Take It or Leave It

The Therapy of Carl Whitaker

Magazine Issue
September/October 1985
Take It or Leave It

Carl Whitaker is being crazy again.  At a week-long summer workshop, he set aside one morning to be interviewed “as a patient” along with a 24-year-old man, once diagnosed as schizophrenic, whose family Whitaker saw in therapy for five years.  With his hands clasped tightly in his lap, Eric, Whitaker’s rail-thin former patient, addresses the floor as he is questioned by a therapist chose from the workshop audience.  Asked about his struggle to support himself and separate from his family, Eric explains that to him “adaptation is a horrible word” and insists that his inability to hold a job is a result of his refusal to accept his various employers’ shady ethics.

Whitaker, who has earlier described schizophrenia as a “disease of pathological integrity,” announces to the therapist that “Eric is the me that I wished had ­happened.”  Turning to the young man, Whitaker says, “I want to talk to you about the sacrifice you are making in fighting so intently for your own growth.”  He beings to muse about his own isolated adolescence and his belief that he was a schizophrenic throughout high school.  “But I became a trickster and social robot in order to make my way in society,” says Whitaker.  “I am very admiring of you for having the kind of guts I didn’t have.”

The young man, who has been sitting on the edge of his chair as if expecting some gigantic foot to descend suddenly and squash him, begins to fidget, offering a modest protest to his distinguished admirer’s praise.  “Please don’t…” he beings, groping for the right word.  “Idolize you?” says Whitaker.  The young man nods his head warily, still mesmerized by the carpet.

It is the kind of odd encounter Carl Whitaker has become renowned for over the past 40 years.  As Lynn Hoffman put it in her book Foundations of Family Therapy, Whitaker “specializes in pushing the unthinkable to the edge of the unimaginable.”  During his long career, he has outraged and fascinated the world of therapy with his belief that what he calls “craziness,” the inner world of fantasy and unsocialized impulse, is a source of creativity and selfhood to be resolutely defended against civilization’s abnormal normality.  Guided by an unrelenting confidence in his own craziness, Whitaker has challenged all the rules of conventions of therapy.  At various stages of his career he has bottle-fed his patients, arm-wrestled with them, refused to allow them to talk, even fallen asleep on them.  All this in the interests of righting a balance he believes society has upset, allowing people to acknowledge the unacceptable twists of their inner life, to find some way to hold onto their craziness without “getting their throat cut.”

Whitaker’s colleagues have not always shared his confidence in his own intuition.  As one senior family therapist says, “I don’t think there is anything curative in having an encounter with a crazy man.”  But Atlanta psychiatrist Thomas Malone, who spent 20 years in close collaboration with Whitaker believes that such criticism is inevitable.  “Carl is about as right brain as you can get,” says Malone. “In a goal-oriented, left brain culture, he is an oddity.  But you can’t make judgements about Whitaker from the context of the left brain.  That would be like a grammarian doing an analysis of James Joyce.”

Under Fire

After nearly and hour of rambling interview with Eric, Whitaker and his therapist helper bid him goodbye and return to the 80 people who have been watching on closed circuit TV.  No one seems quite sure what to make of what happened, but one after another, they offer mostly approving, if contradictory, interpretations of what went on.  Sitting impassively on a small platform, his great lantern jaw resting on his hand, Whitaker listens intently and nods in agreement to what people have to say, occasionally offering an association to embellish someone’s observation.  A woman asks him how it was to share his patient with the recruited therapist.  Whitaker smiles and says, “There was some real jealousy there.  I felt like the mother whose child has abandoned her to be with father.”

Then a beefy man, slumped in his chair, raises his hand.  “I have to believe I’m not the only one who saw this,” he begins with a nervous edge in his voice.  “I saw incompetence, competition, ego issues flying all over the place.”  He launches into a full-blown tirade about the “shoddiness” of the interview and a lack of professionalism in Whitaker’s relationship with the therapist who assisted him.  The audience is not prepared for anything like this and it is as if someone has suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of the room.  Finally, the man, his indignation spent, trails off into, “…I wish I could be more constructive.”

“You certainly don’t have to apologize,” says Whitaker pensively, impassive as ever.  “I don’t buy what you‘re saying, but you have your opinion and I have mine.” And that’s it.  When the audience tries to push him to say more, Whitaker calmly reiterates that he enjoyed the session, thinks a great deal of Eric, and then asks if there are any more questions.

With Carl Whitaker, it’s take it or leave it—and it really seems perfectly okay with him if you leave it.  He doesn’t have any interest these days in justifying himself or in persuading anyone of anything.  It’s not that he is squeamish about conflict.  Rather he seems to have found a way of handling himself that embodies his unswerving belief in the futility of control and persuasion. “Trying to make someone else live life in a certain way doesn’t work, ”he told the workshop on the first day. In Whitaker’s hands the acceptance of an absurdly out-of-control world has become a tool, the “weapon of my own impotence.”  Thoroughly convinced that “life lives us rather than the other way around,” Whitaker is fabled for his imperturbability in the most bizarre situations.

Milton Miller, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry while Whitaker was on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, tells the story about a rather chilling Whitaker consultation:

There was a time when an irate, paranoid man said, “Whitaker, I’ll get you. And you’ll never know when it’s coming.  Someday when you turn the corner your fat belly will run into shiv.  Or you’ll open up your car door and a bomb will go off or you’ll be standing at a urinal peeing and a steel club will hit your head.  What do you say to that, Whitaker?” and Carl said, “You helped me.  Up till now, all I had to worry about at the urinal was getting my shoe wet or meeting the wrong kind of people.  You’ve given me something else to think about.”

Handling himself under fire is something Whitaker has gotten a lot of practice in over the years, and not only in his dealings with patients.  From the mid-1940’s when he and his colleagues first began to develop their idea that therapy was “a non-verbal, shared fantasy experience,” Whitaker’s work has raised many eyebrows in the professional community. When he and Thomas Malone published Roots of Psychotherapy in 1953, all kinds of questions were asked about Whitaker’s methods, his ethics, even his sanity. Many therapists took great exception to Whitaker and Malone’s belief that patients’ regression should be encouraged by, “bottle feeding, physical rocking of patients, and other aids which stimulate in both therapist and patient the requisite affect for infantile satisfaction of the patient.  It reproduces satisfaction of the patient.  It reproduces in therapy aspects of the mother-child relationship. More recently the authors have found that if aggression is utilized at this point of therapy, it most appropriately takes the form of spanking.”

In a famous four-part review of Roots titled “Irrational Psychotherapy: An Appeal to Unreason” published in The American Journal of Psychotherapy, psychoanalysts Alexander Wolf and Manny Schwartz offered one of the most blistering condemnations of a book and its authors ever to appear in a professional journal.  Describing Roots as a “piece of acting out,” Wolf and Schwartz wrote that “Whitaker and Malone reject history, culture and civilization…investing pathology with moral value and elevating irrationality to transcendental supremacy.”

The Land of the Heretics

Today, the 73-year-old Whitaker is still someone whose work elicits extreme reactions, but he has become such a beloved, grandfatherly figure that is a bit jarring to hear about him once being denounced as a dangerous character.  What has changed over the past 30 years?  The most obvious change is that the dominance of psychoanalysis has given way to such a proliferation of therapeutic schools that the ideas expressed in Roots hardly register as scandalous anymore.  Heretics have taken over the field of psychotherapy to such an extent that today traditionalists like Schwartz and Wolf would be hard pressed to keep track of al the dangerous ideas circulating in the therapeutic circles. Actually considered in the context of the writings of someone like R.D. Lain, to whom he was a precursor, Whitaker sounds rather old-fashioned.

But cultural and therapeutic fashions aren’t the only things that have changed in 30 years.  The qualities that were once seen as iconoclastic and threatening in the young Whitaker are viewed differently now.  Thirty years ago, the field listened to what Whitaker had to say and reacted with confusion and alarm.  Today, Whitaker still confuses people, but the outrageous things he says no longer disturb them so much.  After all these years of workshops, live clinical interviews, telling stories about himself and his family, sharing his off-the-wall associations, Whitaker has revealed himself in a way that few people in the public eye ever do.   It is hard to distrust someone who behaves as if he has no secrets.  Thirty years ago the question was, “What kind of man would do this kind of therapy?” “What kind of therapy does a man like Carl Whitaker do?”

Still, Whitaker’s respected position within the field of family therapy is a curiosity.  In some ways, his approaches and assumptions fit the world of family therapy today no better than they did the tradition-bound field of psychoanalysis 30 years ago.  In a field which has concentrated on developing problem-focused treatment approaches, Whitaker’s ideas are utterly outside the mainstream. He insists that he has no interest whatsoever in working on symptoms.  He will often go through a first interview getting only the barest information about a family’s presenting problems and refusing to respond to their crisis.  “I want it to be very clear that I’m not in a panic about their life,” explains Whitaker.  “I don’t care if they changeor not.”  The idea that therapy should have goals or culminate in any clearly definable outcome is utterly foreign to him.  One of his workshop slogans is “Process not Progress,” reflecting his almost religious conviction that if a therapy session is satisfying and alive for the therapist, the clients automatically benefit.

While proponents of other models of therapy have emphasized their ability to work with difficult families and turn around impossible situations, Whitaker has stressed instead the therapist’s limited ability to bring about change.  Rather than emphasizing the impact that a therapist can have on a family, he tends to focus on the damage the family can do to a therapist: “Most therapists have the idea that when the family shows up, you should give them your left breast. If they bite that, give them the right one.  I think that’s crazy.”

Psychoanalytic terminology has long been anathema to most family therapists, but Whitaker’s workshop presentations are filled with references to Oedipus crises, mother-child symbiosis, transference, and, most taboo of all, the “unconscious.”  In his work, the outerworld of the family—its structure, its sequences, its socioeconomic context—is irrelevant to the shared fantasy life which he believes in where the action is.  Says Whitaker’s long-time colleague Malone, “Carl and Freud would have been good buddies.”

There is something elusive about Carl Whitaker that makes it difficult to describe his particular professional niche.  Like an avant-garde artist dedicated to alienating his audience, his strategy for remaining creatively alive has been based on disappointing people’sexpectations.  “Carl has a great ability for being non-congruent with whatever group he’s in,” says Whitaker’s former student and frequent co-therapist David Keith. “He’s like someone playing a musical instrument who refuses to be captured by the rhythm and the tempo of the rest of the ensemble.”

The oddity of Whitaker’s work as a clinician is that his dissonance doesn’t seem calculated to showcase him­­­­ personally.  What he does often sounds flamboyant in there-telling, but does not come across that way at the time.  “At his best, Whitaker somehow disappears and finds a way to get all the phoniness out of the family,” says Braulio Montalvo, who once produced a videotape of a Whitaker session.  “His work doesn’t have an immediate, dramatic effect.  He takes small jabs at the family’s system of thought, challenging the absurdity at the heart of the problem.  He goes for the things people don’t want to talk about and, in doing that, works on the family rules which restrain the individual.”

Consider Milton Miller’s description of Whitaker at work back in the mid-1960s:

I remember so well the first Carl Whitaker family interview that I observed. That was some 17 years ago.  Carl had come as a visiting professor to Wisconsin, largely on an invitation from Carl Rogers, who was on the Wisconsin faculty at that time.  The “patient,” a young, icy paranoid boy of18, was burning holes in his arms with a cigarette while his sophisticated, professional parents, early examples of the Ordinary People, talked in pleasantries about the cool summers of Martha’s Vineyard.  Whitaker, his shoes off, naïve, rambling, incomprehensible, exchanged stories about fishing with nightcrawlers, then took hold of the Dad’s hands, rubbed them, later on reached out and put his paw on the boy’s shoulder and told him, “That’s the craziest way of getting warm I ever saw.  Put the cigarette away.”  In the moment of uncertainty as to what would happen next, Whitaker was firmly massaging the boy’s shoulders as they began to quiver and pulsate with his sudden sobs.  And when Whitaker also began to cry, even the most intellectual of the professors in the audience covered their faces while coughing in order to remove an unprofessional tear. Whitaker gave us all something.  He laid it on the line with the patient, the family, and the 20 doctor/professors who were watching.   In the presence of a crowd of hanging judges, Whitaker bared his neck.

Desperation and Change

Whitaker likes taking risks. The more anxiety he can stir up in the family, the better he likes it.  “In the final analysis, the most important family factor which relates to change or failure to change is desperation,” he has written.  “When family members are desperate, they change; when they are not desperate they remain the same.” But as to what happens when the family’s anxiety peaks, Whitaker insists that the therapist must, above all, avoid the trap of helpfulness:

The family must write their own destiny.  In the same sense that the individual has a right to suicide, the family has the right to self-destruct.  The therapist may not and does not, have the power to mold their system to his will.  He’s their coach, but he’s not playing on the team.

If there’s any aspect of Whitaker’s work that draws criticism these days, it’s his belief that the therapist’s job is to stir up things in the family without having an equal responsibility for resolving them. Some challenge his assumption that families can always handle the kind of stress Whitaker’s approach can generate. But Whitaker believes that it is the therapist’s job to frustrate the family’s wish for a premature resolution of its difficulties: “I believe that the family has hidden more serious problems by pointing a finger at the kid who is stealing cars.”  In an interview several years ago, Whitaker said, “I am not interested in curing the family’s car-stealing kid.  So rather than focusing on the kid, I would head for the accumulated anxiety in the family.  I might accuse the father of planning to cheat on his income taxes and mother of trying to steal the daughter’s boyfriend and daughter of trying to make believe she is just screwing around. So I would be trying to accumulate anxiety in all of them.”

Whitaker’s preference for these kind of therapeutic tactics has led one family therapist to remark, “Carl can be provocative in a way that can be destructive.”  But Whitaker’s defenders see it differently.  His former student Augustus Napier says, “Early on in therapy, Carl is very challenging. He is like the tough, strong parent of an adolescent.  If you look carefully at what he does, you’ll find the family sends out its strongest member to do battle with him.  At his most provocative, Carl is usually doing battle with the family tyrant.”

It’s always safest in a human encounter if nothing happens,” says Milton Miller.  “But with Whitaker there are few non-events.  People may love him or hate him, but something happens.  He’s unwilling to pretend to go through the motions. It is as if he lives by the principle that the perfunctory kiss is the worst perversion.

Growing Up

Whitaker has been the most autobiographical of family therapy’s innovators.  Skeptical about scientific proof, committed to his view that “the only you I know is me,” he has used his account of his own family experience to illustrate and, in some way, even validate his thinking about families. Born in 1912 on a dairy farm in Raymondsville, New York, Whitaker grew up in Raymondsville, New York, Whitaker grew up in an isolated rural community, where, with the exception of the Sunday church outings, his family comprised his entire social existence.  “I had no social world until I was 13,” says Whitaker today.  “My brother, my dog, my father and his parents, and my mother and her step-mother all lived together in this huge house.  In essence, the whole world was the intimacy of the family.”

Life in the Whitaker household was dominated by the need to run the farm and take care of their farm animals, but his family’s concern with providing nurturance didn’t stop there.  “One summer we had a kid from Brooklyn stay with us,” recalls Whitaker. “Then there was a woman whose husband had died of cancer who lived with us for six months while she put herself back together.  Another time, there was some asthmatic woman whom I never identified, who weighed 275 pounds and who kept us up all night.”

Whitaker’s mother was determined that he receive a better education than the local schools could provide.  When he was 13 the entire family left the farm and moved to Syracuse so that he could attend high school.  Plunged into this brand new school environment, Whitaker keenly felt his isolation, a shy country bumpkin in a strange world of slick city kids.  “I think I was schizophrenic all through high school,” says Whitaker.  “There just wasn’t anyone around to catch me.  Then I spent the next 10 to 15 years learning how to adapt to the social structure after living the first 15 in fantasy only.”

His introduction to the curative power of therapy, he explains today, was through his relationship with two “co-therapists,” classmates from high school, whom he met for lunch several times a week while they all attended Syracuse University.  “One boy was the smartest and the other was the most popular boy from high school,” says Whitaker.  “They knew a lot about adaptation.  Together they socialized me.”

At the beginning of his senior year at Syracuse, Whitaker began medical school with an assist from a helpful dean.  During his med school summer vacations he worked as a counselor at a YMCA camp (where Rollo May was also a counselor).  During one such vacation he met his wife-to-be, Muriel, whom he married in 1937, the year after he finished medical school.

He became interested in psychiatry while on a post-graduate fellowship that gave him his first opportunity to work with schizophrenics. “I fell in love with them immediately,” says Whitaker.  “Something appealed to my morbid curiosity.  Their willingness to expose their insides gave me the courage to make contact with the isolation in me.”

In 1940,Whitaker accepted a fellowship in child psychiatry in Louisville.  For a year, he spent eight hours a day, five days a week seeing one child after another in play therapy.  Like his friend Salvador Minuchin, Whitaker’s experience working with children, and later delinquents, first sensitized him to the non-verbal, non-intellectual dimensions of therapy.  During World War II, Whitaker was hired by the army as part of the mental health team at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the atomic bomb project was underway. Looking back over this period Whitaker says, “I was doing pretty conventional stuff.  The play therapy was out of Otto Rank and David Levy and with adults it was the sort of passive, supportive therapy that was commonly done back then.”

Taking Charge

The turning point in Whitaker’s career came in 1946 when he was named chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University.  At last in a position of authority, he felt a freedom to follow his own clinical instincts. He set about hiring colleagues who would support his iconoclastic inclinations and with whom he felt he could develop close professional relationships. Among these were Thomas Malone and John Warkentin, two young psychiatrists whom Whitaker worked with closely for the next 20 years. 

At Emory,Whitaker and his colleagues developed a psychiatry rotation the likes of which no other medical school has ever seen. Each student was required to have 200 hours of psychotherapy, including two years of compulsory participation in group therapy.  “We did all kinds of crazy things in those groups,” remembers Whitaker.  “I remember Tom Malone saying to his eight students in one class, ‘We’re beginning two years of group therapy.  For the first 10 Mondays from 9:00 to 10:00, no one will say a word.  We will just sit.’  And carried it out.  Can you imagine?”

As part of their training, the students in these groups were expected to act together as therapists with a single patient.  “The patients would come from the medical clinic where they had some problem like ulcers or asthma,” says Whitaker.  “Everybody would interview at the same time and amazing things would happen.  The students would get worried about this woman who was sick with asthma and would say, in one way or another, ‘How can we help?’  And she would say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s terrible.  Every time I get in a fight with my husband, I get this asthma attack,’ and then they would ask more questions.  ‘Does your husband ever fight with the children? etc.’ The teacher would participate, but was careful not to steal the patient away from the group. So these kids had the experience of trying to be useful, and, amazingly enough, like Alcoholics Anonymous, they would be. It was training in the role of caring. I would tell the students about a med school classmate of mine who went out into practice without an internship, determined to be helpful to the world.  He died a year later of a coronary.  Then I explained that the point of the group was to help them learn how to live longer.”

The close working relationships within Whitaker’s faculty group led to constant discussion of cases and often to actual co-therapy.  Working with a co-therapist gave Whitaker the chance to cultivate his own spontaneity and lay aside the constraining mantle of therapeutic responsibility. Whitaker’s free-wheeling clinical style began to take shape. 

During this time Whitaker and his group first came to national attention for their view that schizophrenic symptoms were an attempt to solve interpersonal problems, a view that was later to stir up so much controversy in Whitaker and Malone’s Roots of Psychotherapy.  The work with schizophrenics propelled Whitaker even further into his exploration of the clinical possibilities of co-therapy.  “Most of us are so frightened of our own craziness that we’re terrified the schizophrenic will swallow us up,” says Whitaker.  “But working together with Malone, I could let myself go knowing that he was there to pull me back if I went too far out.”

In 1956, Whitaker and his group were dismissed from Emory.  In part, the medical school’s move was prompted by adverse reaction to the ideas and clinical methods described in Roots, as well as increasing criticisms of Whitaker’s administration of the psychiatric training program.  “Carl was a lousy administrator, “says Thomas Malone.  “He had the strange habit of dealing with personal relationships personally.”

Whitaker and his colleagues decided to go into private practice together and continue their close collaboration.  “We set up what was called a writing group.  For nearly eight years, without any financial support for it, four of us met every Thursday morning,” recalls Whitaker. “Without and agenda, we would just sit around the table from 9:00 to 12:00 and if someone found something exciting, then that person would start to write about it and the other people would critique it, edit it, and it would become an idea.”

During this time, Whitaker’s work with schizophrenics began to get him increasingly interested in working with families, although through the ‘50s he had very little contact with other family therapy innovators.  In 1959, largely at the recommendation of Albert Scheflen, he was chosen along with Nathan Ackerman, Don Jackson, and Murray Bowen to do a family interviews as part of the famous Hillside film series.  From there he became more and more involved in the family therapy movement. 

By the mid-‘60s, Whitaker’s growing interest in families had taken him in a different direction than his long-term Atlanta colleagues.  Says Whitaker, “The group had gradually been individuating and, frankly, I was getting bored with private practice.”  So in 1965 he accepted a position in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and made the decision to commit himself entirely to family therapy. Pushed by students to formulate his ideas more clearly, Whitaker began to reflect more on his treatment methods. 

Always a risk taker, his willingness to do live family interviews drew him invitations from places around the country where people were becoming interested in the idea of seeing whole families together. In the wave of interest in family therapy, which characterized the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Whitaker began to receive widespread recognition.   Says Whitaker, “A funny thing began to happen.  Not only was I invited to a lot of places, but then I would be invited back.”

Whitaker’s fame was further enhanced in 1978 by the publication of Augustus Napier’s The Family Crucible, an account of a family Whitaker treated, which has sold over 100,000 copies. 

In 1982, Whitaker retired from the University of Wisconsin.  With the exception of two extended stays at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, his professional activities since then have been confined to giving workshops around the world.  These days more and more of his time is spent at his five-acre home, bordering on a lake in a semi-rural community about a half hour outside of Milwaukee.

Metaphors and Theories

Describing Carl Whitaker, Frank Pittman once wrote, “A master therapist is likely to be better at doing therapy than at explaining it.  When any of us explain what we do as therapy, we may notice only those things we work at doing and may overlook those things that come naturally.”  Many people find that much of what Whitaker says about his therapy less compelling than what he actually does. He has always had a weakness for the global assertion, the loose, quasi-mystical explanation.  In light of what we’ve learned in the past 40 years, for example, it’s hard to accept as more than a poetic conceit Whitaker’s notion of the schizophrenic as a kind of holy fool protesting society’s sterile conformity.  Similarly, there is also a fuzziness in Whitaker’s view that whatever takes place in a family—like an individual’s absence at a session—is an expression of something he calls “The Great System.”

This is how the failure of a teenage son to appear at a session is described in The Family Crucible: “With its own unconscious wisdom, the family elected Don to stay home and test the therapists.  Did we really mean everybody?  Would we weaken and capitulate if they didn’t bring Don?”

When Whitaker talks about a family, he sounds like he is describing a mystical, supra-individual organism.  Whatever happens within the family is accounted for the family’s “decision” that this is how things should be.  His view of the family’s unconscious processes suffers from the same vagueness and insupportable self-validation that first led to the widespread dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis. 

Carl Whitaker’s contribution has not been in the realm of coherent theory-building. Instead, what he offers is away of working with people that fascinates even those who have little use for his explanations of his approach.  For Whitaker, the success of therapy pivots on the peculiar double-bind he presents to families.  He offers them the seemingly impossible directive “Be Spontaneous” and then, by refusing to give overt direction, and insisting that change is irrelevant to him, gives a family an opportunity to be just that.  A strange battle ensues in which Whitaker’s task becomes finding ways to maintain his creative edge in the midst of the family’s effort to organize him. 

“Carl fights with every family he see,” says Gus Napier. “The fight is to see whether they can incorporate him, reduce him to their pattern.  And it’s always a very personal fight—he will not play professional games to keep them coming.”

In the fuzzy, disorienting world he creates around himself in therapy, the family is forced to take initiative if they are to maintain a relationship with him.  Salvador Minuchin has described Whitaker’s style as “passive-dependency raised to a clinical art form.”  When people start being good boys and girls trying to figure out what he wants them to do, Whitaker retreats.  He distrusts any change that is compelled.  His clients much change for themselves.

How many families are willing to struggle through the kind of peculiar ordeal that Whitaker offers?  A large segment of his clients through the years have themselves been therapists and more inclined to accept his terms than the general population. But working at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic with inner-city families, Whitaker’s clients frequently chose not to repeat their disorienting first experience with him. 

Whitaker actively discourages therapists from imitating his style of working.  More than with most well-known therapists, itis difficult to separate Whitaker’s therapeutic approach from his personality. Certainly therapists in most agency settings would have great trouble justifying a therapy based on the principle that every therapy session should potentially be considered the last one.  And those in private practice interested in building up a steady case load are well advised not to look to Whitaker as a model.

For those who stick with him, Whitaker unquestionably offers an unusually challenging kind of therapy experience. But what makes them stick?  For all his protestations that the outcome of therapy is irrelevant to him and that his primary concern is his own growth, Whitaker communicates a compassion that allows him to get away with his wisecracks and bad boy antics.  “Whitaker always goes inside himself to find what the other person is describing,” says Argentinian family therapist Nidea Madanes, who recently invited Whitaker to her homeland for a workship.  “You never feel one down to him.  He lets the other person be.”

Along with all the attention he devotes to his own frailties and his preoccupation with taking care of himself, there is an emotional stamina that distinguishes Whitaker’s therapy.  “When most people sit down to do therapy, they have other things on their mind,” says Whitaker’s longtime friend Milton Miller, “like keeping the patient from suing them or saying bad things about them or falling in love with them.  But Whitaker is different.  He comes to therapy without the usual fears and pre-conditions.  He is not put off by the prospect of looking foolish.  He says, ‘I’m game to be here’ and he means it.”

PN: On the face of it, it seems a bit bizarre that someone who is so famous for violating the canons of therapeutic decorum should become such an established mainstream figure in the world of therapy.  Do you ever ask yourself how you ever at such a respected position in the family therapy field?

WHITAKER: I ask myself that all the time and I haven’t the vaguest answer.  I feel like that guy they introduce to the audience at these workshops has nothing to do with me.  Sometimes I wonder why people invite “him” back twice.  He just says the same thing every time.  But I suspect that most of us are so compulsively organized and so indoctrinated with should and oughts that my pseudo-craziness free people to be more crazy and intuitive in their own way. 

The other thing is how I really become the patient in front of a workshop audience.  In a funny kind of way, my presentations are free-association experiences in which I throw out whatever pops into my head and don’t feel any need to be responsible. I don’t even go over the notes I keep. People see how energizing that kind of public therapy is for me and there’s something about that that hooks them.

PN: And part of your appeal is that you say things that many therapists want to hear, but aren’t sure are true—that taking care of themselves is more important than treating clients and that they should listen more to their own intuition.  With great conviction, you insist that if a session is alive and satisfying for the therapist, it must be good for the client.

WHITAKER:  Well, most people have been trained to think that those things aren’t true.  Instead, we’re taught that we have some magic power, that we are super.  We all live in the delusion that we carry over from our mother, that we should go out and fix up the world so she can get into heaven by being sinless.

PN:  The funny thing about this field is that while we’ve relegated concepts like “transference” to the scrap heap in dealing with our clients, certain prominent people in the field around intense feelings that seem suspiciously like transference. Do you have much sense of your place in the fantasy life of the profession?

WHITAKER:  Very limited, really.  I get a lot of invitations, a lot of people seem to want to touch down with me, but mostly I don’t take it seriously.  It is like there are two me’s, one that they see and another one that I feel.

PN:  Which is the one you don’t take seriously?

WHITAKER:  The savant, the person who supposedly knows answers that other people are struggling for.  And the one I feel is the real me is the little country boy who doesn’t understand how people can think he is so smart when he still feels stupid.

PN:  So how do you handle it when people deal with you as the savant?

WHITAKER:  I usually go blank, walk off.  I suppose I do the same kind of thing that Marilyn Monroe did when people made believe that she was a sex symbol and tried to use her.  You appreciate it, but it is a social nod and you can’t sit around and buy into it because then you become part of other people’s delusions. 

PN:  People tend either to see what you do as brilliantly creative or else consider it just undisciplined and whimsical.  You must sense a lot of that polarity when you present your work.  How do you handle that?

WHITAKER:  I think learning to handle it goes back to my days in Atlanta in the ‘40s and ‘50s with Tom Malone and John Warkentin.  We were together for 20 years, first in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory and then in private practice.  When we first began to do this iconoclastic stuff, like publishing The Roots of Psychotherapy, there was a great outcry in the profession against us.  When we presented at professional meetings around the country, the audience would assault us.  People said that we hadn’t been analyzed, that we were pathological and should be forbidden to practice.  Then we would run back to Atlanta and cuddle up to each other.  Nobody could get to us there because it was too far away.  It would be almost impossible to create a group like that in the middle of a place like New York or Philadelphia because there’s always the invasion from the outside, the paranoia that the other professionals are going to get you.  We didn’t have that.  In a strange way, we became a kind of guruless sect.  I certainly wasn’t the guru.  We were the guru.

PN:  The kind of isolation you’re describing reminds me a bit of the context in which Erickson developed his work, although he never had such a close-knit group of colleagues.  How do you compare what you do with Erickson’s approach?

WHITAKER:  It is fascinating business because as far as I know I have never been a hypnotist. Recently though some people have told me that I am, only I just won’t admit it.  That’s possible.  In any case, I think Erickson was much more of a thinker than I am.  It’s only in the past five or 10 years that I’ve been serious about figuring out what I do.  Up until then I’ve been more interested in living it out than explaining it.  I assume that Erickson anticipated what he was going to do and then decided to do it.  I usually do it and then either congratulate myself or regret what I did.  

Beginning the Battle

PN:  In contrast to Erickson, who is so renowned for his resourcefulness in joining with all kinds of clients, you, in effect, force families to pursue you. You set terms at the beginning that eliminate a lot of prospective clients.  You will not see individuals under any circumstances and only see families when all the members you consider crucial—like grandparents, and ex-wives, and even former therapists—agree to show up.  You call that the “Battle for Structure.”  Why is winning that battle so important to you?

WHITAKER:  I try to bring in as many people as I can get because of my assumed impotence, because I need the consultation.  The more people you get in, the more chance there is of something happening.  The first therapy session is the blind date. I set it up to make sure I’m in charge of the therapy.  I will not accept what they offer.  If they refuse to bring in the people I need to work with, I refuse to see them.  I insist on being elected coach by the whole team, not by the one member of the team who’s mad at the present coach or mad at the other kids on the team.

PN:  Let’s say you win the battle for structure, how do you orient yourself then?

WHITAKER:  Once the family assembles and I’ve accepted the temporary responsibility for being its foster parent, then the problem is to force the system into unification.  I always begin by assuming the family is split, that marriage is the result of two scapegoats coming together.  He’s sent out by his family to reproduce them, and she’s sent out by her family to reproduce them and the war is over whose family is going to be reproduced. So I force that.  And I force it by my conviction that the family members attached to the couple and their kids need to come in.

Usually the father has to be dragged in if anything is to happen.  And my first job is to get him so that he’s not going to leave the session with a sense that I don’t understand about life and he does.  But in getting the father involved, I have to be sure to keep the mother out, because if she starts taking over then the father can slip out. So I force her to be last:  “You just sit right quiet, Mama.  You can veto it all, after they all tell me what the family’s about.”  If I do it the way I want to, I deny the individuals and deny the subgroups and force this family into being a whole. 


            So I’ll say to the father, “Tell me about the family you come from.”


            “What do you mean?  That’s a crazy question.  How can you say that?”


            “Well, you know.  If I ask you about the Green Bay Packers you could tell me about the    team. You wouldn’t have to talk about the coach.  I want to know about your team.”


Then if the history is going well, and I get enough data about the family, I may move to a diagnostic second step, which is to say to dad, “What goes on when your wife and daughter get in a fight?”  Thus I make each individual in the family diagnose the other triangles, dyads, subgroups like, “What happens when all the women get together against you, dad?”

PN: You get the people talking about all the three generations in the family first and then you’ll break it down and talk about subgroups?

WHITAKER:  Yes. And I try to be careful not to ask anybody about themselves.  That’s hard for me to get away from because I did it for so many years, but I think if I can block that, then the family begins to see itself differently.  In that first session I try to get all of the historical data that I can.  I try to link up with those people who I respond to affectively, especially the younger children.  Then I end the hour.  That’s the control thing again.  “Enough of this fun, I’ve got to go to work.”  And I try never to make another appointment. 


            So I’ll say, “Why don’t you guys think about all of this?  Dad didn’t sound like it was all such a hot experience for him, so if you decide to come back, why don’t you have him call?”


            “Well, don’t you want us to come?”


            “I don’t care if you come, that’s your world.  But I’m glad to work at it.  It’s the way I earn my living.  So think about it.”


Then, if they come back again…

PN: Are there a lot that never come back after the first interviews?

WHITAKER:  Those that don’t return are my favorites.  Because if I make it incisive enough, powerful enough, confrontive enough, on the way home dad says, “Hey look, enough of this—$75 to talk to that screwball!  Sue, you’re not going to use the car for a month and you’re never going to date that crazy boy again.  If you have any more trouble at school, we’re going to have a big fight.  I don’t know what it’s going to be, but you better be careful.”  The family is now organized.  They’ve been empowered, which is my real objective.  Even if they never come back, I think of it as successful.  

If they come back, the agenda is completely different. They have paranoid feelings; I have paranoid feelings.  They have fantasy expectations; I have fantasy expectations.  They’ve done a lot of living in the interim and I am available to be useful at whatever they have the courage to start.  I’m very cautious never to take control of where they go.  It’s their life and how they think about it is their business and none of mine.  I will be an assistant in any way I can, but carefully fight their transference tendence to make me into a symbol or the wise man, or somebody who knows how they should live.  I fight for my right to be impotent: “I don’t know what you should do with your daughter.”


Playing with Absurdity


PN: It must be so hard for your clients to make sense of you. How do they learn how to use you?

WHITAKER:  Well, here’s the kind of thing they’re likely to get from me.  The husband says,“My problem is that my wife and I are endlessly fighting.”


            “Well, why don’t you win?”


            “What do you mean, ‘Why don’t I win?’  We’re equal.”


            “I know, but she’s got her mother on her side.”


            “Oh my God, don’t get her mother into this.”


            “Isn’t her mother always in it when she fights with you?”


            “Yeah, but I wasn’t going to talk about that.  I was just talking about our fights.”


            “Well, what does your mother do when she and her mother attack you?”


            “Well, my mother lives in Pocono.”


            “Well, why don’t you go get her to help?  Get her on the telephone.”


            Then the wife says, “Get her on the telephone? This rat is always calling her.”


            And I say, “Now you see why I wanted all of you in here. It’s just ridiculous making believe it’s just a fight between husband and wife, because that’s for the birds. The war is between the two families. And I have great news for you, which may be very frightening—nobody wins.  It’s just like between the United States and Russia—it will go on forever.  So your wife will never stop being her mother’s child.  But she may grow up so she’s a 35-year-old child instead of a seven-year-old.”


            So I lay out what I believe to be the dynamics of any family and say, “How can I help?”


            “You can’t help”


            “That’s what I was worried about, so why don’t we stop.”


            “I don’t want to stop.”


            “Well, if I can’t help, it’s ridiculous.  You’ll come in and waste all your money.”


            “Well, what are we going to do?  I can’t stand this fighting anymore.”


            “Oh come on, don’t kid me.  I’ve seen families who’ve fought twice as hard as you for 40 years and are still going strong.  Have you heard the story about the 85-year-old couple who came in to get a divorce?  And the judge said, ‘What in the hell do you want a divorce for at 85?  You’ve been married for 45 years.’  And he said, ‘Well, we made a promise that we wouldn’t get a divorce until all of our children were dead.’”


            So there’s the component of teasing them, of transcending where they are, and of breaking their meta-panic has to do with “Will he kill me?” “Will she kill me?” “Will he have an affair?”

PN: What you’re saying reminds me of a kind of Jewish humor, of taking some ironic satisfaction in the hopelessness of your predicament. 

WHITAKER:  Oh yes. The Joys of Yiddish isprobably my favorite book I’ve read cover to cover.  There’s that wonderful story in it about the guy who comes to the Rabbi saying he has had this dream in which God accuses him of not doing right by his son or some other minor crime, and he says to God, “Well, if you’ll forgive me for my crime, I’ll forgive you for all the innocent children who died.”  And the Rabbi says, “What a lousy thing you did! If you had pushed a little more you could have saved the whole Jewish race.”  That kind of humor, I think of as psychotherapy, real psychotherapy.

PN: So if one thing’s the lever for you in the process of change, it’s mobilizing people’s sense of absurdity. 

WHITAKER:  But always with the anaesthesia of caring.  You can’t just make jokes off the cuff because that’s just cynical.  I want to help the family see over the top of their pain—and mine—to chuckle at how ridiculous it is.  It’s absurd that I have four suits and there are people down the street who don’t have any.  Why don’t I give the other three away?  But at the same time, we have to realize that’s how life is.

I think people who come for help are always absurd. She knows that all that she has to do is say, “I got a call from your mother today,” and he’ll be mad at her. But she does it, and it’s absurd for her to do it.  She should have said to the mother, “Thanks for calling.  I’ll have your son call you back at 6:00,” or “Oh, and it’s so good to hear from you.  That bagel you sent over last week was just right.”  But she doesn’t. 

The dynamic interaction system is built on many, many subliminal stimuli, and when they come to you it’s already very absurd, and the question is, can you help them develop enough anxiety about that so they’ll break it.  Can you empower them to break their system?

PN: You begin by approaching the family as a kind of homespun philosopher with this absurd sense of humor.  But you also provoke and challenge families in ways that get people incredibly uptight. 

WHITAKER:  But that’s only the beginning.  Thing’s don’t stay there.  And if I do it well enough, we go together.  If it gets to the right point and we’ve made a therapeutic alliance, this humor that pops into my head is not just mine, in isolation, it’s me as part of the alliance.  So they go with it. 

I’ll give you another example of how that works. Assume that there’s an affair. They’ve been married for three or four years—or six weeks nowadays—he comes home and says, “I just read in the paper this morning about this guy down the street who left his wife and disappeared and nobody knows where.  Apparently he’s changed his name.”  They go on with this series of covert messages, the essence of which, as I interpret it, is that they’ve decided that there’s something that has to be done about their sexual life—it’s too cold.  Somebody’s going to go for psychotherapy and the amateur variety is safer. Then they decide who will have an affair and who will make believe it didn’t happen.  So he arranges to have the evidence in his pocket, and comes home and she finds it.  The marriage is in big trouble.  Then they come for therapy. 

I deal with the absurdity of all this by saying to the wife, “Have you figured out who you’ll find to match him?  Or you could talk with his mother about it.  Ask her if he ever played around with anybody when he was a kid.”  So you take the set and build the anxiety about it to the place where they have to do something about it.  You make it into a public game rather than a private nightmare.

PN:  And it doesn’t matter what they say.

WHITAKER:  No.  It doesn’t matter a bit, because their secret fantasies have been exposed.  Here’s another good example of this kind of thing—the father comes in with his wife and his daughter and he’s panicked because she’s beginning to date.  She’s using too much lipstick.  She shouldn’t be using so much eye shadow, blah, blah, blah. After you listen to all this history, you say to them, “You know what?  One of the things you could dosolve this would be to make her come in at nine o’ clock because nobody’s evergotten pregnant before nine.”  And all of a sudden the pregnancy, the Oedipus business, the whole pattern of their hidden fantasy, which they do not know, is exposed. 

Dad says,“You know, you’re ridiculous.”  I say, “Of course I’m ridiculous, but you guys are kind of ridiculous too if you make believe that you can wander behind her and keep one eye open about everything she does after she leaves home until she gets back—which it sounds like you’re doing. 

Now you’re stuck with it.  She can really put you over the barrel.  You make be a disgrace in your office and your neighborhood if she gets pregnant.  Or even worse, she could get herpes, or AIDS.  I hope she doesn’t get AIDS, because supposedly all those people die, and you’d miss her.  You know, she’s a very dear member of your family.”

So you setup contingencies that are so far left that they regard the stress that they’re in as minimal in comparison.

Handling the Anxiety

PN: You move so quickly towards unmentionable subjects in the family, like death, incest, craziness.  You stir up an incredible amount of anxiety and discomfort—and then, very purposely, don’t resolve any of it.  How do you manage to remain so impervious to all the intensity you stir up?

WHITAKER:  I think what has made it possible for me towork the way I do is that for 40 years I’ve always had a partner.  I think doing psychotherapy is just too difficult and painful a job to face doing it alone.  Right from the beginning I was always aware of how inadequate my training was and how many doubts I had.  So I always felt free to ask for help. 

I certainly know what you’re saying about the problem of handling the anxiety.  It was too much for me for the first 10 to 15 years.  When I first took over at Emory at 34, I knew nothing whatever about families and I was in the state of psychosomatic collapse.  Once every few weeks I would break out in cold sweats and vomiting and go home and crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head and put myself back together.  And of course endlessly getting support from my wife Muriel and endlessly in and out of psychotherapy.  I suppose I’ve had six years of psychotherapy and Muriel and I have had therapy together with one or another of the kids—we didn’t know enough to get the whole gang together in those days.  So I’ve learned a lot about tolerating anxiety. 

And again I have to come back to my group of colleagues in Atlanta.  Everytime we had new case, we always asked someone else to come in as consultant on the second interview.  And usually he would say something like, “You know there’s something wrong with the way you’re getting along with this father.”  We were in a constant process of professional supervision with each other. And not just one or two of us.  It was all eight.  Whoever happened to have a blank hour was my consultant for the second interview.

PN: That may be how you tolerate the feelings you stir up, but what about the families?  Why do you think they put up with you?

WHITAKER:  I get away with all this because I really do care.  I think that is the anaesthesia for all this confrontation.  And I care because I’ve gone through a lot of things. I’ve been in therapy, and had all the kids, and all these other experiences.  Also I really believe that all people are the same and I can talk to their guts.  So people may find what I say frightening or even terrifying, but not insulting.  Something clicks for them and it’s the click that makes the difference.  They resonate to what I’m saying, whether they know it or not.

The Invincible Family

PN: Are you as provocative in your ongoing therapy with families as you are in these one-shot workshop consultations?

WHITAKER:  When I do ongoing therapy, my first sessions are basically historical.  I ask each person to tell me how they see the family, but I do it with much more caring, with much more empathy than in these consultations because I have ongoing responsibility for their pain.  In consultations, I don’t have to be responsible.  The family’s therapist is the anaesthetist and as the consultant I am the surgeon.  I can go in and go right to work.  He can stop the bleeding and sew up the wounds afterwards.

PN: So you feel you can be as provocative as you want.

WHITAKER:  Yes, sure. And I have reinforced that by my long term conviction that people take care of themselves.  Therapists aren’t all that powerful—that was Freud’s delusion system.  Since people are more powerful than therapists, families are infinitely more powerful.  I don’t think there is any possible way you can damage them. 

PN: So after all this time there are no Whitaker casualties? You don’t get families where people have left all anxious and things have taken some dreadful turn following a provocative session with you.

WHITAKER:  I suspect there may be but I have not heard of them.  If there were many, I think I would know by now.  One family I saw in England a few years ago wrote an infuriated letter to the therapist, who sent it to me.  When I got it I thought, “Well, I finally had one.”

Two months later he got another letter from them reversing the whole thing, saying that as painful as their session with me was, it was tremendously valuable, and they apologized for the previous letter.

PN: A lot of the writing in family therapy these days is based on the idea that the therapist doesn’t so much discover some underlying truth in the family as make up stories, reframings, that help the family to change—to make up a new reality for themselves.  But you come out of a very different tradition.  For you the important thing about families are these unconscious dramas that you keep wise-cracking about in your sessions. It’s not like you’re making them up. You believe they’re really there.

WHITAKER:  It’s very clear to me that most of my life is organized around an extension of the previous generation.  Most of our life is organized around our past history and how it extends to this generation and is then projected through us.

The Family Unconscious

PN: The more we talk, the more psychoanalytic your assumptions sound to me—only your focus is the family unconscious instead of the individual psyche.  You seem to see your task as bringing this unconscious material out in a way that shifts something in the family. 

WHITAKER:  It’s what I call provoking the family into self-cure.  The story that always tickles me about this is a consultation I did for Lyman Wynne some years ago.  The patient was a hospitalized psychotic whothought he was Christ.  I was going through a standard history interview with this young man and his family and it was dead.  It suddenly occurred to me that I was defeated, which seems to be one way to get creative.  I said, “You know, I think the problem with you is you weren’t baptized right.   Now father could be John the Baptist, and mother could be the Virgin Mary—she looks like she’d make it, and the three sisters-in-law will be Martha and Mary and Mary Magdalen.”  One of them says, “Oh, I’d love to be Mary Magdalen,” at which point our psychotic gets up and says, “Look Doc, cut it out.  You know I’m not really Christ.  You can’t really do that.” 

Now I think that young man wanted to be Jesus Christ, because his family needed him to be.  He wanted to be Christ so his mother would stay a virgin.  His family didn’t really believe he was Christ, but they kept on struggling with it.  And I imploded it, by taking him seriously, leaving him in the weird position of losing the balance he had with his family.  That to me is a symbolic experience, that’s the kind of empowering the family as an organism that leads to change.

PN: That sounds like the analytic idea of the “corrective emotional experience.”

WHITAKER:  Of course.  It’s essentially the same thing.  Except that I have given up my fantasy that corrective emotional experiences in the individual can make for successful change in the system.

PN: So how does having this symbolic experience in the context of family therapy change things?

WHITAKER:  It breaks the balance that’s been sitting there.  The only way I can think of it that satisfies my experience, is to think of it as the system in charge of what is happening with and in the individuals.

PN: You seem to believe that the family is a kind of mystical, supra-individual organism.  So that if the grandfather doesn’t show upfor a session with you, it’s the family that has somehow “decided” that he won’t be there.  Everything that happens can then be explained by the family’s need to stay the same or whatever.  It’s a completely closed system and, like psychoanalysis, you can never disprove it.

WHITAKER:  No. Why would you try to?

PN: Well, presumably therapy has something to do with science and empirically testing outideas. 

WHITAKER:  I’m deliberately not interested in scientific rigor.  I assume that in the same way that the old general practitioner could walk into a house and say, “It smells like kidney disease,” that I have that kind of background that I walk into a family session and smell what’s happening.  Now I trust the smell, but I’m also very suspicious of it.  And I assume that in my simplistic efforts to solve it I overlook a lot of stuff and the next generation of therapists is going to have to worry about what is scientifically correct.  I’m not really interested.  They’re going to have to worry about that themselves. 

PN: So you don’tworry about would-be Whitakers whose sniffers aren’t very well attunded, doing some imitation of what you do and just getting carried away with their own whimsy?

WHITAKER:  Oh, it’s a concern, but I would rather suffer the concern than wait for science to catch up shortly after the third atom bomb or something.  I would rather take what I have and go full tilt with it than to be cautious and not get anywhere. 

Setting the Terms

PN: You don’t go along with the idea that it’s the therapist’s responsibility to treat everyone who comes his way.  How do you justify not seeing people?

WHITAKER:  Over the years, I’ve become more and more convinced that there are a few people whom I can make good contact with and may be useful to and there’ll be several untreated families left in the world after I die, so why struggle with the ones who society has destroyed, and now wants me to fix? I don’t intend to be a victim of society’s demands.  I think therapists are always getting the message from the society, “We’ve destroyed the family, or these people, now you should quickly fix them up.”


Buying into that is the ultimate absurdity.

PN: That’s an unusual attitude, at least to express publicly, in a field which began by demonstrating its potency with what therapists traditionally considered impossible cases.

WHITAKER:  I think we’re delusional in our conviction about our own power and we’ve made believe that nothing else happens but success by never discussing our failures.  Lord knows, I’ve had one or two in my time.

PN: Do you have any sense of the impact you have on this field?

WHITAKER:  Very little, really.  I’m still very isolated.

PN: That doesn’t seem to bother you very much. 

WHITAKER:  Not really.  My real life is my real life.  My professional life is the way I earn a living.  And this doesn’t really spill over into my real life very much. 

PN: You have a visceral allergy to what you call doing “head trips” in therapy.  When you see other people’s kind of family therapy, does it seem like “head trip” therapy to you?

WHITAKER:  You know, in a strange kind of way I don’t see it.  I don’t even know what Sal Minuchin does. Even though I spent a couple of winters at the Child Guidance Clinic, I don’t know what “structural family therapy” is. The only thing I know about it is this business about the separation of the generations and training the parents to be better parents. 

PN:  Is it that you’re just curious? 

WHITAKER:  I think that’s basically it.  Part of that is just old age, of course.  I’m very aware that I’m more and more fixed in my own orientation. Like I read a fair amount of this stuff on Maturana in the Networker.   I had this funny feeling of confusion and dissociation.  Finally I said to myself, “Well, he belongs to his club and I belong to my club.  I don’t understand his club’s language and I don’t expect he’d understand mine.”

The Present and the Future

PN: Are you every crazy with your own family?

WHITAKER:  Oh, no.  With my family I’m very laid-back, worrying about the sump pump, or the roofing, fantasizing about cutting off a piece ofthe downspout because I want to extend the water drainage from the roof.  Worrying about the rigging on the sailboat or the old farmer stuff.  Thinking how one of these days I ought to go down and clean up the shop, because the damn thing is a mess like the farm used to be.  I almost never talk about psychotherapy or get preoccupied with the next door neighbors’ dynamics. 

PN: Could you talk a little about your illness?  I’m very happy to see you so energetic, but I understand you were quite sick this spring.

WHITAKER:  It was a crazy business.  I had an embolism and as a result was having extra heart beats and that put me in the hospital on my back for two weeks with electroencephalograms day and night.  It was very difficult to get over.  I was invalided, I guess, for a month or two.  It was a strange experience, looking at death from a different perspective. 

PN: What do you mean?

WHITAKER:  Well, you know, laying flat on your back like that you see it differently.  It’s more real.  You really wonder if these tubes they have in your arms and the things all over your chest can keep you going.  And what if you should have three or four of these blood clots in a row, which supposedly you won’t come out of, etc.  So you deal with your aloneness and the fact of your being just one body-if it stops, that’s that. 

While all this was happening, I was never very panicked, which surprised me a bit.  Maybe it was because growing up on a farm you live with birth and death endlessly. From the time I was very young, it was my job to go out and catch a chicken and cut its head off for Sunday dinner. I saw my dad kill a cow with a sledge hammer and he took the cow apart for the meat.  And come January, we’d slit the pig’s throat and watch him bleed to death in the yard and then put away meat for the winter.  That was all part of growing up.  And medical school of course was one more experience with life and death.  So I’ve been through it in reality and fantasy so many times that I assume that will make a difference in myorientation to my own death.  Of course, you don’t know.

PN: What are your major professional activities these days?

WHITAKER:  I don’t see ongoing clients anymore.  I do give workshops around the country pretty regularly, which I still find a creative experience.  And I’m also planning to do more writing, although I’ve given up the idea of trying to write a book right now.  Instead, I think I’ll be working on a series of essays and see what comes of it.  But mostly I’m living at home these days and puttering around the house and the dock and the sailboat and I’m spending a lot of time with my family.  This summer four of my six children came to visit, along with all the grandchildren of course.

PN: What projects do you find yourself most excited about?

WHITAKER:  It’s these family reunions that my wife Muriel and I have been leading together over the last few years.  We have whole extended families come out here and stay at a hotel nearby. Recently we had 13 people from one family come out.  We meet with the families for four or five hours a day over several days.  It’s an incredible experience in extended family dynamics.  What we’re finding is that families take much more responsibility for things because we’re not meeting with them regularly and what happens seems to generate a much more powerful momentum for them.  In some ways, having the extended family live together over a period of time is like a reactivation of the family community of the good old days.

PN: I understand that besides doing therapy together, Muriel and you have also invented a new game.

WHITAKER:  Well, invented isn’t the right word.  We’ve discovered a new kind of muscular free association—playing ping pong without keeping score.  We do it all the time.  You should really try it.  It just bypasses the whole business of competing which is so much a part of two-person games.  After all, keeping score is just a kind of double-think—just like trying to figure out what techniques work in doing therapy.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1985 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.


1.      Hoffman, L. Foundations of Family Therapy. 


New York: Basic Books, 1981.


2.      Miller, M. “Does Carl Whitaker Really Have a System?” Contemporary Psychiatry.  Vol. 1.No. 3, Sept. 1982


3.      Napier, A.Y. with Whitaker, C.A. The Family Crucible.  New York: Harper and Row,1978


4.      Pittman, F. Book Review of Whitaker and Malone Roots of Psychotherapy.  Journalof Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 8. No. 3.  July 1982.


5.      Simon, R. “The Importance of Being Crazy” The Family Therapy Network Newsletter.  Vol. 4. No. 5, Nov-Dec., 1980.


6.      Whitaker, C.A. The Hindrance of Theory in Clinical Work. In Guerin, P.J. (Ed.) Family Therapy: Theory and Practice.  NewYork: Garner Press.  1976


7.      Whitaker, C.A. and Keith D.V. Symbolic-Experiential Family Therapy. In Gurman, A. and Kniskern, D.  The Handbook of Family Therapy.  New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1981.


8.      Whitaker, C.A. and Malone, T.D.  The Roots of Psychotherapy (2ndEdition).  New York: Brunner/Mazel 1981.


9.      Wolf, A. and Schwartz, E.K. Irrational Psychotherapy: An Appeal to Unreason.  American Journal of Psychotherapy.  April, July, October 1958 and April 1959. 


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.