Remembering Erving Goffman
London Review of Books, 2004, Vol. 26, No. 7.
Jenny Diski's portrait of Erving Goffman and her characterisation of the period from the late 1950s to the 1970s precisely captures the flavour of those fermentative days (LRB, 4 March). I came to know Goffman in the late 1950s when he and I were 'shaking the foundations' of, respectively, sociology and psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. We became competitive 'friends', if such were possible with this Cheshire-Cat-smiling porcupine.
Many of my experiences with Goffman revolved around Saturday night dinner parties. Always tinkering with the elements of personal interchange, Goffman frequently toyed with me regarding invitations to these parties. He would invite a young sociological student, Stewart Perry, with whom I shared an office, and his wife, a sociologist, to dinner proper. I would be invited, not to dinner, but as a post-prandial guest. Naturally, being as prickly as Goffman, but refusing to succumb to his baiting, I would politely decline. The slight must surely have delighted him.
Goffman was then 'outsourcing' himself at St Elizabeth's Hospital, beginning the research that eventually led to Asylums. At the same time, I was directing a ward of chronic schizophrenics at NIMH, developing treatment based on a structured programme of habilitation and rehabilitation. My maverick efforts provoked great controversy in the face of the prevailing psychoanalytic and 'permissive' orientation of the NIMH. I felt that Goffman and I shared a sort of intellectual kinship. Both of us viewed human behaviour as the ludic, or play-acting, presentation of self.
My last encounter with Goffman must have been during the final year of his life. We bumped into each other at a professional meeting, where he greeted me with a typical smiling riposte: 'I always thought I was going to hear much more of you! What happened?' 'How is your wife?' I asked. 'She killed herself,' he replied matter-of-factly. 'Finally escaped you,' I rejoined. (She had made several suicide attempts while we were at NIMH.)