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Great Minds on the Mind Assemble for Conference

December 18, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — A hundred years ago an Austrian neurologist named Sigmund Freud peered under the hood of the human soul and found a previously unnoticed gizmo he called the unconscious. The part tended to break down, causing emotional upsets known as mental illness. The way to repair the unconscious, Freud decided, was through talk.

Freud's discovery inspired mental mechanics everywhere, who rushed to patent variations of the fabulous talking cure.

Gathering in Phoenix

Those whose inventions got the most attention were men like Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, R. D. Laing, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Wolpe and Thomas Szasz. All these psycho-celebrities of the 20th Century assembled for the first time in history in Phoenix last week for a conference called "The Evolution of Psychotherapy." It could be the last time the gang gets together, too, because most of them are elderly.

Facing a bank of 26 spotlights, the masters spoke while their images were projected on gigantic video screens. Every other word was lost in the echo of the cavernous Civic Plaza Convention Center. Carl Rogers, who has influenced more therapists in this country than Freud, got a standing ovation from 4,000 people before he even said a word. It was, as organizer Jeffrey Zeig said, the Woodstock of psychotherapy.

100 Years of Progress

The heroes were there to evaluate where psychotherapy has come in 100 years, and where it might be going--except they really could not agree on either.

On the one hand, there were men like British psychiatrist R. D. Laing, known for his work on schizophrenia, who said that he couldn't think of any fundamental insight into relations between human beings that has resulted from a century of psychotherapy. "I don't think we've gone beyond Socrates, Euripides, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Flaubert by the age of 15."

Carl Rogers, on the other hand, contended that psychotherapy has made "quite a little progress," particularly in moving away from medical explanations of mental illness toward a focus on growth of the individual.

Dr. Joseph Wolpe, a pioneering behavior therapist, noted: "An outside observer would be surprised to learn that this is what the evolution of psychotherapy has come to--a Babel of conflicting voices."

Differing Opinions

The 7,000 practicing and student psychotherapists, psychiatrists and social workers who attended various sessions were undaunted by the debates and differences of opinion. Obtaining autographs was a priority for many. Some stuck close within range of their personal favorite theorists; others, like Linda Paulsen, who does crisis intervention in Orange County said she was trying to get a "smattering" of existential, behavioral and cognitive approaches. She pointed out that while most of the conference-goers had preferences among the 27 big names on the front of the program, "the therapist's real tool is herself, not any one theory."

Jeanne Mulligan, 62, a schoolteacher and MFCC (Marriage, Family and Child Counselor) candidate from Santa Ana said: "I'm here to see the gurus, the guys who started it all. I figured these people aren't going to be around forever."

For Mulligan, it was Carl Rogers who influenced her more than the others. Mulligan described Rogers' technique: "He's the being-there-no-matter-what-you-say-to-me guy. He's not going to tell anybody what to do. His approach is, 'You do it. You're capable of doing it yourself.'

"He's how I live more than how I practice," she added. "I raised my kids to Carl Rogers' (theory); I taught to Carl Rogers. I was hoping to dance with him last night (at a post-conference bash). . . ."

Long before there was a buck to be made off a troubled soul on a couch, there were tribal elders for primitives to tell their worries to, speculated Dr. Murray Bowen. He believes psychotherapy's roots are in an instinctive mechanism by which people feel compelled to help each other.

Before Freud came along in the late 19th Century, people who acted strangely were treated by "alienists." The usual prescription involved neurological remedies or rest cures. Freud's theory of the unconscious--which Bowen calls "an educated guess"--gave rise to a demand for psychoanalysts who would help patients tinker with this new component of their beings.

Bowen, a clinical professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, said that one of Freud's lasting contributions was the notion that people replicate early relationships. Thus, problems with a spouse might reflect childhood conflicts with a parent; or feelings toward a parent might be transferred onto a therapist. There was plenty of talk of transference and counter-transference in the long lunch lines--evidence that the notion is still fresh.

Change After World War II

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