The Accidental Therapist


Jay Haley Didn't Set Out to Transform Psychotherapy

November/December 2007


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…

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