Angela McRobbie: I would like to begin with a question which I’m sure you’ve been asked before. What led you to Freud in the first place—how would you describe the political and cultural route you followed?
Juliet Mitchell: At the time it felt like a simple curiosity about why American feminists were so hostile to Freud. His work was not then much of an issue for radical groups in this country but it was a crucial target for North American feminists. I read Freud and felt that the feminist attack was less on Freud than on the adaptational orientation of Freudian ego psychology in the usa. The latter did indeed have a dimension which said our task as psychotherapists was to adapt women to the satisfaction of their role. Of course there was in Freud and in psychoanalytic theories of sexual difference something which could quite readily be interpreted as denigratory to women; but this left out of account the observable wider denigration of women. The point was not, in fact, that Freudian theory itself denigrated women but rather that it tried to account for that denigration. However, it was used in turn as an ideological boost for what subsequently became known as sexism but which in the early 1960s was identified as patriarchalism. In her book The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone had pointed to the twin birth of psychoanalysis and feminism in the nineteenth century, and in fact a complex interaction continues between the two.
Another strand of my interest in psychoanalysis came out of a much longer-term interest in the process of growing up: the question of how we develop from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Some time earlier I had begun a PhD thesis on the way the great English novels were structured round the growth of the hero/heroine from childhood onwards. I was interested in how, in English literature from the Renaissance onwards, we perceived ourselves as becoming sexed adults—from what Freud called a child with a bisexual disposition. In Shakespeare’s time the small child was an ‘it’—how did writers conceptualize the growth of an ‘it’ into a he or a she? So my interest in psychoanalysis also came through the study of literature. As a lecturer
There was also the link with a New Left politics which began for me with a reading of Sartre, de Beauvoir and the European Marxists. The New Left at the beginning of the 1960s introduced psychological perspectives into politics. In England, though not in continental Europe, this had been missing from the work of the previous generation. In opposing the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious, we used phenomenological accounts; but in time it became clear that these led to a sociologizing of the very psychic processes they had tried to rescue from crude materialist descriptions. Laing’s work, for instance, thinned out into a repetitive account of internalized family interactions as though without mediation: the inner world repeated the outer world. In David Cooper’s work the outer world repeated the inner.footnote1 In the early 1960s in New Left Review we published Sartre, Laing, Cooper, and then later, via Althusser, Jacques Lacan. This publication of phenomenological and structuralist texts was an example of an interest in psychoanalysis, but both traditions contain an inherent left-wing ambivalence towards it. (I should say that the ambivalence is mutual.) In Psychoanalysis and Feminism footnote2—the first book I thought of writing, though the second to come out—the sections usually ignored in reviews and discussions were those on Wilhelm Reich and R.D. Laing. These sections were really my taking issue with the kinds of psychological themes that had influenced me and others on the Left a decade earlier.
Anyway, though my reading of Freud was initially triggered by American feminism, this particular left-wing political context, together with my own personal history, was in a sense more significant. Reich became important in the late 1960s, but for me he already occupied a major place because he had been taken very seriously in the anarchist background in which I grew up. After my childhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s all of that disappeared from my life and went underground. But its reemergence in the radical politics of the late sixties in Germany and France, and in the student movement here, brought back childhood memories of Reich which went back to the forties.