Interview with our oldest living child psychotherapist: Isca Wittenberg

Background

98 years old Isca Wittenberg on shaping services and our thinking on child & adolescent mental health

When Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg was 11 years old she wrote in her diary, ‘I want to help people when I grow up.’ She is now probably the oldest living child psychotherapist and without a doubt has fulfilled her young self’s wish.

Over the course of a career which has extended more than 70 years, Isca has had a lasting impact on mental health services for children and adolescents at the Tavistock Clinic in London. She has also helped shape the thinking of generations of child psychotherapists whom she trained.  

Isca was one of the first people to undertake the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic, London, set up by John Bowlby and Esther Bick after the Second World War.

Isca’s contribution is made all the remarkable having fled Nazi Germany as a child. But perhaps surviving the trauma of the holocaust has made her a particularly good guide for others experiencing loss. In her book ‘Experiencing Endings and beginnings’, she wrote:

What makes it possible to accept the transience of life, to bear increasing losses, face the loss of one’s own life, and yet go on growing, gaining, or at least maintaining emotional and spiritual strength?’ 

During this challenging time of the Covid pandemic, many of us have had to endure the death of loved ones, illness and loss of freedom.  Isca says that no matter what is happening, we must be thinking about and preparing for the loss of others and even our own demise.

For over fifty years Isca worked at the Tavistock Clinic in London, where she eventually rose to be its Vice Chair. Her colleagues were some of the greatest names in psychotherapy such as Donald Meltzer and Neville Symington.

Isca was in analysis with Dr Sonny Davidson for four years when he tragically died. Hear her reflections on why she decided she wanted Wilfred Bion as her analyst.

Having taught infant observation for over 50 years, Isca explains her passion for it and why it is an essential part of understanding babies and their parents. She also reveals the challenges of working with one of the key creators of Infant Observation, Esther Bick.

Isca discloses how her own experience growing up led her to gravitate towards helping adolescents experiencing mental health difficulties. She developed a young peoples counselling service at the Tavistock where for the first time they could refer themselves.

Hear too why a deep interest in spirituality alongside psychoanalysis runs through Isca’s life and work and why at 98 she’s learning to play the piano!

Remarkably, Isca is continuing in her work as a Consultant Psychoanalytic Child and Adolescent psychotherapist and Adult Psychotherapist from her home in North London.

Interview recorded 2019 with Jane O’Rourke

Tributes from colleagues for Isca: 

If you would like to write a tribute to Isca, please email: 

janeorourke@mindinmind.org.uk

From Paul Jenkins, CEO, Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust
“In the year in which the Tavistock Clinic is celebrating its centenary it’s a great privilege to be able to pay tribute to the work of Isca Wittenberg whose career spans back to the earliest days of the development of child psychotherapist.

In her career Isca worked alongside so many important names from our history such as John Bowlby and Esther Bick and is still, today, practicing at the grand age of 98. Isca’s work stands out not only for its longevity but also for the deep humanity she has brought to the task of supporting young people in need grounded in her personal experience of having escaped the trauma of the Holocaust.”

The Association of Child Psychotherapists welcomes the film on Isca Wittenberg and talked to Ricky Emanuel, ACP Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist about Isca. This is what Ricky said:

“Isca is one of the last remaining child psychotherapists still alive who trained in one of the first cohorts of the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock set up by John Bowlby and Esther Bick.

She was a refugee from Nazi Germany coming to this country when she was 16. She worked as a nursery nurse where she developed her interest in babies which she has never lost. She found a home for this interest in her life long devotion to infant observation, as well as her ability to find the infant in her patients and in the infantile aspects of group functioning.

She trained as a social worker in Birmingham where she excelled at her studies and was invited onto the staff to teach shortly after her qualification. She found her way to the Tavistock to train as a child psychotherapist and entered analysis with Wilfred Bion. He has been very influential in her work especially in his encouragement to find her own voice and be her own person. She embodies Bion’s concept of ‘K’ more than anyone I know, the desire to understand or get to know which is an ongoing process never completed. Isca has always been interested to find out more, to learn new things and to develop her mind.

She has deep-seated conviction about the value of connection, and she lives her life this way. Even at the age of nearly 98, she is still wanting to connect and share her ideas with others as well as hear from them what is happening “out there”. Her last book on Experiencing Endings and Beginnings is being republished and she felt she wanted to add to it about her experience of the last years of life, a profound ending experience when there can be a sort of return to infantile dependency for physical care.

How this is managed is so dependent on early beginnings and other endings throughout the life cycle. Despite everything she has gone through and witnessed she says she never has given up hope and this quality is so evident even in these last years of her life. Bion‘s maxim is that the purpose of development ( or analysis) is to enhance the person’s capacity to experience experience. Isca is still developing in this sense, experiencing endings and beginnings as fully as she can. She is an inspiration to all of us.”

David Morgan, Psychoanalyst, Consultant Psychotherapist & Fellow of British Psychoanalytic Society

“Isca was one of the first people that I saw lecturing at the Tavistock, as a young clinical psychologist I was bowled over by someone who could put things into words the way she was able too. So began an analytic career. 

You never realise the effect a lecture or seminar can have on people who are new to psychoanalysis, one is lucky if someone engages with the mind in the way Isca did on that evening.”

A generation of Holocaust survivors has helped to shape the course of child psychotherapy and mental health services in the UK. You can also watch a clip of our upcoming interview with Lydia Tischler who survived the Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps to go on to transform therapy services for mothers and babies and establish child psychotherapy trainings all over the world. 

Summary/Transcript

Download transcript – Isca Wittenberg.pdf

Introduction

 

This interview was recorded in 2019

Jane:

Isca Wittenberg is a remarkable individual who’s devoted much of her life to the service of others and having reached 96 years of age, she continues in her work as a Consultant Psychoanalytic Child and Adolescent, as well as Adult Psychotherapist. Her 50-year career at the Tavistock Clinic, in London, where she eventually rose to be its Vice Chancellor – also led her to work with some of the greatest names in psychotherapy. Wilford Bion was her analyst, and she worked with John Bowlby, Esther Bick, Neville Symington and Donald Meltzer. She taught Infant Observation and was a senior tutor in the clinical training of child psychotherapists for over 50 years and has taught all over the world. She’s published psychoanalytic articles and three books including Psychoanalytic Insight and Relationships, which is still essential reading for all trainees.

You told me Isca that when you were 11 years old, you wrote in your diary, “When I grow up, I want to help people.” And, 85 years later, you’re still doing that – you’re still working.

What has driven you to do this work?

Isca:

Two things I would say. First of all, I love babies and young children – from very early on. And, I was very much in touch and seeing the evidence of my father’s pastoral work.

Jane:

He was a Rabbi?

Isca:

Yes, a Rabbi. In fact, people came to our home, and they usually were very distressed or very poor, and he seemed to help them. And so, maybe I got the idea from that when I was 11 years old. But later, of course, there was also wanting to understand how people could be your friend one day and next day your enemy. And that must have, very much, later on, influenced my interest in wanting to understand people’s minds.

ENDINGS & LOSS

Jane:

You’re known, very much, for your focus on the importance of endings. Do you think that might be linked to the very traumatic experiences of being in the Second World War in Germany and escaping the Holocaust?

Isca:

We escaped the Holocaust by escaping to the United Kingdom. But after a very, very difficult time.

Jane:

You were sixteen – I think?

Isca:

Yes. Well, it had been difficult much earlier, it got increasingly difficult under Hitler’s regime. So, that as school children we would go one direction and be met by children that were going to Christian schools, and they would spit in our face, and we saw also, people being attacked on the streets. So, all this must have contributed to it.

Jane:

And in what way do you think those early experiences have contributed to your understanding….

Isca:

Of endings, is what you wanted, really to know?

Well, it only dawned on me very late in life, at about 80, that it might have to do with us having to end our relationship with Germany because of Hitler. And ending our life in Germany, which was a complete break. And arriving in the United Kingdom with just suitcases to live with and friends who looked after us. So that was quite an enormous ending.

But there were endings before because people left Germany as refugees, Jewish people left, and our relatives left to go to our country. So, it was a lot of saying goodbye and maybe for the rest of your life. But later experiences too where there were a lot of endings. But if you ask me what happened right at the beginning, maybe this was already strongly inside me. But I had powerful experiences of losses later on in life, which also made me aware of how important it is that endings should be thought about and how often they are not thought about. Before they actually happen, that you’ve got to try to prepare yourself for that, whether it’s early in life or late in life.

And that is a question of people not preparing themselves for the losses or for the end of life, itself. And also, things being broken off suddenly or without any thought about how important that relationship might have been. How much it will be missed and to try and preserve it in your mind by actually mourning the loss.

Jane:

So this is important in psychotherapy as well, isn’t it?

Isca:

Very – you have it if you’re somebody in treatment. It’s intensive work. There’s a separation, either whether they come once a week, they wait and have to wait another week. There’s an ending and it’s difficult to bear and wait till the next time. And there’s an ending, if they come intensively, at the weekend, and much work usually is about the anger and the difficulty of being able to bear separation. And it evokes in them other separations they’ve had earlier in their life.

Jane:

That reminds me of something that Neville Symington wrote about you. He said that you are able to bear and heal the pain of others because you have knowledge of your own pain.

Isca:

I’m sure that’s terribly important, not that one talks about that to your clients because you have the pain inside you. But you certainly don’t share it with them. On the contrary, because you know how difficult it is, it’s possible to accept their pain and think about it with them. Help them to think about it and know that that is so important. I mean, people come to you because of their emotional pain. I do think I experienced a great deal of pain in my childhood already.

As I said, I was 11 when Hitler came to power and all the losses people experienced as a result of that, and then came to my father to get some help to think about.

Importance of facing emotional pain

Jane:

Time and time again in your writings you emphasise the importance of facing emotional pain and staying with difficult feelings and the benefits that can arise from doing that.

Isca:

That if you can’t do that, you’re in fact not in touch with say, a deep sense inside you. You may instead have physical symptoms in which the pain is expressed. And there is a fear of it being overwhelming and too much, but the work enables people to learn to bear pain, by first of all the psychoanalyst – psychotherapist – who adopts the pain of the patient and tries to see how it comes into the relationship between the client and yourself. And where it can be looked at as something a bit outside, not only inside, and therefore it can be, as I say, thought about. And as the therapist, it helps you to understand it and eventually to accept it in yourself. It enriches your feelings, in other words, because if you don’t do that there’s a whole aspect that is there but isn’t really able for you to be in touch with it in a helpful way.

Jane:

Can you say more about enriching feelings – what do you mean by enriching feelings?

Isca:

Well, if you don’t do it, you split off this part of yourself and so there’s an impoverishment if you like. It belongs to you, but it’s only expressed in a negative way and you try not to have it. So there’s a whole part of you missing and as you experience deeper feeling, deeper feelings, that enriches the other part of yourself that can then be more in touch with the positive life aspects of yourself.

The Experience Of Having Wilfred Bion As Her Analyst And The Importance Of His Theories

Jane:

When you were training you had Wilfred Bion as your analyst. I’m curious about what that experience was like for you?

Isca:

People invariably ask me that. Actually, he was my second analyst. I was quite worried about going to him. Although I wanted to go to him because I thought he was such an original thinker, which attracted me to want to go to him. But his writings are so difficult to understand. All I can say – thank goodness he didn’t talk in the way he writes, because if he had done, I wouldn’t have understood a word! When in fact he spoke very down to earth and talked about the ordinary things in my life. But to see them in a different light.

He could see that I had a biased view of relationships in my life, of some particular relationships actually and that they could be seen in a different way. And quite ordinary things, he would say something which made you think why didn’t I think of that before – it’s so true – but you haven’t thought about it before. I mean, I had another analyst before him. A very nice, South African Jewish man [Sonny Davidson who died during her analysis] who was very warm and also not just bound by theoretical concepts. A very warm relationship. And in fact, when I came to Bion, I actually found him more of a Buddha, who sat there as a Buddha. A very thoughtful man, but not as warm as my previous analyst. He didn’t come over to me as warm.

Jane:

Are there aspects of Bion’s theories that have particularly affected you, influenced you?

Isca:

Well, not only myself, but others – but quite particularly the importance of containment, which was a big theme of his. That what happens in a relationship, needs to happen in the very first relationship namely between mother and baby. It’s for the mother to be able to bear and absorb the pain of her baby and be in touch with it. And to think about it and in a way that then will enable her, inside herself, to integrate it in herself and behave in a way that makes it acceptable for the baby to have some pain. But some of the worst aspects of the pain has been really been taken over by some positive thinking. So it becomes, in the relationship, the basis of this capacity to inside himself manage the pain.

Jane:

So we come back to the importance of being able to manage emotional pain.

Isca:

Absolutely, but also that people need help with it – when they’re very distressed. First of all, the baby needs help with very overwhelming anxieties, panic in fact. And of course, the neurological findings now show that in as far as the baby has good experiences including, particularly, also containing pain by his mother. There’s a development of connections made in the brain which help, then later, to have a brain that can learn and take in a way that others may not be able to. So the question of containment as a psychotherapist being able to contain the patient’s pain is really like the mother or father who’ve helped the baby to learn to accept it.

Working With Adolescents

Jane:

You developed a young people’s counselling service at the Tavistock, where, for the first time young people could refer themselves for therapy. I’m interested in why you gravitated to work with adolescents.

Isca:

I was working with adolescents in a way that was actually a question of circumstances. Before we moved to the building near Swiss Cottage, I mean by ‘we’, the service, the clinic, moved. The building where we’d been before in Beaumont Street, was too small to contain yet another aspect of the work, in terms of adolescents. And so, it was decided that a psychiatrist, Dr Hunter and his wife, who was a social worker, and I as a psychotherapist, would move to a different building and start an adolescent unit. Which later on, in the Swiss Cottage, in the NHS building, and became a very big department, adolescent department.

I think I was maybe also interested in it because I really didn’t have a normal adolescence in any kind of way because of the times we lived in. So maybe there was a curiosity about that. So I was very pleased to be working with adolescents. Also, of course, they undergo such enormous changes in their bodily development and their mental life, so they’re very interesting.

But the question is why did we start this counselling unit? Just before that, for some years, I had been going to Sussex University for one day a week where they wanted a psychotherapist to see patients that the doctors in this student health service had seen and it didn’t seem to be a purely somatic problem, and they wanted to refer these patients, student patients, to me to see them for an assessment. And to help them, I decided, I was only there one day a week what could I do? Take one patient on and see them intensely? No, that didn’t make sense. And, so I decided that I would offer them three sessions in that given time. And I was amazed how much work could be done because they knew the time was very limited, and so I think it heightened their wish to, or their need to, communicate.

Also, it required on my part, after the first session and the second session, to go home and think very much about the session that we’d had. Which I’d write up on the train going back, to think, well what was the main theme?  How did it come up within the session in relation to me? An example that comes to mind, is a young man who was referred to me after he made a suicidal attempt. I knew from the doctor that he was living with a woman, the person that had her household there. He was the only student there and that he had been drinking a lot, and then he woke up even more depressed than he was before and more despairing. So he drank a lot more and took some pills, not actually that many.

So this is what I knew about him. He came to the session, which was for an hour, 40 minutes late, and he’s made an impression of not really being all there and I asked him ‘Why are you late?’ And he told me that he’d drunk again and, ‘And what makes you drink?’ I asked, and he told me it was so despairing, and I said, ‘And you’ve taken all the pills and drunk again? I think the first thing you need to do is go and see the doctor next door and go to the hospital, you’re in a bad state. But I think it’s also interesting that you’ve done this on the eve before coming to see me. As if you’re desperate to be helped and looked after.’

That was the beginning, and then I asked, ‘Tell me about your family?’ He told me, ‘Oh my mother was wonderful when I was a baby. She loves babies. But when the next boy was born, and she had several babies in the course of time, all her love went to that baby, and I was left all at the side.’ So I said, ‘I’ll see you when you come out of hospital.’

So here is what happened, he put himself as someone that I had to look after. Making the demand of, ‘I want to be the baby otherwise, I’ll die.’ Coming to university was like being pushed out of the mother’s lap and having to be alone again. And he couldn’t bear that.

So the very basis of our work was shown in his behaviour towards me. So I think in the first session, and Freud actually said – everything is in the first session – if only we could understand it. But some people make it that clear, so that I can work with that, in a short time, and see where we get and what’s needed. I’ll never forget that case, and of course, I’m afraid even in these days and with student health services in the universities, there are a lot of suicides, especially in the first year.

Jane:

I’m curious as to what happened to that young man?

Isca:

I really needed immediately for him to be seen by a doctor. He went to hospital, and when he came out of it, and he said, he was very much complaining about his mother, was so abandoning of him. It turned out, he enjoyed being in the hospital and his mother came. So she wasn’t so neglectful as he painted her. It was his experience of her but it wasn’t true. So, I could see his fantasy as opposed to the reality. And we worked with the fact that we had three sessions and there would be an end then – for the time being. If he needed more consultations with me I was prepared to see him and decide more with him.

But it seemed to me, it would be useful if he would in fact live in college, where there’s a building where people live, students live, and there’s someone there who looks after him in terms of what he needed. So that would be a much safer place for him. Although, he would have to learn, to learn about his jealousy of the others that were there and that’s what he did, and I didn’t hear from him anymore. It seems, somehow, he managed.

Jane:

I’m struck by the really interesting and very important people that were around in the Tavistock Clinic when you were there. Donald Meltzer, John Bowlby, Melanie Klein. It must have been a very exciting time for you?

Isca:

It was, no question. Melanie Klein wasn’t physically there, but she was, her theories and her enormous development of something of value, you’re mainly  exploring the life of an infant from birth. But Anna Freud’s clinic, although she did very valuable, valuable work with children, and also explored separations, did not cover the first few months. She didn’t seem to think in terms of the relationship at the beginning of life, and Melanie Klein claimed that from the beginning of life the baby has fantasies and has a mind that works, that develops fantasies about what is going on. And how the mother behaves with the baby is absolutely fundamental to his further development, with the very early period.

So Melanie Klein was very important to us, in terms of what she had discovered about early development and how that affected development in childhood, and later on in adult life.

Working With John Bowlby

Jane:

I’m curious about what it might have been like working with John Bowlby?

Isca:

Well, that was earlier of course, before I was at the Tavistock. I was still in the smaller unit on Beaumont Street. I came there actually, originally, when I thought of becoming a social worker. I’d taken a training earlier at Birmingham University and studied social sciences and much later I came to the Tavistock where  Bowlby was in charge of the department of children and parents, and he was a very lovable man and very informal.  I remember Christmas parties at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, where he danced the Scottish wheel. He was a Scot of course.

He was essential in terms of child psychotherapy training. He supported it. He got funds from America even, to help students who couldn’t pay the fees to train, and I was one of those – very fortunately because at that time my parents couldn’t afford the fees.

We owe a lot to him and the work he did in terms of helping psychotherapy training to be established at his clinic. And of course, he did wonderful work in terms of exploring not only attachment, which was his main thing, but also separations.

He had a research department, in which he had Jimmy Robertson – a psychologist – who would study separation by actually filming what happens to a child. The first film he did was of a child in hospital, a young child in hospital. I forget how old she was, but certain she was well under school age, maybe she was three, but I’m not sure about the age. And he filmed what happened when this child was hospitalised and how her behaviour of having been a very happy child at home, because he filmed her there already with the mother and father. How it gradually, from being just shocked to be in hospital and at that time wasn’t what we’ve got now, in terms of visiting. And so the deterioration in her behaviour, her alienation from the mother and her being angry but also just shutting down and becoming withdrawn and lifeless in her behaviour, like in a deep depression.

It’s a film that was shown to hospital staff, later, all over the country. And it took years until it had its effect. The effect, I think largely due to this film, it was decided that there should be visiting every day and for many hours if wanted. And eventually, it turned out not only be this but also mothers being able to stay in the hospital with their children and was to a large extent the result of this. So it was done with Bowlby’s initiative.

Jane:

Do you think Bowlby has got enough recognition at the Tavistock, for his work?

Isca:

I think there was a time when he was not liked so much by the Kleinians, because he did not agree with or certainly didn’t develop in the way that she was developing the understanding of the relationship between mother and baby from the beginning of life. So, it’s a very different conception about, in fact their relationship, whether it’s just a attachment based on animal studies or whether it’s actually a mind that is being explored from the beginning and needs help from the mother in order to lessen the child’s anxiety.

Jane:

So there was this split between the Kleinians and people who believed in attachment. Do you think it’s possible to be both, to agree with attachment and also to agree with Kleinian theory?

Isca:

I think there was a time when this was like that [a split]. I think today it’s different, we’re happy to look at both Bowlby and Klein’s work.

Infant Observation & Esther Bick

Jane:

So you taught infant observation at the Tavistock for over 50 years. You took over from Esther Bick’s seminar, I think. She discovered the benefits of observing infants in their home for the first year or two of life, and the benefits that can bring to psychoanalytic training. Why is infant observation so important for child psychotherapists to learn do you think?

Jane:

Well, it is linked to what I’ve just talked about, that Melanie Klein put the emphasis on the very early development of the personality. Development that tremendously influences childhood and adulthood of this person. So, I think when you’ve done infant observation it is such an important part of the training. We used to do it and I think it’s still done as a pre-clinical training before you start seeing patients. If you think this is the basis of further development and you haven’t actually – you know it may be by theory, but you haven’t experienced it –  you have to experience it by doing infant observation in which you sit, don’t film, but your mind films what is going on. Trying to observe in the greatest of detail, every movement, every expression, every cry, every changing of the baby’s position in the mother’s lap and so on. How the baby is put to sleep; how the baby is picked up; everything, absolutely everything, in the hour that you’re there.

You don’t write it down, because you should observe all the time. Not only observe, but also taking the feeling conveyed by what you see and the feeling that you experience in yourself. And then, when you write it down at home, the observation, you have a chance then to take it to your seminar, which is a very small seminar, very few people – so they have a lot of time to contribute and think. And you discover, both in terms of the leader of the discussion, how you learn to observe better because they ask you, ‘What did the mother do then? And, ‘What did the baby do then?’

So your actual questions are what you keep in mind in your observations, and in fact that the observations become better as people go along and do it more. And it’s then discussed in an analytic way to really understand the feelings exchanged between mother and baby, and it’s just amazing what you see if you really look at it in such detail and over time. To understand the baby’s movements, it’s crying, it’s smiling. How the mother looks at it or doesn’t look at it. All these things become so important and crucial to development.

It’s something that people who haven’t done it, really don’t fully take in and know. And you use it even with adults who get the deepest kind of experiences and feelings. The most primitive feeling, which only through Klein we understood and through Esther Bick, who was responsible for the seminars, and she had an incredible interaction with what the babies might be feeling – incredible! And we learned an enormous amount in the seminars from her and I did them twice for two years and watched how she was doing.

And then when she came to actually give it up,  when she was in considerable age and she thought she couldn’t do it anymore, and I sat in her seminar again, and she said, well, she’d like me to take over the group. And I saw the seminar students being shocked, and they went downstairs afterwards, as I did, and I saw them hovered in a group and discussing this. And I thought I must do something right now and I said, ‘I know you’re very disappointed, but I’m afraid I’m going to be the person – because that wasn’t said by Esther Bick at the time – I’m the person who’s going to take it over. We’ll just have to do the best we can together.’ And we did – later on.

Jane:

I’m wondering why Esther Bick chose you?

Isca:

I think that’s purely lucky that I was just available.  I don’t think she particularly liked me. I think it was just lucky, I was around to do it. But I’m grateful she did.

Jane:

That sounds very self-effacing to me.

Isca:

Well, as I say, she actually didn’t particularly like me. I never had that impression. I had her actually supervising one of my cases, intensive cases, and I remember how I sat there presenting, reading my notes about having seen my patient and how her face would go from having been friendly to getting grimmer and grimmer, and her jaw sinking down and she obviously didn’t like at all what I was telling her. But I had to go right through to the end of it, reading it before we could discuss it. She was very critical, very critical, which I try as a seminar leader not to be, try my best not to be.

Jane:

What do you think your students have gained from you as a teacher?

Isca:

Well, you know people usually don’t say much, but just even now, I got a letter this last week from somebody who said how coming to see me in my seminars and my teaching, and what a privilege it’d been for her. I was quite amazed and I was very pleased of course, very nice, very nice to write after very, very many years.

I must say, I’m very lucky, my patients, my ex-intensive patients most of them are keeping in touch with me, year after year. My adolescent training case, who actually was supervised by Meltzer, sends me roses or other flowers every Christmas. Still, after I don’t know how many years, but certainly very many. I saw her last in 1960.

Jane:

1960?

Isca:

Yes

Jane:

The last time you saw her.

Isca:

I do keep nice contact with people, or they keep with me rather – both ways.

Spirituality And Psychotherapy

Jane:

You’ve written that you’d like to extend the psychoanalytic understanding of human relationships to include the spiritual aspect of human beings. There’s a deep interest in spirituality running through your work. Is that linked to you being from a long line of Rabbis? I know you said your father was. And I think your Grandfather?

Isca:

It’s in me, I think because of my upbringing in a religious family and a father who as a Rabbi who was very liberal in his thinking. On a Sabbath he would often read to us, either from the bible or from Shakespeare. He was quite authoritarian as well, but otherwise he was also quite widely liberal – in the sense of the meaning of the word.

I think if you’re brought up in a Jewish, practising Jewish household, then everything in life is related to God, whatever it is, and to people. Whether it is the bread you eat and which you bless and thank God for; whether it’s the wine you have or whatever you do, it is all related to something beyond this world, with a sense of gratitude and positive things in life. And I think that’s in me. And I’m grateful for that.

As regards people in analysis, I think they know so much that psychoanalysis does not go together with religion, usually, and in theoretical language, it’s not touched on really, it’s rather agnostic to such thinking of religious life.

So actually, I spent many, many years getting quite old in order to think how I can link both the psychological way of thinking and a religious – anyway – a spiritual life so that it enables me to think about what’s beyond this life, beyond this planet. Which has a mystery.

Jane:

I think it’s the question about interrelatedness, that it strikes me that you’re very much a person who’s very curious about others and your relationship with others and how we are all connected with each other, in some way. And also you write about our connection with nature and the universe.

Isca:

Yes.

Jane:

And it’s not something that you normally encounter in psychoanalytic writings.

Isca:

So many people do relate to nature in a very emotional way. Trees, for instance, are evoking in us often feelings of strength, of protection, protection from the sun for instance; to the sea; to rivers. I think very many people do. The question is whether, it’s really, whether it’s just nice, or it has meaning for you? That it makes you think of, what’s the source of energy? What’s the source of life? And you’ve got it in nature in the most fantastic way. You put something in the earth and it grows, it blossoms – it also fades away. Trees are, actually, unlike that, they go on for a very long time. But flowers, no, they change very rapidly.

So, it makes you think about life. Is everything in life transitory? What is growth? And to think of the end, as well and the fading away. Although nowadays, of course, we’re beginning to go to the moon and other planets. But there are enormous horizons well beyond our reach.

Isca Continuing To Work In Her Late 90’s

Jane:

You’re now mainly working in private practice doing brief and long-term psychotherapy and supervisions. Has the nature of your work changed, as you have got older?

Isca:

Well, first of all, I must say I only do very little work.

Jane:

You see about five patients a week you said.

Isca:

I see five patients once a week, that’s not much. I used to work very many hours in the day. I don’t call that much, no. But I’m very glad to do it because I love my work. I wouldn’t take on any new patients. I might do a consultation with somebody new, but that’s all, and then refer them to somebody else. But the question arises whether it’s fair for me to do the work at all because I don’t know how long I will live. It can’t be all that long, although people live longer. But..so we’re very much talking about ending, both ending them coming to see me, and the ending of my life that they’re having to face, that I won’t be available.

I think many people in the analytic world would feel this isn’t the right thing to do, but they want to come. The patients that I’ve had for a long time and working really at being able to do the work inside themselves, rather than relying on me. And they want to come and I’m very happy to see them, and they are developing in the right direction and just thinking about themselves and able to deal with that pain for situations.

Jane:

In your book, which is focusing on endings, you write, ‘What makes it possible to accept the transience of life, to bear increasing losses, face the loss of one’s own life and yet go on growing, gaining or at least maintaining emotional and spiritual strength.’ What do you think is the answer to that?

Isca:

I’m not sure that it’s possible for everybody. But I do think, just basing what I’ve said all along, it is a matter of really being grateful for what you’ve got and every day we experience it as a gift. That life is a gift – rather than something we deserve. And why am I alive? I mean, by sheer accident that one is alive, and to learn to be grateful for that. If that can happen to be pro-life but accept it as a gift that doesn’t last forever, and I think, I hope, that people can come to that point through the work we do in terms of in their own family, being grateful for what has been given to them by their parents, but accepting that they’ve lost their parents.

In many people, around 50, they’ve lost their parents and then face that it is their turn next to die. Before then they thought their parents were there – I don’t have to face and think about it. But the death of a mother or father quite often puts that there’s no longer a barrier. Although, you can still forget about it most of the time.

Jane:

I’m struck by you continuing to evolve and learn new things. For example, you’ve told me you started to learn the piano just over three years ago. Quite an achievement for a 96 year old.

Isca:

Yes, people think so. Also, I published my last book at the age of 90 and I’ve been asked actually to extend it a bit. So, I think I’m very fortunate that I can do that. In fact, I’ve made – but that’s not why I learned the piano – I’ve learned the piano because I had been playing the cello for many years, but I couldn’t manage this physically any more. I’ve got a problem with mobility and I couldn’t carry such an instrument. 

So I had to give up the music which I played since the year of seven. I’ve really played an instrument; a cello I started at 14, quite late, but I played it throughout my life until a few years ago. I missed making music and I have a beautiful piano. So I thought, why not learn to play the piano? And so I did. And amazingly, I’m making progress. I’ve actually heard that it’s very good for the mind and it’s wonderful. If I’m worried about something I can go to a piano and completely lose myself in the music. You need utter concentration and it’s a wonderful thing. But I really missed making music and this gives me the opportunity to do it, and yes, I go on wanting to do new things, as far as I can.

Jane:

If you had any advice to give to the younger Isca, just starting out on her career, what would you say to her?

Isca:

I’m not sure. I think I knew which direction I wanted to go. I don’t think I needed anybody’s advice for it. I was going to helping people, do social work, to teach, teaching at university and then I wanted to understand minds better, and I love children. So, that was my path, I was very lucky that it was like that.

Jane:

Would you change anything?

Isca:

No, not much.

What Would Isca Like Other Therapists To Know?

Jane:

And what would you like child psychotherapists most to know about what you’ve learned from your work over the last 60 years?

Isca:

That each mind is different. Each individual is different. They have their own history and this makes the work enormously interesting and that everybody is important and worthwhile helping.

Jane:

Thank you very much Isca for spending the time with me. I’ve really enjoyed meeting with you.

Isca:

Thank you.

Readings

Allnutt, L., 2011. A conversation with Isca Wittenberg. Infant Observation, 14(1), pp.5–13.

Henry, G., Osborne, E. and Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., 2003. The emotional experience of learning and teaching. Routledge.

Meltzer, D., Bremner, J., Hoxter, S., Weddell, D. and Wittenberg, I., n.d. Explorations in Autism: A Psycho-Analytical Study Next Related Papers.

Salzberger Wittenberg, I., 1977. Counselling young people. The child psychotherapist and problems of young people, pp.136–159.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., 2013. Psycho-analytic insight and relationships: A Kleinian approach. Routledge.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., 2018. Experiencing endings and beginnings. Routledge.

Wittenberg, I., 1971. Extending fields of work. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 3(1), pp.22–30.

Wittenberg, I., 1978. The Use of ‘Here and Now’Experiences in a Teaching Conference on Psychotherapy as a Means of Gaining Insight into the Nature of. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 4(4), pp.33–50.

Wittenberg, I., 1980. “So the Witch Won’t Eat Me”. Fantasy and the Child’s Fear of Infanticide, Dorothy Bloch, Burnett Books in Association with Andre Deutsch (1979), p. 246,£ 5.50. Academic Press.

Wittenberg, I., 1982. Assessment for psychotherapy. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 8(2), pp.131–144.

Wittenberg, I., 1997. The family, the observer and the infant. Developments in Infant Observation: The Tavistock Model, p.19.

Wittenberg, I., 1999a. Ending therapy. Journal of child psychotherapy, 25(3), pp.339–356.

Wittenberg, I., 1999b. What is psychoanalytic about the Tavistock model of studying infants? Does it contribute to psychoanalytic knowledge? Infant Observation, 2(3), pp.4–15.

Wittenberg, I., 2001. Being at university: A time of growth or unbearable stress. Psychoanalytic studies, 3(3–4), pp.307–312.

Wittenberg, I., 2008. Brief work with parents of infants.

Wittenberg, I., 2013. Embarking on something new—a course of study, marriage, having arouse hope. Young Child Observation: A Development in the Theory and Method of Infant Observation, p.29.

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