John Weakland

(1919 – 1995), was one of the founders of brief and family psychotherapy.

(1919 – 1995), was one of the founders of brief and family psychotherapy. At the time of his death, he was a senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, co-director of the famous Brief Therapy Center at MRI, and a clinical associate professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was a brilliant student who entered Cornell University at the age of 16 and received a degree in chemical engineering. He worked as a chemical engineer before a casual encounter with Gregory Bateson led him to pursue anthropology at Columbia University. While at Columbia, he worked on cultures with Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Weakland never obtained his doctorate from Columbia: rejecting his adviser’s criticisms of his thesis, he refused to rewrite it.

Marcelo Ceberio: In 1994, in the last year of his life, John no longer went to MRI because he was ill. He had a respiratory virus and slept with oxygen. During the day, around two in the afternoon, once a week, we went to his house to do supervision. We were Karin Langher and two or three residents, besides me. The office was full of books, papers everywhere, an absurd mess. He sat in a corner of the sofa, with his slippers in the sun and smoked his pipe continuously. Smoke everywhere!

John once commented in general about therapy: “A problem creates a system.” I reply, “No, John, a system creates a problem.” “Marcello you state the obvious, we live in systems. All problems arise within a system because we live within systems of systems of systems. However, when a problem arises, the problem, as it persists over time, creates rules, functions, an operating code and creates a new system and new dynamics. The problem is a tyrant who changes the system that saw him born. It brings in an old aunt, a pediatrician, it also involves other people and changes everyone’s functions. It changes the family ecology and creates a new system.

He and Jay Haley had traveled to Fenix for two years to meet Milton Erikson. John said that they went to visit him to systematize his techniques: one down positioning, the prescription of behavior, speaking the patient’s language, using stories, … Weakland had also been Erikson’s patient. I insistently questioned him about the trial, but he maintained that he didn’t remember anything because in hypnosis he had probably been given the prescription to forget.
He just told me about a situation involving Erikson, which the master had told him, giggling about it. There was a woman who was very taken with Milton and kept trying to seduce him and lure him to her house. She was very insistent, bordering on annoyance. One evening Milton gives in to her invitation and goes to visit her. They chat about life, she continues her advances until Milton tells her: « Get ready, get ready, go over to your bedroom and get ready for our special meeting. » The woman leaves him in the living room and goes to the bedroom. Milton speaks to her from the living room: “Are you ready? Is your desire ignited?” and then continues. “Fuck you!” He takes the door and leaves.

Mauro Mariotti: It is easy to remember John as a shy and proud character, a little Asperger’s in my opinion, – he graduated at 16 – engineer then anthropologist, called by Bateson to research the double bind. How can we forget his family therapies in the room with the MRI mirror. Calm in front of the family, I see him eating some chicken with his hands from his paper bag, licking his fingers, drinking a nice glass of red wine, while behind the mirror I thought about Italian formalities, about the settings of psychoanalysis, which was dominant at the time. It was he who said the famous phrase “When you have a problem life is the same damn thing over and over. When you no longer have a problem, life is the same damn thing over and over…” A phrase that has helped me a lot in life.

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