Selma Fraiberg, social worker and psychoanalyst, would have been 100 on March 8. I still give her book, The Magic Years, to new parents as it remains, even after nearly 60 years, a rich and thoughtful exploration of the inner lives of infants and young children. Based in a deep understanding of child development rooted in psychoanalytic theory, Fraiberg, always empathic with the experience of parents, uncovers the meaning of early childhood behavior and offers parents a framework for civilizing their children in healthy and nourishing ways.
Fraiberg is also remembered for her seminal article, “Ghosts in the Nursery,” which has been cited in scholarly articles over 2000 times. The article chronicles the work of social workers and psychotherapists doing home visits with at-risk mothers and infants. Fraiberg, along with her co-writers Edna Adelson and Vivian Shapiro, reveal how unprocessed trauma from the lives of parents show up as ghosts when these parents have babies of their own. They demonstrate how working through the parents’ histories of trauma allows them to be present for their own children in ways not possible when they were still struggling with their own demons. Vignettes from their work, narrative case studies, illustrate the means by which trauma is passed down from parent to child–intergenerational transmission of trauma.
Using psychoanalytic understanding, Fraiberg, Adelson, and Shapiro theorize about the conditions in which ghosts from the past take up residency in the nursery:
There are many parents who have themselves lived tormented childhoods who do not inflict their pain upon their children. In remembering, they are saved from the blind repetition of the morbid past. Through remembering they identify with the injured child (the childhood self), while the parent who does not remember may find himself in an unconscious alliance and identification with the fearsome figures of that past. In this way, the parental past is inflicted upon the child.
Her obituary in the New York Times compares her to the renowned Anna Freud:
Her work is said to have paralleled that of Anna Freud, a pioneer in child psychoanalysis. Both were keenly interested in young blind people. For 15 years Professor Fraiberg studied the development of children who were blind from birth, and this led to her writing ”Insights From the Blind: Comparative Studies of Blind and Sighted Infants,” published in 1977.