Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in a far-off land.
Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland
Alice’s Sense of Self:
A Psychoanalytic Formulation of Development in Wonderland
What is it about the little protagonist, Alice and her fantastic adventures in Wonderland that entertains children and adults, spurring a multitude of movies (both animated and live action) in addition to various interpretations that span politics, psychology, and philosophy? There can be little doubt that what primarily draws first the child, and then the adult back to this enduring narrative is the nonsensical “underworld” of Wonderland; yet there is another compelling element and that is the character of Alice. Alice’s confusion, in her dream of utter chaos, somehow feels familiar. Uncertain of even who she is at times, Alice indulges in a constant dialog (with herself) in an attempt to rationalize her alternating dysmorphic proportions:
‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not I’ll stay down here until I’m somebody else—but oh dear!’ cried Alice with a sudden burst of tears… ‘I am so very tired of being all alone here!’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.21)
Alice’s identity, her awareness of self, proves as elusive as the Cheshire Cat: appearing only to spew nonsense and then disappear again, leaving all but his beaming smirk behind as merely a suggestion of his tangible existence.
In actuality all of the creatures Alice meets in Wonderland appear to have a similar instability to their character, if not their material identity altogether. They present as fragmented and disembodied entities; landmarks from which Alice repeatedly attempts to anchor her own understanding concerning her constantly evolving (as well as, alternating) experience of self. These exchanges are most often unsuccessful causing Alice only increased bewilderment, ultimately serving only to intensify her anxiety. Alice’s struggle to secure her sense of self occupies many of us throughout a good portion of our lives, at differing times and to varying degrees. Considering development from a psychodynamic perspective, as healthy adults our sense of self and of other as both separate and related constructs is somewhat fixed by early adulthood. In adolescence, self and other provide a foundation from which various intra-psychic entities battle for prominence, wherein identity is often a diffuse concept. However, Alice is ill prepared for development a la Wonderland and although not an infant, she is forced to regress and redefine/recreate her sense of self, as if she were:
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sire,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself you see.” (p.60)
The development of self has been hypothesized by psychoanalytic theorists to begin in early childhood when young children utilize their interactions and relatedness with their particular environments to establish notions of self and of self-with-other (Winnicott, 1965, 1960; Stern 1995, 1985; Bergman & Fahey, 1999; Pine, 1992; Bretherton, 1992; Murray, 1989; Beebe, et al., 1997; Emde, 1999). Contemporary developmental researchers argue (with the help of compelling empirical data) that in fact the stage for the self is set at birth, and perhaps even prior to birth (See: Stern, 1985). However, this view is not without contention from the field of child development, particularly psychoanalytic theorists and researchers who differ in their views as to whether or not the birth of the psychological self coincides with biological birth. This argument is further deconstructed into selective theoretical gradients therein: Does sense of self precede and occasionally coincide with conception of other (Stern, 1985)? Does understanding of an-other in fact facilitate a sense of self (Winnicott, 1956)? Or must we fuse (through “symbiosis”) with an-other before we can develop a sense of differentiated self (Mahler et al., 1975)? These and similar questions have continued to confound and engage psychoanalytic researchers and theorists concerned with development, as demonstrated through more than fifty years of compelling and constructive discussion beginning with Freud, Anna Freud, Mahler, Kohut, Klein, Winnicott—to name only a few. These early psychoanalytic theorists, in particular those from the British “school” of object relations including Klein (1952) and Winnicott (1956, 1960), recognized the significance of relatedness and empathic connection as essential to the development of self, beginning in early infancy. Their views were collected through observational and clinical experience however, and lacked empirical support. Winnicott suggested that the mother-to-child bond fosters the foundation for development of self, beginning at the birth of the infant through what he conceptualized as a discrete developmental stage, Primary Maternal Preoccupation (1956). Additionally, Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1979) further defined prior related work through their attachment paradigm, yielding objective support. The introduction of attachment-related research throughout the 1970’s marked a theoretical shift in psychoanalytic theories of development. The described model, of self and other, is currently understood as necessarily a bi-directional philosophy of infant development, integrating the effects of others on the infant as well as the infant’s effect on the environment 1970’s (Beebe, et al., 1997).
Distinguished among more interdisciplinary developmental researchers, Daniel Stern (1985) has attempted to bridge the original psychoanalytic theories through incorporating research on infants drawn from varied orientations, bolstered by empirical support. His work has yielded an integrated account of the formation of the self, beginning at birth and inclusive of (even dependent upon) interpersonal relatedness. Stern conceptualizes the development of the self over four phases that capture self-experience and social relatedness, including the sense of: (a) emergent self—the process of the organization coming into being and self-affectivity (from birth to two months of age), (b) core self—self-agency, self-coherence, and self-history/continuity (from two to six months), (c) subjective self—the sharing of affective states through “mirroring” and “empathic responsiveness” (seven to fifteen months), and finally (d) the sense of verbal or narrative self (fifteen months of age and beyond) (1985). Stern suggests that these phases form a developmental line (Freud, 1965) that continues to exist and further evolve throughout life. Superimposed upon this distinct developmental line concerning the formation of self are what Stern refers to as, “domains of relatedness,” equally necessary to the infant’s psychological growth and connected to each specific sense of self forming gradients of self-being-with-other. Throughout Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, Alice attempts to circumscribe a cohesive sense of subjective self through connecting with the creatures of Wonderland. Unfortunately her efforts are largely in vein, but she persists and does not give-up trying to exist as herself, in their space, with them:
“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“—I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” Said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat ’is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” (p.97-98)
At a basic level Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland represents a rough approximation of the process of self-actualization through relatedness that defines psychodynamic theories of infant and child development. Wonderland embodies an illustrative example of Winnicott’s conception of the infant’s inner-world, a battle between good and evil combined with a healthy mix of magic; “the child’s inner world, where there is a tremendous continuum between forces, where magic controls, and where good is in constant danger from the bad. It feels mad to be in a child’s inner world,” (1988, p.71) The Cheshire Cat would agree, remarking to Alice that, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad…” (p.90).
Alice is quite literally born into the madness of Wonderland where “up is down” and “down is up.” In this place survival of self is dependent on the ability to negotiate an integrated core sense of self despite a multitude of environmental impingements. Stern asserts that the core self is at all times in impending danger of the threat of annihilation (1985; Winnicott, 1962). These fears and anxieties regarding threats to self are played out in children’s fantasies, dreams and nightmares, and favorite fairy tales. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is no exception as the story epitomizes these worries manifested in Alice’s frightful experiences of self including feelings of: fragmentation, disembodiment, and the potential risk of extinction. As healthy adults, these anxieties continue although their effect is more titillation than panic; in children’s stories, these unspoken fears materialize as an imaginary dream, mingled with our most pleasant wishes—Winnicott’s world of madness.
Our heroine’s plight begins soon after her arrival in Wonderland, finding that she is physically too large to fit through the tiny door that the White Rabbit has disappeared into. Upon looking around Alice sees a bottle marked “drink me.” Imagining it may alter her size Alice drinks the potion and realizes she is, “shutting up like a telescope,” (p.11). The ensuing rapid and unregulated shrinking greatly disturbs Alice, “for it might end in my going out all together, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?” (p.11). At this point Alice demonstrates an adequate sense of, what Stern would refer to as emergent self, considering wish-based alterations to her size (self) as within her control, however her sense of core self remains fragile, apparent in her expressed fears—derived directly from experienced threats to the self. When her size reverts in the contrary direction, Alice feels further disconnected from her sense of being and contemplates how she might attempt to integrate:
“Oh my poor feet I wonder who will put on my shoes and stockings for you now,
dears?…I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must
manage the best way you can;–but I must be kind to them,” thought Alice, “or
perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go.” (p.16)
Winnicott accounted for this special set of fears through his conception of “primitive agonies” or “unthinkable anxieties” in infants and children, inclusive of: (a) going to pieces; (b) having no relationship with the body; (c) having no orientation, and (d) complete isolation due to there being no means of communication, leading to what Winnicott considered characteristic of the schizoid defense (1962). The schizoid defense is further defined through a pathological organization of defenses wherein the phenomena of dis-integration of self is primary.
Connected to Winnicott’s notion of the fear of annihilation, is the creation of a false self for the infant or child, a protective mechanism used to prevent what the child or infant fears will be certain extinction (1962, 1986). Winnicott believed that consistent failures of mothering bring about too early a reaction to the external world resulting in disruption of the maturational process. If this process occurs consistently it may set, “going a pattern of fragmentation of being,” or, “unintegration,” (Winnicott, 1962, p.60-61). One result of not good enough mothering is the fabrication of the false self opposed to the true self. The good-enough mother, who understands and responds to her infant’s “spontaneous gesture” (non-verbal communication), gives the infant’s weak ego the strength necessary to retain the expression of the true self following the threat of annihilation. Alternately, the not good-enough mother, who cannot understand nor react to such expressions from the infant, subjects the child to her own needs. As a result the infant or child is required to comply with the mother’s needs and not the mother to the child. Winnicott calls this compliance an expression of the false self.
While we are not privy to Alice’s mothering-experience, we do know that all of her interactions with others in Wonderland only serve to further distance her from her own needs and felt distress, forcing her to comply instead with the illogical demands of her sole supportive network: the self-involved and at best ridiculous, at worst cruel, characters, therein. Thus, Alice is in a desperate state, protection of her true self requires the creation of multiple false selves that act as a defense from further feelings of fragmentation and isolation, which may ultimately lead to dis/un-integration:
She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed
it,) and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes;
and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in the game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. “But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!” (p.12-13)
In the preceding monologue, Alice is referring to both her diminished proportions and insecure sense of core self. The madness of Wonderland has stripped her defensive structures and exposed her to the threat of annihilation.
For Alice, Wonderland is a dream, but to children and adults, who repeatedly delight in this story, it represents something else, something much more intimate: our fantasies. Wonderland is the eccentric world we create as children that Winnicott would contend facilitates self-integration and the creation of a secure true self. It is found in the imagination of inner reality—play. In Winnicott’s Playing in Reality (1971), he introduces an idea that has proved to be one of his defining theories—appealing and intuitive to both parents and clinicians. The theory holds that most infants (beginning anytime between four and twelve months) have an object or image that represents for them a transitional object or transitional/potential space (a special blanket, toy, idea, or even a word), creating an intermediate area, the space between the subject and what is objectively perceived. This intermediate area is that which is allowed to the infant between primary creativity and objective perception. This transitory space presupposes reality testing wherein both inner reality and external life contribute to this “third part of the life of a human being,” (Winnicott, 1951, p.230). Winnicott acknowledges that, “infants and children and adults take on external reality in, as clothing for their dreams, and they project themselves into external objects and people and enrich external reality by their imaginative perceptions,” (1989, p.57).
Why is it necessary for us to, experience transitional phenomenon in our development? Readers should not forget that Alice is dreaming and that she makes references to her awake-life, calling on these memories to act as anchors and soothing transitional objects throughout her misadventures in Wonderland. Alice extracts from her waking life, her beloved pet cat, Dinah into her dream world. While, Dinah is not physically present, thoughts of Dinah, and how she might react to the anxiety-provoking scenarios that Alice encounters, act as a useful protective mechanism against her loneliness and anxiety:
“Dinah’ll miss me very much to-night, I should think!” (Dinah was the cat.) “I
hope they’ll remember her saucer of milk at tea-time. Dinah, my dear! I wish you were down here with me!” (p.6)
Winnicott asserted that this unique experience is vitally important to the infant for use as a defense against anxiety, especially anxiety of the depressive type:
Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bed-time or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens. In health, however, there is a gradual extension of range of interest, and eventually the extended range is maintained, even when depressive anxiety is near. A need for a specific object or a behavior pattern that started at a very early age may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens. (1951, p.232)
The transitional object operates as a “neutral zone experience” which remains unchallenged, thus the question of whether it came from within or without is not asked by the child. It is neither strictly a mental concept nor is it a possession: “The transitional object is never under magical control like the internal object, nor is it outside control as the real mother is,” (1971, p.10). It develops into a space “that is intermediate between dream and reality, that which is called cultural life,” (1965, p.150).
Cultural life is the adult equivalent of transitional phenomenon in infancy, wherein communication is not referred to as subjective or objective (Winicott, 1965). The outcome of the child’s relationship to the transitional object is that it loses meaning because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, spread out over the whole transitional territory between inner and external reality. Yet, Winnicott expands this phenomena adding that, “this intermediate area of experience…constitutes the greater part of the infant’s experience and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work,” (1951, p.242). In this space between the objective and subjective, the sense is that there exists a permeable boundary through which information is free to flow in both directions. Wonderland captures this intermediary and highly accessible space. We may join Alice in her “mad” reality, straining with her to understand this fantastic environment, enjoying the magical qualities, while sharing simultaneously her peril. Through our empathy we share in her search for a secure sense of self. We take comfort in the knowledge that these dangers and threats to self are imagined or dreamt and can therefore be safely negotiated, enacting through an imaginary play the process of developing and fortifying the complete “senses” of self.
The story ends with Alice’s older sister, who had been reading to Alice when she fell into her dream. The older sister is now also “half dreaming of Wonderland,” sharing in the adventures revealed to her by her (now reconstituted) younger sibling. Her focus however shifts to thoughts concerning Alice:
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the
after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her
riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would
gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with
many a strange tale, perhaps even the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how
she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find pleasure in all their simple
joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. (p. 192)
Multiple layers of the self and development are contained within this children’s story. Scenarios of self and inter-relatedness are presented through several elements in the narrative: the real Alice dreaming of the difficulties and pleasures associated with securing an integrated sense of self—mirrored in her actual-lived childhood, the imaginary Alice in the dream—fearful of the threats to her core sense of self and struggling in a regressed state where sense of self is lost, the adult (Alice’s sister) observing the child-Alice indulging in her own dream with a kind of removed amusement, empathically connecting to her sister’s experience as something understood, but no longer known, and finally the reader who possesses the magical ability to enjoy all of these layers of experience while also connecting to their own individual fantasies —and they are all are playing in reality…toward an emergent sense of self/a sense of self.
(From an essay written around 1998, while I was in grad school)