Psychotherapy’s Mark Twain

For Frank Pittman, Self-Seriousness Was the One Unpardonable Sin

Magazine Issue
March/April 2013
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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.

Perils of Victomology

He believed that during the ’80s and ’90s, too many people had taken up a career in victimology, “miserable because their lives are, in some way, imperfect.” The “tragedy of imperfect lives,” he wrote, came in various manifestations—the tragedy of having imperfect parents (who didn’t love you enough or in the right way), of imperfect children (who don’t live up to their parents’ exaggerated expectations), of imperfect love (having spouses who don’t demonstrate infinite love). “One man inspected the house each night, telling his wife that she would have starched his socks, polished the faucets or waxed the lawn if she had really wanted to show him her love. A woman followed her husband with a pad and pencil writing down the responses he would have given her if he had loved her right.” Some people felt keenly the tragedy of having an imperfect body. “Some men believe that they will be loved if their ratio of muscle to fat becomes astounding enough. Some women drive themselves nuts, or even dead, trying to achieve physical perfection.” The quest for the body beautiful is usually unrealistic and always doomed in the long run by the sheer, brute fact of aging.

For Frank, welcoming reality was the only way out of the tragedy of imperfection, particularly where bodies were concerned. “A man’s happiness in life, and his sexuality as he ages, is dependent upon his ability to be turned on by fat, wrinkles, liver spots and cellulite. . . . Since we cannot readily reshape our partners to match our fantasies, we may have to reshape our fantasies to match our partners. I keep laughingly telling guys that any average 14-year-old idiot can be turned on by the sight of a 22-year-old centerfold, but it takes a real man to be turned on by a real woman for a lifetime. (And, of course, I could say exactly the same thing about women and their male sex objects, but I wouldn’t have to.)”

What really got Frank’s ire was the “Tragedy of Imperfect Emotions,” aka the tyranny of feelings—the belief among too many people, reinforced by too many therapists, “that people must do what they feel like doing, that they would surely be miserable or bust a gut if they were forced to go in any direction other than that to which their emotions are leading them.” Perhaps his all-time classic rendition of this theme occurred during a keynote he delivered at the 1996 Networker Symposium: “But what about feelings?” he asked the audience, warming up for the climax of his stem-winder. “To change, you have to act contrary to your feelings. You have to do what you don’t want to do in order to get to the place you can feel what you ultimately want to feel. You can’t get happiness in life just from enough fun, enough self-indulgence: it takes honor, integrity, pride, and, above all, a sense of your own struggle and a sense of your own ability to survive not getting your own way.” Families and society were in deep trouble, and it was partly the fault of therapists, he went on. “We’ve encouraged people to do what makes them feel ‘self actualized’ in the short run, tried to protect them from imperfect relationships, encouraged them to break off relationships with spouses, friends, and do nothing that stands in the way of their self-pitying narcissism.

“There was a time back 30 years ago when I was a nicer, more likeable therapist,” he continued, “when I didn’t know how to be much more than accepting and neutral and somehow make people feel that their feelings were important. Massage always feels better than surgery. But I do better therapy now because I’m treating people as if their feelings are important, but their lives are more important, as if their lives can make a difference. Now, I’m less and less likely to ask people how they’re feeling and what other people are doing and more likely to ask people what they’re doing and how other people are feeling.”

Tough and Tender

Throughout his career as a writer and speaker, Frank often expressed himself with ironic incredulity that so many supposedly smart people could do such dumb and harmful things to themselves and to other people. Yet this sharp-edged persona, often raising such hackles, belied a genuine tenderness, a deep concern for and empathy with his clients and others, and a bone-deep understanding of how fragile and imperfect we all are, how painful life can be, how hard we try, and how often we fail. He knew all this from personal experience, as he candidly revealed in “Bringing Up Father,” a 1988 Networker reflection on what it means to be a father. “My mother was a severe alcoholic, a tragic and suicidal figure,” he wrote. “My strong, silent father protected and enabled her, and ignored any piece of reality he couldn’t master. When I was a child, I wanted them to be different, and was angry when they wouldn’t fulfill my childishly selfish fantasies of the parents I thought I deserved. I’m ashamed now that I ever felt that way—about my parents or about any other child’s parents. They did their best, and my sister and I turned out well, not necessarily despite the problems, perhaps because of the problems. But I couldn’t truly appreciate Mother and Dad, warts and all, until I raised my own children and felt my powerlessness as a parent, and the good intentions with which the job can be bungled.”

As a therapist he didn’t set much store by diagnostic categories, using them when he had to, but mainly regarding himself as a kind of Dutch uncle, whose job it was to point out hard truths to people who needed to hear them. “I assume that people, whether they be patients, parents or children, are generally well intentioned, but misinformed. I don’t understand those theorists who think that families want nothing more in life than to defeat therapists, or who believe that parents are out to destroy children, for unconscious or conscious reasons. I just assume that people are amateurs at life, this is their first time doing it, and they are just muddling through the best they can with whatever they have learned in their own families from their own amateur parents. Our job is to respect their good intentions and amateur status, and provide our professional expertise in identifying and correcting their misinformation.”

In many respects, Frank was an old-fashioned Southern gentleman with a gentleman’s code of honor—minus the racism, sexism, and reactionary politics so often entailed by that designation. If ever a name was well deserved, it was his: he was “frank” about everything, regardless of audience or circumstances or how much head-shaking he might inspire. What you saw and heard was what you got. He was incapable of not calling the shots as he saw them, usually with his signature irony, leavened with a well-developed sense of mischief.

The Screening Room

While Frank had a long and eminent career as a prolific and popular author, teacher, and TV personality, the Networker audience got to know him primarily through his passionately opinionated, compulsively readable movie reviews, which were a regular column in the magazine for almost three decades. For Frank, movies weren’t about life, but rather the distilled essence of life, expressed in more vivid, morally instructive, and therapeutic ways than the original. The moviegoing experience seemed entwined in Frank’s DNA, and, in fact, seeing films may have been a survival strategy for him growing up in rural south in the ’40s and ’50s, with no Internet or TV. Each new movie that came to town was a capital-E event, an entrée into a much more vivid, compelling, emotionally satisfying world than everyday reality. “I have a love of the movies,” he told an interviewer. “I do. I want my myths to come at me bigger than life. I want big myths. I want John Wayne-, Katherine Hepburn–size myths. I have this great love for the movies that I guess comes from growing up in rural Georgia and Alabama and thinking that happiness was elsewhere. That there must be great excitement elsewhere.”

Frank loved the vivid unfolding of the story line and cavalcade of images and sounds from the big screen, but he was even more fascinated by the actors, whom he followed—in their progression from one movie to another, their shifting cinematic personae—as if he knew them intimately, as if they were family members, longtime friends, or old clients who somehow never quit needing his therapy. In fact, movie characters allowed Frank to inhabit bigger, brighter, more thrilling selves (as they do all of us, really).

Late in his life, he wrote, “When we sit in the dark watching a Hollywood film featuring our favorite stars, there’s also the undercurrent in our hearts and minds rooted in our personal history with the screen idols we know and love. We don’t so much watch these larger-than-life heroes and heroines as get absorbed in them as they play out for us emotional possibilities we usually don’t realize in our own lives. We return again and again to spend time with certain special performers, because they come to feel like an extension of ourselves. Through the years, our bond with them can act as a drug that makes us feel larger, more adventurous, fuller than we are on our own.”

Frank saw movies as case histories viewed large, of individuals and entire societies, encapsulating what was worthwhile, healthy, noble, and beautiful, as well as what was stupid, immoral, banal, and blatantly vicious, pandering to our worst instincts. Our most popular art form, they both reflect and influence the concerns and attitudes of great swaths of the public. Thus, for Frank, the popularity of Animal House (1978) told us that the ’60s were well and truly over and the youth generation of the day was less interested in political activism than in partying heartily. The popularity of Terms of Endearment, he wrote, “tells us that society is ready to forgive mothers,” after the previous psychoanalytically informed generation had blamed them for everything.

As art, films had the power to move and change people, he said—a lot like therapy. Good therapeutic movies, which Frank prescribed the way some psychiatrists prescribed meds, were those that “shake us and force us to feel something we might prefer to avoid.” He felt strongly that movies could provide a salutary shock to the psyche. He described working with one couple in which the husband was so emotionally closed down that marital counseling was impossible: the husband refused to discuss anything unpleasant because he wanted only a “happy marriage without any conflict.” So Frank sent them to the movies. “The therapeutic breakthrough occurred when I forced him to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? over and over until he understood how much fun George and Martha were having.”

Whether or not people agreed with Frank (and many furiously didn’t), he was fun to read (even when you hated what he was writing). He seemed largely unconcerned about whether he was liked. In fact, he was probably an intentional provocateur. If that was his intent, he succeeded. His particular and, as some feminist activists thought, deeply suspicious take on feminism was often met with tight-lipped disapproval, if not barely suppressed fury. However, it’s hard to believe that Frank didn’t actually enjoy being attacked because it gave him such a sterling opportunity to counterattack, which he did with obvious relish.

In one lighthearted example, Frank had written an admiring review of The Bridges of Madison County (for all his distrust of romanticism as dangerous fantasy, he was in some respects a closet romantic). One response was a hyperventilating letter from a woman convinced (wrongly) that he’d trashed the movie and, articulating feminist concerns about males ogling female bodies, querying, “Why did Pittman find it necessary to comment on Meryl Streep’s ‘generous hips and breasts,’ while not commenting on Eastwood’s body parts at all?” Frank, responding that she clearly didn’t read the review and thus missed its point (true), wrote, “As for your last question, I commented on Meryl Streeps’ body parts (‘generous hips and breasts’) and on Clint Eastwood’s as well (‘impossibly lean’ with a belly as ‘flat as a knife blade’). Movies communicate via pictures of actors’ carefully trained and shaped faces and bodies. They are up there on the screen expecting to be seen. If you are averse to awareness of bodies, I suggest you confine yourself to radio.

“Since I am not in the movies, and since I have a bald head, skinny bow legs, crooked teeth and love handles, I make every effort to avoid commenting on the body parts of other family therapists.”

What must have been at times a difficult childhood stood in stark contrast to the happy marriage and family life he built with his wife, Betsy, “the sanest human being I’ve ever known.” The survival and flourishing of marriages and families were matters of life and death to him, and he couldn’t understand why so many people—including therapists—seemed willing to trifle with them. The truly saving graces in life, as far as he was concerned, were love, family, friendship, neighborliness, trustworthiness, and duty. In his first movie column to follow 9/11, Frank surveyed a half-century of movie heroes, an entire line of macho, solitary heroes or narcissistic rebels, representing a largely antisocial, violent, and sometimes appalling image of heroism, reaching its degraded nadir of hulking murderousness in Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. But there was an alternative line of regular-guy heroes in American film: Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more contemporaneously, Tom Hanks, a kind of Spencer Tracy redux. “This is the grown-up, real-world brand of hero,” Frank wrote. “The firemen at the World Trade Center and the passengers on flight 93 saw their duty, banded together, and did what they had to do. . . . Hero domesticus is the heroic model of ordinary manhood, rather than the stuff of myths, the role-model for men’s lives rather than boys’ fantasies. Husbanding, fathering, and neighboring offer rich enough opportunities for the development of character and manly strength.”

The comedian and the hero as a sort of Everyman Therapist were really of one piece, in Frank’s view. As he once wrote, “Comedians are society’s therapists, showing us that our embarrassing weaknesses and pathetic neediness are, in fact, universal. Part of what enables most comedians to do their job is that they are as unheroic and funny looking on the outside as we sense ourselves to be on the inside. So we identify with the lost, deadpan Buster Keaton, the downtrodden but poetic tramp Charlie Chaplin, the neurologically challenged Jerry Lewis and even the furry-stuffed-animal Robin Williams, all of whom play innocent losers who can’t help but betray an underlying sweetness. (Even the beautiful comic actors, the likes of Cary Grant, Kay Kendall, Kevin Kline and Carole Lombard, are funny because they look heroic but prove to be only human after all.)” Maybe Frank saw something of himself—smart, self-confident, brash, fearless, as he often was—in those “unheroic and funny looking” comics.

That combination served him well during his last, tough days. As he got sicker and more debilitated, he was uncomplaining, never considering that what was happening to him was in any way “unfair”—after all, everybody goes through it one way or another, sooner or later, and no amount of psychologizing or self-help or melodrama can change that. Yet he still couldn’t resist shaking his head at the sheer absurdity of this whole death-and-dying thing. Sustained by movies and his beloved opera almost to the end, he couldn’t help comparing the spectacle of his own demise with the many cinematic death scenes he’d witnessed over the years. He knew the script for dying well by heart and seemed concerned only that he put in a worthy performance.

As his medical complications worsened, leaving nothing but awful, last-ditch treatment options, trying to reassure Betsy and his children that he’d do his best until the end, he said with his perfect instinct for the great one-liner, “I’m willing to do anything I can to get better, except die.” It was a toss-away that would have done even Woody Allen proud.


Photo © Ian Mcfarlane

Mary Sykes Wylie

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