THE DEVELOPMENT OF human beings through infancy, childhood, and adolescence has been extensively studied, and, although much more still needs to be known, especially about early infancy, there is a substantial body of knowledge about these phases of life. In contrast, the study of the developmental stages of adulthood has been neglected, as both these books affirm. Some of this neglect much be laid at the door of Freud, who was so insistent that it was the experience of early childhood which shaped adult character that he paid much less attention to subsequent development. Moreover, the early Freudians, much more than their successors, were reluctant to treat patients of middle age and over. In contrast, Jung, no doubt because of the upheaval consequent upon his break with Freud when he was 38, recognized the existence of a midlife crisis, and specialized in treating people of middle age and over, who, is his view, often embarked upon a new and important process of development in the second half of life which he named "individuation."
Dr. Levinson, although predominantly Freudian in orientation, pays tribute to Jung, and also to the Jungian member of his own research team.What he has done is to study, in considerable detail, the life cycles of 40 American male adults - 10 factory workers, 10 biologists, 10 business executives, and 10 novelists. His finding must, as he would agree, be regarded as tentative in view of the small numbers involved; but they are of importance and interest.
First, he claims to have detected a pattern of change and development in each individual which, in both nature and timing, is closely similar. This, considering how different his subjects are in character and background, is surprising. Who would suppose that a factory worker faced the same dilemmas as a novelist, and at a similar age?According to Levinson, they do. He gives names to the various stages: Early Adult Transition, Entering the Adult World, Age Thirty Transition, Settling Down, MidLife Transition, and so on. In his view, each age-period has its specifif problems and tasks; but the sequence of crises and resolutions which he describes seem tediously similar, and also too closely tied to rather narrow time spans until one realizes the underlying principle. This, undoubtedly, is that man is so constituted that he can never rest on his laurels. The moment he has achieved something, a position in the world, marraige and a family, or a successful piece of research, he is driven to question its value, and thus to look for new problems. If the problems are not there, he will invent them. Man is a problem-seeking, as well as a problem-solving, animal; and, until we die, we are continually changing, developing, and meeting new challenges.
Dr. Vaillant's study is also of adults; but his group consists of men who were selected, between the years 1939 and 1942, as seeming particularly healty. All were studying at "one of American's leading universities," which, since Vaillant is a professor of psychiatry there, may be presumed to be Harvard. Though both books are interesting, I found Vaillant's the more stimulating.
His emphasis is quire different from Levinson's, in that he does not recognize such clear-cut times in the lifecycle at which particular problems occur, but is more concerned with "patterns of defense." That is, everyone has to come to terms with instinctual drives, and adopts various ways of doing this. There are near-psychotic ways: by blaming others for failure; by acting-out with disturbed behavior; or by retreating into fantasy. At the other extreme, healthy defenses are sublimation, suppression (rather than repression), altruism and so on. Vaillant is clear that mental health is closely related with the capacity to love and also with the capacity to use aggression in constructive fashion. He also demonstrates that even the most healthy of us have problems, and that "psychopathology" is not confined to the overtly neurotic. Childhood trauma is a poor guide to predicting adult health; though children whose backgrounds have not inculcated "basic trust," and have obstructed autonomy and initiative, are likely to be delayed in their maturation. Physical and mental health generally go hand in hand, though of course there are exceptions.
What emerges quite clearly from these studies is, first, that even very disturbed adults who may have been labeled "psychopathic" can lose their symptoms and adopt maturer systems of defense. There is much more development toward maturity in the adult years than we had supposed.The Jesuit and Freudian idea that character is largely fixed in early childhood is false. A rather surprisingly high number of adults only feel free to "do their own thing" by the time they are 50 or older, and take a long time to free themselves from father substitutes.
Second, the fantasy of "arrival" which obsesses human beings is misguided. Our only true arrival is the final one of death. We are, like the Flying Dutchman, compelled to be perpetual travelers. If we are lucky, we continue to travel hopefully. Third, our ideas of what is "normal" and what "pathological" need extensive revision. As one of my teachers in psychiatry used to say: "The normal man is a very dark horse."