Biography

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Early Life

Rollo Reese May was born in Ada, Ohio on April 21st, 1909 as the second child and eldest boy in a family of six to Earl Tittle May and Mattie May (nee Boughton) (Alic, 2001). May spent most of his early life living in Maine City but his fathers work as a field secretary for the Young Man Christian Association (Y.M.C.A) caused the family to move frequently (Stewart, 2011). May experienced a distant relationship with his parents. His fathers work necessitated him to be out of the home for long periods of time, and his mother often left the children to care for themselves which caused May, the eldest son, to become responsible for his siblings. The frequent arguments between the parents when they were present, only served to exacerbate this distance (Bugenta, 1996; Feist & Feist, 2009). Compounding this already chaotic family situation was May's older sisters diagnosis of schizophrenia, and eventual psychotic breakdown which was attributed by May's father to too much education. This insensitive comment caused May to hold a keen dislike for anti-intellectualism (Engler, 2013).

In order to cope with his unhappy family situation, May regularly visited the banks of the river St Clair, where he would sit and watch the ships carry ore from the upper great lakes, he believed that the peace of the river allowed him to learn more about life than what the small school in Michigan was teaching him (Rabinowitz, Good & Cozad, 1989). It has been proposed that May's experience with a familial environment fraught with anxiety, and his own attempts to manage these anxieties, were the first signs of his interest in psychology (Fall, Holden & Marquis, 2010).

Academic Beginnings & Time In Greece


In 1926, after a high school career marked by rebellion, May began attending Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. However, the college's curriculum mainly focused on Agriculture disappointed May as his main interest and what he sought to major in was in English (Rabinowitz et al., 1989). During his time at Michigan State. May was apart of the founding of a collegiate magazine named "The Student" that mainly produced articles about literature. May came into conflict with the college authorities when an editorial was published, criticising the current state legislature that resulted in him being placed on academic probation. It was during this probation that a friend advised May to transfer to Oberlin college in Ohio. May enrolled in Oberlin to study Liberal Arts and in 1930, graduated with a BA in his major English, as well as in three minors, History, Literature, and Greek (Shook, 2005; Rabinowitz et al., 1989).

During his time in Oberlin, May was enraptured by the simple elegance of an antique Greek vase and decided to travel to Greece after his graduation. Between 1930 and 1933, he taught English to boys aged 12-18 in Anatolia College located in Salonika (Engler, 2013). In spite of a possessing a lucrative teaching job and fulfilling his dream of living to Greece, May felt a deep sense of loneliness due to a language barrier between him and the locals. This loneliness developed into a nervous exhaustion that led to May spending two weeks in bed, attempting to gather the energy needed to cope with his lethargy and return to teaching (Bilmes, 1978 as cited in Pitchford, 2009). These two weeks also caused May to believe that he had been leading the wrong life and that he needed to change (Schneider, Galvin & Serlin, 2009).

Two things helped May facilitate this change, the first was seeing beauty as therapeutic. May wrote in his memoir A Quest for Beauty that while walking around the hills of Greece, he came upon a a field full of poppies which made him realise that he had been to uptight and focused only on his work, that he had forgotten to spend time appreciating the beauty that was around him,this revelation caused May to modify his approach to life by becoming more active and creative (Diamond, 2009). Subsequently, he rediscovered his love of painting and channelled his creative impulses through his paintings (Pitchford, 2009).

The second was when he saw a flyer advertising an individual psychology seminar that was being run by Alfred Adler in the city of Vienna (Rabinowitz et al., 1989). May said of the experience "I learned what psychotherapy can really be. It changed me really deeply. It opened up a great deal of new possibilities in my life" (Schneider et al., 2009, p. 425). He returned to Greece, and taught for one more year before deciding to travel back to the U.S.A and pursue his interest in psychology.

Entering the Seminary

May's original intent was to enrol in Columbia University, and pursue a graduate degree in Psychology. To his dismay, he found the course was focused exclusively on Behaviourism, ignoring the teachings of the Psychodynamic movement (Rabinowitz et al, 1989). So in 1933, he decided to enter the Union Theological Seminary, not out of a desire to become a preacher but instead to ask questions about despair, anxiety, and misery in the hope that the answers would help him understand joy,courage, and peace in the hopes that if the answers could not be found in a Psychology program then perhaps they could be found in the Seminary (Shields & Bredfeldt, 2001).

It was at the Seminary that he met the existential theologian Paul Tillich who May described as "the greatest influence on his life" (Rabinowitz et al., 1989, p. 437). May's opinions and views were greatly affected by Tillich's lectures and works which were filled with themes of existential philosophy, theology, and psychology (Shook, 2005). He continued studying in the Seminary until 1936 when he returned to Michigan to take care of his remaining family due to his mother and father divorcing. In order to support his family, he became an advisor to college students in Michigan State University, and lectured about counselling therapy (Engler, 2013; Rabinowitz et al., 1989). Eventually, his family situation stabilized and he returned to the Seminary.

In 1938, he married Florence Defrees ( a union that would produce a son and twin daughters) and graduated cum laude and received a bachelor degree of divinity. He was then ordained as a Congregational minister, and began work as a pastor in Verona, New Jersey (Eugene, 2009; Tan, 2011). May published his first text in 1939, named The Art of Counselling, a collection of his lectures about the process of counselling, and the first to be published in the U.S.A (Pioneers of humanistic psychology, n.d; Rabinowitz et al., 1989). The following year he published The Springs of Creative Living: A Study of Human Nature and God - a text detailing May's view on meaning and how the role it plays in the formation of personality (Morrison, 1993).

Psychological Career


May practiced as a Minister for two years before deciding that psychology was his true calling and so resigned from his ministry and enrolled in William Alanson White Institute for Psychiatry, Psychoanalyse, and Psychology in New York to study psychoanalysis (Engler, 2013). While studying psychoanalyses, May started attending night classes in Columbia University, studying for a PhD in clinical psychology. However in 1942 May's studies were interrupted again in but this time by contracting a serious illness; tuberculosis (Rabinowitz et al., 1989).

May had to leave his family and was confined to Saranac Sanitorium in upstate New York. The experience had a profound effect on May, tuberculosis had no known cure in the 40's so May was constantly wondering whether he would survive. In order to cope with his illness, May began researching anxiety and came into contact with Sigmund Freud's book The Problem of Anxiety and Soren Kierkegaard work The Concept of Dread. He admired both works, but felt that Kierkegaard accurately described how a human felt during a crisis (Engler, 2013). May's illness and consequent ruminations along with the prior influence of Paul Tillich, likely inspired May to embrace existentialism and start applying in a psychological context (Stewart, 2011).

May spent 18 months recovering in the Sanitorium before being able to return home. He began work as a psychoanalyst in 1946 and in 1948, he became the training and supervisory psychoanalyst in William Alanson White Institute working alongside humanist Erich Fromm (Hegernahn, 2008; Nelson - Jones, 2010). In 1949 May received the first PhD ever rewarded by Columbia University in clinical psychology, and in 1950, published his dissertation The Meaning of Anxiety, an in depth exploration of the causes and effects of anxiety (Taylor, 2009). In the 1950's May began to amalgamate both existentialism and psychology, first with his book //Man's search for himself// which focused on the struggle humans faced when trying to apply meaning to their lives, and (Rabinowitz et al., 1989), and then when he contributed two chapters to the book //Existence// that introduced European influenced Existential Psychology to an American audience (Morrison, 1993). He also began working as a psychology lecturer at the New School for Social Research and as an adjunct professor of clinical psychology in New York University (Nelson - Jones, 2010).

Later Life


He published Psychology and the Human Dilemma in 1967 in order to expand his theories on anxiety and in 1969 he published his best-selling book Love and Will, where he formulated his daimonic theory on love (Morrison, 1993). His work during the 60's helped dismantle Behaviourism dominating influence over Psychology (Kaslow & Massey, 2004). May's growing influence also saw a rapid expansion in his psychological career during the 60's and early 70's; he was employed as visiting professor at Harvard in 1964, Princeton in 1967, Yale in 1972, University of California in 1973, and Brooklyn College from 1974-1975 (Shook, 2005).

However, May's personal life did not enjoy the same success when in 1968 he divorced from his wife of thirty years, Florence Defrees. He married again in 1971 to Ingrid Scholl (Bugenta, 1996) and went to publish three books throughout the early 70's. //Power and Innocence; A Search for the Sources of Violence// was released in 1972, and consisted of May defining terms within a existential framework. //Paulus: Reminiscence of a friendship// followed the year after and was written as a tribute to May's mentor Paul Tillich. The Courage to Create was published in 1975, and detailed May's idea of using courage to overcome psychological obstacles. May retired from academic life in 1976, and moved to California so to focus solely on his clinical work while still retaining some connections to Saybrook Institute and the school of Professional Psychology in California (Shook, 2005).

His second marriage ended in divorce in 1978 (Bugenta, 1996). May attributed the past two failures of his marriages to his relationship with his mother who he described as a "bitch kitty on wheels", and caused him to become him fearful of remarrying (Rabinowitz et al., 1989, p. 437). However, May dissuaded himself of these fear and married Georgia Miller Johnson, a Jungian analyst in 1988. Before the marriage, May was still actively contributing to psychological literature, beginning in 1981 with the publication of Freedom and Destiny, a work that focused on the relationship between destiny and freedom and its effects on people. The Discovery of Being; Writings in Existential Psychology was released in 1983, and analysed the perspectives of other psychological theorists and compared them to Existential Psychology. Two years later he published //My Quest for Beauty//, a quasi memoir that explored May's ides about Beauty. In 1991, May published //The Cry for Myth//, a work that discussed how humans apply myths to their lives. Two days before his death, he edited a copy of The Psychology of Existence, a book that intended to bring Existential Psychology back into the public's conscience and would be released in 1995. Rollo Reese May died on October 22nd, 1994 at the age of 85 from multiple causes (Bugenta, 1996).

"I wouldn't want to go through this life again. I mean, one time is enough. I don't think that I'd do anything differently, but it would be too boring" (May as cited in Rabinowitz et al., 1989, p. 439).