Melanie Klein


Melanie Klein was an Austrian psychoanalyst who devised therapeutic techniques for children that had great impact on present methods of child care and rearing.

Early Years: Family, Education, and Career

Melanie Klein was born in Vienna on March 30, 1882. Her father, Dr. Moriz Reisez, was undoubtedly an inspiration to young Melanie. Rebelling against his strict orthodox Jewish family, Moriz went to medical school rather than becoming a rabbi. His first marriage, which was arranged by his parents, ended shortly after his dependent father died. He remarried, however, when he was over the age of 40. His new wife, Libusa Deutsch, was just 25 at the time. The couple had four children, including Melanie, the youngest. Because Dr. Reisez's practice was slow and money was needed, Libusa temporarily opened a shop of exotic plants and animals. By the time Melanie was five, however, the family had inherited enough money to buy a dental practice. Moriz was much more successful at his new occupation and the family moved to a bigger apartment. Because of her father's age and the favoritism that he showed to Melanie's sister, the two did not share a close relationship. His knowledge of literature and languages, however, impressed her greatly. Moriz died when Melanie was just 18 (Segal, 1979).

Melanie was much closer to her mother, Libusa. Though Melanie had to care for her mother prior to her 1914 death, she looked up to her for keeping their family together and for her strength. Libusa saw to it that her children had a happy childhood. Religion was not a large part of the family 's life and, though Melanie labeled herself an atheist throughout her life and asked for a nonreligious funeral, she never denied her Jewish roots and had little respect for those who did. Furthermore, she urged all parents to teach their children religion according to their own beliefs (Segal, 1979).

Two of Melanie's siblings, Emmanuel and Sidonie, died at young ages. Sidonie, her second oldest sister, taught Melanie to read and write, hoping to pass all that she knew to her sister before dying. Emmanuel, her only brother, was also a great aid in her education. A talented pianist and writer, Emmanuel tutored her in Greek and Latin. This knowledge helped her to pass entrance exams into various schools, which she hoped would lead her to a university where she could study medicine. Emmanuel also introduced his sister to his intellectual group of friends. While married, pregnant, and living in Slovakia, Melanie traveled back to Vienna at the time of Emmanuel's death. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get her brother's poems and essays published (Segal, 1979). The deaths of these family members led to a depressive state that continued to be a part of Melanie's personality.

Melanie became engaged at the age of 19 to Arthur Stephen Klein, a friend of her brother's (Segal, 1979). During their two year engagement, Melanie studied art and history at Vienna University. Though she regretted it later in life, Melanie passed up medical school to follow her husband, an engineer, as he often moved often to accommodate his business life. Consequently, she never received an academic degree. Throughout her career, many did not respect her views or take her seriously due to her lack of proof of medical knowledge.

While traveling to Slovakia and Silesia, Melanie missed home and her marriage suffered as a result. She turned to books and learned languages to fill such voids in her life. It was not until the births of her two children, Melitta in 1904 and Hans in 1907, that she felt happy again (Segal, 1979).

Klein's life was altered in 1910 when her family moved to Budapest. There she encountered Freud's work for the first time in his book On Dreams. As a result, psychoanalysis became her lifelong interest. She eventually sought analysis with Ferenczi and, with his support, began to analyze children. In 1917 she had a chance to meet Freud at a meeting between the Austrian and Hungarian Societies. And, by 1919, she got to read "The Development of a Child", her first paper, to the Hungarian Society. Following this appearance, she was asked to become a member of the Budapest Society. During this year, Melanie and her three children, the youngest at just five years old, moved to Slovakia; they stayed with Arthur's parents for a year following Arthur's departure for Sweden. By 1922, the couple was divorced (Segal, 1979).

Around this time, Melanie was introduced to Karl Abraham. She was impressed with him and he encouraged her practice of child analysis. This prompted her to move to Berlin in 1921 to open a psychoanalytical practice with both adults and children. There, her psychoanalytic techniques allowed her to help emotionally disturbed children. She held this position for five years, until 1926. Due to her dissatisfaction with Ferenczi, Melanie asked Abraham to take her on as a patient. Because of his faith in her contributions to psychoanalysis, he agreed. His death brought their sessions to a halt, however, just fourteen months later (Segal, 1979).

Both of Melanie's colleagues were associated with Freud and both influenced her. From Ferenczi, Melanie received encouragement and learned the importance of unconscious dynamics. But, Ferenczi did not practice negative transference and he split with Freud and his psychoanalytical principles in that he rarely held a neutral position with his patients. She thought that Abraham, on the other hand, gave her a true picture of psychoanalysis. She continued his work by analyzing herself. Though she took the concept of introjection from Ferenczi, she considered herself a follower of Freud's and Abraham's.

Without Abraham's support, Melanie's work in Berlin was often criticized. Anna Freud had started her work with children at around the same time and, as their approaches were different, the Berlin Society saw Melanie's as unorthodox. In 1925, Melanie presented her first paper on the technique of child analysis at a conference in Salzburg. There she met Ernest Jones, who regarded child analysis as the future of psychoanalysis. Soon after, he invited her to lecture on the subject in England. So, during three weeks in 1925, Klein gave six lectures in the house of Dr. Adrian Stephen. These speeches formed the basis for her first book, The Psycho-Analysis of Children, and marked a happy time in her life (Segal, 1979).

In 1927, Melanie moved to England, a move she was glad she made as the British Psychoanalytic Society more warmly accepted her than others had in the past (Segal, 1979). She continued her practice and expanded on areas of psychoanalysis such as the death instinct and the Oedipus complex. She and her children remained there until her death on September 22, 1960. Though she had been diagnosed with cancer, her death was a result of hemorrhaging after an operation and it shocked the psychoanalytical community. Two of her children modeled Melanie and became doctors practicing psychoanalysis and one chose to follow his father, becoming an engineer.

The Play Technique

Following World War I, Klein developed the technique of play therapy, which is now used worldwide. As a substitute for Freud's free association, of which very young children are incapable, Klein developed the technique of play therapy to uncover children's unconscious motivations. She believed that children, through the use of play and drawings, projected their feelings in therapeutic sessions. She showed that the way children played with toys revealed earlier infantile fantasies and anxieties. Children's unconscious lives could be understood by analysts through their non-verbal behavior. In The Psychoanalysis of Children, she showed how these anxieties affected a child's developing ego, superego, and sexuality to bring about emotional disorders. Through her methods she attempted to relieve children of disabling guilt by having them direct toward the therapist the aggressive and Oedipal feelings they could not express to their parents. This was in major disagreement with Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, who felt that children were unanalyzable (Grosskurth, 1986).

Paranoid Schizoid Position

Klein also wrote about the use of projective identification. In projective identification it was not the impulse only, but parts of the self and bodily products that were in fantasy projected into the object (Segal, 1980). When pain came, she said, one would put the pain on someone else. Then the other was the persecutor (Grosskurth, 1986). The aims of projective identification could be manifold: getting rid of an unwanted part of oneself, a greedy possession and scooping out of the object, control of the object, and so on. One of the results was identification of the object with the projected part of the self.

Depressive Position

A more evolved state was Klein's Depressive Position. According to Klein, one would realize that the mother that one hated was also the mother that one loved. The depressive position took place when one took in the mother as a whole object. One would inhibit the need to attack, and contain the feeling into oneself. This led to taking in and tolerating more pain. Klein's theory was also linked to ambivalence; one could love and hate the mother or any person and still have a relationship (Grosskurth, 1986).

Object Relations

Klein, along with Sigmund Freud and W.R.D. Fairbairn, contributed ideas to make up what we now know as object relations. First Freud introduced the idea of object choice, which referred to a child's earliest relationships with his caretakers. Such people were objects of his needs and desires. The relationship with them became internalized mental representations. Subsequently Melanie Klein coined the term part objects, for example the mother's breast, which played an important role in early development and later in psychic disturbances, such as excessive preoccupation with certain body parts or aspects of a person as opposed to the whole person. Finally, Fairbairn and others developed the so-called object relations theory. According to it, the child who did not receive good enough mothering increasingly retreated into an inner world of fantasy objects with whom he tried to satisfy his need for real objects, that was for relationships (Segal, 1980).

Opposing Freud

Klein's work with children led to the development of ideas that did not always match those of Sigmund Freud. Klein placed the development of the superego in infancy, for instance, believing that the seeds of it were already to be found in the fist and second years of life. She thought that fear and aggressive tendencies were also present at this age and held them to be more important in understanding deviant development than psychosexual development. Not accepting of Freud's theories, controversy surrounded Klein eventually led to her own group of analysts within the British Psychoanalytical Society, the Kleinians (Zusne, 1984).


According to Klein, both artistic creativity and bodily pleasures were arenas in which the central human struggle between love, hate, and compensation was played out. Men and women were seen as deeply concerned about the balance between their own ability to love and hate, about their capacity to keep their objects alive, both their relationships to others as real objects and their internal objects, their inner sense of goodness and vitality. Klein viewed sexual intercourse as a highly dramatic arena in which both one's impact on the other and the quality of one's own essence were exposed and on the line. The ability to arouse and satisfy the other represented one's own compensation capacities; to give enjoyment and pleasure suggested that one's love was stronger than one's hate. The ability to be aroused and satisfied by the other suggested that one was alive, that one's internal objects were flourishing (Mitchell & Black, 1995).


Klein's understanding of envy was best understood by comparing envy to greed. The infant at the breast provided the prototype. Infants, as Klein portrayed them, were intensely needy creatures. They felt dependent on the breast for nourishment, safety, and pleasure. The infant experienced the breast itself, Klein imagined, as extraordinarily plentiful and powerful. In more suspicious moments, the infant thought of the breast as hoarding its wonderful substance, good milk, for itself, enjoying its power over the infant, rather than allowing the infant continual and total access to its resources (Mitchell & Black, 1995).


D. W. Winnicott, following analysis of a follower of Klein, Joan Riviere, began to share Klein's ideas. The Kleinians' belief in the paramount importance, psychic health, for the first year of a child's life, was shared by Winnicott. But this view diverged somewhat from that of Freud and his daughter Anna who both came to London in 1938, refugees from the Nazis in Austria. A split within the British Psycho-Analytical Society was threatened between the orthodox Freudians and the Kleinians; but by the end of World War Two in 1945 a typically British compromise established three more or less amicable groups: the Freudians, the Kleinians, and a "middle" group to which Winnicott belonged (Mitchell & Black, 1995).

The Melanie Klein Trust

The Melanie Klein Trust was founded on the first of February 1955 to promote training and research in the psychoanalytic theory and technique adapted and practiced by Melanie Klein and the developments thereof. It was also to publish books, articles, and papers based on these contributions and to promote clinical work and the further development of the theory and technique based on them in any part of the world.

Klein's Legacy

Along with Anna Freud, Melanie Klein initiated child psychoanalysis and systematized the direct treatment of children. Kleinian theory is still influential as a distinctive strain of psychoanalytic theory. Her writings include The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), Contributions to Psychoanalysis, 1921-1945 (1948), Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961), and Our Adult World and Other Essays (1963) (Zusne, 1984).

Bibliography and Recommended Readings

Fricker, M., & Hornsby, J. (2000). The Cambridge companion to feminism in philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grosskurth, P. (1986). Melanie Klein: Her world and her work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Mitchell, S. A., & Black, M. J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York: Basic Books.

Sayers, J. (1991). Mothers of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Segal, H. (1980). Melanie Klein. New York: The Viking Press.