Eric Berne was born May 10, 1910 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, as Leonard Bernstein the son of David Hiller Bernstein, MD, a general practitioner, and Sarah Gordon Bernstein, a professional writer and editor. His only sibling, his sister Grace, was born five years later. The family immigrated to Canada from Poland and Russia. Both parents graduated from McGill University, and Eric, who was close to his father, spoke fondly of how he accompanied his father, a physician, on medical rounds.
Dr. Bernstein died of tuberculosis at age 38. Mrs. Bernstein then supported herself and her two children working as an editor and writer. She encouraged Eric to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. He received an M.D. and C.M. (Master of Surgery) from McGill University Medical School in 1935.
Berne interned in the United States at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. In 1936 he began his psychiatric residency at the Psychiatric Clinic of Yale University School of Medicine, where he worked for two years. Some time around 1938-39, Berne became an American citizen and shortened his name from Eric Lennard Bernstein to Eric Berne. His first appointment was as Clinical Assistant in Psychiatry at Mt. Zion Hospital, New York City, a post he held until 1943 when he went into the Army Medical Corps. In 1940 Berne had established a private practice in Norwalk, Connecticut. There he met and married his first wife, with whom he had two children. From 1940-1943 he also commuted from his Westport home to practice concurrently in New York City. In 1941 he began training as a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and became an analysand of Paul Federn.
Army Medical Corps
Because of the demand for army psychiatrists during World War II, Dr. Berne served from 1943-46 in the AUS Medical Corps, rising from first lieutenant to major. His assignments included Spokane, Washington, Ft. Ord, California and Bingham City, Utah. During the latter two years he practiced group therapy in the psychiatric wards of Bushnell General Hospital.
When discharged from the army in 1946, Berne, now divorced, decided to relocate in Carmel, California, an area he had fallen in love with when stationed at nearby Fort Ord. Before the year was out he completed writing The Mind in Action and signed a contract for its publication with Simon and Schuster of New York. That same year he resumed his psychoanalytic training at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1947 he became the analysand of Eric Erikson, with whom he worked for two years.
Family Life in California
Soon after beginning analysis with Erikson, Berne met a young divorcee whom he wanted to marry. Erikson said Eric could not marry until after finishing his didactic analysis, and so it was not until 1949 that Eric and Dorothy exchanged vows and set up home in Carmel. Dorothy brought three children to the marriage, and she and Eric eventually had two sons of their own.
Eric loved the pater familias role, relishing in his large group of offspring and tending to be, if anything, overly permissive, a nurturing parent more often than an authoritarian one. However, he also knew how to make time for his writing. He had an isolated study built at the far end of his large garden, well out of earshot of his youngsters. In that study he did most of his writing between 1949 and 1964, when he and Dorothy divorced on the friendliest of terms.
During these seminal years in Carmel, Eric kept up a demanding pace. He took an appointment in 1950 as Assistant Psychiatrist at Mt. Zion Hospital, San Francisco, and simultaneously began serving as a Consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Army. In 1951 he added the job of Adjunct and Attending Psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration and Mental Hygiene Clinic, San Francisco. These three appointments were in addition to his private practices in both Carmel and San Francisco.
Break with Psychoanalysis and the Creation of Transactional Analysis
Probably the most significant traces of the origins of transactional analysis are contained in the first five of six articles on intuition Berne wrote beginning in 1949. Already, at that early date, when he was still working to gain the status of psychoanalyst, he was daring to defy a rigid Freudian concept in stating “the word subconscious is acceptable since it includes both the pre-conscious and unconscious” (Berne, 1949a, p.1)
When he began training in 1941 at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and later when he resumed his training at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, Berne obviously believed that becoming a psychoanalyst was important. However, in the end that coveted title was withheld; his 1956 application for membership was turned down with the verdict that he wasn’t ready, but, perhaps after three or four more years of personal analysis and training he might reapply. For Eric the rejection was devastating but cathartic, spurring him to intensify his long-standing ambition to add something new to psychoanalysis. He set to work, determined to develop a new approach to psychotherapy by himself, without benefit of blessings or support from the psychoanalytic fraternity.
Before 1956 was out, he had written two seminal papers based on material read earlier that year at the Psychiatric Clinic, Mt. Zion Hospital, San Francisco, and at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Clinic, U.C. Medical School: “Intuition V: The Ego Image”: and “Ego States in Psychotherapy.” Using references to P. Federn, E. Kann, and H. Silberer, in the first article Berne indicated how he arrived at the concept of ego states and where he got the idea of separating “adult” from “child.” In the next article he developed the tripartite schema used today (Parent, Adult, and Child), introduced the three-circle method of diagramming it, showed how to sketch contaminations, labeled the theory, “structural analysis” and termed it “a new psychotherapeutic approach.”
The third article, titled “Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy,” was written a few months later and presented by invitation at the 1957 Western Regional Meeting of the American Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles. With the publication of this paper in the 1958 issue of the American Journal of Psychotherapy, transactional analysis, the name of Berne’s new method of diagnosis and treatment, became a permanent part of the psychotherapeutic literature. In addition to restating his concepts of P-A-C, structural analysis, and ego states, the 1957 paper added the important new features of games and scripts.
From the beginning, Berne used his regular Thursday evening clinical seminars in Monterey as a testing ground for his new theory and methods. In 1950-51 he began a Tuesday evening seminar in San Francisco; this became incorporated in 1958 as the San Francisco Social Psychiatry Seminars in order to handle funds required for the publication of the Transactional Analysis Bulletin, which first appeared in January 1962 with Berne as editor.
In 1964 Berne and his San Francisco and Monterey seminar colleagues decided to create a Transactional Analysis Association, naming it the International Transactional Analysis Association in recognition of the growing number of Transactional Analysis professionals outside the USA. The new organization was designated successor to the San Francisco Social Psychiatry Seminars, and the San Francisco seminar changed its name to the San Francisco Transactional Analysis Seminar in recognition of the fact that it was only one of the many branches of the ITAA.
The Last Years
The years from 1964 to 1970 were restless ones for Berne. After his second divorce his personal life became chaotic as he tried to find another mate. His frustration in this area led him to work longer hours at his writing, but when he did remarry in 1967, he did not give up any of his increasingly complex writing commitments. By early 1970 he was once again divorced.
In 1970, Berne suffered two heart attacks. Two weeks before the first heart attack, Berne told his friends how well he felt. He had just completed two books, Sex in Human Loving and What do You Say After You Say Hello?, and was pleased about how they had turned out. He actually allowed himself some weekends of pure play, with no writing. However, in June 1970 he suffered the first sharp pains that went through his chest and back. A few days later he suffered another heart attack, this time a massive one, which caused his death. Eric died on July 15, 1970.