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Britton, R. (1992). Keeping Things in Mind. New Library of Psychoanalysis, 14:102-113.

(1992). New Library of Psychoanalysis, 14:102-113

Keeping Things in Mind Book Information Previous Up Next

Ronald Britton

This chapter is about Wilfred Bion's concept of the ‘container’ and the ‘contained’. He derived this notion from his clinical work, particularly with psychotic and borderline psychotic patients, and applied it in a very general way to individual and group behaviour. I want to approach my discussion of his concept through its clinical manifestations in analysis, and I will begin with a description of a patient who resembles those who provoked the idea in Bion's mind.

Miss A, as I shall call my patient, was compelled by threats from within herself to empty out her mind of the thoughts she was having. This she did by repeatedly flushing them down the lavatory. (This patient is also described above in Chapter 3.) There were days when she did this so often that she broke the mechanism. By the time she would tell me about this in her session she no longer knew what these thoughts were. The process, however, of emptying out was so severe that she felt empty of any ideas and any mental life; she complained of feeling ‘unreal’. The quality the outside world acquired in this process was a sense of menace. As a consequence of this mental evacuation of ‘something bad’, she found it impossible to travel outside an imaginary boundary, which roughly coincided with the outskirts of London where she lived. Thus she was menaced from within by an inner presence or from without by unspecified dangers. If she took things in and held them in her mind she was in danger; if she expelled them from her mind she produced a menacing outside world. She could neither introject nor project without producing a fearful situation.

Her dilemma was epitomized in a memory she had of an experience she had had during the Second World War, which she often repeated to me; it functioned as a sort of paradigm, or, as Bion might have said, ‘a configuration’. It was what Freud called a ‘screen memory’; that is, it was a condensation of experience which functioned as an expression

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