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.

Massimo Schinco: In the school based in Via Leopardi, Milan, the imperative in force was not to fall in love with ideas, nor to marry them: rather, flirt with them! But the relationship between Gianfranco Cecchin and the idea of freedom was not “just a flirt”: it was passionate love. Even though Cecchin with his usual self-irony loved to define himself as a « taliban of relationship« , to me and others he seemed more like a « taliban of freedom« . A metaphor often returning in Cecchin’s arguments was that of imprisonment: we are prisoners of our epistemological premises, of our perceptions, of our prejudices, of our narratives.
During many conversations, in the classroom and outside, we repeatedly asked ourselves: is it possible to free ourselves from these prisons or is the only freedom the possibility to move from one prison to another? After all, prisoners in transit are somehow both prisoner and free, as their freedom does not reside in their egos – which by force of circumstances are always very constrained – but rather in the act of moving, of repositioning oneself among one’s multiple and changing identities.
For some years now, Cecchin knew that I was dealing with the analogies between musical thought and therapeutic process, and he had encouraged me to continue on that path. He had even written the preface to my book “O divina bellezza, o meraviglia”: what an honor! We shared the awareness of the fact that therapy, resilience, art are different manifestations of the same reality: creativity.
Partly for these reasons and partly because we just liked doing so, when we were in the Milan Center we took advantage of the students’ systematic delays to listen to music together and share our impressions.
At the beginning of 2004 I was working on an essay on the creative peculiarities of Gioachino Rossini, one of the giants of Italian opera music. Cecchin was intrigued by this work and had also given me some important help in overcoming a conceptual obstacle. One morning in January I brought with me a DVD of Rossini’s “Guglielmo Tell”. A sumptuous edition of the opera performed at La Scala in Milan, staged by Luca Ronconi and conducted by Riccardo Muti. Cecchin was in his office. I went to call him because I wanted to show him the very famous and beautiful ending of the opera. In fact, the intention was a bit mischievous, because I wanted to make fun of the overflowing ego of the orchestra conductor, who in the finale appeared projected on a gigantic giant screen in the center of the stage. A golden opportunity to tease Cecchin’s corrosive irony. You can watch the short video here (
Actually, the game was only half successful, because while we listened, we were captured by the very powerful message that the ending of the opera conveys: the community fought, suffered and got free from tyranny… and at that point
All things change
Fair turns the sky
The air is pure
The day shines
Nature too rejoices
And to my look all at once
The world appears as if brand new
Everyone’s heart at this blessed event
Raise up to Heaven a thunderous scream:
“Come Thy kingdom on Earth, o Freedom!”
The inseparable intertwining of ecosystemic processes of change with the struggle for freedom is represented in the opera’s finale with a power that no scientific essay, however ponderous, could ever have achieved. Thus, instead of laughing at the director’s expense we became even a little emotional. At that point Cecchin said to me: “Listen, can you lend me this record? Next time I’ll give it back to you. » I was laboriously working on my article and I needed the disc… in those years you couldn’t find everything at hand online like now. And I thought in a somewhat anxious and selfish way: if I leave him the DVD now, I’ll see it again in a few months, in the best case. Then I replied: “Do you mind if I leave it with you the next time I return to Milan? So, in the meantime I will carry on with my work, and I will feel freer. » With a flicker of disappointment in his eyes Gianfranco replied: « Of course, it’s fine. » Now it was time to start the lesson. He was busy elsewhere that day, so he headed towards the classroom door. At the door he stopped, turned, looked at me as if to wish me “good work”. He greeted me with a broad wave of his arm and then left, closing the door behind him. It was the last time I saw him, because a few days later he had the car accident in which he lost his life.
Raise up to Heaven a thunderous scream: come Thy kingdom on Earth, o Freedom!”
This was Gianfranco’s farewell to me. I happened to be playing the finale of “Guglielmo Tell” in the orchestra. It’s not difficult to imagine who and what I thought about.

On a Tuesday morning I was at the Milan Centre, getting ready to start my classroom. Passing in front of Gianfranco Cecchin’s room I showed him the CD I had brought with me: “Triosonaten” for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach; I knew that Gianfranco couldn’t resist the prospect of listening to some of it together… at once he stopped what he was doing and we started following the music. After a while Gianfranco closed his eyes and began to move his fingers simulating playing. Then he opened his eyes again and said: “perfect… all these notes have to be perfect for this music to make sense… everything has to be perfect.” We discussed it for a few minutes and then we began the lesson.

The theme of perfection, with its charm, its dangers and sometimes its inevitability, was intensely frequented by Gianfranco Cecchin in the last years of his life. Everyone knows that his latest book, written together with Tiziano Apolloni, is “Idee Perfette” (Perfect Ideas). The book, which bears the significant subtitle of « hybris prisons of the mind », is dedicated mainly to the « bewitching » aspect of the aspiration to perfection, and warns therapists not to fall into the error that their patients often make, that is, to isolate arbitrarily and idealistically an aspect, or form, in the functioning of the system of which they are part, so to remain imprisoned as if they were under a spell. In various articles, interviews and in particular in his teaching, Cecchin countered these forms of idealism; thrusting to the limit the Bateson’s inspiration of his thought, over and over he underlined that “the system is perfect as it is”. The system (say a family, a couple, a designated patient …) would appear full of ugliness, suffering, symptoms and worse: very convincingly, he would characterize it as “perfect”. Now and then in the aftermath he worried about having made these interventions; he feared being misunderstood and appearing cynical, and that the students might be puzzled (which sometimes happened) but, on the other hand, the urge to say what he felt he had to was too strong. If this was the case, our work as teachers consisted of reasoning with the students at a later time, in order to make the “emotional shock » of Cecchin’s interventions evolve into reflection and critical elaboration.

Cecchin at work was characterized by forms of excess. His language unequivocally favored simplicity, synthesis and metaphor; we could say that he used a language very unbalanced towards the right hemisphere, and relied on an extraordinary capacity for humor. This distance from “the happy medium” was destabilizing in therapy, but never threatening; on the one hand, the repeated use of exaggeration « knocked the ground under the feet » of clients and forced them to seek support elsewhere; on the other hand, however, the new ground that was offered to them – especially through analogic communication – appeared to customers as very welcoming and restful.

With the students, this “search for rest” had a different connotation and a key role. Cecchin taught mostly through practice, which meant proposing a lot of hypothetical activity. This, as Cecchin conducted it, featured sort of an eroticization of thought, so that rest was someway comparable to the rest that follows the culmination of love. Cecchin even appeared greedy for the pleasure deriving from this imaginative rest, in which, through the hypothesis that arose from the union between data and imagination, a glimmer of “the perfection of the system” was contemplated: as soon as pleasure tended to weaken after having been achieved, it was necessary to restart the escalation of ideas, fantasies, jokes, hyperbole and paradoxes… In fact, orgasmic and orgiastic metaphors were used on several occasions to describe the situation. This activity, in which a climate of pleasant lightness was created that favored therapeutic creativity, was very attractive and exciting but, at a certain point, also tiring. This was a good time for a break at one of the cozy bars in the area of the Milan Centre.

Anna Castellucci: Once in Milano we used to follow the training for two years, then we were stopped for 6 months to one year. We did the last year (the training at the beginning was only three years)  in order to get the systemic specialization.
When I finished Boscolo and Cecchin asked me to remain as a teacher in training. I felt very honored, I felt very excited: “Now they will understand that I am a bluff” I remember I thought to myself. I naturally went to Milano, throwing my heart  over the obstacle. I had a group, in the morning by myself, then Boscolo or Cecchin would have joined me in order to perform the clinical work (when I was in my training they both would come in and it was a real difference that made a difference). That morning there was a group that had already done some training with Cecchin  in a Public setting and therefore were skipping some classes, they had been put at the second year. During the work of my morning with them I refer to the fact that they are in a second year. One of them – a professor of a psychiatric clinic in the territory – corrects me: “I am doing my third year” he states. Another one of the attenders correct me, then another one. I am confused and raged. Luckily others confirm they are following the second year. I come from Emilia, ordered and organized – an advantage and a flaw at the same time. I was beside myself, very enraged: “What kind of information this Center gives to the students!, what a confused School!” I was saying to myself. When I meet Cecchin, approximately 15 days after, I faced him, telling him the anecdote. “What is the problem” he asked me. He looked at me with his wide green eyes as a ferret  and said: “Those who want to be already in the third year will leave us sooner. The sooner the better since it means they are here just to take their degree, the piece of paper.” That time we entered together: “Anna tells me that some of you think you are already at your third year”. “Certainly” – someone answered – “Can I continue my third year?”. “Who thinks of being in the second year?” Cecchin asked . “Can I skip and go directly to the third?” asked someone else. To every question Cecchin answered very calmly with a “Certainly, certainly”. I was shocked. Every student seemed satisfied and Cecchin left the room and left me alone. “What shall I do now?” – I thought to myself, -“What is needed” was my answer.
What is really very interesting is that all the students of that class continued another year; they all attended the third year. I think that this implies that within a learning process everybody  gets involved. In that occasion I learned to to take responsibility for my positioning within the system. I also learned that people if treated with respect can take responsibility for their own lives and of themselves. It has been a great lesson.

In order to exist one needs to be seen and recognized”, Cecchin used to say always.

In his last teaching seminar in Padua, few days before dying, Cecchin said among other things:” the fascinating thing is that families build their story and become faithful to the plot, even if it is quite sad or horrific and makes them suffer ».

Therapy must help them to become curious towards another narrative. Sometimes clinicians have some difficulties to make this happen, they propose themselves as experts. As if they knew better than their clients. This way one falls into the trap of considering oneself as an expert, of the teacher and of the moralist. We need to consider what works within the system and we need to look for what keeps them together. We need to find a meaning. The work of the therapist is one of researching what is healthy, a narrative with a future, that implies that they can be happy of living instead of dying.

The stories that Cecchin used to return at the end of a session were narrative he build subtracting information. Lightness in his narratives is exactly this, he knew how to include all the important issues in the story which in its dryness held many more possibilities than we could find before, in the dense and sad descriptions of a life time, marked by the conflict with symptoms.
On their part families have already within themselves other stories, but they are buried under encrustations more or less chronicized of the dominant narrative. We need to trace them trying to make them stem again and giving them a new meaning.

He used to say that theories need to remain in the background without  sticking to the literal meaning of words, cultivating instead symbolic ambivalences typical of metaphors. From Bateson he took the basic concept of not pretending of being in control on things. We don’t need to have faith in order to wait for the improbable and unforeseen that could be hidden by habit and always the same.

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