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Katz, J.B. (1995). The Wisdom Of The Ego. By George E. Vaillant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993, 394 pp., $27.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 43:251-254.

(1995). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43:251-254

The Wisdom Of The Ego. By George E. Vaillant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993, 394 pp., $27.95.

Review by:
Jerome B. Katz, M.D.

This remarkable book, a significant contribution to ego psychology and a testament to the value of longitudinal study, presents a broad outlook on the ego and a view of a collaborative research project, The Study of Adult Development, that has been ongoing now for fifty years. For two decades George Vaillant has directed this study, in which large numbers of people are followed from adolescence throughout their adult lives, allowing the documentation of their struggles to love, to find meaning and order, and to create. From this extensive data base Vaillant develops three interrelated themes: (1) defenses are coping and adaptive mechanisms as important to well-being as are immune mechanisms and the autonomic nervous system; (2) creativity is part of the alchemy of the ego, bringing order and meaning out of chaos and distress; (3) ego development continues to unfold throughout adulthood. Closely examined life stories reveal illusion and self-deception, a kind of intellectual dishonesty and trickery, as healthy and creative devices serving maturation.

To be sure, defense mechanisms have not always been viewed in such a positive light. Freud saw them as entirely pathological rather than as homeostatic; believing they arose in response to childhood sexual conflict, he ignored their role in modulating affects and relationships, and overemphasized the psychology of drives. Correcting this view, Vaillant describes the ego in relation to the four lodestars of human conflict: conscience, desire, people, and reality. Defenses can accomplish their task either by altering these sources of conflict or by altering its expression. Vaillant identifies defenses as psychotic, immature, neurotic, and mature, and offers a brilliantly lucid exposition of each mechanism, showing how the more mature defenses elegantly balance and attenuate the four lodestars.

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