Tea With Winnicott: Brett Kahr (2016)

reviewed by Nicola Sugden, PhD Candidate,  University of Manchester

Brett Kahr (2016) Tea With Winnicott London Karnac, 300 pages £17.99

Brett Kahr’s Tea With Winnicott is a curious and highly original offering: a work of ‘imaginary non-fiction’, wherein child psychoanalyst Winnicott returns to his former home and consulting room for a posthumous interview with the author. Kahr – a psychotherapist and Winnicott scholar – states his inspiration for the book thus “Students have a very great deal of difficulty grasping the totality of Winnicott’s writings due, in part, to the sheer bulk. And I thought that it might be enjoyable to […] ask Winnicott to tell us everything that we need to know about his life and about his work – all conveniently assembled in one portable book.”

On the count of being enjoyable this book is a success, written with a sense of playfulness fitting to a tribute to Winnicott. It provides an exposition of Winnicottian theory suitable for students, following the chronology of a baby’s life. Kahr follows Winnicott’s thinking from a baby’s conception and birth, through the three tasks of motherhood (holding, handling, and object-presenting) that the Good-Enough Mother undertakes, to the transitional objects and phenomena through which the child develops a relationship with the outside world – human development as the path from ‘absolute dependence’ to ‘relative dependence’ and ‘towards independence’.

Newcomers to Winnicott will no doubt value this as an accessible introduction to his work.

However, from a history of science perspective, the most disappointing trait of Tea With Winnicott is its implicit conception of the history of science as a march of progress past milestones erected by geniuses, powered by the curiosity of the scientific mind. There is also a sense that this book seeks to exonerate Winnicott himself and psychoanalysis in general from charges of pseudoscience and scandal. Failure to engage with wider historical themes is another unfortunate feature of the posthumous interview format e.g. Kahr makes much of Winnicott’s Wesleyan heritage and the theme of religious dissent and independent-mindedness, which leads to a number of religious references deployed with a disappointing lack of historicity. Historians of childhood would be further frustrated by the inclusion of defunct myths about Victorian childhood, when ‘People simply thought of children as smaller adults,’ and ‘Wealthy parents abandoned their children to governesses and nannies, whereas those without financial resources left their children to roam the streets’.

Tea With Winnicott, then, is disappointing if read as a history book, but is a potentially useful introduction to Winnicott’s theories. It may be that it will remain a novelty, a piece of ‘Winnicottiana’ for those already inducted into the fold – though a thoroughly enjoyable one.

[an extended review can be found at the Postgraduate Journal of Medical Humanities  https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofhumanities/history/researchcentres/centreformedicalhistory/pdfsanddocs/Tea_With_Winnicott_Book_Review.pdf]

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

November 2017


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A podcast with Brett Kahr is also available at http://shrinkrapradio.com/567-tea-with-winnicott-with-professor-brett-kahr/