Ronald Fairbairn (1889-1964)

The Times of 24th June, 2019, in reporting proceedings to extradite a retired QC to Scotland, noted that Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, QC, the former Solicitor General for Scotland, is dead (since 19th February, 1995).

Sir Nicholas told Stephen Reicher and Nick Hopkins in an interview for their book Self and Nation (2000):

“Mummy smashes your toys like your steel works and your coal industry and your things and she just tells you to shut up. The fact that she throws you sweeties in the form of vast subsidies which the English don’t get, which mummy doesn’t enjoy, just reinforces the psychological idea that she’s trying to keep you quiet when your resentments are justified….This is what happens when the child breaks away, it has to live in a garret doesn’t it? But the motivation is psychological, the search for separate potency.”.

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn, who was born on this day in 1889 and died on the last day of 1964, was the father of not only Nicky, but of four older children (including twins who died at birth) – and of British object relations theory. Ronald Fairbairn and his wife Mary More-Gordon apparently named their youngest child after St Nicholas, because he was born on Christmas Eve (1933).

According to Nicholas Fairbairn’s autobiography, his father adopted the maternal role after his mother rejected him at birth. Fairbairn describes their relationship – from when he could converse with his father Ronald, for the next twenty years until old age affected his father – like that of twins, his father treating him as “equal and confidant”. Fairbairn credited this relationship as enabling him to “withstand the trauma and rejection I felt…(it) enabled me to feel secure for the rest of my life against any rejection or misfortune…(and) made me profoundly in awe of father figures and left me with a consistent feeling…that I am still a child.”.

In An Introduction to Object Relations (1997), Lavinia Gomez observes that, as was expected of a woman with an upper class background, Mary More-Gordon abandoned her medical training on marriage to Ronald, who was then aged thirty seven. The relationship was deteriorating by the time of Nicky’s formative years.

Ronald Fairbairn regularly worked a ten hour day, breaking briefly for lunch, then wrote until after midnight. Mary became antagonistic towards his work, and fell prey to alcoholism. They reached an uneasy compromise whereby Ronald participated in family holidays, visits, and cultural events. Following Mary’s sudden death in 1952, Ronald had several near fatal bouts of influenza, and developed Parkinson’s disease.

Gomez comments on Fairbairn’s theories:

“In the Freudian view, the absence of otherness means that the baby can only be aware of wanting pleasure; objects, or others, become attached to pleasure secondarily…

In the Object Relations view, the baby’s bliss is simply the absolute fulfilment of her relational needs…

This difference is taken up in the late James Grotstein’s contribution..(1994)..Grotstein suggests that Freudian and Kleinian theory should be taken not as objective fact, but as a retrospective account of how the child or the baby would explain her experience. “There is something creative in me and something destructive”, she might say. “I am moved by forces beyond my control.” “.

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