Berne, Eric (10 May 1910-15 July 1970), psychiatrist, was born Eric Lennard Bernstein in Montreal, Quebec, the son of David Hillel Bernstein, a general physician, and Sara Gordon Bernstein, a writer and editor. When Eric was eleven, his father died from tuberculosis, leaving his mother to provide for him and his younger sister. Eric studied mathematics and physics at McGill University, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1931. The intense playfulness that would later characterize Berne's writing and work was evident in his youth; as an undergraduate he wrote for several McGill newspapers under the pseudonyms Lennard Gandalac, Ramsbottom Horseley, and Cynical St. Cyr, a pen name that reappeared in his adult life as Cyprian St. Cyr. Under the pen name Lennard Gandalac, Esq., he failed to publish a novel, Ramsbottom Horseley, but he did publish a humorous article titled "Who Was Condom" for the journal Human Fertility (1940).
Berne remained at McGill for both his M.S. in surgery and M.D. degrees, completed in 1935. He then moved to the United States, where he interned at the Yale Psychiatric Clinic in New Haven from 1936 to 1938 and began psychoanalytic training with Paul Federn. Berne became a U.S. citizen in 1939 and changed his name legally to Eric Berne in 1943. In 1942 he married Elinor McRae. They had two children.
During World War II Berne interrupted his analytic training to serve with the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Like many psychiatrists during the war, Berne was required to assess the mental fitness of "nervous" soldiers. He soon distinguished himself with his ability to make quick and accurate diagnoses, and he later published a series of articles on the role of intuition in clinical diagnosis. He also began doing group psychotherapy with soldiers at Bushnell General (Army) Hospital in Ogden, Utah. In 1945 he and his first wife divorced amid considerable ill will and charges that he abused her.
When Berne was discharged from the military he joined the staff at Mt. Zion hospital in San Francisco and resumed psychoanalytic training at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute with Erik Erikson. In 1949 he met and married Dorothy De Mass Way. They had two children. He published his first book on psychoanalysis, The Mind in Action, in 1947 (revised in 1968 as Mind in Action), and he became a leading group therapist at several hospitals in the San Francisco bay area. Berne departed from mainstream psychoanalysis when his application for membership in the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute was denied. According to Warren D. Cheney, Berne, who had completed more than ten years of analytic training, was "devastated" when his application was turned down. But the rejection "spurred him to intensify the long-standing ambition to add something new to psychoanalysis" ("Eric Berne: Biographical Sketch," Transactional Analysis Journal 1 : 18). Berne began revising Paul Federn's psychoanalytic ego-state model. By 1957 the rudiments of his new Transactional Analysis (TA) were appearing in such articles as "Ego States in Psychotherapy" (American Journal of Psychotherapy 11 : 735-43) and "Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy" (American Journal of Psychotherapy 12 : 293-309).
Most of the concepts of Transactional Analysis are elaborations of Federn's ideas in vernacular language and with practical aims for group therapy. TA studies both the ego-states of an individual and the manner in which those ego-states shape his or her social interactions (transference). The first phase of TA is Structural Analysis, "the study of the relationships within the individual of three types of ego states" (Berne, "Transactional Analysis" , p. 743). These three sets of ego-states are the Parent, Adult and Child (mapping loosely onto the superego, ego, and id). The Child relies on childlike reasoning; the Parent is a "borrowing" of perceived parental attitudes; and the Adult is capable of accurate reality-testing. The second phase of TA, Transactional Analysis, studies the use of these ego-states in communication strategies--in Transactions, Scripts, and Games. The Transaction, the most basic unit of social analysis, "consists of a single stimulus and a single response, verbal or nonverbal" (Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? , p. 20). Scripts are "complex sets of transactions, by nature recurrent." They are blueprints for real-life dramas, set in childhood, that determine the "destiny and the identity of the individual" (Berne, "Transactional Analysis" , p. 742). Games are agreed-upon (although not always conscious) rules of transacting in which there is always a pay-off to one of the parties. There are four therapeutic goals of TA: to help the individual gain "social control," to achieve symptomatic relief, to cure the transference, and ultimately to achieve a "script cure." In Berne's words, "While every human being faces the world initially as the captive of his script, the great hope and value of the human race is that the Adult can be dissatisfied with such strivings when they are unworthy" (Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy , pp. 125-126).
His Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (1961), The Structures and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups (1963), and Games People Play (1964) became the seminal books of Transactional Analysis. Many of his TA ideas crystallized in his Tuesday evening seminars, which began in 1951 as informal professional gatherings, developed in 1958 into the San Francisco Social Psychiatry Seminars, and expanded in 1964 with the founding of the International Transactional Analysis Association. In the midst of the rising popularity of TA, Berne divorced his second wife in 1964.
It is largely through the widespread popularity of Games People Play that Berne and his concepts of games, scripts, strokes, and transactions entered the vernacular. Games was reviewed in virtually every major newspaper and magazine in the United States, and Berne was interviewed widely on television. In 1967 he married his third wife, Torre Rosecrans, a "beautiful intelligent conscientious courteous affectionate Aphrodite with long blond hair" (letter from EB to "Moe," 16 July 1967), but the marriage ended in divorce in early 1970. At the time of his death from a heart attack, Berne was at work on two TA books, Sex in Human Loving (1970) and What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1972).
Berne's professional accomplishments as the founder of Transactional Analysis are widely recognized; as for his personal life, his friends have reflected on the extreme paradoxes of his personality. He could be spontaneous and charming at one moment, then authoritarian, demanding, and cruel at another. Two of his biographers explain that Berne was "a master at wrapping himself in a cloak of mystery, in keeping his personal life guarded and compartmentalized so that when he shifted from one of his compartments to another, he appeared an entirely different person" (Jorgensen, p. x). The reasons for the failure of Berne's three marriages remain unclear, but his friend Claude Steiner has suggested that Berne's early death was embedded within his own life-script: he "died of a broken heart," having not been able to sustain love and to allow himself to be loved by others (quoted in Stewart, p. 15).
The legacy of Berne's Transactional Analysis is mixed. The International Transactional Analysis Association boasts more than 7,000 members, and the European Association for Transactional Analysis, founded in 1974, has more than 4,000 members. Students and followers of Berne have continued to innovate and promote TA; perhaps the most popular of these efforts was Thomas Harris's I'm OK, You're OK (1967) (whose title was playfully spoofed in Wendy Kaminer's 1992 I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional). However, TA has not enjoyed as much popularity in the broader world of psychotherapy. Berne's biographer Ian Stewart notes that Berne's acknowledged influence among practitioners outside of TA circles has been minimal.
Berne's papers are held at the archives of the University of California, San Francisco. The two extant biographies of Berne were written by practitioners of TA: Eric Berne: Master Gamesman (1984), by Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen and Henry Irvin Jorgensen, and Eric Berne (1992), by Ian Stewart. Stewart's book is less a biography than a review of Berne's contributions to the theory and practice of psychotherapy. References to and remembrances of Berne appear in the writings of numerous TA practitioners, most notably in a 1971 Eric Berne memorial issue of the Transactional Analysis Journal, which also includes an annotated bibliography of Berne's writings. Additional remembrances can be found in Claude Steiner's Interview: On the Early Years of Transactional Analysis (1991); Irvin Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (1970); and Jacqui Schiff, "One Hundred Children Generate a Lot of TA," in G. Barnes, Transactional Analysis after Eric Berne: Teachings and Practices of Three TA Schools (1977). An obituary is in the New York Times, 7 July 1970.
Rachael I. Rosner
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Rachael I. Rosner. "Berne, Eric";
American National Biography Online Jan. 2002 Update.