Obituary: Dr Charles Rycroft
Saturday 06 June 1998
Rycroft was essentially an essayist, whose clarity of thought and felicity of expression set him apart from most of his psychoanalytic contemporaries. He was suspicious of intellectual system-building, yet the guiding principles which informed his work anticipated and influenced many of today's developments in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Rejecting psychological determinism, and Freud's notion of the "mental apparatus", he recast psychoanalytic ideas in linguistic terms.
For him the essence of psychotherapy was the search for meaning - but one informed by biology. He resisted the idea of the analyst as a detached observer, and emphasised the relationship between therapist and patient as the crucial curative element. He saw creativity and the use of symbolism as universal and healthy aspects of the mind, not as manifestations of neurosis. Opposed to the hermeticism of psychoanalysis, his thinking was informed by a wide knowledge of history, literature, and contemporary science - he valued Coleridge, Darwin and Gregory Bateson alongside Freud, W.D. Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott.
Rycroft was born in 1914 into what he liked to describe as the "lower upper classes". His father was a fox-hunting baronet, who died when Charles was 11, leaving his mother depressed and relatively impoverished. The young Rycroft was sent to Wellington, where he joined a group of "type B Wellingtonians", which included the poet Gavin Ewart, a lifelong friend.
Although destined for an army career, he went instead to Cambridge where his intellectual gifts and left-wing sympathies were soon apparent. He briefly joined the Communist Party, and, influenced by Virginia Woolf's brother Adrian Stephen, became interested in what was at that time the subversive discipline of psychoanalysis.
After a year as a history research student, he applied for analytic training but, by his own account, was considered by Ernest Jones, the doyen of the British Psychoanalytic Society, to be a dilettante, and so was asked to qualify in medicine first. His medical training was at University College Hospital in London, and later he worked briefly in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, before setting up in private practice as an analyst in 1948, continuing to see patients until a few days before his death.
His first analyst was Ella Sharpe, who may have stimulated his interested in metaphor. After her premature death he was treated by Sylvia Payne (he used to joke about the "sharps" and "pains" of analytic training), and rose quickly in the British Psychoanalytic Society, becoming assistant editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Scientific Secretary (1956-61) and a training analyst, with R.D. Laing perhaps his best-known analysand.
Towards the end of the 1950s, however, he became dismayed by the rivalry between the Kleinian and Freudian factions, and began to question the scientific credentials of psychoanalysis. He quietly withdrew from the Psychoanalytic Society, devoting instead his considerable literary talents to a wider audience. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he reviewed prolifically for the Observer, New Society, New York Review of Books and the New Statesman, evaluating the major figures in contemporary psychoanalysis and psychology.
As an analyst he was supportive and empathic, with a humorous acceptance of human failings and foibles. He instilled hope, and his existential sympathies meant that he never imposed his will, letting people make their own choices. At the same time he had an uncanny nose for any traces of intellectual and social pretention, self-deception or snobbery.
He enjoyed clubland, but was fundamentally a private and shy man, who valued solitude alongside his intense but well-ordered friendships. Just as he remained in touch with the biological roots of psychology, he was, without subscribing to formal religion, also aware of the aspirational aspects of the mind. Writing of the "God I want" he claimed continuity, wholeness and honesty as his deities.
A final evaluation of Rycroft's work and its influence has yet to be made, but it is likely that he will be seen as a prescient figure in the history of psychoanalysis. His role as an anti-establishment insider gave him an unique perspective on the psychoanalytic movement. His inimitable voice - ironic, self-deprecatory, yet quietly authoritative - will long outlive him.
Charles Frederick Rycroft, psychoanalyst: born Dummer, Hampshire 9 September 1914; Consultant Psychotherapist, Tavistock Clinic 1956-68; Foundation Fellow, Royal College of Psychiatrists 1973; married 1947 Chloe Majolier (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1963), 1978 Jenny Pearson; died London 24 May 1998.
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