William McRae, The Foundations of Behaviour, Melbourne, OUP, 1945.
Writing of Western Australian Bill McRae in her history of psychoanalysis in Australia, Freud in the Antipodes, Joy Damousi asserts McRae believed psychoanalysis was reserved for those with deep-seated difficulties. His aim, she writes, was ‘to break down resistance which prevents us knowing ourselves’ and that he thought it was dreams that enabled such resistances to be accessed. Drawing on two books published by McRae during the 1940s –About Ourselves and Others (1941) and Adventures in Self Understanding (1945) Damousi also notes McRae’s ‘reformulation of the Oedipus Complex’ upheld particularly oppressive stereotypes about men and women, about male and female. (Damousi, 2005: 175-6). As offensive as these were, such stereotypes reflected his time, Damousi explains. It was war-time. Gender roles were being reshaped, families were having to adapt to long absences of their menfolk; lives and careers were on hold. Women were involved in activities traditionally the domain of males. ‘McRae listened and interpreted the testimonies of those who spoke to him through this prism’. Damousi writes. It shows that psychoanalysis was moving from being used ‘to analyse individuals’ to define the place of these individuals within the community and society. ( p.178).
It is an interesting thought. Editorially this statement and Damousi’s reference to McRae’s work has been at a point where she wants to introduce what she considers to be a larger and more important issue: advent of psychoanalytic institutes in Australia also during the 1940s.
My own impression of McRae is somewhat different – even as I find his version of psychoanalysis ‘thin’ and his writing repetitive. McRae’s stance on the relations between men and women were but one corner of his work. He also wrote of infants, children and dreams. Often, by his own admission, he framed his views from psychoanalytic texts he was reading at the time. I have mentioned McRae’s lecture series given to the Adult Education Board of the University of Western Australia: ‘The Foundations of Behaviour’ in an earlier post. His intention was to present psychoanalysis in a form ‘that would be of immediate use’ to people approaching the subject for the first time. He hoped that by showing ‘how and why a child’s earliest years determine his basic attitudes to himself and others, and to existence in general’, and then how these basic attitudes persist through life’. We may read McRae’s take on psychoanalysis in relation to societal and family expectations of men, women and children. But I suspect that his purpose was not so much to define or to reshape but to underline the existence and importance of unconscious processes within the individual. He had a battle before him. McRae was aware there were those who remained sceptica.l Behind everything I say, McRae said, there was
evidence in plenty and the backing of some of the greatest minds of our time, but as you read through the book you can safely forget all this and test everything said in the light of your own experience of yourself and others. I ask for nothing more than this.
McRae’s 10 session lecture series demonstrates that he had a grasp of the complexities of psychoanalytic theory of which dreams are a part. His focus on the ‘inferiority complex’ though reveals his Adlerian preference. He began Foundations of Behaviour with a general introduction – ‘How We See Ourselves’. We may be able to gauge the personality of others, he began, but how do we understand what causes people to act as they do? He drew attention to possible meaning in psychosomatic symptoms; to the mystery behind a sudden onset of acute anxiety or depression, and ways to understand the ‘vicarious satisfactions’ wrought through ‘stealing, delinquency, procrastination or antisocial behaviour for which we are ashamed, sicknesses behind which we hide, then we may not feel too happy about getting knowledge concerning our real motives, for then we may have to change our way of life and this is not easy or pleasant, especially when we have behaved one way for so long’.
This is a basic enough understanding in the twenty-first century but was not so in 1943. McRae’s motive was to educate. He believed that the opportunity for people to to think about and practice this psychological knowledge might ‘help to materially reduce the amount of psychological ill-health in the general community’. He was critical of those who thought psychoanalytical knowledge should be kept from the public, not just because it concerned the darker side of one’s self, but because they doubted the possibility of presenting such knowledge in an intelligible to untrained listeners and readers. Instead, he argued ‘we are striving to keep something out of sight’.
Reading McRae’s material is also to become aware of the multiplicity of psychoanalytic material circulating about the place. McRae seems to have been unaware of the work of Melanie Klein, DW Winnicott and others – and the battle over psychoanalysis then going on in war-time Britain. To outline ideas about the potential for psychoanalysis to address underlying matters within the psyche McRae drew on the psychoanalyst, and one-time member of Freud’s circle, William Stekel, whose book, The Beloved Ego, published in 1921,told the story of a king who ‘saw so much hypocrisy and evil that he mourned for the state of the world’. He asked the wise men of the land for advice. Evil may be in the hearts of men and women, they replied, but they are also loyal to you, McRae summarized. They have conquered the evil in themselves. ‘Do you want to change man’s nature and tear the heart out of his breast. That you cannot bear the sight of Truth proves how wise was the kind Fate in inflicting short sightedness upon you and giving you spectacles’. Stekel, McRae continued, encouraged people to take off their spectacles so as to see the truth for what it is, ‘to own up to weaknesses and to welcome the overcoming of these as a victory and triumph’. Much material included in the lecture series, McRae warned his audince, ‘will be in direct opposition to cherished ideas – ideas which we have clung to with all the tenacity of one who is afraid to let go’.
McRae’s second lecture introduced Freud’s theories of Ego, Id and Superego; to the slips and mistakes of everyday life. The process of becoming civilised was his theme. His third lecture. ‘The Importance of Birth’ underlined the subjectivity of infant experience. Psychiatrist Eleanor Joyce Partridge’s 1937 Baby’s Point of View, certainly had challenged old-school doctrines against capitulating to the needs of the baby. She found an ally in McRae and another of Freud’s circle, Georg Groddeck whose 1923 ‘The Book of The It’ challenged readers to get inside the mind of a child. McRae, fascinated, quoted from page 89.
Have you ever tried to get inside the thoughts of an unborn child? Try it once. Make yourself very, very tiny and creep into the womb from which you issued. This is not at all such a crazy challenge as you may think and the smile with which you dismiss my suggestion is childishly kind, a proof that the thought is familiar to you. As a matter of fact, without our being aware of it, our whole life is guided by this desire to get back to the mother. ” I should like to get back into you” – how often one hears it said.
McRae goes on to explain the effect of birth upon the baby…’perhaps this is the reason why nature requires so many years of dependence on the mother before the child loses the original pain of separation from the mother, physically’. When it all goes wrong, he continues, a person remains stuck, struggling to reconcile infant needs with the adult world. It is as good a summary as I can find – all the more significant when it is remembered that these ideas were new to people – even if, ‘somehow’, known. McRae takes the matter further:
Everyone of us still bears the effects of birth and these become very much a part of our deepest personality and although the physical part of the birth process is not remembered it has become part of our phantasy life (he uses the word ‘Phantasy’ as this refers to unconscious processes rather than ‘fantasy’ – the stuff of dreams and castles in the air) and as such it is remembered in symbols depicting birth – the most common are fear of snakes, mice and spiders, together with the phobias concerning enclosed spaces.
Freud wrote on Birth anxiety, McRae continued. Otto Rank focussed his entire theory on the birth process while Groddeck also wrote about the days after birth…
Have you ever pondered over the experiences of a baby who is fed by a wet nurse? The matter is somewhat complicated, at least if the child has a loving mother. On the one hand, there is that mother in whose body the baby has lain for nine months, carefree, warm, in undisturbed enjoyment. Should he not love her? And on the other hand, there is that second woman to whose breast he is put every day, whose milk he drinks, whose fresh, warm skin he feels, and whose odor he inhales. Should he not love her? But to which of them shall he hold? The suckling nourished by a nurse is plunged into doubt, and never will he lose that sense of doubt. His capacity for faith is shaken at its foundation, and a choice between two possibilities for him is always more difficult than for other people. And to such a man, whose emotional life has been divided at the start, who is thereby cheated of full emotional experience, what can the phrase Alma Mater mean, but a lie to scoff at? And knowledge will seem to him from the beginning to be useless. Life says to him, “That woman over there who does not nourish thee is thy mother and claims thee as her own; this other gives thee her breast and yet thou art not her child.” He is confronted with a problem which knowledge is unable to solve, from which he must flee, away from whose troublesome questioning he can best take refuge in phantasy. But whoever is familiar with the kingdom of phantasy recognizes, at one time or another, that all science is a kind of phantasy, a specialist type, so to speak, with all the advantages and all the defects of specialization.
Lectures 4 and 5 cover the Oral and Anal stages of development. Lecture 6, ‘The Development of Love or Altruism’ concerns the genital phase, a stage in which children begin to recognise minds of others than their own. It is entwined with the discovery of sexuality, McRae notes. He is following Freudian theory here, linking physical and emotional, sensuality and the development of thinking, elaborated in Lecture 8. The final chapter consists of a series of questions asked of McRae from his audience. These include technical questions – about the meaning of terms such as transference, resistance and repression. Some asked questions that may have been of immediate concern to them – could stuttering be cured? Why does my toddler run away? There were questions about bottle feeding over breast feeding, about thumb-sucking and whether it was possible to abolish jealousy? Someone asked for a key to bringing up children while another asked when a psychologist could call themself a psychoanalyst. All were answered in terms of the need to understand unconscious processes – that the formations of later difficulties within one’s self and with others lay in the early relationship between mother and infant.
Theoretically it was not sophisticated stuff. McRae was no Freud, Melanie Klein nor Donald Winnicott – or even a member of the clique whose works he quoted. Perhaps he knew his limitations even as he educated others.
References: Joy Damousi, Freud in the Antipodes, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2005.
William McRae, The Foundations of Behaviour, Melbourne, OUP, 1945.