Letters from Jenny

Allport's morphogenic approach to the study of lives is best illustrated in his famous Letters from Jenny. These letters reveal the story of an older woman and her intense love/hate feelings toward her son Ross. Between March 1926 (when she was 58) and October 1937 (when she died), Jenny wrote a series of 301 letters to Ross's former college roommate, Glenn, and his wife Isabel, who ahnost certainly were Gordon and Ada Allport (Winter, 1993). Allport originally published parts of these letters anonymously (Anonymous, 1946) and then later published them in more detail under his own name (Allport, 1965).

Born in Ireland of Protestant parents in 1868, Jenny was the oldest in a family of seven children that included five sisters and a brother. When she was 5 years old, the family moved to Canada; and when she was 18, her father died and Jenny was forced to quit school and go to work to help support her family. After 9 years, her brothers and sisters became self-supporting; and Jenny, who had always been considered rebellious, scandalized her family by marrying a divorced man, a decision that further alienated her from her conservatively religious family.

After only 2 years of marriage, Jenny's husband died. A month or so later, her son Ross was born. This was 1897, the same year Gordon Allport, Ross's future college roommate, was born. The next 17 years were somewhat contented ones for Jenny. Her world revolved around her son, and she worked hard to ensure that he had everything he wanted. She told Ross that, aside from art, the world was a miserable place and that it was her duty to sacrifice for him because she was responsible for his existence.

When Ross moved away to attend college, Jenny continued to scrimp in order to pay all his bills. As Ross began to be interested in women, the idyllic mother-son relationship came to an end. The two quarreled often and bitterly over his female friends. Jenny referred to each of them as prostitutes or whores, including the woman Ross married. With that marriage, Jenny and Ross became temporarily estranged.

At about that same tune, Jenny began an llV2-year correspondence with Gleim and Isabel (Gordon and Ada) in which she revealed much about both her life

Chapter 13 Allport: Psychology of the Individual 387

and her personality. The early letters showed that she was deeply concerned with money, death, and Ross. She felt that Ross was ungrateful and that he had abandoned her for another woman, and a prostitute at that! She continued her bitterness toward him until he and his wife were divorced. She then moved hito the apartment next to Ross's and for a short time Jenny was happy. But soon Ross was seeing other women, and Jenny inevitably found something wrong with each. Her letters were filled agahi with animosity for Ross, a suspicious and cynical attitude toward others, and a morbid yet dramatic approach to life.

Three years into the correspondence, Ross suddenly died. After his death, Jenny's letters expressed a somewhat more favorable attitude toward her son. Now she did not have to share him with anyone. Now he was safe—no more prostitutes.

For the next 8 years, Jenny continued writing to Glemi and Isabel, and they usually answered her. However, they served mostly as neutral listeners and not as advisors or confidantes. Jenny continued to be overly concerned with death and money. She increasingly blamed others for her misery and intensified her suspicions and hostility toward her caregivers. After Jenny died, Isabel (Ada) commented that, hi the end, Jenny was "the same only more so" (Allport, 1965, p. 156).

These letters represent an unusually rich source of morphogenic material. For years, they were subjected to close analysis and study by Allport and his students, who sought to build the structure of a single personality by identifying personal dispositions that were central to that person. Allport and his students used tlnee techniques to look at Jenny's personality. First, Alfred Baldwhi (1942) developed a technique called personal structure analysis to analyze approximately one third of the letters. To analyze Jenny's personal structure, Baldwin used two strictly morphogenic procedures, frequency and contiguity, for gathering evidence. The first simply involves a notation of the frequency with which an item appears in the case material. For example, how often did Jenny mention Ross, or money, or herself? Contiguity refers to the proximity of two items hi the letters. How often did the category "Ross—unfavorable" occur in close correspondence with "herself—self-sacrificing"? Freud and other psychoanalysts intuitively used this technique of contiguity to discover an association between two items hi a patient's unconscious mind. Baldwin, however, refined it by determining statistically those correspondences that occur more frequently than could be expected by chance alone.

Using the personal structure analysis, Baldwhi identified three clusters of categories hi Jenny's letters. The first related to Ross, women, the past, and herself— self-sacrificing. The second dealt with Jenny's search for a job, and the third cluster revolved around her attitude toward money and death. The tlnee clusters are hide-pendent of each other even though a single topic, such as money, may appear in all tlnee clusters.

Second, Jeffrey Paige (1960) used a factor analysis to extract primary personal dispositions revealed by Jenny's letters, hi all, Paige identified eight factors: aggression, possessiveness, affiliation, autonomy, familial acceptance, sexuality, sentience, and martyrdom. Paige's study is interesting because he identified eight factors, a number that corresponds very well with the number of central dispositions—5 to 10—that Allport had earlier hypothesized would be found hi most people.

The third method of studying Jenny's letters was a commonsense technique used by Allport (1965). His results are quite similar to those of Baldwin and Paige. Allport asked 36 judges to list what they thought were Jenny's essential

TABLE 13.1

Jenny's Central Dispositions Revealed by Clinical and Factor Analytic Techniques

TABLE 13.1

Jenny's Central Dispositions Revealed by Clinical and Factor Analytic Techniques

Clinical Technique

Factor Analytic Technique






Self-centered (possessive)

Posse ssiveness

Need for affiliation


Need for family acceptance


Need for autonomy



Self-centered (self-pitying)


(No parallel)



(No parallel)


("Overstate"; that is, the tendency to be

dramatic and to overstate her


characteristics. They recorded 198 descriptive adjectives, many of which were synonymous and overlapping. Allport then grouped the terms mto eight clusters: (1) quarrelsome-suspicious, (2) self-centered (possessive), (3) independent-autonomous, (4) dramatic-intense, (5) aesthetic-artistic, (6) aggressive, (7) cynical-morbid and (8) sentimental.

Comparing this commonsense, clinical approach with Paige s factorial study, Allport (1966) presented some interesting parallels (see Table 13.1). Through Jenny s letters, then, we find that she possessed about eight central traits that characterized the last 12 years of her life—if not her entire life. She was aggressive, suspicious, possessive, aesthetic, sentimental, morbid dramatic, and self-centered. These central dispositions were sufficiently powerful that she was described in similar terms both by Isabel (Ada Allport), who knew her well, and by independent researchers, who studied her letters (Allport, 1965).

The close agreement between Allport's commonsense clinical approach and Paige s factor analytic method does not prove the validity of either. It does, however, mdicate the feasibility of morphogenic studies. Psychologists can analyze one person and identify central dispositions with consistency even when they use different procedures.

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  • elijah
    What are the implications allport's findings in jenny?
    3 years ago

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