Helm Stierlin

(1926-2021) German psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and systemic family therapist

(1926-2021) German psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and systemic family therapist. From 1974 to 1991 he was the medical director and chair-owner of the Department for psychoanalytic basic research and Family Therapy at the Medical Faculty of the University of Heidelberg. Until 1995 he was the editor of the journal Familiendynamik. His scientific writings and books have been translated into twelve languages.

Massimo Schinco: In 2010, having to go to Germany with my daughter, I decided that it was the right time to visit Helm Stierlin, especially since it was not difficult to reach Heidelberg from where we were. Before leaving, Jackie Boscolo had called Helm, who by virtue of the ancient friendship that linked him to the founders of the Milan School had willingly agreed to receive me, even if in the days in which I would be there he was quite busy for family reasons family. In the end, on the day that suited everyone, he was free only early in the morning. “Well – he told me when we made the final arrangements on the phone – you and your daughter come to my house at half past eight, so we can have breakfast together.”
As we headed there early in the morning, to say I was intimidated is an understatement. Helm Stierlin was not only a fundamental piece of history of the family therapy movement, he was indeed a piece of history and culture of Europe, considering what he had experienced in the Second World War and what he had done and written about relationships between different generations after the war and after Nazism.
A few seconds after ringing the bell my shyness disappeared. An elderly man in a vest opened the door, with a bright and welcoming look, deeply at ease in inviting us to be careful not to trip over the clothesline that was in the dim light of the corridor. He sat us down at the kitchen table, turned on the coffee machine and, opening the fridge, asked us if frankfurters and cheese would be fine. He inquired about what I was doing, he asked me about Luigi Boscolo and Jackie. The presence of my daughter, who was then completing her university studies in fields other than psychology and psychotherapy, contributed to marking the context in a defined and interesting way. From a generational point of view, Stierlin could easily have been my father, and my daughter his granddaughter. We focused on one fact. Despite the difference in generation and age, there was a continuity of experience between Stierlin and me, we belonged to very different historical moments, but of the same era. Although the world in which each of us had grown up had changed greatly in a short time, even tragically, we fundamentally shared the same world. Instead, it emerged that there was a strong discontinuity between « our » world and the one in which my daughter was becoming an adult; beyond  appearances, her world and that of her peers had already become profoundly different from ours: it was on its way to being « another world ». Needless to say, this poses great challenges as trainers, as teachers, as therapists. Passionate as we are about « our » world, don’t we risk solemnly blabbering? Are we capable of noticing the difference? Are we capable of creating useful premises so that the inhabitants of the « new » world develop curiosity and languages to dialogue with the inhabitants of the « old »? This dialogue is indispensable and must go in both directions, since “old” and “new” are parts of something larger than both!
At the end of our conversation I left Helm Stierlin a copy of one of my books; he gave us, with dedication, a copy each of his “Ways to the Heart – A Systemic Compendium for Couples in Verse and Illustrations”.
I don’t mind if I’ll be judged sentimental… I remember it as a meeting full of poetry.

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