Something horrible happens, and our minds play tricks on us, tell us that it never happened, that it occurred differently, or isn't quite what it seems. Such trickery, the psychiatrist George Vaillant tells us, is actually healthy. What's more, it can reveal the mind at its most creative and mature, soothing and protecting us in the face of unbearable reality, managing the unmanageable, ordering disorder. In "The Wisdom of the Ego", Vaillant gives us a look at how the mind's defences work, how they evolve and change, and so, change us. Freud tells us that the first five years of life constitute destiny. If this were so, Vaillant asks, then how is it that many deeply troubled youths become well-adjusted, productive adults? Drawing on the Study of Adult Development, this book takes us into the lives of such individuals - thriving men and women who suffered grievous disadvantages and abuses during childhood - to show us that the mind's remarkable defences develop well into adulthood, that the maladjustments of adolescence can evolve into the virtues of maturity. He introduces us to middle-aged men and women learning how to make love, to make meaning, to reorder chaos.
Because he considers that creativity is so intrinsic to this alchemy of the ego, Vaillant mingles these life studies with psycho-biographies of famous artists. We meet Florence Nightingale, the intractable hypochondriac and hopeless dreamer who, at the age of 31 wrote in her diary, "I see nothing desirable but death", and watch as she transformd her anguish into altruism, her fantasies into success. In the tormented life of Sylvia Plath, we see psychosis as not only a defect but also an effort at repair, her poetry as an illustration of the adaptive process. We witness the working of the mind's defences in the career of Anna Freud, their greatest elucidator. And in the case of Eugene O'Neill, we enter the irony-filled borderland between madness and great art. In these portraits, Vaillant aims to chart the evolution of the ego's defences, from the psychopathic to the sublime, and from the mundane to the most ingenious.show more