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(p. 295) D. W. W.: A Reflection 

(p. 295) D. W. W.: A Reflection

Clare Winnicott

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date: 25 May 2020

O hours of childhood, hours when behind the figures there was more than the mere past, and when what lay before us was not the future! True, we were growing, and sometimes made haste to be grown up, half for the sake of those who’d nothing left but their grown-upness. Yet, when alone, we entertained ourselves with everlastingness: there we would stand, within the gap left between world and toy, upon a spot which, from the first beginning, had been established for a pure event.

Rainer Maria Rilke

A few years ago the editors of a book on transitional objects and transitional phenomena1 invited me to write something of a personal nature about D. W. W. It seems to me that what I wrote about him then, though I was naturally keeping the subject of the transitional area in the forefront of my mind, is central to the whole of his achievement.

I began with two questions: what was it about D. W. W. that made the exploration of the transitional area inevitable, and made his use of it clinically productive? It was my attempt to answer these questions that resulted in the contribution that followed, given here with a very few alterations.

I suggest that the answers have to be looked for not simply in a study of the development of D. W. W’s ideas as he went along, but essentially in the kind of personality that was functioning behind them. It could seem therefore as if I were saying that these concepts arose naturally and easily out of his own way of life. In one sense this is true; but it is only half the story. The rest concerns the periods of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion, out of which form and meaning eventually emerged.

D. W. W could be excited by other people’s ideas, but could use them and build on them only after they had been through the refinery of his own experience. By that time, unfortunately, he had often forgotten the source and he could, and did, alienate some people by his lack of acknowledgement. While other peoples ideas enriched him as clinician and as a person, it was the working out of ideas based on clinical practice that really absorbed him and that (p. 296) he grappled with to the end of his life. This was a creative process in which he was totally involved. In his clinical work D. W. W. made it his aim to enter into every situation undefended by his knowledge, so that he could be as exposed as possible to the impact of the situation itself. From his point of view this was the only way in which discovery and growth were possible, both for himself and for his patients. This approach was more than a stance; it was an essential discipline, and it added a dimension to his life as vital to him as fresh air.

The question is sometimes asked as to why D. W. W. in his writings seemed mainly concerned with exploring the area of the first two-person relationship. Strictly speaking this is not true: he wrote on a wide range of topics, including adolescence and delinquency and other matters of medical and sociological concern, and the greater part of his psychoanalytic practice was with adults. However, it could be true to say that his main contribution is likely to turn out to be in the study of the earliest relationships, and its application to the aetiology of psychosis and of the psychotic mechanisms in all of us. I suggest that his study took this direction from two sources. In the first place, he brought with him into psycho-analysis all that he had learnt and went on learning from paediatrics, and secondly, at the time he came to psycho-analysis the area of study just then opening up was that concerning the earliest experiences of life. Given his personality, his training and experience, and his urge for discovery, it seems inevitable that he would concentrate his researches on the so far comparatively unexplored area of earliest infancy and childhood. His findings however, are recognised by many as having implications far beyond the immediate area of study. It is the expressed opinion of some that they throw light on all areas of living.

As I have suggested, the essential clue to D. W. W.’s work on transitional objects and phenomena is to be found in his own personality, in his way of relating and being related to, and in his whole style of life. What I mean is that it was his capacity to play, which never deserted him, that led him inevitably into the area of research that he conceptualised in terms of the transitional objects and phenomena. It is not my purpose here to discuss the details of his work, but it seems important to note that in his terms the capacity to play is equated with a quality of living. In his own words, ‘Playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living’.2

This quality of living permeates all levels and aspects of experiencing and relating, up to and including the sophisticated level described in his paper ‘The Use of an Object’ at which, in his own words, ‘It is the destructive drive that creates the quality of externality’; and again, ‘this quality of “always being destroyed” makes the reality of the surviving object felt as such, strengthens the feeling tone, and contributes to object constancy’.3 For him, the destroying of the object in unconscious fantasy is like a cleansing process, which facilitates again and again the discovery of the object anew. It is a process of purification and renewal.

Having said that, I see my contribution as an attempt to throw some light on D. W. W’.s capacity for playing. I expect that readers will be familiar (p. 297) enough with his writings on this subject to know that I am not talking about playing games. I am talking about the capacity for operating in the limitless intermediate area where external and internal reality are compounded into the experience of living. I hope I do not suggest that D. W. W. lived in a state of permanent elation, because that was far from the case. He often found life hard and could be despondent and depressed and very angry, but given time he could come through and encompass these experiences in his own way and free himself from being cluttered up with resentment and prejudices. During the last years of his life the reality of his own death had to be negotiated, and this he did, again gradually and in his own way. I was always urging him to write an autobiography because I felt that his style of writing would lend itself to such a task. He started to do this, but there are only a few pages, and typically he used this exercise to deal with his immediate problem of living, which was that of dying. I know he used it in this way because he kept this notebook to himself and I did not see it until after his death.

The title of the autobiography was to be Not Less Than Everything, and the inner flap of the notebook reads as follows:

  • T. S. Eliot ‘Costing not less than everything’
  • T. S. Eliot ‘What we call the beginning is often the end
  •                     And to make an end is to make a beginning.
  •                     The end is where we start from’.
  • Prayer
  • D. W. W. Oh God! May I be alive when I die.

Following these words he started on the writing, and it begins by imaginatively describing the end of his life. I shall quote his own words:

I died.

It was not very nice, and it took quite a long time as it seemed (but it was only a moment in eternity).

There had been rehearsals (that’s a difficult word to spell. I found I had left out the ‘a’. The hearse was cold and unfriendly).

When the time came I knew all about the lung heavy with water that the heart could not negotiate, so that not enough blood circulated in the alveoli, and there was oxygen starvation as well as drowning. But fair enough, I had had a good innings: mustn’t grumble as our old gardener used to say…

Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked and I had got it. (This makes me feel awful because so many of my friends and contemporaries died in the first World War, and I have never been free from the feeling that my being alive is a facet of some one thing of which their deaths can be seen as other facets: some huge crystal, a body with integrity and shape intrinsical in it.)

(p. 298) He then goes on to discuss the difficulty that a man has dying without a son to imaginatively kill and to survive him—‘to provide the only continuity that men know. Women are continuous’. This dilemma is discussed in terms of King Lear and his relationship to his daughter who should have been a boy.

I hope that these quotations give some idea of D. W. W.’s capacity to come to terms with internal and external reality in a playful way, which makes reality bearable to the individual, so that denial can be avoided and the experience of living can be as fully realized as possible. In his own words, ‘playing can be said to reach its own saturation point, which refers to the capacity to contain experience’.4 He was avid for experience and would have hated to miss the inner experience of the reality of his own death, and he imaginatively achieved that experience. In conversation he would often refer to his deathday in a lighthearted way, but I knew that he was trying to get me and himself accustomed to the idea that it would come.

Having started at the end of his life, I must now go back to the beginnings and relate something about his earlier years and about the years that he and I spent together. I shall limit what I say to an attempt to illustrate the theme of playing, because that was central to his life and work.

First I must set the scene within which he grew up. It was an essentially English provincial scene in Plymouth, Devon, and it was far from London, not merely in mileage, but in custom and convention. When we drove to Plymouth from London he was always thrilled when we arrived at the place where the soil banked up at the side of the road changed color to the red soil of Devon. The richness of the soil brought back the richness of his early life which he never lost touch with. Of course on the return journey he was always equally pleased to be leaving it behind. But he was proud of being a Devonian, and that there is a village of Winnicott on the map of Devon. We never actually found the village, although we always meant to. It was enough that it was there.

The Winnicott household was a large and lively one with plenty of activity. But there was space for everyone in the large garden and house and there was no shortage of money. There were a vegetable garden, an orchard, a croquet lawn, a tennis court, and a pond, and high trees enclosed the whole garden. There was a special tree, in the branches of which Donald would do his homework in the days before he went to boarding school. Of the three children in the family Donald was the only boy, and his sisters, who still live in the house, were five and six years older than he. There is no doubt that the Winnicott parents were the centre of their children’s lives, and that the vitality and stability of the entire household emanated from them. Their mother was vivacious and outgoing and was able to show and express her feelings easily. Sir Frederick Winnicott (as he later became) was slim and tallish and had an old-fashioned quiet dignity and poise about him, and a deep sense of fun. Those who knew (p. 299) him speak of him as a person of high intelligence and sound judgement. Both parents had a sense of humour.

Across the road was another large Winnicott household which contained Uncle Richard Winnicott (Frederick’s elder brother) and his wife, and three boy cousins and two girls. The cousins were brought up almost as one family, so there was never a shortage of playmates. One of the sisters said recently that the question ‘What can I do?’ was never asked in their house. There was always something to do—and space to do it in, and someone to do it with if needed. But more important, there was always the vitality and imagination in the children themselves for exploits of all kinds. Donald’s family, including his parents, were musical, and one sister later became a gifted painter. The household always included a nanny and a governess, but they do not seem to have hampered the natural energies of the children in any unreasonable way. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the Winnicott children successfully evaded being hampered. As a small child Donald was certainly devoted to his nanny, and one of the first things I remember doing with him years later in London was to seek her out and ensure that she was all right and living comfortably. We discovered that the most important person in her life then (1950) was her own nephew Donald.

There is no question that from his earliest years Donald Winnicott did not doubt that he was loved, and he experienced a security in the Winnicott home which he could take for granted. In a household of this size there were plenty of chances for many kinds of relationships, and there was scope for the inevitable tensions to be isolated and resolved within the total framework. From this basic position Donald was then free to explore all the available spaces in the house and garden around him and to fill the spaces with bits of himself and so gradually to make his world his own. This capacity to be at home served him well throughout his life. There is a pop song which goes ‘Home is in my heart’. That is certainly how Donald experienced it, and this gave him an immense freedom which enabled him to feel at home anywhere. When we were traveling in France and staying in small wayside inns, at each place I would think to myself, ‘I wonder how long it will be before he’s in the kitchen’—the kitchen of course being the centre of the establishment—and sure enough, he would almost always find his way there somehow. Actually, he loved kitchens, and when he was a child his mother complained that he spent more time with the cook in the kitchen than he did in the rest of the house.

Because Donald was so very much the youngest member of the Winnicott household (even the youngest boy cousin living opposite was older than he) and because he was so much loved and was in himself lovable, it seems likely that a deliberate effort was made, particularly on the part of his mother and sisters, not to spoil him. While this did not deprive him of feeling loved, it did I think deprive him of some intimacy and closeness that he needed. But (p. 300) as Donald possessed (as do his sisters still) a natural ability to communicate with children of almost any age, the communication between children and adults in the Winnicott home must have been of a high order. Of course they all possessed an irrepressible sense of humor, and this, together with the happiness and safety of their background, meant that there were no ‘tragedies’ in the Winnicott household—there were only amusing episodes. Not so many years ago, when the tank in the roof leaked, causing considerable flooding and damage, they were more excited and amused than alarmed by this unexpected happening.

At this point I should like to quote another page from Donald’s autobiographical notes. Before doing so I should explain that the garden of the Winnicott home is on four levels. On the bottom level was the croquet lawn; then a steep slope (Mount Everest to a small child) leading to the pond level; next another slight slope leading to the lawn which was a tennis court; and, finally a flight of steps leading to the house level.

Now that slope up from the croquet lawn to the flat part where there is a pond and where there was once a huge clump of pampas grass between the weeping ash trees (by the way do you know what exciting noises a pampas grass makes on a hot afternoon, when people are lying out on rugs beside the pond, reading or snoozing?) That slope up is fraught, as people say, fraught with history. It was on that slope that I took my own private croquet mallet (handle about a foot long because I was only three years old) and I bashed flat the nose of the wax doll that belonged to my sisters and that had become a source of irritation in my life because it was over that doll that my father used to tease me. She was called Rosie. Parodying some popular song he used to say (taunting me by the voice he used)

Rosie said to Donald

I love you

Donald said to Rosie

I don’t believe you do.

(Maybe the verses were the other way round, I forget) so I knew the doll had to be altered for the worse, and much of my life has been founded on the undoubted fact that I actually did this deed, not merely wished it and planned it.

I was perhaps somewhat relieved when my father took a series of matches and, warming up the wax nose enough, remoulded it so that the face once more became a face. This early demonstration of the restitutive and reparative act certainly made an impression on me, and perhaps made me able to accept the fact that I myself, dear innocent child, had actually become violent directly with a doll, but indirectly with my good-tempered father who was just then entering my conscious life.

(p. 301) Again, to quote further from the notebook:

Now my sisters were older than I, five and six years, so in a sense I was an only child with multiple mothers and with a father extremely preoccupied in my younger years with town as well as business matters. He was mayor twice and was eventually knighted, and then was made a Freeman of the City (as it has now become) of Plymouth. He was sensitive about his lack of education (he had had learning difficulties) and he always said that because of this he had not aspired to Parliament, but had kept to local politics—lively enough in those days in far away Plymouth.

My father had a simple (religious) faith and once when I asked him a question that could have involved us in a long argument he just said: read the Bible and what you find there will be the true answer for you. So I was left, thank God, to get on with it myself.

But when (at twelve years) I one day came home to midday dinner and said ‘drat’ my father looked pained as only he could look, blamed my mother for not seeing to it that I had decent friends, and from that moment he prepared himself to send me away to boarding school, which he did when I was thirteen.

‘Drat’ sounds very small as a swear word, but he was right; the boy who was my new friend was no good, and he and I could have got into trouble if left to our own devices.

The friendship was in fact broken up then and there, and this show of strength on the part of his father was a significant factor in Donald’s development. In his own words: ‘So my father was there to kill and be killed, but it is probably true that in the early years he left me too much to all my mothers. Things never quite righted themselves’.

And so Donald went away to the Leys School, Cambridge, and was in his element. To his great delight the afternoons were free, and he ran, cycled and swam, played rugger, joined the School Scouts, and made friends and sang in the choir, and each night he read a story aloud to the boys in his dormitory. He read extremely well, and years later I was to benefit from this accomplishment because we were never without a book that he was reading aloud to me. One Christmas Eve sitting on the floor (we never sat on chairs) he read all night because the book was irresistible. He read in a dramatic way, savouring the writing to the full.

Donald described to me his going away to school. The whole family would be there to see him off, and he would wave and be sorry to leave until he was taken from their sight by the train’s entering quite a long tunnel just outside Plymouth. All through this tunnel he settled down to the idea of leaving, but then out again the other side he left them behind and looked forward to going (p. 302) on to school. He often blessed that tunnel because he could honestly manage to feel sorry to leave right up to the moment of entering it.

I have in my possession a letter which Donald wrote to his mother from school which shows the kind of interplay that existed between members of the family:

My dearest Mother,

On September 2nd all true Scouts think of their mothers, since that was the birthday of Baden Powell’s mother when she was alive.

And so when you get this letter I shall be thinking of you in particular, and I only hope you will get it in the morning.

But to please me very much I must trouble you to do me a little favour. Before turning over the page I want you to go up into my bedroom and in the right-hand cupboard find a small parcel … Now, have you opened it? Well I hope you will like it. You can change it at Pophams if you don’t. Only if you do so, you must ask to see No. 1 who knows about it.

I have had a ripping holiday, and I cannot thank you enough for all you have done and for your donation to the Scouts.

My home is a beautiful home and I only wish I could live up to it. However I will do my best and work hard and that’s all I can do at present.

Give my love to the others: thank Dad for his games of billiards and V and K [his sisters] for being so nice and silly so as to make me laugh. But, it being Mother’s day, most love goes to you,

from your loving boy


Some who read this abbreviated account of D. W. W.’s early life and family relationships may be inclined to think that it sounds too good to be true. But the truth is that it was good, and try as I will I cannot present it in any other light. Essentially he was a deeply happy person whose capacity for enjoyment never failed to triumph over the setbacks and disappointments that came his way. Moreover, there is a sense in which the quality of his early life and his appreciation of it did in itself present him with a major problem, that of freeing himself from the family, and of establishing his own separate life and identity without sacrificing the early richness. It took him a long time to do this.

It was when Donald was in the sick room at school, having broken his collarbone on the sports field, that he consolidated in his own mind the idea of becoming a doctor. Referring to that time he often said: ‘I could see that for the rest of my life I should have to depend on doctors if I damaged myself or became ill, and the only way out of this position was to become a doctor myself, and from then on the idea as a real proposition was always on my (p. 303) mind, although I know that father expected me to enter his flourishing business and eventually take over from him’.

One of Donald’s school friends, Stanley Ede (who remained a lifelong friend), had often stayed in the Winnicott household and was well known to all the family. Back at school after a visit to his home. Donald, aged sixteen, wrote the following in a letter to the friend who had not yet returned to school:

Dear Stanley,

Thank you so much for the lovely long letter you sent me in the week. It is awfully good of you to take such a lot of trouble and to want to …

Father and I have been trying consciously and perhaps unconsciously to find out what the ambition of the other is in regard to my future. From what he had said I was sure that he wanted me more than anything else to go into his business. And so, again consciously and not, I have found every argument for the idea and have not thought much about anything else so that I should not be disappointed. And so I have learned to cherish the business life with all my heart, and had intended to enter it and please my father and myself.

When your letter came yesterday you may have expected it to have disappointed me. But—I tell you all I feel—I was so excited that all the stored-up feelings about doctors which I have bottled up for so many years seemed to burst and bubble up at once. Do you know that—in the degree that Algy wanted to go into a monastery—I have for ever so long wanted to be a doctor. But I have always been afraid that my father did not want it, and so I have never mentioned it and—like Algy—even felt a repulsion at the thought.

This afternoon I went an eight mile walk to the Roman Road with Chandler, and we told each other all we felt, and especially I told him what I have told you now. O, Stanley!

Your still sober and true—

although seemingly intoxicated—

but never-the-less devoted



It seems that Stanley, one year older than Donald, had offered to broach the question of Donald’s future to his father, and that he did so. There is a postcard to Stanley saying, ‘Thank you infinitely for having told father when and what you did. I have written Dad a letter which I think pretty nearly convinced him’.

Donald recounts that when he summoned up courage to go to the Headmaster at school and tell him that he wanted to be a doctor, the Head grunted and looked at him long and hard before replying slowly: ‘Boy, not brilliant, but will do’. And so he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, and took a degree in biology. His room in College was popular as a meeting place, because he had hired a piano and played it unceasingly and had a good tenor voice for singing.

(p. 304) But the first World War was on, and his first year as a medical student was spent helping in the Cambridge Colleges which had been turned into military hospitals. One of the patients, who became a lifelong friend, remembers Donald in those days: ‘The first time I saw him was in hospital in Cambridge in 1916 in the first war; he was a medical student who liked to sing a comic song on Saturday evenings in the ward—and sang “Apple Dumplings” and cheered us all up’.

It was a source of deep sorrow and conflict that all his friends went at once into the army, but that as a medical student Donald was exempt. Many close friends were killed early in the war, and his whole life was affected by this, because always he felt that he had a responsibility to live for those who died, as well as for himself.

The kind of relationship with friends that he had at that time in Cambridge is illustrated by a letter from a friend who had already joined up in the army and was on a course for officers in Oxford. It is written from Exeter College Oxford and dated 8 November 1915:

What are you doing on Saturday for tea? Well, I’ll tell you!! You are

going to provide a big Cambridge Tea for yourself, myself and Southwell (of Caius) [Caius College Cambridge] whom you’ve met I think. He’s a top-hole chap and has got a commission. If you haven’t met him you ought to have, and anyway you’ve heard me speak of him. Can you manage it? Blow footer etc. etc. or I’ll blow you next time I see you. Try and manage it will you? Good man! It’s sponging on you I know, but I also know you’re a silly idiot and won’t mind. Silly ass! Cheer O old son of a gun and get plenty of food.

Feeling as he did Donald could not settle in Cambridge and was not satisfied until he was facing danger for himself, and, coming from Plymouth, he of course wanted to go into the navy. He applied for and was accepted as a surgeon probationer. He was drafted to a destroyer, where he was one of the youngest men on board and the only medical officer in spite of his lack of training; fortunately, there was an experienced medical orderly. He was subject to a great deal of teasing in the Officers’ Mess. Most of the officers had been through one or other of the Royal Naval Colleges and came from families with a naval tradition. They were astonished that Donald’s father was a merchant. This was a novelty, and they made the most of it, and Donald seems to have made the most of their company and of the whole experience. He has often related with amusement the banter that went on at meal times. Although the ship was involved in enemy action and there were casualties, Donald had much free time, which he seems to have spent reading the novels of Henry James.

After the war Donald went straight to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to continue his medical training. He soaked himself in medicine and fully (p. 305) committed himself to the whole experience. This included writing for the hospital magazine and joining in the social life: singing sprees, dancing, occasional skiing holidays, and hurrying off at the last minute to hear operas for the first time, where he usually stood in his slippers at the back of the ‘Gods’.

It is difficult to give any dates in relation to Donald’s girl friends, but he had quite close attachments to friends of his sisters and later to others he met through his Cambridge friends. He came to the brink of marriage more than once but did not actually marry (for the first time) until the age of twenty-eight.

Donald had some great teachers at the hospital, and he always said that it was Lord Horder who taught him the importance of taking a careful case history, and to listen to what the patient said, rather than simply to ask questions. After qualification he stayed on at Bart’s to work as casualty officer for a year. He literally worked almost all day and night, but he would not have missed the experience for the world. It contained the challenge of the unexpected and provided the stimulation that he revelled in.

During his training Donald became ill with what turned out to be an abscess on the lung and was a patient in Bart’s for three months. A friend who visited him there remembers it in these words: ‘It was a gigantic old ward with a high ceiling dwarfing the serried ranks of beds, patients and visitors. He was intensely amused and interested at being lost in a crowd and said “I am convinced that every doctor ought to have been once in his life in a hospital bed as a patient” ’.

Donald had always intended to become a general practitioner in a country area, but one day a friend lent him a book by Freud and so he discovered psycho-analysis; deciding that this was for him, he realized that he must therefore stay in London to undergo analysis. During his medical training he had become deeply interested in children’s work, and after taking his Membership examination he set up as a consultant in children’s medicine (there was no specialty in paediatrics in those days). In 1923 he obtained two hospital appointments, at The Queen’s Hospital for Children and at Paddington Green Children’s Hospital. The latter appointment he held for forty years. The development of his work at Paddington Green is a story in itself, and many colleagues from all over the world visited him there. Because of his own developing interests and skills over the years, his clinic gradually became a psychiatric clinic, and he used to refer to it as his ‘Psychiatric Snack Bar’ or his clinic for dealing with parents’ hypochondria. In 1923 he also acquired a room in the Harley Street area and set up a private consultant practice.

At the beginning he found Harley Street formidable because he had few patients, so in order to impress the very dignified porter who opened the door to patients for all the doctors in the house, he tells how he used to pay the fares of some of his hospital mothers and children so that they could visit him in Harley Street. Of course this procedure was not entirely on behalf of the porter, because he selected cases in which he was particularly interested and (p. 306) to which he wanted to give more time so that he could begin to explore the psychological aspects of illness.

The sheer pressure of the numbers attending his hospital clinics must have been important to him as an incentive to explore as fully as he did how to use the doctor-patient space as economically as possible for the therapeutic task. The ways in which he did this have been described in his writing.

However, there is one detail he does not describe, and which I observed both at his Paddington Green Clinic and in his work with evacuee children in Oxfordshire during the last war. He attempted to round off and make significant a child’s visit to him by giving the child something to take away which could afterwards be used and/or destroyed or thrown away. He would quickly reach for a piece of paper and fold it into some shape, usually a dart or a fan, which he might play with for a moment and then give to the child as he said goodbye. I never saw this gesture refused by any child. It could be that this simple symbolic act contained the germ of ideas he developed in the ‘Use of an Object’ paper written at the end of his life. There could also be a link here with the transitional object concept.

In attempting to give some idea of D. W. W.’s capacity to play I have somehow slipped into an historical or biographical sequence of writing without intending to do so. This is in no way meant to be a biography. What I have been trying to do is to illustrate how he related to people at different stages of his life and in different situations. But I must now abandon the historical perspective which so far protected me, and bring him briefly into focus for myself and in relation to our life together. From now on ‘he’ becomes ‘we’ and I cannot disentangle us.

Many years ago a visitor staying in our home looked round thoughtfully and said: ‘You and Donald play’. I remember being surprised at this new light that had been thrown on us. We had certainly never set out to play; there was nothing self-conscious and deliberate about it. It seems just to have happened that we lived that way, but I could see what our visitor meant. We played with things—our possessions—rearranging, acquiring, and discarding according to our mood. We played with ideas, tossing them about at random with the freedom of knowing that we need not agree, and that we were strong enough not to be hurt by each other. In fact the question of hurting each other did not arise because we were operating in the play area where everything is permissible. We each possessed a capacity for enjoyment, and it could take over in the most unlikely places and lead us into exploits we could not have anticipated. After Donald’s death an American friend described us as ‘two crazy people who delighted each other and delighted their friends’. Donald would have been pleased with this accolade, so reminiscent of his words: ‘We are poor indeed if we are only sane’.5

Early in our relationship I had to settle for the idea that Donald was, and always would be, completely unpredictable in our private life, except for his (p. 307) punctuality at meal times and the fact that he never failed to meet me at the station when I had been away. This unpredictability had its advantages, in that we could never settle back and take each other for granted in day-to-day living. What we could take for granted was something more basic that I can only describe as our recognition and acceptance of each other’s separateness. In fact the strength of our unity lay in this recognition, and implicit in it is an acceptance of the unconscious ruthless and destructive drives which were discussed as the final development of his theories in the ‘Use of an Object’ paper. Our separateness left us each free to do our own thing, to think our own thoughts, and possess our own dreams, and in so doing to strengthen the capacity of each of us to experience the joys and sorrows which we shared.

There were some things that were especially important to us, like the Christmas card that Donald drew each year, and which we both painted in hundreds, staying up until 2 A.M., in the days before Christmas. I remember once suggesting to him that the drawing looked better left as it was in black and white. He said, ‘Yes, I know, but I like painting’. There were his endless squiggle drawings which were part of his daily routine. He would play the game with himself and produced some very fearful and some very funny drawings, which often had a powerful integrity of their own. If I was away for a night he would send a drawing through the post for me to receive in the morning, because my part in all this was to enjoy and appreciate his productions, which I certainly did, but sometimes I could wish that there were not quite so many of them.

Donald’s knowledge and appreciation of music was a joy to both of us, but it was of particular importance to me because he introduced me to much that was new. He always had a special feeling for the music of Bach, but at the end of his life it was the late Beethoven string quartets that absorbed and fascinated him. It seems as if the refinement and abstraction in the musical idiom of these works helped him to gather in and realise in himself the rich harvest of a lifetime. On quite another level he also greatly enjoyed the Beatles and bought all their recordings. Donald never had enough time to develop his own piano playing, but he would often dash up to the piano and play for a moment between patients, and invariably he celebrated the end of a day’s work by a musical outburst fortissimo. He enjoyed the fact that I knew more about poets than he did, and that I could say a Shakespeare sonnet or some Dylan Thomas or T. S. Eliot to him on demand. He particularly enjoyed Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and couldn’t hear it often enough. In the end he memorised it himself.

Our favorite way of celebrating or simply relaxing was to dress up and go out to a long, unhurried dinner in a candle-lit dining room not so far from where we lived. In the early days sometimes we danced. I remember him looking around this room one evening and saying: ‘Aren’t we lucky. We still have things to say to each other’.

(p. 308) For years two T.V. programmes that we never missed were ‘Come Dancing’ (a display of all kinds of ballroom dancing) and ‘Match of the Day’, which was the reshowing of the best football or rugger match each Saturday, or in the summer it would be tennis.

I think that the only times when Donald actually showed that he was angry with me were on occasions when I damaged myself or became ill. He hated to have me as a patient, and not as his wife and playmate. He showed this one day when I damaged my foot and it became bruised and swollen. We had no crêpe bandage so he said he would go and buy one and I was to lie down until he returned. He was away for two hours and came back pleased with a gold expanding bracelet he had bought for me—but he had forgotten the bandage.

I was always speculating about Donald’s own transitional object. He did not seem to remember one specifically, until suddenly he was able to get into touch with it. He described the experience to me in a letter written early in 1950:

Last night I got something quite unexpected, through dreaming, out of what you said. Suddenly you joined up with the nearest thing I can get to my transition object: it was something I have always known about but I lost the memory of it, at this moment I became conscious of it. There was a very early doll called Lily belonging to my younger sister and I was fond of it, and very distressed when it fell and broke. After Lily I hated all dolls. But I always knew that before Lily was a quelquechose of my own. I knew retrospectively that it must have been a doll. But it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t just like myself, a person, that is to say it was a kind of other me, and a not-me female, and part of me and yet not, and absolutely inseparable from me. I don’t know what happened to it. If I love you as I loved this (must I say?) doll, I love you all out. And I believe I do. Of course I love you all sorts of other ways, but this thing came new at me. I felt enriched, and felt once more like going on writing my paper on transition objects (postponed to October). (You don’t mind do you—this about you and the T.O.?)

It would not be right to give the impression that Donald and I shared only experiences that lay outside our work. It was our work that brought us together in the first place, and it remained central, and bound us inextricably together. Writing to me in December 1946 he said, ‘In odd moments I have written quite a lot of the paper for the Psycho-Analytical Society in February, and I spend a lot of time working it out. My work is really quite a lot associated with you. Your effect on me is to make me keen and productive and this is all the more awful—because when I am cut off from you I feel paralyzed for all action and originality’.

In fact each of us was essential to the work of the other. During Donald’s lifetime we worked in different spheres, and this was an added interest extending the boundaries of our joint existence. We were fortunate that through the years a wide circle of people came to be intimately included in our lives and work, and we in theirs. This was a strong binding force for all concerned (p. 309) because it provided the community of interest which is the prerequisite for creative living. How lucky we were in those who shared our lives; how much we owe to them, and how much we enjoyed their company!

Throughout his life Donald never ceased to be in touch with his dream world and to continue his own analysis. It was the deep undercurrent of his life, the orchestral accompaniment to the main theme. His poem called ‘Sleep’ is relevant here6:

  • Let down your tap root
  •   to the centre of your soul
  • Suck up the sap
  •   from the infinite source
  •     of your unconscious
  • and
  •   be evergreen.

To conclude, I want to relate a dream about Donald which I had two and a half years after his death.

I dreamt that we were in our favorite shop in London, where there is a circular staircase to all floors. We were running up and down these stairs grabbing things here, there, and everywhere as Christmas presents for our friends. We were really having a spending spree, knowing that as usual we would end up keeping many of the things ourselves. I suddenly realized that Donald was alive after all and I thought with relief, ‘Now I shan’t have to worry about the Christmas card’. Then we were sitting in the restaurant having our morning coffee as usual (in fact we always went out to morning coffee on Saturday). We were facing each other, elbows on the table, and I looked at him full in the face and said: ‘Donald there’s something we have to say to each other, some truth that we have to say, what is it?’ With his very blue eyes looking unflinchingly into mine he said: ‘That this is a dream’. I replied slowly: ‘Oh yes, of course, you died, you died a year ago’. He reiterated my words: ‘Yes, I died a year ago’.

For me it was through this dream of playing that life and death, his and mine, could be experienced as a reality.

1. Between Reality and Fantasy, Simon A. Grolnick and Leonard Barkin (Eds.). New York, London: Jason Aronson, 1978.

2. From ‘Playing: A Theoretical Statement’ [CW 8:2:15]

3. See Playing and Reality; also ‘The Use of an Object’ [CW 8:2:28] and related papers.

4. From ‘Playing: A Theoretical Statement’ [CW 8:2:15].

5. From ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ [CW 2:7:8].

6. This poem was handwritten by Winnicott at the end of his paper ‘Playing and Culture’ [CW 8:2:9].

(p. 310)


1. Between Reality and Fantasy, Simon A. Grolnick and Leonard Barkin (Eds.). New York, London: Jason Aronson, 1978.

2. From ‘Playing: A Theoretical Statement’ [CW 8:2:15]

3. See Playing and Reality; also ‘The Use of an Object’ [CW 8:2:28] and related papers.

4. From ‘Playing: A Theoretical Statement’ [CW 8:2:15].

5. From ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ [CW 2:7:8].

6. This poem was handwritten by Winnicott at the end of his paper ‘Playing and Culture’ [CW 8:2:9].