Barbara Dockar-Drysdale’s memories of Donald Winnicott

Journal of Child Psychotherapy Vol. 22 No.3 1996: 402 – 403.

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, founder and original therapeutic adviser to the Mulberry Bush School, is now in her eighties, and living in retirement. Her writings make frequent reference to her indebtedness to Winnicott, whom she used to meet monthly over the last seventeen years of his life to discuss their ideas and work. Winnicott wrote of her: ‘Here was someone who knew’.

I first met Winnicott in Paddington Green Hospital. He had invited me to come and be present as he played with a group of children there. I remember particularly Winnicott’s spontaneous, natural enjoyment when participating in the children’s play. His engagement with them is what made it such a valuable experience. Afterwards we met for supper and had a long and wide-ranging talk. (Mrs Dockar-Drysdale had earlier sent him the draft of a paper on the treatment of ‘frozen children’ for his comments.) This was the beginning of our association. There were no agenda for our regular meetings. They were informal. It was not a supervision session. We never really said what it was supposed to be. We just waded in. You could say, we were simply two friends and colleagues with overlapping ideas and interests sharing whatever happened to be concerning us at the time. Sometimes, quite often, we discussed cases where we were both involved, or ones which he had referred on to me for treatment. In addition to my work at the Mulberry Bush I also had a small number of children staying at our house who needed an opportunity for actual regression. Winnicott made use of me as a therapist in this capacity.

Winnicott, of course, had never worked himself in a residential setting, but he was fascinated by it, as well as valuing it. I think he was influenced by ideas we evolved concerning the support systems individual workers need in taking someone through a regression and towards recovery. This influence perhaps shows itself in the importance he came to give in his writings to environmental provision. It is about the father role, supporting, setting boundaries, which is so important in residential therapy. It comes to the fore more obviously than in individual therapy. (My own relationship to my father was a very close one, and had a great influence on the direction of my therapeutic work.)

I would say our association grew up spontaneously, and developed out of the views we shared about integration, disintegration, regression and recovery from regression. For me, it was ideally supportive. There was no question of us imposing views on one another. We respected each other too much and the exactness of the work in which we were involved. There were no ruptures or misunderstandings over the years we met, no ‘black holes’. Winnicott was a very undefended person, as ready to share his doubts, difficulties and anxieties as his discoveries. He was a tremendous inspiration. I mourn him still.