Volume 1, 2 (1991)


Volume 1, 2 (1991)


The British Gestalt Journal 1991, Volume 1, 2

Editor - Malcolm Parlett - Bristol
Assistant Editors - Pat Levitsky - London, Judith Hemming - London
Production Editor - Ray Edwards - London
Editorial Consultants - Petrûska Clarkson - London, Marianne Fry - London
Editorial Advisors - Hunter Beaumont - Munich, Germany, Gill Caradoc-Davies - Christchurch, New Zealand, Gilles Delisle - Montreal, Canada, Maria Gilbert - London, John Leary-Joyce - St Albans and London, Flora Meadows - Glasgow, Scotland, Peter Philippson - Manchester, Gary Yontef - Los Angeles, USA

Editorial - Malcolm Parlett

Laura Perls, 1905-1990 - Gerald Kogan

Tight Therapeutic Sequences - Erving Polster 

Reflections on Field Theory - Malcolm Parlett 

Gestalt and Hypnosis - Talia Levine Bar-Yoseph and Nachman Alon

Gestalt Therapy is Changing: Part 1 - From Past to the Present - Petrûska Clarkson

Where in the “Yang” has the “Yin” Gone in Gestalt Therapy? - Ansel L. Woldt and R. Elliott Ingersoll 

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With this second issue, the British Gestalt Journal completes its first year of publication. Those responsible for making this happen - that is, the publishers (the Board of Teaching Members of the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute in the United Kingdom), and the editorial production team, have welcomed the initial reactions of readers and reviewers. We invite further comment now that you have the second issue. Let me also remind you that the future robust health of the British Gestalt Journal rests on its being well fed - new articles, notes, letters etc., all are needed. The Journal is in no nutritional danger but is always hungry, so do not procrastinate.

A new feature appears in this issue with the title "Opinion". This will give members of the Gestalt community an opportunity to express their views on a topic of their choice in a freer format than is afforded elsewhere in the Journal. In future editions, we are open to experimenting further. By establishing a house style, we enable you - the reader - to know roughly what to expect; we do not wish to chop and change too much. But neither do we want to settle into a premature and comfortable rut, with an impermeable boundary towards anything novel or different.

Case Material

Notably missing, among submissions received so far, are case studies and detailed reports of how Gestalt principles and methodology are applied in practice. This is an imbalance we should like to redress. But it is not just a concern for this Journal. The relative lack of direct reporting is a phenomenon worth examining, for the bias in favour of the general/theoretical over the specific/descriptive is reflected in the Gestalt literature at large. For every statement of what is actually done, there are twenty assertions of what ideally could be or ought to be done. It is as if leisurely visits to specific locations, enabling close up examination of Gestalt at work on the ground, are passed over in favour of a guided tour approach - a spin through the shared professional territory with a few examples thrown in for good measure; but not in so much detail as to disturb the progress of the coach tour.

There is an intriguing possibility here, related to a polarity. Readers know full well that many of our number have been drawn to the Gestalt orientation out of excitement in its potential for directness, its immediacy, its humanity, its unstuffy vitality. As a group, therefore, Gestaltists may have leant into this end of the polarity (to use an apt metaphor from Joseph Zinker) and away from the other end, which is often portrayed as heady, boring, indirect, out of touch with feelings. Well, the un-preferred, non-frequented end of any polarity still has influence. Sometimes it is seen as dangerously exciting or is wistfully longed for; sometimes the other pole is disowned altogether (often by being labelled in pejorative terms, as in the above example) yet still gets acted upon covertly. So perhaps, as a community, we carry some latent collective potentiality for academic theorising, and some bookishness and love of playing with ideas that generally have been denied. 

If there is a bias towards general and theoretical treatments of ideas, it is paradoxical in another sense too. In the actual work we do in Gestalt therapy, we encourage the opposite tendency from speculating and theorising. We are more likely to highlight the person's actual experience than her or his description of it; persistently we ask questions inviting specificity, such as "such as?’and we are often as curious about minute details as we are about broad trends. In short, we tend to promote precision, concreteness, vivid description, living the experience: as Erving Polster argues powerfully in this issue, our concern is with "pointedness".

If collectively we stand against "aboutism" in our work, yet appear to indulge in a surfeit of it when we put pen to paper or mouse to screen, a possible middle way might be in the writing of case studies. Yet these are rare, as we have noted. So what is the reluctance, more precisely, in detailing and documenting how we practise?

There seem to be a number of answers. In the case of therapy reports, I imagine that for some professionals the whole notion of writing about what goes on inside the therapy room is anathema. Therapy is intimate, the subject matter is usually painful, intense, and private. To introduce tape-recorders and the apparatus of research would be distracting and invasive; even the intention of "writing it up as a case study" might subtly change the relationship.

Second, confidentiality: there are real difficulties. If you start altering details of a case to preserve anonymity, where do you stop, and at what point does the account turn into fiction (or at any rate "faction")? Also, how practicable would it be to report what happened in, say, a therapy group in such a way that all the persons involved came out of it feeling their situations had been adequately represented?

A third factor is that writing about the intimate complexities and subtle inter-involvements of a therapeutic case is not technically easy. If I am making sense of what has happened, enough to write about it coherently, I am probably already finding this a demanding enterprise ... and then what about my peers? Writing about my practice will expose what I do, or did, (or, worse, what I didn't do but obviously should have done) to the critical scrutiny of others.

Fourth, the bias towards writing one kind of article and not another kind, has also to do for many people with how they have been educationally brought up, with academic introjects: write impersonally, cite data in relation to what is being said, abstract the over-arching themes. By comparison, in most subjects, there has been little academic encouragement for learning the disciplines of data rich narrative accounts featuring complexity and inter-relationships.

These are probably some of the reasons why the BGJ office has not yet received a single submitted case study. I am glad to say that nevertheless, there are several intrepid case study writers reportedly at work. So watch this space.

Writing about Gestalt

However, there are other intriguing questions relating to writing, and it is appropriate that the Journal takes particular interest in these matters. The various hesitations enumerated above about writing case reports, could also apply to other psychotherapy disciplines. So are there difficulties peculiar to Gestalt case studies?

Well, there may be. One way in which Gestalt therapists may have a particular problem is that while some forms of psychotherapy emphasise the interpretive role of the therapist, Gestalt views the relationship between therapist and client as more "horizontal" in nature. In the latter case the question of "who owns the story" is less straightforward than when the therapist is clearly denoted as the interpreter of meaning. With a phenomenological and dialogical orientation, clients are invited to experiment in finding their own meanings and in becoming their own experts, to realise they are the authors (and authorities) of their own lives. So perhaps there is an added reluctance, on the part of the Gestalt professional, to assume the role of the story teller. Also, to write up the process is inevitably to step outside the rich encounter, the human meeting, in order to reflect upon it aloud, and to a third party at that - and this may go against the grain as well, particularly for Gestaltists.

Yet arguably these are not the only difficulties. There is a problem in conveying the essence of what is happening in a Gestalt therapy interaction. We are, after all, not just interested in reported content, relatively easy to document, but also in a lot else: e.g., barely perceptible postural changes, the sudden brightening of a face, the palpable sense of relief which can follow an "Aha!", the queasy feeling when told something only half true. Is it actually possible, given the medium of words on pages, to convey the flavour of what we do and what we experience in our practice?

These questions - going beyond case studies per se - touch on some of the most perplexing issues for Gestalt therapy as a professional field. If there are severe limitations in writing about practice in a faithful way so as to do justice to experienced reality, what can be done about it? After all, if we want to be a professional community, and also want our perspectives to gain wider notice in the world at large, how can we accomplish this with a written tradition that is held to be inherently faulted?

The doubt about translating experience into words has led some Gestaltists in the past to say that we should not be writing about Gestalt at all, and that in order to understand Gestalt therapy enquirers "must experience it for themselves." Such a claim lacks sense and conviction and has sometimes been used to cover laziness and insularity. After all, the same argument could equally apply, say, to climbing Everest, listening to Mozart, or making love; all these have to be participated in directly before they can be appreciated and understood fully. Yet that has not prevented people from describing their experiences and attempting to capture the intimate character of these various activities in print; and very successfully sometimes. Of course, it is necessary to be sure not to mix up the description with what is described. you cannot get Mozart from a book (though some derive pleasure from reading the score). And to confuse the description of lovemaking with the actual experience is a sort of category mistake that itself calls for therapy.

Ours is a practice that combines non-verbal awareness with attentive use of words, an impairment in language skills, in peoples' articulateness, restricts their capacity for "vital engagement with (their own) experience and results in stale interaction, which translates into boredom" (to quote Miriam Polster in The Gestalt Journal, 1981 Vol. IV, No.1). Equally, among a professional community, a lack of writing, collective inarticulateness, a failure to express what we do and how precisely we do it, is a loss of "vital engagement", a loss for ourselves and a loss for others who, even if they have limited or no experience of Gestalt themselves, will still be able to find echoes in what they read by reference to what they already know.

A second line of thinking is to acknowledge that there is a real problem about conveying a lot of what is important in Gestalt work, and to argue that the answer lies in abandoning technical language in favour of more artistic kinds of expression. After all, much of art has to do with attempting to communicate the incommunicable, the subtle nuances, the deeply felt non-verbal experiences of being alive and being human. In the words of Woldt and Ingersoll in their exciting piece later in this issue, the yang aspects of discussing Gestalt need to be better balanced with those which are yin. Perhaps only through poetry and iconic forms can we more sensitively depict the feeling states and inner discoveries, that we know are the lifeblood of human experience. If we were to take this route, we would opt for poetry and intimate autobiography, and the BGJ would become more like a literary magazine.

I favour instead a third possibility, namely of exploring a variety of new directions in writing about Gestalt therapy. For instance, I would like to see more of us deliberately focusing on the intimate and complex nature of what we do as practitioners - and Erv Polster's paper is an inspiring example here. Also there are ways, I am sure, of writing about the face to face work we do with theoretical precision at the same time as incorporating maximum aliveness. A.N.Whitehead writes somewhere about how the effective teacher draws the fish straight from the sea, still dripping: prose can equally be fresh and vital, pulsating with meaning, inventive and fun to read. We need to communicate more assiduously - and congruently - the special qualities of magic, diversity, and paradox which characterise Gestalt work at its most fertile and fruitful. We need to make good contact with our words, chasing away clichés and secondhand phrases, and thereby engage with our readers. Writing, in this sense, is very much like teaching.

To move to a metaphor-rich style, to sentences still dripping from the sea, is often referred to as moving from left-brain to right-brain. Yet the neurophysiological evidence now appears to be more complicated than previously acknowledged, and notions of a straight dichotomy are not sustainable. This suits my argument very well, for what I am saying is that in writing about Gestalt-in-action, rather than thinking of either desiccated left brain formalism or resplendent free poetic drawing on the right brain, we need a balance, an interplay, a creative tension. We need both academic and personal writing, technique as well as poetry, clinical acumen and playful creativity melded together. Nothing will enhance more our collective impact, and better enrich our own professional thinking about Gestalt practice, than to find fresh ways of writing about what it is we do, and how we depict the nature of our craft in ways that bring it into life.

Malcolm Parlett

Book Reviews:

Gestalt Reconsidered Again: A review of Gestalt Reconsidered - A New Approach to Contact and Resistance by Gordon Wheeler - Peter Philippson 

Introjection Via Religious Force Feeding: a review of Here and now: An Approach to Christian Healing Through Gestalt Therapy by Ian Davidson - Ken Evans and Andy Fookes

The Many Languages of Psychotherapy: A review of Healing Pain: Attachment, Loss and Grief Therapy by Nini Leick and Marianne Davidsen-Nielsen - Pat Levitsky 


Beyond the Therapy Room Door - Judith Leary-Tanner

Letter to the Editor:

Techniques in Gestalt Therapy - Gary Yontef