Last Wednesday, I received a text from a dear friend, Sarah Kass, informing me of the passing of Dr. Eugene Taylor. I’d called her after my last session and she was in the bar toasting Eugene with a Dos Equis. The meaning immediately hit me. “Ah yes! Eugene really was the most interesting man alive.” We both chuckled in an odd, heartfelt way. If anybody had ever talked to Eugene Taylor, they certainly would agree that he may very easily have been the most interesting man in psychology—at least as of late and definitely in person.
For those of you who didn’t know him, I have included a link about Eugene here. However, I hope you read what he meant to me personally, because it is who Eugene was in person that will leave the most lasting impression.
I have known Eugene Taylor since 2004 when I started my journey as a graduate student at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. Eugene was someone both feared and loved, and I would soon find out why. Paradoxically, he was feared for all the right reasons and loved for all the right reasons. I will start with why he was feared.
Eugene had high standards. He was one of the most difficult professors I’ve ever encountered. He did not let the small details go, and the frustration I felt over what seemed like excessive rewrites and re-examinations of my thinking was a pretty intense one. I’d heard this from other students. Eugene didn’t let me slide. He didn’t let anybody slide. If they did slide, they couldn’t blame him because he at minimum was still holding on to the rope after they let go and allowed themselves to roll back down the proverbial existential hill. This wasn’t just reserved for the classroom either. Talking with Eugene at a conference always meant being challenged and maybe walking away feeling both stupid and a little smarter at the same time. The man was erudite and his passion was responsible for this quality. Students would shore up at his table during community meals and talk consciousness, religion, and what Eugene called “the rat runners” of psychology versus the existentialists. Eugene was no less than an academic celebrity, and I’m certain that it was far more than his accomplishments that put him there. He challenged my thinking in his “models of consciousness” seminar, as well. I ate a little crow. Eugene knew a lot, and he was fascinating. I know that the first time I asked to sit at his table for one of those aforementioned conversations, I was terrified. It was a wonderful, awe-inspired terror.
I want to add, however, that during his course, when I asked Eugene for help, he responded quickly and spent hours on the telephone discussing what I felt challenged by in his course. He was clear, but congenial. He let me know that he pushed so hard because, like he felt about all of his students, he wanted me to be a good writer. I always respected Eugene for holding me to a higher standard. These are the professors that really care. These are the professors that love what they do, and do their job well. So yes, Eugene was feared, but if we students were smart enough, we would find that through perseverance and courage, Eugene was one of the best people we encountered. He was feared with the fear of God, and that kind of fear can be a very good thing if it means being better at whatever it is one aspires to do well.
Eugene was loved well for his incredible wit and crass humor. One of the first and best stories I heard about Eugene by my friend Steve Cox is in reference to Eugene’s comment at a seminar to another colleague about how “transpersonal psychology is a boil that grew on the ass of humanistic psychology.” At that time, the Association of Humanistic Psychology and the Association of Transpersonal Psychology were something akin to dueling pianos, playing off of each other in an odd kind of harmony that competed for a faster tempo or louder volume. Eventually the two developed a partnership that was actually developed by Eugene. Still, I think what Eugene really was trying to do was ensure that existentialism didn’t fade out with the advent of transpersonal psychology. Eugene was a true historian in the sense that he wasn’t just interested in the artifacts of history: he was interested in the preservation of what was beautiful about our history. Eugene wanted to pass down the heritage—the legacy. I felt very proud when Eugene contacted me and asked me to become involved with the New Existentialists project. I was also proud to have Eugene as a guest in my home during one of his visits from Boston for a Learning Community Meeting I hosted for the Existential Humanistic Institute. I myself have felt a tremendous passion and commitment to keeping the tradition alive and somehow co-creating a contemporary relevance to the field of psychology. I know that Eugene recognized and valued this effort, and so was honored that he made the effort to be present and supportive. I’ve worked very hard in my life, and in commentary about my own daughter’s high expectations of herself, Eugene comically said “Gee, I wonder who she gets that trait from.” I knew he was talking about me, and it felt nice to be acknowledged for my hard work as the juggling single Mom. And of course, I felt a little star struck.
Regarding the recognition of this struggling single Mom, I must add that Eugene had a remarkable respect and reverence for women in the field of psychology. In thinking today about what Eugene really meant to me, this is a very important aspect of who Eugene was. Eugene had a mildly flirtatious manner about him. When around Eugene, I always felt admired. The thing is, I noticed that Eugene showed this same quality of admiration to many of my female peers. However, it wasn’t a perverse, exploitive admiration. Eugene noticed and understood the power of a woman’s beauty, and yet he did not speak of this as something to be conquered or yoked. Eugene seemed to be in awe of women: not just for their beauty, but also for what a woman has to endure to break through the gender barriers. I heard him acknowledge many times how certain women he knew were blocked or shut down by men who were intimidated and felt overshadowed by their female brilliance. Even better, Eugene did not separate beauty and brains. So many times in my life, I have felt that certain men could only see me for one or the other. If I was viewed as attractive, my intelligence was not considered, but rather undermined. If I was viewed as intelligent, I somehow felt that I had lost my “feminine mystique.” With Eugene, I felt pretty and smart at the same time. It felt respectful. It felt holistic. Hell, it felt nice. Like I said, I noticed that Eugene treated all intelligent, beautiful women he was with in this manner, and to me, that was a wonderful gift—to be admired for everything that I am without an agenda being involved other than to encourage me to be the best I am in my entirety. I didn’t have to be less of one thing to be more of the other. Not mistakenly, Eugene spoke of his wife with such deep ardor and tenderness. This is a man who knew how to love. He was a respectful lover of women, and I suspect that this is paradoxically what made him so faithful to his wife. I have a son, and I hope that I can teach him to have that same kind of love for women so that he may love one woman with that degree of fidelity.
Back to being star struck, I want to close with this one incredibly valuable quality of Eugene’s that I feel to be paramount. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have met a lot of very well-accomplished and fascinating people in Existential-Humanistic Psychology. I’m also going to be candid enough to say that some of those brilliant people have not impressed me as far as character is concerned. There is a lot of narcissism in this field. I’ve seen backstabbing. I’ve seen rivalry. I’ve seen dogma and what I call “new age fundamentalism.” To say the least, people aren’t always diplomatic. What I have learned as an aspiring existential scholar and therapist is that who I choose to associate myself with and learn from are people who must have more than an amazing curriculum vitae and brilliant thinking. I must see a sense of ethics, character, and heart. Without those qualities, mentorship would feel like a peacocking farce. So here’s the thing about Eugene Taylor that to me is primary: Eugene was so very passionate and ambitious because he genuinely loved what he did and wanted to preserve that love for any student who was fortunate enough to receive the gift. Eugene was trustworthy. His challenging personality was actually a testament to that. If he saw bullshit, he called it. I think some people may not have liked Eugene for that. He was not afraid to stand up to the status quo, even the status quo that claimed they were not the status quo. Eugene fought to keep Existentialism alive because he recognized the inherent ethical value in this, and because he respected his heritage. He had a no-nonsense approach to ethics. It is easy in a postmodern age for people to chase their own tails in either searching for an answer or avoiding an answer to the point where no one can land on a common value that serves the preservation of a whole. Eugene was a brilliant philosopher, and yet I sense he was also able to stop the incessant chasing of his tail long enough to recognize what it means to make a choice and stick with it because of the pragmatic value of how things affect the world. Then again, he was a William James historian, and therefore could understand the logic of pragmatism. Although scientific outcomes could be misleading, the outcomes of our choices in regard to human relationships are entirely different. I think Eugene respected that. He had values, and he lived by them. It was indeed hard to mistake his values.
I want to finally add that the last time I’d seen Eugene was very brief and I did not sit down to talk with him. He looked pale, had lost weight, and seemed less engaging. I don’t know how he died, but I did wonder if perhaps he was ill. I then spoke several weeks ago to a favorite mentor of mine, Ed Mendelowitz (another Boston resident like Eugene) about Eugene. I know that Eugene was partly responsible for getting Ed involved in teaching for Saybrook. We discussed Eugene’s brilliance. A few days later (just a few weeks ago), I had posted a poem I bought for a dollar from a homeless man on the street. I mentioned and tagged Eugene because of the statement he once made about many of our homeless being the contemporary Thoreaus and Emersons of our time. Today, somebody liked that post on his wall, and I felt such a deep sense of serendipity and gratitude that I had mentioned him. I think part of this is because I did not really talk with Eugene the last time I’d seen him. Yesterday, I felt so sad because I realized that I’d taken the last opportunity for granted and would never have that chance again. Still, the gift in this is that I did acknowledge Eugene from a distance just before he passed. I also quote him in my own doctoral research. I don’t think I ever told him this, but I like to think that if his ego has completely dissolved into infinitude and has somehow been absorbed by all of us, then he knows.
So, I raise an imaginary Dos Equis to toast the Aikido-practicing Santa Claus who once chided me for being too weak to give up dairy products and wore the same black leather vest every day that I’d seen him: Eugene Taylor, the most interesting man in psychology.
— Candice Hershman