Harnessing the fierce energy of counterculture

Lucas Richert on transactional analysis in the 1960s.

Mental health knowledge and practice was highly contested in the 1960s and 70s. Struggles over homosexuality and radicalism, drug use and replicable drug trials, were part of a unique countercultural moment. These were wild times. Transactional analysis, developed by Eric Berne and Claude Steiner, was also part of this fiercely energetic moment.

In January 2017 Claude Steiner (pictured above), a clinical psychologist, passed away in California. According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Steiner’s last words were, ‘Love is the answer’ and ‘I’m so lucky’. He had led a long and full life, and left behind an important legacy in psychology. Steiner was a founder of the Radical Therapist Collective, protested at American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association meetings, and edited a collection of Readings in Radical Psychiatry in 1975. Steiner also published a short children’s story called The Warm Fuzzy Tale in 1969 and Games Alcoholics Play in 1970. In 1974, he followed these books up with Scripts People Live, which was a bestseller in the United States. Most importantly, Steiner was influential in developing and popularising transactional analysis.

Steiner was born in France, relocated to Mexico, and then moved to California in 1952 to study physics. But in the aftermath of atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and seeing how physics was associated with nuclear weapons, he rejected the field. The link to bombs and bomb-making put him off. Transferring to psychology and eventually obtaining his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1965, he became a close associate of Eric Berne. Set against the backdrop of a topsy-turvy mental health landscape, it is clear that their story had an important impact on psychology – during a unique moment in time – through the creation of transactional analysis.

The triumph of the therapeutic
Psychology was in flux during Steiner’s early career. Commentators like Christopher Lasch argued that Americans at the tail-end of the 20th century were overwhelmed by anxiety, depression and a sense of inner desolation, and that the ‘psychological man’ of the 20th century sought neither individual self-aggrandisement nor spiritual transcendence; instead, the goal was peace of mind, the modern equivalent of salvation, ‘mental health’. As early as 1966 others were riffing on the ‘triumph of the therapeutic’ in American life. ‘Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased,’ wrote Phillip Rieff, the one-time husband of Susan Sontag. Some radicals, including Steiner himself, cautioned psychiatrists, psychologists and others in the mental health field against hiding ‘behind the couch’ and demanded ‘bold new leadership’

Eric Berne, a native of Montreal, studied psychology and then medicine at McGill University; he became a US citizen in 1939, at which time he changed his name from Bernstein to Berne. Afterward, he served as an Assistant Psychiatrist at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco while also working as a Consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Army and the Veterans Administration and Mental Hygiene Clinic in San Francisco. He also ran a private clinic and often held informal sessions with protégés, including Steiner.

By 1950 Berne’s approach to psychotherapy and analysis had wandered from more traditional practices, and he finished his study at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. At the same moment, he began to develop transactional analysis (TA). Berne viewed social interactions as basic exchanges, or ‘transactions’ between people, who acted from one of three ego-states (Parent, Adult or Child) in order to get what they wanted. Berne termed these common transactions ‘games’ and analysed them using candid and often amusing titles like ‘Why Does This Always Happen to Me?’ (WAHM) and ‘Let’s You and Him Fight’ (LYAHF).

Steiner met Berne in 1958 and trained with him, on and off, until Berne’s death in 1970. In Scripts People Live, Steiner wrote that Berne was ‘a far-reaching pioneer’ and ‘a radical scientist’ who re-examined the ‘basic assumptions held by psychiatry…’ and mental health practices. Berne’s most impressive success was Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, which sold over 650,000 copies by 1967.

For Steiner, psychoanalytically trained mental health professionals were challenged – even threatened – by Berne’s three transformative concepts. These included:
1.    People are born OK;
2.     People in emotional difficulties are nevertheless full, intelligent human beings; and
3.    All emotional difficulties are curable, given adequate knowledge and the proper approach.

Berne’s approach was transformative for various reasons. It was based on ‘Watsonesque behaviorism’ and promulgated a ‘distinctly non-Freudian idea’ that individuals were products of their environments – that they were ‘conditioned’.

Also, and this should not be underestimated in a therapeutic marketplace bristling with new ideas, Berne’s book was user-friendly and offered a straightforward guide for how to operate in everyday life. In an era bursting with fierce energies, Berne was able to harness some of this passion. His ideas – and their accessibility – departed from conventional wisdom and practice in psychoanalysis.

Towards a radical mental health dogma
The field of mental health was certainly buzzing at the beginning of the new decade. In 1970, with the death of his mentor after a heart attack, Steiner threw himself into crafting radical mental health dogma. He began to adopt more of a leadership role in radical mental health. At the Rap Centre in California, Steiner executed an amalgamation of his and Berne’s vision. For his patients, he wrote in his chapter on radical psychiatry in the Handbook of Innovative Psychotherapies, ‘We offered drug, welfare, and draft counseling services, group psychotherapy, and some individual one-to-one therapy to the young people who were crowding the streets of Berkeley.’

After a rambunctious meeting in Miami in 1969, such cities as Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, New Haven, Portland and Seattle, among others, had established radical mental health Rap Centers to offer an unconventional and progressive kind of therapy. The Radical Therapist Collective now had a Manifesto, written by Claude Steiner, which was predicated on TA; and in The Radical Therapist, they had a journal to fall back on. More than this, the Kent State shootings in May 1970 galvanised the group, sparked marches, and brought the radicals in mental health closer together.

Steiner also drew from his peers in psychology as well as lessons from discussions with other radicals, including Black Panthers and Marxists. Mental health practice, Steiner asserted in Radical Psychiatry, ‘was a political activity’, and ‘neutrality’ was not an option. Adopting neutrality in an oppressive situation meant psychiatrists and psychologists were buttressing troublingly unequal laws and outdated values.

Steiner was not the only radical voice in the wilderness. Radical feminism also grew in potency, and Dr Phyllis Chesler’s brand was especially persuasive. In 1969 she established the Association for Women in Psychology, completed her PhD at the New School for Social Research, and became a practising psychotherapist in New York City. By then, Killen wrote in Nervous Breakdown, ‘the American psyche received a jolt in its sex stereotypes’, and this would drive mental health conversations as well as practices. Chelser’s work was an important foundation, too, for future feminist writings in mental health, including Judi Chamberlain’s On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System (1977) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).

Chesler was a vital element of the fierce new energy in mental health circles. But so-called radicalism had a relatively short shelf life. Protests were less loud as the 1970s wore on. All of the journals, including The Radical Therapist and others, dried up by the early 1980s. In trying to explain the end, one does not have to stray far from the big thinkers: because as John Talbott wrote in 1974, the ‘gurus, Laing, Szasz, and Berne, are very different individuals’.

Legitimacy in a new age
Transactional analysis, by contrast, proved enduring. It resonated with Americans. First, the concept of ‘cure’ had become so alien within the field of psychiatry and psychology that to make such a claim was to invite professional incredulity. Berne’s and Steiner’s TA promised a fix, not just continuing therapy sessions. Even as the theories levelled criticisms at the ‘medical model’ of mental illness and departed from standard psychotherapy, TA was a therapy steeped in the terminology of diseases and cures.

Second, TA was representative of the ‘feeling’ and encounter group movement or the humanistic/experiential movement therapies popular of the era; these were not the value-free, one-on-one, neutral methodologies that radicals critiqued. These were full-on sessions, both draining and loud, honest and difficult. This lent them authenticity – legitimacy in a New Age. And third, TA represented for many Americans innovation, the avant-garde, a break from the tired pointy-bearded therapist of the 1950s. TA’s success was tantamount to harnessing the fierce energy of the counterculture and about appealing to American minds with a mental health therapy/product that was fresh.

We must also remember that deliberations and disputes during the 1960s and 70s did not occur in isolation, and the mad scrambling, the shouting, and protests, were far more than intra-professional or multi-professional scuffles. In fact, quarrels in mental health – over homosexuality or radicalism, or psychotherapy, or drug use and replicable drug trials – were merely one element of a political, economic and cultural landscape in transition.

Vietnam, the rights revolution and drugs, just to take a few examples, shaped mental health and the way in which psychiatrists and psychologists addressed each other, not to mention their patients. Transactional analysis and its founders, Eric Berne and Claude Steiner, were crucial parts of this story.

- Lucas Richert is a Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the FDA during the Reagan Era: A Prescription for Scandal (2014) and the upcoming Strange Medicines: Drugs, Science, and Big Pharma in Culture (2018).

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Key sources

Coles, R. (1961, July). A young psychiatrist looks at his profession. Atlantic Monthly, pp.108–111.
Rieff, P. (1966). The triumph of the therapeutic: The uses of faith after Freud. London: Chatto & Windus.
Steiner et al. (1975). Readings in radical psychiatry. New York: Grove Press.
Steiner, C. (1981). Radical psychiatry. In Raymond J. Corsini (Ed.) Handbook of innovative psychotherapies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Talbott, J.A. (1974). Radical psychiatry: An examination of the issues. American Journal of Psychiatry 131(2), 121–128.

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