Very early in the morning of December 9th, 2009, I received a call in my hotel room. My long time colleague and mentor, Jeffrey Zeig was on the other end.
“May I ask you a favor?” he said.
“Of course,” I instantly replied, completely unaware of what was coming.
“Tom Szasz is caught in a snow storm and hasn’t been able to get out of New York, do you think you could fill in for him? He was scheduled as a discussant for a presentation today being given by Otto Kernberg.”
Otto Kernberg? I thought to myself. The Otto Kernberg? The psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Cornell? The author of…
“Oh my,” I replied, without thinking.
“It’s scheduled for around 4 this afternoon in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena.”
The big room?! I instantly thought, my panic rising.
“Oh my,” I once again replied, and then after a brief pause, answered, “Sure.”
“Thanks so very, very much Scott,” Jeff said, “you are a life saver.”
With that, I hung up the phone. Sitting on the bed, I thought about Tom Szasz. We’d met for the first time four years earlier at the same conference, The 2005 Evolution of Psychotherapy. That’s when the photo of the two of us together was taken. He was sitting at a table, eating breakfast alone, in the executive lounge at the conference hotel. All the other places were occupied. Of course, I knew who he was. I’d read all of his books, a number more than once. I’d also been to a number of presentations he’d given over the years. Whether one agreed with his positions or not, you had to be awed by his careful, clear, and deliberate thinking. On more than one occasion I’d seen him ensnare and then dispatch detractors with ease.
When I asked if I could sit at this table, he was instantly friendly. “But of course,” he replied, his Hungarian accent immediately familiar to me. For the next half hour, we talked, although not exclusively, mostly about the current state of the field of mental health. I was struck by how many questions he asked me: where I was from, what I did, and especially about my work on top performing therapists. Thereafter, we met every morning for breakfast. It is a memory I cherish.
Once more, I find myself thinking about Dr. Szasz, who passed away at the age of 92 earlier this month. He authored over 30 books and 1000 articles. As a lifelong libertarian, he argued consistently against what he considered instrusions on the freedom and dignity of individuals treated in the mental health system. His work was often misunderstood and mischaracterized by people in and out of the profession, including the frequent association of his work with the anti-psychiatry movement (a movement he ridiculed, by the way, labelling it “quackery squared”).
For these, and many other reasons, personal and professional, I will miss him. If you are not familiar with his work and thinking, the video below will give you a good introduction. I promise you will be moved.
One final note. The presentation by Otto Kernberg and my response certainly generated some fireworks (you can listen by clicking: Kernberg). Given the short notice, tt had not been possible for to prepare in any meaningful way. I did not have a chance to read the speech prior to hearing it. As I listened, I took careful notes, and then, with Dr. Szasz in mind, did my level best to develop a thougtful, rational response based on my core values. I pointed to recent research–an area I did know something about–which found Kernberg’s approach less effective than alternative approaches. Needless to say, this led to a demand by Dr. Kernberg to respond. The resulting back and forth between the two of us was exhilirating. I hope Dr. Szasz would have been proud.