Mony Elkaïm

(1941-2020) Born in Marrakech, neuropsychiatrist

(1941-2020) Born in Marrakesh, neuropsychiatrist, director of the Institute of Family and Human Systems Studies in Brussels since 1979 and director of the journal Cahiers Critique de Thérapie Familiale e de Pratiques de Réseaux. He was the founder, president and soul of the EFTA which has been gathering professionals since 1990; he has been the chair of the Board which welcomes the European Institutes dealing with systemic training, which he had insisted on creating in 2001 (EFTA-TIC).

Cynthia Ladvocat: In the early 2000s, I met Elkaim at an event in São Paulo, Brazil. I volunteered to dramatize a scene, in which my character challenged the role of the therapist, played by Mony himself. We must have been very creative as the audience laughed a lot.At the end of the day, Mony asked me – if he went to Rio de Janeiro – if I could pick him up at the airport at 08 AM. Of course, I canceled my appointments at the office and took him to see the city, sights and beaches. We went to lunch at the best steakhouse, whose waiters were amazed at his ability to eat so much. He drank a lot of “caipirinhas” (a typical Brazilian drink with alcohol and fruit) to the point of being very “happy”. At the end of the afternoon, I planned to take him to the hotel, as I would attend a family at 07 PM with a team of students behind the mirror. But to my surprise, he wanted to consult. I was a little worried about how the session would go in a family whose father was an alcoholic. I have the recording of this wonderful session, his figure seemed to glide across the room, as if he were dancing with the family. The following year, Mony invited me to get nominated as a member of the EFTA assembly at the London meeting.
In London, at dinner, he told his wife that he ate the best meat of his life in Brazil. I commented that I was a vegetarian and his wife scolded Mony, because he didn’t even notice that I only ate salads, greens and vegetables. He laughed a lot, saying that he had drunk so much caipirinha that he didn’t notice and that he had fun with the drunk father who he saw right after with whom he resonated.
In the years that followed and at various events, I realized that he was  at times apprehensive of the force of his words, which may sound harsh to others. In truth, he had an excellent sense of humor and he laughed at his own expenses.

Umberta Telfener: I met him in 1975 in Roma at the Accademia of Family Therapy of Maurizio Andolfi for an International congress (Family Therapy in the Community), one of the first in Europe: gym shoes, considerable size, lively eyes, he was playing the identified patient in a challenging, difficult, delicate role, acting hyperactive and irreverent. Never still, provocative, a role that seemed to fit him. In the audience we were in awe of his ability to read systems, as if they were books open in front of him. He was flirty with everyone, but you knew it was a game he was playing just for the fun of the game and that it had no meaning except to connect in the here and now. Every time he would start all over again, trying to live in the here and now.

I was in the audience of a big international Conference, I don’t remember where. Mony was among the speakers on the podium, he had just started talking. Two participants as well up on the podium started speaking among each other in a low voice, hoping not to be noticed. Mony stopped his speech, looked at them, paused for quite a long time and said: “It is important for me to be listened to by the two of you. I will continue as soon as you quit your conversation.” You can imagine how fast they stopped chatting.

Edith Goldbeter: Some twenty years ago, Mony was invited by a Jewish secular community center we both frequented, to give a talk on couples and couples therapy. The Center was politically oriented and had organized the first Israeli/Palestinian meeting in Belgium, in which Mony had also played an active role. I was supposed to introduce Mony and chair the session. The audience were regulars at the center, attending the various conferences and activities that took place there.
Prior to this meeting, Mony had suggested that I argue with him during his lecture so that he could ask the audience what they would do in such a case to calm the situation. We forgot to specify when or on what subject this argument should take place.
After I’d introduced him, Mony began his talk. After 30 minutes or so, to the astonishment of the audience, I interrupted him, accusing him of making a mistake and saying the wrong things. Mony was initially surprised (having obviously forgotten our agreement) and calmly pointed out that I was wrong, but I persisted with obvious bad faith. He understood the situation, but continued to calmly give his (correct) point of view and I persisted in accusing him of saying the opposite of what he has just stated. Then Mony turned to the room: « Please help us! » The participants reassured themselves that it’s all a set-up, but they all agreed with me when clearly I was accusing Mony unjustly! « It’s the little lady who’s right, not the speaker« , they repeated. Of course, I went on to explain the background to this « conflict ». Mony was then able to underline how a one-sided position was based on subjective points of view and could prove ineffective in resolving a conflict.
Somewhat unexpectedly, we learned a few amusing things from this situation.

After having the first year of training with Mony Elkaïm  (from September 1978 to June 1979), I left Brussels for the United States, where I spent a year training in Palo Alto, followed by 6 weeks in Philadelphia at the Summer Practicum organized by Minuchin.
In Palo Alto, the MRI training was directed by Carlos Sluzki. I have 2 anecdotes here:
a) I have asked Carlos to apply for a place in his training group, I « confessed » to him that I wasn’t sure I had the right level of English to take the course. He responded in a forced Spanish accent: « But I don’t speak English very well either!”
During this year (1979-80), I kept referring to Mony Elkaïm: « In such a case, Mony would have said this and that …« , I frequently repeated it, and Carlos would say to me: « Who the hell is Mony?”
He had the opportunity to meet him when Mony invited him to our first congress in Brussels. and they became friends.

Mony Elkaïm was the coordinator of the European Anti-psychiatric Network he had set up in Brussels.
At the first International Family Therapy Congress organized in Europe, in Brussels in 1981, by Mony and the Institut d’Etudes de la Famille et des Systèmes Humains he had set up, Mony invited, in addition to the pioneers of family therapy (Whitaker, Haley, Selvini-Palzzoli, Weakland, etc.), anti psychiatrists such as Ronald Laing, David Cooper and others.
One of the congress plenary sessions was to bring together Robert Castel, Félix Guattari and David Cooper, among others, with Mony who chaired it. But David Cooper wasn’t there on time! Mony called me discreetly before the session opened and asked me to go and find David Cooper, who was no doubt at the bar in the Palace of Congress.
Indeed he was, along with Ronald Laing and Marine Zecca. I was a 30-something beginner and David Cooper was clearly older and well known. I asked him kindly to join the plenary session, but Ronald Laing tapped him on the shoulder and said: « It can wait, have one more beer with us!” David didn’t get up and I repeated my request, again in vain, as Laing maintained his invitation to Cooper.  I then got angry (cf. my youth and the fatigue of helping to organize this congress of over a thousand people): « We’ve paid for your trip and your hotel! You’ve got to come and speak at the plenary session!” David Cooper stood up: « Don’t get angry, Edith! I’m coming! » and he followed me, holding his arms folded in front of him like a teddy bear! We entered the auditorium at the foot of the stage, where the other speakers were already seated. The room fell silent. David Cooper put one foot on the first step leading to the podium and looked out at the audience: « Tous des regards de poissons morts!” (in French). Mony, from the podium, said: « Very interesting, David! Come and talk to us about it here! » He climbed another step and looked again at the still silent and transfixed room:  » Tous des regards de poissons morts ! « . Mony again invited him to come and talk to him.
David Cooper took his place, and when it was his turn to speak… he gave an impeccable presentation!

Michel Maestre: During the last years of Mony Elkaïm’s life, I had the chance to meet him often. We were both on the EFTA TIC board. He liked to discuss the missions of EFTA of which he was the founding President.
The last five or six years of his life, we co-organized, or rather, he asked me to organize joint conferences “ELKAÏM FORMATION & PSYCOM FORMATION”. The ritual was always the same, whether on the subject of EFTA or for the organization of the conferences, he suggested that I come and join him at his home in Brussels, in order to discuss the organization and above all to open up new perspectives. I have always been impressed by this intelligent and visionary man, who evoked the past, to better project himself into the future.
When he invited me to Brussels, the ceremony was always the same. I arrived by car at his home around 11:00 a.m., I spent a little time greeting Olga, who never failed to ask me about my Ukrainian wife, Inna. The last time it must have been in 2019 (before COVID and the invasion of Ukraine), Olga, who had Slavic origins, felt close to my wife, they liked each other a lot, even if they didn’t have enough time to get to know each other better.
After this friendly exchange, Mony took me in his old Volvo, for safety reasons I fastened my seat belt, but his remained unused, and after a few scares in traffic jams, we arrived at the parking lot, which the regular employee always appreciated, the generous tip that Mony left him. The parking lot faced a luxury restaurant, the table that Mony reserved for his guests was always the same, the waiters, somewhat obsequious, bowed to greet “Professor Elkaïm”. I was not used to so much kindness, it amused me a lot, the meal that followed as well as the fruitful exchanges that we had marked my memory forever.
It was not uncommon that on the way back, we stopped to taste a quality whiskey in what we could call “his bachelor pad”. It was a small old apartment, very nicely furnished, decorated with numerous works of art. I always wondered who had the honor of being invited there, obviously, I took these visits as an immense privilege. The afternoon ended, back at Mony’s, I hit the road again after saying goodbye to Olga.
During the last year of his life, discussions always took place over the telephone. The day he died, for the first time, I understood that something was not as usual, for the first time his phone was turned off and on an answering machine.
A few hours later Edith Goldbeter told me the terrible news which, even if it was expected, left us all with a feeling of abandonment.

Carmine Saccu: One evening in November 1974, in front of a little lamb cooked Sardinian style by me, we were Maurizio, myself and Moni with whom Maurizio had shared the formative experience with Salvador Minuchin in the same period. I remember that when we accompanied him back to the Hotel Raphael, near Piazza Navona, they shared memories and formulated proposals and plans for the future. The idea of a conference to be held in Brussels was born to spread Family Therapy from a systemic perspective in Europe. The congress took place in January 1975 in Brussels in a neighborhood called the Jerbe, which marked the limit between a working-class neighborhood of the underclass and a bourgeois neighborhood. We in our group left in large numbers with expectations that were disappointed as the dominant theme at the conference was not Family Therapy. The most discussed topic was the establishment of a democratic European psychiatry. The dominant scene featured social workers from all of Francophone Europe: there were Guattarì and many others in addition to the characters who had given life to Democratic Psychiatry in Italy. The conference was a success with over two thousand attendees. The conference in Brussels in 1975 was followed by the conference in Paris in 1977, again promoted by Democratic Psychiatry, then it moved on to Bologna and I believe the last one to Trento. Perhaps at that time we could not yet talk about family therapy. The word “systemic” was considered an American product, like the psychological tests that were used to build special schools and confine problem children there.

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