Elizabeth Spillius

A training analyst and Distinguished Fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society, Elizabeth Spillius (1924-2016) was one of the world’s foremost Klein scholars. She is remembered for her clinical work, her teaching in the UK and abroad, her work in the Klein archive, and for the wealth of books and papers she produced over many years.

Early career

Born in Canada, Spillius first read Psychology at the University of Toronto, then went on to study Anthropology in Chicago, at the LSE and at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. She carried out important fieldwork in the Kingdom of Tonga in the south-west Pacific. Her anthropological works include Family and Social Network (1), and anthropology as a discipline deeply affected her approach to psychoanalysis, as she described in Chapter 1 of Encounters with Melanie Klein – a collection of her papers edited by Priscilla Roth and Richard Rusbridger (2007). In their preface, the editors point out how Spillius’ background fitted her admirably for the dual role of participant and observer that is needed in psychoanalytic work. They also comment that, in the future, the way psychoanalysts think about the development of post-Kleinian thought, ‘will be profoundly affected by Spillius’s description, understanding and organisation of these ideas’.

Presenting and developing Kleinian ideas

As an established scholar Spillius was drawn, in her new profession of psychoanalysis, towards research and explication alongside her clinical practice. In 1988 she edited a pair of volumes, Melanie Klein Today, of which Volume 1 is subtitled ‘Mainly theory’, and Volume 2 ‘Mainly practice’. These books proved a landmark and have been invaluable in introducing many new readers to the ideas of Melanie Klein and those of her contemporaries and successors. Here as elsewhere, Spillius showed her talent in making complex ideas accessible without simplifying them, and in showing how work in the Kleinian tradition has developed and continues to develop. She was perennially interested in presenting and clarifying the work of her psychoanalytic antecedents and colleagues, and to describe it in the context of the overall development of Kleinian ideas. Her own contributions to theory, whether they are new ways of seeing old phenomena, or new ideas in themselves, are always presented in a modest and matter-of-fact way, and in the context of the work of others. Some notable papers by Spillius include those on envy (2, 3) unconscious phantasy (4, 5) and the evolution of Kleinian theory and technique (6, 7 and 8).

In 2011, Spillius published with colleagues two further important books. First she was the lead author of The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, a wide-ranging revision and update of Bob Hinshelwood’s seminal Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (9). Following this, Spillius and Edna O’Shaughnessy published Projective Identification: The Fate of a Concept, which explores the inception, development and different uses worldwide, of this central Kleinian concept.

Spillius was always interested in the evolution and fate of ideas, and retained her anthropological ability to reflect on Kleinian ideas and their development, rather than falling into the ever-present danger of becoming tribally wedded to them. She wrote about the evolution of Kleinian technique, and about variations in the way her colleagues past and present formulated their ideas and used them clinically. Her sympathetic and scientific observing stance was always fresh and avoided superego-ish-ness. This was particularly important when working in a field where, as we know very well from Klein’s own work on the primitive mind, the superego can all too easily become vicious and omniscient.

Jane Milton, 2012 (revised 2016)

“The first was her study of families in East End London, which was rare in those days among anthropologists, although sociologists had begun to make studies of domestic organisation and kinship in Britain. What was particularly significant about her study was the way she related the nature of relations between husband and wife to the type of connections each of them had to relatives and friends outside the domestic group. It was an innovation to stop seeing the members of the ‘family’ as a bounded group and consider its connection with the outside world. I note that her work is still used in teaching the sociology of kinship, though anthropology may have negleced it as a result of a long period of seeing anthropology as a study dominated by the ethnographic recording of the rest of the world.

“The second contribution was perhaps more difficult for anthropologists to accept though Professor Edmund Leach remarked with some surprise that he came to much the same conclusions as Spillius did, though rejecting her method. Their debate centred on the interpretation of the Kava ritual of Tonga. Liz used psychoanalytic theory to understand the symbolism of the ceremony in a manner that the Tongans themselves were not conscious of, using mostly Freud’s work. To her, this showed the underlying hostilities and competitiveness of participants in a ritual that was overtly seen by participants as representing and promoting community both its structure and its spirit. Most anthropologists, both then and now, would reject a method that they would consider ethnocentric in its too-ready identification of cannibalism, incest and murder as underlying the feelings of the participants in kava rites. Or, like myself they would want to know what evidence is being used to show that there were underlying currents of antagonism that required this sort of interpretation. Leach’s use of Levi-Straussian structuralism as well as the functionalism of anthropology comes to a conclusion that he feels is close to hers. For me – and others like me – both are too biased in favour of ideas and feelings and do nothing to interpret behaviour. But the most interesting aspect of the contribution is the parallel between Levi-Straussian structuralism and psychoanalytic interpretation. I know of little else that tries to show this.”

Tribute by Jean La Fontaine, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics where Elizabeth Spillius also taught, describing Spillius’ two main contributions to anthropology

Key publications

1988 Spillius, E. (ed.) Melanie Klein Today Vol.1: ‘Mainly theory’ and Vol. 2: ‘Mainly practice’. Routledge.

2007 Spillius, E. and Roth, P and Rusbridger, R. (eds.) Encounters with Melanie Klein, Selected Papers of Elizabeth Spillius. Routledge.

2011 Spillius, E. et al The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. Routledge.

2011 Spillius, E. and O’Shaughnessy, E. Projective Identification: The Fate of a Concept. Routledge.

2015 Spillius, E. Journeys in Psychoanalysis: The Selected Works of Elizabeth Spillius. Routledge.


1) Spillius, E. 1957. Family and Social Network. Taylor and Francis Ltd.

2) Spillius, E. 1993. ‘Varieties of envious experience’International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 74: 1199-1212.

3) Spillius, E. 2007. ‘Varieties of envious experience’, P. Roth and R. Rusbridger (eds.) Encounters with Melanie Klein. Routledge.

4) Spillius, E. 2001. ‘Freud and Klein on the concept of phantasy’International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 82: 361-373.

5) Spillius, E. 2007. ‘Freud and Klein on the concept of phantasy’, P. Roth and R. Rusbridger (eds.) Encounters with Melanie Klein. Routledge.

6) Spillius, E. 1983. ‘Some developments from the work of Melanie Klein’International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 64: 321-332.

7) Spillius, E. 1994. ‘Developments in Kleinian thought: overview and personal view’Psychoanalytic Quarterly. 14: 324-364.

8) Spillius, E. 2007. ‘Developments in Kleinian technique’, P. Roth and R. Rusbridger (eds.) Encounters with Melanie Klein. Routledge.

9) Hinshelwood, R. 1991. A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought. Free Association Press.