Obituary: Irma Brenman Pick

Kleinian psychoanalyst who drew on her patients’ early childhood experiences


A baby looking at the mother’s face may try to work out whether she is feeding out of love or duty.

The sensitivity of even the smallest baby to the mother’s authenticity was one example which guided the psychoanalyst Irma Brenman Pick in her work with the interior struggles of her patients. In the process she developed a profound gift for empathy, humanity and compassion.

She extended the analogy of the mother and baby to question the authenticity of both analyst and patient.

She argued the need for constant vigilance to avoid any sense of self-deception on the part of either. It is one of the tenets of transference in analysis, where the patient may project feelings of love, dependence or anger onto the analyst.

She became adept at weeding out her patients’ deep-rooted assumptions, but was always aware of the dangers of leading the patient astray.

Brenman Pick, who has died aged 89, was a leading Kleinian analyst with an inclusive approach, involving colleagues from varying orientations. Her approach was sensitive and forceful in equal measures.

Before helping the patient, the analyst must do the hard work through reaching an understanding of his or her own emotional responses. Brenman Pick understood the complex fantasies within her patient’s mind, but addressed them with an approach rooted in the present moment.

In many ways her views ran counter to the traditional Freudian concept that analysts should not allow themselves to engage with the emotions patients may arouse in them.

The traditionalists argue that this would interfere with the calm neutrality demanded of the analyst. But Brenman Pick felt such exchanges were inevitable and that analysts were bound to be affected emotionally.

The important point was to use the experience to learn about the patient’s early self which could emerge from the analytic encounter.

She admitted, however, that although this could prove particularly difficult with adolescents, it was essential groundwork towards understanding the depth of their experiences. She was closer to the more innovative tradition of Freud’s disciple, Melanie Klein, who stressed that patients’ unconscious assumptions, what she termed phantasies, contributed to patients’ destructiveness.

The book of Brenman Pick’s collected papers Authenticity in the Analytic Encounter, edited by Fakhry Davids and Naomi Shavit, (2018) includes one which focuses on countertransference, which she believed could generate a deeper response to the patient’s need to feel understood.

This process, she argued, made it possible to explore whether, and if so, how, the patient perceived this care on the part of the analyst.

An example of her creative, clinical approach was her view that the analyst needed two hands, a strong hand to hold the patient’s destructive manifestations, and a soft hand to hold their more vulnerable, truthful and loving qualities.

In her book she expressed a particular interest in the early childhood experiences of her patients and the need for clinicians to sense their presence in the patient’s present behaviour.

Authenticity is a major theme which flows through the book as it considers adolescence, sexual identity, uncertainty, destructiveness, creativity and the longing for integration.

Beyond the science alone her narratives expose the need for everyone – patients and analysts alike – to have other people in their lives. This awareness deepened as she grew older and became more inclined to emphasise the value of love and friendship, which she brought to her sessions.

She gave many interviews and conducted forums on the book. One of them was held in Israel in March, 2021 with moderators, clinical psychologists Aner Govrin and Sharon Ziv-Beiman, on the subject of Thinking Here and Now. Their conversation focused on falseness, authenticity, and freedom.

It dealt with the questions of the internal work required within psychoanalytic encounters and difficulties in recognising how analysts relate to deeply disturbed patients.

Many of her papers also addressed the difficulties of forming an authentic identity. It is arguable that her own childhood in apartheid South Africa and her early years of marriage impacted on her choice of career.

She was the daughter of Min née Jacobs and Joseph Lief, who worked in a furniture factory, both Jewish emigrants from Latvia. Her father died when she was 13 and her mother established a secretarial college.

At the age of 17 she entered the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she met her future husband, the young doctor Abe Pick, whom she followed into the study of psychotherapy. She was briefly involved in radical student politics and graduated with distinction from the social science faculty. She received the prestigious Best Student in her Year award.

After their marriage the couple left South Africa and arrived in the UK in 1955. Abe qualified as a psychoanalyst, while she took the route to child psychotherapy via the Tavistock Clinic.

She then trained as a child and adult analyst at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and qualified six years later. But then she faced the tragedy of her husband’s death after a short illness, leaving her a single mother with a one-yea-old son, Daniel.

At the time she was deeply moved by the kindness and compassion shown to her by her analyst, Dr Hans Thorner, and it was this which possibly fostered in her a deep compassion for the struggles of her own patients, which would become a notable aspect of her work.

She married Eric Brenman in 1975, and together they became involved in teaching and working with colleagues all over the world including the US, South Africa, Israel, Sweden, Italy and Germany. Eric died in 2012.

Among her many distinctions, Irma was a Distinguished Fellow and Senior Training and Supervising Analyst of the British Society, where she occupied many positions, including the presidency from 1997 to 2000.

Colleagues claim that her contribution would prove invaluable to psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals interested in deepening their understanding of the complex relationships that can arise in the consulting room.

Friends and colleagues praised her as a passionate, reflective and honest human being. She is survived by Daniel, now a Fellow and Training Analyst at the British Psychoanalyst Society, twin granddaughters Tasha and Anna and stepsons Owen and Greg.

Irma Brenman Pick: born April 13, 1934. Died August 3, 2023

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