The Professional World of the Scribes
of A Course in Miracles
by William W. Whitson, Ph.D.
The story of the inception of A Course in Miracles is well known to its students. By 1965, Drs. William Thetford and Helen Schucman were not run-of-the-mill psychologists. They were at the top of their field. Bill was co-editor of the prestigious Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Helen was a statistician without rival. What is less well known is the nature of their professional work between 1951 and 1965, fourteen years before the advent of the Course. In what way did their work prepare them for the Course?
In 1951, Bill began to work with John Gittinger to develop the Personality Assessment System (or PAS). In 1958, Helen joined him under a grant at Columbia College School of Physicians and Surgeons. Unlike the Myers-Briggs questionnaire (MBTI), first published eight years earlier in 1943, the PAS aimed at understanding a deeply personal drama: the process by which every human being makes his or her own sense of self: a personality. Gittinger and his staff reviewed all known concepts and methods to identify and measure subtle childhood choices and decisions. Gradually they began to categorize personality types along three different dimensions: intellectual, procedural, and social-interpersonal. More exciting was their discovery that each life cycle goes through three different developmental stages: the “Primitive” phase from birth to about 6 years of age; the “Basic” phase from 6 to 12; and the “Contact” phase between 13 to 21. After that age, the PAS proposed, a person’s greatest work of art, their deep, hard-won sense of identity, would not usually undergo further changes. By 1962, the PAS had matured to a level of descriptive and predictive power that far exceeded anything ever imagined by John Gittinger, not to mention Freud or Jung.
In a word then, Bill and Helen helped Gittinger craft a tool for measuring key attributes of the ego-self. How ironic! And yet how perfect for paving the way for the Course and its teachings! How did that happen?
In the spring of 1965, disgusted with the competitive environment of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Bill turned to Helen, his research associate, and said with passion, “There must be another way.” To his surprise, she responded, “I will join you to find it.”
What a challenge they faced. Bill and Helen had already plumbed the nature of the ego to its depths. They continued to take pride in the utility of the PAS, and for those who knew them only through their research and teaching roles, it was indeed their crowning professional achievement. But as the Course states, “[T]he ego enjoys studying itself, and thoroughly approves the undertakings of students who would ‘analyze’ it, thus approving its importance. Yet they but study form with meaningless content." (T-14.X.8:7-8)
By 1965 Bill had grown weary of empty form without content. He was looking for another way, a path inward that did not rely on the vagaries of personality and ego. And together, in A Course in Miracles, he and Helen were given it. For which, fifty years later, we continue to be grateful.
Historic Inquiry into "Personality"
A clear definition of “personality” was moot in the early 1950s. We should recall that, before Dr. William Thetford invested himself in the PAS, theorists of the 1920s like William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Abraham Rorschach, Henry Murray and Katharine Briggs had searched for a more humanistic approach to psychology.
In 1921 Rorschach had created ten ambiguous inkblock tests to diagnose schizophrenia. Improved by John Exner and Samuel Beck, that test would become the standard scoring system in the United States.
Influenced by Jung, Henry Murray thought that in every person’s life, his or her greatest artistic creation is the self. In Murray’s view, that self projects self- fulfilling and self-validating perceptions which he called “thematic apperceptions.” His work culminated in 1932 in the Thematic Apperception Test, which is still in use.
Also influenced by Jung’s Psychological Types, in the 1920s Katharine Cook Briggs set about devising a questionnaire from which answers might yield unique psychological
types. The test (the MBTI) was first published in 1943.
It took another twenty-six years for “transpersonal psychology,” also called “religion psychology,” to emerge, punctuated by the first issue of The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969 and the founding of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology in 1972.
Although Freud had conceived of the ego much earlier, "personality" was still so loosely subjective and anecdotal in 1947 that Dr. Gardner Murphy wrote in Personality: A Biosocial Approach to Origins and Structure:
“At the present moment psychologists are still living in the intellectual climate supplied by nineteenth century physics. In a future psychology of personality there will surely be a place for directly grappling with the question of man’s response to the cosmos, his sense of unity with it, the nature of his esthetic demands on it, and his feelings of loneliness or of consummation in his contemplation of it.... If we are serious about understanding all we can of personality, its integration and disintegration, we must understand the meaning of depersonalization, those experiences in which the individual self-awareness is abrogated and the individual melts into an awareness which is no longer anchored upon selfhood. [However] …even in our efforts in relation to field theory, we have not found it really feasible, in view of our own thought forms, to define the non-individualistic or perhaps super-individualistic aspects of human experience and conduct. To plead for closer study of less sharply defined individuality would be utterly fatuous.” (pp 919ff)
“[Thus] we have had to look upon the individual organism as an isolated datum. [[In that context we must regard]… the sharpness of the definition of the individual as the first step in the sharpness of a logical definition of …[individuality in terms of social context].”
That said, Gardner Murphy also made a plea for depersonalization beyond a focus on the individual self.
“There is no more reason to believe that the methods of the mid-twentieth
century are final… than to believe that Galileo’s methods and results were
final…. Like our predecessor, we shall rectify mistakes not primarily by the
minor readjustment of the lines of the argument but by recognition of the
fundamental limitations of the whole present system of conceptions. It is
preparation for this destruction and rebirth of knowledge to which serious
research should be directed.”
Gardner Murphy thus presaged the fundamental relationship between the Personality Assessment System and A Course in Miracles. The former is personal and individual. It explains how we make a personality, a sense of identity, from egoic raw materials. The second is trans-personal and beyond egoic pretense. It tells us how to awaken from that dream of a false reality to seek spiritual truth. Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford were privileged to explore and experience each dimension in such extraordinary detail that their total gift must be understood as a unique clarification of and promise for the human condition.
Experience with the Personality Assessment System (PAS)
In 1951, only four years after Murphy’s somewhat rueful call for a “sharpness of definition of the individual,” Dr. William Thetford began to work with John Gittinger to help design the PAS. In 1958 Helen joined Bill. They were both funded by a grant from Psychological Assessments Associates at Columbia University.
In 1959, Dr. Marshall “Mike” Heyman wrote a three-page explanation of the whole PAS system. He described each of eight alternative “Primitive” PAS profiles (age 0-6) and the processes of both compensation and modification by which we experiment with “Basic” (6-12) and “Contact” (13 to 18-21) stages of personality development. By 1999, the highly classified system had won four decades of wide praise from use in the federal government. Heyman wrote:
“The PAS is a theory of personality which is based upon the belief that at birth, everyone has inherent predispositions toward certain kinds of intellectual, procedural and social-interpersonal styles. It is a development theory which assumes that these predispositions will be shaped through interaction with the environment. The PAS uses observable behavior and/or psychological test data in the assessment process. Its primary value lies in the fact that it [can readily be used] as a tool for the prediction of behavior.”
“The PAS proposes that personality develops simultaneously in three dimensions: an intellectual dimension, a procedural dimension and a social-interpersonal dimension.
The Intellectual Dimension
“The polar characteristics of the intellectual dimension are defined as Internalized (I) or Externalized (E). Internalized (I) qualities include insulation, self concern, intellectuality and a preoccupation with a world of one’s own creation. The internalized character is schizoid; in the extreme it is autistic. Externalized (E) qualities include environmental dependency, outgoing activity and a preoccupation with the objective ‘real world’ that exists outside of himself. In the extreme the Externalized character is over affective and totally dominated by events.”
The Procedural Dimension
“The polar characteristics of the procedural dimension are defined as Regulated (R) or Flexible (F). Regulated (R) qualities include disposition toward order and organization, a preoccupation with detail, a facility for rote learning and a mind-set that is insensitive and logic-tight. In the extreme, the Regulated character is rigid and unable to see the forest for the trees. Flexible (F) qualities include sensitivity, a tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for learning by trial and error. In the extreme, the Flexible character is chaotic.
The Social-Interpersonal Dimension
“The polar characteristics of the social-interpersonal dimension are defined as Role Adaptive (A) or Role Uniform (U).”Role Adaptable (A) qualities include social facility, social responsiveness and a capacity to react spontaneously and appropriately to social demands and expectations, which invite acceptance and accommodation by others and induces confidence in oneself. In the extreme the Role Adaptable character is a social chameleon lacking integrity. Role Uniform (U) qualities include social aloofness, awkwardness, or ineptness, which invites rejection by others and instills a lack of confidence in oneself. In the extreme, the Role Uniform character is socially immobilized and entirely dependent upon a single style or pattern of behavior.”
Development of Personality
“Personality develops as these predispositions or characteristics interact with the forces and the people that are influential to that person. If his qualities or characteristics are accepted, rewarded or reinforced, they tend to be confirmed and to mature ‘in-kind.’ If the influential figures in his or her environment rebuff, reject or punish those characteristics, the individual is under pressure to change. That gives rise to ‘compensation,’ the most important dynamic in the PAS. “
“Compensation takes place in two ways: first, the individual is under pressure to arrest, restrain, suppress, or otherwise avoid or amend the ‘offending quality.’ Second, he may choose (or be forced) to acquire qualities or characteristics that are opposite to the original tendency.”
“Thus, Internalizers are placed under pressure to be outgoing and to behave like Externalizers; the insensitive Regulated personalities are encouraged to learn how to be sensitive; and the Fexible and Role Uniform personalities are pressured or seduced into learning to be socially active and charming.”
“Compensation not only results in a conditioned change in the individual’s behavior, it builds in emotional qualities that shape the individual’s motives, motivations, anxieties, loyalties, goals and guilt.”
Primitive Personality Profiles
“At any point in its development, a given personality will be characterized by an interaction of variables from each of those three dimensions. Personalities can thus be classified fundamentally as:
An IRA: self-motivated, organized, procedural and socially effective (a political style)
An IRU: self-motivated, self-concerned and socially aloof (a scientific style)
An IFA: self-centered, sensitive and socially active (an artistic style)
An IFU: self-centered, sensitive and aloof (a contemplative style)
An ERA: outgoing, organized and socially skilled (an entrepreneurial style)
An ERU: environmentally attuned, organized, procedural but socially restrained (a bureaucratic style)
An EFA: outgoing, relating, sensitive and socially involving (a theatrical style), and
An EFU: outgoing, sensitive, relating, dependent but socially awkward (a defensive style).”
The Utility of the PAS
By the late 1950s, the PAS offered a powerful diagnostic tool for assessing egoic personality. Mike Heyman’s consistent success with the PAS had brought many accurate forecasts of behavior and had inspired Bill and Helen to achieve a similar reputation for plausible predictions of behavior. Between 1951 and 1965 they played a seminal role in explicating the Freudian concept of “ego” with the PAS. By the early 1960s, their several studies about Chinese immigrants in New York City and the developmental process of children reflected their growing fascination and sophistication with the PAS.
The PAS also brought inter-personal rewards to them. Helen knew that John Gittinger respected her. She and Bill hosted him at numerous seminars at Columbia University to explore the principles of the PAS. According to eye witnesses (Dr. Mike Heyman, fellow contributor to the PAS; John Gittinger, originator of the PAS project; and Dr. Richard York, participant in the PAS project), whenever Bill and Helen explored the technical dimensions of the PAS, their joint contributions fostered a sense of professional discovery and mutual appreciation. Helen was especially comfortable with the timing, numbers and categories of the PAS. She was proud of her skills at refining the psychometry of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Test (the WAIS). For seventeen years (1958-1975) until she retired and Bill moved to California, Gittinger’s comments suggest that Helen considered the PAS her primary professional work until 1975, ten years after she began to scribe the Course. While they scribed A Course in Miracles after 1965, until 1972 they continued to present a total of six papers on the PAS to meetings of the American Psychological Association. (For their jointly written theoretical exploration of the mature PAS in 1962, see their 200-page The Personality Theory of John Gittinger, New York Ecology Fund, 1962)
An unpublished conference call recorded on May 9, 1997, reveals that Gittinger admired both of them, asserting that they were the only academics who were qualified to publicize the PAS. During that call, Gittinger offered an expert assessment of the personalities of both Bill and Helen. He said that Bill’s Primitive personality was an unusual IYA. His normal profile was an IRA. But under pressure, he could shift to an IFA. Gittinger observed that Bill could thus fluctuate between R and F behavior, depending on the stress of a situation. His colleague, Dr. Richard York, agreed. Gittinger then added, “Helen was definitely a firm IFU.” To my knowledge, no such professional assessment of Helen has ever been published before.
Transition from PAS to A Course in Miracles
What were the professional circumstances that encouraged Bill and Helen to take a huge step away from PAS diagnostic patterns towards Gardner Murphy’s call for a “rebirth of knowledge” in the Course?
By the late 1960s they certainly recognized the differences between the PAS and the Course. After three years of work on the “Text” of the Course, they understood that the Course offered a guide to liberation from the self-imposed false reality of the ego and the personality. By re-examining our “entire system of conceptions” turning their study of the individual on its head, it would become a daring and advanced exploration of ego as a cunning and persistent obstacle to our awareness of Love's presence.
The following quotation from Beverly Hamilton’s Grains of Sand is a summation of the difference between the PAS and the Course. “We are spiritual beings. We are born into this reality with the hope of receiving love. Forgetting we are love, we create a false identity for survival. This separation from our spirit is our real “death.” By unmasking this self-made impostor, we begin the journey home, not by dying, but by waking up.”
Did transpersonal psychology have any influence on the scribes’ acceptance of the Course? I have no evidence that it did. However, as co-editor of the Journal of Abnormal Psychiatry in 1965, Bill would not have been ignorant of the professional conversation about humanistic and transpersonal psychology. His parents had been Christian Scientists until he was nine years old. After working with Samuel Beck on Rorschach theory, he had worked with Carl Rogers, who taught that abnormalities could best be healed by humanistic therapies aimed at “unconditional positive regard.”
From our conversations after 1978, I believe that Bill Thetford had no regrets or illusions about his work on the PAS. He understood perfectly that the PAS helped define the personality as an expression of egoic identity. For the purpose of clarifying egoic reality, he believed that the PAS was his greatest achievement in his chosen field of psychology. As late as 1979, when I came to know and admire him, we often used the PAS to speculate about the personalities of public figures. Although Bill’s commitment to Course concepts of spiritual reality he still kept referring to the PAS until the day of his death on July 4, 1987.
In contrast, Helen told Judith Whitson, President of the Foundation for Inner Peace, that she did not respect the assorted therapies that had emerged from “California” humanistic and transpersonal thinking. Helen considered her work on the Course to be private, personal and very threatening. It filled her with anxiety lest public knowledge of her scribing might damage her hard-won professional reputation with PAS-based research. Her inner conflict was best summed up in Judy’s story about Helen’s confession. “I know it (the Course) is true. I just don’t believe it.” Judy then reminded her, “You need to substitute one letter in that statement; You just won’t believe it.”
Impact on their Inter-Personal Relationship
Did the PAS have any effect on the Scribes’ inter-personal relationship? Their work might have fostered a deepening awareness of their mutually opposed sense of personal identity, perceptions and social style. Instead, by all eye-witness accounts, their success with their research had fostered an awareness of professional teamwork, preparing them for the coming exploration of the Course. Their mutual respect would be a major asset as their work with the Course progressed.
Nevertheless, like all students of the Course, the challenge to reconcile egoic and trans-egoic selves brought inter-personal rewards and costs. In his brilliant The Stages of Our Spiritual Journey, published five years before his death in 2013, Dr. Kenneth Wapnick describes a hierarchy of six levels of awareness for students of the Course. As Bill and Helen progressed through at least five of those levels, I think the inter-personal cost of their struggle was high for them both. However, on the night before he died in our home, Bill expressed his sense of completion with the process by joyfully dancing around our living room and crying, “I’m Flexible! I’m Flexible!” Only a student of the PAS would comprehend precisely what he meant.
Dr. William W. Whitson
Foundation for Inner Peace
Publishers of A Course in Miracles since 1975