I’ve written about this in my book, Phantasy in Everyday Life.
When Jane was two (or possibly three) years old, she found her doll with the hair torn off. Jane was very upset and asked her mother who had done it. She said ‘You did’. Jane was shocked. Her mother did not lie, and she knew it must be true. But she had no memory of doing it, and as far as she was concerned, she was a Good Girl who did not damage things, certainly not her own doll.
Some years later, at primary school a girl brought in a scurrilous ‘school song’, which ended something like ‘put all the teachers on the fire and burn the bloomin’ lot’. Delightedly, Jane showed it to several girls. The next morning the teacher challenged the class about it. As one of the ‘best’ in the class, to be made Head Girl two years later, Jane was suddenly ashamed. When asked who she had told, she only remembered one girl; two others said Jane had told them, but Jane denied it fervently and repeatedly. It was only much later in the day that Jane remembered that she had indeed told them too.
Both these incidents, full of shame and puzzlement, were brought back to Jane’s mind in her late teens, when she read Melanie Klein’s Psychoanalysis of Children and The Development of a Child. Klein talks about splitting.
Splitting is more than forgetting. When you split, it is as if you divide yourself in two. You can split off aspects of yourself you do not like: ‘what, me? I am a good girl, not a bad girl!’ While under the influence of splitting you really believe the fantasy: in those moments she had no idea that she had once been the ‘bad girl’. Jane never remembered tearing the hair off her doll, though she did regain the memory of passing on the song. Splitting can be permanent or temporary; deep or superficial; last days or months or years.
Shame was the motivation in the second incident, but I am less sure about the first. Jane thought it was probably closer to terror; terror of being cast out, abandoned, deserted if she showed herself to be anything other than good. Jane lived at the time with her grandmother who had a powerful line in scorn; when this did not stop Jane crying, she ignored her.
Jane had often puzzled over how it was that she could be so angry with a doll, an inanimate object. Klein showed that children perceive the world through fantasy; that they deal with their anxieties by endowing the outside world with symbolism and then working things through using the external world. The doll’s name was a mixture of Jane’s first two names, and she must have represented a part of Jane. Klein also showed how easy and natural it is for children to be angry, with their parents, with themselves, with their brothers and sisters. She reports her own son playing a ‘hangman’ game, saying he was hanging his much older brother and sister, then boxing the ears of the decapitated heads saying with satisfaction that it was all right to hit this kind of head because ‘they can’t hit back’. (The development of a child, in Writings of Melanie Klein vol 1, p. 32).
Klein was interested in her son’s aggressiveness, both to his siblings and to his father; she also saw his ‘passion’ for his mother. The ‘hangman’ game took place after she had told him about the role of the father in making babies, information she had not given him when she first told him where babies came from. She saw it as part of a flowering of creative and free play; where beforehand he had become listless and uninterested in anything, after she told him his imagination ran free and he played uninhibitedly. At the same time, his relations with other children improved and he played both with them and on his own. Now we could suggest that knowing he wanted to kill off his siblings (but also knowing there was a difference between doing it in fantasy and in reality – in fantasy they couldn’t hit back) enabled him to be free enough to play with them in reality; hiding such feelings leaves a child more afraid of their own impulses getting out of hand. Being told you have the capacity to tear the hair off your doll without remembering it afterwards opens up the terrible question of what else you might have done, or be capable of doing, without knowing it. Such a fear could well inhibit a child from free play with her siblings.
For Jane as a child, angry emotions were not something to be acknowledged and smiled about in a child; they were terrible, dangerous things which could kill. She also remembered telling her little brother and sister that they were behaving ‘like Hitler’ when they fought while their mother was lying on the sofa in great pain. Fury with parents was a terrible sin. So was jealousy. Jane was always grateful to Klein, who took the sin away and made the emotions understandable.
It makes sense that at times we want to split our view of the world; to see ourselves as good; not to know about shameful feelings. And shameful feelings arise at significant times. By the time she was six Jane was able to remember terrible things she did; digging her fingernail into the wrist of the girl who shared her desk at school, because she would not keep to her own side, for example. As an adult, with the help of an analyst, Jane could see that this took place when her little sister was beginning to take up more space, in Jane’s bedroom, in Jane’s bed. Any feelings she had about defending her own space against her sister would have been classed by Jane as definitely bad; she wanted so much to be good, to help her mother, who was struggling to cope. That she might feel freer to express a raging fury at school rather than at home made sense (though she remembered still being scared).
Splitting does not get rid of the feelings; they are simply redirected. It might have seemed safer to Jane to attack the girl sitting next to her rather than her sister, but it lost her a friend, affected her relationship with the teacher and increased her loneliness and unhappiness at school. (In the same class she wrote a poem about being sad; her teacher asked if she couldn’t write something happier.) Jane’s fury with her little brother and sister took place at a time when her mother was ill, and Jane must have torn the hair off her doll while her father was seriously ill. It seems this blog is also about the effects on children of having an ill parent. Ill parents heighten anxieties; increase our fear for their and our own safety. It makes sense that in this situation we should fear our own ‘bad’ impulses even more than usual; and that such fear might make us ‘split’ ; not just our view of the world but our very selves, the self that we know and the self that does the knowing. And the cost can be high.
Dissociation is an extreme (and much less common) version of this; in which the self splits into different personalities which develop their own lives, usually as a result of serious trauma or abuse. See PODS http://www.pods-online.org.uk/