Larger than Life

Marianne Walters Was Family Therapy's Foremost Feminist

Larger than Life

Family therapist Marianne Walters, who died on February 21, 2006, at the age of 76, didn’t invent a brilliant new therapeutic paradigm, publish a large and magisterial body of research, or establish her own unique school of clinical practice. Her name never had quite the instant brand recognition associated with some of the founders of the field—Nathan Ackerman, Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Virginia Satir, and the other immortals. A housewife and mother (who dutifully followed her economist husband around from one academic posting to another for years), she didn’t even become a family therapist until she was nearly 40.

Yet, Walters probably had as great an impact on the overall clinical zeitgeist of family therapy, in her own way, as any of the master theory-builders and gurus. Along with her three comrades in arms—Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, and Olga Silverstein—she formed The Women’s Project in Family Therapy in 1977, what family therapist Carol Anderson called “the first, biggest, longest-running feminist road show.” It was a combination feminist think tank and SWAT team, which, in public workshops all over the country, challenged the underlying sexism in some of the most basic notions of family therapy. Largely at Walters’s continued prodding, the four went on to write The Invisible Web, the first book to focus on women’s relationships in the family and, more important, on how to bring feminist insights into daily clinical practice.

In these days, when no therapist would admit to not supporting feminist principles, it’s almost impossible to resurrect the mix of excitement and outrage Walters engendered, as much because of her truly formidable personality as her unflinching challenge to the male hierarchy. A woman of great personal √©lan, fearless temperament, and iron will, she wasn’t cowed by authority, to say the least. “She was funny, political, very radical, and wasn’t going to soften her position for anyone,” remembers psychologist Michele Bograd, who herself has written about feminist issues in family therapy. “She didn’t care about her image—she was simply not afraid. Marianne was a warrior-hero to many of us. It was as if she and the Women’s Project broke a path through deep, crusted snow that the rest of us could follow.”

In all the attention Walters commanded as de facto ringleader of the Women’s Project, it was sometimes forgotten that she was also a brilliant clinician, to whom doing therapy seemed to come as naturally as breathing. She had an almost uncanny talent for instantly connecting with clients as if she’d known them forever and somehow startling them out of their funk into a radically new, far more creative and helpful, view of their own dilemmas. Not remotely interested in therapeutic neutrality, she was always fully herself—to be so was part of her working credo. “I’m Jewish,” she said, describing one consultation, “so I say ‘mazel tov’ to this client, instead of ‘congratulations’—it’s a way of identifying myself and establishing a relationship with the person I’m talking to.”

As a teacher, Walters was unforgettable, an ineradicable neon memory, burned into the neural synapses of every student she ever taught. She could be very tough—more than a few students limped out of her supervision sessions feeling scorched by her blunt assessment of their missteps in the consulting room. But she also had a gift for encouraging inexperienced young therapists to think independently of the systems they’d been taught. At a time when family therapists were still deeply in thrall to abstract, formulaic constructions—circularity, complementarity, triangulation, homeostasis, differentiation, enmeshment, not to mention the diagrams and genograms schematically demonstrating these concepts—she challenged students to do therapy less by the book and more from the gut.

For a student or trainee, getting the Walters treatment could be both terrifying and freeing. Larry Levner, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Therapy Practice Center, founded by Walters in 1980, describes how disorienting it was for him, as one of Walters’s students, to give up his dependence on the neat, predefined sequence of clinical steps that provided a guaranteed road map through any session. “The great thing about the systemic or structural ways of working was that from the minute you entered the therapy room, you knew what you were going to do,” Levner says. “When Marianne began challenging family therapy constructs like complementarity, my feeling was, ‘I can’t do this work if I don’t have my formula.’ And yet, I remember this period as a defining and empowering time for me as a therapist, when I finally began to understand that therapy wasn’t just what you do, but how you think. “

A short woman—only about five feet tall—zaftig of build, with unruly dark hair, a vast smile, and charisma to burn, Walters had undeniable star power and a grand presence that belied her physical stature. “She was divaesque, bigger than life,” says Jay Lappin, who was a young faculty member at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic when Walters was there as a family therapist and director of training. “When you were with her, you felt you were with somebody special, and that something important was just about to happen.”

The Making of a Radical

Marianne Lichtenstein Walters was a lifelong political activist, who came by her left-wing politics naturally—she was the quintessential “red-diaper baby.” Her mother emigrated from Russia to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, speaking only Yiddish, and met Walters’s father in New York at a meeting of the Young Person’s Socialist League. The couple settled in Washington, where Mr. Lichtenstein got a doctorate in foreign-service studies at Georgetown University.

Finding that Jews weren’t welcome at the State of Department, he went into business instead. But while economically comfortable themselves, the family remained steeped in the progressive, prolabor, antiracist political causes of the time. “We were raised in the time of Hitler and grew up understanding what fascism was,” says Barbara Bick, Walters’s older sister. Her mother was an activist on behalf of civil rights for blacks, and helped to incorporate a cooperative bookstore that included on its board of directors several black professors from Howard University—a radical practice for a white business of the era.

Walters seems to have identified herself as a socialist early on and, as a young woman, even briefly joined the Communist Party. At 17 or 18, she was a delegate to an international youth and student congress held in Prague, where Paul Robeson was one of the speakers. In the heady, earnest spirit of solidarity with the “workers of the world” that informed such occasions, she joined a youth brigade to do volunteer labor on a railroad in either Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia (accounts differ). But she disliked the work so much that she was grateful when she broke her leg, giving her an unimpeachable excuse to stop—although she did receive some sort of official medal for her efforts.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Walters met and married a left-leaning economist and political activist, Joseph Hart Walters. According to Peggy Papp, Walters liked to tell the fanciful story that her 1950 wedding was a very nice Jewish affair, after which everybody was arrested and taken off to jail for various “un-American” activities. But for all Walters’s lifelong commitment to social justice and left-wing sympathies, she was, says her daughter Suzanna, “much too idiosyncratic and independent for any group mentality; too much a free-thinking iconoclast to become mired in orthodoxy.”

During a trip to Cuba with other American therapists for an international conference a couple of years ago, she was in a large group of visitors listening to a government functionary talk up the achievements of the Cuban revolution, including free health care and universal literacy. Walters then raised her hand. “Excuse me,” she said sweetly. “Have those 79 dissidents and journalists arrested and jailed in 2003 been freed yet, or are they still in prison?” There was a moment of aghast silence before the speaker managed to mumble something to the effect that they hadn’t been jailed for their political beliefs but for “other” reasons. The talk resumed. A few minutes later, Walters’s hand was in the air again. “I was just wondering,” she said, “if you’re still rounding up homosexuals and keeping them in special units!”

In 1954, Walters got her M.S.W. degree and took a job as a clinical social worker at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic (PCGC), while it was still under the influence of psychoanalyst Otto Rank. Walters took some satisfaction from the fact that she preceeded by 10 years Salvador Minuchin to the clinic that would become almost synonymous with his name and his pioneering family therapy techniques. She left PCGC in around 1963 to become chief social worker on a Howard University project in Washington, D.C., training community mental health aides. After that, she spent time in Warsaw, Poland (her husband was there on a grant), where her third daughter was born.

In 1968, Walters and her family returned to Philadelphia, where her husband joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and she again joined PCGC. By this time, the organization had been completely reborn as a family therapy center, and was one of the most exciting places to be if you were a social activist, had a rebellious streak, and wanted be in the vanguard of a radical new therapy movement. Walters fit right in.

Not formally trained in family therapy, Walters took to it immediately and quickly became a luminary in her own right. Lappin recalls that when she did supervision, it was if she were “holding court, and people felt lucky to be there.” Walters loved the dynamic, politically charged atmosphere of the clinic. “The therapeutic approach seemed so progressive and Sal’s politics appealed to me a lot,” she recalled. “We’d practically close down the place to go on peace marches. I also liked it that he was always interested in the cultural and social context of people’s lives—how poverty affected families. I loved his energy, his intellectual excitement, his commitment and engagement and presence when he was doing therapy.” The cozy, teamlike atmosphere of PCGC extended after hours. Walters and Minuchin were neighbors, and their families visited in each other’s homes. She, Minuchin and Jay Haley—an early hire of Minuchin’s—played poker together for nickel and dime bets.

But, as might be expected in a circle that included a number of leading lights in the family therapy field—generally not shy, self-effacing personalities—there was a certain amount of jostling and maneuvering for position. Often the principal contenders were Minuchin and Walters, who was, by the mid-’70s, executive director of training at PCGC and a star in her own right. One younger staff member recalled how tough the Monday-morning faculty meetings could be, when senior members would stake out positions on different issues, then put junior faculty on the spot by lobbying them to take sides. Typically, Minuchin might say to a junior member of the team something like, “So, what do you think of this idea of Marianne’s?” The atmosphere at the clinic was often intensely politicized, and the politics could be intensely personal.

The Making of a Feminist

For Walters, the bloom began to leave the PCGC rose in the mid-1970s, when it began to dawn on her that, however “radical” family therapy seemed, the field was, in her words, “primitive” when it came to women. Gradually, as feminist thinking suffused the cultural atmosphere, she realized how few women were in executive-leadership positions at the clinic, that almost all the major figures in the field were men, and that many women therapists had a hard time confronting men in therapy, much less in their clinics and agencies. Most damning, it seemed to her that the vaunted interventions of family therapy existed in a social vacuum, completely ignoring the real circumstances of women’s lives.

According to a well-known story, in 1978, Walters asked her friend Peggy Papp to co-lead a workshop about women and therapy. As far as Walters was concerned, the field had grown so in thrall to its own abstract architectonics of structures and systems that it was losing its anchor in the real, earth-bound world of families, and virtually ignoring the daily reality of women in those families. Papp, in turn, recruited two smart colleagues and former students, Betty Carter and Olga Silverstein. The first workshop, held at PCGC, drew nearly 100 participants, who began to explore what family and couples therapy that included women’s experience and consciousness might look like.

One person who hadn’t been informed of the workshop was clinic director Minuchin, who discovered the insurrection under his own roof only by accident. “I was always a very intrusive director,” he says (he was famous for walking into other clinicians’ sessions or offices, unannounced and unapologetic). “I opened the door to the conference room and saw all these women and, at the front of the room, I saw Marianne, Peggy, Olga, and Betty.” Taken aback, Minuchin asked what was up. “This is a meeting for women,” Walters declared. “But how was it that I didn’t know this was going to take place?” Minuchin asked. “You’re a man,” she said flatly.

“She evicted me,” recalls Minuchin, still sounding incredulous nearly 30 years later. “I had the feeling of being pushed out, and I didn’t like it. I felt betrayed.” Thus began a period of confrontation, Minuchin says, “when I was singled out as the embodiment of male obtuseness and discrimination. The truth is, I really didn’t like it at all.”

Over the long run, Minuchin says, Walters had an important effect on his own thinking, however. He began to understand that he, too, was the unconscious product of culture—in this case, a patriarchal, hierarchical, macho-infused Argentine family, in which the male was supposed to be top dog. “What I saw as simply the ‘natural’ way things were, she made me realize, was quite a narrow vision of the world—she opened my eyes.”

A few months after the PCGC meeting, at the annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association conference, Walters, Papp, Silverstein, and Carter decided to hold an impromptu gathering on women’s issues and therapy. “We put up a little handwritten sign announcing the meeting, then went to lunch and almost forgot about it—we didn’t think anybody would come,” Olga Silverstein remembers. When they went to the room scheduled for the event, they found it jammed with nearly 400 people. “We weren’t prepared,” adds Silverstein, “but we went ahead and did something, and it seemed to go very pretty well.” Soon after that, The Women’s Project in Family Therapy was born, which kick-started a national movement that ultimately transformed the field.

At some point, the friendship between the four collaborators became as important as the work. After Walters moved to Washington, D.C., and started the Family Therapy Practice Center, one of the first free-standing family-training programs to be run by a woman (Betty Carter’s was the first), they continued to meet in Olga Silverstein’s New York City apartment. The four would spend the first day updating one another on their personal lives—marriages, divorces, kids. “As we talked, we saw the connection between what we did as parents and wives and friends, and what we did as therapists,” Silverstein remarked in a 1997 Networker article about the Women’s Project. “We saw that all those roles weren’t something that interfered with your professionalism. They made you more of an expert on families.”

All four women had their individual identities, backgrounds, ways of working, even physiques. “We were two little women and two tall ones, two Jews and two Wasps—one Catholic and one Mormon,” said Silverstein recently. “Our models were all totally different. Peggy and I came from Ackerman, Betty was a Bowenite, and Marianne came from Minuchin’s school.” By common agreement, Walters was the leader of the pack. “We were four self-motivated, bossy, strong women, but she led us just the same. She kept us together.” In fact, when the four began writing their book, it was Walters—often thought of as a confrontationist—who had a gift for soothing jangled nerves, cooling off tempers, and raising spirits when arguments, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and disappointments threatened progress.

Once the book was published, it became a kind of lodestar to women therapists because it went beyond critiquing sexist assumptions and patterns in family therapy and outlined systematic strategies for making interventions more woman-friendly. The four acquired as much renown as any of the “old masters” of the field. But in certain circles, they became the target of brutal attacks. One major figure circulated a paper that sneeringly used the acronym MAW to describe the group. It pointedly suggested that the four were aggressive, mean-tempered, power-hungry old women who were sacrificing the good name of family therapy to their own selfish yearning for glory.

In retrospect, what adversaries seem to have found most infuriating wasn’t that the Women’s Project dared to challenge some of family therapy’s pet concepts, but the bold, unapologetic, very public and in-your-face way they went about it. And the one who seemed to be the most brazen, most outspoken, least fearful of offending the powers that be was Walters. Not only did she become the de facto lightning rod of the Women’s Project, she seemed to take on the job with real gusto.

Putting Families First

While Walters was sometimes regarded by people who didn’t know her as an unbending ideologue, she insisted that, for her, feminism wasn’t a war against men, but against the monolithic male dominance in the way our culture thinks about and defines human reality. She wanted to include women’s experience, women’s thoughts, women’s perspectives in the way we envision family and society. As committed as she was to the cause, however, she was never doctrinaire. She was too earthy, too rooted in life and aware of its messy ambiguities, too fascinated by people and their individual foibles ever to pigeonhole entire populations into preexisting political categories.

In fact, for somebody with the reputation of a radical, Walters was actually a funny kind of traditionalist, even a moralist, regarding the family—an unreconstructed believer in the necessity of mutually loving and respecting family connections. More than anything, she was a critic of the cult of individualism in American society, which seemed, paradoxically and weirdly in her eyes, to have been adopted by the family therapy establishment. She simply couldn’t fathom the vast attraction in family therapy circles to concepts like “differentiation,” “separation,” and “individuation,” nor the zeal of therapists for various strategies aimed at helping “enmeshed” families kick reluctant, postadolescent fledglings out of the nest, nor the cult for “leaving home”—the title of Jay Haley’s famous book about getting kids to grow up and get out. “Being a Jewish woman, I just cannot understand separation and boundaries and so on, but I completely understand enmeshment,” she said, typically exaggerating for effect. “In our field, you’re supposed to grow up in a family and then separate from them, and they’re supposed to let you go. But why would you want to let go of your family? Why would you ‘let go’ of someone you love?” she wondered.

Once, in response to an anxiety-ridden, young, single mother, who was afraid her young son would grow up to be too dependent on her, earning the dreaded label of “mama’s boy,” Walters dismissed the whole concern with a careless wave of the hand and the immortal remark, “Oedipal, Schmedipal—as long as he loves his mother.” In her view, maturity is a process of continually renegotiating the terms of your connection with your family of origin and continually forming new families—with friends, mates, work colleagues, whoever you really care about, who cares about you. “Let a hundred families bloom” might have been her motto.

True, her ideas about “home” and “family” were far more inclusive than the standard-issue, married heterosexual couple with 2.5 children living in a freestanding suburban house. To her, a true family wasn’t an institution, but a state of mind and heart—a feeling of being at home with certain chosen others; not a ritualized, privatized legal contract, but the natural unfolding of affiliation between people—whoever they were, whatever their biological connection, whether or not they were formally sanctioned by law and custom. “A home is a place of intimacy and familiarity that holds people who love you and whom you love; a place where you feel taken care of, where you feel comfortable and can talk about things that are important to you,” she said

Although she was celebrated as a woman who could dish out challenges to the worldviews of others, her family taught her to readjust her own notions of the correct world order. When, at 16, her youngest daughter, Suzanna, announced to her mother that she was gay, “my mother, typically thinking that she knew it all, without missing a beat, said ‘no, you’re not!'” recalls Suzanna. Walters herself remembered the occasion with more characteristic hyperbole and self-mocking dramatics. “I said to her, ‘That’s completely stupid, honey, completely ridiculous. Cut it out! You’re always saying something dumb like that. You aren’t gay.” However, Walters not only came to “accept” her daughter’s sexual orientation, but to throw herself into the fight for gay rights with as much joy, enthusiasm, and determination as she had for any of the other causes she’d championed, later thanking her daughter for opening up yet another opportunity for fighting the good fight.

In a profession often known for its avoidance of conflict, Walters will be remembered as an indefatigable fighter who’d go toe-to-toe with anybody on behalf of what she thought was a fundamentally important principle or idea. As Jay Lappin puts it, “That’s why I was so shocked when I heard she’d died. I just couldn’t imagine Marianne losing a fight to anyone or anything.”

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!>>

Mary Sykes Wylie

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