Margaret Schonberger Mahler
1897 - 1986
Just nine months and 6 days after Gustav Schonberger and Eugenia Weiner-Schonberger were wed, they bore a daughter on May 10, in 1897. Margaret Mahler was born in the small western Hungarian town of Sopron close to Vienna. The Mahlers lived an apartment house called Gyoery Palota (Palais of the Railroad Co.) which once habituated the executives of the railroad and is now nonexistent.
Her father Gustav was born in a town near Sopron, Ferto-Szent Nikos and growing up accepted Hungarian as his language over German. Gustav graduated from Vienna University School of Medicine and was a general practioner. He had a very active social life being the Chief Public Health Official of their district and the President of the Sopron Jewish Community. Eugenia married Gustav at the age of 19 and so began her misery. She felt she was too young to marry and be a mother. So for the most part of her life she was a miserable German speaking housewife from Lakenbach, Hungary who prided in her cooking and house chores. Eugenia dominated the household and was very unhappy with having a child at such a young age. Gustav became the primary care giver to Margaret. Margaret grew to be his favorite and have little of a relationship with her mother.
Four years after Margaret an expected child was born, Margaret had a younger sister named Suzanne that was adored by Eugenia. Margaret once overheard her mother say to Suzanne "I have brought you into this world, I suckle you, I love you, I adore you, I live only for you, you are my whole life." Margaret's heart being shattered, replied, "And I, I was born to my father." Margaret later believed that the way her mother treated her was the reason she grew such an interest in pediatrics and psychoanalysis. One of the happiest moments of Margaret's childhood was when Suzanne was two and put her cheek to a hot iron. Their mother was mortified and hysterical. She couldn't believe her "pretty daughter" ruined her face.
Growing up for Margaret was not a happy time, she had a very low self-esteem and was jealous of the praises that Suzanne received from their mother. Eugenia ran a very strict household. Gustav was not allowed to nap on the couch, friends were not welcomed, and the house was to be kept spotless. (Margaret later felt that her mother had some neurosis causing her to be insensitive to others feelings.) Margaret only had one birthday party when she was 8 on one account, that Margaret would have to give up her cherished chocolate collection of animal figures for the lottery of the party guests.
Margaret's father supported her and watched while Margaret excelled in Math and Science. Margaret felt she needed to make up where she was lacking, and gave up her feminine self-esteem for an intellectual self-esteem. Crying one day to her father because none of the boys noticed her he replied "You don't need a man, you are man enough for yourself." From that moment Margaret felt if she was to ever love, the man must be inferior to her and allow her to dominate the relationship.
After completing a 6 year program at Higher School for Daughters, she decided to continue her education even though women didn't and attend Vaci Utaci Gimnazium in Budapest. She was the second woman from Sopron to receive higher education. She was 16 when she went to Budapest and lived with her mother's sister who also disliked Margaret. Most of the time Margaret stayed with her best friend Alice-Szekely-Kovacs a classmate of hers at the gym. Alice's family was social and constantly entertaining, mingling with Ferenczi, Michael Balint (who Alice later Married.) After meeting Ferenczi, Margaret was intrigued and was encouraged to read Freud. She was fascinated with the idea of the unconscious.
Budapest was an incredible influence of Margaret's life and career. She met some of the most interesting people and began to learn what she wanted out of life, and wanted to give back.
In September of 1916 Margaret began at the University of Budapest studying art history and learning to sculpt which she loved, but was not very good at. After realizing she would not be a successful sculptor, she decided to enroll in Medical school in January of 1917. Margaret's father was so proud she was successful in gaining admission. Though he encouraged her to stay away from anything to masculine and to study ophthalmology, because it was "dainty".
After 3 semesters Margaret and a few classmates transferred to the University of Munich to begin their clinical training. Shortly after, around 1920 she began to receive pressure because she was Jewish. At the time, very few Jewish were permitted in Hungary to pursue university education.
About the same time, Suzanne, Margaret's younger sister wished to pursue a music career in Munich, her parents forbid her unless Margaret would take over as her primary care giver. With Margaret agreeing to do so, Susanne relocated to Munich and shared a small room in a boarding house with Margaret. As tensions arose towards the Jewish, Margaret and Suzanne were in the middle of the cross fire. While eating lunch one day at the boarding house, they were arrested and thrown in jail for being Jewish. A family friend who was a lawyer helped in getting them out of jail and encouraged them to leave Munich as soon as possible, for things were about to take a turn for the worse. Margaret and Suzanne knew it was for the best not only with the tension, but inflation was becoming outrageous and it was very expensive for them to stay. Margaret decided she wanted to go to the University of Jena, to study with Ibrahim, The Professor of Pediatrics, in the spring of 1920. Without Margaret to stay with her, Suzanne was forced to go back to Vienna.
Margaret grew to love Ibrahim. He studied ruminating and pylorospatic infants. Margaret began to learn how important play and love are for infants to grow mentally and physically healthy. Again Margaret felt tension as many of the students at the University did not accept her religion, so in 1921 she transferred to the University of Heidelberg for her final semester.
For the first time in her life Margaret began to feel beautiful. Men began to notice her and she had an on and off relationship with a gentleman by whom she refers to as "J". "J" wanted to marry Margaret and followed her from city to city attempting to win over her love. "J" wrote a letter to Margaret's father saying Margaret was becoming promiscuous. Knowing his daughter was too smart for that, he suggested that "J" stay away from her and that was the last of "J". In Heidelberg, Margaret began to grow ill. She was having severe stomach pains and would have attacks that horrified her circle of friend's. She was diagnosed with Heirshsprung disease, "a congenital disorder of the colon rectum that is unable to relax and permit the passage of stool." She was told she needed to have a partial colonectomy, which at the time was major surgery. During the surgery, however, the doctor's discovered she needed to have severe adhesions removed instead of the colonectomy. After the procedure, the problem ended.
In 1921 she returned to Jena to take her written and oral exams and was one of two students to graduate Magna Cum Laude in 1922. Margaret had a fear of failing and therefore didn't show up for the final exam. Ibrahim talked her into taking a special exam that he would administer which she took and passed. She wrote her Doctoral dissertation on "Thrombocytopenic Purpura in Childhood".
In 1922 she headed back to Vienna to get her license and be able to practice. She attempted to do this in Germany, but again was turned away because she was Jewish. In 1923 She received her license and began to practice under a gentleman who told her she could never move up from an apprentice to an assistant because she was suppose to be a wife and a mother. Soon after the Doctor and his wife jointly committed suicide together.
Margaret decided she was ready for the transition from pediatrics to psychiatry that began in 1922. She began by contributing article's to the Journal for Psychoanalytic Pedagogy. Right after, Vienna appointed her school doctor.
In 1926 she began her training analysis with Helene Deutsch. Deutsch was completely against the idea, but with encouragement from Ferenczi she accepted. After 14 months of constant cancellations Deutsch said that she was unanalyzable. Deutsch insisted the only way her training could continue was if she was paid. Seven years later, in 1933 Margaret was finally accepted as an analyst, in the same year she was grief stricken, when her long time friend and inspiration Ferenczi passed away.
Margaret being very active in her field and attending seminars mixed in the circle with Anna Freud and at one of her seminars met Paul Mahler. In 1936 they married, Margaret was 39. Paul was a chemist with a Ph.D., and a junior partner of Viennese Cordial Factory that was far from successful, but a family business that eventually caused him to go broke. Paul was an only son and very needy. Margaret felt he was inferior and knew that she dominated the relationship, they were a perfect match.
As the pressure from the Nazis became closer Margaret and Paul move to Britain for a few months where they spent their time trying to help others escape and immigrate to America. In 1938 the British Psychoanalytic Society loaned them the money to move to America. Margaret and Paul were fearful of coming to the United States. They had little money, spoke hardly and English, and were leaving family and friend's behind. They came over on the Queen Mary which Margaret thought was incredibly beautiful. Arriving in the United States, they meet up with old friends and found an apartment on 98th street and Columbus. They didn't stay long after finding a one room apartment on Central Park West.
Margaret set up her own private practice in the basement of a building and began to rebuild her clientele after receiving a New York Medical license. In 1939 she meet the famous Ben Spock and in 1940 gave a child analysis seminar, becoming the senior teacher of child analysis. She joined the Institute of Human Development and the Educational Institute along with the New York Psychoanalytic Society.
In 1948 Margaret was involved with clinical studies on Benign and Malignant Cases of Childhood Psychosis. Margaret loved working with children, it was her passion. She loved the way the children gave her all of their attention and enjoyed working with her as well.
Suzanne, still in Vienna, fled to Budapest to escape the Nazis. In 1944 her father died one month after the German invasion of Hungary. Her mother was encouraged to leave, ignoring the mayors suggestions she died one year later in Auschwitz. Margaret went through a long painful mourning over her mother. She was torn that they never developed a relationship like Suzanne had. She had encouraged her mother to come to the United States, but her visa did not go through in time.
Margaret longed for a summer home in the country. She loved the outdoors and to garden. The Mahlers along with friends rented a summer house in Brookfield, Connecticut and searched for a home to buy. In 1944 they bought a summer home for $5000.00. Margaret loved spending weekends there.
In 1950 she joined the staff of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and was the chairmanship of the child analysis training program, which she continued into the 1960's. Some of the candidates that trained under her are James Delano, Stewart Finch and Saul Harris.
During 1950 Manuel Furer and Margaret founded the therapeutic nursery for psychotic children at Einstein. This was used to study if child psychosis occurs at one and a half and through the age of two. Margaret believed that the "psychological birth is not simultaneous to the biological birth." Margaret learned that disturbed children can work with a therapist and succeeded in a group setting, but that psychotic children need one on one help.
Margaret's main interest was in normal childhood development, but spent much of her time with psychiatric children and how they arrive at the "self".
Her theory for the developmental Phase is as follows: Autistic Phase: first 1 to 2 months. The infant is oblivious to everything but himself.
Symbitoc Phase: Next 4 to 5 months. He begins to recognize others in his universe, not separate beings, but as extensions to himself.
Separation-Individuation Phase: This consists of four sub-phases that overlap. The next 5 to 36 months. It is during the critical sub-phases that physic is shaped and lays the foundation how the individual interprets and responds to information in his reality. The first three years of life are critical in determining personality and mental health. The sub-phases are:
- Differentiating Phase
- Practicing Phase
- Rapprochement Phase
- Object Constancy Phase
Margaret received the APA Agnes Purceil McGavin Award in 1969 and in 1981 the distinguished service award. She has written many books of her most famous The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (1975). She assisted in writing the Memoirs of Margaret Mahler until her death in fall of 1985, before than compiling two books with much of her famous work: Infantile Psychosis and Early Contributions by Margaret Mahler Vol. 1 and Separation-Individuation Vol.2: Selected Papers of Margaret Mahler. Also, On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation roll Infantile Psychosis. Some of her famous papers include: "Psychoanalytic Evaluation of Tics"," Infantile Process", Autism and Symbiosis, Two Extreme Disturbances of Identity".
Margaret and Paul's ashes were buried beside her father's grave in the Jewish Cemetery in Sopron on August 1, 1986. Her mother's name was engraved on the tombstone along with "Martyr of the Holocaust". There are now 16 people in the Jewish community of Sopron, they were left with $25,000 to maintain the graves.
Margaret Mahler was a woman who overcame many obstacles in her life time the main two being her sex and religion. She went on and obtained a medical degree and became a doctor, which few women did in the early 1900's. She made many contributions to the area of child development that are still used today by doctors and new parents.