Anne-Marie Sandler obituary

The analyst Anne-Marie Sandler, who has died aged 92, was the clinician’s clinician. Technically adept and unafraid of the difficult states of mind and feelings psychoanalysis can uncover, she influenced several generations of practitioners, returning them to the interest in minds, hearts and longings that had led them to train in the first place.

Her passion was how people worked. Her curiosity, her genuine interest in the other person, the excitement of seeing an individual come to life after suffering, was infectious. It helped move many a trainee and experienced analyst away from the reductionism, constraining theory and cold analysis that had gripped some training institutes.

Having studied first with Jean Piaget, who selected her for postgraduate work in Switzerland in the 1940s, she delighted in talking of the mind of the child. Her close association with Anna Freud, with whom she studied in London in the 1950s, deepened this interest. One outcome of her early work with Freud, at the Hampstead Clinic, was Beyond Eight-Month Anxiety (International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1977). Anne-Marie noticed that mothers of blind children were distressed because the children did not turn their heads towards them when they spoke, but she realised that the children’s energies were focused on hearing. This was an important and reassuring finding for the mothers.

Anne-Marie saw the effort towards health and connection in the most hurt and damaged of children, and the ways in which their difficult behaviours could help her make sense of them. She saw herself as a partner in their treatment: not the one who knew, but the one who could come to help them with their help. In this she presaged the theoretical preoccupation of the modern psychoanalytic movement with co-construction and mutual influence within psychoanalysis. For her, there were always two people with their hopes and unconscious processes working in the analysis; two people being affected by one another.

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She was to bring these qualities to her work with adults. As her analysand in the 1970s and early 80s, I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have experienced her empathy and intelligence in such an intimate setting.

Beyond her considerable clinical innovations, which she sometimes published jointly with her husband, the theorist, researcher and psychoanalyst Joseph Sandler, whom she married in 1957, were a set of political sensibilities that inclined her to address the horrors that had befallen victims of the Nazis before and during the second world war.

Raised first as a speaker of German and then banned from speaking it by her parents as the threat of annexation was felt in Geneva, where she was brought up in the 1930s, she hid her love of German literature and language and almost forgot that she knew it. She would speak it weekly with her grandparents at tea before a shutter came down on this, her first language, in favour of French.

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When in the late 1970s a rapprochement was being made with the East and West German psychoanalytic societies – following the controversy associated with the discipline under the Nazis – she was reluctant to engage.

But engage she did, becoming, particularly after Joe’s death in 1998, an ambassador, a teacher, a friend, a beacon for the revival of analysis in Germany. She led a process we might now call truth and reconciliation, listening, teaching, lecturing and supervising Germans as they were processing their personal histories, the histories of the Third Reich, their postwar settlement and the impact of Die Generation Danach (the next generation). She was instrumental in rebuilding psychoanalytic thinking in a culture that had dismantled complexity and compassion, and where the need to grapple with cruelties that lived inside the individual was absolutely crucial.

In making this new relationship with Germany, Anne-Marie was able to solve the puzzle of her own Franco-German split and enjoy free of guilt the love of the language, literature and music of her first spoken words.

The daughter of Hildegard (nee Oberdorf) and Otto Weil, she was born in Geneva, into a bourgeois family – her father had started as an elevator boy and became general manager of the Grand Passage department store. Anne-Marie and her brother, Gérard, who died in Palestine in 1948, were raised with the manners and graces of the interwar middle class. Inside her very correct social posture – which mirrored her physical posture until very recently – was a woman of great depth and generosity, and this extended to everyone.

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Anne-Marie moved to London in her 20s and trained as a child analyst at the Hampstead Clinic and then in the 1960s as a psychoanalyst at the British Psychoanalytical Society; between 1990 and 1993 she was the society’s president.

In the early 1990s I attended a course on the atypical child by Anne-Marie and Anne Alvarez at the Anna Freud Centre, of which Anne-Marie was director from 1993 until 1996. The course attracted practitioners from all backgrounds and I cannot emphasise enough how exceptional it was for analysts to be engaging with would-be music therapists and teachers of a few months’ training. I was so touched and astounded – given the habitual snobbishness of psychoanalysis at the time – by the care Anne-Marie took to understand the work of others and their contributions. She made beginners feel that they, too, had a contribution to make.

If all this makes her sound rather worthy, which she was in trumps, it would be a mistake to miss out on her playfulness and her twinkle.

She is survived by her children, Trudy, Catherine and Paul, seven grandchildren, Patrick, Sarah, Rachel, Daniel, Zoe, Ben and Miriam, and three great-grandchildren, Milo, Rudi and Lauren.

Anne-Marie Sandler, psychoanalyst, born 15 December 1925; died 25 July 2018

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