The Magic Years


Joel Kanter, MSW, LCSW– C


This article is re-printed here with the kind permission of the author. It appeared first in the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work’s  Spring, 2017, Newsletter at

Joel Kanter who is based at Silver Spring Maryland USA can be contacted about this article by email. His address is

This is first of two articles about Selma Fraiberg  available to be read in the goodenoughcaring Journal.


Selma Fraiberg was a social worker, a psychoanalyst, an author and a pioneer in the field of infant health. She devoted her career to understanding the developmental needs of children, to creating programs that promote infant mental health, and to reaching parents and policymakers through her clear, persuasive prose. In her brief 63 years, she accomplished enough to fill three careers.

With the approaching centenary of her birth in 1918 I will share some pieces of my ongoing research of my ongoing research into her life and career in a series of articles. Here in Part 1, I offer some insights into her early life and career.

As one of the first social workers to complete psychoanalytic training, Fraiberg wrote The Magic Years (1959), a luminous account of the child’s mind that is a classic in its genre. Her early work with blind infants and their mothers produced techniques to promote attachment in the absence of visual cues. Fraiberg’s close observation of infant-mother interactions deepened our understanding of the attachment and led to the development of the new intervention strategies for babies at risk for neglect, abuse, or “failure to thrive.” During the last phase of her career, Fraiberg started the Child Development Project at the University of Michigan, which served impaired mother-infant dyads, trained clinicians, and developed a treatment model that has been widely replicated; her co-authored paper “Ghosts in the Nursery”(1975) has become a classic in social work and infant mental health, cited nearly two thousand times.

Selma Fraiberg (nee Horwitz) was born in Detroit on March 8, 1918, the eldest of three children. Her father, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, took over the family poultry business; her mother’s family were Hungarian Jews who had come to the United States in the nineteenth century. Fraiberg had an especially close relationship with her maternal grandmother, Jennie Jacobs, a strong-minded former suffragist. Fraiberg received a BA and an MSW from Wayne State University in Detroit, where she met Louis, a teaching assistant whom she married in 1945, as she completed her graduate degree.

Her social work education at Wayne State was dramatically impacted by events in Europe, since three talented analysts from Vienna found their way to Detroit: Fritz Redl, Editha Sterba, and Richard Sterba. Redl, a psychologist and educator, was analysed by Richard Sterba, taught by Anna Freud and mentored by August Aichorn. He arrived in the US on a fellowship in 1936 and remained as war clouds gathered. Richard Sterba, a psychiatrist, was a member of the first graduating class of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, and his wife, Edith Sterba, was a lay child analyst who collaborated with Anna Freud in establishing Vienna’s first psychoanalytic clinics for children. After the Nazi regime asked Richard Sterba, as one of the only non-Jews in Vienna’s analytic community, to assume leadership of the Vienna Institute, he and his wife decided to flee Austria and eventually settled in Detroit in 1939. In an autobiographical letter, Fraiberg wrote, ”[I had the] good fortune of studying under Fritz Redl and Richard and Edith Sterba both during the time I was a student (at Wayne State) and during the first post-graduate years. It is to these three analysts that I owe my own interest in psychoanalysis. Like many young people of this generation, I was familiar with the writings of Freud and very much influenced by psychoanalytic ideas, but I would never have become a child analyst if the war had not brought these three teachers from Vienna to Detroit.”

Besides the didactic  education she received from all three while she studied at Wayne State, Fraiberg spent several summers working at University of Michigan’s Fresh Air Camp, which, under Redl’s leadership, served disadvantaged youth from the Detroit area as part of the Detroit Group Project. This was a formative experience for Fraiberg, exposing her to children from diverse backgrounds.

At the Fresh Air Camp, circa 1944: Selma Freiberg (standing, right). behind the seated Fritz Redl slightly to her left.


Fraiberg described some of their work at the Detroit Group Project in her master’s thesis and first published article, “The Spontaneous Drama as a Technic in  Group Therapy”(1945). She was 27 years old when this was published, and it appeared under her given name, Selma Horwitz. The paper describes play groups of children who were given the task of developing a brief drama that explored their personal conflicts. She described an event with one group of six children, ages eight to eleven, in which she introduced them to five puppets representing an array of family members. Fraiberg begins as the”mother” and passes out puppets to the other children.

After some casual interaction, they develop a drama about the death of the “wicked father.” This begins after Fraiberg tells the group members, “we can do anything we want to do.” The children are excited about beginning this exercise, and Fraiberg gives the “mother” puppet to a girl in the group.  

Soon, one of the boys,” Jim,” sees a nude statuette elsewhere in the room and brings it to the table. He asks another boy for the ”father” puppet:

Jim makes the father puppet climb up the nude statue. The movements of the puppet are provocative. The puppet lingers seductively at the statue’s breasts. There is a laughter from the children and Sammy’s rings out above all the rest. Then when the father gets to the top of the statue, he falls down and gets killed! (Shrieks of delight from the children).

Then Sammy suggests, “it’s time for a funeral!” and Fraiberg describes “sounds of weeping, wailing and laughter” from the children. The funeral continues, the “father” becomes a ghost, and the drama soon comes to an end. Fraiberg explicates the group’s interaction:

It is apparent that each of the three children who participate actively in the murder and funeral of the father is a child whose history reveals trauma in relation to the father.

Jim has observed his father and his mother’s many lovers in coitus with his mother. He is himself engaged in a lover-like relation with his mother. In the drama, Jim, at the crucial moment, trades his little boy puppet for Sammy’s father puppet, causes the father to climb and embrace the nude statuette, then with the wild approval of the older children throws the father into the ocean. Here clearly he re-enacts a scene or parental intercourse and ends with the child’s wishful destruction of the father for the sake of his own possession of the mother.’

Yet, Fraiberg does not congratulate herself on what might appear to be an effective therapeutic intervention. She discusses the impact of the session and the group on each of the six participants:

In this analysis we see clearly that acting out and release of emotion I’m not in themselves integrating, and do not by themselves constitute therapy. The failure of the leader to handle the material that was communicated to her resulted in damage for one child and little or no benefit for the others. The changes in in-group  behavior are of little significance when we consider that there were no effects beyond the group.

The article continues with a description of a second group in which Fraiberg was more attentive to the group members’ defenses. She concludes with a measured evaluation of such therapeutic interventions:

A comparison of the two illustrative dramas reveals in each case deep the far reaching effects of the drama for the children involved, but shows as clearly the failure and success of the technic…Nonhandling and passivity on the part of the therapist in the drama of the death of the wicked father created dangers and actual damage in the cases of certain children, with only small effects in the cases of others… the therapist in the group….. must see the production of fantasy material in terms of the content and transference implications, and must utilise his professional understanding of all he sees for the guidance of the child in his care.

At age twenty-seven Fraiberg’s sensitivity to the clinical process and her professional integrity were already quite remarkable. Even among mature clinicians, it is rare that authors publish materials that so highlight the shortcomings of their clinical interventions. More than sixty years later, in this text on drama therapy, Phil Jones(2007), apparently unaware of the author’s future accomplishments, summarises Selma Horwitz’s 1945 article and notes “laudable clarity about the aims, purpose, the therapeutic value of drama and her role within the dramatic therapy”(50). Fraiberg’s were evident even in her first professional years.



Fraiberg, Selma, Adelson, Edna and Shapiro. Vivian 1975 “Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships.”  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 14 (3): 387-73

Horwitz, Selma. 1945. “The Spontaneous Drama as a Technic in Group Therapy” Nervous Child 4 (3): 252-73

Jones, Phil.2007. Drama as Therapy, vol.1, Theory, Practice and Research, 2nd ed.(New York : Rutledge).


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