Paths to the Promised Land

Book Review: The Klein-Winnicott Dialectic: Transformative New Metapyschology and Interactive Clinical Theory by Susan Kavaler-Adler Ph.D., ABPP, D.Litt
Reviewed by Barbara E. Berger

Expertly using psychobiography to mine for insight, Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler brings us The Klein-Winnicott Dialectic: Transformative New Metapyschology and Interactive Clinical Theory. She illuminates the subterranean psyches of two giants of the British Psychoanalytic Institute: Melanie Klein and Donald W. Winnicott. Adding phenomenological and clinical perspectives, Kavaler-Adler reveals forces shaping their groundbreaking psychoanalytic theories, and, poignantly, the intrapsychic ceiling that Klein hit in developing hers – preventing Klein, like Moses, from reaching the Promised Land. (p. 78)

Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler

Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler

Kavaler-Adler goes beyond analysis to synthesis: she integrates Klein and Winnicott’s views by moderating a gratifying objective discourse – a dialectic – that Klein and Winnicott were not able to sustain themselves. Kavaler-Adler herself stands on their shoulders to reach greater insights and add her own theories to the field.

In the first half of the 20th century, the institute’s relationship-based, object relations theorists, such as Klein, debated the more instinct-based (and medically trained) Freudians. Klein identified developmental stages different from Freud’s: first the infant’s “paranoid-schizoid position” from which the world appears split into all-good and all-bad parts, and later, if all goes well, a “depressive position”— from which one can enter into satisfying relationships, experiencing both autonomy and empathy for others.

Kavaler-Adler shows us how Klein’s unconscious psychological defenses kept her from seeing her mother’s ostensible narcissism, blinding her to theoretical possibilities and closing her mind. They also led Klein to resist Winnicott’s discoveries – and reject him. Klein’s own psychoanalysis might have dismantled her defenses, but she chose only abbreviated exposure to that side of the couch. Her need to deny her mother’s true nature kept Klein from realizing the shortcomings of upholding an outmoded death instinct theory, and from appreciating the value of developmental mourning of object loss, which Kavaler-Adler explores and widely writes about.

But Winnicott had a different experience with a different – a schizoid rather than narcissistic – mother, which informed his own work on relational mirroring and development. Without Klein’s internal roadblocks, he could see the paths ahead more clearly. And as a pediatrician, making first-hand observations of child and mother interactions, he could correctly identify that the infant was affected by real-life interactions with a real-life mother, beyond the mental-only constructs theorized by Klein. He could see aggression stemming from infants being mismatched, through the luck of the draw, with mothers not attuned to their developmental needs. Aggression was no longer an inborn, free-floating biological drive independent of external relationship; his theories did not have to protect an idealized, narcissistic, blameless mother.

In retrospect, Klein was a bridge between Freudian thought and a fuller expression of a non-drive-based object relations theory realized by Winnicott. And now Kavaler-Adler continues building on the past. With this brilliant work, she enriches our understanding of object relations theory, of the research potential of psychobiography, and of her own work in developmental mourning. She shows us how the depressive position can encompass empathy, creativity, and even deep regret that spurs healthy mourning of object loss. This work is an example of how to synergize the best of what has gone before us, to plant seeds for the next field of insights in a promised land.


Barbara E. Berger Barbara E. Berger is a Portland, Oregon-based writer, editor and photographer. She serves as managing and contributing editor for the VoiceCatcher community of women writers and artists. See her review of other books by Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler: Mourning, Spirituality and Psychic Change and Anatomy of Regret.


About B. E. Berger

Making life better by sharing stories and pictures.
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2 Responses to Paths to the Promised Land

  1. Barbara Pelett says:

    This required more prior knowledge than I have. Couldn’t understand the content, just the review.

  2. B. E. Berger says:

    Thanks, Barbara Pelett, for reading the review.

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