Force of Nature

A Former Supervisee Recalls a Master Therapist at Work

Magazine Issue
May/June 2006
Force of Nature

I first met Marianne in 1980, when she descended upon the therapeutic wilderness of Washington, D.C., from Mount Olympus (otherwise known as the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic) to establish and direct the Family Therapy Practice Center. She’d already made waves a few years before by organizing the first workshop in family therapy to deal with what were then quaintly known as “women’s issues,” and had gone ahead with her three partners-in-crime–Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, and Olga Silverstein–to found the Women’s Project in Family Therapy.

I was a novice at the still-new and somewhat avant-garde system of family therapy, and she was my supervisor and instructor in a training group she organized. We met with her once a week to hear her lecture, watch her with clients, and then practice a little on our own while she observed us from behind a one-way mirror. She was, by then, a certified family therapy virtuoso, and when we began showing off our own primitive skills, we felt like first-year piano students plunking out our little set pieces before Vladimir Horowitz.

But Marianne was as far as possible from the lofty, solemn, priestly figures we expected a family therapy guru to be. Certainly, she never suffered fools gladly, and when we made some flat-footed intervention or let a session get away from us, she had an unambiguous way of letting us know just how we’d screwed up, and in exactly what ways our work had been uninspired or wrongheaded. But though she clearly had no trouble bringing us down a peg when she thought we needed it, what I remember most was the informal but intellectually provocative atmosphere at Marianne’s center–hanging out and sharing food while digesting theory, drinking gallons of coffee while sampling new ideas.

She wasn’t playing capital-T Therapist or capital-M Master Teacher: she was just Marianne, a straight shooter with a gift for the hilarious wisecrack, an impish cutup behind the one-way mirror, a character who bummed cigarettes and snitched food, and a dynamo of energy who never let us forget that, however serious this calling, there was also something deeply joyous about it. With Marianne, you discovered that the ability to have fun, lighten up, laugh–even in sessions!–could be just as valuable a therapeutic asset as any of the fancy interventions we couldn’t wait to try out. In a gray-suited, monotone professional world, Marianne operated in sparkling Technicolor.

What stands out most for me from that time was Marianne’s unfailing radar for what was real and true in people. Time after time, some student therapist would be slogging though a session, beating his or her way through a clinical fog as thick as the pea soup off Nantucket, when the door would open and Marianne would burst into the room like a sharp gust of clearing wind (she never tiptoed in discretely on little cat feet), and somehow do in five seconds what the struggling therapist had been unable to do in an hour. With a huge smile on her face, she’d make a joke, or complain about how much her back was hurting, or announce that everybody in this session was working far too hard.

In those moments, she had the ability to connect almost immediately with the family, making them feel that she saw and heard them, the real people in all their palpable uniqueness.

For all her commitment to family systems, Marianne was always wary of the field’s preoccupation with theoretical abstractions and clinical technique every bit as abstruse and potentially distancing as psychoanalytic jargon. “As we become more attached to the circuitry of family systems,” she wrote for the Networker in 1985, “we become less attached to the source of the family’s energy. The diagrammed, strategized, maneuvered, paradoxed, detriangled family may have lost its soul. . . . The family viewed as a mechanism to be acted on, a series of interconnecting stimuli, may begin to be experienced as other.’ The result is the loss of the very familiarity, the knowing, that we bring with us as therapists who work with families.”

Marianne certainly seemed to know intimately the families she saw. She always managed to convince them, as she was apparently already convinced herself, that she and they were old friends, who went way back and understood each other perfectly. When she swooped into some leaden and dispiriting session, the atmosphere changed instantly; with Marianne at the helm, it wasn’t a professional therapist doing “therapy,” but a favorite aunt–maybe something of a yenta–giving them some affectionate, hardheaded advice and making them laugh at the absurdity of being human at the same time. She made it all seem so easy, so simple and obvious. When Marianne did something like this, the student’s first thought was, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” Whatever action she’d taken quickly revealed itself to be–obviously, she’d insist–the necessary first step in uncovering the theory embedded in the knowing, the value system informing the intervention, the use of self constructing the relationship.

Marianne was always committed to the proposition that there’s no such thing as “value-free” therapy–that the private world of the family and the public world of society, culture, and economics are inseparable. “Methodology must continually be measured against social values,” she wrote. “If all symptoms only serve some function within the family system, then we do not need to understand the immigrant experience, the impact of poverty, the effect of overcrowded living conditions, the racial slur, the gender stereotype. If we concentrate only on hierarchy within the family, we do not need to worry about power arrangements and inequities outside of it. . . . If we look only at the reciprocity in parental relationships, we do not need to rationalize a social mandate that assigns mother the primary responsibility for child rearing, or the psychological theory that blames her for all her children’s problems.” All this has now become such a standard correction that we might lose sight of the sexist, racist, or even middle-class, privileged blinders creeping back to blur our vision of the human condition–but not entirely, as long as Marianne had any say in the matter.

Marianne was surely a pioneer in bringing–or dragging, kicking and screaming–the family therapy establishment into better alignment with a feminist perspective. But just as she never let the orthodoxies of family systems get in the way of knowing the people she worked with, so she never let the personal be trampled in the pursuit of the political. “The leverage for change, “she said, “is the fundamental desire for human connection. In a small system, no matter how culturally skewed, we have to make contact with that desire.”

As politically astute and tough a fighter as Marianne was–and it was never wise to underestimate her combat skills–she brought therapy the kind of human knowingness that families pick up on right away. Notwithstanding her formidable accomplishments, her courage, and her enormous influence on the field, it was her life that was her greatest achievement. It was an achievement that became immediately obvious in therapy. The moment a family saw her incandescent smile, they knew they could trust her, because she’d been where they were, wherever that was. It wasn’t in some rarified temple of higher psychotherapeutic wisdom that she found her truth, but in her own experience as someone who personally knew all about marriage, kids, divorce, family life, single parenthood, grandparenthood, and friendship–who understood life itself in all its glory, craziness, and pure drama.




Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.