Dr. Berne Plays the Celebrity Game

The following is from the New York Times, dated July 17 1966.  It was written by Jack Languth. This article was published nearly 2 years after the release of Games People Play, when Dr. Berne was achieving widespread attention for his groundbreaking book. Article is copyright The New York Times.

Not long ago, Dr. Eric Berne tried to play games with Frank Sinatra and nearly go his teeth kicked in. Their playground was The Daisy, a private discotheque in Beverly Hills. Dr. Berne is the author of a best-selling volume of pop psychology called Games People Play. Mr. Sinatra sings for a living.

To observers untrained in Dr. Berne’s method, the exchange seemed surly but simple enough: a 56 year-old psychiatrist and a 50 year-old singer were intently watching a girl in the act of frugging. “Ha, ha!” said Dr. Berne to Mr. Sinatra, “you’re as big a lecher as I am.”

Two hulking strangers materialized in the night to ask Dr. Berne “You want your teeth down your throat?” With another pleasantry, the psychiatrist excused himself.

For Dr. Berne, who has shared this version of the episode with his colleagues in Northern California, his adventure did not involve four men but a full dozen. His theories of behavior are based on the division of every human being into three separate and competing ego states: Child, Adult, and Parent.

At The Daisy, Dr. Berne’s Child had tried to engage Mr. Sinatra’s Child, but instead reached the singer’s puritanical Parent. Deeply offended, this Parent decided to punish this obstreperous Child and called on two men retained for that purpose. Within the doctor’s framework, only this duo behaved as Adults. If part of their job was to threaten other people’s teeth, and if they fulfilled their contract, then their actions were rational, and neither their Child nor their Parent showing.

The example does scant justice to Dr. Berne or his theories. In public, he seldom displays his Child. And those theories are being used in therapy groups, prisons and hospitals throughout the country to treat more serious problems than the unexpected appearance of Mr. Sinatra’s Parent.

But at least the misunderstanding shows how much Dr. Berne’s life has changed, not always for the better, in the year since his short, slangy catalogue of neurotic games has become a great success. True, from the proceeds on almost 300,000 hard-cover copies [webmasters note: the 300,000 refers to the number of copies sold by mid 1966. As of 2013, over 5 million copies have been sold worldwide] he’s acquired a four-bedroom house in the hills of Carmel and a Maserati 3500 GL convertible, and he’s taken a holiday in Hawaii. “At the same time, I’ve accepted too many speaking engagements,” he says fretfully. “I haven’t been at the typewriter for six months. That’s been very hard on me.”

Ah, Doctor! Isn’t it possible that your Parent fears and resents the popularity that your Child enjoys so thoroughly? And so the Child defends his indulgence by claiming overcommitment?

“That’s true,” the doctor freely agrees, “I’m probably playing a variation of ‘If It Weren’t For Them.'”

During his 30 years as an analyst, Dr. Berne has caught patients playing dozens of games. To each of them, he’s given a breezy name that makes Freudian practitioners wince and sensitive stylists bite their tongues. The literary circle in Carmel, where Robinson Jeffers spent much of his life, accepts Dr. Berne as a friend but no peer. “His book,” was one appraisal, “is silly, cheap, and corny.”

Yet whatever fault one finds with his taste, Dr. Berne’s terms are direct and clear to the patient or reader: “Ain’t It Awful,” “Let’s You and Him Fight,” “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch,” “Rapo.

A casual reader might skim Games People Play to locate his own favorite maneuver, or his wife’s, and miss the theoretical base Dr. Berne has built to explain human behavior. The doctor calls his system Transactional Analysis, and like most of his writing, that name is literal. Dr. Berne analyzes “the overt manifestations of social intercourse” which he calls “transactions.” In a book on the subject published six years ago, “Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy,” [webmasters note: this refers to the book of the same title published in 1960; for details on this book, please consult the Bibliography] he explains that he begins his treatment by watching the patients in his therapy groups as they conduct the normal conversations and byplays – the transactions – of everyday life. He widens his inquiry gradually, learning more about the complicated relationships at home or on the job, in the present or the past. Then he traces these patterns of behavior back to Greek myths, fairy tales, fantasies. As an example, he pointed to the woman who married one alcoholic after another as someone caught in a rescue fantasy.

A current patient is a troubled 16 year-old boy in San Francisco whose father had divorced his mother years before, moved to St. Louis and married again. The boy is headed for the Midwest this summer to meet the first time his father’s second wife. With him, Dr. Berne probed for a “Hansel and Gretel” fantasy, recalling that in one version of the story the children return from killing the witch to find their father with a new wife. “A better wife,” the boy added.

Where Freud probed forces below the conscious level, Dr. Berne deals chiefly with the three “different and inconsistent” selves – or ego states – that he believes alternate in speaking for each person. First there is the ego state which “resembles that of parental figures.” The Parent, at its most benevolent, is the confident self that knows which fork to use, which temptation to resist. At worst, the Parent may crush all joyousness in a person or in the people around him.

Second there is the ego state which is “autonomously directed toward the objective appraisal of reality.” This is the Adult, whose rationality should be employed to make those decisions for which the Parent has no precedent.

Third, the ego state which “was fixated in early childhood” – a still-active archaic relic. The Child is the easiest of the three categories to define, since everyone has been a child and can see traces of the childish or childlike in his grown-up behavior. The Child may be charming in its spontaneity or embarrassing in its willful folly.

A healthy man allows the right ego state to function at the right time. If the Child keeps showing up at his office or the Parent is nagging his marriage into divorce court, the man may need a Transactional Analyst to help him program his personality. The methods that analyst will use are fundamentally different from the classical analysis, for Dr. Berne and his adherents do not sit mute for 50 minutes taking notes and looking shockproof.

A Transactional Analysis session might look, from the dark side of an observation mirror, much the same as several other forms of group therapy now being practiced. But none of the other systems are anchored to the Parent-Adult-Child theory that these analysts now find indispensable. “My patients always understand right away what I’m talking about,” a therapist will say when asked why he was attracted to Dr. Berne’s system. “It’s so clear.”

Dr. Berne himself is not eager to get into a fight on every psychoanalytic front. He often says there’s much more about his theory he still must fill in. He’ll remark, diffidently, that “everything in my books I learned from my patients.” What they have taught him, however, he’s zealous about passing on to others, and he suggests this general summary of the difference between Transactional and other analyses:

“Most psychotherapists, it would appear, are interested in what they can learn from their patients. We’re interested in what the patients can learn, and we have no hesitation about teaching them”

In a typical exchange quoted in Dr. Berne’s 1960 text, [webmaster’s note: the author is referring to the text Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy] a woman in a therapy group abruptly said, “I have something to tell you today. I like to fight too. That’s why I fight with my daughter.”

Laughing, Dr. Berne answered, “I’m glad that you finally admit that you like to fight.”

And the woman volunteered, “I have to fight to keep interested.”

The moment of self-analysis, combined with a resolve to break out of a harmful pattern, may come in an instant, the psychiatrist has found. But preparation for that instant may take months or years. Like most professional healers, Dr. Berne refuses to promise results by a time-table. He speaks of six months as an absolute minimum for effective therapy.

Despite his casual names for transactions, they must meet rigid qualifications before Dr. Berne will accept them as true games. He insists on locating a con, a gimmick and a payoff. If, for example, a woman courts a compliment and receives it gradually, she has only indulged in a social pastime. But if she asked for reassurance, received it, and then tried to show that the compliment was undeserved, she’s played “Yes, But.” Her pay-off was not the simple massaging of her vanity but the chance to prove her partner stupid and feel superior at his expense.

In the last few months, Dr. Berne has come to believe that games are always harmful because they involve deep emotional deception – the con. To keep his games theory unmuddled, the doctor would now remove all harmless “games” from his book and label them mere “pastimes.” The pastime, like the one he calls “Homely Sage,” does not rest on ulterior motives. The sage acquires odd bits of learning during his business career in a big city. When he retires to a small town, he offers this knowledge unassumingly to his new neighbors. In the “Games People Play” book, the sage was playing a good game. Now that the doctor has decided that all games, by definition, are destructive, the sage is held to be only passing time.

“Con” and “gimmick” like “shrink” for “analyst,” are words instantly adopted by Dr. Berne because they’re short. In his guide for group therapists Dr. Berne demands that young shrinks “try to say it in Anglo-Saxon words of no more than two syllables.”

He offers this contrast: A Freudian might say, “Oh, yes, another paranoid 30-year old unmarried woman secretary with no siblings and a strict father.” The Transactional Analyst would say, “Oh, yes, a secretive ‘Ain’t it Awful’ player who always looks tearful so what people won’t ask her too many questions and who is continually threatening to quit her job.

Or, for another example, the doctor’s own life can be quickly outlined in straight biographical prose. Eric Lennard Berne [webmaster’s note: Eric’s last name was Bernstein initially] was born in Montreal on May 10, 1910. His father, a medical doctor, died when the boy was 10 years old. Eric and his younger sister were raised by their mother, who wrote for Montreal newspapers to support the family. After completing his medical training at McGill University, Eric Berne migrated to the United States to take up a psychiatric residency. He became a U.S. citizen shortly before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. In the Army, he got his first chance to practice group therapy on a broad scale.

Divorced twice, he has four children and two stepchildren. In recent years, he has split his private practice between Carmel, where he spends weekends, and San Francisco, driving or flying the 70 miles north each Tuesday morning and leaving Thursday nights. Before “Games People Play” he had written a number of more sedate books on psychoanalytic theory.

Besides being dull, that summary insults a man who insists on being trisected. If Dr. Berne is to be analyzed, let it be done transactionally.

Dr. Berne’s Parent in firm, fair and rigorous, comforting to his patients and inspiring to younger men who come to study his theories. To his chagrin, his Parent displays almost all of the conventional moral values: moderation, self-control, cleanliness, decency, tireless effort. Throughout his book runs the strong assumption that fame and fortune are automatically good things.

He said lately, “I told my new secretary, who is just finishing college, that her first job for me is to get A’s in all her classes.” Not to do her best, Doctor? Not to absorb as much as she can? Just to worry about high grades? “It was a joke,” Dr. Berne explained. Nevertheless, pretty Pamela Blum is now winning straight A’s for the first time in her life.

Miss Blum, who is 23 years old, was less dutiful when Dr. Berne warned her against LSD. She took the drug under the supervision of another psychiatrist and over Dr. Berne’s objections that her trip was not necessary. She found the experience well worthwhile, and she does not discuss the drug now with her employer.

Despite a fondness for sporty grammar and backwoods dialect, Dr. Berne’s Parent is extremely cautious in the treating of patients. He has experimented a few times with marathon therapy sessions, and he’s not at all convinced of their merits. He can’t remember when he last referred a patient for shock treatment, and he hasn’t used hypnosis for 25 years. As for drugs – “when I prescribe them, as I occasionally do, I feel it’s because of my own ignorance.”

As the father of a new approach to treating patients, Dr. Berne is properly Parental when he outlines Transactional Analysis, or T.A. Every Tuesday night he opens his second home, a row house in San Francisco, for free seminars with other therapists who want to learn his method. If he thinks a newcomer has come to heckle, Dr. Berne doesn’t fret over his failure to appear broadminded or tolerant. “I tell them to stop bugging me, and if he doesn’t he can get out. I don’t like people bugging me.”

As a teacher or therapist, however, the doctor is excellent at bugging others. Courteously but relentlessly he probes at those root questions so self-explanatory that they are seldom explained. A psychiatric resident came to him a few weeks ago for advice on setting up a therapy group; the young man spouted case histories and long words. Dr. Berne cut in, “Why do you want this group? What are you personally going to get out if it?”

The resident’s baby face fell into a fat grin: “It’ll be fun.”

The answer did not distress Dr. Berne, who preaches laughter and even practices it. “If I have a concept of God,” he has said, “the main thing is that He has a sense of humor.”

Like other apostles of joy, notably gag writers and street-walkers, Dr. Berne often seems burdened by his responsibility to make other people happy. “We want patients to hear the birds sing,” he can say, making it sound like a duty other people are shirking. “We encourage that kind of childlike awareness. Patients who really do hear the birds and see the trees get very excited.”

It was a little boy, back in 1954, who taught Dr. Berne the central truth of Transactional Analysis. Or, more precisely, it was a successful middle-aged lawyer who said during a therapy session, “I’m not really a lawyer. I’m just a little boy.”

Rather than preserve the impassive silence, Dr. Berne said, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

From that time on he would ask the patient: “Is that the man talking, or the little boy you told me about?” T.A. was on its way.

Independence has always been one of the frontier values most attractive to Dr. Berne’s Parent. “I seem to do better when I’m in charge of things,” he said, as he recounted the successes he had with tough Army patients after their whole ward was delivered into his hands. Today the doctor disdains all foundation money or government grants because of the strings attached, no matter how long or loose they may be.

Independence has always been one of the frontier values most attractive to Dr. Berne’s Parent. “I seem to do better when I’m in charge of things,” he said, as he recounted the successes he had with tough Army patients after their whole ward was delivered into his hands. Today the doctor disdains all foundation money or government grants because of the strings attached, no matter how long or loose they may be.

Begun in 1958, the weekly seminars in his home were incorporated last year into the International Transactional Analysis Association, with 500 members in 36 states, Canada, Costa Rica and England. Founder and first president, Dr. Berne now serves as the severe editor of the I.T.A.A. quarterly journal. He’s found that only one of his fellow members, an Austrian, can write articles that don’t need translation from psychiatric polysyllables into plain English. He also permits no article to run more than two pages because “it looks tidier that way.” (“He’s really very anal,” one devotee says of Dr. Berne, “but don’t tell him I used a Freudian term.”)

Young psychiatrists who employ Dr. Berne’s method rarely feel that they are betraying their Freudian training. “T.A. is an offshoot of psychoanalysis,” one young man said. “It’s a useful method of treatment, but it’s thoroughly grounded in Freud.”

Dr. Berne’s quarrel seems more with his contemporaries than with his predecessors. “I think Freud would consider most analysts today nothing but picture straighteners,” he says. “They may be good teachers, but they don’t publish enough to share their insights.”

His own success as a writer has permitted him to life his sights as a therapist. Until six months ago he shared with other psychiatrists the desire to help patients get better. Now he ridicules that modest aim. “We don’t want patients to make progress,” he often says. “We want them to get well. Or, in our lingo, we want to turn frogs into princes. We’re not satisfied with making them braver frogs.”

Dr. Berne treats about 60 patients a week, usually eight at a time. For a weekly 90 minutes the average patient pays $7.50. With his other consulting work, Dr. Berne was already grossing between $25,000 and $50,000 a year before he became a best-selling writer. Most of the 75-cent royalty he gets from each book goes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Dr. Berne’s Child cracked the jokes that helped to push his book to success, but his Parent’s mordant wit also deserves some mention. One young woman tells of her first private session with him before joining a therapy group. “I was determined not to hold anything back, although it’s very difficult for me to talk about intimate things. Still, I tell him everything I thought he should know about me – my childhood, my marriage, my sex life.”

“When I got all done and was really exhausted, he looked up and said, ‘Would you take off your dark glasses and tell me that all over again?'”

Inspecting the custom-made sports car of a one of his younger colleagues, Dr. Berne observed, “Your patients will start getting well when you get a car with handles that open as easily from the inside as they do from the outside.”

The Adult is hard for Dr. Berne to define. In his book on Transactional Analysis he suggests that the Adult is what is left after all Parent and Child aspects have been strained away. More recently, he described the Adult as a computer making rational decisions based on realistic alternatives.

When his Adult is in command, Dr. Berne offers this sermon on life: “Life is really very simple. But if people have to face that fact they get very upset. So the invent religions and pastimes and games. These are the same people who then lament how awful it is that life is complicated. But all complications involve decisions, and a person must assess the probabilities and possibilities, make the best decision and then go down the street whistling.”

That’s Dr. Berne’s sensible, logical Adult. But his Adult must wrestle with the doctor’s impish Child. Conducting seminars and therapy groups, his Parent can hold the Child on tight rein. But in social gatherings, Dr. Berne’s Child wreaks his revenge.

For that reason, neighbors in Carmel view Dr. Berne differently from the way his patients or disciples do. They don’t understand his contention that a party isn’t a real party unless everyone is wiggling to the latest teenage dances. They are puzzled by his glorification of poker, at which he is an adept, as an existential experience. Some of them find Dr. Berne’s jokes juvenile. Others detect a talent for inappropriate remarks that approaches genius.

Ask Dr. Berne’s Adult to describe himself and out of the nether reaches comes “I’m a 56 year-old teenager” or “I’m sort of a swinger. I like action.” If these labels are accurate for Dr. Berne, they are equally apt for George Romney or James Gould Cozzens.

The doctor’s Adult fares no better in education. His small study is a shed behind the house in Carmel where his former wife is raising their two adolescent sons. To reach it, he goes down the hill from his new four-bedroom bachelor quarters. The study’s walls are lined with books on every subject, but Dr. Berne’s Adult has little taste for general reading. His Parent has amassed a wide and impressive background to buttress and illustrate his theories. Dr. Berne’s Child reads only to dazzle and confound.

The doctor was delighted, for example, when a New York news magazine called to ask what he was currently reading and he could answer “The Kuzzilbash,” a three volume swashbuckler about 18th-century Persia.

When his secretary is working on a college theme, Dr. Berne volunteers obscure references that will intimidate her instructors. The doctor is unabashed about playing Stephen Potter’s “One Upmanship.” “When we really want to put someone down,” he told a visitor as they walked through Carmel, “we call this town Carmel-by-the-Sea.” Someday a disciple may trace the rise of Dr. Berne’s confidence by noting when his books stop listing his residence as Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Dr. Berne’s Adult takes little interest, at least for publication, in political affairs. “In 1950,” he recalls, “someone burst into my study and said ‘North and South Korea are at war.’ I said ‘So what?’ A man who has made that kind of gross error in judgment had better not consider himself equipped to discuss public event.”

Among friends he makes occasional observations couched in his jargon. “I saw Nixon on TV and his Child was showing.”

In those personalities which Dr. Berne most admires, the natural and unfettered Child, full of wonder and creativity, is an attractive element. His own Child is something else again.

One of the few poignant moments in the doctor’s writings comes when he tells about the failure of a 10 year-old boy named Davy to get other boys to join a club in his basement. By founding the Agamemnon Club, Davy had hoped to become a leader. But the boy, Dr. Berne writes, “had few of the magical or even social attributes of leadership in the eyes of his contemporaries and had only one or two loyal followers.”

The boy grew up to be a therapist who treated people in his own home. When pressed, Dr. Berne allows that in the interests of accuracy, the “Davy” in his text should have been called “Eric.”

That pseudonym is only one of many Dr. Berne has used. As an undergraduate at McGill he wrote comic columns for the student newspaper under the names “Lennard Gandalac” and “Ramsbottom Horsely.” Why “Gandalac”?

“Is that a secret I have to tell?” the doctor asks. “Well, the name comes from old French epics. He was a sort of a hero. A big man, physically. A giant, I guess.”

Later he wrote as “Peter Pinto.” And now his association’s journal prints short fables about a hillbilly sage named “Cyprian St. Cyr.” Even Eric Lennard Berne is something of an invention. His parents had settled for the more conventional “Leonard” but the boy changed the spelling to suit himself. “I don’t know why. It just looked better that way.”

A word Dr. Berne often uses is “permission.” If a man fails in every job, his Parent is not giving him permission to succeed. The therapist must then trace the reasons and help him to see that he has every right to do a job well and reap the rewards. In his own case, whenever Dr. Berne tried to write humor, the result always appeared under a made-up name. But the comic strain was getting progressively wider through his clinical writing until in “Games People Play” he had produced, under his own name, a serious book with jokes, dialogue and an enticing title.

When he finished the “Games” book early in 1962, Dr. Berne sent off the manuscript and then waited more than two years while it was shuffled across editorial desks at Grove Press. He was sure that he’d finally won permission to have a bestseller, but someone in the publisher’s office was still blocked. Finally, the book appeared in bookstores during the summer of 1964 and languished there. One copy might be sold to a former patient. Then, in self-defense, the patient’s friends would all have to buy copies. Sales were slow, but they never stopped.

After a full year, Grove’s teasing advertisements began to ram the book onto bestseller lists and keep it there. No wonder, then, that Dr. Berne has become very friendly with Grove’s publicity director but that he can’t recall the names of any of the editors.

During his long wait, the doctor produced a children’s book, “The Happy Valley.” It’s one of those stories, favored by moralists, in which animals talk like people, only better. When Dr. Berne tires of the Celebrity games he’ll turn out a sequel to the “Games” book under another title good enough to keep secret in the meanwhile.

Further in the future, Dr. Berne sees some novels. “I want to creep up on fiction,” he explains, “starting with something short and autobiographical.” If Carmel’s literati are dubious, Dr. Berne has his own reservations about them. “I once met a man in Carmel who wasn’t a novelist,” he says ironically. His Parent pops up to add, “I have very little sympathy for artists who can’t work while they’re creating – the ones who let their children starve in order to finish a book.”

His Parent is a little tired, too, of hearing people tell him that George and Martha play games in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and that they call their games by even racier titles than his. He’s neither seen nor read the play, and he cuts off and discussion by pointing out that it’s one thing to have a few insights and another to build a consistent theory. To illustrate, he borrows a metaphor from Freud: “Flirting is different from marriage.”

So far, Dr. Berne’s Parent has vetoed all offers from television producers who wan to buy at least his title for a weekly series. But with a shrug of resignation his Parent has permitted Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin to begin turning his book into a musical comedy for Broadway.

Dr. Berne’s Adult welcomes the chance to acquaint a new kind of audience with this theories, although the musical won’t be a nightly seminar exactly. Art Buchwald is one of the writers working on the book.

But the doctor’s Child is delighted with the venture. He relishes the exposure to show business people and the change to get full credit at last for being funny. Everything is wonderful, and Dr. Berne’s Child probably could be happier only if Feuer and Martin would stage the show in his basement.

– Jack Languth, The New York Times, July 17, 1966.