Hate in the countertransference, part 2: Winnicott vs. Britzman vs. Freud

I feel I need to write this post in the form of an excel spreadsheet. Partly because I have spreadsheets on the brain right now, but also because there’s a lot of info, and when the only tool you have is “SUMIF”, everything looks like a conditionally-formatted cell.

ADMINISTRATIVE PROFESSIONAL JOKE! This is like the time I put a joke about enharmonics in a show and like one person laughed. Sorry. I am trying to bring together the threads from the Winnicott paper and the Britzman presentation AND Freud’s seminal “A child is being beaten” and it’s making me a little giddy. Also I fell off my bike last week and slightly injured my left wrist so had to write the first draft of this post LONGHAND. With a PEN, just like the olden days.

Getting to the topic at hand, I wanted to bring Britzman’s discussion of the concept of transference in an educational context together with Winnicott’s exploration of hate and countertransference. I don’t know if using “vs” in the post title was entirely accurate, as they seem to pretty much agree (though I doubt Deborah Britzman would congratulate herself for not beating a vulnerable child, but times change). They both are on board with the idea that it is necessary to acknowledge that emotions that arise from either the teaching/learning or therapeutic context in order for an authentic relation to happen. I was thwarted in my quest for specifics, I think, because exactly what these emotions are and how they are expressed are highly context-dependent: they are determined by the complex relation of the individuals involved and their social environment.

Which brings me to Freud. “A child is being beaten begins with Freud’s assertion that many, if not most, analysis patients have a phantasy [define] of witnessing a child being beaten by a parent or teacher. This phantasy has more or less erotic undertones.

As we have seen in Winnicott’s paper, the use of corporal punishment was until quite recently a normal, accepted part of parenting, at least in the Global North. (The history and practice of parenting varies greatly cross-culturally, but for the purposes of this already very long blog post we’ll stick with the North American/European context.) What seems to permissive commie hippies like me to be, frankly, acts of violence against children were just called discipline. Parenting advice from the early-mid 20th century America and Britain is often mind-bogglingly punitive – experts such as Truby King warned mothers against nursing their babies more often than once every four hours (!) or cuddling them between feedings; even infants were supposed to build self-reliance and a strong, manly character. This post, which purports to be a 1940’s housewife’s schedule, pops up every now and again on various social media sites. Even though the housewife in question has an infant and two older children, she spends most of her very busy day on housework, with the baby getting only a Truby King-esque 15 minute feeding every few hours. The rest of the time the bored, hungry, lonely baby is supposed to just lie in its crib, I guess.

Anyway, Freud, coming from a harshly punitive child-rearing culture, assumes that all children have the experience of being beaten by their parents and teachers. He and his patients most certainly did, of course, and those who were parents probably physically disciplined their own children. So this image and experience would be pretty much universal.

There’s a lot of Oedipal sleight-of-hand in Freud’s paper that we’re not going to get into here, but let’s take what this phantasy shows us – a snapshot of how power and control are eroticized in a heirarchical culture, how children deal with their powerlessness and disenfranchisment – and ask ourselves, how would this be expressed in a culture where violence against children is no longer routine*? Since this experience of beating/being beaten doesn’t have a the same cultural weight anymore, what takes its place in phantasy? What group, cultural, and social factors could be making us sad, sick, or just really unpleasantly weird? Or in short, what can we learn from the things we are not saying?

Looking at Freud and Winnicott’s writing it is so easy to see where the unconscious biases and unacknowledged injustices of their times affected their work. It seems to me that Freud assumes that all children are and must be beaten; this appalling act of violence becomes an integral part of the Oedipal struggle rather than a psychological artifact of a nasty cultural practice. Winnicott assumes that women are inferior to men, and thus it is natural to believe that a mother might hate her daughter but not her son, and so writes a list of how a mother might unconsciously hate her baby boy**. Looking at more contemporary writings, it is not so easy to see. I’m sure in 50 years or so someone will read Dr. Britzman’s writings on transference and education and point out that, I don’t know, she unconsciously assumes that humans are superior to non-human animals, and isn’t THAT laughable and quaint.

So what does this have to do with Britzman, after all? If I can’t see how she undermines her own point with some kind of ism, what can I see? This is a really long, roundabout way to get here, but I keep coming back to her thought: “the resistance that comes from emotion can’t be solved with technique”. There is never going to be a specific answer to my perennial question – “Yeah, but how?” – because the resistance that comes from emotion also comes from a complex nexus of individual, social, and cultural factors, factors which are easy to pick out in hindsight but very difficult to see in the moment. There is no technique, just a series of opportunities for honesty and good faith and communication, to discuss and explore and experience rather than acting out. And that will have to do for now.

*Child abuse is still depressingly common, but beating children as a form of punishment is no longer acceptable, at least in Canada, and definitely no longer practiced in schools.
**I have a baby boy – well, a toddler boy now – so I am not arguing with the notion that parents and caregivers experience feelings of hate for their offspring or charges. Far from it.


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