CHILDHOOD is all, we have learned from psychoanalysis -- the source of our persisting misconceptions and discontents, if not our loony moments. Yet, Freud did not himself study or treat children. His ideas about the meaning of our first years of life were obtained from his work with a handful of troubled men and women who belonged to Vienna's turn-of-the-century bourgeoisie -- and from his own dreams and fantasies, which he had the courage to examine relentlessly and to take seriously. But these patients (and he, as his own patient) were not only at a considerable temporal remove from childhood, they were rather anxious to distort what had happened back then, or not rarely, forget altogether any number of painful or puzzling experiences.

It was Freud's youngest child, Anna (born in 1895, just when psychoanalysis was itself being born in her father's head), who roadened psychoanalytic work radically and thereby helped ground its formulations in observations conducted on an entirely new population, that of children. If Freud was the first psychoanalyst, she was the first child psychoanalyst, as Uwe Henrik Peters, a German psychiatrist, makes quite clear in this detailed and respectful biography. Moreover, she was sensitive to the requirement that a body of knowledge must become, in the end, the possession of a cohort of professionals -- men and women who work together and who transmit to others, so-called "trainees," their ideas and the manner of applying those ideas. Freud was anxious to organize various psychoanalytic societies, and Anna Freud was no less eager to help along -- to ensure that training in child psychoanalysis become possible in a growing number of countries and cities.

On one of her American lectures to fellow psychoanalysts, Miss Freud had this to say: "When we scrutinize the personalities who, by self-selection, became the first generation of pyschoanalysts, we are left in no doubt about their characteristics. They were the unconventional ones, the doubters, or those who were dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on knowledge; also among them were the odd ones, the dreamers and those who knew neurotic suffering from their own experience." There is, of course, an autobiographical side to those remarks -- the young woman who loved teaching children, who (talk about "the unconventional") was analyzed by her father, who was taken with Rilke's romantic poetry, and who reached out eagerly to those less fortunate.

In that last regard, the author describes Anna Freud and an earlier psychoanalytic profession in a way thoroughly instructive for America's psycholanalysts, so many of whose hours are purchased by wealthy men and women: "Her interest there (in the Vienna of 1931 and 1932) was aimed particularly at children and adolescents from the poor segments of the population, who had been referred by physicians, schools, and foster homes, or privately. . . . In those times, when complete health insurance did not yet exist, those in the thereapeutic professions saw it as their duty to use the freedom provided by the fees of well-to-do patients to make available help to poorer patients. Psychoanalysis was also available free of charge. Social consciousness among therapists was more pervasive than it is today; one was still ready to make personal sacrifices."

Not that her own father hadn't been worried (as early in the overall history of psychoanalysis as 1935) about some of those who had followed his lead. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salom,e he worried about "the general run of analysts -- many of whom, alas, have derived little from analysis as far as their personal character is concerned." All the more need, he knew, for his daughter's example -- her uprightness, her decency, her social compassion, her tact and her modesty.

These virtues were quietly offered a particular profession, not to mention countless fortunate children. These same virtues make their presence felt in this biography, which is no comprehensive intellectual study, but rather a series of appreciative essays on important aspects of an important life -- and on the important figures in that life: August Aicchorn, Ernest Jones, Erik Erikson, Melanie Klein, Heinz Hartmann, and many others. The vignettes of these analysts get fitted into a chronological account of Miss Freud's busy, productive years -- her work with the bombed-out English families of the Blitz, her efforts on behalf of concentration camp victims, her interest in the vicissitudes of blind children. We learn not only about her, but those with whom she worked, and not rarely, took issue. Especially important is the account of a longstanding intellectual argument between Miss Freud and the so-called "English School of Child Psychoanalysis," whose mentor was Melanie Klein. Whereas Miss Freud abstained from psychoanalytic generalizations untested by clinical experience, Klein claimed to know so very much about the psychological life of preverbal infants.

Anna Freud, in contrast, was never afraid to acknowledge what was not known, what might even prove to be unknowable. She was an insistently clear-headed person, always anxious to take note of the thickly textured particulars of everyday life -- in the words of William Carlos Williams, which keep resounding through Paterson: "No ideas but in things." Yet, psychoanalysis has always attracted ambitious if not extravagant theorists, men and women who could care less whether there is any concrete evidence, or indeed any empirical justification for their (often murkily rendered) generalizations. Hence Anna Freud's constant appeal (her poetic leitmotif) for "direct observation," with concepts to be asserted only after the necessary work of documentation, of verification, has been accomplished.

Moreover, her manner of making any given point, spelling out psychoanalytic tenets, was as significant and edifying as the contents of her various books. She was a brilliantly lucid and forthright writer -- utterly without the need to subdue her readers or listeners with tangled, heavy or circuitous rhetoric. She got to the heart of any given problem and did so, always it seemed, with an apparently effortless ease. She was an altogether remarkable person who deserves this biography as an introduction to her life and her various activities, though further studies will be necessary if we are to appreciate the significance of her many contributions to an understanding of the complex mental life of children. Meanwhile, those of us who had the privilege of knowing her, of learning from her, will be grateful day after day not only for what she had to say, or write, but for the moral example she constantly offered -- her civility, her wry humor, her ability to feel comfortable with this life's ironies, to be respectful of the continuing mysteries which present themselves to all of us, no matter our knowledge, no matter the extent of our professional training.