Eric Berne



Excerpts From

Biography of Eric Berne

The following biography of Eric Berne is adapted from multiple sources.  Family recollections, stories, photographs, and letters were used to compile this information.  In addition, biographical data from the International Transactional Analysis Association was also consulted. A comprehensive biography of Eric Berne written in 1984 was also used as a source, although the authors used the same family members as sources who wrote this biography!  Occasionally, internet searches include the search terms Eric Bern, Erik Berne, Erik Bern, Eric Burn, Erick Berne, Eric Berner, and others. All of those refer to the one and only Dr. Eric Berne.

Eric Berne’s Early Years

Dr. David Hillel Bernstein, father of Eric Berne

Eric Berne was born on May 10, 1910 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, as Leonard Bernstein. He was the son of David Hillel 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 in Montreal.  Eric was close to his father and spoke fondly of how he accompanied his father, a physician, on medical rounds.  Eric later recounted stories of travelling on a horse-pulled sleigh on ice in the cold Montreal winters with his father to visit patients.

Unfortunately, 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 to study medicine in Montreal. He received an M.D. and C.M. (Master of Surgery) from McGill University Medical School in 1935, receiving high marks and accolades from the medical faculty.

Pre World War II Years

Eric came to the United States in 1935 when he began his internship at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. After completing his one year internship in 1936, he began his psychiatric residency at the Psychiatric Clinic of Yale University School of Medicine, where he worked for two years.  Around 1938-39, Berne became an American citizen and shortened his name from Eric Lennard Bernstein to Eric Berne. His first appointment post-residency was as a Clinical Assistant in Psychiatry at Mt. Zion Hospital in New York City. He held this position until 1943 when he went into the Army Medical Corps.

Eric’s Army Career

Due to World War II, there was significant demand for army psychiatrists. Eric Berne served as a psychiatrist from 1943-46 in the Army Medical Corps, starting as a First Lieutenant and rising to Major. His assignments included Spokane, Washington, Ft. Ord, California and Brigham City, Utah. During the later two years he practiced group therapy in the Psychiatric wards of Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham City.  Eric was discharged from the army in 1946 and at approximately the same time he became divorced from Ruth. After the divorce, Eric decided to relocate in Carmel, California, an area he had fallen in love with when stationed at nearby Fort Ord.  His ex-wife Ruth and his two children Ellen and Peter stayed behind in Westport, CT.  In the 1946-7 time, 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 that he had begun in New York City prior to the War at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1947 he began to work with Erik Erikson; their working relationship lasted for two years.

Break with Psychoanalysis; 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 dared to defy Freudian concepts of the unconscious in his writings. When he began training in 1941 at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute with Paul Federn, and later when he resumed his training at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, Eric 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 galvanizing, spurring him to intensify his long-standing ambition to add something new to psychoanalysis.

With that “rejection” in hand, Berne set to work, determined to develop a new approach to psychotherapy by himself. 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 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.” 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.   Berne went on to publish Games People Play in 1964 where he introduced games and Transactional Analysis.

Berne’s Final Years

The years from 1964 to 1970 were restless ones for Berne. After his second divorce his personal life became chaotic as 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 in 1967, he did not give up any of his increasingly complex writing commitments. By early 1970 he was once again divorced. In June, 1970, Berne suffered the first of two heart attacks. A few weeks before the first heart attack, on May 10, his 60th birthday, Berne had told his friends how well he felt. He had just sent his manuscript of What Do You Say After You Say Hello to Grove Press, and was pleased about 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 caused by a heart attack. He was hospitalized and was making a slow recovery but three weeks later, while working on the galleys of What Do You Say After You Say Hello in his hospital bed, he suffered another heart attack this time a massive one, which caused his death. Eric died on July 15, 1970. Eric Berne is buried at the El Carmelo Cemetery in Pacific Grove, California.