Analysis and Psychoanalysis:Writing
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The author compares the languages of transactional analysis and
psychoanalysis and argues that in his break with psychoanalysis, Eric Berne took
leave, primarily, of the linguistic and therefore conceptual style of
psychoanalysis. He sought to write, speak, and think about observable phenomena
with the use of verbs and concrete nouns instead of adjectives and abstract
nouns, which he characterized as “jazz.” This initial linguistic
transformation profoundly affected transactional analysis methodology.
In the first Transactional Analysis
Journal (TAJ) issue dedicated to
psychoanalysis and transactional analysis (Hargaden & Cornell, 2005), there
appeared an exchange of letters written by Michele Novellino and myself. In that
exchange, Novellino wrote, “You seem to be concerned about language and I
worry about methodology” (Steiner & Novellino, 2005, p. 117). In fact, I
do believe that language is the most fundamental difference between
psychoanalysis and transactional analysis—language that reflects concepts and
ultimately determines the practitioner’s methodology.
One of the reasons Berne was interested in me when we first met was that
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the celebrated philosopher, was my great-uncle by marriage.
Wittgenstein was one in a long logical positivist tradition started by Auguste
Compte, a tradition pursued by members of the Vienna Circle to which
Wittgenstein belonged. All of the members of that circle shared the idea that a
statement has meaning only if it can be shown to be verifiable through
Wittgenstein pointed out that philosophers, in their search for abstract
“truths,” had lost sight of the fact that the mere existence of a word does
not guarantee that it has any basis in reality. “Wittgenstein saw himself as a
therapist curing us of the desire to raise metaphysical problems” (Osborne,
1992, p. 152).
The positivist notion found a friendly reception in the United States
with the pragmatists, including Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey,
and Willard Quine. Even though there is no evidence that Berne read any of these
philosophers, he was at heart a pragmatist. He tirelessly reminded us that
transactional analysis writings were to be crisp, understandable, and economical
and that they should address what could be observed, using verbs and concrete
nouns instead of adjectives and abstract nouns. The title of Berne’s last
public address on 20 June 1970, “Away from a Theory of the Impact of
Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation” (Berne, 1971), was a
satirical comment (“Away from . . .” as opposed to “Toward a Theory . .
.”) on the opaque, overcomplicated, indefinite psychiatric style of the times,
full of what he called “towarding” and “jazz.”
Berne believed in using “Occam’s Razor.” (William of Occam is
supposed to have said in the 1300s that “entities are not to be multiplied
without necessity,” meaning that the simplest form of statement is the best.)
Berne had a positivistic, pragmatic, empirical bent. When a colleague once
accused him of oversimplifying, he was heard to quip, “Well sir, I’d rather
oversimplify than overcomplicate.” This honest, straightforward, and simple
approach was what initially attracted us to transactional analysis. But we were
equally attracted by the sophistication and efficacy of his method, which is why
As for myself, while I did not completely understand the complexities of
my great-uncle’s theories, I did receive a simple but decisive injunction from
Wittgenstein via my uncle Felix Salzer, the eminent musicologist, who told me
that his uncle’s dictum to him had been, “Boil it down!”
I remember when, as a graduate student of psychology and an avid reader
of Freud and other psychoanalytic writers, I began to write my clinical reports
at the Ann Arbor Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital. I enjoyed elaborating
on the esoteric “insights” provided to me by the Rorschach and the Thematic
Apperception Test (TAT). I soon realized, however, that no one was reading my
long, arguably entertaining reports except perhaps my supervisor, who was forced
to. When nurses, social workers, or psychiatrists were handed a patient’s
file, they would usually glance at the first few lines, which listed all the
basic data (name, age, marital status, etc.) and then, ignoring the elaborately
written middle pages, go to the end of the report and check the psychologist’s
At first I thought this was an indication of those other professions’
philistine inferiority, but I eventually came to see that those reports, at
which I, incidentally, excelled, were nothing more than psychoanalytically
fueled flights of literary fancy that no one took seriously. Their only asset
was that they were, at times, quite well written. We were junior Sigmunds
imitating the master and his writerly genius.
So, remembering Wittgenstein’s dictum and emulating Berne’s
“Martian” style, I took the VA staff’s covert message seriously and made
their work easier. From then on, I wrote streamlined reports in which I fit
everything I had to say, including basic data and diagnosis, onto one page so
that anyone reviewing the report could see the whole thing without having to
flip any pages. This endeared me to the hospital staff (though not to my
psychoanalytically trained teachers) and saved all of us a lot of writing and
reading time while communicating important basic information. The challenge was
to inform, not fascinate.
This may sound like I was a callow, irresponsible young man, amusing
myself with my writing style rather than caring about my patients. In fact, I
did care. Yet I believe it is true that the complex and esoteric vagaries of the
psychoanalytic writing style led me in a self-indulgent direction, with the
rationalization that I was doing something vitally important. Only when I saw
how effective contractual transactional analysis can be—as I watched patients
who had been depressed, alcoholic, and isolated become joyful, sober, and
connected—did I fully realize the crucial difference.
In his adolescent, premedical studies, Freud had been a voracious reader
and prolific correspondent. His writings reveal his youthful character, his
education in literature and history, his high ambition, and his brilliant,
ironic, and idiosyncratic writing style. He took pride in his wide-ranging
knowledge, and employed much name-dropping, allusions to works of history and
literature, and foreign language phrases. In a dense and lengthy letter to his
friend Emil Fluss, the 17-year-old Freud proudly ended, “You can see how the
words pour from my heart and the letters from my pen” (E. Freud, 1969, pg
425). When Freud began writing about psychoanalysis, he quite naturally wrote in
a mixture of medical and literary style that found great favor in the
psychiatric and lay world alike.
Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Freud and also Viennese, was in revolt
against what I would call the European style of writing, which was lustily
pursued by Freud and his disciples as well as by Sartre, Focault, Derrida, Lacan,
and many others. When writing in that mode, one is not concerned with the
precise meaning of words or whether the reader will understand what is being
said; that is the reader’s problem. The concern, instead, is to make one’s
thinking process conscious, to put it into words, a sort of writer’s talking
cure, if you will. Thus it is perfectly OK to write sentences, paragraphs,
articles, and even armfuls of books that are largely indecipherable and
Reading such material is very different from reading a scientific paper
in which everything written aspires to be maximally clear or a piece of
detective fiction that lays out neat scenarios with logically connected clues.
It is rather more like reading poetry, wherein no sentence can be methodically
plumbed to its ultimate meaning, and the meaning of the material accrues almost
by osmosis. The idea is to read, never mind if everything makes sense or not.
Surrender to the material, go with the flow, savor the luscious words and
sentences the writer constructs; in the end you will get the idea. And, in fact,
thanks to the mind’s amazing synthesizing functions, it is possible to read in
that manner and come away with a complex of fascinating ideas, even if those
ideas do not correspond to the ideas the writer had in mind, let alone to
That is not to say that all that is written in that style is
incomprehensible or lacking in objectivity. Some such authors are able to write
very understandable material, but that is a secondary, serendipitous outcome, a
fortunate accident, if you will. Freud was a master stylist and often
brilliantly understandable, even if, objectively, his assertions were frequently
fictional. Subsequent psychoanalytic writings in that style have not been nearly
as comprehensible as Freud’s.
Break with Psychoanalysis
Eric Berne was a tireless, prolific writer, initially inspired no doubt
by Freud’s writing style. When Berne broke with psychoanalysis, it was on the
basis of a self-admitted incapacity to logically, objectively deal with the
abstract aspects of it. He was not able to see the id and superego, he later
explained to us, but he was able to see the Child and Parent ego states. This
need to be able to see, or vividly intuit, what he was discussing was probably
the most significant distinction he drew between his work and psychoanalysis.
From then on he was dedicated to being understandable, which noticeably changed
his writing and treatment styles while he made frequent, irreverent references
to “all that jazz” of his psychiatric colleagues.
Berne was also on a campaign against what he called the “neurotic
writing style.” He advised fledgling writers simply to discard the first few
pages of any piece because it was sure to be full of irrelevant, defensive,
neurotically inspired items. In a humorous moment, he speculated that it would
be just as effective to tear off the top third of the whole paper (rather than
the first third) and then rewrite it (E. Berne, personal communication.)
and Treatment Goals
One thing that is common to the origins of both psychoanalysis and
transactional analysis is that they were a response to people who needed
treatment for mental and emotional problems. Berne was passionately invested in
being effective or, as he put it, in “curing people,” and not in just
endlessly and esoterically writing and talking about them, which he viewed as
irresponsible. Moved by the same positivistic perspective that inspired his
writing, he believed that clients’ problems should be clearly and precisely
defined. He especially wanted the objective of the treatment—the point at
which those problems are no longer present—described in an objective manner.
In arriving at the indispensable treatment
contract, consistent with his positivist attitude, he wanted us to replace
adjectives such as depressed with verb phrases such as “cannot sleep, cries
inconsolably, overeats, attempts suicide” and so on, and he wanted us to
preestablish the conditions for a cure: “Sleeps well, is cheerful and rarely
cries, is happy to be alive.” On that basis we could, if successful in
bringing about these conditions, claim a cure.
Some have argued that this is a soul-killing process that reduces the
complexities of life to simplistic, deadening categories. As an example,
Hargaden writes that “emphasizing measurable contracts can lead to denying the
existence of the contents of the vulnerable self and in so doing to make
transactional analysis into a type of happy pill. . . . a theory that contains a
fear of what is not readily comprehensible, concrete, tangible and therefore
controllable” (Hargaden, 2003, p. 6)
Berne was interested in contracts, not because he was afraid of the
vulnerable or the uncontrollable, but because he was intensely interested in
ensuring that transactional analysis, unlike psychoanalysis, be an effective
psychotherapy with concrete results. And he believed, as do I, that the endless,
repetitive “jazz” that invades psychotherapy journals and, alas, recently,
our own TAJ, has no relation to the
solving of people’s problems. People need to resolve their problems so that
they can be free to contemplate the incomprehensible, the vulnerable self, or
any other unfathomable aspect of human existence on their own, with their
friends and family, instead of under the tutelage of the expensive and often
self-serving, and not necessarily wisdom-soaked, ministrations of “depth”
This said, I do not mean to deny the value of soulful, deep-reaching
conversations, which can no doubt be highly inspiring, educational, and
sometimes healing between two people, even if one of them is paid for
participating. I would certainly never object to such an exchange—so long as
the remuneration is understood to be for just that: soulful, heartwarming
conversations with no implied promise of healing or alleviation of life-dulling
Let us not forget, as well, that transactional analysis is not just about
psychotherapy any longer and that our educational, counseling, and
organizational colleagues would not tolerate undisciplined psychoanalytic or
transactional analytic ramblings in their work. Try to explain to a busy manager
in a factory that her angry reaction to you is a transferential phenomenon of
unconscious-type, primary intersubjectivity based, founded on the splitting and
subsequent projection of an introjected object, and see how far that gets you.
Try instead to speak in plain words from your Adult with the Nurturing
Parent in the wings and an occasional Child infusion of humor. Draw and explain
Karpman’s drama triangle and suggest to your manager that her response to you
could be part of a game (“Why Don’t You, Yes But”) and that you may have
inappropriately promoted the game by playing the Rescuer and eventually the
impatient Persecutor and she is now playing the angry Victim. After drawing a
diagram of her ego states and yours, you might suggest optional transactional
alternatives for both of you, and that these transactions to what delete to what
might be lifelong relational patterns acquired in her childhood interactions
with parental figures. Then with your Nurturing Parent, you might suggest, by
way of permission, that both of you rehearse alternatives. This approach may
seem dry and soulless, but please remember it is a sketch; the reality,
according to the therapist’s personality, could be far more juicy and soulful.
If, after all this, you decide that it is appropriate to have two
languages—transactional analysis for your clients and the other for you and
your like-minded colleagues—then you should know that Berne was very clear as
he repeatedly insisted that we use one language overall.
The fact is that there is less and less place in today’s widening world
for the esoteric raptures of continually mutating psychoanalytic
conceptualizations except, it appears, in the expensive and easily colonized
pages of the TAJ and in transactional
analysis training programs. Here are some tests of good language usage and
writing. When reading this issue on transactional analysis and psychoanalysis:
• Do you understand
the abstract that is provided?
Does the abstract reflect the content of the article?
Does the article reflect the mandate of the issue, in this case to
contrast and compare transactional analysis and psychoanalysis, or is it just
about psychoanalysis with a cursory tip of the hat to transactional analysis?
• Remembering that
this is a transactional analysis publication, how much of the article is devoted
to analyzing transactions?
• Are psychoanalytic
or transactional analysis terms used without clear definitions?
• Do the references
show a balance of psychoanalytic and transactional analysis writers?
• Do sentences or
whole paragraphs fail to make sense to you even after several readings?
• Are the diagrams in
the article simple and clarifying?
• How many articles did you start and not finish? Why? Boring? Too long? Hard to follow? Irrelevant? Made you feel not ok; stupid or lazy?
I am concerned for readers who are interested in transactional analysis
and are reaching to our journal for information. Whatever one decides about this
or that theoretical debate within transactional analysis, I hope we can agree
that TA thrives on crispness, clarity, objectivity, and good writing. Readers of
the TAJ who find that they cannot
understand what they read half of the time—my recurrent experience as
well—might be tempted to decide that it is their defect rather than the
defective use of language that is the cause. A good test of that question might
be to put oneself in Berne’s place and decide whether what is being offered is
good writing or a lot of “jazz.”
Claude Steiner, Ph.D., ITAA
Teaching Member, is a clinical psychologist and one of the founding members,
with Eric Berne, of the ITAA. He lives with his wife and editor, Jude
Steiner-Hall, alternately between Berkeley and Ukiah, California. He has
developed a stroke-centered approach to transactional analysis and is the leader
of an emerging emotional literacy training movement centered in Europe. The
author of eight books, including Scripts People Live,
The Other Side of Power, and Emotional
Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart, he is
finishing his book Confessions of a Psycho-Mechanic; my long life of
love sex and psychotherapy in five continents and has started writing his next book, The Heart of the matter; Love, Information and transactional Analysis.
He can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.claudesteiner.com/strokes.htm
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C., & Novellino, M. (2005). Theoretical diversity: A debate about
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Analysis Journal, 35, 110-118.
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