Validation and Tenderness

The Conditions of Human Growth.
by Jane Pearce, M.D., and Saul Newton.
Citadel Press. 444 pp. $6.95.

The only American psychoanalyst to formulate a distinct theoretical system, Harry Stack Sullivan, died in 1949. His work has been continued and extended, primarily through the William Alanson White Institute of Psychoanalysis which he helped found. Psychiatrists associated with the Institute have, through the years, applied Sullivan’s theoretical formulations and point of view to the study of a wide variety of psychosocial phenomena and relationships; the name of Patrick Mullahy, as author and as editor, probably provides the general reader with the most efficient clue to the body of material to which Sullivan’s thought has led.

Comparatively little of this work has, however, been directed toward the extension of Sullivan’s thought about the therapeutic process itself, as distinct from related philosophical issues, and from considerations of human character-formation and patterns of interpersonal relationship outside the clinical context. The Conditions of Human Growth is just such an extension. The book does not pretend to a theoretical novelty, nor is it wholly Sullivanian in inspiration (the authors indicate the intellectual sources on which they have drawn in a brief foreword). It is addressed to the clinician, and will be hard for any reader not already familiar with Sullivan’s vocabulary and special concepts to understand. It seems to be deliberately underwritten; though the writing is clear enough in the sense of being precise and unambiguous, it comes out sketchy, at once abstract and aphoristic, with fewer illustrations than I should have liked. Doubtless for these reasons, it has not been getting much attention from general reviewers.

This is unfortunate, because Pearce and Newton have something important to say to anyone interested in how people become or fail to become as human as they can, and they say it with a consistency and solidity of moral purpose, and an understanding of the relationship of early experience to subsequent development, that cannot be got round. This book is clumsy and opaque, like Theodore Dreiser, or like a jeep; it grinds forward to where the authors want to go and stops wherever a process crucial to the human spirit may be observed. The vehicle is nothing at all aesthetically; the journey is dusty, bumpy, and uncomfortable. But by the time you get to the end you have seen how things are close up. There isn’t a phoney word in it.

Of all major psychoanalytic theorists, Harry Stack Sullivan was least impressed by the differences between the normal and the mentally ill. He quite blithely undertook to treat psychotic individuals by psychoanalysis, often with marked success; his powers of personal empathy seem to have made it possible for him to function, when necessary, as a kind of honorary psychotic himself. From Sullivan, Pearce and Newton have inherited this salutary common sense in the face of extreme emotional disorder. The fourth section of their book deals, for clinical convenience, with the conventional categories of crazy people, and in terms relevant to treatment. But to these alienists nothing human is alien or free of the process of alienation. There is no discontinuity between this section of the book and its more theoretical predecessors; Pearce and Newton’s conception of insanity includes no exotic element.



All psychoanalytic systems are by nature dynamic, since they explain human character and personality as the interplay among largely unconscious and stable psychic forces. Freud’s model, of course, makes use of three familiar protagonists: id, superego, and ego, with the last continuously engaged in an effort to bring the entire system to viable terms with reality’s demands. Pearce and Newton see human growth as a continuous struggle between the integral personality and the self-system. The self-system is the evil force. This is confusing at first, because most popular Neo-Freudian formulations see the growth-struggle as waged by the emerging self against personal and social forces of confusion and alienation. But the self-system is shown here as acting on behalf of these forces, in attempting to forestall the eruption of the unbearable anxieties caused the infant by the mother’s inevitable withdrawal from and rejection of certain aspects of its vitality. Thus, from the beginning, socialization becomes a form of unconscious and painful hypocrisy by which the individual conceals from himself aspects of his being that are truly integral to his development, but whose offensiveness to others gives him reason to fear abandonment and exposure. The cliché about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not very amusing to babies, especially if their mothers are sensitive to dirt or nudity.

The self-system, then, is what T. S. Eliot refers to in The Cocktail Party:

They don’t mean to do harm, but
    the harm does not interest

Or they do not see it, or they
    justify it,

Because they are absorbed in the
    endless struggle

To think well of themselves.

The integral personality, on the other hand, is what we might have grown to be had we encountered, from the beginning, other persons who could have responded with tenderness, with no element of aversion or anxiety, without fussing. If we love someone, we can even let him be.

This tender response to the active being of another person, Pearce and Newton call validation. Validation does not imply approval; indeed, it can often be conveyed by anger, provided the person who arouses the anger is not a helpless victim. But anger, like any form of real concern, may express love; what matters is that it be an authentic response to the other’s real qualities. All validation brings the person into closer touch with himself; and the act of validation can only be performed by individuals to the extent that they are in touch with each other. Tenderness, then, is expressed through continuous authenticity of response. Without it growth ceases; when there is too little tenderness or only tenderness contaminated with grossly inauthentic elements, growth is grievously distorted. This principle, Pearce and Newton make clear, holds throughout life. What is peculiar to infancy is not the infant’s need for tenderness; even Konrad Adenauer needs tenderness, though he may by now be incapable of accepting it. It is the infant’s helplessness, dependency on a single source of tenderness, and, especially, its lack of language with which to sort its experience out that make it particularly vulnerable. Early distortions are always more serious, since they deform later development. But infancy is no peculiar institution; if it were, adults could not respond to emotional maiming by remaining so truly infantile.

There is, to be sure, nothing novel about any of this; it might all be found, expressed in very different style, in the writings of, say, Martin Buber. What is unusual is finding such values expressed in specific, clinical, and situational terms. The book functions as a sort of Field Manual of Buberismus, and belongs crudely to the genre of writers like Machiavelli or La Rochefoucauld who make no distinction between theory and practice. Pearce and Newton write about human growth by fusing the concrete and the immediate to generalized moral principles, much as the soundly growing individual himself assimilates new experiences into a diffuse but consistently organized integral personality. To this extent, at least, the book provides its own internal source of validation for their point of view.



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