Gianfranco Cecchin

(1932-2004) Psychiatrist, as Boscolo worked in the States and came back to Milano

(1932-2004) Psychiatrist, as Boscolo worked in the States and came back to Milano. Co-founder with Luigi Boscolo of the Milan Center of Family Therapy in via Leopardi 19, where they had started the first systemic training (1977) and where they “translated” their thoughts to adhere to the public contexts in which the students were working. He seemed to be always  searching beyond the spoken words, searching for something else, probably the intense reality which emerges from relationships. He was focused, cozy, always ironic.

Robin Routledge: After a seminar in Milano, after a celebratory dinner, and after time in a bar, late at night, Gianfranco would take me on the Milano tram.  We travel for a while on one tram, not sitting, then jump off and get on to another one, going in a different direction.  We did this till trams stopped running: very late.  We were talking all the time, telling stories, comparing adventures, and explaining our ideas. He told me we were exploring Milano in its quiet and private time and making connections directed only by the city itself. I can even now see and smell Gianfranco teaching my three children how to cook potatoes aglio olio with all four happy faces in his kitchen.

Umberta Telfener: Irreverence was defined by Cecchin as “the attitude that protects against dependency from something, whichever this “something” might be: food, other people, perfect ideas, heroin, therapy, the need for help, attachment … (1992)”. This irreverence towards one’s own ideas also meant challenging constantly all the possible limits, setting the boundaries always further and inhabiting a marginal positioning. This he practiced in his life, always changing his ideas and questioning his premises. He did not follow a script, but rather was faithful to a frame, he would ask a question, then elaborate on the answer, like if the exercise of thinking was a never-ending game. It was challenging and fatiguing being around him: he taught me to always be creative. This was true also when he had a personal conversation: “How are you?” he would start, ready to challenge your answer and connect it to a very creative and distant idea that would shock you and give you also a different gestalt of what you were conveying.

Giuseppe Ruggiero: Naples, early 1990s. One evening at dinner, spaghetti with clams and a bottle of Falanghina del Sannio DOC. As ingredients the wit, self-mockery and lightness with which Cecchin told us stories of families and family therapists he met between the US and Italy. Amusing comments on the session held in the afternoon at the Institute, a memorable encounter between an imperturbable doctor from Milan, in the role of supervisor, and a traditional Neapolitan family, who looked as if they had stepped out of a Botero painting. The next day Gianfranco would conduct a seminar for our students on the ‘Milan Approach and the therapist’s prejudices’, where we would review with the participants the most salient video-recorded images of the meeting held in the afternoon.
Back then, we were experiencing what today we might consider the golden years of psychotherapy training. We were witnessing live family sessions, where invited teachers illustrated their theoretical-clinical model, through counseling and supervision experiences.
I remember that day, behind the one-way mirror, Gianfranco was sitting between me, Rossella Aurilio and a group of final year students, eager to see one of the most authoritative exponents of the Milan Systemic School in action.
The parents’ way of speaking and gesticulating, particularly of their eldest daughter, is still vivid in my memory. As soon as the therapist confirmed the presence on the other side of the mirror of Prof. Cecchin – a famous Milanese psychotherapist – the family group started a relational scene, with a heartfelt, theatrical tone full of pathos.
During the conversation, conflicts and tensions immediately emerged, around the topic of the small family-run fruit and vegetable business, in which the daughter was particularly involved in the couple’s dynamics. The young woman, clearly overweight and neglected in her physical appearance, complained of being forced into a life she had not chosen and of feeling suffocated by the family’s pressing demands. On their part, the parents emphasized the girl’s lack of willingness to work, and the many sacrifices they had made in order to provide for their children.
Meanwhile, behind the mirror we were all busy translating to Gianfranco some of the dialectal expressions used by the patients, while he listened amused, asking to deepen the meaning of that particular family lexicon. Gianfranco was not at all shocked at the little drama that was unfolding before our eyes: he kept nodding and, above all, between one joke and another, redefining!
The young therapist was in obvious distress, both from the growing tension in the room and from performance anxiety, which is inevitable in that kind of context.
While the daughter was crying desperately, Dad and Mum were asking for suggestions on how they should behave. Before ending the session, the therapist told the family that she would join Dr Cecchin in the other room, to exchange some thoughts with him.
I well remember the aplomb with which Cecchin expressed himself to describe his personal view of what we had observed: just a few words to positively redefine his daughter’s despair and the parents’ sense of helplessness. After a few moments of silence, the therapist, visibly bewildered, found the courage to express her point of view, exclaiming: ‘You see, Dr Cecchin, this cannot work here! In Naples we need to drown in pain, in tragedy. If we deprive this family of such feelings, what will become of them? » A gentle smile from the teacher was the most comprehensive response to the young colleague’s perplexity and an invitation to trust his suggestions, despite everything.
At the end of the session we stayed a while longer together discussing the importance and meaning of redefinition in therapy, the cultural differences between northern and southern families, the different languages the therapist uses to dialogue with the patient and the family. I still keep vivid the image of Cecchin’s vivid and intelligent gaze, that sly and benevolent way of being in the drama, without ever fully identifying with its dynamics.

Agenda Upcoming events