The Accidental Therapist

Jay Haley Didn't Set Out to Transform Psychotherapy

The Accidental Therapist

This article first appeared in the November/December 2007 issue.

Jay Haley, who died earlier this year at the age of 83, was an unlikely candidate to become a founder of the early family therapy movement. An outsider to the field, he had no formal training in psychology or psychotherapy. Yet, if you ask family and brief therapists who most inspired them, chances are his name will be among the first mentioned, and if you ask which figure inspired the best arguments about therapy, you’ll probably get the same result. One of the most innovative thinkers, engaging writers, brilliant teachers, and powerful advocates the field ever produced, he was a famously scathing gadfly, taking on opponents in print or in public forums with almost palpable glee.

In one of Haley’s earliest essays, a runaway boffo hit titled, “The Art of Being a Failure as a Therapist,” he sliced and diced the pretensions of psychoanalytic orthodoxy so thoroughly it’s a wonder there were any analysts left alive to protest. “Perhaps the most important rule,” for failing at psychotherapy, he wrote, “is to ignore the real world that patients live in and publicize the vital importance of their infancy, inner dynamics, and fantasy life. This will effectively prevent either therapists or patients from attempting to make changes in their families, friends, schools, neighborhoods, or treatment milieus. Naturally, they cannot recover if their situation does not change, and so one guarantees failure while being paid to listen to interesting fantasies. Talking about dreams is a good way to pass the time, and so is experimenting with responses to different kinds of pills.”

Yet, as someone unafraid of speaking his mind, no matter how it offended the sensibilities of the smug and powerful, he was revered by trainees and those he supervised. They repeatedly describe him as warm, kind, uncritical, generous, respectful, supportive, patient, humorous, pensive, humble, and shy! Clearly, depending on where you stood and who you were—vulnerable student or establishment bigwig—he could seem like either Mr. Chips or Darth Vader.

One of the band of pioneers who translated the abstruse concepts of cybernetics—the rules, sequences, and feedback loops that guide self-regulating machines—into the lingua franca of family therapy, Haley helped give the field its organizing principles. He was the first to develop the idea that psychiatric symptoms often appear in families when they become stuck in key transitional moments of the family life cycle. He probably articulated more clearly than anyone else the principle that made family therapy such a radical departure from what had come before: symptoms don’t originate inside a person, via genetic defect, brain pathology, or psychic wound, but from the interactions between people. A problem, he wrote in Problem-Solving Therapy, was “a type of behavior that is part of a sequence of acts between several people.” Alter the sequence and you disrupt the problem, regardless of what may or may not be going on inside anybody’s head.

Haley also did more than anyone else to shape the practice of strategic therapy, in which the clinician actively identifies concrete problems, sets goals, designs specific interventions, and checks constantly to see if all this activity is actually working. This may not sound like news today, but when the family therapy revolution was getting under way during the late ’50s, the only legitimate clinical practices were interpreting dreams and fantasies, helping patients achieve “insight” into their unconscious motives, and nudging them gently in the direction of “personal growth,” whatever that was.

He compared the good therapist to a diamond cutter, who patiently makes one small cut after another, but swiftly produces a sparkling diamond from a shapeless rock. If parents brought their child to therapy because the little tyke kept setting fires in the house, the point of therapy wasn’t to ferret out the kid’s nebulous, intrapsychic conflicts, of which the fire-setting was “only a symptom,” but to get her to stop setting fires.

It followed that the therapist shouldn’t be self-effacing or reticent—none of that namby pamby clinical neutrality stuff. “A therapist must be willing to go to the mat with a client and struggle with the problem until it is solved or the participants are dead,” Haley wrote in Reflections on Therapy and Other Essays. “Should a therapist give up too easily, he will never win the difficult cases. Some people will never change until they are sure the therapist will not give up.” Clients came into therapy, he said, because they wanted to be changed, even when they didn’t actually want to do anything to change—they wanted the therapist to take charge and make them change, in spite of themselves.

Along with this activist credo went an ethic of profound responsibility. If therapy didn’t work, the therapist must look in the mirror to see who was at fault, and not blame the client. Following the viewpoint of his mentor, hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, he didn’t believe that there was any such thing as “resistance” to treatment, a concept he thought was contrived by therapists to excuse their own failures.

“Strategic” therapy wasn’t the same as telling people what to do and then blaming them for not doing it—he was no Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil. Instead, in a ploy he learned from Erickson, he often used indirect directives, taking advantage of the natural human inclination to rebel against authority and wielding his clinical and personal authority to maneuver people into rebelling against himby getting better. He would, for example, direct clients to stay the same or even get worse—instruct an overprotective mother to hover over her child even more or a fighting couple to pick a specific time and spend three hours fighting. Of course, these “assignments” generally produced the reverse behavior, which was what he intended all along.

A lucid, engaging, often wickedly funny writer and speaker, Haley could probably have converted a stone to his way of thinking. Whatever kind of therapy therapists happened to be doing, an exposure to Jay Haley made them want to do whatever he was doing. Jay Lappin, family therapy director of CENTRA PC, Comprehensive Psychotherapy Associates, recalls that, in 1972, as a young, army draftee, he found himself working with emotionally disturbed, mostly teenage prisoners in an army stockade, and feeling desperately in over his head (he had no counseling experience or training at the time). He asked a psychiatrist, Art Warwick, what he should read that would help him in a hurry, and the man suggested Haley’s Strategies of Psychotherapy. “When Strategies finally came [in the mail], I couldn’t stop reading it,” Lappin recalls. “It was like crack in print—I underlined every sentence, and then would go to work on the prisoners attempting something therapeutic.”

“Before Jay, people often had the feeling that if they wanted to be ‘real’ therapists, they had to act like Freud—even to adorning their offices with African sculpture,” says James Keim, a research associate at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. “Jay changed all that. He brought such
intellectual stimulation and infectious excitement to the field that he freed people’s energies to be inventive as few others have. Besides, he showed people that therapy could actually be fun, that using humor in therapy can snap people out of their rigidity.”

Not bad for a guy who never got any official psychotherapy credentials.

Coming Up

As a young man, Haley wanted to write plays, and even spent a year in New York City “aspiring to be a great playwright.” Luckily for psychotherapy, he failed. He got a degree in library science and then went off to graduate school at Stanford in mass communications, while supporting himself as a librarian and studying movies. In 1952, he serendipitously fell in with an extraordinarily talented, if highly eccentric, group of thinkers, led by anthropologist and all-round polymath Gregory Bateson, who were working on a research project about animal and human communications. The Bateson project, based at the Veterans Administration (VA) in Palo Alto, California, was a quixotic, eclectic, free-wheeling affair, including in its purview many varieties of “communication”: ventriloquism, the training of guide dogs for the blind, popular films, animal play, humor, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and human-mammal communication.

There was a creative, boys-at-play kind of atmosphere to the group’s various activities. For example, at one point Bateson was investigating the potential for communication between humans and octopuses, keeping the eight-legged, ink-spouting, sand-burrowing creatures in tanks, first in the VA hospital morgue, then in his own living room. In spite of a polyglot assortment of interests, the group shared one big idea: knowledge about animal or human behavior wouldn’t come from making up theories about what went on inside individual brains, but from observing and listening to communications between individuals in their context. Bateson himself put it succinctly: “The mind is outside the person.”

The group was particularly interested in the double-edged nature of human communication and the way even apparently simple, straightforward messages could convey different levels of meaning. “Human beings not only communicate,” Haley wrote in Strategies of Psychotherapy, “they communicate about the communication.” No message is purely neutral. “No one can avoid being involved in a struggle over the definition of his relationship with someone else,” he argued. “Everyone is constantly involved in defining his relationship or countering the other person’s definition.”

Sometimes these levels conflicted, creating what the group called “incongruous conjunctions” or paradoxical communications, a common but troublesome aspect of human relationships that often lead to multiple misunderstandings and hurt feelings. “The fact that people communicate on at least two levels makes it possible to indicate one relationship, and simultaneously deny it,” Haley wrote in Strategies. “For example, a man may say, ‘I think you should do that, but it’s not my place to tell you so.’ In this way he defines the relationship as one in which he tells the other person what to do, but simultaneously denies that he is defining the relationship in this way.”

These high-minded forays into communications theory and paradox might have remained safely in the realm of scholarly abstraction had the Bateson project not been located in the VA’s psychiatric unit. One day, a psychiatric resident told Haley that if he was interested in communication, he ought to talk to one of the doctor’s patients, a “word salad” schizophrenic. Haley recalled being enthralled by the patient, who’d been hospitalized for 10 years. He was drawn in by “his tremendous imagination and use of metaphor. . . . I remember asking him what his mother was like, and he said ‘Skinny as a wolf, tricky as a cat, with a long tail like a scorpion that stings.’ That’s pretty good!”

Haley began recording the conversations he had with the man, and Bateson found them so interesting that, in 1953, the Palo Alto group, composed of Bateson, Haley, Donald Jackson, and John Weakland, began painstakingly studying the loopy, Alice-in-Wonderland conversational patterns of people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Instead of taking on faith the universal assumption that the peculiar non sequiturs and bizarre metaphorical language of these patients originated solely within their own sick minds, the group began paying closer attention to what they said, particularly when they were talking with their own families, and found that their remarks made a kind of peculiar sense when taken in context.

Why would schizophrenics talk this way? In 1956, the group published “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” in which they proposed the “double-bind hypothesis” as an explanation. A double bind is basically a conflicting message combined with a demand for a response that, by the nature of the interaction, will always be wrong. Furthermore, there’s no escape—the person caught in the double bind must answer and, by the rules of the family game, can’t back out or comment on the situation, i.e., deliver a “meta-message,” like, “Quit messing with my mind!” Haley and the others drew their theory largely from cases they’d observed and taped conversations between adult schizophrenics and their parents in the hospital.

In one oft-quoted example of a double bind described in the article, a young man recovering from a schizophrenic episode was visited by his mother at the hospital. “He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, ‘Don’t you love me any more?’ He then blushed, and she said, ‘Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.'” Following his mother’s departure, the patient had a severe relapse.

In this case, obviously, no matter whether the son responded to her or withdrew, no matter how hard he tried to please her, everything he did was wrong. Furthermore, unlike normal people caught in such crazy-making circumstances, he couldn’t say, “Mother, this is exactly the kind of thing you do that drives me bonkers! Cut it out!” According to the theory, this young man had been caught in this heads-I-win, tails-you-lose situation from earliest childhood, and no longer had the capacity to distinguish between levels of messages. Another filmed example shows a mother warmly and lovingly coaxing her toddler to come sit in her lap, then growing chilly and cool as soon as the child complies, and when the child begins to cry in confusion, the mother scolding her for climbing on her lap just to cry! No wonder the schizophrenic couldn’t communicate “sensibly,” ever feel safe in any relationship, or take any remark from anybody at face value. The “double bind” paper became, says Keim, “one of the most influential papers in the history of psychology. It created an interactional language that hadn’t existed before to describe a very common human experience—of being caught between a rock and a hard place in our relationships—that helps cause so much human drama and pain.”

“Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” became a cause celebre and a lightning rod in the therapy field. It was taken up by the nascent antipsychiatry movement as a kind of shorthand for the idea that “crazy” people had been driven mad by an oppressive society. The families of schizophrenics regarded the paper as a kind of slander for the same reason—it presumably blamed them, particularly mothers, for driving their kids nuts. But Haley never blamed anybody for anything, says Wendel Ray, senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California and professor of family therapy at the University of Louisiana. “Haley and Jackson went out of their way to show that nobody was at fault when family systems went awry. They thought that everybody in a family was doing the best they could, but that people get caught up in patterns of interaction that have certain consequences. Families have rules, and rules about the rules, which define the allowed transactions. In a schizophrenic family, the rule seems to be that we can’t clearly define our relationship, or we’ll discover things we don’t want to know.” Haley himself later wrote in Leaving Home that although the theory was valuable as a way of describing multiple contradictory levels of human communication, it wasn’t helpful to family therapy, because it was taken to suggest that the identified patient was a scapegoat or victim of his or her mean family.

The insights first articulated in the double-bind paper set off a creative avalanche of publications—more than 70 papers and a couple of books by Haley himself or in tandem with others between 1956 and 1962—that articulated a radically new way of thinking about human behavior. “[The Bateson group] believed they now understood something about human interactions that hadn’t been understood before,” says Ray. “The double bind is a concept within the entire body of communication theory that allows you to think about what goes on between people, and how those interactions set up situations in which people learn to behave in certain ways and expect others to behave in certain ways.” Even though the idea that family-based double-bind interactions actually cause schizophrenia is no longer accepted, the idea still seems to be a powerful and intuitively correct way of thinking about the way human beings often behave with one another. “The concept is still highly relevant, perhaps even in the origins of mental illness,” says Ray. “After all, how we act toward each other has as much to do with mental state as our biochemistry and our DNA.”

The Erickson Factor

In 1953, Haley embarked on what would be the next big adventure on the route to establishing a new kind of psychotherapy. That year, he and Weakland met with psychiatrist and master hynotherapist Milton Erickson to talk about hypnosis, which the Bateson group considered a form of double-bind—giving subjects conflicting messages as, for example, directing somebody to do something spontaneously (“You will find your arm rising of its own accord”). What Haley found in Erickson was not a garden-variety therapist with a knack for hypnosis, but a phenomenon—virtually a new species in the world of conventional psychiatry. As someone with a, literally, mesmerizing personality, he could make even very self-possessed people uneasy.

Trained by the orthodox psychiatric priesthood, Erickson was nonetheless a complete heretic to the faith, who broke every rule in the book. He didn’t regard the unconscious as a dark stew of primitive, aggressive instincts, but the deepest source of inner wisdom. He thought fostering psychodynamic insight was pointless—what counted was getting people to change, not understanding why they couldn’t change. He didn’t explain therapeutic failure as the patient’s “resistance” to treatment, but rather used, even encouraged resistance, often gaining therapeutic leverage by directing patients not to change. A master of inspired gab, he often induced trance by telling his clients long, fanciful, puzzling, shaggy-dog stories that didn’t seem to be related to their problems but contained symbols and metaphors that tuned directly into their unconscious minds. While most therapists thought therapy must be long and slow, taken in tiny baby steps, he thought it should be brief and fast, done at a canter, if not a gallop.

Perhaps most important for the future of strategic therapy, Erickson gave advice and directions, when, said Haley, “it was almost against the law [for a therapist] to tell anybody what to do.” Sometimes the advice was quite sensible and straightforward, sometimes it was paradoxical, sometimes creatively preposterous. He once told a shy young woman who was self-conscious about a gap between her teeth to practice spraying water through the gap, and then to do it to a man she liked at work when they were both standing at the drinking fountain.

These days, a therapist as freewheeling as Erickson would give the risk-management industry a collective stroke. In the even more buttoned-down psychotherapeutic establishment of the 1950s, discovering Erickson must have been for Haley like attending a conference of staid analysts and stumbling upon Merlin the Magician. As he and Weakland listened to Erickson, Haley recalled, “We began to realize he was doing a special kind of therapy. At that time, there was no therapy, except that which was based upon psychodynamic ideology. There was no behavior therapy; there was no family therapy.” Haley compared Erickson’s therapy to the paradoxical and experiential, often purposefully startling, teaching modes of Zen Buddhism. “Erickson has no set method,” Haley once noted. “If one procedure doesn’t work, he tries others until one does.” All that could be expected of him was that he’d do the unexpected, Haley recalled. “I had a woman who lost her voice. She couldn’t speak,” Haley said. “So I asked Erickson, ‘What would you say to this woman?’ He said, ‘I’d ask her if there was anything she wanted to say.'”

Erickson’s ad hoc methods and intuitive grasp of human psychology couldn’t be captured by the didactic formulations of conventional psychiatric theory any more than a bolt of lightning could be caught in a glass jar. One of Haley’s great contributions to the field was his ability to shape Erickson’s kaleidoscopic vision—his stories, parables, insights, aphorisms, even public hypnosis demonstrations—into a clear, coherent body of clinical principles that therapists could actually use. Over the course of 17 years, Haley met regularly with Erickson for hundreds of hours of conversation, which he taped, transcribed, organized, and framed in a number of books. The first was Uncommon Therapy, which quickly became a kind of sacred text for strategic therapist wannabes.

What Haley had learned on the Bateson communications project undoubtedly helped him decode the Ericksonian mystery. “Bateson gave us the language and the concepts for looking at systems and thinking about change. He brought the tools by which Erickson’s approach could be described and understood,” says Keim. “But Bateson’s project was about observation and theory, not therapy. Erickson provided the concrete clinical material.” You could say that, in the end, Batesonian theory and Ericksonian practice were married by Jay Haley and the union resulted in an entirely new therapeutic approach, one that was rapid, active, directive, pragmatic, symptom-focused, problem-solving, optimistic, and gloriously unlike the dominant name-brand product.

West Meets East: The Mental Research Institute and Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic

In 1962, Haley joined the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, a kind of think tank for human behavior founded a few years earlier to experiment with the therapeutic implications of communications theory and Ericksonian methods. MRI almost immediately became the go-to place for any therapist who wanted to be on the cutting edge of psychotherapy research and practice. Fostering a climate of almost untrammeled experimentalism, MRI started the first formal training program in family therapy, produced some of the seminal early papers and books in the field, and became a place where some of the field’s leading figures—Paul Watzlawick, Richard Fisch, Jules Riskin, Virginia Satir, Salvador Minuchin, R. D. Laing, Irving Yalom, Cloe Madanes—came to work or just hang out.

Haley’s real interest during this period was research, not therapy. It’s ironic that the figure most identified with changing people in therapy really just wanted to be a good anthropologist, watching them to make sense of what they did. “I wanted to do research on families without thinking how to change them, and I found that while I was doing therapy this was impossible,” he said. “I would think about intervening when I was just trying to see sequences and patterns.” But by the time he’d made enough money from writing Strategies of Psychotherapy to give up private practice and focus on research, the book became such a hit that he was asked to do lectures and workshops on family therapy all around the country. “So I got pulled back into the field of therapy when I thought I was all through with it. . . . I couldn’t get away from it.” Also, in 1962, he became the first editor of the first journal of family systems, Family Process, which kept him busy as he traveled around the country, collecting papers, meeting family therapists, exploring new developments, and synthesizing what was happening in the field as it emerged from infancy.

In 1967, Salvador Minuchin, on what he calls “a pilgrimage” to MRI, convinced Haley to come work with him and Braulio Montalvo at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic (PCGC),
which Minuchin had recently turned into a family therapy clinic, losing a large part of the psychodynamically trained staff as a result. “I was always looking for people who were talented, and I’d read his stuff, particularly Strategies of Psychotherapy,” recalls Minuchin. “He was doing new things. I thought he was a really attractive figure, with something about him of the cowboy, something adventuresome.” Once installed at PCGC, Haley quickly became the “teacher in residence,” says Minuchin, introducing the East Coast to the strange, but illuminating cybernetic concepts of Bateson and the intuitive sorcery of Erickson.

It was at PCGC that Haley came fully into his own as a supervisor and teacher, widely remembered as one of the best the field ever had. “He was a master supervisor, who was also something of a master puppeteer,” Minuchin recalls. “Behind the one-way mirror, he had a magical ability to see what was going on between people at the beginning of a session, realize what the therapeutic objective should be at the end, and quickly decide on an intervention—and the sequence in which it should take place—that would bring the objective about. His thinking was saltatory rather than linear, proceeding by leaps rather than slow, gradual stages.”

In Philadelphia, Haley took part in yet another radical experiment—training community residents (poor African Americans and Latinos with no education beyond high school) as therapists. In complete opposition to the standard idea that only highly trained physicians and academics, who’d themselves been psychoanalyzed, could be therapists, Haley believed that anybody with basic smarts and genuine dedication could acquire good therapeutic skills. In fact, believing that conventional training stifled spontaneity and intuitive clinical insights, he determined that this program would provide direct and immediate on-the-job training.

These trainees weren’t going to be left entirely to their own devices, however. Haley developed for them what Minuchin calls a “foolproof first session instrument,” a step-by-step, four-stage battle plan for greeting people and making them comfortable, exploring the issues, getting family members to talk to each other, and obtaining a therapy “contract” or agreement about what would happen next. This preliminary road map later became the first chapter of Problem-Solving Therapy, a straightforward textbook, arguably the first of its kind that didn’t rest on turgid psychodynamic theorizing. Here was an action-packed introduction to therapy, chock full of helpful examples that showed scared novices how not to fall on their faces. At the same time, it demystified therapy. Doing good therapy, Haley thought, required intelligence, patience, practice, care, attention, and the watchful eye of a supervisor, but it didn’t require membership in a sacred priesthood or mystery cult.

In fact, to make sure the community trainees didn’t crash and burn, Haley insisted that every session needed to be supervised live, which led PCGC to set up an unprecedented supervision procedure—calling trainees on the phone from behind the one-way mirror to make suggestions and pull them out of the room if things got out of hand. Only after the session was there a discussion about what had actually happened in the room, including some theoretical concepts about families and family systems.

Moving On

By 1976, Haley was becoming restless at PCGC because it was getting too big and bureaucratic for him (300 on the staff compared to 12 when he began), and he didn’t approve of the clinic’s having an inpatient arrangement, considering psychiatric inpatient units to be institutions of social control and conformity, and therefore incompatible with psychotherapy. So he and fellow strategic therapist at PCGC Cloe Madanes (who would soon become his wife) moved to the Washington, D.C., area and set up The Family Therapy Institute (FTI), while both taught family therapy at Howard University and the University of Maryland Psychiatry Department.

The Family Therapy Institute quickly became one of the best known family therapy training centers in the country, teaching a ramped-up version of the problem-focused “action therapy” Haley had helped pioneer at PCGC. Once again, studying theory was ditched in favor of “learning by doing,” as Haley wrote in Problem-Solving Therapy. “The kind of therapy emphasized here cannot be learned by reading about it, by hearing lectures about it, or by having discussions. . . . Therapy is a personal encounter and a therapist can only learn how to do it by doing it.” Once again, rather than accepting trainees, self-reports about what they were doing with clients (standard in traditional therapy), training supervisors followed their students’ every move through the one-way mirror. “[The supervisor] does not believe the therapist can accurately report what happened, just as a family member cannot accurately report what happens in his family.”

As a treatment center, FTI didn’t get many easy cases. According to Neil Schiff, a student of Haley’s who went on to become a supervisor at FTI, the institute soon earned the reputation as a “behavioral sink” because therapists in the area referred so many “hopeless” cases—multiproblem families that included at least one psychotic member, for example, disturbed marriages, child abuse, drug-abusing kids, and so on. One of Haley’s signature interventions was a family intervention that prevented the hospitalization of young people who’d suddenly developed psychiatric symptoms just as they were on the verge of starting independent adult life. In Leaving Home, Haley argued that the “disturbed young person” was unconsciously acting to stabilize a family in danger of falling apart should he or she actually leave. The object of therapy was to put the parents in charge of making tough rules that got the kid back on track as quickly as possible, and then deal with the fallout at home.

This was something of a heroic intervention at the time. It should be recalled that during the late ’70s through the ’80s, the psychiatric for-profit hospital scams came into full swing. Scary television ads were run by these hospitals (“Is your child experimenting with drugs? Sex? Alcohol? Is he getting bad grades in school? Are you worried about your child?”), which preyed on the fears of insecure parents, resulting in the costly (insurance-reimbursed) hospitalization of thousands of children and adolescents on the basis of shaky, faddish diagnoses.

FTI fought this trend and racked up considerable victories. For Haley, says Cloe Madanes, currently the president of the Robbins-Madanes Center for Strategic Intervention in La Jolla, California, institutionalizing anybody—drugging them, turning them into helpless, long-term mental patients—was as much a human-rights issue as a psychiatric one. Under a five-year contract with the Maryland Department of Mental Hygiene, FTI trained therapists at every level of the state’s mental health system. This family therapy training throughout the state, says Madanes, prevented large numbers of institutionalizations “We taught them how to keep people out of hospitals.”

In 1994, Haley moved again, this time to California, where he became a professor of marital and family therapy at Alliant International University, where he pioneered the use of computers for sending directions to therapists during live supervision—much less intrusive than picking up a ringing phone and talking in front of clients during a session. With anthropologist Madeleine Richeport-Haley, whom he married in the mid-’90s, he seemed to come full circle, back to an interest in studying human beings in their natural habitat. He became interested in issues of ethnicity, particularly different ethnic healing traditions; he and his wife traveled to Bali to study how Balinese healers brought families into healing trances and rituals. Together, they made 25 films on diverse subjects, including family therapy training films, one on Milton Erickson, and three reexamining Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s 1930s-era study of trance and healing on Bali.

The consummate outsider, Haley was himself elevated to virtual guru status, in spite of his own discomfort in the role. “I think he kind of missed the old days when he was anathema,” notes Schiff. “He’d always enjoyed a real challenge and a heated exchange, and after the mid- ’80s, that stopped. He began to be treated more like a senator—people kept a certain respectful distance from him.” Haley once said wryly, “It used to be that when I said something funny, people laughed. Now they take notes.”

Although he was one of the most famous and influential figures in psychotherapy, Jay Haley never took his own high status in the field too seriously. Asked how he’d like to be remembered, he tossed off, “as the world’s oldest living teacher of therapy.” In fact, he never seems to have stopped wanting to write plays, and found family therapy an endless source of fascinating material, both in front of and behind the one-way mirror. “Family therapy is so dramatic that it’s exciting to observe,” he said to Michael Yapko in an interview, published in Conversations with Jay Haley. “Individual therapy tends to be dull to sit and watch. But if you put a family into live supervision, they come to life—both the observer and the family.”

At a party celebrating a 1999 festschrift in his honor, he talked about a recent case in which a middle-aged couple, who were being financially supported by the wife’s 82-year-old grandmother, came in to therapy. They were upset, not by the fact that grandma was supporting them, but because she earned her money through prostitution (“She didn’t like to be called a prostitute, preferring ‘call girl,'” Haley said.) The couple and their adult daughter were disturbed because men were always hanging around the living room. The lesson Haley drew from this interesting situation? “It’s obvious that senior citizens in good shape can continue to have a career. Therapists should continue to work when they have the skills and be glad to discover interesting people.” In a sense, Haley, who had a legendary gift for ironic humor, really meant it this time: doing family therapy really had enabled this natural anthropologist to do what he liked doing best—”discover interesting people.”

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.