Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory
B Overview of Interpersonal Theory B Biography of Harry Stack Sullivan B Tensions
B Dynamisms Malevolence
B Personifications Bad-Mother, Good-Mother
B Levels of Cognition Prototaxic Level
B Stages of Development Infancy
B Psychological Disorders B Psychotherapy B Related Research
The Pros and Cons of “Chums” for Girls and Boys
B Critique of Sullivan B Concept of Humanity B Key Terms and Concepts
C H A P T E R 8
The young boy had no friends his age but did have several imaginary playmates.At school, his Irish brogue and quick mind made him unpopular among school- mates. Then, at age 81/2, the boy experienced an intimate relationship with a 13-year-old boy that transformed his life. The two boys remained unpopular with other children, but they developed close bonds with each other. Most scholars (Alexander, 1990, 1995; Chapman, 1976; Havens, 1987) believe that the relationship between these boys—Harry Stack Sullivan and Clarence Bellinger—was at least in some ways homosexual, but others (Perry, 1982) believed that the two boys were never sexually intimate.
Why is it important to know about Sullivan’s sexual orientation? This knowl- edge is important for at least two reasons. First, a personality theorist’s early life his- tory, including gender, birth order, religious beliefs, ethnic background, schooling, as well as sexual orientation, all relate to that person’s adult beliefs, conception of humanity, and the type of personality theory that that person will develop.
Second, in Sullivan’s case, his sexual orientation may have prevented him from gaining the acceptance and recognition he might have had if others had not suspected that he was homosexual. A. H. Chapman (1976) has argued that Sullivan’s influence is pervasive yet unrecognized largely because many psychologists and psychiatrists of his day had difficulty accepting the theoretical concepts and therapeutic practices of someone they suspected of being homosexual. Chapman contended that Sullivan’s contemporaries might have easily accepted a homosexual artist, musician, or writer, but, when it came to a psychiatrist, they were still guided by the concept “Physician heal thyself.” This phrase was so ingrained in American society during Sullivan’s time that mental health workers found it very difficult to “admit their indebtedness to a psychiatrist whose homosexuality was commonly known” (Chapman, 1976, p. 12). Thus, Sullivan, who otherwise might have achieved greater fame, was shackled by sexual prejudices that kept him from being regarded as American’s foremost psy- chiatrist of the first half of the 20th century.
Overview of Interpersonal Theory Harry Stack Sullivan, the first American to construct a comprehensive personality theory, believed that people develop their personality within a social context. With- out other people, Sullivan contended, humans would have no personality. “A per- sonality can never be isolated from the complex of interpersonal relations in which the person lives and has his being” (Sullivan, 1953a, p. 10). Sullivan insisted that knowledge of human personality can be gained only through the scientific study of interpersonal relations. His interpersonal theory emphasizes the importance of var- ious developmental stages—infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood. Healthy human development rests on a person’s ability to establish intimacy with another person, but unfortu- nately, anxiety can interfere with satisfying interpersonal relations at any age. Per- haps the most crucial stage of development is preadolescence—a period when chil- dren first possess the capacity for intimacy but have not yet reached an age at which their intimate relationships are complicated by lustful interests. Sullivan believed that people achieve healthy development when they are able to experience both inti- macy and lust toward the same other person.
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Ironically, Sullivan’s own relationships with other people were seldom satisfy- ing. As a child, he was lonely and physically isolated; as an adolescent, he suffered at least one schizophrenic episode; and as an adult, he experienced only superficial and ambivalent interpersonal relationships. Despite, or perhaps because of, these in- terpersonal difficulties, Sullivan contributed much to an understanding of human personality. In Leston Havens’s (1987) language, “He made his contributions walk- ing on one leg . . . he never gained the spontaneity, receptiveness, and capacity for intimacy his own interpersonal school worked to achieve for others” (p. 184).
Biography of Harry Stack Sullivan Harry Stack Sullivan was born in the small farming town of Norwich, New York, on February 21, 1892, the sole surviving child of poor Irish Catholic parents. His mother, Ella Stack Sullivan, was 32 when she married Timothy Sullivan and 39 when Harry was born. She had given birth to two other sons, neither of whom lived past the first year. As a consequence, she pampered and protected her only child, whose survival she knew was her last chance for motherhood. Harry’s father, Timothy Sul- livan, was a shy, withdrawn, and taciturn man who never developed a close relation- ship with his son until after his wife had died and Sullivan had become a prominent physician. Timothy Sullivan had been a farm laborer and a factory worker who moved to his wife’s family farm outside the village of Smyrna, some 10 miles from Norwich, before Harry’s third birthday. At about this same time, Ella Stack Sullivan was mysteriously absent from the home, and Sullivan was cared for by his maternal grandmother, whose Gaelic accent was not easily understood by the young boy. After more than a year’s separation, Harry’s mother—who likely had been in a mental hos- pital—returned home. In effect, Sullivan then had two women to mother him. Even after his grandmother died, he continued to have two mothers because a maiden aunt then came to share in the child-rearing duties.
Although both parents were of poor Irish Catholic descent, his mother re- garded the Stack family as socially superior to the Sullivans. Sullivan accepted the social supremacy of the Stacks over the Sullivans until he was a prominent psychia- trist developing an interpersonal theory that emphasized similarities among people rather than differences. He then realized the folly of his mother’s claims.
As a preschool child, Sullivan had neither friends nor acquaintances of his age. After beginning school he still felt like an outsider, being an Irish Catholic boy in a Protestant community. His Irish accent and quick mind made him unpopular with his classmates throughout his years of schooling in Smyrna.
When Sullivan was 81/2 years old, he formed a close friendship with a 13-year- old boy from a neighboring farm. This chum was Clarence Bellinger, who lived a mile beyond Harry in another school district, but who was now beginning high school in Smyrna. Although the two boys were not peers chronologically, they had much in common socially and intellectually. Both were retarded socially but ad- vanced intellectually; both later became psychiatrists and neither ever married. The relationship between Harry and Clarence had a transforming effect on Sullivan’s life. It awakened in him the power of intimacy, that is, the ability to love another who was more or less like himself. In Sullivan’s mature theory of personality, he placed heavy emphasis on the therapeutic, almost magical power of an intimate relationship dur-
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ing the preadolescent years. This belief, along with many other Sullivanian hypothe- ses, seems to have grown out of his own childhood experiences.
Sullivan was interested in books and science, not in farming. Although he was an only child growing up on a farm that required much hard work, Harry was able to escape many of the chores by absentmindedly “forgetting” to do them. This ruse was successful because his indulgent mother completed them for him and allowed Sullivan to receive credit.
A bright student, Sullivan graduated from high school as valedictorian at age 16. He then entered Cornell University intending to become a physicist, although he also had an interest in psychiatry. His academic performance at Cornell was a disas- ter, however, and he was suspended after 1 year. The suspension may not have been solely for academic deficiencies. He got into trouble with the law at Cornell, possi- bly for mail fraud. He was probably a dupe of older, more mature students who used him to pick up some chemicals illegally ordered through the mail. In any event, for the next 2 years Sullivan mysteriously disappeared from the scene. Perry (1982) re- ported he may have suffered a schizophrenic breakdown at this time and was con- fined to a mental hospital. Alexander (1990), however, surmised that Sullivan spent this time under the guidance of an older male model who helped him overcome his sexual panic and who intensified his interest in psychiatry. Whatever the answer to Sullivan’s mysterious disappearance from 1909 to 1911, his experiences seemed to have matured him academically and possibly sexually.
In 1911, with only one very unsuccessful year of undergraduate work, Sulli- van enrolled in the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, where his grades, though only mediocre, were a great improvement over those he earned at Cornell. He finished his medical studies in 1915 but did not receive his degree until 1917. Sulli- van claimed that the delay was because he had not yet paid his tuition in full, but Perry (1982) found evidence that he had not completed all his academic require- ments by 1915 and needed, among other requirements, an internship. How was Sul- livan able to obtain a medical degree if he lacked all the requirements? None of Sul- livan’s biographers has a satisfactory answer to this question. Alexander (1990) hypothesized that Sullivan, who had accumulated nearly a year of medically related employment, used his considerable persuasive abilities to convince authorities at Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery to accept that experience in lieu of an in- ternship. Any other deficiency may have been waived if Sullivan agreed to enlist in the military. (The United States had recently entered World War I and was in need of medical officers.)
After the war Sullivan continued to serve as a military officer, first for the Fed- eral Board for Vocational Education and then for the Public Health Service. How- ever, this period in his life was still confusing and unstable, and he showed little promise of the brilliant career that lay just ahead (Perry, 1982).
In 1921, with no formal training in psychiatry, he went to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, DC, where he became closely acquainted with William Alanson White, one of America’s best-known neuropsychiatrists. At St. Elizabeth, Sullivan had his first opportunity to work with large numbers of schizophrenic pa- tients. While in Washington, he began an association with the Medical School of the University of Maryland and with the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland. During this Baltimore period of his life, he conducted intensive studies of
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schizophrenia, which led to his first hunches about the importance of interpersonal relationships. In trying to make sense out of the speech of schizophrenic patients, Sullivan concluded that their illness was a means of coping with the anxiety gener- ated from social and interpersonal environments. His experiences as a practicing cli- nician gradually transformed themselves into the beginnings of an interpersonal the- ory of psychiatry.