Jane G. Tillman, PhD, ABPP, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research

Current and former Austen Riggs Center staff share their thoughts on the passing of Ben Barber, PhD, longtime member of the Erikson Institute Council of Scholars.

We were deeply saddened to learn that Ben Barber, PhD, a longtime member of the Erikson Institute Council of Scholars, died last week, following a four-month battle with cancer. Ben participated as a speaker on several occasions at Fall Conferences and he was passionate about the Erikson Institute and the ways he wanted Riggs to develop a voice in the wider world about identity, citizenship, and democracy. He passionately insisted on a vision for the Erikson Institute that included a sociopolitical perspective, feeling that our work with patients could give us a unique perspective on small and large group processes.

I asked three current and former Riggs leaders to share their thoughts on Ben Barber below.

Edward R. Shapiro, MD
Former Medical Director/CEO, Austen Riggs Center

Following the death of Erik Erikson in 1994, the Austen Riggs Center formed the Erikson Institute for Research and Education. This was to be our structure for applying what we were learning from our intensive clinical work to the problems of the larger society. We recognized that we needed advice, so we began looking for distinguished scholars who had successfully combined a depth of psychological understanding with another discipline—and who had found a way to make that multidisciplinary perspective have a significant impact. Ben Barber was the prototype of the fully engaged scholar—and a natural fit for Riggs. His seminal book, Jihad vs McWorld, illuminated the complex sociopolitical dynamics of terrorism, and inspired us to open our eyes to a larger view of the chaotic world in which both staff and patients are embedded.

Ben had a comprehensive grasp of unconscious social dynamics and the most passionate commitment to the values and ideals of democracy that I have ever seen. He quickly recognized that Riggs’ focus on the independent voice of our patients and our authorization of their collective competence in engagement with the staff were connected with the values of democracy that he knew so well. He pushed, prodded, inspired, even occasionally demanded that we move outside of the clinical and scientific voice in order to add the interdisciplinary perspective. His voice often led the passionate discussions in our Council of Scholars. I only wish I had recorded some of those discussions so that I could pass on his thinking to the next generation of the Erikson Institute.

Ben was a vibrant, dynamic, creative man who had so much more to offer. I was stunned that he was taken from us so early. I will always be grateful for his contribution to the development of the Erikson Institute and for all I learned from him. We will not soon see his equal.

Eric M. Plakun, MD, DLFAPA, FACPsych
Associate Medical Director/Director of Biopsychosocial Advocacy

Ben was an intellectual giant and visionary thinker. He understood that isolated and apparently opposing groups were actually heavily interdependent, as in his brilliant Jihad versus McWorld, where stereotypical Jihadi terrorists wore Nikes and depended on mass media that were in fact created by the McWorld of McDonald’s, Apple, and other giant corporations—two opposing forces that feared and hated, but needed each other. Ben could see before we could that the “transdyadic” perspective on world affairs had links to our clinical work within a therapeutic community, mirroring aspects of how clinicians view therapeutic dyads from the perspective of a “third” space—a transdyadic clinical perspective. I borrowed his metaphor in a paper offering a transdyadic perspective to try to make sense of how managed care was affecting clinical work in a 2002 paper entitled Jihad, McWorld and Enactment in the Post-Modern Mental Health World. Ben helped us see the connection between our clinical work and issues in the larger world, he helped us make sense of that rapidly changing larger world, and I wish he were still here to offer his helpful and healing transdyadic perspective on our nation’s current red state/blue state divide.

M. Gerard Fromm, PhD, ABPP
Distinguished Faculty, Erikson Institute for Education and Research, Austen Riggs Center

Sometime in the mid-90s. The old firehouse on Elm Street. A few people pulled together by Ed Shapiro to dream up an Erikson Institute. Kai Erikson was there, with his blessing, his wit, and his astute thinking. And so was Ben Barber, whom I had not known until that time. What I remember was his easy connection to this project, not necessarily an obvious fit for a political scientist. Ben saw something many of us hadn’t fully spelled out to ourselves: that the struggle for autonomy held an importance beyond one person’s psychological conflicts; it was about everyone’s potential pain: the pain of not being in charge of yourself and of not being able to relate to others in such a way as to achieve it. This deep understanding of something foundational to Riggs’ open treatment setting was what kept Ben with us—and driving us—for all the years since.

I also saw in the firehouse Ben’s ease with institution-building and a confidence that of course we could do this. Dreaming up the Erikson Institute could actually translate to programs and structure and connections. He made his guidance and his networks available for this, all based on the vision he challenged us to grapple with and aspire to. That vision, delivered with great passion and perseverance, was about our and, it turned out, his primary task: alleviating human suffering. He saw that democratic communities, large or small, were therapeutic communities, and vice versa: that engagement, commitment, voice, conflict, compromise, and coming together for something larger than ourselves were sacred values, as important for our patients’ getting better as they were for our country’s more perfect union. This was his guiding star and he helped us see it in our own firmament.

Ben also put his time and his intellectual heft where his vision was. He presented at a number of interdisciplinary forums. He discussed the work of visiting Erikson Scholars. He helped organize a Fall Conference on citizenship. He served on the search committee for the first Erikson Institute director and then, since its beginning, on the Council of Scholars. He was a force on the Council, always in the direction of the values he championed. I once introduced him as our superego, meaning our conscience, to which we had to account, and our ideals, to which we had to even more so.

Not long ago, we ran into each other on the street in New Haven, each of us involved with different events there. There was a softness about him—that ease, humor, and love for what’s happening I had seen back in the firehouse—and we had a very warm exchange. We will always be grateful for Ben’s profound and lasting contributions to the Erikson Institute. He takes his place among our guiding stars.