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Learning Disability: Two Writers And A Question

The Letter, Issue 20, Autumn 2000, Pages 167 - 182


Philip Dodd


This paper reviews selected writings of two people, Maud Mannoni and Valerie Sinason, both of whom have worked psychoanalytically with people with a learning disability, with a view to considering in light of their work, whether psychoanalysis is appropriate to this patient group.

Maud Mannoni

In the 1960s there was a renewal of interest in handicap in France. Here the torch for psychodynamic thinking in mental handicap was carried by psychoanalyst Maud Mannoni, and most clearly shown in her work, The Retarded Child and His Mother.[1] Opening her book with the question, 'How does one become an analyst?' Mannoni affirms immediately that the events that marked her life are not without relation to her interests in retarded development and psychosis.

Maud Mannoni was born in 1923. Her mother was of Belgian origin, and her father was Dutch. As a diplomat, he was posted to Ceylon, where Maud spent the first years of her life. When she was six years old, her family had to return to Europe, settling in Belgium. Her school years, spent in Anvers, left her with memories of boredom and mediocrity. It was her university years that would be truly formative for her. This was paradoxical, for the University was closed at the time as a sign of protest against the German invaders in World War Two. She was thus trained 'on the job', at the psychiatric hospital. Due to the war, she experienced great liberty at the hospital, in particular with regard to the care of 'feeble-minded' adolescents and psychotics in the suburbs of Anvers. She spent the better part of her time with them outside the hospital in the daylight, in the wilderness, and she staged a travelling theatre with them. Further, with these patients, she favoured the use of the Flemish dialect in order to facilitate the symbolisation in words of the violence that had been suffered and enacted by the adolescents. In fact, it was a sort of 'anti-psychiatry' experience before it was theorised as such.

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