Anna Freud: Part 1 – ‘Her secret failure’

By Robert Whiston FRSA, Sept 2009

Anna Freud’s - 80th Birthday - Photo by Larry Wangh, Ph.D - Anna Freud's contributions to the literature of child care, written in collaboration with Dorothy Burlingham and others, revolutionised the judicial approach to custody.

Anna Freud’s – 80th Birthday – Photo by Larry Wangh, Ph.D – Anna Freud’s contributions to the literature of child care, written in collaboration with Dorothy Burlingham and others, revolutionised the judicial approach to custody.

Anna Freud is arguably best known for two assets, one being the daughter of Sigmund Freud and secondly the author of a book whose title has like no other passed into a legal mantra.

With the death of her father, Sigmund in 1939, she inherited his mantle as acknowledged leader of the psycho-analytic world movement and the influence it commanded.

The book is, of course, in “Beyond the Best Interest of the Child” which was written in 1973 with co-authors Solnit and Goldstein. [1] This was followed by two other books “Before the Best Interests of the Child” (1979), and “In the Best Interests of the Child (1986).

All three books were highly influential during the 1970’s and 1980s which was a period when custody laws were being revised. Her pre-existing high profile in the psycho-analysis sphere meant that her books had a hitherto unimagined influence over almost half the population of Britain – fathers.

But how many realise that her fame and legendary status is premised on a failure ?

Miss Dorothy Burlingham-Tiffany, a life long close relationship, friend and associate of Miss Anna Freud - Photos by Larry Wangh, Ph.D

Miss Dorothy Burlingham-Tiffany, a life long close relationship, friend and associate of Miss Anna Freud – Photos by Larry Wangh, Ph.D

It was in 1925 that Anna Freud met Dorothy Burlingham-Tiffany (b 1891, d 1979), the daughter of the Americanmillionaire family, Tiffany. [2] She had recently divorced her husband and had journeyed to Vienna to seek Freud’s psycho-analytical skills for her four children (two boys and two girls). [3] Burlingham was convinced one or more of her children were suffering from depression and or psychosomatic illnesses. The psycho-analysis and treatment was continued in London when the Freuds fled Austria in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution.

For the next 40 years Burlingham’s four children were effectively Anna Freud’s guinea pigs but the world would not know for many decades that her treatment of the Burlingham children was an utter disaster.

The measure of its lethality can be gauged by the alcoholism and overdoses it induced and the deliberate suicide of one of the children, ‘Mabbie’, in Anna Freud’s own home in 1974. [4] Exactly what went on during the sessions of analysis with the children remains unclear and we shall probably never know. [5]

We do know from a BBC documentary that both Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham were concerned that the eldest son, Robert Burlingham, Jr. would develop into a homosexual. Robert, later to become a cello player, architect and city planner, reportedly committed suicide in 1970 aged just 55. [6] Whether this was related to depression or the unsuccessful and unremitting treatment Robert received is open to speculation.

What is beyond question is that Robert Burlingham Jnr. never saw his child John Michael Burlingham, who alternatingly spent his youth in London with his grandmother, Dorothy, or at school and college in America. He appears never to have seen or worried about his father, Robert Burlingham Jnr. But what is also beyond dispute is that John Michael recounts in his book how the actual death of his father left him with a void and a sudden sense of hollowness that he was powerless to fill. [7]

It is a paradox that Freud and Burlingham should have obsessed about Robert’s perceived propensity towards homosexual tendencies, given that their sexual orientation appears anything but heterosexual.

Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham are variously described as ‘close and intimate’ friends; and having a deep and abiding friendship; being lifelong friends; living together; life partners; lifelong companions; or even ‘partners’. [8]

In the modern vernacular we have to conclude they were lesbians – as were not a few of the early Suffragettes.[9]

Blissfully unaware of the protracted nature of this core experiment’s disaster (which was kept a closely guarded secret for over 30 years), academia and the judiciary began embracing the theories on the basis it was were fully tested and functional.

Anna Freud and the school of thought that gathered around her maintained that any post–divorce contact between parents was inherently confrontational, dangerous and/or violent. Awarding sole custody to mothers achieved the twin ambitions of limiting a father’s access to his children and restricting any dangerous confrontational scenes with his former wife.

This view was in evidence in the life of Robert Burlingham, Jr. and in Freud’s wartime work with children affected by the Blitz (Hampstead Nurseries).

The lingering question has to be why was Anna Freud was so opposed to fathers participating in their children’s lives ?

Research from the 1930s had already shown that households without a father had pathologies unknown to normal families. American film of the time spoke of “juvenile delinquents”, a term new to English audiences.

Even Quaker Joseph Rowntree (born 1834), [10] and William Booth (born 1829), who founded the Salvation Army could see fundamental difference between intact and fatherless families.

At a time when Roman & Haddad, were arguing in ‘The Disposable Parent’ (1978), that joint residence was the best post-divorce arrangement and that courts should begin with a rebuttable presumption of joint residence, Anna Freud’s uniquely influential position undermined them. Her books (1973 – 1986), beginning with ‘Beyond the Best Interest of the Child’ effectively cut the ground from underneath those who saw fathers as an asset in post-divorce families.

The trend in Britain of joint custody [11] that had been growing unseen during the 1970s and 1980s was only terminated by Act of parliament in 1991. [12]



[1] Alber J. Solnit, and Joseph Goldstein

[2] Tiffany jewellery, luxury goods and perfumes.

[3] Robert Jnr and Michael, the two girls Mary and Katrina were nicknamed Mabbie and Tinky respectively

[4] BBC documentary ‘The Century of Self’

[5] ‘Did Anna Freud’s teaching help make Marilyn suicidal?’, by Claudia Joseph, 24 March 2002 . It also suggests that Freud’s theories contributed to the death of Tiffany heiress Mabbie Burlingham who took an overdose in Freud’s London home.“

[6] See BBC documentary ‘The Century of Self’

[7] “Behind Glass: A Biography of Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham”, by John Michael Burlingham,

[8] See The Independent, The Guardian etc

[9] “The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement”,  Melanie Phillips, 2003.

[10] In 1863 he produced a statistical study on the links between crime and poverty. Two years later he published a second study, ‘Pauperism in England and Wales’. See also ‘Poverty, A Study of Town Life’, and ‘The Temperance Problem and Social Reform’ (1900),

[11] See ‘Twenty Wasted Years’ , Robert  Whiston and

[12] Children Act 1989, enacted 1991.

6 responses to “Anna Freud: Part 1 – ‘Her secret failure’

  1. Yes, of course. Use it by all means. Thank you for visiting my blog.

    • Dear Ledger,
      I just realised one of my close Dutch colleagues, Peter Tromp, is a psychologist (or similar, maybe a child psychologist).


  2. Dear LEDGER,

    I also forgot to ask you to cite my site if you use the photo as the source you are using. Thanks.


  3. I’m afraid I have to point out that there was no secret whatever about the problems with the Burlingham children. Freud and Burlingham went out of their way to publish a warning as soon as possible — 1937! See Robert Lee, and various other publications of Lee. Lee believes the paper was widely disseminated, and is interested in its possible effect on Kohut’s thinking. In view of this, I wonder if you mightn’t owe Freud and Burlingham a re-assessment?

    • Dear Bill T,
      I am obliged to you and thank you for the reference on page 212.
      This is a book I have not come across before (‘Five Kohutian Postulates: Psychotherapy Theory from an Empathic Perspective’) but I recommend others to read it via the URL given.

      Page 212.
      In 1937, five years after the Heitzing school closed down Dorothy Burlington wrote a paper about educating ‘protected’ children . . .

      . . . It is not surprising, therefore, that in a 1940 letter to her 25 year old son, Robert, Dorothy actually called the Heitzing school “a mistake.” Their good intentions with the Heitzing school notwithstanding, Dorothy B and Anna Freud had inadvertently demonstrated how to create narcissistic personalities.
      What a wonderful natural experiment and that a tragedy that the results have been overlooked (disavowed) as an important finding of psychoanalysis.”

      It is rewarding, if not surprising that both Dorothy B and Anna Freud recognised their ‘mistakes’ but the problem was, and is, they did not stop there and went on to cause yet more chaos in the following decades.

      My contention that it was a ‘secret’ and a ‘failure’ is based on its absence from the public domain. The lack of recognition outside a small coterie at the time meant tragedy was piled upon yet more tragedy – unwittingly by others. In my research I found it most difficult to get any data on ‘failure’ or ‘mistake’, or its acceptance, by the profession (so I am grateful for your citation).

      If it was “an important finding of psychoanalysis” why was it hidden under a bushel ? And though it may be pedantic Dorothy admits to it being a mistake, not a failure.
      Perhaps others have opinions on this ?

      • I really think you’re on to something when you address the baffling question, why has the psychoanalytical establishment never been comfortable in confronting the well-observed fact that substantial developmental problems may arise when Freudian or post-Freudian principles are applied to the upbringing of children. I don’t think Anna Freud should be blamed for it–she was if anything the prophet. She did what she could to show the dangers. She was also a highly political pragmatist, and would not have pushed an issue that she could see was going nowhere, and always tried to deal with anything she thought could harm the field in general. The suppression of the findings is the responsibility of the psychoanalytical establishment. There is the parallel problem that in many western countries, these ideas are now so widespread and so entrenched that there is not even awareness that they derive from the early period of psychoanalysis. Traceability has been lost! So while it would be interesting to know why psychoanalysts have been so daft on this issue, it might not be very helpful, because the vast majority of people who hold these ideas don’t know and don’t care that they directly derive from psychoanalysis (and, in turn, earlier movements). Excessive entitlement used to be the annoying characteristic of a gilded few; now it is as common as tower blocks. So what is the next step?

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