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Taylor Stoehr, "Paul Goodman and Gestalt Therapy"

Here Now Next: Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt

Taylor Stoehr

Reviewed by William Hoynes

The libertarian impetus in modern times has often
taken somewhat peculiar ways of resisting and
countering domination and exploitation.
Psychotherapies provide some interesting examples,
often with striking parallels to earlier heresies
within mainstream religious contexts. Among the
dominant psychologies in mid-twentieth century America
were various behavior controls, usually of reductive
positivist cast and medical dressing, in which
authority figures psychomedically defined and
manipulatively treated "abnormalities" and other
deviations which included much primarily tabooed and
dissident. Leaving aside therapists as associate
jailers for psychiatric wards and military and other
totalitarian institutions, and "crisis" coping and
more overt psychopathologies which therapists mostly
tried to restrain, they were, in the language of half
a century ago, insistently enforcing "conformity" by
inculcating "adjustment." Therapy was often lessons in
subordination.The issues of freedom and equality and difference were
somewhat more complicated in the concurrent spread of
postFreud psychoanalysis. Early on, dissidence had
developed within the Freudian medical model, ornately
controlled mentalverbal historical reconstruction, and
social conservatism. Revisionist Freudians (such as
Eric Fromm and Karen Horney) liberally emphasized some
repressive social context but rather less questioned
therapeutic regressions and authority. In contrast,
Wilhelm Reich provided a crucial radical view. In
considerably breaking with Freud, early Reich (and
such libertarian schooling followers as A. S. Neill)
insisted on more immediate physical responsiveness,
including that of the sexual body in defiance of
social controls, as with those of submissive work and
of chastity for the young. Radical therapy was often
lessons in sexual revolution.

Later, others took the psychological revolution in
other directions (such as the apocalyptic culture
Freudianism of Norman O. Brown and the attempted
MarxFreud dialectical fusion of Herbert Marcuse, but
these were not therapies). Even Reich went away from
socially responsive biotherapy and sexualsocial
liberation to a mad scientism of maximizing cosmic
"orgones" to cure everything from impotency to cancer.
The libertarian impetus went elsewhere.

Part of my sense of the history here arises from the
personal. While I was never in any psychotherapy
(unless one would include marital decades with a
perennial Freudian analyst and devotee), I studied a
number of Reicheans. The late anarchopacifist
sociologist Donald Calhoun served as an early mentor.
Until he returned home after a stay with Reich I had
been house sitting for the Calhouns for the summer
with a halfsize telephone booth strapped to the roof
of his car. While I didn't argue about my girlfriend
sitting naked in the "orgone box" to enhance sexual
vitality, I found both the therapy and the theory
dubious. (A current friend, the acute Reichean
commentator Arthur Efron, writes me that I still do
not properly understand "sexual body" theory.)

This may suggest a bit of context for my sense of
Taylor Stoehr's study, subtitled "Paul Goodman and the
Origins of Gestalt Therapy." Goodman, a marginal New
York literary intellectual, had become an avowed
anarchist in the 1940s (partly the influence of
wartime anarchopacifists, his readings in the
Kropotkinesque and other directdemocracy traditions,
and perhaps some oneupping of culturally dominant New
York Freudian leftists). Intellectually, Goodman
sought to combine anarchist ideas with partly
Reicheanized Freud. Personally, Goodman was in
trouble, including firings from teaching jobs for
compulsive, and often semipublic, sexual pursuit of
boys and girls. He went into therapy with a Reichean
(Alexander Lowen), then with a therapist (Lore Perls)
from a European combination of Freudian analysis and
gestalt psychology of perception. Goodman turned his
obsessive selftherapy into an earnest career,
including payment to write up emigre psychoanalyst
Frederick Perls' ideas. Goodman expansively took them
over in coauthoring Gestalt Therapy (1951), then
himself became a more or less paid nonmedical
therapist for about a decade, until taking on in the
1960s a notable public role as a libertarian social
critictherapist and popular writer. Goodman became the
best known anarchism advocate of his generation.

Stoehr, Goodman's literary executor, authorized
biographer, and editor of many volumes of his
writings, shows a near total devotion to his subject,
whom he treats as "genius" and "sage." Goodman's
biways went beyond pedophilia to include pedantic
humanism and bohemian defiance, highart philosophizing
and jargonish and trite writing, farout anarchism and
antique moralism. Stoehr claims that they cohered in a
mutual aid mission of psychosocial therapeutics. For
"Goodman's life was full of contradictions and
unlikely mixtures which, from the right distance, can
seem whole and of a piece." But the whole, really an
endless selftherapy and desperate search for public
success, can also be viewed, as later famous
therapeutic guru and sometime colleague Fritz Perls
said, as "pathetic." To my eye, Goodmanism serves as a
suggestive libertarianism amidst an anxious historical
and personal mess.

While Stoehr has considerably researched his material,
and attempts an even handed distance on Perls and
others, he primarily produces a supportive biography
of Goodman and not a ranging analysis of gestalt
therapy or even of the text of Gestalt Therapy (Part
Two was largely Goodman's). To the more distanced
reader, Goodman's psychological writings often seem
crude and an awkwardly written jumble but with
interesting libertarian arguments for physical
responsiveness and immediacy against the "neurosis of
normalcy" and a damaging social order. Stoehr
discusses all sorts of other Goodman writings, which
often unintentionally confirm the lack of
psychological subtlety. He also but poignantly
narrates Goodman's responses to the illness of his
daughter and the mortal accident to his son, though
physical disease and death remain pretty much outside
the therapy and theory of gestalt. Perhaps they can
more distantly be seen as of a piece with Goodman's
final emphasis on psychotherapy as his religion, with
its exercises as "little prayers." Probably less
cultishly damaging than some other minor heresies.

Still, Stoehr raises some interesting points about
Goodman's fusion of anarchist ideas with
psychotherapy. The goal was neither conformist
adjustment nor labyrinthine etiology of neurosis nor
exaggerated curative claims, but change toward
"healthy selfregulation," assuming a positive natural
order. The therapist was not to be medical authority
or enigmatic magician but responsive friend, an equal,
candid unto conflict. The contradictions between being
a paid professional and an honest friend do not get
considered by the sage or his disciple. In his
lateSixties ideologizing as a "conservative
anarchist," Goodman incoherently exalted
"professionals" and other antiegalitarian
institutions. This was not only a nearcomical
selfaggrandizement for one essentially an inspired
amateur in several fields, including psychotherapy,
but also an anxiously desperate attempt to find an
ethical class free and distinct from the inhumanly
dominating system. He ignored his own intermittent
awareness that specialist whoring can rarely be all
that autonomous.

But Goodman was apt on some of the other "opposed
claims of the social order and the individual
organism." These included freeing up sex and anger and
range of possibilities, recognizing conflicts as real
and immediatethe Here Now Next of Stoehr's title. He
wanted to support efforts at radically different ways
of the individual relating to his social environment.
(Mostly male since all through fatherless Goodman,
lifelong much indulged by women, runs a denigrating
view of the female.) Therapy should physically and
expressively unblock, pointing towards greater
autonomy, yet also immediate community.

It is hard to know the quality of Goodman as
practicing therapist (the reports of sessions I heard
emphasize, rather more than Stoehr's, the therapist's
patronizing egotism and aggressive homosexuality,
though I have no way of knowing how representative
they were). Certainly much was anxiously rebellious in
its arbitrary time and place. From other sources than
Stoehr's (including an evening of attempted talk with
each eccentric egotist) I suspect that the theatrical
Perls was the more persuasive, Goodman the more
positively libertarian. Perhaps that is not a crucial
matter, except for the East/West coteries in the
therapy movementsome blandly charted by Stoehrsince
more generally manipulative authority considerably
dissolved in the increasing emphasis on the communal
interactions of group therapy. Which may displace the
issues to where the groups were coming from Goodman's
were mostly bohemian friends and disciplesand the lack
of other social purpose. Therapy as the selfdefining
totality, as itself "a way of life," may be a
vitiating circle and group entrapment. Even when not
just another American marketing strategy, therapeutic
community must be artificial, transitory, and

Goodman, of course, rather fortuitously went on to
something else in his role as dissident social critic
and prolific published writer until his death in 1972.
He probably contributed an historically good emphasis
upon a libertarian attitude towards therapy, including
some autonomy from authority, selfregulation, sexual
responsiveness, and facetoface community. An anarchist
among the doctoring controllers.

I have some reluctance about making a wholesale
judgement on a half century of psychotherapies, now
professionally and culticly diverse, and perhaps in
disenchanted decline. No doubt therapies have provided
solace to many, and perhaps the more libertarian
oriented have sometimes done something more freeing.
Still, it seems widely evident that even the better
ones amongst a lot of manipulative fraud poorly
substitute for good friends and lovers, responsive and
free social activities, and more realistic and
appropriate communities. That certainly was part of
Goodman's emphasis, almost in spite of the context of
humorless personal messiness, syncretistic
psychologies, and insufficient social radicalism. In
the perspective of one and two generations, Goodman's
social psychology hardly seems sufficient response to
the pervasive anxieties of a viciously competitive and
alienating order and the horrendous dominations of an
overpopulated and overdeveloped technocracy. But
Goodman's gestaltism may retain some value as
provocation toward socially critical therapies.

Generally, I suggest, with Goodman as rather mixed
illustration, psychotherapies as institutions should
be resisted, their practices and prayers undercut with
skeptical mockery, their professionalization scorned,
their ideologies treated as often still part of a
system of domination and subordination. If there are
libertarian therapies, this is what countering they
are essentially doing. Therapy should then be