Remember Anna Freud?
A new exhibit brings her brilliance into focus.
Posted May 15, 2017
Defense mechanisms. Denial. The best interests of the child. It was actually Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter and a groundbreaking child analyst, who coined these everyday terms we use to understand relationships with family, friends, coworkers and even ourselves. A new exhibit at the Freud Museum in London shows how this brilliant woman’s innovations of the 1920s are still so relevant. I spoke with the exhibit’s curator, Elizabeth Ann Danto, and I share the conversation with you below. My questions are in the bolded type and her answers follow.
Anna Freud lived almost a hundred years ago. Why is her work still so appealing?
Two reasons at least. One, she helped us see the child as a naturally “free and self-reliant human being.” And second, her own life is the resilient story of one woman’s determination to understand children. She was a refugee from Nazi violence in Vienna and later survived wartime conditions in London, yet she developed schools, daycare programs, and child refugee centers all the while advancing new methods for observing human development. We are still using her treatment models in numerous areas, from child therapy (especially with traumatized children) to clinical training.
The exhibit is called “Freud/Tiffany” and then “Anna Freud, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham and ‘the Best Possible School’.” Why do you include the Tiffany name?
Dorothy Burlingham was the youngest daughter of the great American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. When she and Anna Freud met in 1924, they shared that experience of growing up with creative geniuses as fathers. Their first major initiative as life partners was the Hietzing School in Vienna. So, while the exhibit focuses on Hietzing, it also brings together the historic Freud and Tiffany legacies as never before. Dorothy herself is known for pioneering psychological studies of twins and of blind children. But it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who said that Dorothy wanted to create ‘the best possible school.’ Erikson taught art and science there as a young man before he and his family were forced to emigrate to the U.S.
What led you to pursue this project?
I’ve been inspired by Anna Freud ever since I worked in foster care and adoption proceedings at the Manhattan Family Court. I’ll never forget how Judge Nanette Dembitz made the social workers and lawyers pursue solutions that would truly be best for the child. My career shifted from practice to teaching, and eventually to historical research. About five years ago I was given access to a private collection of unpublished photographs of Anna and Dorothy and Sigmund Freud himself. And there were the photos of the actual school and its pupils! Then I found original manuscripts and letters that really brought Hietzing to life and I saw the story’s significance for today’s children, parents, and teachers.
These days, parents and teachers are looking for solutions to complicated and sometimes confusing problems. What can Hietzing tell us?
I learned so much from this research. First, I learned how hard we are on ourselves. For example, Anna Freud realized that children are naturally adept at self-regulation. She didn’t like artificial laboratory settings so she observed them at breakfast. The Jackson Nursery (Freud and Burlingham’s last project before escaping Austria) served a morning meal buffet-style. At first the toddlers, who came from Vienna’s very poorest families, gorged on all the goodies but they became quite selective after just a couple of days. In other words, parents and teacher could relax because most children turn out to be inherently consistent in what they want and what they need.
Second, I learned that we need to be frank and open about our own early years if we want to connect with children. As Anna Freud said, “all investigators must investigate themselves.” More specifically, parents and teachers need to explore the effects—positive or negative—of their own childhood on their adult behavior. Third, I learned about the excitement of taking new approaches to children’s health and mental health. In Vienna, Erik Erikson taught at Hietzing and later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In London, James Robertson saw that hospitalized children recover 50% faster when their parents visit. At the time, hospital visits were severely restricted. Robertson found that children’s physical and mental health suffered dramatically in hospitals but that the flip side is also true, that attachment increased their rate of recovery. Hospitals worldwide changed their policies as a result of this research. Hannah Fischer told me, “Now this was a 20th century development but did you know that it goes back to Anna Freud?” Fortunately, we do now.
Where can people go to find out more about the Freud/Tiffany Project and about Anna Freud?
The first place is the Freud Museum London website (https://www.freud.org.uk/). The Museum is located in the home of Sigmund Freud and his family when they escaped Austria after the Nazi annexation in 1938. Anna Freud and Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham lived there for more than 40 years. For information about the exhibit, see https://www.freud.org.uk/exhibitions/76788/the-best-possible-school-anna.... A comprehensive catalog will be available at the Museum Shop (https://shop.freud.org.uk/). The Freud/Tiffany book is due to be published by Karnac in the Fall of 2018.