A Psychoanalytic Appreciation of Maurice Sendak

Sendak’s words and images personify Freud’s appreciation of a child’s complexity

Before the publication of “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1963, children’s literature was comprised largely of folk tales, fairy tales and near-Victorian tales of good little children whose job was to please their elders – or else. These stories were morality tales meant to teach children the lessons of how to behave in an adult world.

In Sendak’s work, the perspective is turned on its head, asking not how children can be adults but, “What is the inner life and worldview of a child?” In his words and images, Sendak answered that question boldly: the world is a scary and often overwhelming place. In Where the Wild Things Are, he created grotesque images, portraying the internal psychic landscape of children with authenticity and profound insight.

His message brought to children literature key concepts Freud had introduced a century prior: children are complex emotional beings, who experience powerful feelings – fearanger, love, and loss of control.

Freud’s view, as represented by Sendak became the culture’s as a whole. To understand how revolutionary it was, just take a look at the winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1960, three years before the publication of Wild Things – the publisher of Baboushka and the Three Kings describes the book as “about an old woman who was too busy to travel with the Wise Men to find the Child and now searches endlessly for Him each Christmas season.”

Contrast this adult, Christian perspective with Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are. Max employs fantasy – becoming king of “wild things” to cope with his own feelings of helplessness at being sent to his room, and with his anger at his mother. When he tames the Wild Things and becomes their king, Max is mastering his own emotions. At the end of the book, he’s able to feel his mother’s love again, when she leaves him a nice dinner (which is “still hot”).

Sendak’s work clearly speaks to a sophisticated understanding of key psychoanalytic concepts. In fact, the major psychoanalytic minds of the mid-20th century were setting forth many of the same ideas that Sendak conveys in his writing.

Following is a description that applies wholly to Sendak’s Max, published in the academic journal Psycho-Analysis and Consciousness in 1960, just three years before the appearance of Wild Things:

“the [young child] is unable to differentiate between hallucination and perception, or between hallucination and memory, and probably has a minimum of reflective awareness.”

It’s fun to imagine what the writer – Viennese psychoanalyst and physician, Johann Aufreiter – might have thought about Sendak’s Max, who personified so precisely Aufreiter’s description.

Sendak also reflects the psychoanalytic value of dreams and fantasies as a compass for the human psyche, which directs us to buried truths, as seen in both “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.”

In images and words, Sendak expresses the complexity and ambivalence of human emotions. His work is a creative way to help children process their feelings – and to introduce kids to first-rate literature at a level they can appreciate and understand. It stands as an eternal testament to the power of the unconscious mind in both children and adults used to its most creative and humanizing ends.

As both a parent and as a psychoanalyst, I mourn the death of Maurice Sendak.

This was originally published on Psychology Today.