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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Françoise Dolto : quand l’enfant est un sujet à part entière

by Interview by Jacqueline Sellem

Francoise Dolto: an analyst who listened to children

Translated Tuesday 18 November 2008, by Kieran O’Meara

A psychoanalyst without her equal, a woman of great openness, she would have been one hundred years old yesterday. Muriel Djeribi-Valentin, herself a psychoanalyst, recalls her career and her legacy.


Françoise Dolto has been known to the wider public since the 1970’s and her programmes on France Inter where she answered listeners’ questions. She became quite popular then…

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin Those radio programmes were a very difficult turning-point for her. She had already tried it before in 1950, then again at the end of the sixties. But each time, she was taking a very big decision. Becoming a media personality was to accept a good deal of exposure which was, on the whole, badly thought of in the psychoanalytic milieu of the time. So it was a very anxious moment for her in which she saw some danger. She took the risk and, in fact, she did become very popular, liked very much by some people, but absolutely hated by others. Psychoanalysis triggers extreme reactions. Françoise Dolto was a psychoanalyst and, even on those radio programmes, she never lost sight of that.

What was it about the relationship to the child that changed with Françoise Dolto? Is there not a before-and-after Françoise Dolto?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin That seems to be obvious. What changed with Françoise Dolto is the way the child is perceived - he or she is an entirely separate subject - as a result there arises the chance for him or her to express themselves, and there also arises the chance to understand the things that adults often forget when they despise the child within themselves. Since Françoise Dolto, we have begun to listen to children. She brought us some basic keys to this practice of listening to children. Basically, for her, there is something to be learnt from the child. When she was asked who her masters were she always said it was they, the children, the infants, who taught her everything. It was with them that she wished to work again at the very end of her life when she set up a clinic on rue Cujas, even though she was hooked up to a machine and had difficulty breathing. She had convinced herself that she hadn’t succeeded in transmitting that which is essential, which she could only pass through the system imposed at the Trousseau clinic since the forties. She therefore agreed to take on children from the Antony children’s home, with which she had been linked for a long time, in the presence of psychoanalysts who were working with reference to what she was doing. That group could therefore see what took place between her and the children, as she had already done every Tuesday at Trousseau from 1940 to 1978, or again at the centre Etienne-Marcel. For her the most important thing was always exploring with other people what child psychoanalysis was.

Françoise Dolto used to say that she learnt from children, even though it was still a society where they couldn’t speak at the dinner table. That seriously upset people. But she never proposed giving in to all their desires…

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin Quite the opposite. For Françoise Dolto, a desire is not a need, it shouldn’t necessarily be satisfied but we should listen to it and speak about it, which makes all the difference. She had always said, and you can verify it by reading her, that raising a child also involves formulating prohibitions. In her books, which some people seem not to have read, she always insists on the fact that, for a child to undergo the work of analysis, that is to say this strange place with a set of rules, a method, and a very precise framework within which you can talk about everything, you can say anything that comes into your head, let the subjects come up however disturbing they may be… in order for the child to take up this process with this strange creature called a psychoanalyst, who’s there to listen to her right to the end, his parents must surely support him through this by maintaining their roles as the ones who have to bring up the child. So I’m extremely astonished by what I read at the moment.

I’m shocked to see how some people use Dolto’s name to write things which have nothing to do with her. Françoise Dolto paved the way for an exchange between children and adults which is in no way all-permissive.

You can be with a child, listen to his fantasies and desires while letting him know that there are things which cannot happen in reality. They can be dreamt of, thought about, you can have the opportunity to talk about them, that’s what freedom of thought is; but, just because you can think about them it doesn’t mean you can do them.

You spoke about the hatred which psychoanalysis elicits, but isn’t it much worse when it comes to child psychoanalysis?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin You often hear children spoken of in terms of innocence, fragility, purity or then… people make criminals of children at the age of three, it seems that no one wants to really understand what childhood is… Already, at the beginning of the last century, we know how much it cost Freud to speak about infantile sexuality. He was confronted in the university with people who wanted to hear none of what he was putting forward, which formed the basis of what Dolto herself brought us. Maybe little has changed. The question of infantile sexuality is certainly still difficult to approach. There is still resistance to it today, and maybe it’s desirable after all that psychoanalysis doesn’t cease to be subversive, in order to do what it has to do.

You led the publication of Francoise Dolto’s correspondence. What does it teach us about her development?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin It has to be said that Françoise Dolto’s archives are exceptional. She left a mas of correspondence which stretches from 1913 to 1988. As a little girl, she wrote as soon as she was able to. They used to write a lot in her family. It was common in that bourgeois milieu. She used to write almost every day to her maternal aunt, who was her god-mother, to her grandmothers, to her parents whenever she was separated from them. These letters built a network of relationships inside her family and allowed them all to know each other. They also had the retroactive effect of constructing her personality. In writing, you learn as much about yourself as you do about others. Letter-writing mattered a lot to her in the elaboration of her sensibility and personality. Throughout her life, she kept time for letter-writing.

How does the daughter of a bourgeois family become the psychoanalyst, Françoise Dolto?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin In order to understand the psychoanalyst she became, as she, herself, tried to do at the end of her life, one must recall the grieving she had to go through and the wounds left in her by the war. In 1916, the death of her maternal uncle, a soldier in the Alpine Light Infantry, in the Vosges, with whom she corresponded when he was on the front lines, was very difficult for the entire family; but, especially, for little Françoise who he jokingly called his little fiancée, which made her, as she said herself, a “war-widow” at the age of eight. And then, when she was not yet twelve, there was the death of her older sister, Jacqueline, who was eighteen at the time, victim of a bone cancer. Françoise therefore set herself the task of consoling her parents, looking after her mother in particular who had been driven completely mad with suffering. When she decided, encouraged by a doctor, to have another child in the hope that she would have a daughter to replace the one she had lost, Françoise looked after little Jacques, who had disappointed their mother so much by being born a boy. She recalls being there for him, her close attention faced with a child’s curiosity, her dizziness in the face of his questions. She built up an extremely rich relationship with him. Then, she began to study nursing because her mother was against her doing medicine and it wasn’t until she was twenty-four that she was able to fulfill that desire, with the support of her younger brother Philippe and her father. She then, paradoxically, went through a painful period. Her mother demanded that she become engaged to a young man with whom she was friendly and liked to share her tastes in music and literature. She decided to break it off when she realized that she had no romantic feelings towards him. She developed feelings of guilt over this which plunged her into a deep depression, preventing her from working or continuing her studies. Her father then had the intelligence to send her to René Laforgue for analysis where she was able to leave her dependence on her mother’s neurosis which had made her an “overgrown child”, as she said, extremely sexually repressed. She had been shut away in a pleasant world where they made music and read everything - except Zola, all the same - and thanks to analysis she had a moment of immense emancipation, of total liberation. She finally began a life of her own. Psychoanalysis enabled her to understand and formulate this idea. She would later draw on this experience and make it available to her patients.

And she was always very independent within the psychoanalytical community…

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin Françoise Dolto used to be at the Société psychanalytique de Paris(Paris Psychoanalytic Society), which was then the only psychoanalytic institution in France, and had been in existence since 1926: whose members included Laforgue, Marie Bonaparte and many others. In 1951, however, she disagreed with its administators. It was no mere coincidence that this had to do with the raising of children. While she said that she would not become involved in polemics, she did take a stand. That’s how she, along with Lacan and others, was behind the foundation of the Société française de psychanalyse. Later there was a second split. She found herself at its forefront and followed Lacan into l’École freudienne (the Freudian School of Paris). She was very creative at the heart of institutions, communicating with other analysts, while remaining extremely independent. Between Lacan and Françoise Dolto there was a lot of friendly feeling and real mutual admiration. This seems to me to have protected the work she carried out in the Ecole freudienne with the greatest of freedom.

Today Françoise Dolto is the subject of polemic, she is denigrated…

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin When I read some articles I ask myself, “How can they mislead the public so much?” Many people nowadays make assertions and construct arguments based on absolutely nothing, without checking anything.

The nursery school is also under attack, isn’t this related?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin The nursery school has always seemed to me to be something quite prodigious within the national education system. Did something of Dolto’s openness to the child pass through it? I don’t know. It’s true that sometimes you ask yourself which ideology these attacks on Dolto are serving? Could there be a connection then with the fact that the nursery school, that unique period of socialization of very young children through communication with the adults that take part in it, is also held in complete contempt? In the end, that would not surprise me. Sometimes I tell myself that there’s a kind of great fear of the child. I was just talking about the hatred of psychoanalysis, wouldn’t the two go together?

Francoise Dolto came up with the Maisons vertes. What were her goals in their creation?

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin It was when she retired in 1978 that she created the Maisons vertes, starting from the big idea she had about prevention [sic] and the awakening of a subject to his or her social being. In her letters she explains the creation of these places. They are not crèches or child-minding facilities. What she was looking for called for a lot of reflection along with those who were involved in the project with her in France. As usual, she reflected on it with other people. At that time, she was also in contact with psychoanalysts from all over the world. It was a time of great openness. What is more, there were Maisons vertes in many countries, but she wanted each team to be independent and reflect on its own terrain, without a stamp of approval from her. The goal was simply that there would be a place where a child could come along with its parents. Two psychoanalysts would be there, the mother or father could talk to one of them, sit and watch the child playing with other children, and speak about his or her anxieties, put his or her worries into words. Someone is there to listen, and things are “aired”, as Dolto used to say. Human beings speak to other human beings. Some of them are big, some of them are small, but they communicate.

There should be Maisons vertes in every neighbourhood…

Muriel Djéribi-Valentin It should be considered, and the means should be given to those who want to work at it, to look after children, to share with them. Françoise Dolto had the idea and put it into practice because she had the force to see it through to the end, and she was a very persistent person who wasn’t easily taken in. There are very few people like that. However, she also knew that what she did might be criticized, that there remained things to be reflected on, questioned and thought through, and she didn’t want what she said to be taken literally. She set things off and afterwards it was necessary to continue working on them. To carry on what she began and made available to us without leaving out what is essential in it. That is Dolto’s heritage.

Editor’s note:

For additional insight on Françoise Dolto’s biography and works, please see the following article: Tough Love: An Introduction to Françoise Dolto’s "When Parents Separate"*
(*Françoise Dolto’s When Parents Separate, 1995, David R. Godine, Lincoln, MA.)
Copyright © 1995 Sherry Turkle
Cortesía: http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/Dolto.html


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