It's amazing to learn that celebrated couples’ therapist Terry Real started out… driving a cab? And that he found it useful for his later career.
Let me begin with a personal disclaimer: Terry helped me grow up. I studied with him during a year-long course on working with couples. He gave me confidence and aplomb. So, it was especially moving to interview him for this series and hear how others helped him. Also, discovering the odd twists and turns of his career was the real joy. I loved learning not just about Terry's expertise behind the wheel, but also about his first career goal—in literature!
“I used to think that I had to become a writer in order to tell the story of my childhood abuse, because if I never told that story, my life would be meaningless,” he said. “Then everything became unglued—my marriage, my faith and spirituality, so much that wanting to be a professor of literature felt like a death to me. So, I got away from all of that in 1975.”
He drove a cab in Boston during this time, finding that it both paid the bills and helped him learn the meaning of connection and conversation. However, he was shot at while behind the wheel, and that was a wake-up call.
He told me, “I needed a new job. Mental health was huge. I was living with a bunch of people as we did back then, and everybody was in mental health. I got a job as a mental health worker at Central Hospital in Somerville. I was a glorified nurse's aide, but it was the seventies and so I got to do everything.”
From there, his career in mental health began. A self-described “people person,” he had an innate sense about human relationships and the systems in which they played out. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his first job was talking people down from bad drug trips—a skill he’d already mastered while driving a cab. “After a couple years there, I was supervising shrinks. I was doing group work. It was amazing the amount of responsibility they gave me. I just somehow knew what to do,” he said. Those who knew him best weren’t surprised; he had clearly found his vocation.
Like many others, being in therapy changed Terry’s outlook. “I went into therapy to give up being a writer,” he noted, “and [instead] embraced becoming a therapist, because of my abuse.”
Over the next several years, Terry encountered helpful and challenging mentors, people who saw in him something both unusual and strong, and who encouraged him to keep moving forward. One challenged him to write a book; another pointed out a particular facility he had for dealing with males.
Terry Real tells the next part best:
Twenty-five years went by, as these things go, and one of my great mentors at August Silverstein was this woman, tough as nails, we met at Smith College where we were both teaching. And Olga said to me, "I'm going to change your life." She said, "You're writing a book."
I said, "I am?"
She said, "Yeah, you're writing a book on men in depression."
And I said, "Olga, why would I do that? I'm a family therapist. I don't even believe in discrete disease entities. I'm not one of these psychologists. Why would I write about men in depression?"
And she said, "I'm just finishing my book. I got a $300,000 advance."
I said, "I'll be right over."
He was connected to a literary agent, who agreed to meet with him. Nervous about the meeting, Terry jotted down some ideas on a cocktail napkin, and the agent was impressed (Terry says he’s kept the napkin). It became the foundation for his bestselling book I Don’t Want to Talk About it: Overcoming the Legacy of Male Depression published in 1998.
His professional interest in masculinity stems from his personal history. Obsessed with figuring out the right formula for power and masculinity, he describes a constant curiosity and unfulfilled quest to find the balance. He asked, “What is the right relationship with power for men? Can there be a connected loving and responsible way to have power? I think there can be.”
As we wrapped up the interview, his advice for clinicians reminded me why I chose and continue to love this work.
“Be proud of your craft,” Terry said. “I want the therapists who are listening to this to trust their instincts, to know what they know, and to not discredit it. That's the most important thing for a therapist—it is just being there and having trust in yourself—and the process.”
For more of the interview, including his advice for young clinicians, check out Secrets of the Masters.