chapter  2
15 Pages

An outline of John Bowlby’s pilgrimage

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London on 26 February 1907, only six years after the death of Queen Victoria. He was brought up in an upper-middleclass family where Victorian tradition was the norm. His father, Sir Anthony Alfred Bowlby, had worked his way through the ranks to become a Major General in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He developed into a renowned Royal Physician and military surgeon. During the First World War, Sir Anthony was distinguished for his bravery treating wounded soldiers at the Front. However, on his return home, he was a changed person in the eyes of his family and did not work again as a surgeon. It seems likely that he might have suffered from post-traumatic stress. As a child, Sir Anthony had to endure a major traumatic experience. He was

only five when his father (a journalist who covered the British-Chinese Opium War) was captured and tortured to death. As a young man, he decided to delay his marriage in order take care of his widowed mother until her death. A caring son and doctor, he was portrayed as a remote, intimidating, hard-working and formidable person. Despite being admired by his six children (three girls and three boys) he was often inaccessible to them. It would appear he could not express affection for them openly, nor could they for him. Bowlby, the fourth child and second boy, loved and was loved by his mother,

Lady Mary Bridget Mostyn Bowlby (known as Lady May). She was the eldest daughter of a gentle and easy-going clergyman who, despite his grand origins, was happy to live in a small English village during his entire working life. Like her husband, she was rarely able to openly communicate affection to her children, but was more accessible to them than he was. Suzan Van Dijken (1998, p. 25) refers to an interview in which, at the age of 80,

Bowlby described his mother as a very stable, capable and sensible (rather than sensitive) person. Like many parents of her generation and class, she held the view

that it was dangerous to respond promptly to the children’s bids for attention and affection, as this would spoil them. The children’s main daily contact with their mother took place when Minnie,

the nursemaid, brought them to the family’s drawing room for one hour between tea and bedtime. Bowlby developed a close attachment to Minnie, whom he described as his primary care-giver. Her departure, before his fourth birthday, was a major loss for him. He later wrote: “for a child to be looked after by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother” (Bowlby, 1958b, p. 7). After Minnie left, the main responsibility for his care and education was trans-

ferred to Nanny Friend. She was a disciplinarian and, at times, sarcastic person; which Bowlby resented, particularly as he was trying to come to terms with his loss. However, she was a good story-teller who introduced Charles Dickens’ novels to him, including Oliver Twist. This masterpiece is particularly sharp in exposing the misery of London’s orphans during the Dickensian era. The poignant and sordid way these children were led into criminality may have had some influence on Bowlby’s later interest in child welfare. Interestingly, one of his first publications was Forty-four Juvenile Thieves: Their

Characters and Home Life (Bowlby, 1944). Within the family context, he was emotionally close to his maternal grandfather, who taught him swimming, fishing, riding and shooting during the long summer holidays in Skye. It was at this time when the mother freed herself, to some extent, from the constraints of the rigid family routines in London. Van Dijken (1998) reports that she tried to pass on her love for nature to her children, through long walks with them. She taught them how to identify flowers, birds, trees and butterflies. Bowlby and his older brother Tony appeared to be the mother’s favourite children.

They were close in age (only 13 months apart) and character. In many ways they were treated as twins: put in the same clothes and in the same class at school. They developed a strong sibling rivalry, although they became good friends. Bowlby had to stretch himself to overtake his brother, who was similarly keen to keep his seniority. At the age of 15, Bowlby physically fought and defeated Tony for the first time. That happened when he discovered that Tony had spoiled a picture that Jim (their younger brother with learning difficulties) had made out of dried flowers (Holmes, 1993). Bowlby had always been very protective of his brother Jim. This combination of

fierce competitiveness, on the one hand, and his concern for children with special needs and the disadvantaged, on the other, became prominent features to his personality. He was a caring and compassionate person throughout his life. In 1961, he set up a Benevolent Fund Committee at the British Psychoanalytical Society to help members who, through illness or ageing, had gotten into financial or other difficulties.

Bowlby was only seven when the First World War erupted. His father, Sir Anthony, was immediately sent off to the Front. Bowlby and his brother Tony

were later dispatched to boarding school because of the danger of air raids on London, they were told. He retrospectively maintained that “this was just an excuse, being merely the traditional step in the time-honoured barbarism required to produce English gentlemen” (Holmes, 1993, p. 17). The English preparatory school system took its toll and he became the recipient of corporal punishment. During a geography lesson one of his teachers beat him up for making a simple mistake – describing a cape as a cloak rather than a promontory. Bowlby naturally disliked this treatment, which contributed to an overall feeling

of unhappiness when he looked back to his school days. It is quite significant that he started Separation: Anxiety and Anger, the second volume of his trilogy on attachment, with a quote from Graham Green: “Unhappiness in a child accumulates because he sees no end to the dark tunnel. The thirteen weeks of a term might just as well be thirteen years” (Bowlby, 1973, p. 21). I can imagine that he missed the daily contact with his mother, siblings, nanny

and nursemaids a great deal. Van Dijken (1998, p. 27) refers to a personal reflection of the adult Bowlby who said that he had been sufficiently hurt but not sufficiently damaged, as a result of his childhood experiences. He had in fact survived his childhood adversities to become a sufficiently resilient and self-assured adolescent. The young Bowlby soon developed an interest in deep waters. At the age of 14,

he was sent to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in 1921, where he excelled at sports and became top of his academic group. His father saw it as best for him to become a sailor in the Navy. In spite of his outstanding record at the Naval College and a prestigious posting to HMS Royal Oak, a ship of the Atlantic Fleet, in May 1924, he found life in the armed services dull and useless. He also suffered badly from seasickness. However, while in the Navy, he learned organisational skills and discipline – which lasted a lifetime (Holmes, 1993, p. 17). On 19 July 1924, Bowlby wrote to his mother to let her know that he wanted

to look for a more satisfactory job which “would improve the community as a whole” (quoted in Van Dijken, 1998, p. 46). That was a manifestation of his youthful idealism at the age of 17. With the help of a friend, who was on the same ship, he persuaded his father to buy him out for a total of £440. There was a rule that if cadets left before they were 21, their parents had to pay the Admiralty £40 for each term that their son had passed at Dartmouth (Bush, 1935). After leaving HMS Royal Oak, Bowlby spent a year at University College

London learning Latin and other subjects necessary for admission to Cambridge, the second largest University in the UK. In 1925, he joined Trinity College as an 18-year-old student of pre-clinical medicine – something that his father had considered as the second best option after the Navy. He excelled at Cambridge, where he won several prizes and obtained a first class degree in psychology (a subject that his father disliked) and pre-clinical sciences, in 1928. Bowlby was particularly interested in developmental psychology. He also did a

considerable amount of work in evolutionary biology. He was just 22 when his father died in April 1929; but, according to Parkes (1995), it would appear that he found the loss ‘un-traumatic’ – on the surface, at least. In some way, the end of his

father’s life was the beginning of a new stage in Bowlby’s life. He gradually felt freer to pursue his own rather than his father’s interests. He soon gained a reputation of being an independently minded person, with a powerful and contagious inner calm. Before his father’s death Bowlby had chosen an unconventional path and went

to work for a year at a couple of progressive schools rather than going straight on to clinical medicine. He wanted to learn more about child development. One of the schools, Priory Gate, was for maladjusted children – as they were then called. It made a strong impression on him. Bowlby had powerful encounters with these unhappy and disturbed children,

with whom he was able to communicate well. He was particularly struck by two of the youngsters. An eight-year-old boy was desperate to make a direct close contact with him and followed him as his shadow. In contrast to that, a fifteen-year-old adolescent was very emotionally shut-up (see Chapter 5). The climate in the institution was one of seeing the children’s emotional and

behavioural problems in the light of their difficult background. At the school, Bowlby also met a senior colleague, John Alford, who advised him to train as a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He followed this advice and came to London in the autumn of 1929 to study clinical medicine at University College Hospital. Concurrently, he went into personal analysis with Joan Riviere, a committed follower of Melanie Klein.