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Frederick Perls: A Son's Reflections


In celebration of the centennial of the birth of Frederick Perls, The Gestalt Journal invited his son Stephen, to address our Fifteenth Annual Conference on the Theory and Practice of Gestalt Therapy. Dr. Perls delivered this talk on the morning of April 23, 1993, at the Hotel du Parc in Montreal.


Good morning. I'd like to thank you for inviting Rae and myself and giving a us a chance to meet with you. I really didn't expect quite this large a crowd. I'm a little overwhelmed by it all. The program, as I have looked through it, certainly looks very interesting. I'm sure we're going to have a decent amount of time over the next few days to have a chance to discuss Gestalt therapy and to discuss it in its many varieties and its emerging forms.

It would be presumptuous of me to stand here and give you either a scholarly retrospective or a definitive projection of where the movement will go in the future. There are others around here who are much more capable and qualified to do that. What I can most honestly share with you are more personal views of some of the people that were behind the development of Gestalt therapy. I assume you are probably most interested about my relationship with Fritz. Otherwise, why be here?

Yes, I am the son of Fritz and Laura Perls. I have no choice in that. That's the way it worked out. First I'll give you a little bit of background and then share some reactions. I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1935. The story from my mother is of Fritz's objection to having me. It's probably amazing that I'm here. When Fritz found out that Laura was pregnant with me, he said she should have an abortion. In 1935 that wasn't too common, but there already was one child, my older sister, Renate, and I guess Fritz thought that was enough maybe even one too many. Laura said no. She apparently had had an abortion earlier in Holland and she said she was not going to have a second one and that if Fritz did not want to have this child she did and she would raise the child. He said, "Well, if that's the way you feel about it." In essence, "It's all yours." And that's basically the way it was as the years went on.

My early years were rather ordinary upper middle class and suburban. Despite any mystique that may surround my parents' life as an avant garde couple, mine wasn't a particularly unique childhood. I played and I did the things a lot of kids do. We had a large yard. I climbed trees. I don't remember much about the first five years. I think in the first house we lived in there was a swimming pool that was the first I don't remember this, but I've read about it it was the first house of the Bauhaus design in South Africa. It was a delightful contemporary house. So I had fun living there.

What do I remember? A few things. In 1942 Fritz went into the South African army where he functioned for four and a half years as an army psychiatrist. I always heard him talk about the strangeness of war because in World War I he fought with the Germans against the British and other Allied forces, and then in World War II he fought against the Germans. You know, it's crazy. But he did what he had to do and during the Second World War he did not get sent to the front line. He was a psychiatrist and so they sent him off to the local hospital in Pretoria which was only about thirty-five miles away from Johannesburg where he spent his four and a half years. I remember something about the buttons on his lapels that signified his promotion to captain. That promotion was an impressive experience and is still burned in my brain.

What else do I remember about those early years? Occasional car drives on vacation. He would return from the service for a weekend and we would go through different nature preserves, state parks, and national parks. I remember going to Umshlanga Rocks in South Africa, a beautiful site. I remember my father driving the car. I remember looking out the window. I don't have any memories of any conversations with him. We didn't play games. We didn't sing on the car trips as Rae and I have done with our children as we've traveled throughout the United States.

It didn't really matter if he came back or not because he didn't spend much time with me anyway. I do remember one little incident. He was working on Ego, Hunger, and Aggression. It was probably in 1942 or somewhere around there.

[A baby in the audience cries out.] That's how I've felt about it sometimes, too. [Audience laughs.]

He needed some stick figures to demonstrate a point about balance, about centering, and so he couldn't figure out how to draw his stick figures. He got a little shovel for me and I bent down and stood in that position for about 10 minutes as he drew his little stick figure. So my claim to fame as a child was that I was in the book as a stick figure holding a shovel. At that point in time it was one of the few times he had a need for me. It wasn't much of a need, but it was still important to me.

In 1946 Fritz left for Canada and then, finally, New York. After he left South Africa I spent some vacations at a tenting-out camp on the beaches of Mozambique. I was there for about four weeks and then six months later tented out in the mountains near Capetown. South Africa was on the English system and we had kind of long Christmas vacations of about four weeks and then briefer summer vacations as contrasted to the United States. Vacations were about six weeks and it was delightful staying in tents. There were tents that held about twelve people. It was a challenging experience and a growing experience. I remember those very fondly and warmly even though there were a variety of bugs roaming around and roving around the sleeping bags.

Most of what I know about Fritz from my first ten years I've read in books written about him. Laura, though, was around the house more. She worked at home. I don't recall anything about mealtimes with my sister or parents. Most people remember eating dinner together as a family, or not eating dinner together. I just don't remember much of anything. I have very limited visual images of the dining area. I do recall the appearance of my own room and my parents' offices sometime during those first ten years.

I went to public school. I played a lot of soccer and cricket, as one does in South Africa. I had a lot of friends. I spent a lot of time with my neighborhood buddies. We played all kinds of games as I was growing up. Played war, played good guys/bad guys, climbed rocks, and played cowboys and Indians even in South Africa we played cowboys and Indians. I remember Saturday afternoon, just as in the United States, was the big time to go to the movies. We saw a serial and saw a Western of some sort. It cost us each about sixpence which wasn't very much at that time.

It seems to me that I grew up like Topsy. Laura has told me I was attached to our houseman, John. I did hang around him when I was little. I remember hauling stuff and digging in the garden and talking with him. I was told that he was quiet, solid, and very responsible adjectives often used to describe me.

We came to the United States in 1947, a year after Fritz arrived. Once we were settled in New York I attended Downtown Community School, a small school in Greenwich Village. My parents were both working at home, seeing patients, and talking with each other about therapy issues. Fritz would write. Sometimes he would get together and talk with Paul Goodman or Ralph Hefferline and some others. I don't remember being included in any particular way. They would get together around the table, have some coffee and chat with each other. Or they would go up to their office and chat some more.

Seldom did all four members of our family ever eat together. I remember eating alone and sometimes with my sister, Renate. By 1949 we'd moved from an apartment to a larger brownstone house on Seventy-sixth Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. By that time, after two years in this country, my parents were doing fairly well and were able to purchase the house as well as hire somebody to do the cooking. At least I ate well. The houseperson cooked about four nights a week, Laura cooked some, and I cooked some.

Many evenings there were groups. When there were groups I went up to my room. They did their thing so I really didn't know what was going on other than "Shh, be quiet, don't bother us." I didn't know what actually went on in groups. I knew that my parents helped people with problems. I heard them talk about what they were doing. They seemed excited and interested in it. I didn't have any background to comprehend what they were actually talking about. They didn't really explain much to me or include me in any particular way. I was just there. They only seemed to talk about what they were doing with the patients or other professionals. Some people who came to talk with them were nice to me, they were friendly. People like Elliott Shapiro, who was one of the early people who became part of the New York institute. He chatted with me quite often. Paul Weisz, a very personable individual, would catch me as I was coming back from school. After my first year at Downtown Community School I went on and finished my eighth through twelfth grades at New Lincoln, which is a small private school in Manhattan. Paul and I would chat about the weather. Unlike Isadore From, who would nod, go up to his office space in the apartment, and ignore me. Paul Weisz's wife, Lottie, also was quite pleasant. Basically, I was ignored and felt discounted.

The first summer in the United States we went to Provincetown [Cape Cod] as a family and that was fun. There was a lot of swimming and a lot of outings. The following summer I went with my mother to Provincetown and again it was enjoyable. After I was thirteen years of age Laura arranged for me to spend the summers away at camp. I went to a delightful camp down near Atlanta, Georgia, that was run by the principal of New Lincoln School. I had wonderful experience canoeing up and down the Chattahoochee River.

From 1948 through 1954 when, I was at New Lincoln during my high school years, I was aware that my parents were not happy with Freud's ideas. I'm sure they had been unhappy with him for a long time, but I became aware of it at that point in time. I wasn't really sure what those ideas were, but I heard them being very critical. They talked about writing, about teaching and about training people to do therapy differently. They didn't talk or teach me about any of it. So I continued to play soccer, was active in school, saw my friends, and stayed some weekends at my friends' house. Soccer became a passion for me. One of my little claims to fame I made the New York City All Star soccer team for people who participate in private school games. Back in 1953 there weren't that many people playing soccer but I still felt it was an honor. One of my major resentments about the family was that they couldn't care less. None of them ever saw me play a soccer game.

I visited with my friends, or more often went to my friends' houses or apartments because in our apartment or house we had to be quiet. Groups were in session, or therapy was going on.

It was in my adolescence that it became clear to me that Fritz's absence from my life was not about the war or the army, but about his focus on his own life. He was apart from me because he was most involved and interested with his colleagues and friendships elsewhere. As I said earlier, he stated from the beginning that he was interested in other issues and didn't want another child and that's the way it was.

After high school I went away to Antioch College, where I got my bachelor's degree. And Fritz began his travels to train people in Gestalt therapy. Sometimes when I came home for vacations Fritz was there, sometimes he wasn't there. I never knew when to expect him. I knew Laura would be there. I caught on around then that being an artist or a musician or a therapist would rate highly with them, and I was clear that I was not going to do any of those things. I tried to learn how to play the violin when I was about six. I've a very good ear and I hated the sound that I made. I couldn't connect the two having my mechanical dexterity do what I thought my ear said it should do, so I gave up the violin. I do love music, however. I listen to music a lot. I've done a lot of singing with choruses. I used to sing in the Interracial Choir in New York City and my college choir at Antioch and sang in Fiddler on the Roof with Rae in the Civic Light Opera in Albuquerque. Having it be a focus of my professional life is not what I wanted for me.

Being a therapist was the only thing I think my parents really valued so I knew somewhere that maybe I should be a therapist, that maybe I might gain some respect, but I wasn't clear about that at the time. What I really thought I wanted to do was go to Tufts and become a Physical Education major. They had a good program at Tufts and I did apply there but the more I thought about it, I thought, "No, that sounds like too much rebellion. Let's just go to Antioch and see what happens." And the first year or so I thought about being a sociology major, but as time went on I thought, "No, that's really not what I want either." Antioch has a work-study program and my first job was at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where I was a psychometrist at the age of nineteen. They taught me how to give Wechslers and Stanford-Binets. I functioned in this more technical capacity as a psychologist, and I was good. I learned how to do it very quickly, and I thought, "Well, it's not so bad." That was one of the influencing factors in deciding to become a psychology major. But still, at that point in time, I didn't plan on being a therapist.

At that time no one at Antioch knew anything about Gestalt therapy. It wasn't until 1956 when Fritz was conducting a training seminar at Dayton State Hospital that he invited me to observe and participate. That was a big first for me. It wasn't Gestalt therapy being talked about by my parents. For the first time, I saw it in action. Fritz did some superb bits of work both with demonstration patients and with some of the staff. I was quite eager to attend since Fritz had never before reached out to me by inviting me to do anything with him. This time he did invite me to come and see him. He didn't hear me sing. He didn't see me play soccer. He didn't attend my high school graduation. So I had the feeling he didn't really know me. It felt good to be invited to go see him. That experience gave me a clue to what he was really doing.

Then I began to take some clinical psychology courses and gain some understanding theoretically about how Gestalt therapy fit into the development, or the developmental evolution, of post-Freudian psychotherapy.

Then Rae appeared on the scene at Antioch College and both parents, Fritz and Laura, took a bit more notice of me. They did because Rae had attended the University of Chicago as early entrant at fifteen years of age. Rae was smart enough for their tastes, compared to my earlier girlfriends, who didn't impress them one way or the other. Also, it was clear that she was going to do group work as a social worker. Rae looked more like a future Gestalt therapist than my sister or me. So, the Perls's parental interest perked up.

As the years went by, Rae's graduate education and her invitations to Fritz stimulated a periodic interest on his part to come and see us, check out his grandkids, and mentor Rae. This may not be an accurate term, but he played a kind of gestalten Aristotelian guru in our living room. He would come and visit, and talk, and explore. Unlike Laura, who visited us by recalling her past, Fritz made every effort to do intense short-term training in the guise of fatherly visits.

With two budding psychologists with the Perls name, Fritz entered a brief period wherein he frantically attempted to influence us professionally although from a distance. He would invite us to watch him. These command performances did not sit well with us and we declined several invitations to be part of his audiences. When Rae would tell him of the advanced training she was involved in, he brushed it aside and pressed for participation in his training groups. We both continued to decline that type of contact with him. Our last few years with him were altogether a push-pull experience. He would say: "Come and watch me perform." And I would say I didn't say it as straight as I've learned to do now "Why should I come and see you? You didn't come see me." I think those were a lot of the dynamics going on at the time. He did his thing and I did my thing. I think we both lost out quite a bit.

Actually, Fritz had more contact with Rae than with me. He didn't have the concept of family dynamics as most of us do now. He had a blind spot when it came to interfamily relations. I never emerged for him as a figure clearly separate from my sister and mother until I was about thirty. There was much he could have shared with me if he would have thought it worthwhile sooner in his life. There was much I could have learned from him if I would have asked something of him. I wouldn't ask. He wouldn't offer. We didn't connect.

I'm not painting you a hero's picture to celebrate his hundredth birthday. I am suggesting that he be honored for his extraordinary professional gifts. He, more than anyone I've ever known, would want to cut through any bullshit about what a great man he was. He did what he wanted to do and he did that extremely well. That is, basically, it.

[Applause.]

I would like be available for any kinds of questions, reactions, comments. I'll be as straight as I can with my answers. I thought, "What questions have I been asked over my many years? What was it like to be the son of Fritz Perls?" Or, "what is it like to be the son of a famous person?" I've been asked that hundreds of times, and I give the same answer: As I was growing up I didn't know what it was like to be the son of a famous person because he wasn't famous when I was growing up. I was in my thirties when he really developed his strong reputation during the Esalen years in the mid and late sixties.

MAN: You said that you resisted Fritz's attempt to train you, and so I'm curious as to what training you did have and what kind of work that you do.

SP: I did get my bachelor's degree in psychology at Antioch as I mentioned, and then went on to the University of Chicago, where I worked in the ed-psych department and got a master's degree in educational psychology. I worked with Herb Thelen, who became my major mentor. Some of you may know of Herb, some of you may not. He was not a psychotherapist but a group dynamicist, one of the founders of NTL, the National Training Laboratory. He stimulated my interest in working in groups. I then went on to the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, and got my doctorate there in the counseling psych program a kind of a generic counseling degree.

I'll go back one step. I didn't get my doctorate at the University of Chicago and the reason was one person not Herb Thelen, who was a delightful and wonderful person. The reason I didn't get my doctorate at the University of Chicago was Bruno Bettelheim. Some of you have heard and read about Bruno in the last few years, and he was my major nemesis. I had troubles with psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Hearing from my parents how inadequate, inappropriate, and dumb aspects of psychoanalytic theory were probably influenced my inability to really absorb it and regurgitate it back at the doctorate comps time. Because I did not perform satisfactorily for Bruno, he was very influential in not moving me on to doctoral status.

So I moved on to the University of Oregon and got my degree there very quickly. As we had two children who both had asthmatic allergic problems, we decided that we'd move to the Southwest. We moved to Albuquerque and I took a position as a staff psychologist at Lovelace Clinic. Lovelace Clinic is kind of a mini-Mayo Clinic of the Southwest, and I was a rehab psychologist and the person who hired me was Larry Bloomberg, who is a Gestalt therapist. Some of you may know Larry Bloomberg. He was the chief psychologist at Lovelace Clinic, so there was a Gestalt therapy connection. For those of you who don't know who he is, he was trained and did a lot of his therapy with Laura and then moved out to Albuquerque for a few years. He then left Albuquerque for Europe and now runs his own institute in Italy. He was my supervisor for my first two years of postdoctoral experience, and so I had a strongly Gestalt therapy-oriented supervisor. I learned to do couples therapy and learned to do group therapy, all within the context of a Gestalt framework. When Larry moved on, I decided I had enough of Lovelace Clinic and meeting with physicians who see a need to refer to psychologists.

A position opened up at the Albuquerque Women's Job Corps Center, a 400 person center for women between the ages of 16 and 21 who came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I was director of the counseling program and the residential living program, supervising six counselors and thirty houseparents. I was involved in program development, some psychological evaluations, and some counseling. I did that for three years. It was intense, particularly on weekends, when the men's Jobs Corps center, which was about 50 miles out of town, would bring three busloads of guys, dump them at our front door, and say (this was Friday evening), "We'll pick you up Sunday evening." I had to deal with the residual issues of a lot of young men roaming around trying to seduce some of our women corps members, the fights, and all the rest of it.

After a few years I decided to leave and got a position in the department of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico developing a human services program. Director of Human Services Program means I developed an associate of arts degree program, probably one of only two such programs in the United States in which an A.A. degree is offered through a department of psychiatry. So I've trained many people to function as mental health technicians, social service aides, etc. I teach classes on family dynamics, on interviewing techniques, on group dynamics to those people.

Slowly, but surely, I became more interested in doing group therapy and not as interested in group research as I was at the University of Chicago. Basically, I've developed what I feel is a strong interest and level of expertise as a group therapist. I am a fellow of the American Group Psychotherapy Association. I've been involved with them for over twenty years. I identify with that organization more than other organization. I don't call myself a Gestalt therapist. I have not been through any formal institute training. I have done many brief workshops with Erving and Miriam Polster, with Jim Simkin, Irma Lee Sheperd, and with some other folks who aren't as strongly identified with the Gestalt movement per se but are still oriented in that direction people like Bob Goulding and John O'Hearn. I believe I've had a respectable amount of training but don't consider myself the definitive Gestalt therapist. If I gave myself a name and I hate labels because I think I'm more of an eclectic therapist I guess I'd be more of an experiential systems-oriented therapist.

MAN: I was very moved by your talk, Steven. It was a story similar to a lot of men's stories, and certainly similar to my relationship with my father. I work with men, and I know in my own work with my father this is kind of a belief that I've accumulated over time: I couldn't really understand my father without going back to understand his father. I don't know anything about your father's father. I wonder if that comes into play at all? Did you have contact with your grandparents?

SP: My grandmother came from Germany to visit us in South Africa in 1938, when I was three. My parents wanted her to stay there. She insisted she was going back to her country, that's where she lived. She went back and wound up in a concentration camp. None of the grandparents survived and I never met them. I don't remember my folks talking much about them at all.

My grandfather on my dad's side was the basic, what was he? cab driver? Anyway he was certainly not in the field not a professional. On my mother's side they were jewelers very successful jewelers.

MAN: I have two responses in particular to your talk. One is that I think every theory has a strong autobiographical component no matter how scientific or metaphysical or whatever. Hearing you talk about your relationship with Fritz makes me understand, I think a bit more deeply, why in its early formation Gestalt therapy just couldn't really address the issue of intimacy with any soul and why it so much celebrated the strong individual but not the community and not the connection. And it also, I think, shows why it's so important that a theory be subject to development and to revision by many people and not just be the outgrowth of some one person.

SP: I agree with you. You stated it well. That's why he did not do any couples work. I don't think he knew how to relate to somebody on an equal basis.

WOMAN: Following on the last comment, I wondered if you would be willing to comment on how you see Gestalt theory and practice limited by some of the personal limitations of your father.

SP: I think that the statement that was just made addresses that issue. Fritz was certainly, as was Laura, heavy into making contact but it seemed to be contact of a certain sort. As I see myself as being more of an experiential systems-oriented person, I really do try to pay attention to the wide range of possibilities to family issues, to intrapersonal/personal community issues, etc. I'm quite concerned about community. I've been working, as part of the University of New Mexico, in the community mental health center for the last fifteen or twenty years doing therapy on inpatient units as well as outpatient work. And I think early Gestalt therapy theory has a strong limitation from that perspective.

I see that we're out of time. Thank you all very much

[Applause]