Dr Hanna Segal: Psychoanalyst who was inspired by Melanie Klein and contributed hugely to the field of cultural studies

Michael Feldman
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:08

Hanna Segal was an outstanding psychoanalyst, teacher and writer, and a remarkable human being.

In the course of her long working life she made important and lasting contributions to the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, as well as the field of cultural studies. She was greatly influenced by the work of Melanie Klein, and became the foremost exponent of Klein's theoretical and clinical approach.

Hanna Segal was born in 1918 in Lodz, in Poland, to a well-to-do assimilated Jewish family. Her father was a successful lawyer who spoke many languages and had a deep interest in literature and art. Segal shared his intellectual gifts and his broad cultural and political interests. Her mother was a beautiful woman who supported the family during some of the difficult times they were to experience. Segal was deeply attached to an older sister, who died at the age of four from scarlet fever. She said that she felt her sister was the only person who had truly loved her, and the experience of this loss remained with her throughout her life. When she was 12 the family moved to Geneva, where her father became the editor of one of the publications of the League of Nations.

Segal thrived in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of pre-war Geneva, and in its international school. She developed a passion for literature and read extensively with an increasing depth of understanding, absorbing the work of many of the most important French and German philosophers. Here she first read Proust and discovered the work of Sigmund Freud. Her reading, particularly of Freud, led to the realisation "that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, more fascinating than human nature. And human relations."

Segal remained attached to herPolish roots, and at the age of 16persuaded her parents to allow her to return to Warsaw to complete her education. The difficult political situation in Poland led to her involvement in Socialist groups, and while on a visit to Geneva in 1936 she tried to sneak out of the house to join the Republican fighters in Spain, but was stopped by her parents. When her father was expelled from Switzerland on political grounds she joined her parents in Paris in 1939. There, she met her future husband Paul Segal, a student of mathematics who she had known as a child in Poland, and she briefly continued the medical studies she had begun in Warsaw.

At the time of the German occupation of Poland, Segal, like many young Polish émigrés, felt a passionate desire to return to Warsaw. She fought to get on the last train back to Warsaw but was turned away. She remarked ruefully that none of the friends who had gone back survived: had she returned, she too would have been killed. As the Germans marched on Paris in spring 1940, the family fled across France and found places on the last Polish boat heading for England.

Segal completed her medical studies in Edinburgh, where the university had created a faculty for Polish medical students. She met Ronald Fairbairn, who introduced her to the work of Melanie Klein. She was immediately gripped by the depth and insight of Klein's writing, which spoke to her own interests and experiences. Fairbairn had encouraged her to train as a psychoanalyst and she moved to London, where she worked at the Paddington Children's Hospital, and later in rehabilitating Polish soldiers, many of whom were suffering from mental illness.

Segal persuaded Klein to accept her as a patient, and she joined the psychoanalytic training programme, qualifying at 27, the youngest member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. She emerged as a gifted clinician and teacher, and a highly sought-after training analyst and supervisor. She inspired generations of students and analytical colleagues in Britain and throughout the world. In her writings she made major contributions to child analysis, the theory of symbolism, and the psychoanalytic understanding and treatment of severe borderline and psychotic patients. Like Conrad, a Polish writer Segal admired, she showed a remarkable command of English, and a capacity to communicate complex ideas cleary accessibly.

Segal was part of an inspired group of psychoanalysts which included Herbert Rosenfeld, and Wilfred Bion, who were absorbing and developing the work of Freud, Abraham and Ferenczi, and the next generation which included Klein, Riviere, Isaacs and Heimann. Their pioneering work with more seriously disturbed patients was built upon Klein's understanding of primitive mental mechanisms.

Segal's showed how Klein's work offered a new and deeper understanding of the way the child's "internal world" of phantasies gradually evolved out of the child's experience of his or her important early figures. These unconscious phantasies continually influence, in turn, the child's perceptions of, and interaction with, the external world. This model of the internal world and its dynamic relationship with external relationships allowed for the development of a greater understanding of the psychology of infancy and childhood. Our knowledge of these mechanisms, which remain active in adult life, is valuable in understanding some of the disturbance and suffering encountered in adult patients.

Segal explored how, from the beginning of life, the individual develops mechanisms for coping with pain and anxiety, whether arising from the experience of need, or loss. Some involve attempting to satisfy needs, and having to face the inevitable pain, frustration, anger and guilt which are part of human experience. Other responses involve attempting to obliterate thinking and the experience of pain, turning instead to omnipotent phantasy to evade reality. In her paper Psychoanalysis and Freedom of Thought (1981), Segal wrote, "Freedom of thought... means the freedom to know our own thoughts... the unwelcome as well as the welcome, the anxious thoughts, those felt as 'bad', or 'mad' as well as constructive thoughts and those felt as 'good' or 'sane'. Freedom of thought is being able to examine their validity in terms of external or internal realities. The freer we are to think, the better we can judge these realities, and the richer are our experiences."

Segal's intellectual, cultural and political interests were broad, and she used her psychoanalytic knowledge to write important papers on literature, aesthetics and socio-political studies. She was passionately opposed to nuclear arms, and her paper "Silence is the Real Crime" (1987) was an important and original contribution to the debate.

Segal rose to great eminence. She was President of the British Psycho-Analytical Society and Vice-President of the International Psychoanalytical Association. She held the Freud Memorial Chair at University College, London and was awarded the Sigourney Prize for contributions to psychoanalysis. Her passion for life included a deep interest in art, artists and writers. She enjoyed good food, company and wine. She enjoyed travelling, with a gift for vivid description of her adventures and the people she had encountered.

Her family were immensely important to her; she took great pride in the achievements of her three talented sons, and the arrival of daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband Paul had supported her professional life by taking on many of the household tasks. He developed Parkinson's disease, and 18 years ago Hanna and Paul moved to live with their son Michael and his wife, who provided them with devoted care, which was particularly important after Paul's death in 1996.

Hanna Segal believed passionately in the freedom of thought as a fundamental human value, and she exemplified this ideal both in her work and in her life. For this she was respected, valued and loved by those who had the privilege of knowing her, working with her, or being helped by her.

Hanna Maria Poznanski, psychoanalyst: born Lodz, Poland 20 August 1918; married 1946 Paul Segal (died 1996; three sons); died 5 July 2011.

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