Marie Battle Singer

Our past:

In 2020, inspired by Black History Month, the ACP tried to discover more of our own history, in terms of finding out about the contribution of black and brown members to the profession. Last year we interviewed Iris Gibb and Sarina Campbell and celebrated the first black child psychotherapist.

We have been intrigued to find out about the fascinating career of Marie Battle Singer, originally from the USA, but who settled in Cambridge and is believed to be the first black ACP member. She trained at the Anna Freud Centre and later worked with Anna Freud. Over this past year we have been trying to find out more about her and have been interested to learn more about her contribution to Child Psychotherapy.

With thanks to Times Higher Education (www.timeshighereducation.com), both for assisting us in locating this piece of Battle Singer's writing, as well as allowing us to share it, we have highlighted a piece of her writing in which she explores the relationship between university students and their tutors. This writing was based on her work with students at Cambridge University. Although this was written some time ago, and the student landscape has, in many ways, changed dramatically, Marie Battle Singer captures phenomena that we recognise today. For example, she discusses the student that has the unconscious determination to fail - to get back at parents and teachers. She also mentions students who have what she terms ‘first or nothing’ phantasies and struggle to appreciate their achievements at university that are felt to be less than perfect. These are indeed conflicts that many young people starting university today are confronted with, and struggle with, which she links with the student’s relationship towards their parents. We hope you enjoy reading this piece.

Read the article here

We have also uncovered Marie Battle Singer’s doctoral research, which was submitted in 1961. It is quite an achievement that she carried out a PhD at this time, as it was not until many years later (approximately late 2000s) that doctoral research was linked with the clinical training in child psychotherapy. To have undertaken a piece of research separately to her clinical work, as she would have done, would have been a big undertaking. Entitled ‘a Study of Children of High Intelligence with Relatively Low School Achievement’ Battle Singer explores the different factors that impacted on boys’ school achievements – which included personality, environmental, psychological and constitutional factors. Interestingly, the boys in this study were selected by the now defunct London County Council due to having a high IQ, but ‘failing’ at school, which seems like a good example of practice-based research! 

Looking back at this study, I wondered whether the same conclusions would have been drawn about the boys today, particularly taking account of our increased awareness of issues such as abuse, childhood trauma and neurodiversity. Nevertheless, in this study, Battle Singer tries to capture the complexity of these boys’ situations by examining parental and teachers’ views as well as the views of the boys themselves, and records of assessments of them.

It is interesting that Battle Singer does not talk about race and ethnicity directly in this study, which perhaps reflects the time that this work was undertaken when it was less possible to think openly about the impact of systemic and institutional racism. However, ‘suspicion of foreigners’ is sensitively picked up on in one of the interviews with one of the parents, who was Greek. One wonders if she was particularly adept at responding to this, perhaps having experienced something of this herself.  

Marie Battle Singer does make reference to ‘cultural factors in learning’ but views this more as ‘ambition’ and parental attitudes, rather than the way in which we may think about culture in relation to learning today. This is quite striking as one of the things she was exploring was the boys’ ambitions and future plans, and we know how culture and race can hugely impact on children’s futures. However, Battle Singer reflects that these were boys who were born during the second world war, and rightly points out the very early trauma that they were likely to have experienced. 

We are delighted to hear that Jane Rhodes – Professor and Head of Department of Black Studies and Lynn Hudson, associate Professor in the Department of History, both at the University of Illinois in Chicago, are in the middle of writing a biography of Battle Singer. They state that Marie Battle Singer, ‘spent a lifetime fleeing from racism, fleeing racial violence; the family experienced racial violence in Mississippi, there was a lynching at the school that her father ran.’ We don’t know what her experiences were as a black American female academic or when she first came to the UK, and how these experiences may have impacted on her work, but we are hoping to find out more. 

It has been really good to have the opportunity to link with her biographers for Black History Month and we are planning to put on a special event with her biographers further exploring Marie Battle Singer’s life and contribution. We will be sharing details very shortly.