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(p. 147) Letter to Margaret Torrie 

(p. 147) Letter to Margaret Torrie
(p. 147) Letter to Margaret Torrie

Donald W. Winnicott

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Originally published in Rodman, F. R. (Ed.), The spontaneous gesture: Selected letters of D. W. Winnicott (Letter 107, pp. 166–167). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Margaret Torrie (1912–99) was a social worker and founder of Cruse Clubs, the first national organisation for widows and their children (later Cruse Bereavement Care). Winnicott had written the Foreword to Torrie’s The Widow’s Child (1964 [CW 7:1:12]). He wrote to Torrie again the following day [CW 8:1:21].

4 September 1967

Dear Margaret Torrie,

Thank you for your letter and for the literature. I am extremely glad that you are trying to do something about the very considerable distress that goes with mastectomy. It is not at all surprising to me that you have met some fairly terrible things in response to your carefully worded questions. The paperback that you are writing should meet a real need.

I have read your preface and I have no special comment to make. No doubt in the course of the book you will be dealing with a little bit of the common pathological aspects of the problem as well as with the normal; that is to say you will be referring to the fact that a fair proportion of girls go through a period of feeling inadequate because they are not boys, and then get especially high charge of meaning in the idea of breast development so that for these a word like castration becomes appropriate when the surgeon says that the breast must come off.

The comment that I feel like making is that all women having a mastectomy must be disturbed; somewhere in every one of them is a tremendous reaction. No doubt a great deal could be done by way of preparation and sympathetic introduction to the idea. Nevertheless in my opinion nothing can really do away with their anger, hate, and sense of insult which is inherent (p. 148) in any mutilation even if it saves life. I think that in your writing you might somehow or other allow for the fact that the woman’s anger with the callous surgeon may present some kind of an outlet for anger which otherwise eats away inside because the woman does not like to be angry with God or fate. What I am trying to say is that while I am very much in favour of an enlightened attitude towards this sort of problem and while I believe that a very great deal can be done which is not being done, nevertheless I do not expect that the problem can be solved and I do not expect you think so either. In every case the woman has to deal with resentment and there are some women who simply do not know what to do with resentment unless they can blame somebody for something. On the basis of this thought I would like to say that I think surgeons do behave in general about as badly in respect of mastectomy as they do about any of their other ploys. You could of course write another paperback on the management of hysterectomy and the removal of ovaries, etc., etc.

I do hope you will keep me in touch with what you are doing in this.

While I am writing you, may I let you know one of my own troubles? … It concerns the plight of … [a woman who] is spending more money than she has on drink. She is constantly asking me for the name of somebody who [will] help her to … postpone suicide … till her son is launched …

You will see my difficulty very quickly, because she cannot use me and it is difficult for me to find someone who is wise because there are not many of that kind, and she is wanting somebody who will see her without demanding a fee. I feel myself that if she got help she would be quite generous and would probably offer a present, but when a fee is demanded then she knows that she is not going to get any help. Probably this woman cannot be helped, and it is no good my recommending the local parson. If you should happen to know anyone after whose name you could put the qualification W.I.S.E., who also for some reason or other has a personal urge to help people who are in distress, I would be terribly glad if you could let me know. This person must be prepared to fail just as I have failed, but somehow this would seem to be very much better than what I am doing at present which is to do nothing at all simply because I don’t know what to do.

I don’t mind at all if you just simply ignore this part of my letter which is certainly not what you were asking for!

Every good wish to you and Alfred,


D. W. Winnicott