Harry Guntrip’s ‘big dream’ sequence

Harry Guntrip’s psychoanalytical biography written by Jeremy Hazell is the most extraordinary read – a lifetime’s journey over twenty years in psychoanalysis, to discover his earliest trauma and record all his dreams. In his first ‘proper’ analysis with Ronald Fairbairn (he had earlier years of therapy with several others) Guntrip reached the insight that his mother had given him the ‘form of a relationship but not the content’– she was non-relating to him. This left him unable to live and love to the full, which he believed was every person’s birth right. Between 1962-9, after his work with Fairbairn ended, Guntrip was in analysis with Donald Winnicott who enabled Guntrip to begin to get in touch with the early trauma – the death of his baby brother Percy when Guntrip was aged 3. Prior to that tragedy was the absence of any warm loving relationship with his mother. The dream sequence was triggered by the death of Winnicott in 1971, and reveals the trauma as a screen memory for ‘a profoundly depersonalised experience’ with Guntrip’s emotionally exhausted mother.

On the very night that Winnicott died Guntrip had a

‘startling dream. I saw my mother, black, immobile, staring fixedly into space, totally ignoring me as I stood at one side staring at her and feeling myself frozen into immobility: the first time I had ever seen her in a dream like that. Before she had always been attacking me. My first thought was: “I’ve lost Winnicott and am left alone with mother, sunk in depression, ignoring me. That’s how I felt when Percy died.”’

As the sequence continued over the next nights a most dramatic dream confirmed for Guntrip that Winnicott had helped him find the truth about the trauma:

‘I was standing with another man, the double of myself, both reaching out to take hold of a dead object. Suddenly the other man collapsed in a heap. Immediately the dream changed to a lighted room where I saw Percy again. I knew it was him, sitting on the lap of a woman who had no face, arms, or breasts. She was merely a lap to sit on, not a person. He looked deeply depressed, with the corner of his mouth turned down and I was trying to make him smile.’

In his self-analysis, Guntrip realised with great joy that ‘the eternal quality of his relation to Winnicott, who was not, and could not be, dead for him’ had taken the place of his mother and made it safe to remember the trauma that had dogged his entire life. Guntrip was clear that analysis cannot give anyone a different life history and there is no such thing as an immediate full cure, but one can be put in a stronger position internally to experience and gain greater understanding of ‘the ways in which the old ingrown bad-relation patterns are aroused and disturbed by present-day affairs.’ His dreams were a symbolic record of originally external bad experience which had to be internalised as it could not be accepted and used for ego-development. He felt his unconscious had ‘known best’ and ‘gone its own way’ and that dreams were ‘a way of experiencing on the fringes of consciousness, our internalised conflicts, our memories and fantasies of conflicts that have become our inner reality.’ Guntrip was in his 70s when this breakthrough came.