An Autobiography

Frederick Perls

  • I was born in Berlin in 1893. My mother was loving and ambitious. My father loved the arts, but hated most other things. He hated my mother - though he loved other women. He was also a grand master in the freemasons. He was both heavy and gay. Both of them were very friendly in public. Confusing.

  • Else, Margariet and Frederick Perls, Germany, 1900

    Else, Margariet and Frederick Perls, Germany, 1900

  • In 1903, I started at elementary school. They said I was a bright boy, though I never did so well on homework. I tested for the high school; however, I had never heard of fractions and was completely stumped by the exam. Failure came as a real shock. Confusing.

  • In 1910 therefore, I started at the gymnasium. My gymnasium was unloving, and the teachers were cruel. I hated school and lost my "brightness". I got told off for masturbating, but couldn't get my head around the idea of forbidden sex. The psychiatrist prescribed bromides and exercise. I didn't believe him though; this helper was no help. Confusing.

  • The next year, I was finding my world. I fell in love, in fact. I spent my time with poetry, philosophy and - most importantly - the theater. Oh, I wished Max Reinhardt, the founder of modern theater, had been there to listen to me! I wanted to make the stage real, turn the world into a stage. Three dimensions, canvas, painted props. What was reality?

  • In 1913, I started at college. My uncle, Herman Staub, was the greatest lawyer in Germany, but I didn't want to follow in his footsteps. What I really wanted to study was psychology. But everyone said that was nonsense, and - actually - I agreed. Psychology was just about Wundt and learning nonsense syllables. Confusing.

  • But there was Freud. He made a lot of sense, and understood my sex problem. I thought studying medicine might be a good idea-at least this would open the door to philosophy and physiology. I could see possibilities. Life was less confusing.

  • The next year, of course, the world exploded. My life in the trenches was agony. I became desensitized. Living was horror, but dying was horror. Confusing.

  • I survived however, and in 1918, after the war, I became rebelliously involved in politics. Very confused.

  • By 1921, I had become "M.D. Restless". I didn't want to settle. My doctor uncle ridiculed the idea of me wanting to cure an illness by talking. But restless souls (like you, me, everyone) need guidance. I approached psychiatry in a fumbling way with drugs, electro-things, hypnosis, and talking. Confusing.

  • The following year, I started afresh. It was most exciting. "We, we", I was enlarging my non-family world. "We" were bohemians, away from the beaten track - actors, painters, writers - creating a new world. Bauhaus, Brucke, Dadaism, this new "matter-of-factness" movement. I discovered a guru, S. Friedlander (Chapter One: Creative indifference). I discovered the zero point as a center with nothingness stretching to opposite "somethings". It was the first time I had had a solid bearing. I was groping. And less confused.

  • Frederick Perls, Berlin, 1923

    Frederick Perls, Berlin, 1923

  • In 1925, I started seven years of useless couch life. I felt stupid. Finally, Wilhelm Reich, then still sane, began to make some sense. Also, there was Karen Horney, whom I loved. The rest of them I considered opinionated imitators, misspelling Freud's good intentions. Confusing.

  • A year later, I discovered Kurt Goldstein, the Frankfurt neurologist. He was a genius neuro-psychiatrist, and came up with the "organism-as-a-whole" concept. He was Gestalt-oriented. He made a lot of sense, but I resisted him, still involved with and loyal to the Freudians. Confusing.

  • In 1927, I went to Frankfurt, then Vienna, then Berlin, involved with more analysis, more supervision. Fenichel, Deutsch, Hitschwan, Happel, etc. I became a real wisdom-shitter. Confused others.

  • Frederick and Laura Perls - in a park outside Berlin shortly after their wedding day, 1930

  • I got married in 1930. Later, I had two children and four grandchildren. But this was all a sideline; I was no square husband. My wife, Laura, was involved in the expressive movement - Gindler. There was no integration yet of soma and psyche. Mind-body relationship still confusing.

  • In 1934, I became an early refugee from the Hitler regime. Still deeply involved in orthodox analysis, I went to teach Freud's gospel in South Africa. Still confused.

  • Two years later, I went to Marienbad for a Freudian congress. My first paper was entitled "Oral resistances". It was rejected: "Resistances are always anal" (!) I was resentful. This was my first break with the orthodox ones. I was in a whirlwind of confusion, but a center of sureness had been born: namely, "I know better". What? Could I really know better than the Gods? Yes, yes, yes! I could see; they were half-blind. Not as blind as the materialists and the spiritualists, but they too had prejudices-galore. Perhaps one day, I thought, I would find the truth. Yes, what a pompous thought; the truth!

  • In 1937, I was back in South Africa, and struggling to get out of the quicksand of free associations. I fell back on Goldstein's organism-as-a-whole approach, but it was still too narrow. Our Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, seemed to have the answer: ecology, "organism-as-a-whole-embedded-in-environment". This became the Unit. The objective-subjective identity was born. Freud's catharsis notion was the emerging Gestalt. Not in the Unconscious, but right on the surface. The obvious had been put on the throne. The neurotic is a person who is blind to the obvious.

  • By 1940, I was teaching myself touch-typing, slowly getting bored. Why not let thoughts flow onto sheets of paper? In doing so, I was discovering idea after idea. Chapter after chapter was forming itself; concepts I had assimilated, objections I had discarded. A new approach to man in his health and plight emerged. I ceased to be an analyst. I understood aggression not as a mystical energy born out of Thanatos, but as a tool for survival. Concepts such as reflexes (stimulus-response) and instincts as stable properties became obsolete, tumbled down, making room for a new perspective, still in dominance today. The mechanical, causal thinking of the last century had to give way to process, structure, and function: the thinking of an electronic age. The "how" replaced the "why". Perspective and orientation superseded rationalization and guesswork. Even the "I" (and to Freud the Ego is "I", and not a concept of self) became dissolved into identification function (Part II, Chapter 7).

  • In 1941, the book was finished. The question was whether to revise and edit it, or let it stand as it was? In the end, I decided to let it be. It had many faults - my English was clumsy in many places, the examples were badly chosen - but it was "me". My confusion began to lift, but still, often, I was depressed and confused while I was waiting for ideas to emerge clearly and solidly.

  • I realized that the theme of Ego, Hunger, and Aggression must be unacceptable to Freud, for it leads to assimilation. Foreign material becomes a part of the Self and its growth. Freud's Ego idiom is the accumulation of parts: introjections (Part II, Chapter Five and Seven). It was traceable, analyzable. But assimilation is integration. Insufficiently applied aggression at the input stage (hunger) and de-structuring (destroying, grinding down, preparing for making one's own) of external mental and physical food, prevented the maturation and becoming of the "self". The idea of assimilation seemed to undermine Freud's model of the structure of man, mainly the Super-Ego Ego instinct relationship, and his lopsided view of life as the Eros-Thanatos struggle. Psychoanalysis was turning out to be a closed, unchanged and unchangeable system, full of "explanatariness" but missing self-evident understanding. Psychoanalysis, I decided, was an illness that pretended to be a cure. Unsuccessful treatments, from three to over twenty years, far outweighed its scant successes.

  • I was less confused; I began to see. But many problems remained.

  • Reading a newspaper in South Africa, c.1940

    Reading a newspaper in South Africa, c.1940

  • My book was first published in Durban, South Africa the following year. It got good reviews, but not many sales. I showed the book to Maria Bonaparte, a friend of Freud's. Her response: "If you don't believe (!!!) in the libido theory any more, you had better hand in your resignation." Libido theory was a matter of faith? I could hardly trust my ears. But, jeering smugly at that ridiculous, unscientific pronouncement, I accepted the break and fizzled out.

  • I entered the army as a psychiatrist. Psychoanalysis was a white elephant here. Still, psychotherapy had its place. At first, the internists were saying: "behind every neurosis there's a stomach ulcer". But in the end they were saying: "Perls, you're right; it's the neurosis that is behind the ulcer".

  • Frederick Perls in the uniform of the South African Army, 1944

    Frederick Perls in the uniform of the South African Army, 1944

  • In 1946, I was discharged from the army and went to the States. Allen & Unwin published the book, but it was premature again, and did not get much response.

  • In 1950, the awareness theory crystallized itself, and I coined the term "Gestalt Therapy". Design experiments relating to the topology of awareness, to the mix-up of self and world awareness. "Gestalt Therapy", with R. Hefferline and P. Goodman as co-authors, appeared as a book. It was jeered at by the academic Gestalt psychologists, but Gestalt Therapy turned out to be no fly-by-night: sales were increasing year by year.

  • Frederick Perls, New York City, 1955

    Frederick Perls, New York City, 1955

  • By 1960, psychoanalysis was beginning to recede. There were just too many disappointments. A wave of existential psychiatry came over from Europe, and Gestalt Therapy began to gain recognition too. Wilson Van Dusen wrote: "Gestalt Therapy supplements phenomenology by giving it a practical basis."

  • Existential psychiatry, too, turned out to be disappointing: there was too much verbiage and too many concepts.

  • Two years later, I came to a realization: existence, a rose is a rose is a rose. The experienced phenomenon was the ultimate Gestalt! It was not religion-oriented like Buber, Tillich and Marcel; nor language-oriented like Heidegger; nor communist-oriented like Sartre; nor psychoanalytically oriented like Binswinger.

  • But where was the non-verbal?

  • I studied some Zen in Japan, but this too turned out to be disappointing.

  • In 1964, I joined the Esalen Institute. What the Bauhaus was in Germany for the creation of a new style in architecture and the arts, Esalen was as a practical center for the third wave of humanistic psychology.

  • In 1966, Gestalt Therapy is beginning to be recognized all over the States. Have we come to fill the void after psychoanalysis and existentialism? Can we deliver the goods? Are we here to stay?

  • 'Fritz' Perls on his first visit to the Esalen Institute in 1964

    "Fritz" Perls on his first visit to the Esalen Institute in 1964

    The View of the Big Sur Mountains from the stage at the Big Sur Folk Festival held at Esalen in 1967

    The View of the Big Sur Mountains from the stage at the Big Sur Folk Festival held at Esalen in 1967

    Fritz Perls and a performer at the 1967 Big Sur Folk Festival

    "Fritz" Perls and a performer at the 1967 Big Sur Folk Festival

    Taj Mahal and Joan Baez at the Big Sur Folk Festival 'One Hand Clapping'. Esalen Institute - 1967

    Taj Mahal and Joan Baez at the Big Sur Folk Festival "One Hand Clapping". Esalen Institute - 1967

    Fritz in the Esalen Dining Room - 1968

    "Fritz" in the Esalen Dining Room - 1968

    Dressed to kill - Esalen, 1969

    Dressed to kill - Esalen, 1969

    Perls with 'Little Fritz' doll during the last workshop he ever ran. <br>Lexington, Massachusetts - February, 1970

    Perls with "Little Fritz" doll during the last workshop he ever ran.
    Lexington, Massachusetts - February, 1970