Crazy Like a Fox

Remembering Carl Whitaker

Crazy Like a Fox

This article first appeared in the July/August 1995 issue.

ASKED WHY HE BECAME A FAMILY THERAPIST, CARL WHITAKER once responded, during a typically Whitakerian right-brain ramble, that he had liked working with juvenile delinquents. “When I worked with delinquents I gradually realized that my craziness, my childishness and even my delinquency were deeply involved in what I did,” he said. “I’ll never know how many delinquents stole cars because I got such a kick out of hearing the story.” When Whitaker died at age 83 on April 21st of this year after a long illness, it might be said that the therapy world lost its oldest, wisest and most compassionate juvenile delinquent.

Whitaker broke several fundamental laws of today’s emerging mental health care goliath. He admitted he had no interest whatsoever in mere symptom reduction; instead, he was intensely interested in something like “growth” a word now banished from polite company in the increasingly industrialized mental health professions. He didn’t care much for science, or empirically validated outcome studies, and it’s hard not to believe he would have regarded the current ascendency of the medical and pharmaceutical model of mental health with incredulity. What, he might ask, do these precisely calibrated algorithms of symptom and intervention have to do with the deep underground currents of mysterious fantasy, symbol and myth that drive human families?

Whitaker was known less for his theoretical innovations he believed theory got in the way of therapy than for his brilliant clinical intuition about families and his uncanny ability to hone in almost immediately on the subterranean, unacknowledged fantasies family members shared about each other. His weird non-sequitors and off-the-wall challenges to clients, which seemed to have no discernible therapeutic rationale, often proved unerring routes through the secret labyrinth of the family’s unconsious life.

Unlike many family therapists who had a hard enough time negotiating the complexities of a single nuclear family, Whitaker relished working with as many related bodies as he could pack into one therapy room all three (or more) living generations of a family, if he could get them. To watch this auteur direct his famous theater of the absurd using his masterly command of affection, humor, flattery, imperiousness, feigned indifference, gentle ridicule, exaggeration was frequently to see great tragicomedy unfold.

Whitaker was a therapist’s therapist, and not only literally-many therapists become his clients but as a role model, too; he embodied what young therapists, especially, often secretly hoped they could become, even when they didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Theory and technique were fine and necessary handholds up the rocky face of training, but Whitaker’s gift for resonating with families transcended discursive thought. He demonstrated the irrational, fundamentally mysterious, but bone-deep power of good therapy, and therapists discovered anew, every time they watched him, why they had entered the profession.

At first glance, Whitaker’s own biography looks too normal, too ail-American, to make him a likely candidate for one of psychotherapy’s most eminent free-thinkers. Born in 1912 on a rural dairy farm in New York State, Whitaker grew up in a large family comprising, with the exception of people he saw from church, his only social network until he was 13 and his family moved to the giant metropolis of Syracuse so he could attend high school.

Shy and uneasy in the new, cosmopolitan setting, Whitaker later said he thought he was “schizophrenic” as a teenager; he felt like an outcast forced to learn to adapt to the ways of society after having lived his entire childhood in isolated fantasy. According to Whitaker, his career owed as much to a “persistent devotion to confusion,” along with a “sneaky tendency to drift… to go with my impulses,” as it did to any rationally laid out professional plans. As a physician, he specialized for a while in obstetrics and gynecology, then took a psychiatry residency and immediately “fell in love” with the schizophrenics. “Something appealed to my morbid curiosity. Their willingness to expose their insides gave me the courage to make contact with the isolation in me” He took a fellowship in child psychiatry in 1940 “It was fun working with those little kids,” he said, “but the families didn’t change.” He spent World War II at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (location of the atomic bomb project), where, as an army psychiatrist doing long streams of back-to-back 30-minute therapy sessions, he first developed his famous practice of co-therapy.

In 1946, he was named chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta. By now, having “drifted” into the role of psychiatric heretic, he gathered around him a group of fellow dissenters, who challenged standard psychiatric orthodoxies with their opinions among which was the novel idea that schizophrenic symptoms were the individual’s attempt to solve interpersonal and family problems. In 1956, Whitaker and his group were dismissed from Emory as much because of Whitaker’s lack of administrative skills as his provocative opinions and together they established a psychiatric clinic in Atlanta. In 1965, he was appointed to the psychiatry department at the University of Wisconsin, where he began to receive widespread recognition for his particular “experiential/symbolic” take on family therapy In 1978, his student and colleague, Augustus Napier, published The Family Crucible, about Whitaker’s therapy with one family, which sold well over 100 thousand copies and made him a nationally known figure. Carl Whitaker was an original in a field sewn with originals; he made his mark at a time when there was still room for creativity, imagination, spontaneity and the courage to try what hadn’t been tried before. “Craziness” has gotten a bad name in therapy these days and, it must be admitted, the poor rep is often deserved; therapeutic travesties abound as anybody who follows the media blitzkrieg of lousy therapists knows. But there is real danger that the new therapy police will cast too wide a net, choking off the possibilities not only for the original work that transforms an entire profession Could a young Salvador Minuchin or Virginia Satir find a job today? Or Sigmund Freud, for that matter? but the more personal creativity and exploration that really should go on in every therapy case, with every client.

For all Whitaker’s famed and self-advertised “craziness,” he conveyed an oddly comforting persona with the individual families who came to see him, a common-sense, down-home ordinariness and rock-solid sanity that enabled even the most conservative families to look into the terrors of their own subterranean fantasies without blanching. Whitaker never confused “craziness” the family’s direct access to a vital current of inner freedom with “insanity” a state of living death in human souls driven too far underground. “The insane are what Christ called the ‘whited sepulchers,'” he once said, “the ones who go to jobs every morning in gray flannel suits.” Healthy craziness was a kind of wisdom, a saving grace that fortified and enriched people, not a helpless floundering in unreason. “I encourage [families] to be crazy,” he said “But the problem is to keep them from being stupid. If you’re stupid and crazy, you end up in a state hospital; if you’re smart and crazy, you end up like Picasso and make a contribution to the world.” Whitaker may have been crazy, but he was as smart crazy as any healer who ever lived.


Mary Sykes Wylie

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