Born in Romania in 1916, Fanita English was raised in Istanbul, where the teachers in her British school pitied their small charges “for the misfortune of not being born British. That very strong sense of being condescended to stayed with me,” she recalled with a smile. A fiercely independent streak was reinforced by the fact that her father was supporting two sisters whose dowries had been spent by their husbands, as well as his widowed sister and her three children. “Do not expect a dowry like all these other Balkan girls,” he told her.
“You will have to earn your living.” The audio clip below reflects an early, quixotic career decision — long before her future as an internationally renowned psychoanalyst had swum into view.
English finished high school at 15 and was about to graduate from the Sorbonne when the German Blitzkrieg reached Paris. She fled to the United States, where Doane College in Nebraska was the only school that would accept the hand-written certificate she’d been handed in the basement of the Sorbonne in lieu of a diploma. English went on to become a psychoanalyst, establish a successful practice as a child analyst in Chicago, and shock her colleagues by abandoning it for the unconventional methods espoused by transactional analyst Eric Berne, best known for Games People Play. “Before I got into TA I used to say I was an emotional prostitute, because I was giving my patients what they asked for — ‘Oh you poor dear, gee that’s tough’ — which is not what they needed. That’s what a prostitute does,” said English, not one to pull her punches. “But I was invested in being an effective therapist.” Following her husband to Philadelphia, she founded a transactional analysis institute there and gradually transitioned to teaching TA full-time in workshops across Europe.
In 1993, English retired and moved to San Francisco. “I announced it all over: I can’t travel 13 hours to Europe, I’ll come once a year to visit maybe, but goodbye, goodbye. Flowers, presents, speeches.” Two years later, bored by retirement and encouraged by colleagues, she resumed giving workshops in Europe on a much more limited basis. Then, in 1995, a kitchen accident caused third–degree burns on her arms and torso. “I was over 82; they didn’t even want to work on me,” English said of her hospital stay. She left the hospital with Oxycontin and Vicodin addictions she hid even from her daughter, and moved into an assisted-living facility in San Mateo. “I came here to die,” she said bluntly.
Two months later, the phone rang. It was the very proper director of an institute in Germany berating her for her bad manners in dropping off the face of the earth. When he stopped to catch his breath, English told him about the accident. “There was this long pause at the other end, and then he said briskly, ‘Well, it’s only March, I’ll call you in May, maybe you can make it in June. You’re in the program already.’ And click.” Envisioning his utter mortification, English laughed her head off, “and then suddenly I thought, well, maybe I can make it in June.”
English went cold turkey from the painkillers, spent four weeks in the grip of by nausea and headaches, recovered fully, and made the conference. On a more limited basis she continued to give workshops in Europe, where “transactional analysis is alive and well. I’ve trained three generations and they’re earning a good living. In America, it’s a totally different story.” English also kept on writing for professional journals, but she preferred the workshops. “The part I like the most is working with all kinds of professionals, not necessarily therapists,” she said. Not only had her debilitated state retreated in memory, her skills continued to improve and her international reputation to grow: “I’m very good. There’s no question about it.” Why not rest on her laurels at this point? “Because we’re talking about fun. How do you have fun? To me, the challenge is what is fun. So you can’t talk about resting on your laurels.”
2 thoughts on “Fanita English: “The critical word is ‘fun.'””
A few weeks ago, my grandmother celebrated her 93rd birthday. Happily, she has a lot to celebrate (knock on wood). She still has all of her wits about her, she’s still independent, she’s still able to live by herself and she’s still very active.
Of course, there are plenty of things that aren’t so great in her life: she has stomach problems, a slight hearing loss and walks with a cane when it rains, courtesy of a hip she broke almost 20 years ago. Moreover at 93, all of her close friends have died so there are days when she gets lonely.
Still, she realizes what a blessing it is that she’s still alive and is always telling me “I’m just happy when I wake up in the morning. But if I die tomorrow, I have no regrets.” After years of being around her, though, I’m realizing that her living this long doesn’t only have to do with luck (though that helps!). She’s made many of the same lifestyle choices that scientists say can help people live into their 90s, or even 100s.
That said, I’m realistic about my grandmother’s chances of making it to 100. But I’m holding out hope and find her to be an inspiration regardless!