Mara Selvini Palazzoli

(1916-1999) Starting in 1970, Mara introduced the teaching of Family Psychotherapy into her Psychotherapy course

(1916-1999) Starting in 1970, Mara introduced the teaching of Family Psychotherapy into her Psychotherapy course at the School of Psychology at the Catholic University. she then connected with a group of colleagues and worked for some years with Luigi Boscolo, Gianfranco Cecchin and Giuliana Prata, till they separated in 1980 into two different schools with Mara and Prata continuing research on psychotic systems.

Matteo Selvini: After Mara’s death I had the unexpected gift of finding a very moving diary of hers, written in the 1950s, a memoir and a commentary on the birth and growth of her three children: Michele 1948, Anna 1950 and myself 1954. In May 1958 Mara noted: “Michele goes through a period of bad mood, which we don’t know how to explain. He is always disgruntled, pessimistic, a “troublemaker” for every insignificant reason. One evening, after we were all in bed, I had the inspiration to go to his room. I found it tearful. He told me that he couldn’t drive away his thoughts, that he felt like saying bad words against the Madonna. I told him not to even try to drive away thoughts, because they are like the wind and they blow away when they want. I also explain to him that things like this happen to everyone, and they used to happen to me too: the only solution is to laugh about it. He adds that often the thought also comes to him that Jesus Christ never existed. I explain to him that this is a sign of intelligence. Believing is an achievement and doubting is natural. He looks visibly relieved and happy. He says he never would have guessed that this would happen to others as well.

Umberta Telfener: In 1978 Mara was one of the speakers at the big International Congress in Firenze organized by the Andolfi Group (Maurizio Andolfi, Carmine Saccu, Paolo Menghi, Anna Maria Niccolò). It was the first big systemic congress in Italy. I will always remember entering a jammed room and hearing her say: “The concept of two doesn’t exist in the systemic world. Take a pregnant mother and parachute her  to a dis-inhabited island, when the baby will be born – with no difficulties, we hope – the relationship will not be only between the baby and the mother. Two in relational terms does not exist: the mother will continue thinking of who made her pregnant and of who put her in such a difficult position, parachuting her there. Was it the same person or not.” The public laughed but three is a serious business.

Edith Goldbeter: In 1995, we organized a conference in Brussels on the theme of « Approaches to eating disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia », to which speakers from a variety of « psy » orientations had been invited – psychiatric, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, systemic and strategic.
Mara Selvini Palazzoli was one of the speakers and arrived the day before the Congress. Mony Elkaïm and I invited her to the restaurant, where she spoke enthusiastically and convincingly about her latest discoveries: « How could I have been so blind before and failed to see that it was the fathers, former abandoned children, and the mothers, humiliated daughters, who were the parents of the anorexic ! Humiliated fathers and abandoned mothers, that’s the reality ! » She hammered home her certainties with insistence and a conviction that were not supposed to be questioned.
At the end of this congress, Queen Fabiola (King Baudoin’s wife) attended the final session and had the opportunity to meet the speakers at a private cocktail party. She addressed Mara Selvini Palazzoli, commenting on one of her remarks. Mara snapped at her, much to the horror of her lady-in-waiting: « You’ve understood nothing, but really nothing ! » And then she explained her point again.

Valeria Ugazio: A few days ago, while I remembered Mara Selvini Palazzoli’s imaginative expressions about colleagues and patients, often imbued with biting irony, Umberta Telfener came up with the idea of putting these in a collection. So, here’s one: “The Blue Baboons”.
Who were the blue baboons? They were those elevated Italian academics who displayed their titles in expectation of due deference, homage, and respect from all their colleagues, similar to the way some primates show off their blue rears, synonymous with high rank, to define their presumed superiority in encounters with their fellow species.
As you can imagine, although formally cordial, the relationship between these academics and Selvini Palazzoli, was not exactly affectionate. An all too striking example of this would be the context of the meetings that preceded the writing of “The Hidden games of Organizations” (Selvini Palazzoli, Anolli, Di Blasio, Giossi, Pisano, Ricci, Sacchi, Ugazio 1981).
Selvini Palazzoli wrote this volume with us after holding fortnightly meetings, on the organizations we were part of, for more than two years. A truly precious gift! We were then a small group of her students from the School of Specialization in Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan and she received no compensation for these encounters. I did not miss a single one. They were a hotbed of ideas, and she was a volcano with which we tried to keep up. We took in a tremendous amount. I returned home from those meetings finally at peace with my decision to remain in academia.
The Institute of Psychology was anything but stimulating in those years. Not much remained of the glorious past, when much of Italian psychology had passed through there, thanks to Agostino Gemelli, founder of that University and of the Institute of Psychology. And the psychology courses that would have brought a breath of life with droves of students and young faculty members had not yet arrived. The two-story building of the Institute was sadly silent, with very few people occupying it and even fewer ideas circulating in its corridors. There were three or four full professors along with us, their young assistants, joined by a few students and even fewer faculty members, who only appeared for lessons at the School of Specialization. Selvini Palazzoli was a powerful ray of sunshine in a desolate land. The dazzling novelty of the systemic model, and the associated ferment of ideas had no competitors. I was immediately spellbound, but also the other few young assistants in the Institute were intrigued.
Just imagine the disappointment of the full professors, who had given us scholarships and grants, as they watched their assistants hang on every word from Selvini Palazzoli. She in turn had no academic power, even though in those very years she was becoming a more than formidable figure on the international scene. But the Institute at that time had very few international connections, the full professors could therefore pretend that such “far off “recognition was not so relevant. The director of the Institute, to whom I was assistant at the time, seeing me enthusiastic about the systemic model and filled with admiration for Selvini Palazzoli, repeated to me more than once: « Valeria, if you continue like this, you will never get a professorship, fortunately Mara Selvini Palazzoli is like the measles, sooner or later it passes. »
The academic establishment of the Institute knew well the extraordinary value of Selvini Palazzoli, something she certainly did not hide. During the meetings she usually left the doors open and I remember her resounding  and powerful voice rang through the usually lethargic Institute. Our “Blue Baboons” – sitting on their illustrious rears – could hear her echoing words and our passionate discussions. It was clear, their young assistants had no intention of giving up these exciting meetings at the cost of putting their academic careers at risk.

Here I am with some real gossip. It still concerns the unforgettable fortnightly meetings with Mara Selvini Palazzoli which took place for more than two years preceding the writing of ““The Hidden games of Organizations” (Selvini Palazzoli, Anolli, Di Blasio, Giossi, Pisano, Ricci, Sacchi, Ugazio, 1981).
We all had immense esteem for Selvini Palazzoli. For me she was my mentor, but she was a fundamental reference also for the other colleagues who participated in the experience, and, like all young academics, we wanted recognition, something which she was not as generous with as we would have liked. Also for this reason, the repeated praise that Selvini Palazzoli bestowed on one particular member of the group, who had the reputation of not being the sharpest, was the subject of infinite gossip. He had failed the statistics exam three times, which, although difficult, the majority of us had passed brilliantly on the first try. When this not usually very talkative colleague contributed to the discussion, Selvini Palazzoli with her beautiful high-toned voice commented: “Well done Michele, right intuition! profound concept!”.
We were initially blown away. What the hell had Michele said?
And then, once we had overcome the surprise and bewilderment, we realized that Selvini Palazzoli was taking up what he had said, often completely changing its content and meaning. Michele, unable to realize what a gift he had received, sometimes tried to reply, repeating what he had actually said. Mara Selvini Palazzoli, looking at him with her large magnetic eyes and with a hand gesture forbidding replies, immobilized him in a slightly higher tone of voice by adding « Of course, Michele, I understand, you mean to… “And she repeated exactly what she had made him say, that had little in common with what Michele had said.
Why these undeserved compliments towards Michele? We wondered. Did she want to reward his modesty? Did she want to humiliate us, who were doing our best to provide intelligent contributions to the discussion? Did she hurt our supposed symmetrical hubris? But what hubris? We loved her.  Or was she testing the power of positive connotation on Michele? Did she think that, thanks to the positive connotations that she generously bestowed on him, Michele would eventually grow wings?
Alas, we were unable to verify the effects of those appreciations, as Michele was forced to leave the group due to family problems. If Michael had stayed, would he have begun to fly? Maybe. Certainly, when I find myself in front of someone who is considered lackluster or, worse, dim-witted by the other members of the family, I automatically repeat what Selvini Palazzoli did with Michele. Everyone is puzzled but eventually this neglected member often begins, if not to fly, at least to make her/his voice heard. Even these positive connotations, that we gossiped endlessly about, ended up becoming a valuable therapeutic move.

Carmine Saccu: I was travelling by car from a Congress with Prof. M. S. Palazzoli. Driven by curiosity I asked her why every five years in the field of Family Therapy she abandoned the model in use up to that time for a new one. « Carmine » was the lapidary reply, « I am not a clinician but a researcher. » There I realized that I would never be a researcher because I get attached to my ideas and carry them with me over time.

Alfredo Canevaro: We are in 1978, at the time of the Florence Conference, organized by Maurizio Andolfi and Carmine Saccu; a Congress that determined the entrance of Family Therapy in Europe. I was going down the long venue of cypresses that starts from Poggio Imperiale, the venue of the conference, and I realize that Mara Selvini was in front of me, alone. I approached her elegantly and explained that I had started the first Spanish-language systemic Journal in Buenos Aires. I ask her for an interview and she gives me an appointment in Milan. Of course I went and we chatted for about two hours. She was as generous and impulsive as I remembered her, she spoke passionately and critically of all the psychodynamic professionals she knew. I remain impassive, I write it down and send her the downloaded interview for approval. She calls me stating that I cannot publish the interview as it is and sends me back a piece of writing, a completely new interview, published in No. 5 of the Argentinian Journal.

Juan Linares: We are at the beginning of the 90s. In those times I met Matteo, I read the book Alla conquista del Territorio (Covini, Fiocchi, Pasquino, 1984) on the Corsico experience. I went to Milan, with them to Corsico, with Matteo I started a friendship that still lasts. It was he who introduced me to his mother, I tasted the quince jelly made by her, we shared an affection for Saint Teresa of Ávila, a great woman: we both venerated her. We also hypothesized about doing the Via Teresiana together in the footsteps of the Saint. Mara, in one of the meetings, asked me to look for a Spanish publisher to translate and publish the book. I managed to find the publisher, I wrote – as agreed – the preface in Spanish; after a few months, the book comes out with a different title. “Towards a new psychiatry”. Personally, I had not been informed and I immediately became very worried about how Selvini would take it: I was terrified, I thought she would kill me. “I’m sorry to tell you that they changed the title,” I explain via email, very fearfully. “I’m very happy – she replies – that the book has come out and also the new title, because the wild west one (conquest of the territory) was imposed on me by the Italian publishing house.” I relaxed.

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