The Ernest Becker Foundation
|A short history of the EBF|
|Written by Administrator|
|Tuesday, 23 June 2009 13:21|
EBF founder, Neil Elgee, M.D., read Becker's Denial of Death in the mid-1970s, at the behest of a patient. Denial stunned him; it was, he says, a major upgrade for his brain software. In his organizing principles, his ways of thinking, his belief systems, his understanding of the human condition, even his practice of medicine, in all of his deep meaning "realities," he made quantum leaps. He wasn't really disorganized before; but now he could put normal confusion and ambiguity in an existential frame and utilize the irony constructively.
Sparked by the curious recognition that this should arise out of a discourse on death, Becker's insights struck him as profoundly important and, best of all, they were written with brilliant clarity in the accessible prose of a true public intellectual. So he began discussing it with anyone he could buttonhole, especially patients, medical residents and colleagues and writing about it in the medical literature. The response was disappointingly lukewarm in those early years, but there were exceptions.
Of the nine people who met on Halloween 1993 to put the EBF into operation none have since changed their mind about Becker's importance. As of 2006 Marilyn Pulliam and John Wynn are on the present Board of Directors and Lee and Neil Elgee remain active. Faith Smith, the only one of us to have known and worked with Becker, gave of herself very generously for years and is now retired. Laura Schell put the early newsletters together. Meg Wingard, another volunteer professional, took over when Laura moved to Olympia, and Meg also designed and got the web page up. In Laura and Meg and other volunteers we have been most fortunate. Barbara Ivester and Mark Hart were the other two of the nine; they still get the newsletter. Robert Smith now does Meg's work.
At the turn of the century, in the dot-com bubble, fortune smiled on us in that the founders were able to offer a two-for-one match to donors and among the many who generously participated in that boost to the financial underpinning of this public foundation was Carrie Kramlich, a major Becker devotee. Carrie joined the Board of Directors and was instrumental in the hiring of Nikki Coyote as our first staffer. The Board has been greatly strengthened since with the addition of two others to the Board: Jean Lipman-Blumen and Gerry Zyfers.
How things have changed. On retiring from medicine and starting the EBF in 1993 Neil now finds a widespread openness to Becker's thought, and the EBF has become a meeting ground for scholars in many fields who had themselves been convinced of the importance of these ideas, but had of necessity been working them out in isolation.
The social science substantiation of Becker's ideas by the Terror Management Theory team had been going on from 1980, as they struggled to get their data taken seriously. By '93, with a lot of their work published, they had found their voice.
This helped physicians and others scientifically oriented take the concept seriously. Psychotherapists and analysts also joined. With humanities scholars and religious thinkers of many traditions, the interest grew yet wider, especially into the progressive religious community. And then, on September 11, 2001...
Homicidal, suicidal religious-political fundamentalism exploded in the terrible 9/11 acts of public terrorism, unveiling for all to see the pathologically murderous and grotesque consequences of the pervasive death denial on which much of the world's political assumptions are based. As Dr. Elgee stated, watching the burning towers in New York was "...like 'denial of death' written in the sky - like a Terror Management experiment undertaken on the scale of life itself!" With the motivation for these events quite transparent, continuing interest in Becker's ideas has since been much easier to engage. Becker work and interest has been mounting exponentially. This account of the EBF hasn't even mentioned the Flight From Death feature documentary and The Becker Reader, now indispensable elements of an up-to-date understanding. The best way to get the whole kaleidoscopic picture would be to view the newsletter archives, which go back to December 1996.
Laughing at Death
Becker “too dark?” He said laughter reflects a very advanced stage of faith and grace. See Neil’s "Laughing at Death: The evolution of humor to disarm fundamentalism.”
Download a .pdf version of Neil's essay here.