Biography of Rollo

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Rollo Reese May was bom April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio, the first son of the six children bom to Earl Tittle May and Matie Boughton May. Neither parent was very well educated, and Mays early intellectual climate was virtually nonexistent. In fact, when his older sister had a psychotic breakdown some years later, Mays father attributed it to too much education (Bilmes, 1978)!

At an early age, May moved with his family to Marine City, Michigan, where he spent most of his childhood. As a young boy, May was not particularly close to either of his parents, who frequently argued with each other and eventually separated. Mays father, a secretary for the Young Mens Christian Association, moved frequently during Mays youth. Mays mother often left the children to care for themselves and, according to Mays description, was a "bitch-kitty on wheels" (Rabi-nowitz, Good, & Cozad, 1989, p. 437). May attributed his own two failed marriages to his mother's unpredictable behavior and to his older sister's psychotic episode.

During his childhood, May found solitude and relief from family strife by playing on the shores of the St. Clair River. The river became his friend, a serene place to swim during the summer and to ice skate during the winter. He claimed to have learned more from the river than from the school he attended in Marine City (Rabi-nowitz et al., 1989). As a youth, he acquhed an interest in art and literature, interests that never left him. He first attended college at Michigan State University, where he majored in English. However, he was asked to leave school soon after he became editor of a radical student magazine. May then transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1930.

For the next 3 years, May followed a course very similar to the one traveled by Erik Erikson some 10 years earlier (see Chapter 9). He roamed throughout eastern and southern Europe as an artist, painting pictures and studying native art (Harris, 1969). Actually, the nominal purpose for May's trip was to tutor English at Anatolia College in Saloniki, Greece. This job provided him time to work as an itinerant artist hi Turkey, Poland, Austria, and other countries. However, by his second year, May was beginning to become lonely. As a consequence, he poured himself into his work as a teacher, but the harder he worked, the less effective he became.

Finally in the spring of that second year I had what is called, euphemistically, a nervous breakdown. Which meant simply that the rules, principles, values, by which I used to work and live simply did not suffice anymore. I got so completely fatigued that I had to go to bed for two weeks to get enough energy to continue my teaching. I had learned enough psychology at college to know that these

Chapter 12 May: Existential Psychology 341

symptoms meant that something was wrong with my whole way of life. I had to find some new goals and purposes for my living and to relinquish my moralistic, somewhat rigid way of existence. (May, 1985, p. 8)

From that point on, May began to listen to his inner voice, the one that spoke to him of beauty. "It seems it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard" (p. 13).

A second experience in Europe also left a lasting impression on him, namely, his attendance at Alfred Adler's 1932 summer seminars at a resort hi the mountains above Vienna. May greatly admired Adler and learned much about human behavior and about himself during that time (Rabinowitz et al., 1989).

After May returned to the United States in 1933, he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York, the same seminary Carl Rogers had attended 10 years earlier. Unlike Rogers, however, May did not enter the seminary to become a minister but rather to ask the ultimate questions concerning the nature of human behigs (Harris, 1969). While at the Union Theological Seminary, he met the renowned existential theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich, then a recent refugee from Germany and a faculty member at the seminary. May learned much of his philosophy from Tillich, and the two men remained friends for more than 30 years.

Although May had not gone to the seminary to be a preacher, he was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1938 after receiving a Master of Divinity degree. He then served as a pastor for 2 years, but finding parish work meaningless, he quit to pursue his interest in psychology. He studied psychoanalysis at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology while working as a counselor to male students at City College of New York. At about this time, he met Harry Stack Sullivan (see Chapter 8), president and cofounder of the William Alan-son White Institute. May was impressed with Sullivan's notion that the therapist is a participant observer and that therapy is a human adventure capable of enhancing the life of both patient and therapist. He also met and was influenced by Erich Fromm (see Chapter 7), who at that thne was a faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute.

In 1946, May opened his own private practice and 2 years later, joined the faculty of the William Alanson White Institute. In 1949, at the relatively advanced age of 40, he earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University. He continued to serve as assistant professor of psychiatry at the William Alanson White Institute until 1974.

Prior to receiving his doctorate, May underwent the most profound experience of his life. While still in his early thirties, he contracted tuberculosis and spent 3 years at the Saranac Sanitarium hi upstate New York. At that thne, no medication for tuberculosis was available, and for a year and a half, May did not know whether he would live or die. He felt helpless and had little to do except wait for the monthly X-ray that would tell whether the cavity in his lung was getthig larger or smaller (May, 1972).

At that point, he began to develop some insight hito the nature of his illness. He realized that the disease was takhig advantage of his helpless and passive attitude. He saw that the patients around him who accepted their illness were the very ones who tended to die, whereas those who fought against then condition tended to survive. "Not until I developed some 'fight,' some sense of personal responsibility for the fact that it was I who had the tuberculosis, an assertion of my own will to live, did I make lasting progress" (May, 1972, p. 14).

As May learned to listen to his body, he discovered that healing is an active, not a passive, process. The person who is sick, be it physiologically or psychologically, must be an active participant in the therapeutic process. May realized this truth for himself as he recovered from tuberculosis, but it was only later that he was able to see that his psychotherapy patients also had to fight against then disturbance hi order to get better (May, 1972).

During his illness and recovery, May was writing a book on anxiety. To better understand the subject, he read both Freud and Soreii Kierkegaard the great Danish existential philosopher and theologian. He admired Freud but he was more deeply moved by Kierkegaard's view of anxiety as a struggle agahist nonbeing, that is, loss of consciousness (May, 1969a).

After May recovered from his illness, he wrote his dissertation on the subject of anxiety and the next year published it under the title The Meaning of Anxiety (May, 1950). Tlnee years later, he wrote Man's Search for Himself (May, 1953), the book that gained him some recognition not only in professional chcles but among other educated people as well. In 1958, he collaborated with Ernest Angel and Henri El-lenberger to publish Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology This book introduced American psychotherapists to the concepts of existential therapy and continued the popularity of the existential movement. May's best-known work, Love and Will (1969b), became a national best seller and won the 1970 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for humane scholarship. In 1971, May won the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Contribution to the Science and Profession of Clinical Psychology Award. In 1972, the New York Society of Clinical Psychologists presented him with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for his book Power and Innocence (1972), and hi 1987, May received the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Lifethne Contributions to Professional Psychology.

During his career, May was a visiting professor at both Harvard and Princeton and lectured at such institutions as Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Vassar, Oberlhi, and the New School for Social Research. In addition, he was an adjunct professor at New York University, chairman for the Council for the Association of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, president of the New York Psychological Association, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Foundation for Mental Health.

In 1969, May and his first wife, Florence DeFrees, were divorced after 30 years of marriage. He later married Ingrid Kepler Scholl, but that marriage too ended in divorce. On October 22,1994, after 2 years of declining health, May died hiTiburon, California, where he had made his home shice 1975. He was survived by his third wife, Georgia Lee Miller Johnson (a Jungian analyst whom he married in 1988); son, Robert; and twin daughters, Allegra and Carolyn.

Through his books, articles, and lectures, May was the best-known American representative of the existential movement. Nevertheless, he spoke out against the tendency of some existentialists to slip hito an antiscientific or even anti-intellectual posture (May, 1962). He was critical of any attempt to dilute existential psychology hito a painless method of reaching self-fulfillment. People can asphe to psychological health only through coming to grips with the unconscious core of then existence.

Chapter 12 May: Existential Psychology 343

Although he was philosophically aligned with Carl Rogers (see Chapter 11), May took issue with what he saw as Rogers's naive view that evil is a cultural phenomenon. May (1982) regarded human beings as both good and evil and capable of creating cultures that are both good and evil.

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