Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

‘Hungry for love and understanding’:

Review of A Dangerous Daughter

by Dina Davis, Sydney, Cilento Publishing, 2021,
274 pp, $22.09 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-6451758-1-3

Bernadette Rosbrook

A Dangerous Daughter (2021) is Dina Davis’ semi-autobiographical account of a young teenager’s struggle with anorexia nervosa in suburban middle-class Australia in the 1950s, and of the psychoanalytic treatment that she credits with saving her life. At that time, anorexia nervosa was a little-known condition and Ivy Morgenstern is considered difficult, rebellious and attention-seeking. Following admission to an adult psychiatric clinic close to her home in Sydney for repeated bouts of shock therapy, she is sent to Perth to live with relatives she barely knows. Exiled from her family, Ivy deteriorates further and is eventually referred to a young female psychoanalyst, Dr Elisabeth De Berg. Ivy’s psychoanalytic treatment is described in Part Two of the book entitled “Eros and Thanatos: 1955 to 1957” (Davis, 2021, p. 69) and while something comes to life in Ivy when she begins her work with Dr De Berg, her recovery is long and complex.

The fictional Dr Elisabeth de Berg based on Dina Davis’ own psychoanalyst, Dr Ivy Bennett. In a note at the end of the book, Davis explains that she named her protagonist “Ivy” to acknowledge her deep gratitude to Dr Bennet and to psychoanalysis (p. 259). Dr Ivy Bennett was born in rural Western Australia in 1919 and travelled to London on a scholarship in in the 1940s, where she studied at The University of London and the Anna Freud Clinic, completed a Doctorate, and eventually trained as a lay analyst with the British Institute of Psychoanalysis (Vickers, 2011). Dr Bennett worked closely with the Anna Freudians and specialized in working with children. She returned home to Western Australia in 1953 and set up her practice near King’s Park in central Perth. Dr Benett left Australia again in 1958, to pursue full membership of the International Psychoanalytic Society. Her departure can in part by ascribed to her disappointment at the prejudice she encountered as a lay, female analyst in Australia (Vickers, 2011).

In A Dangerous Daughter, it is to the house in King’s Park that the 14-year-old Ivy Morgenstern arrives, alone, for her first meeting with Dr de Berg. Seriously ill and very frail, Ivy doesn’t know what a psychoanalyst is but based on her previous experience with doctors she is fearing the worst. What awaits her is something quite unexpected:

Opening the door is the doctor herself: tall, stately, her dark blonde hair swept up from her face. She silently ushers Ivy inside. In the hallway the air changes immediately. It is cool, with a faint smell of old books, and something else sweet and spicy. Ivy follows the doctor into the consulting room. It is nothing like Uncle Sid’s surgery. Dimly lit, it has elegant furniture: a couch covered in a rich brocade against one wall, and a high-backed armchair positioned behind it. Mahogany bookshelves crammed with many volumes stand against the opposite wall. In this inner sanctum, all is as quiet and holy as a church or a synagogue.

‘Welcome, Miss Morgenstern,’ says the tall blonde woman, smiling. (Davis, 2021, pp. 90-91)

When Dr de Berg invites her to lie on the couch, Ivy braces herself for “a needle in her arm or worse, a metal clamp to her head” (Davis, 2021, p. 91). Instead, what she experiences in the psychoanalyst’s consulting room is sanctuary. Dr de Berg talks to her seriously and kindly. She invites Ivy to say whatever comes into her mind. She explains that she will listen, and that together they will “observe” her thoughts, “try to understand” what’s troubling her, and “confront the cause” of her suffering (p. 92). In response, Ivy “feels tears gathering, amazed that instead of blame, there is an acknowledgement of her pain” (p. 92). Dr de Berg tells Ivy about the importance of the unconscious as described by Freud. She notices Ivy’s interest and curiosity, and at the end of the first session, presents Ivy with a copy of Freud’s small book An Outline of Psychoanalysis. As Ivy leaves, “she feels she’s been banished from Paradise” (p. 98).

Davis’ depiction of Ivy’s first meeting with Dr de Berg took me back to some of the books I loved as a child: Enid Blyton’s boarding school series – St Clare’s and Malory Towers, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The genre was children’s fiction, but as an adult I can more fully appreciate the extent to which these authors knew something about the longing of troubled, motherless young girls for a personal experience with an interested, serious, mature female mind. In these books, encounters with teachers who offered counsel, kindness, and genuine but measured praise were often life changing. In the first section of A Dangerous Daughter we learn that Ivy, who excels at schoolwork and especially at German, adores her German teacher Miss Trent. She comes “back to life” in Miss Trent’s class, and feels “hopeful, whole, as if she’s found something she lost long ago” (Davis, 2021, p. 46). But, unlike the characters in my much-loved childhood books, Ivy cannot be transformed by the attentiveness of a kind and sensitive teacher; something more is needed. Whatever this is, I believe that Ivy senses it is on offer from Dr de Berg.

Ivy immediately feels at home in psychoanalysis. She quickly comes to love Dr de Berg (whom she secretly and fondly calls “Dr B”), to look forward to her sessions, and to feel helped by their work together. She comes to understand that “the Voice”, the menacing internal persecutor who controls her and won’t allow her to eat, is a part of herself emanating from her unconscious mind. Ivy revels in a new kind of self-awareness, and in the experience of care and understanding offered by Dr B. But still, she is unable to eat. She continues to deteriorate to the point of near-death. She eventually becomes too ill to attend her sessions.

In my reading of the book, Ivy only begins to improve after her family find a way to offer her understanding and care. When Ivy is eventually diagnosed with the little-known medical condition anorexia nervosa, her family finally have a medical account of her illness that is acceptable to them. Ivy is no longer seen as recalcitrant and attention-seeking, and they can allow themselves to treat her with compassion and tenderness. While it seems clear that Ivy would have died without this shift in her family’s response to her, it is also clear that she would have died without Dr de Berg – the only person really interested in finding out what Ivy suffered, why she suffered and how she suffered.

To understand something about Ivy’s suffering, we must return to the beginning of the story. In the first part of the book, we are introduced to the world of an immigrant Jewish family living in a seaside community in New South Wales. Ivy’s family and her community are considered different and other, and there is a strong feeling amongst Ivy’s parents and their friends that it is not safe to be Jewish, even in ‘peaceful’ post-war Australia. But for Ivy, neither is there sufficient safety in her community or in her family. A failure-to-thrive baby who became an underweight child, Ivy was always revolted by food and unable to eat. The horrific images of the victims of the concentration camps and then the sudden accidental death of her new friend Irina (a child survivor of the Holocaust, recently arrived in Australia) lead to the emergence of the dictatorial Voice that prevents Ivy from eating.

From the beginning of the book, it is clear that Ivy is attuned to the pain of her parents. Ivy recognizes that her father, who had wanted to be an artist but was forced by poverty to leave school early, is dissatisfied in his successful small business and restless in his domesticity. His sexuality is a discordant note throughout the book. Ivy notices him noticing other women. She knows that “women fall in love with him all the time” and that this is something that her mother has had to learn to treat “like a joke” (Davis, 2021, p. 125). He adores Ivy, and this is mutual; but their continued closeness and affection through her childhood and into her adolescence becomes a kind of agony to him. There is something troubling and unnamed between them. Ivy is angry and offended when Dr de Berg asks her directly if her father has ever abused her, and she vehemently denies it; but she notices that talking about this disturbing aspect of her family life, letting it “out of her head and into the hallowed air around Dr B” (p. 125) brings relief.

The pain that Ivy sees in her mother is even harder for her to manage. “A woman of worth is beyond rubies”: this scriptural quotation, emblazoned on synagogue windows, is a recurring motif throughout the book. In the opening pages, Davis explains its significance – a significance that the eight-year-old Ivy well understands:

Right from infancy the Jewish child is told ‘Eat!’ for nothing would make a mother happier than to see the child of her belly grow strong and fat, a testament to her maternal success. A mother’s worth is measured in the bounty of her table, the increasing girth of her husband, and the rosy cheeks of her plump children. (Davis, 2021, p. 5)

As a desperately ill, severely under-weight teenager, Ivy attends the synagogue in Perth and encounters the “woman of worth” quote again, inscribed in red and gold, in Hebrew and in English, on the stained-glass window:

There they are again, the words she remembers from home, words which always anger her. She supposes ‘a woman of worth’ is one who cooks and cleans and has people over for meals, like Aunt Betsy did when she invited the entire extended family for the Passover meal, the Seder. Ivy wrinkles her nose at the memory of the gefilte fish. She determines never to be a Woman of Worth. She can’t imagine being a woman at all. Her only period was over two years ago, and her breasts are shrunken. Will she be stuck forever in this in-between state, neither child nor adult? She keeps her eyes on the prayer book, and feels invisible. (Davis, 2021. P. 127)

In the opening chapter of the book, we learn that Ivy’s mother had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanitorium during Ivy’s infancy, presumably precipitated by terrible feelings of maternal failure in response to Ivy’s refusal to feed. What went wrong between Ivy and her mother? It is impossible to know. But the question may be tied up, in some way, with the cruelty of “the woman of worth” ideal. Beneath the veneer of competent domestic management and abundant hospitality there is exhaustion and emptiness – an under-nourished mother overwhelmed by the needs of her demanding infant.

The haunting hunger between daughters and their immigrant mothers was widely explored and discussed by late 20th century writers and scholars. Erica Duncan (1989) discusses the experience of daughters who need to face “the hungers that have crippled all women, all mothers in the old tradition” in order to “carry on the lives [their] mothers never gave themselves” (p. 236). Janet Burstein (1996), in her book Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters, quotes the early 20th century feminist activist and writer Emma Goldman, who was passionate about the plight of mothers in immigrant families and recognises something of their crippling hunger: “The old-time motherhood is to me the most terrible things imposed upon woman It has made her so unspeakably helpless and dependent, so self-centered and unsocial as to fill me with absolute horror” (as cited in Burstein, 1996, p. 35). Adrienne Baker (1996), writing about the large number of Jewish women in the therapy profession, reflects on the significance of the mother-daughter relationship in this regard. Drawing on her doctoral research in this area, Baker notes that daughters of immigrant families, “themselves inadequately nourished emotionally, tried to give to their children the attention denied them in their own childhood”, without realizing that they were “projecting their own unmet needs” (Baker, 1996, p. 91).

In A Dangerous Daughter, Ivy longs for a nourishment that her mother is unable to give. This is powerfully conveyed in a memorable incident from the first part of the book. When Ivy returns home as a 13-year-old from her traumatizing experience in the psychiatric hospital, the “only thing that sustains her physically and emotionally” is “the afternoon glass of orange juice” (Davis, 2021. p. 48) prepared for her by her mother. When she returns from school to an empty home to find the glass of juice in the fridge but no sign of her mother anywhere, she is seized by a terrifying panic. She runs out into the street crying and screaming, in search of her mother.

‘Mum! Mum, where were you? I thought – I was scared – ’
Ivy bursts into sobs, snot and tears running down her pockmarked face. The more she tries to stop, the more she chokes, weeping uncontrollably. Her mother stands there, looking over her shoulder, her ivory skin turning a blotchy pink.
‘Stop it, Ivy, for heaven’s sake. What will people think? … I don’t understand you Ivy … Can’t I go downtown without worrying about a grown girl? When I was your age, I was cooking dinner for my whole family, cleaning and washing, with my poor Mumma always sick.’ (Davis, 2021, pp. 50-51)

Ivy’s distress, and her mother’s tired and anguished incomprehension of her daughter’s terror, is almost unbearable to read. A few days after this incident, Ivy is sent away to Perth.

Jeanne Magagna (2002), describing her work as a psychotherapist on an inpatient ward with children and young adolescents suffering from severe feeding difficulties and pervasive refusal of life, writes: “When I first encountered these children, their loving link with their parents had been broken and they had given themselves up to death” (p. 138). Magagna uses the “blockading thumb” as a metaphor to understand the non-eating child. Drawing on Esther Bick’s psychoanalytic theory of the primitive processes that protect against fear of extinction, Magagna understands the “blockading thumb” as a primitive mindset that offers protection by preventing access “to the mouth of the infantile mind hungry for love and understanding” (p. 139):

In the absence of an obvious potentially good “meeting point” with a protective, loving parent, this “blockading-thumb” frame of mind feels safe. Adhesion to the “blockading thumb” feels even safer than depending on the mother, who comes and goes.” (Magagna, 2002, p. 139)

In A Dangerous Daughter, the Voice, the malignant part of herself that refuses to allow her to eat, is Ivy’s blockading thumb – the primitive protection that she adhesively clings to in lieu of healthy dependence on her caregivers (Magagna, 2002, p. 150). Death is inherent in the broken connection between Ivy and her mother. The first dream that Ivy presents in her first session with Dr B is a nightmare about her desperate attempts to interact with her death-like, non-responsive mother (Davis, 2021, p. 93). At the end of the book an 18-year-old Ivy, waking up after a suicide attempt, hears the distant rumbling of a bus and “imagines it is the heart of her mother, pumping life into her, as she lies coiled inside her womb” (Davis, 2021, p. 245). This is reminiscent of Magagna’s discussion of her young patient Cara, who refuses to feed as a “separate person” and seems to insist on “residing ‘inside mother’ as though she had never sufficiently worked through the problems of introjecting a containing mother and separating from her” (Magagna, 2002, p. 145).

Through her treatment with Dr B, Ivy comes to experience a safe, sympathetic intimacy and to feel profoundly understood. Drawing on Magagna (2002), we could say that Ivy becomes able to trust in the support of primary caregivers, and that her adhesive clinging to the blockading thumb mindset diminishes as she develops “the psychological space suitable for bearing and thinking about” emotional experiences (Magagna, 2002, p. 153). However, recovery is hard won and the pain of separateness is an ongoing struggle for Ivy. Unable to find adequate acceptance and understanding when she eventually returns to live with her parents and rejected by the boy she has been in love with for years, Ivy nearly succumbs to Thanatos again. The novel ends on a hopeful but sad note. Helped by a brief written correspondence, Ivy re-finds the reassuring voice of Dr B (Davis, 2021, p. 251). But closeness with her mother remains lost to her – a hunger that she must learn to live with.

More than 60 years after her treatment, it is apparent that Dina Davis is still able to access the liveliness that her analysis with Dr Ivy Bennett restored to her as a teenager. It was very moving to see Davis talk about the experience when she addressed the conference of the Australasian Confederation of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies in February 2022. During the discussion, some of therapists and analysts present expressed surprise that aspects of the treatment seemed to differ quite markedly from contemporary practice, in particular Dr Bennett’s willingness to give her young patient reading material and to talk to her about the history and theory of psychoanalysis. But a brief exchange between Davis and one of the conference participants, Dr Thea van Hees, clarified something important:

Thea van Hees: Those comments from your therapist that sound educational might have touched you very deeply.
Dina Davis: Yes! I didn’t think of it then as ‘getting an education’. I internalized all that. It was far deeper than a mere education.

I am reminded again of those memorable encounters from my childhood classics that have stayed with me over many decades – the fictional educators who gave so much when they gave gentle and considered counsel to their overwrought, emotionally under-nourished young pupils.

It would be reductive to try to say any more about the transformative potential of psychoanalysis as experienced by Dina Davis (and Ivy Morgenstern). Perhaps the mysterious inclusion of Lowanna in the story – the indigenous “ghost girl” who floats in and out of Ivy’s life during her most difficult times, in and out of her dream life and her waking life (Davis, 2021, p.109) – serves as an important reminder that sometimes what is most helpful cannot be adequately described or accounted for.

We owe Dina Davis a great debt of gratitude for giving us this moving and powerful story of a young girl’s struggle to survive a terrible eating disorder in 1950s. Importantly, she has also given us a testimony to psychoanalytic treatment and to the work of Dr Ivy Bennett who traversed the globe to bring this treatment to Australia.

Baker, A. (1996). The Jewish mother: Is that why so many of us become counsellors? European Judaism, 29¸88-93.

Burstein, J. H. (1996). Writing mothers, writing daughters: Tracing the maternal in stories by American Jewish women (pp. 231-241). University of Illinois Press.

Davis, D. (2021). A Dangerous Daughter. Cilento Publishing.

Duncan, E. (1989). The hungry Jewish mother. In C.N. Davidson & E.M. Broner (Eds.), The lost tradition: Mothers and daughters in literature. Frederick Ungar.

Magagna, J. (2002). Mrs Bick’s contribution to the understanding of severe feeding difficulties and pervasive refusal. In A. Biggs (Ed.), Surviving space: Papers on infant observation (pp. 135-156). Karnac.

Vickers, C. (2011, August 5). Ivy Bennett – Western Australia. Freud in Oceania.

Bernadette Rosbrook

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