Maslow's Descent
When high peaks cast long shadows

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD


In a conversation with Salvatore Maddi, a professor at the University of Chicago, I recall hearing him say that, ultimately, the healing power of any psychotherapeutic method depends on the dosage of its break with the dominant culture. -- Ignacio Martin-Baro, Writings for a Liberation Psychology

I came in as St. George but found no dragons. -- Abraham Maslow, journal


Abraham Maslow was born in upwardly themed Manhattan on April 1, 1908, the first child of Russian Jewish immigrants Samuel and Rose Maslow. The boy did not see much of his father growing up; Samuel not only worked hard to support his growing family of three sons and two daughters, he stayed away on purpose to avoid fighting with his wife/cousin, an obsessively religious woman whom young Abe believed hated him almost from the cradle. As an adult he told stories of her bolting the lock on the refrigerator and of smashing the heads of two stray kittens he brought home one day. Years of psychoanalysis did not resolve this breach, and when she died, her reactively atheistic son did not attend her funeral.

Understandably, he was a loner. His childhood was spent mostly at the library reading books. He had learned his father’s strategy of avoiding home whenever possible. His sense of being ugly combined with frequent relocations to make friendships hard to come by until high school. While enrolled there he met Bertha Goodman, his cousin and future wife, and tutored her in English (she had just arrived from Russia).

Like many gifted young people, Maslow was a mediocre student. He particularly hated math, but on his own time he read the work of Upton Sinclair and other socialist writers and was deeply impressed. After spending time in law school to please his father, he transferred to Cornel, where his studies under the famous but pedantic Edward Titchener convinced him that psychology had nothing to do with understanding what he would eventually call “the farther reaches of human nature.”

What turned him back to psychology was, oddly enough, the work of John Watson. Although as mechanistic as Titchener’s brand of structuralism, Watson’s writings reflected a conviction of the equality of all human beings and the improvability of society. His scientistic aspirations fired young Maslow’s enthusiasm so hotly that he decided to become a psychologist after all. Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams also impressed him, and his work in Harry Harlowe’s laboratory, though boring at times, convinced him to take seriously Alfred Adler’s ideas about the need to feel powerful and dominant. Transferring to Columbia, Maslow worked under Edward Thorndike, who did not care for Maslow’s budding interest in human sexuality but felt impressed by the high score Maslow achieved on one of Thorndike’s IQ tests.

As the Depression eased and the Second World War loomed and then burst over Europe, émigrés of immense scholarly stature began to arrive in New York City. Maslow made it his business to get to know them: Adler, then Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, the biologist Kurt Goldstein, Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka (two men of Gestalt psychology fame), Erik Erikson, and the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In Wertheimer and Benedict Maslow saw examples of fully achieving human beings; from a reluctant Goldstein he took the term “self-actualization” to describe such people. To a young psychologist raised by an embittered mother Wertheimer’s question must have sounded like the strains of angelic music: Are there not tendencies toward kindness and justness in adults and children—tendencies which vanish if one only studies the psychologically ill?

Taking the advice of Benedict, Maslow and two colleagues spent some time among the Blackfoot Indians of Canada. He marveled to see their nonauthoritarian intertribal leadership styles, their affection for their children, their openness, and their lack of crime, dishonesty, and aggression. He began to suspect that the prevalent social science emphasis on cultural relativity concealed a biologically based, specieswide human nature centered on common needs and values.

When Maslow joined the faculty at Brooklyn College, he found promotion slow there, so slow that he did not become an assistant professor for eight years. His students appreciated his informal teaching style, however, and he was happy to instruct groups of people who clearly appreciated the chance to be in school after growing up Jewish in tough, racially conflicted New York neighborhoods. He began counseling some of them informally.

As the war exploded, Maslow went through two inner transformations that remained important to him forever after. One was triggered by the birth of his daughters Ann and Ellen. Their obviously individualized characters, noticeable even in the womb, convinced Maslow to move beyond the behavioristic overemphasis on environmental determinants. The second occurred when he saw a rather pathetic parade of veterans near Brooklyn College. Tears ran down his face as he took in the flag, the old uniforms, the Boy Scouts playing the flute off key; and it dawned on him that he must dedicate himself to creating “a psychology for the peace table,” a theory capable of understanding what drove human nature.

The kernel of it appeared in his 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It set forth a Hierarchy of Needs and the idea that thwarting them led to psychopathology, as in Karen Horney’s system of basic needs, whereas meeting them led to health and wholeness. In two years Maslow started on a Good Human Being Notebook to understand what distinguished self-actualizers from their less fulfilled fellows. Why, he asked, aren’t we all Beethovens? How good a person does a particular society allow?

As Maslow made plans for research into these and related topics, a sudden illness deprived him of energy: the first of many bouts of fatigue, depression, and heartbeat irregularities that would disrupt his explorations into the nature of health.

In 1951 Maslow accepted the opportunity to staff a psychology department at a new school: Brandeis University in Boston. In three more years his book Motivation and Personality hit the shelves to challenge psychologists to spend less time on sickness and weakness and more on health, growth, and the creative possibilities embedded in a higher human nature.

Although gifted with highly talented faculty, Brandeis disappointed Maslow on many levels. His colleagues considered his idealism naïve, and his students displayed little of the respect or motivation he was used to at Brooklyn College. In his journal he complained frequently about the graduates too, especially their desire for more guidance from him. His model of the relationship was that students should learn what they could from their teachers “from above down” without being a distraction from more important concerns such as writing and creating psychological theory. He could not understand why everyone else seemed to think that students were the reason for a university; privately, he wished that all but the brightest would drop out so that “reconnaissance men” like himself could work undisturbed. “Students are dispensable here; discoverers are not.”

It was around this time that the American Psychological Association began rejecting Maslow’s articles for publication. He had written about transcendent, or “peak,” experiences of bliss, joy, and unity bound to be frightening to readers safer with routine, rigidity, and glumness. Meanwhile, the university began hiring faculty against Maslow’s will while rejecting his suggestions for appointments.

Outside the field, however, demands for Maslow’s time began to accumulate as leaders of business and science sought him out as a consultant. He met these demands eagerly, dismissing the concerns of Fromm and Herbert Marcuse that industrialists wanted only more efficient psychological techniques for squeezing more production out of “human resources.” They did not see, he complained, that business “had changed its nature entirely.” Taking note of his growing popularity, the APA elected Maslow president; he seems not to have wondered whether his reputation meant more to an organization set on expansion and influence than his meager administrative skills ever would.

From their 1959 inception onward, Maslow’s journals paint a clear picture of an occasionally depressed and often angry idea man fighting on the home front against his daughter Ellen’s brand of anti-authoritarianism, his desire to speak openly about his support for Lyndon Johnson and contempt for anti-war protesters (he referred to Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement as a “jerk”), his frustration with Esalen’s conversion of humanistic ideas into an experiential “you do your thing and I’ll do my thing” adolescent free-for-all, and his own body (spastic colon, chest pains, anemia), moods (frustration, fear, rage), and bad dreams. Carl Rogers’s unfavorable response to Maslow’s disdain for studying the “cripples” and “losers” of the species was also troubling, as was the swelling tide of feminist concern about his comments to admirer Betty Freidan about women actualizing themselves primarily through family life. And the women who protested male domination? “Clearly they must be lacking in maternal feeling.” Elsewhere: "Deduction: men love women & women love babies. Also: women don't really need to love men, & maybe can't altogether, but need to be loved = a much better phrasing than the Freudian (narcissism, masochism, passivity), more acceptable to women, less insulting." Hardly.

It is difficult to reconcile the popular image of warm, fuzzy Abe with the man who railed to himself in private. In his journal, which he expected to be published one day, he asked quite earnestly whether people who become political activists (“Simone Weil types”) or commit suicide or get killed perpetrating violent crime are doing unconscious but effective favors to the human gene pool. At times his enthusiasm for encouraging a “biological elite” sound less like the popular image of Third Force psychology than like the eugenic musings of the Third Reich. After calling in his journal for the 5th Amendment to be abolished, he opined that one should “consider the right to bear children a social privilege & not an absolute right.” In another entry: “And then the awful question: should we try to stop the death-wishers from killing themselves? Every one who dies before reproducing has improved the human species!” His idea: show compassion to those now living, but restrict reproduction—and consider executing revolutionaries and international enemies from a Being-perspective, with love rather than hate or fear, “for their own good.”

Certainly also will have to build into this structure the whole business of the creation of self-confidence & self-esteem by social caste & class, by early training in being upper-class or under-class. Each of these attitudes is a powerful determinant of reality because they are self-fulfilling prophecies.

Other entries leave no doubt of his meaning. "In the industrial work, it often looks as if the blue-collar workers are content to stay at the lower need levels. Certainly this can be learned & cultural, but might it also be in part genetic? Perception of one's own inferiority?" So much, he writes, for Thoreau's observation that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"--it must be a projection, and a snotty one at that. Mentioning the work done on his house by a skilled carpenter, he compares the man's creativity to that of Beethoven, but without mentioning that Beethoven was self-employed, internationally renowned, and possessed of the luxury of setting his own fees. Eventually Maslow quit doing therapy because he kept wanting to tell his clients that they could will themselves into a happier life.

1968 brought an unprecedented opportunity: five years of consulting for Saga, an innovative corporation based at Stanford University in California and apparently committed to Maslow’s ideas about humanistic management and “metapay.” Heart problems, ongoing student uprisings he saw as manifestations of a “Jonah complex” against greatness, and his increasingly rebellious students convinced him finally to leave Brandeis and move to the peak of Mountain View, where they rented an apartment at Del Medio Arms. (Maslow himself was now armed with nitroglycerin, for his faltering heart.) The final stop was Menlo Park, where Maslow and Bertha received a Mercedez-Benz and enough funds for a new house and a swimming (not gene) pool.

Abandoned by friends who would not visit or call, disappointed by colleagues (Frankl “narcissistic,” Laing “bloodless,” Fromm and May “not empirical enough”), disturbed by what he saw as his family’s habit of “defeatism” (“Could they all have reacted against my optimism, reformism, hopefulness, do-good work?”), Maslow found himself increasingly interested in aggridants, or dominant personalities, as examples of the biological elite. How to foster them at a time when the old American values were coming under attack by the young, the rebellious? Why couldn’t people like Ellen accept that security (law and order) was prepotent to all other needs? How to put the elite—preferably a high-IQ elite—in charge of Eupsychia, the Good Society? How to get the majority on their side? How to convince more people that what you become in America is what you choose to become, regardless of race, sex, or class?

Maslow's image of utopia touted progress: "Why not build whole cities, e.g., for insurance companies...prepare to have the UN run underdeveloped countries & offer a contract to build whole communities on the same Eupsychian principles. Try out my idea of having a clubhouse in each large city." Or of having the corporations buy up "the visionaries, dreamers, theorists..." Today this is known as globalization. It does not generate self-actualization, but it reaps enormous profits. Its rallying cry, "the prepotency of security," has never refuted a potentate but kept many in office. In corporate hands the hierarchy of needs degenerates as the needy are trapped by the hierarchy.

Last night I heard that Leonard Bernstein is giving benefits for the Black Panthers (not the NAACP), & at once I felt of him as an enemy, someone to fight any way I could. That makes a very long list of enemies, of people I have contempt for, including an awfully big proportion of the intelligentsia community.

A long list indeed. Maslow’s journal reflects his unceasing ire at “shits” and “losers” who denounce U.S. imperialism, protest U.S. “power, wealth, success, superiority,” and protest Johnson and the war. ("I do run a kind of natural selection with people, paying lots of attention to the promising ones & brushing off the losers, the incapables.") Foolish liberals and dangerous radicals: these were the people Maslow spent page after page complaining about, never pausing to ask whether they symbolized some hidden, protesting valve in his thumping heart of hearts.

Seeing news about these events often woke him in the middle of the night with a spastic colon. In any given week he was on more than one medication, including belladonna, while writing about the need to cure psychological value diseases and eating candy bars to fight off hypoglycemia. The irony of having a “cure for cancer” while suffering from a bad heart and inflated by gas attacks bothered him deeply. “Here I am panting to get home and work!” he wrote from the hospital. “But would such happy work hurt me? Maybe not.”

Giving up watching violent films like Bonnie and Clyde because they made his heart race, he thought over but vetoed his doctor’s suggestion to wear del medio arms of masks and helmets outside on cold days to preserve his diminishing body warmth. The T-groups he helped found went around in circles about taking off all armor--the now-familiar hatred of persona--but the real question was where to keep the metal: as protection against attacks from without or as unconscious blockage within the worn-out heart.

In 1970, as Maslow, preoccupied with health and growth, was also immersed in forging a new theory of human evil, he began to jog in place next to his swimming pool, fell over, and lay dead of a heart attack. He was 62 years old.

Maslow’s last journal entry (May 7, 1970) repeated yet again the call for a scientific value system, a respectable ethos and humanistic politics and education, as an alternative to examples set by hoodlums and antimoral intellectuals. Although he regarded Freud as the greatest psychologist in history, Maslow never suspected the degree to which almost daily projections of the type Freud identified might be blasting Maslow’s pent rage onto those he held in lifelong contempt: the rebels, the losers, the protesters and activists: those who dared not to self-actualize, who protested his style of patriotism, and whose faces woke him up in the middle of the night to the march of a pounding heart or a clenching colon.

Perhaps he envied them too, especially their willingness to resign psychologically from an oppressive system. His wife was surely right about what she saw as a core conflict of his: being God or Freud while trying to be buddies with the commoners, which in his world meant questionable people whose respect he tried to win: colleagues like Benedict and Kinsey who simply ignored him, organizations that used him, freshmen more interested in being young and free (like freshman the world over) than in sipping gratefully at the stately fountains of psychological knowledge. His votes for examples of self-actualizers invariably went to Establishment types: hand-shaking opportunists like Harry Truman and “I Like Ike” Eisenhower. Notorious capitalists like Rockefeller and Ford he regarded as mentors.

Maslow’s reactive overemphasis on the otherwise laudable goals of health and growth never permitted him to see the saga in the soreness. He did not consider the psychological symptom wiser than the analytic mind trying to heal it. For him, conflict meant a kind of blockage of the arteries, not a persistent, stubborn, creative self-assertion bursting out of intolerable social situations. The closest he came to seeing this was in 1967, when he wrote, “The B-person may be more symptom-loaded and have more value pathology than the symptom-free ‘healthies.’ Maybe one is symptom-free only by virtue of not knowing or caring about the B-realm…” –in other words, the realm of eternal otherworldly verities, where Wrong must fail and Right prevail.

Yet he did not suspect his own symptoms of being psychological activists protesting his alliances with people and organizations who could never understand either him or the value of his work. Only toward the end did he sense the bitter truth in dream fantasies of being thrown out of the APA, or of showing up to public events unshaven and unshowered. The night before the only video interview to record him speaking, he dreamed of showing up to teach an auditorium filled with students, only to realize he did not know what class (!) he was in. So often in dreams the suffering dream ego is the most limited of figures, while the rest of the dream shows the true state of affairs.

That Maslow did not feel at home anywhere in supposedly classless American culture or academia echoes forth from his dreams of being cast out of his family and wandering New York City unemployed. He was not even at home in his own body. That he died near his pool takes on a tragic reflection from a dream of bobbing in the middle of a big lake, unable to see the shore and just out of reach of a rowboat. At least once he wondered whether his own Eupsychia would have permitted him any offspring.

“I knew certainly the direct consequences of having no mother-love. But the whole thrust of my life-philosophy & all my research & theorizing also has its roots in a hatred for & revulsion against everything she stood for—which I hated so early that I was never tempted to seek her love or to want it or expect it.” Society’s was another matter. He added: “All so simple, so obvious--& to discover it at the age of 61! And after all the psychoanalysis & self-analysis.” Or, at last, in spite of it. Even so, he died writing optimistic prescriptions for what ailed the both of them, he and his mother, a loyalist to the chlorinated end. At one point he had even dreamed that President Johnson committed suicide to strike back at the unfairness and viciousness of it all.

In Mexico Maslow had watched poor children waiting for scraps of food from dining Americans and wondered about the Americans, but as "responsible" individuals, not as hoodwinked tourists (the APA calls them "consumers") socialized within international economic colossi that condemn millions to abject poverty while declaring occasional "wars on poverty" that are actually wars on the consciousness of poverty. Yet bewildered Maslow dared to write: “It all seems to boil down to something like ‘Who are the superiors? The elite? The natural aristocrats? The best ones?’” Those who fight to the last breath to outgrow unjust norms? Those symptomatic enough to feel the sense of injustice in their own minds and bodies? No: those who can be symptom-free, strong, bright, pure, and Olympian, inhabiting at last the skscraping skyline of the well-tailored "human spirit." It is no coincidence that some of the transpersonal psychologies Maslow inspired spend so much effort charting the heights and peaks of ideal health while framing tragedy and illness as pitiably unevolved. At best they sketch new landscapes of the mind to explore; at worst their writings recall the tone of colonial cartographers shaking their heads over the fallen state of benighted natives.

For Maslow, in the end, it was all a matter of health, not heart; but his heart had the final word over all considerations of health. The heart always does; and on the day the psychology industry finally learns this uncanny but age-old dynamic, psychology will no longer be an industry, self-actualization will no longer suffer divorce from social justice, and health of self and of society will be recognized as ultimately impossible without a healthy planet to sustain them.


© 2006-2007 by Craig Chalquist.

West of the West