Eric Berne
Eric Berne (1910-1970) – Founder of Transactional Analysis

Eric Berne was born May 10, 1910 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, as Leonard Eric Bernstein, the son of David Hillel Bernstein, MD, a general practitioner, and Sarah Gordon Bernstein, a professional writer and editor. Berne’s only sibling, his sister Grace, was born several years later. David and Sara’s parents had immigrated to Canada from Poland and Russia. Eric was close to his father and spoke fondly of accompanying his father on medical rounds. Dr. Bernstein died of tuberculosis at age 39. 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. Berne received an M.D. and C.M. (Master of Surgery) from McGill University Medical School in 1935.

The pre-war years

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. In the early 1940s, Berne became an American citizen and shortened his name to Eric Berne. His first appointment as a psychiatrist 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, Ruth, with whom he had two children, Ellen and Peter. From 1940-1943 he 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 service

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 to Carmel, California, an area he had grown to love when stationed at nearby Fort Ord. Before the year was out he completed writing The Mind in Action and had 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, Dorothy de Mass Way, whom he wanted to marry. Erikson said Berne could not marry until he had finished 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 of her own children to the marriage, and she and Eric eventually had two sons of their own, Ricky and Terry. Berne loved the pater familias role, relishing 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, at which point he and Dorothy divorced. During these seminal years in Carmel, Berne 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.

Breaking with psychoanalysis & creating Transactional Analysis

The origins of transactional analysis can be traced to the first five of Berne’s six articles on intuition, which he began writing in 1949. Already, at that early date and while still working to become a psychoanalyst, his writings challenged Freudian concepts of the unconscious. Yet 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 clearly 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 was not ready, though perhaps after three or four more years of personal analysis and training he might reapply. For Berne the rejection was galvanizing, 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. Before 1956 was out, he had written two seminal papers, both published in 1957. In the first article, “Intuition V: The Ego Image,” Berne referenced P. Federn, E. Kahn, and H. Silberer, and indicated how he arrived at the concept of ego states, including his idea of separating “adult” from “child.” The second paper, “Ego States in Psychotherapy,” was based on material presented earlier that year at the Psychiatric Clinic, Mt. Zion Hospital, San Francisco, and at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Clinic, U.C. Medical School. In that second article, he developed the tripartite scheme 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.” A few months later, he wrote a third article, titled “Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy,” which was 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, Berne’s new method of diagnosis and treatment, transactional analysis, became a permanent part of the psychotherapeutic literature. In addition to restating his concepts of ego states and structural analysis, the 1958 paper added the important new features of transactional analysis proper (i.e. the analysis of transactions), games, and scripts.

Berne’s social psychiatry seminars

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 February, 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 an 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, and he longed to find another mate. His frustration in this area led him to work longer hours at his writing, but when he did remarry Torre Peterson Rosenkrantz in 1967, he did not give up any of his increasingly complex writing commitments. So by early 1970, he was once again divorced. On May 10th of that year, his 60th birthday, Berne had just sent his manuscript ‘What do You Say After You Say Hello’ to Grove Press, and told friends he was pleased with how it had turned out. He actually allowed himself some weekends of pure play, with no writing. However, on June 26, he suffered sharp pains that went through his chest and back, which turned out to be a heart attack. He was hospitalized and was slowly recovering when, three weeks later, he suffered another heart attack at 4 a.m., this time a massive one, which caused his death. Berne died on July 15, 1970. Eric Berne is buried at the El Carmelo Cemetery in Pacific Grove, California.

Berne’s major publications

Eric Berne wrote eight major books in his lifetime:

  • The Mind in Action (1947)
  • A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1957)
  • A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1957)
  • Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (1961)
  • Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups (1963)
  • Games People Play (1964)
  • Principles of Group Treatment (1966)
  • Sex in Human Loving (1970)
  • What Do You Say After You Say Hello (1971)

In addition, two anthologies of his work have been published:

  • Beyond Games and Scripts (1976)
  • Intuition and Ego States (1977)

See the complete bibliography of Eric Berne’s publications.

Biographies and a Memoir

The biography Eric Berne, Master Gamesman by Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen and Henry Irvin Jorgensen (Grove Press, 1984) is available for purchase online, as is Ian Stewart’s Eric Berne (from the “Key Figures in Counseling and Psychotherapy Series”). Berne’s own memoir, A Montreal Childhood, was edited by the youngest of his seven children, Terence (Terry) Berne.