PSYCHIATRIST OF AMERICA: The Life of Harry Stack Sullivan by Helen Swick Perry
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PSYCHIATRIST OF AMERICA: The Life of Harry Stack Sullivan

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Sullivan would have heartily approved this intricate brocade of a book, for it presents his life in Sullivanian perspective, placing the Chenango County (N.Y.) boyhood in its American historical context (1892-1949), seeing his eccentric personality as more than a snarl of neurotic difficulties, appreciating his unique contributions in a crowded, competitive field. And his many adversaries would find the man they knew, for Perry's research has uncovered numerous examples of behavior which fueled his reputation as ""opportunistic, perhaps power-driven. . . irresponsible about money,"" and ""a son of a bitch."" Sullivan was a poor farm boy who emerged from an Irish-American childhood of some deprivation with great expectations and few social skills. He struggled with his outsider status as an adolescent, probably experienced several schizophrenic episodes, forged a psychiatric career out of slim credentials, and never married: he lived with a male ward, perhaps a former patient, for more than 20 years. Once he acquired some professional experience, however, he found himself head-to-head with original thinkers in many fields in a search for a distinctly American psychiatry; fiercely eclectic and highly manipulative, he remained cordial with precious few--a grim record for the architect of interpersonal relations theory. The parade of eminent faces here is impressive (William Alanson White, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Harold Lasswell) as is the range of Sullivan's projects, especially assorted efforts to merge psychiatric insights with those from the social sciences. Of that enduring interest, biographer Perry is a respectful beneficiary. She skillfully reconstructs the contents of these encounters, then assesses their place in Sullivan's life and his place in the intellectual life of his times. She is protective of her gadfly but not excessively so, and she astutely examines his more exasperating moments (disappearing on the way to his father's funeral lunch) and his habitual lapses (financial debts to friends, extravagant purchases). She moves delicately in some areas (sexual intimacy) and admits to research failure on a few essentials--his whereabouts for two years after suspension from Cornell--but her hunches are so well supported that they nearly stand as facts. Her expansive, richly documented life gives the prickly, uncompromising Sullivan an often-denied stature and sees in his many interdisciplinary achievements evidence of a distinguished intelligence.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press