This landmark interview with Laura Perls appeared in the premier issue of The Gestalt Journal. The first comprehensive exploration of Laura’s role in the development of Gestalt therapy, it was the first of three interviews that became “An Oral History of Gestalt Therapy.” The interview was conducted by Laura’s friend and trainee, Edward Rosenfeld. It begins with Rosenfeld’s introduction to the interview.
by Edward Rosenfeld: This interview inaugurates what will be a continuing series in The Gestalt Journal. In each issue we will be presenting conversations with the founders, originators and developers of Gestalt therapy.
We begin, in this first issue, with a conversation with Dr. Laura Perls, who, with her husband, Frederick S. (“Fritz’) Perls, began the development of Gestalt therapy more than thirty years ago. Laura Perls was originally trained in Gestalt psychology and as a psychoanalyst. She was one of the founders of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.
I first met Laura in 1966. 1 went to her with a question: how can I become a Gestalt therapist? She answered my question then, and continued to provide advice and support over the years. In 1975, I joined her professional training group.
When the planning began for The Gestalt Journal I wanted to find some way to let Gestalt therapists present, in their own words, a coherent picture of what Gestalt therapy is, how it developed and how it has grown, and who has been involved in it. This series of interviews I hope will provide such material.
The bulk of this first interview is a verbatim transcript of a conversation I had with Laura Perls on the 23rd of May, 1977.
Edward Rosenfeld: You say there is no body work in addition to Gestalt therapy.
Laura Perls: This is something that I can’t emphasize enough. Body work is part of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a holistic therapy. This means that it takes the total organism into account, not just the voice, the verbal, the acting out and whatever.
ER: What do you think happens when somebody tries to “combine” the Feldenkrais approach, for example, with Gestalt therapy?
LP: They haven’t understood, really, what Gestalt is. For instance, Ilana Rubenfeld is not combining, she is integrating certain approaches that she has studied for a long time. She has worked with the Alexander technique for twenty years and the Feldenkrais work is a kind of extension of that. I knew the work of Feldenkrais thirty years ago and it was nothing new to me because my body approach in Gestalt doesn’t come from Wilhelm Reich or Moshe Feldenkrais or F. M. Alexander or J. L. Moreno or anyone, but it comes from modern dance which I’ve been doing since I was eight years old,
ER: Do you feel that the approach to the body comes from the individual therapist?
LP: Anything that is used comes from the individual therapist. It is what hopefully he has assimilated and integrated so that it has become a part of his background, something that he can rely on; and from the ongoing awareness in the therapeutic situation. Different therapists work with very different approaches. Isadore From doesn’t use much of a body approach. He came from philosophy originally, so that’s what he moves from or what moves him.
ER: Do you think it is a mistake when people study Reichian technique or study the other approaches to the body?
LP: I don’t think it’s a mistake if they can really, fully assimilate it. But to just take a workshop here and a workshop there and then say they combine it, that is just not good enough. It’s not an integration.
ER: Let’s talk about assimilation.
LP: This really is how Gestalt started, originally in South Africa. It started from the concept of resistance which was always understood in psychoanalysis as an anal feature. Then Fritz Perls wrote a paper for a psychoanalytical conference held in Czechoslovakia in 1936, titled “Oral Resistances”. That paper was originally based on some research that I had done earlier, in Berlin, when my child was born: the methods of feeding and weaning infants.
ER: Were you already a psychologist when you were living in Berlin?
LP: I had a doctorate in psychology and I was trained in psychoanalysis; I had my analysis behind me already. I still trained at the Berlin Institute and, later, in Amsterdam. I was first a Gestaltist and then become an analyst. Fritz was an analyst first and then came to Gestalt and never quite got into it.
ER: Was the Gestalt psychological approach then basically perceptual? Were you interested in working experimentally?
LP: It was expanded through the work of Kurt Goldstein into a whole organismic approach. Fritz had worked with Goldstein and so had I. Fritz was an assistant of his for a few months and I was his student for a number of years. I did a lot of experimental work at the Institute for Brain-Injured Veterans.
ER: Let’s go back to the research that you were doing that led to Fritz’s paper on oral resistances.
LP: I was mainly interested in the methods of feeding and weaning because my experiences right from the hospital and what I had read about the feeding of children were very unsatisfactory to me. The way things are stuffed into little kids. The feeding is… it leads to introjection. They are not allowed enough time to chew.
ER: What about infants, breast-feeding and weaning?
LP: Weaning is often done very early or very late; and the foods that children get first are completely mashed and mealy. Mothers are very impatient. Children drink the food instead of learning to chew. Chewing takes time and patience and an awareness of what one is chewing. I pay a lot of attention to the way people eat. I concentrate on the detailed activities of doing something: chewing as well as studying, putting on one’s clothing, having a bath or walking in the street. Minute work.
ER: Do you see a connection between assimilation and patience?
LP: Between assimilation and taking time. Drinking doesn’t take any time. You swallow immediately without any intermediate process. The eating process is an awares process.
ER: In essence the beginning of Gestalt therapy comes in terms of eating: it grew up around the whole concept of how we eat.
LP: How we eat, get hold of something and make it assimilable.
ER: The way in which we focus on it, break it down, deal with the different parts.
LP: The taste of it, the texture of it, the way it goes. When you swallow the unchewed it lies heavy in your stomach. Either you feel like repeating it or it passes through in an undigested way.
ER: How did this differ from what were then, the current psychoanalytic theories?
LP: Psychoanalytic theory, I think, identifies assimilation and introjection.
ER: Were the psychoanalysts discussing all the resistances, in addition to the anal ones?
LP: I think Freud said that development takes place through introjections, but if it remains introjection and goes no further, then it becomes a block; it becomes identification. Introjection is to a great extent unawares. And actually what we see with every patient is that they imitate consciously, and with awareness, what they admire and what they like, but they introject, unawares, what they can’t stomach in any other way.
ER: But yet they feel they need, even if unawares…
LP: They don’t even feel that with awareness, they don’t really feel it. But what it does is that it avoids the external conflict and leads to the identification with the disagreeable features of father or mother or whoever teaches. It avoids the external conflict but sets up an internal one which becomes a block.
ER: What I don’t understand is what was so radical about Fritz’s new theory of resistances. I’ve been re-reading Ego, Hunger and Aggression, and…
LP: What do you find radical?
ER: It’s not so radical for me because I don’t come out of the Freudian background. in addition to reading Ego, Hunger and Aggression I’ve been re-reading In and Out the Garbage Pail and trying to get some sense of how Gestalt therapy developed. What I keep seeing is that the basic background is Freudian psychoanalysis; in addition to Gestalt psychology, but psychoanalysis was the pervasive psychological weltanschuanng.
LP: Actually in the beginning, when Ego, Hunger and Aggression was written, we still called ourselves psychoanalysts, but revisionists.
ER: Right. Ego, Hunger and Aggression was subtitled: “A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.” But what I don’t understand as being so radical is the paper: “Oral Resistances” and the material about the assimilation of the introject and so forth. Was all this so foreign to the Freudian ear of those times?
LP: Yes. It flew in the face of their resistance theory: anal development. We also rejected the libido theory,
ER: The message I got from Fritz’s recounting of those times was that he went to the 1936 Czech conference feeling that whatever he had worked out was a contribution to psychoanalysis and that he would become a greater psychoanalyst.
LP: He was pretty much rejected there, apart from one or two people. One was my former analyst who we were friendly with. His name was Karl Landauer and he was killed by the Nazis, that’s why nobody knows him. He started the Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute with Frieda Fromm-Reichman and Heinrich Meng. They were my first teachers. Landauer was my analyst and Frieda was my first teacher in psychoanalysis.
ER: You went through a thorough analysis as part of your training?
LP: Two and one-half years, every day.
ER: And at the same time you were working with the Gestalt psychologists? You were working with Goldstein?
LP: At the same time. It was very contradictory and I got awfully confused to the extent that I nearly went to sleep, like Pavlov’s double-conditioned dogs.
ER: It was too much.
LP: Yes. Somehow it didn’t go together. They went against each other to quite an extent; and it takes a lifetime to integrate.
ER: Were you still working with Landauer when you went to Amsterdam?
LP: No. I had finished my analysis in 1928 or 1929 and I got married in 1930. Landauer was our friend, later, in Amsterdam.
ER: Did you have a practice when you went to South Africa?
LP: In Berlin I had just started my practice; I had a few patients. I was still under supervision with Otto Fenichel. He was a great writer and theorist but a lousy teacher! He didn’t say anything at all. It was wasted time and wasted money. He just sat there and listened to my report and apparently agreed with most of it; and he said nothing.
ER: When you went to South Africa, I know Fritz started a practice…
LP: I started after three months because I didn’t speak English.
ER: And Fritz did?
LP: Fritz had been in America already. Inflation you know, 1923-1924, inflation caused him to leave Germany and he went to America. He thought he would stay but he didn’t like it then. It was just too crude for him at that point. He come from Berlin which was at that time really the European center of cultural development: everything, Max Reinhardt, Brecht, Kurt Weil, the Bauhaus, great writers.
ER: Once you had started to learn some English you started your practice in South Africa; whose idea was it to set up a psychoanalytic institute? Was that decided before you went there?
LP: That is really the purpose that we went there for. We were sent out by the International Association, by Ernest Jones who was the president at that time. He got us to South Africa, he was the man who had applied for someone to go there. He was at first very friendly and very helpful. But then he went to the Lucern conference in 1938, and a stink was made and it was decided that nobody who was not already in Europe, as a trainer, could be a trainer or teacher anywhere else. So we had to give up our training institute in South Africa. But by that point we had such an established practice there. It was during the war. I worked ten to thirteen hours a day, six days a week and sometimes on Sunday. I was in my thirties and early forties and I was very energetic then. Once I came into the kitchen, by 8 o’clock at night and said to the maid: “I am completely pooped.” She answered: “What do you do? You sit and talk!” By then already, in the late 1930’s, I paid a lot of attention not only to what people said and to interpretation, but to their breathing and their co-ordination. I started doing body work and sitting opposite my patients. At that time Fritz was still addicted to the couch and never quite got rid of it. But I never used it again. If I wanted someone to lie down I had them lie on the floor because that was much more even support and we could do certain experiments with co-ordination and alignment.
ER: What was the reaction of your patients when you sat face to face with them? Weren’t they coming into therapy expecting a typical psychoanalyst?
LP: They didn’t know anything.
ER: They didn’t? So it was more of a naive group.
LP: Much more. And there were others that were very interested and they welcomed it. Actually, while I was sitting behind the patient I knitted; because otherwise I would have had to smoke cigarettes, like Fritz did. I smoked very little, not even half a pack a day and I gave it up, already, some fifteen years ago. But Fritz smoked two, three, four packs a day.
ER: I remember: the hand and the cigarette.
LP: I think he could have lived ten years longer if he hadn’t smoked.
ER: There’s a section in Garbage Pail where he says something like: “What I really should be writing about is my problem with smoking; that’s my real problem.”
LP: It’s a problem of settling aggressive energy; muscular energy, that’s what nicotine does.
ER: It settles the aggressive energy?
LP: It interferes with the muscle tone; it reduces the muscle tone. One smokes a peace pipe.
ER: When Fritz returned from the rejection of the 1936 Czech conference, did you then start working more actively together trying to evolve a new therapy, or was it more gradual?
LP: We continued discussing things. Then Fritz went into the army, from 1942 to 1946 and he had time to write. He come home mostly every week-end and later at least once or twice a month. He started to put things together. But we had a friend who helped us a lot with the English. Fritz’s English, in spite of getting started earlier, was pretty atrocious. My pronunciation was always worse, his was better. The north Germans can speak English better than the south Germans.
ER: Where in south Germany are you from?
LP: I am from Baden. We speak French better, our pronunciation in French is better.
ER: So someone helped Fritz with the English…
LP: We had a friend who helped with the writing. He was a writer, an historian and a very bright guy, a friend of ours.
ER: Do you remember his name?
LP: He was a Dutchman. His name was Hugo Posturnys. The name he was known under was Jumbo.
ER: What made you leave South Africa?
LP: Several reasons. Partly political. Because Jan Smuts (then Prime Minister of South Africa, author of Holism and Evolution) was retiring and a young man of about forty-three, a very brilliant guy, a wunderkind, who was supposed to succeed him, suddenly died of a heart attack and there was no one who was in the Union party, which was the democratic party, to have a chance to be elected. We knew what would be coming because the nationalists had been working all along. They were pretty well organized and we wanted to leave before the 1948 elections. Fritz left in 1946 and I left in 1947.
ER: Were there friends here who drew you to New York City?
LP: No. No. Nothing. We had already applied for immigration before we went to South Africa but the quota for the U.S. was filled and we couldn’t get in. We had an affidavit from Dr. Brill who was the president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
ER: And that enabled you to enter this country?
LP: No. Later on we got another affidavit from Karen Horney, whom Fritz worked with for a short time before she come to America. He worked with her first and then with Wilhelm Reich.
ER: He mentions her advice in one of his books: “The only one who could help you is Wilhelm Reich.”
LP: Yes. Yes!
ER: So it was through Karen Horney that you come to America?
LP: My brother was here already and he guaranteed for us, but he had just started his own business. My brother started here with ten marks in his pocket as a Fuller brush man, going from cloor-to-cloor. Now he has made it again.
ER: Were you already in America when Ego, Hunger and Aggression was published?
LP: No. It was published first in South Africa, before it was published in England. Then for a long time it was not published here, not until Fritz was out at Esalen when it was published by Orbit Graphic Press. Then it was re-published by Random House,
ER: So it came out first in South Africa and that was while you were still living there?
ER: What were the reactions to those ideas in South Africa?
LP: The people who understood anything about it at all were the people that we had been working with. They did write-ups in the newspapers that were very favorable and the book was taken up quite eagerly by Allen & Unwin in England. But it didn’t go well in England and they didn’t re-publish later.
ER: Did you train people in South Africa? Did Fritz?
LP: We started to train people but then we weren’t allowed to anymore because of the decision, by the psychoanalytic association (which we were still members of), to restrict training to those who were already trainers in Europe.
ER: Were you calling it concentration therapy then?
LP: Then we were still calling it psychoanalysis. Even when we come to New York; I found some old stationery where we had both of our names on it as psychoanalysts. We changed it really with the publication of the book Gestalt Therapy, in 1950.
ER: You came to America and settled on the upper West Side of New York City.
LP: Fritz was here already a year before. And he was, for six months, in Canada before he could get his permanent residence visa. He visited my brother; they invited him and he stayed with them for three weeks, which was a disaster. They advised him not to settle in New York because there was too much competition. They had no idea of our professional potential.
ER: I suppose the fear was that you would be lost in the crowd of all the analysts in New York.
LP: So he started in New Haven and that was about the worst thing he could have done. At that time the chair for psychiatry was vacant at Yale and everybody thought that he was after it. So there was a kind of concerted front against him.
ER: Did he get involved in academic politics?
LP: He didn’t get involved because he…
ER: They cut him out?
LP: You know Fritz either had to be accepted or he was devastated. He was just at the point of coming back to South Africa when he visited New York for a few days and spoke to Erich Fromm. Fromm said: “I don’t know why you don’t come here. I guarantee you that in three months you’l I have a practice.” In three weeks he had a practice.
ER: So he had a practice by the time you came over.
LP: He had a practice and was very busy already, I brought the children and started working immediately because Fritz couldn’t accept anyone anymore. We got patients through the William Alanson White Institute at that time. Fritz got friendly with Clara Thompson and she sent a lot of people. The White Institute wanted him as a training analyst, but they wanted him to go back to medical school and get his medical degree here in the States because his European degree was not valid here. But Fritz was in his early fifties already and he didn’t want to go to school anymore. At that point, when one goes to school, one goes as a teacher, not as a student. And it wasn’t really necessary. Then we made contact with Paul Goodman, who had a very Reichian orientation at that time: he was in a Reichian analysis. And we made contact with lots of others, people like Dwight McDonald and other writers and artists.
ER: Who do you remember from that circle? Was Erich Fromm one of the people you continued to be in contact with?
LP: No. No, we got patients, actually trainees, from the White Institute, people whose training therapy they couldn’t complete. I remember particularly two with whom I worked who later were accepted as members of the White Institute. One is someone who died lost year, who headed a school for schizophrenic children who at that time was a teacher at Kings County and Elliott Shapiro was his principal. A whole line of people came to us through Elliott. Elliott gave the first training in Gestalt therapy for educators.
ER: How did Paul Weiss become involved?
LP: That was, I think, through his wife, who was a psychiatrist of Bellevue and was working with Fritz. He became a patient of Fritz’s and then later worked mostly with me. Then whole chains of people came from Bellevue and from Kings County, from the Veterans Administration Hospital and from Columbia. Richard Kitzler came from Columbia; he was the psychologist for the Columbia psychiatrist who worked with Fritz, too. That was Dr. Montague who died early.
ER: Where did Isadore From come in?
LP: Isadore come as a patient and I worked with him for a number of years.
ER: Did you have contact with any of the Gestalt psychology people who were at the New School?
LP: They rejected us completely…
ER: Was this after the publication of Gestalt Therapy or beforehand?
LP: Before we didn’t know them and afterwards they rejected us.
ER: Just because you use the word ‘Gestalt’?
LP: They felt that ‘Gestalt’ was their domain and that it was mainly confined to perceptual psychology, which I had worked with a lot in the past. My doctorate was in visual perception.
ER: When you come to America and Fritz was already here, were you both working with the idea that you were developing something new? Was that in the air?
LP: That was in the air because Ego, Hunger, and Aggression had been published already and some people got interested in it. Then Gestalt Therapy was published. When we started the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy forty people appeared for our first course given in America.
ER: How did that book, Gestalt Therapy, come about?
LP: First there was a manuscript that Fritz had already written, he had been working on it. I had been working on it, too, but at that point I was satisfied to leave the glory to him. He gave me credit in the first introduction to Ego, Hunger, and Aggression but that credit was removed when Random House republished it. A friend wrote to Random House requesting that they re-insert the original introduction in any new edition of Ego, Hunger, and Aggressionbut they refused.
ER: That credit is still in the introduction in the Orbit Graphic Press edition of Ego, Hunger and Aggression. So Fritz had a manuscript, that you both had been working on, which extended the ideas about introjection, projection, retroflection and confluence.
LP: Yes. Mainly the existential orientation. Actually when we first started we wanted to call it ‘Existential therapy’, but then existentialism was so much identified with Sartre, with the nihilistic approach, that we looked for another name. I thought that with Gestalt therapy, with the word ‘Gestalt’, we could get into difficulties. But that criticism was rejected by Fritz and Paul.
ER: Paul Goodman?
ILP: Yes. Paul was originally hired as an editor, but then he contributed so much, particularly to the second part, which without him would never have become a coherent theory, that Paul become a co-author.
ER: Was Richard Kitzler responsible for the connection to Ralph Hefferline at Columbia?
ER: How did Hefferline come into the picture?
LP: He came as a client.
ER: Did he want to do the experiments with the students at Columbia?
LP: He was interested … and he did the experiments at Columbia and then became a co-outhor with Fritz and Paul. But he never really become a member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. He did one or two seperate lectures by invitation but he did not become a part of the on-going teaching and training process.
ER: Was the Institute already established when the work started on what was to become the book, Gestalt Therapy?
LP: No. No, the Institute was started as a result of the publication of Gestalt Therapy. In 1952 the Institute started and in 1953 the Cleveland Institute for Gestalt Therapy started. We gave a ten-day intensive course at the end of 1952 or early 1953, and people from outside the city come and three people from Cleveland attended. They then started a Gestalt group there and Fritz and Paul Weiss and I and Paul Goodman went to Cleveland, more or less regularly. Then Isadore From went there for six or seven years, once or twice a month for four days at a time and trained everybody, individually and in group.
ER: Was Arthur Ceppos (of Julian Press, the original publisher of Gestalt Therapy) a patient?
LP: No, he was not a patient. He come to a group for a while. His then girl friend was a therapist and she come into group and into therapy.
ER: How did he become interested in the project?
LP: He was always after new things. I don’t know how that started. Those negotiations were between Fritz and Art Ceppos.
ER: I’ve heard that what is now part two, the theoretical part, was originally supposed to be the first part.
LP: Ceppos counteradvised because at that time the ‘how-to’ books were in vogue. He felt it would help the sale of the book if we changed it around. But for anyone who is a serious student of Gestalt therapy, the second part is really a theoretical and methodological introduction, while the other part is really experiments and practical work.
ER: Fritz mentions in Garbage Pail that he discussed ideas with Paul Weiss.
LP: Paul Weiss had a brilliant mind and was highly educated and very critical. Fritz liked to talk to him on occassion, but ongoingly he wouldn’t have been able to cope with him. Fritz never could cope with peers for a long time. Actually we started drifting apart when I became a peer in experience and got a growing reputation as a therapist. I stuck it out in New York. Fritz could never have stayed in New York. There was too much competition and criticism and Fritz felt devastated by the slightest criticism. Paul Weiss was very critical.
ER: Were you both, you and Fritz, interested in existential philosophy before?
LP: Oh, certainly. it was part of my academic education. I worked for many years with Paul Tillich. As a student I read Kierkegaard and Heidegger; also the phenomenologists: Husserl and Scheler.
ER: What happened once Gestalt Therapy was published? Was it well received?
LP: It had a mixed reception. Actually Arthur Ceppos said at that time that the book would go very slowly in the beginning and in ten years would become a classic and he was right.
ER: Then what happened in the development of Gestalt therapy? Did you stay here in New York with the ‘peers’? With Paul Weiss, Paul Goodman and Isadore From?
LP: Actually, that was my first therapy group: It was Paul Weiss, Paul Goodman, Elliott Shapiro and two artists. It was the first group I ever worked with. I was scared at first. I had never taught before and I had never worked with groups. I was a private person always. I have been going much more public, since then, but still a lot of time for and by myself.
ER: Do you think that Gestalt therapy has changed much since those days in the early 1950’s?
LP: The change is with everybody who practices it. Gestalt therapy has penetrated into all kinds of other set-ups. It has certainly become part of the program at professional schools everywhere. On the West coast it is probably the dominant therapy. Here, on the East coast, it is probably on a par with behaviorism, which is the other approach that is in the forefront.
ER: Has anything happened to Gestalt therapy in terms of theory, the methodological background, since that very exciting period a quarter of a century ago?
LP: Gestalt therapy was conceived as a comprehensive, organismic approach. But later on, particularly in the West, but in the East, too, it become identified mostly with what Fritz did at the time. It become very well-known in the last five years of his life when he was predominantly using his hot-seat method. That method is fine for demonstration workshops, but you can’t carry on a whole therapy that way; yet people do. I think they are limiting themselves and doing a lot of harm.
ER: What do you think made Fritz say that individual therapy was obsolete?
LP: Because it was obsolete for him. He couldn’t be bothered anymore. But don’t forget that the people that he worked with in his last years were only professional people, most of whom had their own therapies already and were already active in the profession. You can work differently with those groups than you can work with a patient group, particularly with very sick patients.
Until three years ago I worked with a lot of patients, not just training. But now I do only training. It’s getting too much. I’ve done individual therapy and group therapy for forty years plus and that’s enough. There’s not enough coming back from the work with the patients for me.
ER: Is training more fulfilling?
LP: It’s more interesting with different people and with very accomplished people. I work a lot in Europe and that is different than working with professionals here.
ER: You’ve been on sabatical for the past year. What have you been doing?
LP: Very little that can be talked about. I did a lot of things for myself. A lot of reading, lots of music.
ER: What have you been reading that’s been interesting? What’s been turning you on?
LP: I’ve been re-reading Nietzsche; and I’ve been reading whole books again, as opposed to just dipping in and reading magazines, professional and otherwise. I’ve read in the last fifteen years mainly literary magazines, like The New York Review of Books. But now I’m reading the literature and a lot of new poetry. I’ve been going through things that I’ve written ovr the years, published and unpublished, mostly unpublished, and trying to make something of it. But it’s more in my head, still, than it is on paper.
ER: Would you like to produce a book out of all these materials?
LP: That’s what I’m asked to do. If I produce anything it will be two books: one a collection of articles, published ones and unpublished ones, and I may write one or two more that I am interested in at the moment. I’m mostly asked for a kind of autobiography, but I can’t write a straight-forward autobiography, just the facts, it bores me.
ER: Do you have another approach?
LP: I’ve had an approach for many years already. I started in the 1940’s writing stories; they were mostly taken off from relevant experiences in my youth and life.
ER: Are you writing more stories or going back to the ones you’ve already written?
LP: I’m going through them again and, of course, they have to be connected in some way so that it will end up being a blend of truth and fiction. A myth is always truer than the facts: it’s an integration of experiences.
ER: How do you see Gestalt therapy today?
LP: Oh, it is in many ways blossoming. In many ways I have a lot of reservations because what’s been done with it is the same thing that has been done with psychoanalysis and other approaches which have become more well known and popular. It has become si mpl if ied and falsified and distorted and misrepresented. A lot of the work that I’m doing now, wherever I give a workshop or work with people in Gestalt, is really to emphasize that and confront them with what I think is important.
ER: For instance…
LP: Important is the ongoing Gestalt formation. And to take the patient, or whoever you are working with, where they are not imposing on them certain methods; that is an encounter therapy. Gestalt therapy, in the true sense, is not an encounter therapy.
ER: But it is moment to moment.
LP: It is moment to moment and acknowledges whatever comes up from the past as a memory which you are having now and therefore must have some significance now. Then we can interpolate between the past and what is now.
ER: But doesn’t encounter, from its roots in T-groups onward, lean very heavily on Gestalt and some of the other existential psychotherapies in terms of the present tense orientation. …And yet you’re saying…
LP: Yes, but to a very great extent they have a very fixed method of confronting which I think is a mistake and if it’s applied in Gestalt then it’s not really Gestalt.
ER: But there is a methodology in Gestalt therapy. Isn’t there an informing background that as a Gestalt therapist I’m always using?
LP: As a Gestalt therapist: Gestalt therapy is existential, experiential and experimental. But what techniques you use to implement that and to apply it, that depends to the greatest extent on your background, on your experiences professionally, in life, your skills and whatever. The Gestalt therapist uses himself and herself with whatever they have got and whatever seems to apply, at the time, to the actual situation: a patient, a group, a trainee, whatever.
ER: I’ve been in training with you and with Isadore From and the things that have come up for me, what I call the informing background of the therapeutic work I do, are methodological and theoretical concerns: like the contact boundary, the how of contact.
LP: Experience is on the boundary. Within the boundaries there is to a great extent unawareness and confluence. If you go too quickly beyond the boundary you may feel unsupported, actually, that’s what I work with: a concept and experience of contact and support. Certain supports are necessary and essential. Other supports are, well, desirable and possibly usable. The lack of essential support always results in anxiety. That is actually what anxiety is.
ER: A lack of essential supports…
LP: Trying to make contact for which the essential support is locking. You see, usually anxiety is interpreted as lack of oxygen. But that is a secondary thing already. It’s just one of the supports that may be missing; or that even is actually mobilized when an essential support is missing; in order to withdraw and play possum. An infant, for instance, feels anxious when it is not held secure. You may feel great anxiety when you are hungry and your body isn’t functioning properly.
ER: What about concepts like confluence, projection, introjection and retroflection; for example, when I see a client biting his lip. These are the concepts that I see missing in encounter-oriented or demonstration style Gestalt therapy.
LP: They do not go into the details of when and how a person is unable to I ive on the boundary. Without a clear boundary experience the person is open to introjection and projection.
ER: So the projection and introjection grow out of a lack of what you are calling the essential supports. Through the development of anxiety we then try to gobble up something whole or screen it away from us, project it on to someone or something else.
LP: Well, introjection always occurs when you are confronted too quickly with something that you can’t cope with and assimilate. Either you reject it and withdraw from it or you introject it. What happens mostly in schools is a lot of stuff is presented in a way in which it is expected to be repeated on the exam. People swallow it whole and spew it out on the exam and are rid of it forever after. I’ve never seen people who after having learned so much and stayed in school for so many years know so very little as here in this country; it’s ghastly.
ER: Do you think as an intellectual viewpoint, as a way of looking at the world and looking at what goes on in the world of ideas, that Gestalt is a valid, descriptive metaphor: an analogue for what happens.
LP: Gestalt is an aesthetic concept. Mainly Gestalt is an aesthetic concept, but Kohler used it in connection with field theory which originally is an idea from physics, a physical theory. Kohler was, I think, originally a physicist.
ER: Yes. He studied field theory with Max Planck before he did the Gestalt psychology work with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka.
LP: That Greek word for awareness, aisthanomai, ‘I am aware’, the root for aesthetics, that word is a medium form between active and passive.
ER: In the mystical sense, like the space between breathing in and breathing out. The awareness.
LP: Goldstein, in The Organism, and much earlier, maintains that sensing is an active process; it’s not just receiving the impression.
ER: Isn’t that the whole point of Gestalt formation?
LP: Exactly, certainly…
ER: We do make choices, whether awares or unawares. We make a choice in terms of…
ER: … of what is dominant for us.
LP: What becomes figure is what is of greatest interest for the organism at the time. And then, of course, always, how the figure relates to its background. Because that is what gives it meaning. If it doesn’t relate then we say it’s meaningless, it’s senseless, it’s bizarre. But sometimes it’s the lack of background in the therapist that causes that, when he calls something bizarre or meaningless that is very meaningful to the patient. It is clesireable that the therapist have more awareness and experience than the patient and more knowledge. If you have a very well educated, erudite patient and you know nothing, or almost nothing, beyond your professional stuff, you can’t cope.
ER: Have you had experiences like that?
LP: Very little. I’ve learned from my patients. But I have a very wide background, compared with many of the people here I have probably a wider and deeper educational background than most of them.
ER: The dance and the music…
LP: An all-around education. I went to a humanistic gymnasium; I had nine years of Latin and six of Greek. I can still read Greek.
ER: We don’t do that anymore; we don’t have the depth.
LP: Everything starts too late and when you want it, then you don’t get it anymore. You get it shoved in very quickly and then you don’t understand really.
ER: So an essential part of being a good therapist is your own self-development; your own extension out into the world.
LP: That’s why we ask at least a decent therapy and group experience from our own therapists, It was always asked for in psychoanalysis that you have your own analysis and have worked through your main hang-ups. At least know where they are and be able to cope with them. But, beyond their professional background, I see in a lot of therapists that they know nothing, really. They know nothing of history, they know nothing of philosophy. It is what we call the humanities, let alone the classics which are partly coinciding with the humanities. We read Aristotle already in Greek in high school so when we graduated from the gymnasium we already had what would amount to a B.A. in classics here in America.
EIR: What that reminds me of is the Aristotelian orientation of the second part, Paul Goodman’s part of the book, Gestalt Therapy. Why is that part of the book so difficult?
LP: Is it? … It isn’t written for uneducated people. It’s written for professional people. It is not written for everybody.
ER: I’m asking the question as a ‘devil’s advocate’ because I’ve now been through it several times in Isadore’s theory group and I have a totally different perspective on it than when I first tried to read it, some twelve years ago.
LP: You don’t get it by just reading through it quickly.
LP: You can’t take it; you can’t introject it; it’s quite indigestible.
ER: Was it specifically designed that way?
LP: No. It was just Paul’s way of writing.
ER: Most people find it so difficult that it puts them off and they feel that there’s nothing there or it’s too complicated.
LP: They just haven’t got the teeth, and it’s unfortunate. It’s not written for high school kids and most people don’t get much beyond their general education. They get immediately into some type of specialty thing which remains very narrow. I think particularly as a psychologist or a therapist you have to have a wider background. Psychotherapy is as much an art as it is a science. The intuition and immediacy of the artist are as necessary for the good therapist as a scientific education.
ER: What would you like to see happen in Gestalt therapy?
LP: I couldn’t even say what I would like to have happen. It’s anticipating and it’s pure fantasy. What I would like to happen really is that people get better training in Gestalt therapy then most of them are getting now. They think it’s something that one can pick up in a week’s workshop or a few weekends or something like that; and you can’t. To become aware of your own process, let alone in others, and to in some way facilitate that: it takes time. Again it’s biting and chewing it through. People mostly now swallow what they find intriguing in it and then they put it around and start training other people, not really knowing themselves what Gestalt really is, and what the word even means.
ER: Are you unhappy that the name stuck?
LP: No, because it’s a very comprehensive thing. I wrote my approach to Gestalt in my chapter in Edward Smith’s book, The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy. These are mainly the concepts that are important to me. Intrajection and projection, they are really subject to the boundary concept in Gestalt therapy.
ER: Do you have more to say? I’m feeling complete about this interview at the moment.
LP: There is not much I want to say… What I would like to do is work that out more systematically…
ER: The contact and support functions?
LP: And how other concepts, which are already current in Gestalt fit into it. The contact/support concept is a Gestalt concept. Contact is always in the foreground and can fully become Gestalt and part of the ongoing Gestalt formation only when the support is ongoingly available.
ER: Aren’t we back to where we started with resistance? Aren’t the resistances what interrupt the contact?
LP: Resistances are what interrupt the contact and I would rather call it blocks. Resistances are fixed Gestalten. A block is a fixed Gestalt; an obsession is a fixed Gestalt. It becomes a block in the ongoing development. There is always a repitition in obsession of something that the patient doesn’t get beyond.
ER: In that sense: is character bad? I think of character as fixed elements of personal style.
LIP: If you read Character Analysis by Wilhelm Reich you know the character is a fixed formation and that it stands in place of the ongoing awareness, and, in that sense, blocks it. As a character you simply exclude certain awarenesses and certain confusions: you bypass certain experiences.
ER: True, but isn’t part of that fixed formation a personal style that serves as a support for our way of being-in-the-world?
LP: But style is also something that changes, it is also subject to change. Style is really the expression of the self-development as it has happened up to that point. Hopefully the self is continually developing. The self is the integrating and integrated instance of the person while the ego is the boundary function, the temporary contact function.
ER: So when you’re working with someone you’re looking for the person’s ability to free up some of the blocks-to take a risk.
LP: First to become aware of how they block, because it’s still an acitivity, even if it has become automatic. Therapy is to cle-automatize the blocks.
ER: First it’s the awareness.
LP: Yes. First comes the awareness and then the de-automatizing and bringing it more into the foreground, exaggerating it, and out of that develops experimentation in different directions. These are the things I am working with in any workshop anywhere. My trainees are pretty much aware of the essentials. If we can’t facilitate and don’t facilitate the ongoing Gestalt formation, but take Gestalt therapy as a fixed method or fixed compulation of techniques, then we’re dead. It’s not Gestalt.
ER: Which goes back to what you were saying about the individual therapist bringing whatever he or she has…
LP: And every patient bringing what he or she has … and finding what will be possible to do with that in the actual therapeutic situation. Of course, that goes further: any re)evant communication is, or can be, therapeutic in any situation. It makes a relevant change, relevant to the ongoing development which is not necessarily getting better or getting more or getting worse, but changing. Life is change. Once you stop changing you’re dead.
ER: I’m writing a book about economics and there is a line in the book: “Things weren’t better; things aren’t better now and things will not be better in the future. Things just are.”
LP: Things are and they may become different. Of course at any particular moment we may be interested in particular changes which we want to make at that point. Then again we have to see: how is that possible; what is available.
ER: In the present situation?
LP: We can only deal with what is available in the present situation and what is possible to do with what is available.
ER: One other thing occurs to me: When Freud died a lot of people felt there was a kind of scurrying around for who was going to get the ring on the merry-go-round: who would be the new head of psychoanalysis. Recently I read a quote from the book Growth Psychology, in the chapter on Gestalt therapy, that went something like this: “Since Fritz Perls has died, there seems to be no one who has come to take the mantle, to be the leader of Gestalt therapy.” Do you think a leader is necessary? Do you think we…
LP: I think we need many good people. I think just the leader also becomes a block.
ER: In terms of people imitating a leader’s style and taking that style as the whole thing?
LP: That’s right. Fritz’s style was imitated just in the last few years when he had narrowed it down to something he fell back on, that he had most available from earlier on. Fritz was in theater long before he did anything else. He wanted to be a theater director.
ER: A lot of hot seat work is like directing.
LP: But he also did it informed by fifty years of professional experience, which wasn’t only theater. He could spot immediately people whom he could work with and people whom he knew he couldn’t work with or it would be dangerous. But people who just imitate him, they are not that insightful and they often do harm; sometimes there are psychotic breaks. There are the great miracles that either die away again and not much remains of them or the so-called quick breakthrough makes for a real break.
ER: In Garbage Pail and Gestalt Therapy Verbatim Fritz is constantly denouncing the instant cure. I read into that that he was having second thoughts about what he brought about at Esalen and how dangerous it seemed to him; what he calls the joy-boys and the miracle people.
LP: That example is quite right. I feel suspicious about all the instant things: instant contact, instant intimacy, instant sex, instant something or other, instant joy. Joy is a byproduct. Happiness is a byproduct of good functioning. But suffering is also a part of creative living and working; it’s not only a curse. I have written some thirty years ago, over thirty years ago, a long article on the reinterpretation of suffering, from biblical times on.
ER: Will I that be part of one of your new books?
LP: Yes, I think so.
ER: Good. There is a section in Paul Goodman’s novel, The Empire City, that Erving and Mirium Polster quote at the start of their book, Gestalt Therapy Integrated, where the protagonist is experiencing giving up the necessity of being totally happy:
“Soon he was softly breathing the no-geography of being at a loss. He tasted the elixir of being at a loss, when anything that occurs must necessarily be a surprise. He could no longer make any sense of his own essential things (that had never made him happy); he could feel them fleeing away from him; yet he did not snatch at them in despair. Instead he touched his body and looked around and felt, ‘Here I am and now,’and did not become panicky.” He has the courage to go on to the next moment.
LP: You can go on from there.
ER: And know that there will be suffering, that there will be pleasure, but that I’m present, in the moment.
LP: Also, there is a certain satisfaction and maybe even momentary happiness in having lived through and overcome certain suffering during the process of development. Coping. But that’s temporary and the pursuit of happiness, per se, even if it’s written in the constitution, it’s a very illegitimate pursuit, it’s incidental.