Ethel S. Person, Psychoanalyst

Dec. 16, 1934 - Oct. 14, 2012
Ethel S. Person

    Dr. Ethel Person, a noted psychoanalytic theoretician who lectured internationally on human sexuality and gender identity, died on Oct. 16 at her home in Manhattan. She was 77.
    The author of four books, over 100 scholarly papers, and a number of articles for such general-interest magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Person did much of her writing at the Amagansett house she and her husband, Stanley Diamond, owned for 30 years. They were devoted to each other, and after he died in 2009 she stopped coming here. Her death was attributed to Alzheimer’s disease.
    A training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Center and its director from 1981 to 1991, Dr. Person was not content to confine her research to libraries or clinical settings. For a pioneering study of transsexuality and transvestitism, she visited drag clubs, leather bars, and sex shops, defying the medical wisdom of the time that equated transsexuals and transvestites with homosexuality and positing instead that many see themselves as born in the wrong body or as heterosexuals who like dressing up as the opposite sex. That hypothesis is now widely accepted.
    Sexual fantasies and how they may affect everyday life was another topic to which she devoted years of study. “By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives,” published in 1995, argues that fantasy is central to people’s lives and essential to well-being, a view that challenged Freud’s theory that dreams take center stage in our psychic lives and that happy people do not fantasize. Another influential book was “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters: The Power of Romantic Passion,” in which, using personal anecdotes and illustrations from novels and films, she broke with dismissive clinical assumptions about romantic love.
    “I think romantic love is one of the great change agents,” she told an interviewer for O magazine in 2004. “We know something we didn’t know before. We discover capacities we didn’t think we had.”
    “Our capacity to love,” she added, “often depends on having a good enough childhood — not a great one, just good enough.”
    Her own childhood, she once said, was just that — good enough. She was born Ethel Jane Spector in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 16, 1934, to Louis Spector and the former Anna Zimmerman. Her outgoing father owned and ran a popular saloon where she spent many happy hours; her mother had an M.A. in mathematics and a more introverted personality. The child’s first memory was of a terrifying flood when she was 2; she recalled her “mammy,” whom she loved almost as much as her father, carrying her to safety through brown waters.
    Dr. Person was her high school valedictorian. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1956, received a medical degree in 1960 from the New York University College of Medicine, and trained at the Psychoanalytic Center before becoming a member of its faculty. In her later years she was much in demand in Europe and South America as a speaker, and wherever she went, if he could manage it, Mr. Diamond accompanied her.
    She was married three times. Her first marriage, to Allen Person, ended after 10 years. In 1968 she married Barry Sherman, who had a fatal heart attack in his early 40s, leaving her a widow with two small sons. She married Mr. Diamond, a lawyer, two years later, in 1978.
    They bought the old John Day Jackson house on Indian Wells Highway, where, for five or six summers before Mr. Diamond’s death, they threw a big Fourth of July party. The Declaration of Independence and the names of the Signers were read, and guests gave impromptu speeches and sang patriotic songs.
    She is survived by her sons, Lloyd Sherman and Louis Sherman, both of Manhattan. She also leaves two stepdaughters, Nancy Diamond of Manhattan and  Jessica Diamond of Chicago, and four grandchildren.
    She was buried next to her husband last Thursday in a private graveside service at Shaaray Pardes Cemetery in Springs, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons officiating. A memorial service in conjunction with Columbia University will be announced.