Many years ago, Tuesday, December 5, 1967 to be exact, I attended a meeting in San Francisco. At the time, I was a student in a Sociology class instructed by Ms. Phyllis Williams, at West Valley College, in Campbell California. The assignment was for everyone to pair up and work on a project together. The task was to interview someone about adult behaviors.
For whatever reason, another student, Debbie, zeroed in on me. She was very attractive, and well proportioned, and that did not go unnoticed by me, a single 25 year-old man. We discussed various types of people we might be able to interview.
Then, it occurred to me that I might have an “in” on getting an interview with a famous person. She wanted to know who, and I told her “Dr. Eric Berne, the psychiatrist and famous author. He wrote “Games People Play,” and that had become a national best–seller.” Debbie said that would be really cool, and said we should pursue that.
Pete Edmonds, a fellow firefighter, had told me that he knew the son of Dr. Berne, and that the son and Pete used to pal around together. So, I asked Pete about that, and if he could find out if it would be possible for me and another student to interview Dr. Berne. Pete said that he would contact the son and find out how to do that.
A day later, I had a phone number, and the name of Pam, Dr. Berne’s personal secretary. When I called, Pam said that we could have a few minutes to interview Dr. Berne after his seminar.
So, Debbie and I headed toward San Francisco. We stopped at the Jack Tar Hotel to have an early bird dinner. It was a very good meal. I had good directions to the Collins Avenue address and had no trouble finding the place. It was a large two story house that looked like an apartment house. The house was very old.
When we went inside, the house smelled old as in old furniture and old carpet. There were 30 to 40 people milling about. Later we learned that most of them had an M.D. or Ph.D. and there were a few doctoral candidates who were doing field work as part of their degree fulfillment. The house was pleasantly furnished and had Oriental, early American and contemporary accessories.
This was Seminar 202, for advanced people who had completed the introductory course. Most of the people were well dressed, studious appearing, and very serious in nature.
As soon as Dr. Berne appeared, everyone sought a place to sit. I sat on the right end of a large couch. Another man sat next to me on my left. Debbie found a chair about eight feet to my right. Directly in front of me, about 15 feet away, there was a platform, maybe four feet by four feet and 10 inches high. There was a large wooden chair that had arms and a fabric cushion. It sat like a throne on top of the platform. Dr. Berne came into the room with a flourish and perched on his throne.
He had curly hair, a moustache, was slightly balding, wore thick glasses, and was smoking a pipe. He appeared well dressed in a dark suit. He carefully surveyed the room. He glanced at me and asked, “Who are you?” I told him that his secretary Pam had asked us, pointing to Debbie, to attend this meeting, so we could interview you for a few minutes after the meeting.
He looked over his glasses and said, “Oh, yes, I remember. You are the college students. This might not be the most appropriate meeting for you to attend. Maybe I should reschedule.” I said, “But, sir, we just drove all the way from Campbell so we could have a few words with you after the meeting.”
He thought about that for a moment and then told us that we could be hearing very confidential information concerning treatment modalities with patients, and swore us to secrecy – we could not divulge any information about any particular patient that someone might discuss during this seminar. Debbie and I agreed, and Dr. Berne allowed us to stay.
There was an equal amount of men and women in the room, and about half of them were smoking cigarettes. Several people gave short reports about using Transactional Analysis with patients, followed by Dr. Berne reading a report he had just finished writing for American Journal of Psychiatry. As people asked questions, they identified themselves and where the lived. Many people were from Berkeley.
After about two hours, the seminar drew to a close, and Dr. Berne, still seated on his throne, asked me and Debbie if we had any questions for him.
Debbie asked him, "Is it true that you divorced your wife, married your secretary and live next door to your ex wife?" I thought, Good Grief! How could she ask him such a question? Dr. Berne replied, “No. I live six blocks from my ex wife, but I used to live across the street.”
I asked, “Do your theories have a Freudian base?” He replied, “I’ve been doing analysis for 15 years, mostly group, some couch – social psychiatry, especially treatment in transference neurosis.”
I asked, “Do you consider yourself Gestaltian or Freudian?” He replied, “One does not really need case history. One’s games are consistent with one’s script. Freud is correct, we need to focus on here and now.”
Afraid of what Debbie might ask, I continued with another question. “Are there clinics using your methods?” Dr Berne said there were many clinics, but usually individual therapists. I asked him, “What about the Regan cutbacks?” He said that he had no opinion other than he did not like it.
It was then that I noticed some odd things about Dr. Berne. He was wearing socks that did not match, and they were the type that sagged toward his shoes. Most of the time, he sat with his legs crossed. Every few mijnutes, he would recross his legs and change his pipe to the other side of his mouth at the same time. He had done this dozens of times during the seminar and our questioning.
Then, it happened. Dr. Berne had caught a glimpse of Debbie staring at him. She asked, “Do you always talk with your pipe in your mouth?”
He replied curtly, “No. I take out my pipe when talking to deaf people.”
Debbie said something snarky under her breath; and it was as if she had thrown a cup of gasoline on an open fire.
Suddenly, they were yelling at each other! I was stunned. Here was one of the foremost American psychiatrists having an anger management problem with a college student!
The doctor sitting next to me gave me a slight jab with his right elbow, leaned over and whispered, “EVERYONE in this room is enjoying every second of this! Thank you for bringing her to the seminar.”
Dr. Berne and Debbie stood up facing each other, only a few feet separating them. He yelled at her, “You are a stringy haired little bitch.” She screamed at him, “You are an old has been.”
Dr. Berne seemed a little flustered by Debbie’s comment, but continued, “What do you know about anything, you look 15 if you look a day.”
Debbie responded, “I’m a sophomore in college.”
Dr. Berne replied, “College? Would you like to see my grey umbilicus?” as he gestured toward his zipper.
That is when three or four other men flew into action to urge Dr. Berne to calm down. At that point, I think it would be fair to say that everyone in the room was very surprised by Dr. Berne’s behavior, language and actions toward the young female student.
For me, that was a mortifying experience; and, it was a very quiet ride back to Campbell.
Several days later, Debbie and I gave our report to the class, and everyone appeared to like our report. After the class ended, Ms. Williams told me, “Thanks, I just knew that you would come through with something really good.”