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Psychotherapy’s Mark Twain

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PNMA13-4An Unpardonable Sin for Frank Pittman

By Mary Sykes Wylie

Networker movie critic and contributor Frank Pittman delighted in pointing out the follies, foibles, and excesses of the therapy world, especially anything he considered too trendy, sanctimonious, or politically correct.

For 26 years, Frank Pittman, who died the day after Thanksgiving last November at 77, was not only the Networker’s movie reviewer, but its most distinctive, fearlessly opinionated voice. Often, it seemed, Frank’s refusal to mince words inspired more outraged letters to the editor than all our other contributors combined.

A balding man with puckish eyebrows, a folksy Southern accent, and a perpetually bemused expression, he delighted in pointing out the follies, foibles, and excesses of the therapy world, especially anything he considered too trendy, sanctimonious, or politically correct. He relished the role of psychotherapy’s answer to Mark Twain, considering humor not merely an entertaining diversion, but an obligatory means of making sense of the foolishness he saw around him, both inside and outside the consulting room. For him, humor was the best intervention for challenging engrained pessimism, hopelessness, and most of all, self-seriousness. As he once wrote, “When people feel what they feel so deeply and so desperately, they can lose the ability to see the absurdity of it. . . . Sometimes they can’t see it until someone laughs at them lovingly and acceptingly. The laughter is the breath of life, the exclamation that you have discovered an alternative to death and despair, a way out.”

Frank began his psychiatry career with a residency at Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry in 1960. From early on, he more or less refused to toe the official line on therapeutic distance and neutrality, which he found not only stultifying, but an untenable imposition on his right to tell clients exactly what he thought they needed to know, particularly when, as he saw it, they were making egregious mistakes that were hurting other people. As he put it, the faculty could never “convince me that I was supposed to sit there like a stuffed teddy bear after a stroke and pretend not to understand anything that was going on and not have any thoughts about it. So I got involved in working with families.”

It was a good fit. Many in the generation of family therapists before him—Salvador Minuchin, Virginia Satir, Carl Whitaker, and their colleagues—had jettisoned the whole psychoanalytic pretense of strict noninterference for a more openly robust, activist presence in sessions. They believed you couldn’t just make gentle “interpretations” from time to time, hoping that couples and families floundering in their own misery would somehow achieve “insight.” You had to get right in there and throw your weight around if you wanted to break through the powerful force field of the family’s resistance to change. In any case, Frank wasn’t constitutionally made to remain a clinical wallflower, quietly observing the human interaction in his office: he wanted a part in the drama, a major part. “I expect my patients to notice me the person, and I expect them to care about me and whatever I’m going through,” he wrote. “I’m not satisfied with people who just come and pay money. I want them to have a human encounter, and I want one too. No amount of money would be enough for me to treat people who were unaware of me—unless of course I had no other patients to work with.”

After earning a national reputation in the late ’60s as part of a National Institutes of Mental Health research project at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver demonstrating that family interventions could reduce in-patient psychiatric admissions, he set up a private practice in Atlanta. He began specializing in families and couples, at least in part because therapy with them seemed more active, more dramatic, more colorful—you might even say more “cinematic”—than traditional individual therapy. There could be no pretense of silent, detached neutrality while two spouses screamed at each other or a young child had a full-bore tantrum while the parents sat helplessly wringing their hands.

Family therapy provided magnificent opportunities for someone who was a great aficionado of life’s comedy. “Family therapy, like life, is full of confusion and misplaced emotion and misunderstanding and games and things taken far too seriously, and therefore is comic and should be fun. Since part of the family’s reason for coming to you is that they are not having a very good time, it’s up to you to make the encounter entertaining. . . . Part of the therapy is in the therapist’s move from the acknowledged awfulness of the situation, through the humor and absurdity of the awfulness, to the hope and excitement that change can bring.”

Frank believed that comedy could assuage the impact of tragedy, but the underlying point was deeply serious. To paraphrase the old saying, he was ready to comfort the afflicted, but even more than ready to afflict the comfortable—in particular, a generation of boomers complacently doing what they felt like doing, rather than what they should be doing. “Therapy is not really an act of love, and there is a danger in being too friendly and loving. At times therapy comes closer to being an act of aggression, in which the therapist joins forces with whatever sanity there is in the patient or the family and then beats up on the pathology. I love my patient, in the same way that Michelangelo loved marble—if I keep chipping away I can free what I see inside.”

The Importance of Character

At bottom, Frank was an unabashed spokesman for good character and strong values—a moralist, in effect, but never without a sharply tuned sense of life’s complete and inescapable absurdity. He seemed to believe that “morality” and “sanity”—as in common sense, maturity, personal responsibility, awareness of how one’s behavior affects others—were close cousins, if not joined at the hip. These values were inextricable from any meaningful definition of “mental health,” so where they were found lacking in clients, it was the therapist’s job to instill them. “Good therapy is about the development of character,” he once wrote. “Character is the sum of one’s mental and moral qualities, the measure of one’s virtues and strengths. Character may seem like an old-fashioned concept, in that it has the elitist quality of assuming that there is an agreed-upon system of values, and that people have the freedom, power and luxury to behave ideally according to those values. But, in this imperfect world, it is character that enables people to survive, to endure and to transcend their misfortunes.”

He felt therapists were obligated to help clients at least understand the difference between right and wrong, even if they couldn’t be made to act on this information. In Frank’s view, postmodern therapists of the late ’80s and early ’90s weren’t doing their jobs. In one of his typically funny but deeply felt jeremiads in a Networker article titled “It’s Not My Fault,” Frank grumbled that during the good old days of family therapy, only a decade previously, “We believed in staying sane, in staying married, in raising children, in social responsibility. Therapy seemed a vehicle for instilling in people the secure, responsible, emotionally comfortable values of the family we wished we’d grown up in. . . . Therapists in those days were people with the sanity to think rationally in the epicenter of other people’s crises, the wisdom to know what sensible people would do under those circumstances, and the patience to realize that people wouldn’t do sensible things until they had gone through whatever emotional or logical processes they needed to go through (i.e. resistance) in order to feel safe with change. . . . We therapists used to take clients who felt they were at the mercy of their emotions and force them to know themselves, get control, and behave properly.”

Of all his contributions to therapy, Frank was probably most recognized for his groundbreaking work on openly addressing the once taboo subject of infidelity, an issue that confounded traditional therapists convinced that neutrality was the only permissible therapeutic stance. He approached couples in which someone had had an affair with his accustomed directness. “With infidelity, you can’t get by being neutral,” he wrote. “You have to take a stand about secrecy and about the way affairs undermine intimacy and equality in a marriage.” Frank was a great believer in what he called “healthy guilt,” and insisted that those who criticized him for bringing moralistic judgment into the consulting room were missing the point. In the first Networker issue on the subject of infidelity, occasioned by the publication of his widely influential book Private Lies, he wrote, “At a workshop I gave on infidelity recently, one man got up and started screaming, ‘You’re nothing but a fundamentalist preacher! I’ve spent my life trying to get over my guilt about sex and here you are trying to make me feel guilty again. You’re just like my ex-wife.’ I told him that I’m not trying to make people feel guilty about sex. I’m just trying to make them feel guilty about lying.”

Frank loved to play the provocateur, and the kick he got out of testing the limits extended even to the titles of his books. He’d wanted to call his first book, about treating families in crisis and transition, Shit Happens, but his publisher insisted on the more decorous Turning Points. To his groundbreaking blockbuster on infidelity, he’d originally given the title Screwing Around, which the publisher changed to Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. And the blunt title he chose for his third book about men and the perils of excessive masculinity was Balls. This time, the publisher renamed it Man Enough. Not until his last book, about the satisfactions of becoming a responsible adult and the drawbacks of remaining forever stuck in adolescent narcissism, did the title he chose stick: Grow Up! The exclamation point seems characteristic, conveying his exasperation in the face of so much bad behavior among adults who should know better.

Frank considered himself a liberal, opposed to sexism, homophobia, racism, and ethnic bias. He recognized that feminism, for example, strengthened therapy by challenging therapists to take into account genuine sociopolitical forces far beyond the narrow scope of the individual family and particular clinical models. Few people, men or women, were as tough as he was on the traditional, testosterone-pumped, aggressively macho ideal—what he called “mascupathology”—held by vast numbers of men who secretly feared they didn’t “measure up,” both literally and figuratively. However, once political correctness got a stranglehold on the discussion, Frank argued, all real communication deteriorated into ideological stereotypes and sloganeering, and ceased being therapeutic or even accurate. Real people disappeared, in favor of useful abstractions, becoming defined either as victims or victimizers.

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5 comments

  • Comment Link Monday, 13 May 2013 10:48 posted by Vi Neufeld

    An inspiring article. Thank you. I read Pittman's articles "religiously" over the years and this article was a wonderful tribute to his substantial contributions. And how lovely and fitting that his name was "Frank".(I had missed that connection!). Such a pity that publishers didn't go with his first titles--much more compelling.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 01 May 2013 23:47 posted by Natalie Mills

    I so enjoyed reading this. I loved this guy! He was my hero and a vicarious mentor to me.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 14 April 2013 11:19 posted by Paul Rutter

    A very accompllished man in many areas out of psychotherapy too, and a very well written tribute to him to be archived by many. I am so glad to have known Frank Pittman in my life.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 04 April 2013 12:35 posted by David Rachlis

    Well done Mary.

  • Comment Link Monday, 25 March 2013 00:40 posted by Len Kliewer

    Bravo Bravo... I am a small town 62 yr old Canadian therapist who wishes to Amen this man. Thankyou for going public on behalf of many of us likeminded therapists who are quite similar and yet play on a much smaller stage. Thank you for your life Frank, and blessings to your family.