Review Essay

This is a slightly revised version of a review-essay published in the Can. J. Psychoanal./Rev. Can. Psychanal., 4, 2 (Winter 1996): 343-353.

Fairbairn and the Origins of Object Relations.  Edited by James S. Grotstein and Donald B. Rinsley.  New York & London: The Guilford Press, 1994.  350 pp.  ISBN 0-89862-135-6.  Hardcover.  Approx. $56.00 Canadian.  Published in Great Britain by Free Association Books.

Grotstein and Rinsley have performed a valuable service for the psychoanalytic community by bringing together these seventeen papers, together with an epilogue and three useful appendices (one listing Fairbairn's main papers; another listing contributions related to Fairbairn's work; and one outlining Fairbairn's concepts and terminology).  Although nine of the papers, including Fairbairn's own synopsis of his theory and papers by Sutherland, Kernberg, Mitchell, Ogden, Hughes, Rinsley, Padel and Robbins, and two of the appendices, have previously been published, it is useful nevertheless to have the opportunity to read such a range of interpretations and critiques of Fairbairn's work, offered from diverse theoretical and clinical viewpoints, in relation to one another.

In the area of theory, previously unpublished essays include: Grotstein and Rinsley's "Introduction"; Grotstein's "Notes on Fairbairn's Metapsychology"; Rubens' "Fairbairn's Structural Theory"; Grotstein's "Endopsychic Structure and the Cartography of the Internal World"; and Modell's "Fairbairn's Structural Theory and the Communication of Affects".  In the area of clinical formulations, previously unpublished papers include: Symington's "The Tradition of Fairbairn";  Armstrong-Perlman's "The Allure of the Bad Object"; and Hamilton's "Resistance to the Release of the Bad Object in the Psychotherapy of a Refugee."  I personally found the latter two clinical papers most interesting in that they provide a concrete view of how Fairbairnian theory actually operates in clinical practice.  Although previously published, Michael Robbins' essay, "A Fairbairnian Object Relations Perspective on Self Psychology" opens up a view of Fairbairn as both a precursor of the psychology of the self and as a theorist from whom self  psychology may well have a good deal still to learn.

Although, according to the dustcover, "Fairbairn has had a profound influence in almost every area of contemporary theory and practice," it is my impression that, prior to the W.R.D. Fairbairn Centennial Conference in Edinburgh in 1989, at which several of the papers in this collection were first presented, extended and detailed analyses and applications of Fairbairn's specific model of the mind--as distinct from appreciation of his more general notions--were few and far between.  This relative neglect probably has several explanations.  Certainly, the blunt manner in which he criticized and rejected fundamental Freudian concepts, such as that of the id, must have played a part; as may his somewhat undialectical assertion that libido is object-seeking rather than pleasure-seeking.  Why could it not be both?

Fairbairn's ideas were almost as difficult for Kleinians to accept as for Freudians.  Although he shared Kleins's rejection of Freud's concept of primary narcissism as a phase of undifferentiation at the beginning, positing instead a primitive ego engaged in relations with objects from the outset, Fairbairn's conception of this original ego was very different from Klein's.  For the latter, the archaic ego was, depending upon your interpretation of her somewhat ambiguous texts, either split from the beginning due to the opposing forces of Eros and Thanatos, or comes to be split almost immediately due to the infant's interpretation of any and all frustration and pain as a persecutory attack by an all-bad (part-)object and its generation in phantasy of an all-good (part-)object as a refuge from such persecution.  But, for Fairbairn, at the outset there exists a "whole, pristine, unitary ego" that only splits as a consequence of environmental failure.

Fairbairn believed that an internal phantasy world is a pathological development.  Several of the authors in this collection are quite critical of this concept, flying as it does in the face of a widespread psychoanalytic consensus that psychic development proceeds through processes of introjection and identification which lead to the build-up of psychic structure.  Certainly, the Kleinians, who see psychic reality as a tissue of phantasy, would have difficulty with Fairbairn's view of phantasy as pathology and his notion that a healthy mind would be purged of this internal phantasmagoria and, moving out of the pathological internal world, would relate directly in the here and now to external objects in the real world.  Many psychoanalysts would no doubt find this view both naive and offensive in its apparent lack of any appreciation of phantasy and transitional modes of relating in creativity.

Although at first I shared this attitude, I have lately come to find Fairbairn's thinking in this area rather interesting--provided one distinquishes between the defensive, schizoid uses of phantasy he deplores and the healthy and creative uses of fantasy he appears to ignore.  Fairbairn's perspective addresses what has always seemed to me to be something of a paradox in psychoanalytic theory.  According to Freud the "ego"--which in this context refers to the Ich or self-representation rather than the ego of  the structural theory of id-ego-superego, a hypothetical control apparatus--is built up though identification with lost objects.  Although in "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud (1917) had seen the process whereby the ego came to introject and identify itself with the lost object as a pathological process central in what we now refer to as depression, six years later, in "The Ego and the Id," he (Freud, 1923) had come to the conclusion that such processes of introjection of and identification with lost objects constitute the basis of normal ego development.

Following in Freud's footsteps, Erikson (1959) saw normal "ego identity" as involving the synthesis of a vast range of self-images stemming from multiple levels of development, together with confirmation of this synthesis by social reality.  More recently, Kernberg (1976) wrote that "An authentic self can come about only when diverse self-images have been organized into an integrated self-concept ..." (p.121).

In the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition, the "ego" or "self"--even the "authentic" self--is  seen as representational, that is, as composed of images.  Melanie Klein seems to have taken an essentially similar view.  Although she rejected the notion of primary narcissism and posited a primitive ego engaged in archaic object relations from the outset, she nevertheless shared Freud's view of the healthy ego as composed of identification with an introjected, whole, repaired, good object.

But how can an "ego," a "self" or "identity" based on identification with a composite of introjected images be real, let alone authentic?  How can this structure of images, memories, identifications, phantasies and narratives--the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves--how can this amount in any real sense to a living, authentic agent or essence?  This is a question that has seldom been raised in psychoanalytic quarters.  Freud himself manifests a good deal of ambivalence in this area.  Having initially shown considerable suspicion toward the ego, insisting that "The unconscious is the true psychical reality" (Freud, 1900, p.613), in his later ego psychology he appears to change his attitude toward the ego quite substantially, treating it more and more as an authentic subject and centre.  Nevertheless, even after over twenty years of his developing ego psychology, at the end of his career Freud (1940 [1938]) could write in his unfinished "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" that "The core of our being, then, is formed by the obscure id..." (p. 197).

There are a few other voices in the history of psychoanalysis.  Hartmann (1939) suggested that, aside from all the images of which it comes to be composed during its history of conflictual development, the "ego" has from the beginning a number of innate apparatuses of primary autonomy.  Responsible for such functions as motility, intelligence, language, perception, etc., these exist--together with those ego functions which, although originating in psychic conflict, have subsequently achieved secondary autonomy--in a "conflict-free" sphere of the ego.  Could these "apparatuses" provide a basis for ego-functioning apart from all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves?

Lacan (1977, ch. 1) distinguished between what he called the "specular ego" (once again to be distinguished from the ego of Freud's structural theory) and a somewhat more mysterious dimension of our Being that he referred to as the "subject".  The ego was formed in the "mirror stage" (6 to 18 months) as a result of the infant's misidentification of itself with its image in the (real or metaphorical) mirror.  For Lacan, the ego is a dead image; it is associated with the death drive and with anal mastery and control.  Like feces, it is a dead thing.  In our narcissism, we worship it.  But it is merely an icon, an idol, and our worship--our self-preoccupation--is a form of idolatry.

According to biblical definition, idolatry is the worship of graven images.  In the Lacanian view, narcissism amounts to a type of idolatry--in this case the worship of the self-image.  The more focused we are on the ego, the more the living subject is relegated to the background, to the unconscious, from whence it can only "speak" through gaps or cracks in the ego's totalitarian control apparatus--that is, through the lapses known as Freudian slips, or dreams, or symptoms.  In this view, the living subject--like the living God--may never be known, but only lived or realized.  For to know is to image or imagine--or to conceptualize and thus reduce to the confines of a concept.  At the very least it is evident that any self we know must exclude the self that is knowing it at that moment.

As a social psychologist originally trained in the so-called "symbolic interactionist" school of George Herbert Mead (1934) in which  the self is seen as containing an irreducible subject-object duality, the Lacanian view of this split between the "subject" and the "ego" has always made a good deal of sense to me.  For Mead, in addition to the "me" or self-image that I derive reflexively by taking the role of the other and imagining how that other views me--Charles Horton Cooley's (1902) "looking-glass self"--there is what Mead called the "I" which, as the subject/knower of the image in the mirror perpetually remains outside it.  The "I" is like the photographer who never himself gets into the picture because he is always behind the camera taking the picture.  While, for Mead,  the conceptual self or "me" is a social self, derived essentially from others, the "I" is a non-conceptual, essentially unimaginable subject with which Mead associates our unique individuality, creativity and spontaneity.  It is this unknown and essentially unknowable knower that is largely missing from psychoanalytic theories of the ego or the self--except for the work of Lacan and the few other adumbrations of the concept mentioned above, including Fairbairn's much-disputed notion of a "whole, pristine, unitary ego" at both the beginning of life and as the goal of the psychoanalytic journey out of the internal phastasmagoria and back to living, loving and working in reality.

Despite semantic appearances to the contrary, Fairbairn's whole ego may parallel the Lacanian subject, and his split ego the Lacanian specular ego.   Both Lacan and Fairbairn wish to lead us out of alienation--that is, out of captivity by a "false self" (Winnicott, 1960).  What other psychoanalytic traditions accept as the normal build-up of psychic structure through internalization processes, both Lacan and Fairbairn reject as pathology.  In their efforts to lead us out of the "Maya"--the net of illusions--constituted by our internal, representational worlds, both Lacan and Fairbairn move psychoanalysis in an Eastern direction.  In Buddhism, the "ego" has always been seen as the source of human ignorance and consequent suffering.

Another conception shared by Lacan and Fairbairn is that of the primal innocence of infancy.  For Lacan, the trouble doesn't really begin until, between 6 and 18 months, in the so-called "mirror stage," the infant misidentifies itself with its image in the (real or metaphorical) mirror.  This constitutes a sort of "fall," emancipation from which only becomes possible through accession to "the Word": through language the "subject" may be enabled to "speak" throught the gaps and cracks in the "ego's" apparatus of control.  Similarly, for Fairbairn, the infant is whole and innocent until, due to environmental failure, it is confronted with a bad object which it then internalizes in an ill- fated effort to control it.  All the rest of the splitting then follows.

Like Grotstein, I believe one of Fairbairn's greatest contributions is this postulate of "infantile innocence and entitlement" (p.5).  Here he transcends both Freud's and Klein's views of "the demonic infant" (p.9), in Freud's case demonically sexual and in Klein's demonically omnipotent.  Where I have difficulty, both with Fairbairn himself and with Grotstein who finds elements of existentialism in Fairbairn, is in the latter's, to me naive, idea that the "fall of man" is due to environmental failure.  Although Fairbairn tries to moderate his romanticism by acknowledging that this fall is inevitable and that the resulting endopsychic structure (and the schizoid problem) is universal,  his realism is, to my mind, merely apparent.  For he goes on to say that the reason the fall into internalization and splitting is inevitable is because parental failure is inevitable.

At first glance, this sounds reasonable.  But I do not believe it really is.  Notice that the fall is still being blamed on parental failure, albeit that this "failure" is held to be inevitable.  The concept of failure only holds meaning relative to its binary opposite, the concept of success.  If success is genuinely believed to be impossible, then it makes no sense to speak of failure (even while asserting that such failure is inevitable).  Notice what is not being said.  What is not said is that the fall would occur even if  the primary caretaking were perfect.  Of course, the primary caretaking can never be perfect, but to admit that the fall would occur even if it were would entail admission that the fall is existential rather than environmentally caused.  This would be to admit that to be human is to fall into internalization, splitting, and a degree of schizoid alienation from reality.

This admission of an existential dimension need not entail any denial of the fact that environmental failure makes matters worse.  But it makes possible the distinction between a "basic" or existential level of frustration that we encounter in the process of psychological birth, and a "surplus" level of frustration due to environmental failure.  Here is where I think Lacan has succeeded where Fairbairn failed: for Lacan understood that the birth of the "ego"--i.e., the false, narcissistic self--is a developmental necessity and inevitability, quite apart from any pathology stemming from environmental failure and developmental derailment of various types.


As I suggested above, despite the widespread influence of certain of Fairbairn's central ideas, his detailed model of endopsychic structure (the split internal world consequent upon the fall) has seldom received the attention it deserves.  This, I think, is due to its sheer complexity, among other factors.  Because the model is so difficult to hold in mind, beginning in the late 1970's I began to employ the following charts as aids to teaching and elaborating upon Fairbairn's theory.  Over time, the original chart was modified, first to accommodate Guntrip's addition to Fairbairn's model (the addition of the regressed ego--RE) and, subsequently, to bring certain of Melanie Klein's key insights back into the picture (the notion of an attacking object--AO--and a persecuted ego--PE).  Here is the original chart.

I.  Fairbairn.
         GOOD           BAD           BAD
      PARENT      Ideal Object (IO)    Exciting Object (EO)  Rejecting Object (RO)
       CHILD      Central Ego (CE)      Libidinal Ego (LE)     Anti-Libidinal Ego 

It is understood that the subject may at times identify with any of the parent images and projectively identify any of the child images into the object, or vice versa.  The "honeymoon" phase of a relationship or an analysis entails an attempt to retain the IO-CE relationship by splitting off, repressing or projecting the bad self and object images.  Sooner or later the repressed returns and "heaven" gives way to "hell."  Naturally, this development is essential in analysis, for only if the bad self and object images are "released" into the analytic space can there be any hope of their analysis and integration.  (Note that the anti-libidinal ego does not seem to fit logically into its allotted cell in the chart.  This problem will be addressed further on.)

II. Fairbairn + Guntrip.

Guntrip (1976) reports that he proposed and Fairbairn accepted the positing of a final ego split characteristic of the deepest schizoid conditions.  Faced with despair arising from the repeated experience of "heaven" going to "hell"--that is, with the impossibility of maintaining "all-good" object relations and the inevitable swing from idealization to devaluation and "all-bad" object relations--certain individuals give up relating altogether and withdraw deep into themselves (while maintaining, Guntrip believed, some slight hope for the "rebirth" of the "true self" if and when favourable conditions should be found).  In the face of both the exciting and rejecting objects (the two faces of the bad object), the regressed ego (RE) retreats from object relating, resulting in a condition of  schizoid withdrawal. #1
         GOOD           BAD           BAD
       PARENT      Ideal Object (IO)    Exciting Object (EO)   Rejecting Object (RO)
        CHILD      Central Ego (CE)      Libidinal Ego (LE)     Anti-Libidinal Ego
   Regressed Ego (RE)    Regressed Ego (RE)

III. Fairbairn + Guntrip + Klein.

It gradually struck me that the bad object could not be reduced to exciting and rejecting manifestations.  In paranoid states we see it operating as a persecutor.  Therefore, I felt it to be essential to bring Klein back onto the scene and to add, as one of the manifestations of the bad object, an attacking object (AO) and, as one of the negative split ego-states, a persecuted ego.  The retreat of the regressed ego (RE) would appear to be motivated by flight from persecutory attack, as well as by the intolerable pain arising from tantalization (EO) and rejection (RO).
      GOOD         BAD         BAD        BAD
    PARENT          IO           EO           RO   Attacking Object ........ (AO)
      CHILD            CE              LE        Anti-LE (?)    Persecuted Ego .........(PE)
             RE           RE           RE

IV. A Final Revision.

Above, I mentioned that Fairbairn's anti-libidinal ego or "internal saboteur" does not appear to fit logically into the cell to which it is allocated in the chart.  The anti-LE would not seem to be a state of the child, but a state of the adult.  Unlike the central ego (CE), or the libidinal ego (LE), or the persecuted ego (PE), each of which refer to experiential states of the child--i.e, states of idealizing and compliant dependence, or of inflamed longing (lust, greed, and envy) or of helpless persecution--the anti-LE refers to active persecution of the child, not an experiential state of the child.

I therefore concluded that, in keeping with Fairbairn's own descriptions of it,  the anti-LE should be removed from the chart in that it refers to the subject's identification with any or all of the manifestations of the bad object and the enactment of the bad object's tormenting behaviour toward the self.  In other words, the anti-LE is essentially an identification with the aggressor.  Hence, the subject will at times identify with the exciting object (EO) and cruelly tantalize the self .  At other times, the subject will identify with the rejecting object (RO) and cruelly reject the self .  At still other times, the subject will identify with the attacking object (AO) and cruelly attack the self.

Consequently, in the cell originally incorrectly allotted to the anti-LE, I substitute what I call the destructive ego (DE) which refers to the rage and destructiveness the infant feels in reaction to tantalization by the exciting object, or to rejection by the rejecting object, or to persecution by the attacking object.  This rage and destructiveness is then taken over by the anti-LE (the self as identified with the bad objects) and turned against the self.  Hence, the rage of the destructive ego (DE) is retroflected and used to attack not only the libidinal ego (LE) for its intensified and inflamed neediness, greediness and envy, and the persecuted ego (PE) for its sheer, shameful helplessness, but also to attack itself  (DE) for its hatred.
      GOOD         BAD         BAD        BAD
    PARENT             IO           EO          RO          AO
     CHILD             CE           LE   Destructive Ego ......... (DE)           PE
              RE          RE          RE

In my view, Fairbairn's model of endopsychic structure, especially when elaborated in these ways, constitutes a helpful tool for the understanding of both pre-oedipal and oedipal pathology.  (In this perspective, the Oedipus essentially entails regarding one parent as the good object [IO] and the other parent, the rival, as a bad object.)

Grotstein and Rinsley's collection should assist the psychoanalytic community to develop the deeper and more detailed understanding of Fairbairnian theory that it deserves.


1.  Many of the authors in this volume are quite critical of Guntrip's attempts to communicate and to elaborate upon Fairbairn's ideas.  I wish to draw readers' attention to the helpful review and clarification of this debate by Forbes (1996).


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