2004: Review of ‘Face to Face With Children’

Craig Fees, review of Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott, Edited by Joel Kanter with Forewords by Jeremy Holmes and Brett Kahr, Karnac Books (London, New York) 2004, £25

About twenty pages in I had to stop reading this book. But to be fair, the context: It was towards the end of a long day, in the stands of a hot municipal swimming pool, watching the children in the swimming club, having driven them through heavy traffic from their music lessons in Gloucester, having first picked them up from their schools over in north Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, following an intense working day, on the back of a sleepless night. Pick up “Face to Face with Children” by Joel Kanter: traffic blitzed, sleep deprived, life stunned. A book about Clare Winnicott, and then filled with most of her available writings – “The problem of homeless children (1944)”, “Children who cannot play (1945)”, “Face to face with children (1963)”…”The development of insight (1959)”…”Fear of breakdown: a clinical example (1980)”…sixteen papers in all. Forewords by Jeremy Holmes and Brett Kahr. Biographical study by Joel Kanter.

In this situation I’ve gotten used to the embarrassing experience of jerking my head up out of a short dream, book still in hand, swimmers still going up and down. What I least expect is to become so excited and enlivened that twenty pages in I have to put the book down, pull out the laptop, tackle the keys and attempt to keep up with the thought flow: Firing off in this direction, trails started, questions opened …so much, that the book becomes almost unbearable to read, until that inner work has been done.

Clare Winnicott, nee Britton, began her professional career in social work just before the Second World War. In this biography and in these papers you are at the roots of the modern work with disturbed children, here, watching it unfold. You are watching Donald Winnicott being focused by the on-site social worker as he comes into Oxfordshire’s children’s hostels as a once-a-week psychotherapist; shaped by the remarkable woman he eventually married; giving him the notion of the transitional object, providing an ongoing framework for his lifetime engagement with social work (most notably for many of us involved with therapeutic communities for children and young people in Britain, his profound impact on Barbara Dockar-Drysdale – and hers on him. What were the sources ‘out there’ for the insights to which he gave so much life and psychoanalytic energy? The field. The workers?)

It is in the field, among the workers, that Clare Winnicott, a teacher, a wild child and then social worker moves, seeing and articulating what that exciting generation who burst out of the Depression and the War as self-conscious pioneers in therapeutic working with children and young people were seeing and talking about among themselves: Forging the tools for understanding what it was all about, this new field of work; taking part in shaping policy and legislation; shifting the way the nation regarded and treated its children: Engaged and dynamic revolutionaries, whose work has been so absorbed into the common sense of best child care practice – and themselves largely forgotten or disregarded – that reading it in a book like this is like stepping into a world for the first time that you thought you knew; through a curtain of irrelevant time. Finding your thoughts and understandings spoken fifty years earlier by a woman who died 20 years ago; discovering that you are related to the Present in ways you hadn’t expected. Finding yourself filled, with practice.

Kanter is a practicing social worker, a graduate of the Advanced Psychotherapy Training Program at the Washington School of Psychiatry, Senior Clinician with Fairfax County Mental Health Services in Virginia, in private practice, an active member of ISPS. He doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t go straight to the heart of working – not just with children and young people, but with disturbed and distressed adults as well. He has found in Clare Winnicott a voice for the field; a voice which was itself distilling the powerful and insightful voices of a generation. It is a book for those who do the work – in the various meanings of ‘for’; from someone who does the work. And for my money, it is done well.