Quick Look—“Encounters with John Bowlby”

In my last post I mentioned the 2017 book by Arturo Ezquerro entitled Encounters with John Bowlby—Tales of Attachment. Bowlby was Ezquerro’s supervisor for the last seven years of Bowlby’s life. Bowlby died in September, 1990, at the age of 83. I thought I’d offer up a few impressions of my read.

I mean this in a good way but I found that Encounters made me depressed. This book should make you depressed if not mad as well.

In my first book, Bowlby’s Battle, I put forth the idea that observers of Bowlby’s life and work tend to gloss over the huge battles Bowlby engaged in. Ezquerro not only sees my bet but raises it considerably. Ezquerro describes battle after battle. Many times I found myself exhausted just reading about the many battles Bowlby engaged in. I have a new found respect for Bowlby’s ability to doggedly defend his position against adversaries, often multiple adversaries at one time.

Using John Byng-Hall’s work as a backdrop (Byng-Hall worked at Tavistock along with Bowlby), Ezquerro writes: “In an interview, aged 80, Bowlby still felt that the ideological battle was not won [Byng-Hall now quoting Bowlby]: ‘I often see this in terms of a war. I am fairly militarily minded. It is a campaign; it is a two generation war at least.’ ” The word “battle” is not accurate; Bowlby was in an all-out war.

Until my read of Ezquerro’s book I had no idea how much Bowlby’s military background played a role in his ability to engage in an all-out war for his attachment theory. Again, Bowlby often battled on multiple fronts. And even close colleagues betrayed or abandoned him. I simply do not know how he did it. As you might expect, Bowlby credits his attachment relationship with his wife, Ursula, for providing him with the necessary stamina to soldier on. I think what depresses me most is the knowledge that for the most part Bowlby’s war was lost. In what can only be called an ironic twist, Bowlby never found a safe home for his attachment theory, for his particular ideology.

Ezquerro provides information that allows me to better understand why Bowlby took such a strong stand against the evacuation policies that Britain put into place during WWII. These evacuation policies moved children from the cities to the countryside and were designed to protect them from frequent aerial bombings. Well, it turns out that Bowlby was sent off to boarding school during WWI along with his brother Tony. Bowlby’s father, Sir Anthony, told his boys that they were being sent away “because of the danger of air raids on London” (quoting Ezquerro). Pulling from Jeremy Holmes’ work, Ezquerro provides this Bowlby quote: “[T]his was just an excuse, being merely the traditional step in the time-honoured barbarism required to produce English gentlemen.”

Fighting against evacuation policies was deeply personal for Bowlby. And even though he and his colleagues were not successful in reversing these evacuation policies, in 1948, “the British Minister of Health retrospectively accepted the negative effects that the evacuation had had on children’s mental health,” (quoting Ezquerro). In truth, these types of evacuations took place up until the early 1970s. More recently the British government has acknowledged that many of the children who were evacuated ended up in far flung places such as Canada and Australia, and were received and subsequently abused by certain religious groups. For more information, see the February, 2017, article by Tom Symonds over at the BBC web site entitled The Child Abuse Scandal of the British Children Sent Abroad. Personally, I thought Bowlby’s focus on the transgenerational transmission of trauma developed later in his career. As it turns out, this was a topic that motivated Bowlby throughout his entire career and has its roots in his childhood. Ezquerro points out that Bowlby formulated his theory of attachment always with an eye toward (liberal) social change.

The chapter that really got to me was the chapter toward the end of his book that Ezquerro wrote on child and sexual abuse. Ezquerro reveals that one of the only times he ever saw Bowlby get upset was when the topic turned to Freud’s seduction theory. In his early career, Freud wrote about how early sexual abuse was connected to the later development of symptoms such as hysteria. Freud was pressured by persons in positions of power to back away from his seduction theory, which he did. Freud then put forth the idea that reports of child sexual abuse were in fact fantasies.

Ezquerro suggests that Freud’s decision to move child sexual abuse from the real world to the world of fantasy delayed bringing the epidemic of child sexual abuse to public awareness by half a century. Ezquerro writes, “Bowlby regretted Freud’s shift from seduction theory to a rather speculative theory of infantile sexuality….” But what really shocked me was how many big names in psychology and psychiatry during the first half of the last century were not only abused as children (Freud included) but who had sex with their patients. According to Ezquerro, Carl Jung had a long term sexual relationship with one of his patients. Ezquerro references a report that suggests that even today 10 percent of male therapists and 3 percent of female therapists engage in sexual relations with their patients.

Is it possible that many of these big names of psychology and psychiatry in essence normalized their early histories of sexual abuse by putting into place certain practices such as reframing reports of sexual abuse as mere infantile fantasy? I found this chapter on child and sexual abuse to be particularly disturbing mainly because only a few short months ago I watched the movie Spotlight. This 2015 movie is about the “true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core” (quoting the description of the movie). Ezquerro credits the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s as the movement that finally pulled back the curtain on the sexual abuse of children and the patriarchal structures that tacitly condoned it.

So, once again, I have a new found respect and admiration for the many battles, nay war, that Bowlby waged. [1] I am amazed that he persevered under such traumatic conditions. I am sad, even depressed, that Bowlby’s efforts were largely for naught. Today we have psychiatrists diagnosing bipolar disorder in infants and feeding copious amounts of behavioral drugs to children as young as two years old. In my opinion, this is psychiatry out of control and should draw the ire of an angry citizenry. Ezquerro points out that many within the psychiatry community normalize these abuses by suggesting that they are to be expected at the start of a new profession. Quoting the work of Glen Gabbard, we hear Ezquerro tell us, “It has been suggested that one way of understanding these historical boundary violations is ‘to see them as the inevitable labor pains accompanying the birth of a new field.’ ” I’ll end with this protestation by Ezquerro:

But hang on a minute! Are we denying something here? Born between the third and second centuries BCE, could the Hippocratic Oath have been used as a symbolic midwife for the psychoanalytic baby more than 2000 years later? … Any physician is expected to promise to treat patients keeping them from harm and injustice, “remaining free of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.”


[1] – As Ezquerro points out, Bowlby was certainly not a saint. As one example, even though Bowlby did not care for the practice of medicating patients unnecessarily, he did accept sponsorship money from pharmaceutical companies for some of the conferences he organized.