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Pine, F. (1986). Margaret S. Mahler, M.D. In Memoriam. Psychoanal. Psychol., 3(2):101-103.

(1986). Psychoanalytic Psychology, 3(2):101-103

Margaret S. Mahler, M.D. In Memoriam

Fred Pine, Ph.D.

On October 2, 1985, Margaret Mahler died at the age of 88. In the last quarter century, she had been a central figure on the world stage of psychoanalysis.

Mahler was fond of dating her first impressions of the centrality of what she later called symbiosis and separation-individuation, to her work in a wellbaby clinic in Vienna in the period before World War II. Certainly her respect for the data base of mother-child interactions grew there, complementing her experience with the data base of analytic productions on the couch. And certainly, like Spitz and Winnicott, she was impressed in those observations with both the intimacy and intensity of those mother-child interactions, and with the necessity of thinking developmentally in terms of the discovery of the personal self and of the intertwined yet separate other. But equally certainly, she brought to these observations an exquisite sensitivity to aspects of mother-infant dyads that could only have been honed in personal history and which, fortunately, she was able to transform into creative thought.

Though her ideas are now widely known, it is not widely known how much she was truly a researcher. Regularly, when we were deluged by the flood of data that observational/longitudinal studies inevitably generate, hers was an insistent voice against the temptation to shift to individual case studies as a way of helping us keep our heads above water with respect to those data. She had a great deal of respect for a research method anchored in repeated encounters with a phenomenon observed in different children and at different times—essentially a Piagetian method applied to the realm of mother-infant interaction. And she was equally insistent upon the need for multiple observers; she knew the role of subjectivity in observational work, and knew the difference between observation and inference, and consensual validation was an idea that mattered to her in the face of these difficulties.

Two qualities of her thinking come to mind, and I should like to say a word about each of them: creative ignorance and impassioned study of microscopic detail.

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