Harry Stack Sullivan

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Biography

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Please check out this wikipedia page on Harry Stack Sullivan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Stack_Sullivan










This is a crude working paper on Harry Stack Sullivan written by William A. Percy.


When my cousin Walker wanted psychiatric care during his stint at Columbia University Medical School, Uncle Will got his friend Harry Stack Sullivan, a man with a most remarkable career in psychiatry, involved.

Realizing that Walker would be more comfortable with a woman, Sullivan sent his protégé Janet Rioche to psychoanalyze Walker, who clearly needed help, as both his father and mother, and his grandfather had committed suicide, and his aunt (his father’s only sibling) and grandmother had had serious emotional problems, if not nervous breakdowns. I think that Sullivan sought out Rioche because he recognized what may have been Walker’s self-loathing homophobia, or his trauma upon being adopted after the suicides with his two brothers by Uncle Will, whom he soon discovered was a flamboyant gay, having sex with youths around the world and, horrible dictu, with African American teenagers in Greenville. Anyone connected to Harry Stack Sullivan knew very well how to deal with problems relating to homosexuality and homophobia.

Born of Irish-Catholic immigrants in Norwich, NY, apparently an anti-Catholic town, he had a shy, inept father who dwelt on the margin of his son's life, while his mother poured out on the boy all of her resentment at her unhappiness and low social status. A socially awkward boy, Sullivan felt rejected and ostracized by other children. Scholastic excellence won him esteem, but it further isolated him from those around him. At eight and a half he formed a close relationship with Clarence Belliger, a boy five years older who initiated him sexually. Both Sullivan and his older boyfriend, who also became a psychiatrist, remained homosexuals. In 1908 he entered Cornell as a freshmen. In June of 1909 he was suspended for failing in every class. He may have had a brief bout with schizophrenia illness, but the result of this obscure episode, that he lost his scholarship and never thereafter attended any college, handicapped him in later life.

In Psychiatrist of America (Belknap Press, 1982) Helen Swick Perry beats around the bush as to whether Harry Stack Sullivan ever had sex with his childhood “chum” Clarence Belliger, four years his senior. Inseparable before Belliger left for college at Syracuse, neither ever married. Perry believes that they did not have sex with each other (which I doubt) and that Sullivan only experienced puberty at the very late age of seventeen, after enrolling at Cornell.

In a chapter called “The Trouble,” she argued that Sullivan “became the ???” for a group of older boys who were stealing things from the post office. If his suspension from Cornell before the end of his first year was connected with the post office, I believe that it had to do not with theft but with his receiving pornography, i.e. what was considered pornographic, which could have even been academic texts on sexology, even written in German, as most still were in those days.

In any case Sullivan seems to have been a Kinsey 0, i.e. he never seems to have had any genital sex with females, though in his technical writings (so often thinly disguised autobiographical) he described how boys (without homosexual play during adolescence with other gay males, which he seems to have had) fixated on movie heroines when experiencing adolescence, as so many gay boys do even today.

If Sullivan was involved in some scandal about the mails, it certainly wasn’t for receiving nude pictures of starlets, because they didn’t exist. I doubt Perry’s elaborate interpretations that a gang that was stealing from the mails made him take the fall for them. I believe that he was suspended for “coming on” to fellow students, almost all of whom were older than he was. After all, he hero worshipped, if not had sex with his only chum Belliger before receiving the scholarship to Cornell.

I should not in passing that the founding president of Cornell, Andrew D. White, had been homosexual and as an ambassador to Prussia infiltrated the homosexual circle around Kaiser Wilhelm II to gain invaluable state secrets for our government while serving in Berlin.

In 1908, the year before Freud’s visit to America and Clark University, his theories were hardly known in the States, and the intense homophobia which they ultimately unleashed here, intensified the awareness and the fear for homosexuality in America. All this happened long before Freud’s disciples fled Hitler and Germany and Austria. By the 1950’s Senator McCarthy used such analyses to declare us security risks, especially after finding so few Communists in the State Department. Sullivan, on the other hand, spent his whole life trying to help his fellow homosexuals.

In 1911 Sullivan entered the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, a fly-by-night diploma mill that was later shut down as part of a campaign to raise the standards of American medicine. Struggling as an impoverished medical student, he took odd jobs in order to make ends meet and graduated in 1917. In 1922 he finally entered psychiatry, appointed to St. Elizabeth’s, a large federal psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. There he learned psychiatry from treating patients more than from books or teachers. Edward J. Kempf, who had written the classic paper on homosexual panic, named after him "Kempf's disease," also greatly influenced him.

Sullivan emphasized the network of intrapersonal relationships which enmesh patients. Unlike the Freudians, he paid attention to the "interactional", not the "intrapsychic" and characterized loneliness as the most painful human experience. He maintained that kindly, affectionate attention could cure many patients misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. He coined the term significant other and developed the Self System of personality traits, which from childhood could be reinforced by positive affirmation, and the security operations, to avoid anxiety and threats to self-esteem,. Without them, he opined, individuals become rigid and anxiety and lack of self-esteem dominate an adult's thinking pattern, limiting actions and reactions toward the world as the adult sees it. This school of interpersonal psychoanalysis, further developed by Karen Horney – a lesbian, I imagine – among others, stresses the detailed exploration of patients' patterns of interaction.

Between 1925 and1929 Sullivan experimentally treated “schizophrenics” – then a catch all term for a broad range of mental cases – at the Shepard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. He had great success, as Vern Bullough told me not too long before he died (and Vern had only recently heard the story from someone in New York). According to Vern’s source, Sullivan, realizing that many of the patients diagnosed and treated as schizophrenics were merely gay, replaced all the female nurses with handsome, sympathetic male ones and soon declared the patients cured and released them. The specially trained ward attendants worked with the patients to provide them with the peer relationships that Sullivan believed they'd missed out on during the “latency period.” He banned doctors, nurses and other authority figures from the ward, believing there was a homosexual element to latency-age peer relationships and that a failure to go through this stage led to self-loathing, a withdrawal from the reality to fantasy and psychosis. Thus all the young male homosexual patients, in their positive interactions with the attendants, also young male homosexuals, healed the wounds from missed male intimacy in pre-adolescence. In a never published autobiography he composed between 1929-1933, in which he acknowledged his own homosexuality, he affirmed this belief, that the prolonged period of active homosexuality in adolescences is necessary for one to have sound mental health in later life. Thus he endorsed this positive aspect of Greek paiderasteia, though to the American society of his lifetime his views were totally unacceptable.

From 1931 to 1939 Sullivan practiced psychiatry privately in New York, and underwent psychoanalysis (300 hours in all) by Clara Thompson, who stopped giving him the sessions because she was overawed by his intellect. He had ever less patience with colleagues who increasingly clung to Freudian concepts, buttressed in America and England by the influx of refugees from Germany and Austria, in preference to his own. In 1938 he founded Psychiatry, and after much bitter quarreling with the other editors, made it a personal journal. He also elaborated his "interpersonal" theories to emphasize that society itself needed to change in order to create a healthy environment for its members. In 1947 his lecture series, “Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry,” published in book form sold essentially on the basis of word-of-mouth advertising. A founder of the William Alanson White Institute, he also ran the Washington School of Psychiatry from 1936 to 1947. After 1942 he wrote little, but lectured and taught extensively. After 1945, he optimistically to decrease international tension and further avoid another war, dying in Paris on January 14, 1949.

I had long ago heard that Sullivan headed the board that in 1942 banned admitted or discovered homosexuals from joining military services. Those homosexuals already drafted or volunteered were normally given a Section 8 rather than a dishonorable discharge. I have deduced that Sullivan got appointed to that important board, in part, because of his success with the ward of schizophrenics and that he thought he was doing his fellow homosexuals a favor by giving them the opportunity to avoid the draft or get out with only a Section 8. Contrary to the common opinion which I share, I believe that we should ??? serve now and we are ???? of all other ??? around ????, but in the 40’s we would have suffered too much ?????.

Barely hiding his homosexuality, for more than twenty years Sullivan lived openly with Jimmie Inscoe, until death. Although there was no legal relationship, the youth was supposedly Sullivan’s foster son. Sullivan was certainly never a Freudian, particularly not of the excessively homophobic brand, who increased with the German-Jewish refugees in America and denigrated homosexuals and insisted on “treating” us often with shock treatment, hormones, enforced confinement in mental hospitals, etc. And unlike Freud and most of his epigones, Sullivan was homosexual without question – a part of Uncle Will’s circle in New York City. That’s why Will, who had had Sullivan come to Greenville disguised as a guest to secretly analyze Walker’s traumatized younger brother Phinizee, later got Rioche to attempt a cure for Walker from his homophobia – cleverly having him “seen” by a female.

In the homophobic environment of his own times, Sullivan had to pretend that heterosexuality was more desirable than homosexuality, and that his treatment could help patients become heterosexual. But his own lifestyle and contacts and practice shows something much different. They reveal that homosexuals in his day suffered from alienation, because society had hated and feared them for centuries.

Another gay connection for Sullivan was the (deserved) acclaim he received in Eglinton’s brilliant meditation Greek Love (1964, reprinted in 2001 by Ganymede Press), which my bosom buddy Warren Johansson, who lived with me for five years before his death, helped so much to write after Eglinton had saved Warren from the deep depression that engulfed him after his father’s brutal murder. Warren (whose birth name was Peter Joseph Wallfield) always referred to Eglinton as his “guru.” When Eglinton was convicted in the early 90’s of diddling brothers aged 11 and 9 and sentenced to a California prison – and stripped of his membership in the American Numismatic Society – I suggested that I send him a couple of hundred dollars, quipping that a little money went a long way in prison. Warren repeatedly and insistently forbade me to do so, saying that “we” could get in trouble. I didn’t see how I could, because I hadn’t done anything illegal, but Warren had participated earlier on in NAMBLA, and I respected his wishes. Eglinton died in a prison hospital in the early 90’s, and Warren followed him to the grave in 1994, just getting on his deathbed to see dimly, as he was heavily sedated, a copy of our book Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. I still miss him every day: he was the most brilliant and inspirational friend that I have ever had.

Donald Mader’s excellent life of Eglinton appears in Before Stonewall, as does my life of Johansson. Incidentally, I have published on my website Mader’s now much improved introduction to Men and Boys (a collection of Uranian poets published anonymously in 1924), expanded and updated from Mader’s introduction to the reprint of 1976. Many of the authors anthologized there were in and around New York at the same time as many who are anthologized in George Chauncey’s excellent book Gay New York (Basic Books, 1995, but not a single one is mentioned in Chauncey’s collection, while none of the individuals mentioned by Chauncey appear in Mader’s introduction. Only one of his footnotes mentions a biography of Carl Van Vechten, the gay photographer and friend of Uncle Will in his New York circle, who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The two works – one on the elite and the other a social and legal history of the common people – are like ships passing in the night! Langston Hughes, who visited Will in Greenville and came in the front door in the 1930s, is the only one who figures in both works.

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