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MA2012-2A Close Look at 30 Years of the Psychotherapy Networker

By Richard Simon

Remember mimeograph machines, the Milan Group, the False Memory Foundation, DSM–III, the Family Therapy Networker, and private practice before managed care? Take a stroll down memory lane and revisit some of the ups and downs of our glorious profession over the past three decades.

Looking today at the cover of the first issue of this magazine from January 1982—when the magazine was called The Family Therapy NetWorker—is a little like unearthing a miraculously preserved papyrus manuscript from an ancient civilization, long superseded by other, more technically advanced, societies. Printed on what has the appearance of butcher paper (not the slick, shiny pages you’re holding now), with a black and white drawing of Milton Erickson on the cover, it’s 40 pages long (including front and back covers) with a grand total of six photos (also black and white) and one quite crude cartoon illustration. Edited on a typewriter in my basement in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, it had 300 subscribers from its earlier incarnation as a mimeographed newsletter jauntily titled The Family Shtick. (Remember mimeograph? Of course not—you’re not that old!) In those days, nobody I knew had computers and nothing in our little publishing world was digitized. Pages were “laid out” by hand—photos and galleys waxed and pasted onto their meticulously measured spaces on large, heavy sheets—and then couriered over to the printer.

I was still so mired in the early 19th century that I’d never learned to type, so I had to hand-write my “Letters from the Editor” and articles, schlep the drafts to a professional typist (a 15-minute drive), then retrieve them, mark them up, and return them to be retyped on her IBM Selectric. However technically primitive the system and I were by today’s standards, it somehow all seemed to work. By the end of 1982—six issues later—our circulation had grown fourfold to 1,700, and by 1986, it was more than 18,000. That spring, when attendance at the ninth Networker Symposium reached 2,000, we finally had enough money to splurge on four-color covers. No father of a newborn ever felt more pride than I did when I first cast eyes on what finally looked like a real magazine, rather than a glorified pamphlet.

But whatever its appearance, it was always intended as a magazine—not a journal gathering dust on a library shelf. We wanted to produce something that people would actually read, something that conveyed a bit of the compelling drama, the sheer juiciness of what therapists experienced, day to day, case after case. We assumed that spending 25 or 30 hours a week seeing clients didn’t exhaust our readers’ curiosity (not unmixed with a tinge of voyeurism) about people—not just the people who went for therapy, but the people who treated them. It was, and still is, our apparently revolutionary belief that therapists are human, too, and that the line between personal and professional, between the self of the therapist and the clinical approach being practiced, is often thin, sometimes vanishingly so.

Movers and Shakers

Only a few years before the Networker was first launched, the entire family therapy literature hardly contained more than a handful of volumes, books that made up in grand claims what they lacked in sheer numbers. Authors at that time were especially partial to the phrase “paradigm shift” to describe how family therapy had moved beyond the hermetically sealed world of the individual psyche to recognizing the broader context of intimate human interaction.

To be sure, the Networker also beat the drum for the game-changing potential of the “systems perspective” and published plenty of articles about the craft and theory of family therapy, but what drew people to us in those early days was probably less intellectually exalted—our unabashed fascination with the colorful personalities attracting such attention on the family therapy workshop circuit. During our early years, we became known as a kind of People magazine of the field, specializing in revealing interviews and profiles of the profession’s superstars—Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen, Jay Haley, Mara Selvini Palazzoli, and others. Unlike traditional psychodynamic therapists, who kept a modest profile, these showstoppers commanded—even invited—a kind of hero worship and loyalty that, more than anything, explained the burgeoning field’s popularity.

Despite their theoretical and clinical differences, what this entertaining group of iconoclasts shared was a certitude that they could detect with fMRI-like precision the soft, pulsing, inner reality of the families they treated and rapidly transform it with a confidence that would be hard to find among the more cautious clinicians of today. Most of them rejected standard psychotherapies as irrelevant, secondhand knowledge about human interactions—barren textbook descriptions—that could never convey the direct, ever-shifting experience of therapy in the flesh that they were offering their workshop audiences. These movers and shakers showed little interest in the lumbering progress of therapy research, nor much in theory, except what was needed to propel the real action, which was making something striking and original happen in the therapy room. They were the action heroes of therapy, demonstrating a flair and sure-footedness that mere mortal therapists found dazzling. After 100 years of reserved, cerebral psychodynamic types, suddenly, our profession was home to a cast of riveting performers, each of whom attracted a following among the legions of baby boomers entering the field and looking for a role model to guide their development.

In the hierarchical professional culture of the early ’80s, it was expected that clinical wisdom would be passed down from the omniscient-seeming elders to the masses of far less self-assured practitioners. Therapists defined themselves by a fierce allegiance to a particular school of therapy, as if looking for a theology that would give definitive answers to all the ambiguities they had to face in their consulting rooms. One of the most influential of these gurus was the cool, hyperpragmatic Jay Haley, family therapy’s most acerbic polemicist and the field’s closest link to the therapeutic lineage of the legendary hypnotherapist and master manipulator Milton Erickson. Rejecting the tradition of relationship-based psychotherapy as outdated and half-baked, Haley offered a vision of the clinician as a wily strategist and problem solver dedicated to finding the quickest, most efficient solution to the client’s difficulties, often circumventing the client’s best efforts to thwart the process.

In a 1982 Networker interview, Haley proclaimed in his characteristic tone of wry bemusement, “When people don’t know what to do in therapy, they become philosophers.” Skeptical of any therapy theory that sounded too fancy, he argued, “To be helpful to a therapist, a theory has to be simple enough so that it can help him think about what he actually needs to do with his clients.” Theories, he insisted, were usually more about why things stay the same than how to change them. “You might be able to understand what keeps a man drinking by looking at how his wife provokes him and see how she provokes him because he drinks. But it is very difficult to see in that description anything that helps you make an effective therapeutic intervention. . . . Being a therapist means not just looking at why things are what they are, but taking a position of responsibility about things being one way or another.”

In Haley’s view, it was the therapist’s job to make use of the inherent power of his position, without any nonsense about clinical neutrality or superfluous displays of empathy. There was a no-nonsense clarity and sense of both fierce commitment and emotional detachment in his unswerving focus on symptom alleviation that inspired many young therapists of the day. Part of his appeal may have been his preternatural calm, as if he inhabited a rarefied world beyond ordinary human strivings. If he ever had a sudden attack of countertransference, he hid it very, very well.

It’s hard to imagine a figure from that time more unlike Haley than the spontaneous and unpredictable Carl Whitaker, who embodied the kind of quirky authenticity celebrated in the human potential movement of the ’60s. Whitaker brought what he called his own “pseudocraziness” to his work, merrily ignoring all the usual rules and conventions of therapy in favor of what he believed should be a “nonverbal, shared fantasy experience.” Unlike Haley, he had no interest at all in his clients’ symptoms, and didn’t think it much mattered whether he “resolved” their problems or not. Like Haley, he rejected theory, but not out of pragmatism—he thought theory interfered with creative intuition, the ability to let his own unconscious somehow merge with the collective unconscious of the family he was treating. His “method” was an unscripted joyride of weird non sequiturs, off-the-wall challenges, gentle ridicule, and impossible directives (of the “be spontaneous” variety)—all presumably intended to access the secret labyrinth of the family’s unconscious life and the subterranean, unacknowledged fantasies family members shared about each other.

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1 Comment

  • Comment Link Sunday, 28 September 2014 21:03 posted by search

    I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!