There Had Better Be Magic In The Myth: A Posthumous Reflection on the Work of Shepard Gellert and the Power of Healing Narrative
By Thomas Cox RN, BA, BSN, MS, MSW
Dr. Shepard Gellert (Shep) was a practitioner of Psychotherapy who I studied with, underwent therapy with, and worked with at the Re-decision Institute for Transactional Analysis in Huntington, New York.
Shep, as he preferred to be called, was an elected member of the Board of Directors of the International Transactional Analysis Association, a frequent contributor to the Transactional Analysis Journal and the author of “Nuts come in pairs: All you wanted to know about couples relationships and were afraid to ask!”
Shep worked primarily in group sessions though he also scheduled individual sessions whenever it seemed appropriate to advance the work of an individual client or whenever a client requested individual work.
I worked in close contact with Shep for a period of several years. Working with Shep challenged me on many levels. I entered the relationship as a client, asking the usual questions: “Why has this happened to me?” and “Why am I the way I am?”
During the course of my own therapy and as I trained with and worked with Dr. Gellert, I was constantly challenged by Shep and found myself challenging many of my preconceptions about psychology, psychotherapy, causality, and explanation.
In the end I came to view the entire process and mission of psychotherapy in far different terms then before.
Chief among the differences in how I came to view the situation was the fact that I completely reassessed my views on the role of myth in psychotherapy.
It is not my intention to falsely attribute either innovation or insight to Dr. Gellert. He was an eclectic, and the sources of his approach to therapy were many, hence attribution of cause would be quite pointless.
The important issue is not so much where his ideas came from but what they were and what implications they had for me and might have for other therapists, and for the process of therapeutic intervention.
In the end, I cannot be sure that Shep, or anyone else who studied with him, would agree with my posthumous formulation of his work. I am certain that he would question my formulation. In another sense, this is less about Shep perhaps then it is about me.
The Role of Myth in Psychotherapy
Myth has played a significant role in psychotherapy since the earliest days. Freud frequently resorted to old Greek dramas in his psychoanalysis. The Oedipus Complex being, by far, the best-known example.
In this earlier period it was almost uncritically accepted that the myth and the reality were one and the same. That is, the Oedipus complex was not seen so much as a parable or a possibility as it was seen as a stage in the development of a ‘normal’ male. This ontological view is critical to the assertions that will be made later.
Freud’s early work is prior to the post-modernist interpretation of reality. In Freud’s time there was a general sense of adherence to Cartesian dualism. There was widespread belief in an external reality that was apart from and indifferent to an observing human.
This was before the challenges of Phenomenology, Physics and Symbolic Interaction. At the core of the challenges presented by Phenomenologists and Symbolic Interactionists is the question of whether or not there is, in fact, such an absolute, external reality.
As well, the deepest theoretical work in Physics, the exemplar of the natural sciences, has led to deep questions about whether reality exists outside of human perception or if physical reality is a consequence of human consciousness.
There is little doubt in my mind that Shep had either considered these heady issues himself or was acquainted with these ideas. Shep was a voluminous reader, a deep, broad, and profound thinker and certainly well read in physics and philosophy.
Shep made little use of the traditional Freudian stories in his work. He did not talk about Oedipal complexes as though they were real.
This led me to conclude that he was clear that they were interesting artifacts from the rich and diverse history of psychotherapy, but not realities. Instead, and the subject of this paper, Shep conducted his work in a very different way.
Chief among his approaches was the elaboration of what I have been tempted, at times, to call “healing myth” or “healing story.”
I should note that it is a presumption on my part that Shep did not believe his stories were true – he may have.
This is somewhat different then the innovations introduced by Eric Berne in his work on life scripts. Berne still characterized people’s stories as essentially negatives. Games and life scripts were barriers to mental health for Berne.
The presentation of story in Berne is largely conceptual and categorical – diagnosis and pigeonholing play a large part in the use of “Games people play”. Shep, on the other hand, always had a healing component in his stories.
If most psychoanalytically oriented therapy is obsessively concerned with what was, Berne seemed to focus on what had been and what is likely to continue. Shep, and certainly my post-Shep work, is far more concerned with what will and can be, as re-formulated from awareness and intentionally chosen by the actor/actress.
At first, my reaction to Shep’s work was amazement at the degree to which Shep was able to discern the underlying reality of another individual’s life experience. Shep engaged in a great deal of regression therapy, having studied and collaborated with Bob and Mary Goulding who pioneered this mode of working with clients.
Using techniques of rapid breathing, deep muscle trigger release and guided imagery work, Shep would assist clients to relive earlier, and frequently quite traumatic scenes. As clients would come out of their regressions, Shep would frequently engage in a directed dialogue with the client.
This dialogue often took the form of an elaboration of: what had happened during the regression; what had happened at the time of the earlier event the client had re-experienced; what the client was currently experiencing; and what the meaning that was attached to the experience by the client.
I was powerfully struck by what I perceived to be his powerful insights and his profound grasp for developmental issues in his clients.
A client would be thrashing about the floor with arms and legs protected from harm by fellow group members and Shep would suddenly say: “You are 2 years old – what is happening?”
Miraculously the client would describe a scene of abuse or trauma when they were two years old.
When they would come out of the regression, Shep would ask them, or explain to them, the decisions they had made as a consequence of what had happened and re-direct their thinking to how they could change the decisions they had made about themselves and their life course.
Story and Myth
Yet another aspect of the role of myth in Shep’s psychotherapy has to do with movement away from the conventional, Freudian role of myth. Here, I came to realize that with the movement toward wider distribution of, and access to, children’s literature and other media, there were a great many options for allowing clients to engage in healing myths.
Each child’s book, TV series, movie, play, song and work of art presents its own opportunities for client projections about their life and their destiny. When I was a child growing up, there were relatively few books that were widely disseminated.
From school there were the Dick and Jane books. These books were highly culturally stereotyped. Out of school, there were the Hardy Boys, Clara Barton, Rick Brant, Nancy Drew and a host of other mainstream children’s books. Yet these books were rarely used as thematic projection instruments in my experiences with psychotherapists and counselors.
My own favorite book for life scripting was “The Little Engine That Could”. Shep quickly drew my attention to this story and to the fact that I perpetually saw myself as the little engine.
The banal side of the little engine role is the constant need to overcome challenges far too great for a little engine.
Certainly, I could have loved that book and chosen a different role. I might have identified with one of the big engines. But my focus was always on the struggle of the little engine to surmount seemingly impossible challenges. How did that play out in life, even after therapy?
As a little kid I had a great deal of trouble in school. My report cards had that characteristic Christmas tree look, with lots of red balls. I had the second lowest score in Geometry. I almost failed English in the 7th grade; I came very close to dropping out of high school.
I was discouraged from going to college by a broad variety of teachers and counselors. So what happened to that little engine that had so much trouble in school? I have one associate’s degree – majoring in mathematics, physics, and engineering. Two bachelors degrees: mathematics and nursing with minors in philosophy, and sociology.
I have three master’s degrees: social work, applied mathematics and statistics and a third in nursing. I have formally been enrolled in three PhD programs – well you had to know that there had to be some problems along the way – wouldn’t be a ‘little engine that could’ without them. Currently I am in the dissertation stage for a PhD program in nursing.
One of the things is that I slightly modified my story to allow for more successes but the challenge aspect of my scripting remains.
My first year in my PhD program I took seven classes, completing both the PhD curriculum and my masters curriculum, and worked on the side. I also published and presented more than any peers.
Merely going for a PhD is far too little challenge for “little engines”. Little engines need big challenges – challenges that no big engine would ever even consider attempting.
Prior Preparation and Beliefs on the Role of Therapeutic Myth
To step back, for a moment, I need to consider my own preparation for working with Shep and at the Institute. Before ever arriving at the Institute, I had been practicing psychotherapy and hypnosis. I had published two papers on hypnosis topics but I had not, as yet, considered on a deeper philosophical nature the nature of the work I had already been doing.
At this earlier period of time, I considered my work, as, at first, I considered Shep’s work, to be more a question of empathic dexterity and ‘tuning in’ to the particular circumstances of a client.
That assumption was also to be challenged in my later work and reflection on the experience of working with Shep. I had already discovered Erickson and his incredible ability to create healing stories. However, with Erickson all I had were papers he had written. With Shep I had the opportunity to participate and observe.
I had, of course, earned a master’s degree in social work, supplemented that with additional training and experiences in transactional analysis, RET, Gestalt Therapy, Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy and other training activities.
I had, prior to my arrival at the Institute, worked as a therapist in several settings and had taught counseling and related skills as the director of an undergraduate social work program. I say this not to suggest expertise on my part so much as to suggest some manner of preparation.
At the same time, I am always engaged in self critique and just today, after I thought this paper was over, noted a critique of portraiture in qualitative research methodology that reflects some of the many concerns I have had over the years when it comes to trying to emulate Shep’s style and pass it on (English, 2000).
The Role Of Myth in Cure
At an uncertain point in time, I began to realize that my initial sense of personal competence and implied competence of Shep were changing. As part of my own personal experiences in therapy with Shep
I began to realize that while the stories were appealing, indeed, potentially enriching, I was screening the acceptance of these healing stories.
At the same time, I became aware that I seemed to be the only person that was being so critical. Others were having marvelous regressions and great healing experiences but I was sitting there in my usual critical mode not getting anywhere near as much out of the experiences.
I began to reflect on my own experiences as a therapist and a Hypnotist as well as on Shep’s work. I reasoned it out like this: I had always assumed that I was ‘tuning in’ to my clients, that I was following where they were and every once in a while being able to lead them a little further along their path.
I considered, for a time, that what was really happening, all along, was that I was weaving a story for them and for me.
Occasionally they did not agree at all with the story – they left. Quite often they were willing to go along with the story for a while – and then they would leave. Every once in a while they chose to go along with the story for a long period of time – then, occasionally, I would leave. Was this same thing happening with Shep?
I finally concluded that the issue was not one of a fundamental difference, but that Shep tended to weave more interesting stories then I did.
I realized that there was far greater content to Shep’s stories then to mine, that he had a far better facility at relating the story to the client then I did and that he had a better grasp then I did about how well he was doing with his stories: whether they were being accepted, rejected, followed or led.
Once I achieved that level of realization of the process that I felt existed, I started considering why story was important in the therapeutic relationship at all. I decided that story was important on an individual level just as Oedipus had been important to the Freudians.
Story, or myth, was a structure, which could be used by clients to answer those all-important but essentially unanswerable questions that every newcomer to psychotherapy brings:
“Why am I here?”
“Why does this always happen to me?”
“How can I change?” and
“Will I always be like this?”
In the final analysis, none of these questions has a definitive answer.
All the answers we ever come up with are simply stories.
Stories such as: “I am a timid bookkeeper because I had a domineering mother and a weak father”; “I am a barroom brawler because I had a dominant, abusive father and a weak, submissive mother”; “I am a ‘frigid’ woman because I was abused as a child.” and “I am an impotent man because I was ignored as a child.” These are all explanations without justifications. In essence, they are self-destructive, self-deluding, myths.
The general case is that the answers to why we are, as we are, are myths we tell ourselves. I have come to believe that the role of the therapist is, in part, to offer an alternative, more interesting and more liberating myth.
If the only use of myth were as an alternative to our own, self-defeating life myths, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. But the real power of story is that we live our lives through our stories.
The meek bookkeeper doesn’t just have a story about the past. The story is also about the future. The meek bookkeeper intends to live into a lifetime as a meek bookkeeper not use the story as a springboard to a different existence.
Berne, of course, pioneered in the use of client stories as road maps of the future. Berne, however, did not take as directive a role in re-fashioning stories, leaving this area to the client.
By reviewing Shep’s work, I realized that the story, as presented by the therapist, in conjunction with the client, had to be enriching, liberating, possible, realistic, and energizing. It is an option for the client, not a command.
Getting too far away from the client’s current conception of their life and their world means running a high level of risk that the client will elect to reject the option the story presents.
Erring the other way, giving the client a more limited option, runs the risk that the client will see the story as a limit and will encourage self-defeating behavior.
There is a danger in the use of myth or story, in this manner. Maybe the story is not at all to the liking of the client. Many therapists will not engage in fashioning myths for their clients to live. I felt this way for a period. However, I found that when the stories I preferred were not to the clients liking, they simply resisted the story.
Sometimes the resistance took the form of withdrawal from the therapeutic alliance. Sometimes the alliance continued but the client simply refused to take what I believed was the obvious next step.
In the end, I have come to conclude that both alternatives are entirely reasonable.
The implication I derived from both situations was that the story needed to proceed more slowly and that client feedback of dissatisfaction needed to be attended to very carefully.
The story needs to be a collaborative effort with the therapist weaving the story so that it matches, more and more closely, the will of the client.
There is also, as alluded to above, a danger that one cannot really train people or be trained to perform ‘storying’.
It may be that there is no way to codify and methodologize what someone like Shep did. However, there is a far more important danger.
That danger is that we will impose, uncritically, the stories we communicate to our clients when we do not even know we are doing this.
The stories that present the greatest dangers are not the ones that we thoughtfully create, but the ones that we thoughtlessly create in partnership with our clients.
Our unchallenged assumptions about the nature of life, therapy, and relationship with clients, ontology and evolution may all have far greater detrimental impact then we realize. Intentionally creating healing myths may be a conscious way to counteract the negative effects of our unconscious beliefs.
©Thomas Cox RN, BA, BSN, MS, MSW Clinical Member APMHA
Doctoral Student -Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing
Registered Nurse – VCU Health Systems
Principal – Green Trees Consulting
4600 Bunn Avenue
Richmond, VA 23231
For questions or a list of referenced materials, write to Thomas Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org