Tough Love: An
Introduction to Françoise Dolto's "When Parents
(*Françoise Dolto's When Parents Separate Forthcoming 1995, David R. Godine, Lincoln, MA.)
Copyright © 1995
Françoise Dolto was born in 1908 to a family of the Parisian grande bourgeoisie. Her family's ideas about women's roles were highly traditional, their politics conservative. Dolto rebelled: she became a physician and a psychoanalyst. Early in her career she was drawn into the circle of analysts around Jacques Lacan. They shared talent, charisma, and a distaste for theoretical or institutional rigidity.
Beginning in 1953, and for close to a quarter of a century, Dolto and Lacan did joint battle with the international psychoanalytic "establishment," reigning as parental figures to a schismatic (and to the analytic establishment, heretical) French psychoanalytic movement. During those years, Lacan's linguistically inspired "grand theory" gave the movement its unique intellectual flavor. But it was Dolto who had the greater influence on French childrearing, education, and personal mores. Since her death in 1988, the international dimensions of her influence has grown: roughly two million copies of her books have been sold worldwide.
Dolto developed an aspect of psychoanalysis that has been taken up less by its men than by its women: psychoanalysis as a form of psychopedagogy or public education. In particular, Dolto was interested in putting psychoanalytic insights in the service of improving the daily life of parents and children. From 1975 on, she reached out to her audience through weekly radio programs and popular books. The professional analytic community did not always smile on her efforts. Many of her colleagues dismissed her willingness to dispense advice as well as her writings about psychoanalysis and religion. But Dolto's combination of spirituality, empathy, and a talent for straight talk helped her to win her a large public following. She became a touchstone of the French psychoanalytic culture, the appropriation of psychoanalytic ideas into everyday life.
Psychoanalytic Politics: The Heretic Parents
The young Françoise Dolto, born Françoise Marette, gave in to parental pressure in several significant ways: she did not attend medical school, but studied to be a nurse and she became engaged to a young man her family chose for her. In 1932, troubled by these decisions, Dolto began an analysis with Réne Laforgue of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. It led her to break off her engagement, pursue medical studies, and decide to become an analyst. Shortly after finishing her medical thesis on the relationship between psychoanalysis and pediatric medicine, she married a young emigré Russian physician.
In 1938, Dolto discovered the work of Jacques Lacan, another newly-trained analyst in the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. Dolto described herself as an instinctive Lacanian; there is a much-repeated account of a conversation between Lacan and Dolto in which she protested being labelled a Lacanian, saying: "I don't understand what you write," and he responded: "But I simply try to write as you already do."
Psychoanalysis in Paris virtually disbanded during the Second World War. When it picked up after the Liberation, Dolto found herself at the center of a conflict within the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. The first generation of analysts had little if any rigorous training. It was the second generation, the generation of Dolto and Lacan, who would train the analysts of the future, and there was considerable debate about how to do it. Sascha Nacht, the President of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society wanted French psychoanalytic education to provide greater discipline and medical authority. But the younger students were unhappy with his plans, finding them rigid and authoritarian. Dolto, by now a senior member of the Society, supported the students in their quarrel with Nacht. In this, she and Lacan were natural allies. By 1953, Lacan's objections to a rigid training model as well as his controversial practice of engaging in short psychoanalytic sessions, precipitated a split in the already divided Society. When in June Lacan left the Paris Society to found a new organization, the French Psychoanalytic Society, Françoise Dolto was among the colleagues at his side.
At the time of their departure, those who had objected to Nacht's rigidity did not believe that they would be jeopardizing their standing in the International Psychoanalytic Association, founded by Freud to maintain psychoanalytic orthodoxy and discipline. They were wrong. When the International Association began to discuss their case its deliberations centered on the need for psychoanalysts to keep their differences to themselves, and the dangers of irregular or unorthodox training. At the time of the split, Anna Freud said that efforts on behalf of the dissenters' students would probably be wasted energy because "it is a well known fact" that someone who has had irregular training is usually impossible to supervise later,"  an ironic remark coming from someone who had herself been analyzed by her father. In 1955, at the Nineteenth Congress of the International, President Heinz Hartmann announced that the committee set up to study the dissident group had recommended that it be excluded from membership in the International because of its "insufficient training facilities." The initial decision had been handed down, but the issue of recognition was to haunt the ten-year history of the new French Society.
By 1963, the years of painful negotiations brought their final result: the group could have the sanction of the International, but at a price. That price was the exclusion of Jacques Lacan and Françoise Dolto from the ranks of training analysts. Lacan was chastised for his short sessions, his too-many students, and his unorthodox teaching. As for Dolto, Donald Winnicott, the eminent British child analyst, claimed that her ideas about treating psychotic children were thirty years ahead of the field. But at the same time, he insisted that she had too much intuition and not enough method to be a training analyst. And a charge that had been made against Lacan was picked up as an accusation against Dolto: her students were said to be in an uncontrolled positive transference towards her.
Psychoanalytic organizations grow by a process not unlike cell division. The route to becoming a psychoanalyst is first and foremost a personal analysis, known as a training analysis. In traditional psychoanalytic organizations the role of analyzing "candidates" who are hoping to become analysts themselves is reserved for a class of members known as "training analysts." This means that if an analyst is seen as unorthodox, he or she is in a position to create another unorthodox analyst with each completed training analysis. Thus, denying someone the role of training analyst is not simply taking away their status in a professional hierarchy. It is taking away their right to bear analytic children.
The position of the International was fraught with paradox. The teachers, Lacan and Dolto, were to be denied the right to train analysts. However, those they had trained could remain or become training analysts. If the teachers were flawed, why were their students acceptable? The rationale was clearly political. If you had been analyzed by Lacan or Dolto but had renounced them, then you were fit to be a training analyst. If on the other hand, you had chosen to stay with them, you, like they, were unfit and to be excluded. Lacan called the exclusion an excommunication. "I am not saying -- but it is not out of the question -- that the psychoanalytic community is a Church. But without doubt, the question arises if we are dealing with the echo of a religious practice."
The International's demands tore apart the French Psychoanalytic Society. In a vote of November 1963, a majority of its membership declared itself willing to sacrifice Lacan and Dolto in order to receive the International's recognition. With that vote the Society split in two. Those who were willing to renounce Lacan and Dolto were accepted into the establishment fold. The others joined Lacan and Dolto in a new group, the Freudian School of Paris.
Dolto was loyal to Lacan through another fifteen years of Freudian School history, but their relationship and alliance frayed as the School became increasingly dominated by Lacan's son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller and by a theoretical line that stressed Lacan's teachings on the mathèmes, an effort to systematize psychoanalytic texts mathematically. It was a line of thought that tended to lionize theorists and treat "mere" clinicians as second-class citizens.
Beginning in 1978, Dolto had begun to speak openly about the School's problems. By the beginning of 1979, Dolto was a symbol of resistance for many Freudian School analysts who felt distanced from Lacan and angered by Miller's growing power. The quarter-century alliance between Lacan and Dolto had come to an end. In January 1980, critically ill with an abdominal cancer that would kill him within a year, Lacan unilaterally dissolved the Freudian School. In his mind, he had founded the School and he had the right to disband it. Dolto led the group of Freudian School analysts who saw things differently. In their view, the School was a public institution in whose development they had participated. It was not Jacques Lacan's to destroy. There was bitter irony in these final struggles. Dolto fought against Lacan in the name of principles that had first brought them together: the analyst's right to free expression, to disagree with established authority, and to participate in an open psychoanalytic society. To a significant group of the French Lacanian community, it was now Dolto rather than Lacan who was trying to keep alive what had been most radical in Lacanian psychoanalytic politics.
Psychoanalytic Culture: The Good Mother
Dolto came to the 1979 crisis at the Freudian School as the best known and most beloved psychoanalyst in France. She occupied an emotional and professional territory that has no simple analogy in the American context. A rough estimate would place it somewhere between Dr. Spock and Erik Erikson. But they, of course, were men. Dolto was the good mother. She was a Catholic as well as a secular thinker. She was a moralist as well as a physician. Dolto's writing had been well known by the early 1970s, but in 1975 she began to work in a new medium: radio. The format of her weekly radio broadcast on France-Inter was simple. People wrote her letters. She answered them on the air. Her audience was loyal and it was large.
A psychoanalytic culture is not something that a psychoanalytic movement or thinker can create in the outside world. The outside world has to be ready. Historically, psychoanalytic ways of understanding have flourished during times of rapid mobility and social dislocation, times when the old rules and traditional, collective ways of interpreting experience no longer seemed to apply.
The French had experienced postwar shifts from rural/traditional to urban/industrial patterns in the life of the French economy, of work, and of the family. There were new insecurities about education, child-raising, religion, and sexual behavior. With the breakdown of intermediate social circles, such as clubs, church groups, and local cafés, the French family was under new pressure. In villages, where male society used to revolve around cafés and clubs, social life drifted from these refuges to the family; while in cities, the isolation and loneliness of life made people turn toward the family as a source of psychological support.
Family historian John Demos has argued that the emergence of a self-contained "hothouse family" in later nineteenth-century America set the stage for the American acceptance of Freud. By the 1970s, the French, too, had a hothouse family, turned in toward itself. More than this, the youth revolt of 1968 had brought to the surface profound parental uncertainties about authoritarian child-rearing codes which had gone unquestioned for generations. Parents no longer felt secure, as had their parents before them, that they understood the world for which they were raising their children. And now it was the children of '68, the ones who had refused all the rules, who were marrying, having children, and very often divorcing and marrying again. Not surprisingly, there was increasing interest in the kind of theory that does not look outward but inward for a sense of rules and order: in the 1970s, France was swept by a tidal wave of interest in psychoanalysis. The Dolto phenomenon was only one of its manifestations.
At the end of the 1950s, there were roughly 150 psychoanalysts in France; in 1989 analyst Gerard Mendel estimated that there were 150,000. In a 1986 survey, 18% of all French adults knew someone in psychoanalysis. The figure was higher for the middle classes (at 30%), but there is widespread testimony about the general diffusion of the analytic cure, even from the provinces. This democratization of clientele went hand in hand with a staggering (from an American point of view) level of coverage of psychoanalysis in the French popular media: in addition to literary publications, articles on psychoanalysis appear in newspapers, weekly magazines, women's magazines, and in the Sunday supplements. Additionally, beginning with Marie Cardinale's 1975 The Words to Say It , the French psychoanalytic novel or "report from the couch" became a new literary genre.
Psychoanalysis has been popularized in France as a helpful technique. It is portrayed and perceived as helping with anxiety, loneliness, and performance in sports. In France today, patients are able to find psychoanalysts through the yellow pages of the phone directory, through computerized information systems available on home networks, and through personal advertisements that sometimes include the analyst's photograph. Child-raising manuals, vocational counseling, education, and social work have all "gone psychoanalytic." There is often a "Freud question" on the prestigious French baccalaureate examination. Since the early 1970s, French people often find a psychoanalyst in places where they once might have expected to find a priest, a teacher, or a physician.
Lacan's Cartesian, poeticized, linguistic, and politicized brand of psychoanalysis constituted a French "reinvention" of Freud, congruent with the style of the French structuralist intelligentsia of the 1960s. But while Lacan's theory was fine for the salon, people listened to Dolto in the kitchen. From 1975 and the beginning of her radio program, Françoise Dolto was at the center of a dramatic French infatuation with Freud. It centered, not surprisingly, on people's anxieties about their children. The central question: How to raise children in a society where there were no longer any clear-cut rules? Dolto's answer was deceptively simple: Talk to them.
From Childhood Sexuality to Childhood Lucidity
Françoise Dolto's central message is that the child is a person, an active agent, attentive and reactive to language from the earliest ages. Where other psychoanalytic thinkers stressed childhood sexuality, Dolto insists on childhood lucidity. When parents reassure themselves by thinking that children are "to young to understand" a coarse word or a household quarrel, Dolto makes it clear that in her view they are deluding themselves. Children always understand. Indeed, she contends that they understand in the womb. They need to be spoken to, to have things explained to them. They need to be listened to; their views need to be respected.
Americans are accustomed to talk show experts and to every form of "self help" and advice book. However, the Dolto presence, both on the radio and in her writing, defies standard expectations of how talk show experts and self help writers sound. For like Lacan, Dolto sees the analyst as something of an agent provocateur. What the analyst should provoke is quite specifically "talk" about controversial subjects. As an "advice" book, When Parents Separate gives itself permission to suggest the impolite and even the shocking. It is hard not to be taken aback as Dolto advises mothers that if a child's father, no longer living at home, does not show up for an agreed-upon visitation day, the mother should neither stay with nor comfort her child. From Dolto's point of view, the child, even the disappointed child, needs to mark the fact that this was his or her father's day. And the child, even the disappointed child, needs to acknowledge that the father is still important and valued. To enable the child to do this, he or she needs to be kept away from an angry mother, who will hardly be able to resist saying: "You see what he did! You see how bad your father is." So, on such days, Dolto says, bring in an aunt, a grandmother, a baby-sitter. Better yet, create special, professionally staffed institutions where children can go.
When Parents Separate presents the reader with many such radical suggestions. They should be read and judged not as hard and fast rules to follow, but rather as ideas that call into question our standard assumptions about childhood and parental "rights." In my view, Dolto cares less about people following her specific prescriptions than with having this more general, "subversive" impact, a word she was not afraid to use. Like Lacan at his best, Dolto forces us to confront issues we are more likely to sweep under the carpet. To come back to the example of how Dolto sees the child whose father has not shown up for a visiting day, what underlies Dolto's position is the idea that the child is not an object to be shared by parents, so that if one parent doesn't show up, the other gets the child. Dolto insists on a view of children as rational subjects in their own right. As such, they have needs, both conscious and unconscious, that are independent from their parents. And the most important of these needs is to feel in control of their situation through rational understanding.
This reasoning leads Dolto to insist that no matter how painful, children must receive an authentic response to any question. The child's best interest is not always what will make him or her happy, but rational understanding. From her psychoanalytic perspective, the gold standard is not happiness but a structured inner life able to support autonomy and further growth. An unhappy child does not denote adult failure. A misinformed or confused child does. Parents may try to keep things from a child because he or she "couldn't possibly understand" or from a desire to protect the child "from this mess." But for a child, what is unspoken is erotic. So the parents' well-intentioned silences may be the very thing that causes a child to see their divorce as shameful. "If it is talked about, the child will feel that it is something sad, but it won't seem shameful or overly sensual. . . . One is not ashamed of a dead father or mother, but one does feel ashamed of a mother or father who isn't taking care of their children." A child has a right to the full disclosure of all circumstances that impinge on his or her life.
When even the youngest children are treated as linguistic creatures, the implications are stunning. For Dolto, from the age of six months, a child has a right to be included in conversations about an impending divorce. The parent who does not include the child takes a great risk. Dolto insists that the child will "hear" in any event, but with a far greater chance of misunderstanding and falling ill from the experience. In the spirit of treating the child as rational subject, Dolto suggests that the age of legal majority should be thirteen and that children be treated as full citizens starting at the age of eight. From that point on, they would have the right to meet with a magistrate as often as desired. Dolto points out that the discourse of the law is about parental rights and parental authority. But as an analyst she knows that the well-being of the child depends on parental responsibilities. Dolto as clear ideas about how we should do things differently. To begin with, we should not talk about visiting rights but visiting duties. A parent who does not have custody of a child has a duty to visit as well as to review that child's report card -- and all of this whether or not the custodial parent wishes it.
In all of this, Dolto's emphasis, like Lacan's, is on how we use language to construct ourselves as subjects. She wants children to be able to insert themselves in a meaningful discourse in which they are subjects who have their own rights (to understand, to be heard), and toward whom others have duties. She underscores the way the mother's way of talking about the father constructs the father for the child. In general, the French psychoanalytic tradition finds the British and American focus on the "mother-child dyad" to be sentimental and misleading. Dolto puts it this way: "People, society, want to believe in the mother-child relationship as absolute, dogmatically, as if three people weren't originally involved, which is, in fact, the case. If the mother and infant are such a strong couple, it's because the mother represents, in part, the father to the baby."
Noting differences between a French, American, and British Freud, raises the issue of the cultural specificity and popular appeal of Dolto's work. The "Dolto phenomenon" in France is part of a larger French involvement with psychoanalytic ideas in the post-1968 years.
The Dolto Phenomenon
In France, the events of May-June 1968 were an explosion of speech and desire. They called for the invention of new political forms that looked beyond political parties to a more personal politics. For a short while, the May events looked like a revolution in the making, but then suddenly they were over. After the events, people were left hungry for a way to continue to think about sexuality and self-expression as part of a revolutionary movement, for a way to think about the personal as the political and social. "Thinking through the events" required a theory that integrated society and the individual. Lacan provided that theory in his ideas about the transition from an imaginary to a symbolic realm, the transition from presocial to social with the acquisition of language.
Lacan's theory of the construction of the symbolic order allows for no real boundary between self and society. Human beings become social with the appropriation of language, and it is language that constitutes human beings as subjects. In this way of looking at things, society does not simply "influence" autonomous individuals but actually comes to dwell within them at the moment of the appropriation of language. Lacanian ideas were "good to think with" for addressing the unresolved issues that surrounded the May events. Indeed, Lacan's vivid portrait of the social and linguistic construction of the subject became a common idiom in French intellectual discourse in the years that followed 1968. For many years after the events, much of French social thought situated itself in what may be termed "Lacanian space." It tended to accept the fundamentals of Lacan's theoretical scaffolding: the notions that people are constituted by language, that our discourse embodies the society beyond, and that there is no autonomous ego. People who disagreed profoundly with each other and, indeed, who disagreed profoundly with Lacan nevertheless situated themselves in this space.
When I speak of "thinking through" the May events by "thinking psychoanalysis," I am not describing a use of theory to explain social events, but rather a way of using theory to "work through" powerful cultural images, to help to arrange these images into new and clearer patterns. In the case of the May events and psychoanalysis, people used contact with the theory to keep in touch with the stuff of which the events were made. Dolto's appeal drew on her association with that world of theory, but the power of her message went beyond it. She brought Lacanianism down to earth because she directly addressed people's questions about how to raise their children.
The formative experience of the generation of May 1968 may have been a rejection of parental values, but of course, things are never that simple. Rules, religion, traditional notions of family, all of these may have been rejected, but they were what people grew up with and what in some sense they pined for. Dolto's message respects both the rejection of the old rules and the yearning for a return to structure. It focuses on the rejection of the old rules in matters of desire and intimacy. Divorce is better than loveless marriage. Yet it focuses on the need for structure in all that pertains to the growing child. Dolto does not call for increased emotionality in dealing with children but for disciplined behavior and straight talk. The resonance of Dolto's message with the concerns of her audience is clear: to a society that regretted the passing of the old rules but no longer found their legitimations compelling, she provided new rationales for structure, discipline, and responsibility vis-à-vis the next generation, all the while endorsing the pursuit of personal desire in the present. To put it too simply, hers is a psychoanalysis that is comfortable with Catholicism, Cartesianism, and sexual liberation.
Finally, Dolto's work is resonant because it provides a way to think through questions of consequences and accountability which remained important but unresolved for the generation of '68. In May '68, action was taken with little sense of consequence. Even now, it is almost impossible to sort out the consequences of the May paroxysm. For a time it looked as if the the student-worker movement might bring down the government and radically transform the nature of politics. Instead, the traditional parties continued as before: Gaullists stayed in power, followed by Socialists who ruled a country that turned increasingly to the Right. In sharp contrast to such confusions, Dolto is a theorist of cause and effect. The consequences of serious disruption to the mother-child bond during the first nine months of the child's life are dire and certain. The consequences of talking over the child's head in divorce and custody proceedings equally so. Children construct themselves by listening to how we talk about them. Be careful what you say, even to your child in the womb. It counts! You will see the consequences.
American optimism tended to rebel against that part of the Freudian message that suggested an early and irrevocable determination of character. Erik Erikson's work is a good example of how psychoanalytic theory was able to take on a more acceptable American form. Erikson's emphasis on adolescent and adult development and on a life cycle where early themes get replayed at later stages suggests that we all get second chances, as do Heinz Kohut's ideas about reparenting, another image that aptly fits American dreams. In Dolto, an optimism about the human desire to seek meaning and relationship coexists with a Freudian pessimism that is well suited to our sober times. Character is shaped from the very earliest years, mistakes are costly, the piper will be paid.
Lacan insisted on that side of psychoanalysis that is a science. Dolto life in psychoanalysis demonstrated how it could be a spiritual exercise as well. Dolto believed in the complementarity of psychoanalysis and Christianity. She believed that in Christianity, sin and desire are distinct. Our desires, no matter how venal, are never crimes. Desires must be understood; for understanding may help to keep them at the level of fantasy. Seen through this prism, psychoanalysis which seeks to substitute analysis for "acting out" reinforces the Christian ethic just as the Christian ethic reinforces the psychoanalytic one.
In a French intellectual culture dominated by atheists, Françoise Dolto was comfortable within the tradition of Catholic moral philosophy. In a French analytic culture increasingly dominated by philosophers and mathematicians, Françoise Dolto was comfortable thinking of herself as a healer. To an American psychological culture dominated by optimism, blandishments to emote, and a lot of smooth talk, Dolto's version of Freud, neither toned down nor sweetened up, may be a welcome dose of tough love.
1The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 35, part 2 (1954): 277.
2 Elizabeth Roudinesco, Lacan and Company: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 319.
3 In 1969, there was another schism -- ten of Lacan's closest followers and friends left to form the Fourth Group. These "Lacanians without Lacan" hoped to preserve what they felt was most important in Lacan's teachings about psychoanalysis as a science and a calling without having to suffer, as one of them put it, "the agony of watching Lacan himself undermine his own teaching" by increasing rigidity, authoritarianism, and fascination with the mathematization of psychoanalysis.
4 John Demos, "Oedipus in America," unpublished manuscript.
5 Eric Conan, "Les Psychanalystes, sont-ils dangereux?," L'Express (May19-25, 1989), p. 72. Daniele Levy estimates the number of French analysts as between 4,500 and 5,000. Cited in Caroline Brizard, "Les huit questions que vous vous posez sur votre analyste," Le Nouvel Observateur (January 4-10, 1990), p. 12. In France, it is hard to pin down the number of analysts in practice because the Lacanian doctrine of "self-authorization" means that an unknown number of analysands begin analytic practice as soon as they are able to recruit patients. And since Lacan's dissolution of the Freudian School in 1981 and the resulting dispersion of Lacanian analysts into looser groupings, many analysts are not "registered" with any analytic society but practice independently.
6 Conan "Les Psychanalystes, sont-ils dangereux," p. 73.
7 Marie Cardinale, The Words to Say It (Cambridge, MA: VanVactor and Goodheart, 1983); Anonymous, Seductions sur le divan ou le malentendu amoreux (Paris: La Decouverte), 1989); Joelle Augerolles, Mon analystse et moi (Paris: Editions Lieu Commun, 1989).
8 For a more extended discussion of the French psychoanalytic culture see Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution (second edition, New York: Guilford Press, 1992).
9 For more on the relationship between the May events and the development of a French psychoanalytic culture see Turkle, ibid. My use of the term "good to think with" for describing "objects to think with" borrows from Claude Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.)