,

This is a summary of a paper delivered to the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists Annual General Meeting on 14 November 2015.



The tragic losses on the battlefields of the Great War and the resulting psychological injuries to millions has had long term consequences for families down generations in Europe, Britain and the former Dominions. The Great War has also led to major professional and scientific advances and re-thinking including development of psychoanalysis from the treatment of trauma by doctors in the field and afterwards. During the last decade scholars have mined W R Bion’s autobiographical work as a basis for his contribution to psychoanalytical theory with his, focussing on his experience as a tank commander in the Great War. Terms such as nameless dread, attacks on linking, and ideas about the splintering of the mind emerged from the idioms of war in an attempt to put language to horrific experiences in the field. (Jacobus 2005; Torney 2009; Roper 2009). While this paper follows these developments I suggest that W R Bion’s book, ‘Experiences in Groups’ based on his work at Northfield is has its origins in his military training and experience in the Tank Corps under the command of General John Frederick Charles (‘Boney) Fuller.


During the first months of the war a quarter of a million were killed and the war had stalled in France where it remained for the next two to three years. By December 1914 A third of the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from France, many with shell shock, the result of being ‘blown up’, by a shell or other incendiary device. The symptoms: paralysis, loss of senses, headaches, nervous tremors and nightmares where it seemed the patient relived his traumatic experiences were likened to ‘Hysteria’ by medically trained psychologist Charles Myers.( Myers 1915).

By mid 1916, in letters home from the Somme and the Battle of Pozieres soldiers wrote of conditions worse than the hell they had ever imagined. In letters published in the Australian press in 1916 soldiers observed how shell shock victims were ruined for battle, if not for the remainder of their lives. They wrote of the noise, the din, carnage and losses. Even so fear of the censor’s pen held them back. In his 1919 Memoir Bion wrote of the fear of finding himself walking on corpses of fallen soldiers – a ploy, perhaps, to protect his mother from the realities of the warfield. For Bion, a member of an elite group, the tank command of especially chosen officers, the difficulty of holding himself together in these conditions is expressed in his account of watching, for hours, a clod of earth held by the green shoot of a plant dangling above him – as if an infant holding himself together by focussing on a light or an object. His complete emotional collapse, and an event to which he returned again and again, for the remainder of his life, came with the death of his batman, Sweeting, who, as he lay dying from horrific injuries beside him, called to Bion to write to his mother. Bion, unable to cope, told him to ‘shut up’ and turned away. Indeed, Roper notes, letters home made light of the horrific conditions even as these acted to contain soldier trauma ( Roper 2009). No doubt there were many others who turned away. Too.

As Freud remarked in 1918, shell shock by many other names – war neuroses, neurasthenia, war shock – ‘helped put psychoanalysis on the map among medical men hitherto sceptical of its claims’. In the early months of the war diagnoses and treatment of shell shock followed physical definitions and treatment. By 1916 doctors were integrating psychological principles into diagnoses and treatment. In his 1917 work, War-shock, the psycho-neuroses in war: psychology and treatment, psychoanalyst and medical officer to the neurological department in Malta, David Eder observed shell shock to be rare amongst the seriously wounded, as if, he said, ‘the energy taken to deal with it left none to spare for the creation of phantasies'(Eder 1917). In a survey of one-hundred cases Eder noted that shell shock did not differentiate between classes nor between experienced soldiers and new recruits. Careful to differentiate the neurological, physical effects of being blown up from the psychological and asserted argued that shell shock occurred when presence of psychological factors over neurological in diagnosis and treatment. Eder asserted that the experience of war shock with its associations with mental collapse and insanity, was not the province of the weak minded, nor genetically disadvantaged, but resulted from unbearable and consistent terror. Work undertaken by W H R Rivers at Craiglockhart, immortalized by authors Siegfried Sassoon and Pat Barker, followed similar principles. On the German side similar work occurred. In 1918, also at the Fifth Psychoanalytical Congress in Budapest, Sandor Ferenczi’s paper on the treatment of war shock was well received and, according to Judit Meszaros, helped pave the way for his presidency of the International Psychoanalytical Society ( Meszaros 2014). By 1920 psychological interpretations and treatment of shell shock was was widely accepted. Further it was understood that part of the symptomatology of shell shock, was a manifestation of unconscious conflicts. ( Roper 2016, p. 43). In 1920 the Australian Medical Congress devoted an entire section, some eight papers, to neurology and psychotherapy many focusing upon the treatment of war shock.
An invisible wound of war, the effects of shell shock such as long term inability to hold work, marital conflict, family violence – were transmitted down generations. One outcome for Australians, was the emergence of formal psychoanalysis, borne of doctors attempts to understand patients suffering the condition in the post war years. Roy Coupland Winn and John Springthorpe who had enlisted as Medical Officers, returned with experience with shell shock patients the field hospitals. By 1933 after a training analysis in England Winn established the first psychoanalytic practice in Sydney and for the next three decades was a key figure in the establishment of the Melbourne and Sydney Psychoanalytical Societies. Winn’s Melbourne colleague Paul Dane developed his interest in psychoanalysis after working with shell shock patients in Melbourne. He enlisted as as a Medical Officer in 1916 but was invalided home within the year after a serious attack of dysentery and colitis. During the 1920s he went to London where he underwent analysis with Joan Riviere.
While scholars have stressed the place of Bion’s personal trauma in his later work, Bion’s experience in the Tank Corps a remains relatively neglected. Mary Jacobus has pointed out the failure of the containing function of tanks – called various ‘Mother’, ‘Little Willie’ and ‘Big Willie’, highlighting, as Bion did, their danger, noise and at worst, Bion’s experience of them as death traps (Jacobus 2005). He entered the tank Corps, Bion explains, because it was interesting and the secrecy surrounding appealed to him. Headed by Major General John Frederick Charles Fuller, ‘Boney’ Fuller, the Tank Corps was developed in order to break the stalemate and battlefield slaughter extant since late 1914. The Corps was the instrument of the younger generation designed to break the deadlock in France (Freedman 2013). Tanks were the secret weapon, designed to cover ground and defences more efficiently than an army platoon. In his account of the Corps. Drawn from the elite: its members were highly experienced soldiers (Fuller 1920) It members were the veritable ‘best and brightest’, experienced and, like Bion, with potential to lead. Freedman explains that Commanding General ‘Boney’ Fuller, based much of his work on that of le Bon’s theory of crowd behaviour. This stressed the ‘mindlessness’ of crowd behaviour. Freedman explains that Fuller, instead, described a military crowd dominated by a spirit which is the product of the thoughts of each individual concentrated on one idea. It was an organised crowd, contained through training and a common purpose. Nonetheless it was a crowd and could turn when stressed. (Freedman 2013 p. 130).

Serving in the Tank Corps was a pivotal experience for Bion. It influenced his work and his contemplation of leadership and the group in the book, Experiences in Groups. Bion’s analysis of group behaviour addressed the nature of unconscious stressors within the group and the group’s response. Where Fuller stressed leadership and containment of the group through careful and rigorous discipline, Bion took up the latent, unconscious aspects of group behaviour – the reasons why a group might fail. Critical of Freud’s idea that the group seeks a leader to look up to Bion explores the notion of the leaderless group and whether it is possible for such a group to function maturely, without regression. In his discussion of the mental activities of groups Bion recognizes the existence of ‘two groups’ existing within the one entity – the ‘work group’ which tries to retain focus on the task at hand but is constantly perturbed by influences that come from other group mental phenomena ( Bion 1961) and the ‘basic assumption’ group variously dependency, where the group gathers around a leader and appoints a ‘dummy’ that has to he taught; the pairing group: the idea, that two members will produce ‘a new leader figure who will assume full responsibility for the group’s security. The wish, in unconscious phantasy, is that the pair will produce a Messiah, a Saviour, either in the form of a person or an organising idea around which they can cohere’.(Lawrence, Bain and Gould 1996). Fight/Flight suggests there is an enemy to contend with. ‘The
unconscious assumption of the group is that they are met for action which is to preserve itself by fighting someone or something or by taking night from these. The individual is less important than the preservation of the group. Understandably [culture] is profoundly anti-intellectual and will decry as introspective any behaviour which attempts to reach self knowledge through self study’ ( Lawrence, Bain and Gould 1996). Each position, unconsciously held, acts against the group task undermining discipline from without.

War is a difficult subject to address coherently. Two classic texts read today Clauswitz’s ‘On War’published in 1832 and the work of the Chinese sage Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, sets out the conditions under which war is declared and fought, methods and goals. Freedman’s work on strategy during the Great War shows how officials, generals and strategists drew upon myriad disciplines in their undertakings, not least being group theory. It is to wonder how much the group activity of war was, and can be,disrupted by unconscious assumptions with the resulting stalemate in the Great war. Bion’s work on groups deserves further attention in this light.


Bion, W H R, (1919) War Memoir 1917-1919, London, Karnac.

(1961), Experiences in groups and other papers, London, Tavistock.

(1975), A memoir of the future, London, Karnac.

(1982), The Long Weekend 1897-1919, London, Karnac.

(1989), All My Sins Remembered : Another Part of a Life and The Other Side of
Genius: Family, London, Karnac.
Eder, Montague David (1917), War-shock, the psycho-neuroses in war: psychology and treatment, London, Heinemann.

Freedman, Lawrence (2013), Strategy: A History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Fuller, J F C ( 1920), Tanks in the Great War 1914-1918, New York, E P Dutton and Co.

Harris Williams, Meg (1985), The Tiger and “O”, Free Associations accessed 2 February 2016

Jacobus Mary,( 2005), The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein, Oxford University Press.

Lawrence, W Gordon, Bain, A and Gould, Laurence ( 1996), The fifth basic assumption
Free Associations Volume 6, Part 1, (No. 37): 2855,, accessed 10 02 16.
Myers, Charles (1915), ‘A Contribution to the study of shell shock’, The Lancet Vol. 185, February 13, 1915 pp. 316-320.

Roper, Michael, (2009), The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Souter, Kay ( 2009), ‘The war memoirs: Some origins of the thought of W R Bion’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol.90, Issue 4, pp 795-808.