Sal Minuchin

(1921-2017) Born in Argentina, a pediatrician, he worked in Israel before moving to the States

(1921-2017) Born in Argentina, a pediatrician, he worked in Israel before moving to the States where he became a psychiatrist. He worked at the Warwick Center in the Bronx with Braulio Montalvo, then from 1965 is director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic where he concentrates on psychosomatic families (diabetes mellitus and anorexia nervosa). In 2007, in a survey among 2,600 psychologists,  he was named as one of the ten most influential therapists of the past quarter century.

Theo Compernolle: When I first crossed paths with Sal Minuchin in Amsterdam – it was 1975 – he casually mentioned his plans to visit Bruges. Being a proud Bruges native who knows the city like the back of my hand, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to offer my services as a tour guide to this esteemed demigod. I mean, who better to show him around than two locals, right? Surprisingly, he enthusiastically embraced the idea, and there we were, my wife and I, chauffeuring Sal and his wife, Pat, in our car.
What struck me most about Sal was his down-to-earth nature. Unlike most European professors who tend to exude an air of pedantic superiority, he was refreshingly devoid of such pretentiousness. And to our relief, within minutes of our interaction, we stopped fretting over the very poor quality of our English, because Sal’s command of English was far from flawless either.
It was later in Philadelphia that we discovered his deliberate ploy of toying with the level of his language to connect with those who were overly impressed.  I adopted this tactic in numerous therapy situations to put people at ease. Take, for example, when I started working with black families from impoverished neighborhoods. I quickly realized that their English varied in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax from what I had learned. So, I confessed my limited expertise and resorted to asking, « Please help me, how would you say that in English? » It was  a real icebreaker that helped put them at ease, foster a more balanced relationship and learn about their culture.

During our car ride with Sal, I shared my mother-in-law’s habit of never locking her car, and how bikes were casually left unlocked all over the city. The moment we arrived at the central market square and stepped out of the car, what did Sal do? He made a beeline for the bikes leaning against a statue to check if they were truly unlocked. Lo and behold, they were! It was like witnessing a miniature reenactment, a therapeutic intervention straight out of Sal’s playbook. Instead of merely discussing how people interacted with each other or with a child, he had this knack for recreating those dynamics in the room to observe and address them directly.
Before embarking on my journey at the Child Guidance Centre (1976), I went to the United States in search of an affordable house for my young family of four. Seeking Sal’s advice on accommodations, I asked him for suggestions. His response was totally unexpected. He casually said, « Why don’t you stay in our house? » So off I went to his place, only to discover that he and his wife were actually preparing for their own European escapade. But without skipping a beat, they handed me the keys to their house and, knowing the struggles of navigating the US without a car, they even lent me their Volvo. Can you believe it? In those days, none of the European professors I knew would ever offer up their home and prized wheels.
A funny subject is Sal’s writing skills, or lack thereof. He was very proud of his bestselling book, but writing didn’t come naturally to him, I must admit. During our time in Philadelphia, we attended at least three dinner parties where he proudly raised his glass for a toast, declaring that he had just completed the final manuscript of his book, « Psychosomatic Families, » ready to be published. But there’s another toast that left a much bigger impression on me. During a Thanksgiving dinner at his place, Sal, who served in the Israeli army and who supported the Israeli cause, raised his glass to Anwar Sadat for his groundbreaking visit to Israel (which paved the way for the 1979 peace agreement).

Even before I met Sal, I was captivated by the intriguing fact that, despite being Jewish, Sal had a conspicuously Catholic name like « Salvador, » evoking Christ the savior. I couldn’t resist asking him about it, because clearly nobody I asked ever did. He chuckled in surprise, as if he didn’t expect anyone to be curious about it. As the story goes, when his father went to the town hall in Argentina to officially register his birth, the civil servant refused to accept the Jewish name « Shmuel » that his parents intended to bestow upon him. Apparently, it didn’t make the cut on the official list of approved Catholic names. So, in a rather bureaucratic twist, the civil servant proposed the name « Salvador » after seeing that he hailed from San Salvador. Sal’s father reluctantly accepted it as a mere formality, but he was always called Shmuel by everybody. It wasn’t until he moved to the USA and everyone, except his family and old friends, started referring to him by his official name on his passport.
And speaking of names, let me give you as a present a delightful tale. Years later, when Sal was at home and tucking in our daughters, he would entertain them with a bedtime story. This story wasn’t about princes and princesses or talking animals. He would recount his adventures as a dog named Tillo. (Tillo was the endearing name his wife lovingly bestowed upon him). To think that a man of his stature and intellect could so effortlessly transform into a playful pup in the eyes of my kids.

A little more juicy gossip. Picture this: a cozy meal at a small restaurant, with Sal, his wife Pat, Jay Haley, his wife Chloe, and my own better half. As the evening unfolded, they dove into the realm of finances, openly discussing the fees they charged for workshops and keynote speeches. I was kind of flabbergasted because such transparency and candor would never happen in proper European circles. Curiosity piqued, I, as a junior seeking financial enlightenment, prodded on how to determine the value of my own interventions. And what did Sal share with me? A clever strategy, indeed. Whenever he receives an invitation he’d rather decline, he never simply says no. Instead, he throws out a preposterous price tag. If they turn him down, no problema, because he didn’t want to do it anyway. And if they actually accept the outrageous fee, well, that’s just fine too.

Umberta Telfener: The usual weekly group supervision encounters with Minuchin at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic made me anxious. We needed to be on time since he would shut the door and anybody would enter anymore; he would look at the tape we were bringing stopping it by chance and asking everybody to signal what was done wrong according to them; if we forgot to put the T of the therapist in writing the genogram on the board, he would stop supervising us on the spot. He would ask us to explain what we thought was happening in the sessions we presented and expected news of difference. He certainly was not protecting us as he had not been protected in his numerous family of origin.
I therefore decided to secretly take anxiety pills that made me seem even too detached. I can say that Sal taught me the self-reflexive stance: not being too frightened  I could concentrate on what I thought and, slowly, I learned to express it. Thank you Sal, I do not regret one minute of my fears!

At the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic there were therapy rooms in the middle of the structure, each with a one way mirror space behind. One day I was seeing a couple when I heard the inter-phone buzz. I went to listen , curious about who was behind and who had some comments to make. I immediately recognized the voice of Sal who greeted me and commented he thought I was a little stiff: “Take out one of your shoes, sniff it and put it back on – he said – then continue with the session. I will watch that you do so” I did not know if I needed to cry or to laugh, I felt paralyzed by the chore and sat speechless for one minute, pretending to think, mustering up the courage to do what was asked of me. The surprising fact was that when I finally found the courage and performed the command I had received, the couple nearly did not notice my actions and went on enacting one of their terrible fights. This move freed me a lot, it has been an incredible learning opportunity.

Ged Smith: Through professional and family connections back in the 1990s and early 2000s I met Sal Minuchin several times in informal and social situations. It was like meeting your hero; a guru in the field and therefore initially a bit anxiety provoking. This anxiety quickly dissipated as he was clearly a very relaxed and relaxing man, with no airs and graces, no sense of being special despite his status as a colossus in the family therapy world. I was a young trainee family therapist and social worker at the time, writing essays on the same man I had just had dinner with the night before. He smoked like a chimney at a time when smoking was not so unacceptable in public as it is today. He would often be with his wife Pat, also a therapist and research professor. Watching them together was for me at that time like watching what the perfect couple must be like, thinking that famous family therapists must be totally sorted in their own relationships. I later realized how unrealistic this was, for any of us.

A question that concerns many of us is the split or similarities between our personal and professional selves, and I was struck by how different Sal was in therapy compared to in « real life ». He is well known for being feisty and challenging in the therapy room, and I remember when observing him how he would very quickly arrive at the truth about what was going on, and zoom in on that without any doubt in his mind. I was not sure about this, although it does sometimes creep into my own work more recently. I also recall being shocked when observing him say to a mother « I do not like your smile. » I do not know what he meant, and I think the mother was a bit shocked, but it may have been lost in translation.
Overall however, Sal’s authoritarianism disappeared when he left the therapy room. He was a friendly, kind man, and even for the junior apprentice I was he would even begin conversations with me rather than the other way round which I always appreciated about him – simpatico as they would say in his native Argentina.

Edith Goldbeter: In the summer of 1980, I enrolled in the Summer Practicum at the Child Guidance Hospital in Philadelphia. This intensive training course led by Salvator Minuchin lasted 6 weeks and was attended by 24 mostly American therapists (including only one Italian, one German and me, a Belgian). Divided into groups of 6, each of us took it in turns to work with families who came for consultation, under the gaze behind the one-way mirror of the other 5 group members and a supervisor from Minuchin’s team. I remember the latter, of Indian origin, Jamshed Morenas (unfortunately, I’ve since lost track of him). It’s worth mentioning here that the selection of the 6 members of a group took place in a particular way: for the first 2-3 days, all 24 participants were brought together to follow more theoretical seminars and were invited to ask any questions that related to the subject. We didn’t know each other, nor were we able to recognize the 4 supervisors from Minuchin’s team who were among us to select those who would later work under their supervision. Jamshed Morenas had chosen the 3 Europeans and 3 Americans, as we were the most debatable in terms of theories.
At the end of the 3-week internship, we had a day with Sal Minuchin, during which we were invited to show him a fragment of the video recording of a session with one of the families we had followed in the consultation. We then enjoyed a moment of supervision and advice from the « master ». But as Minuchin had a strong character, a young American woman, probably very impressed by him, presented a perfectly structural extract from the session. Having watched this fragment, instead of discussing her work with her, as he did with the rest of us, he said  » Thank you. Next one !  » She reacted, disappointed:  » Is that all?! « . He replied,  » That’s a perfect structural example! That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? « 
Sal Minuchin also gave us the opportunity to watch him at work. Behind the one-way mirror, for example, we saw him working with a WASP family, consisting of a massive, authoritarian mother, a rather self-effacing father and two teenagers. The mother complained about their insolence and indocility. The father said nothing, and his wife also criticized his passivity.
At one point, Minuchin addressed him, forcing his Spanish/Argentine accent to emphasize that he was not a native: « Sir, it seems that your wife walks on your balls and you like it! Isn’t that how they say it in America?”  The teenagers smiled, elbowing each other. The mother was shocked. The father whispered: “I know what you mean! »

Kyriaki Polychroni: Three experiences among many stand out for me in my relationship with Sal Minuchin. The first one was around 1987. He had come to train in Athens, and my husband, Petro, and I had undertaken to afterwards take him over to the small village of the Parakoila on the island of Lesbos where our mentors, George and Vasso Vassiliou, had their summer home. There, as usual, the Vassilious stayed on the ground floor and Petros and I, along with Sal, had our bedrooms upstairs. We described to him the Institute’s experiential training and he found its multilevel, multifocal approach very interesting and he was eager to learn about the way we utilize systemic group therapy. But, something he couldn’t quite grasp was that, during the summer, the Vassiliou’s groups – which were made up both of trainees and clients – would come for retreats and stay upstairs in the rooms where we were staying. “How do you keep the boundaries?”- I can still remember his surprised face.
The second moment that stands out was again during this same visit to Lesbos. Sal had been with us for a couple of days and had been observing Petros and me with our teachers. At one moment, he took Petros and me aside and, without any introduction, made a therapeutic intervention, “You know what, you two do not have to become the Vassiliou – you have your own strengths and uniqueness”. And then went on to say, “I advise you to play backgammon together every day. I do this with my wife, Pat, and it certainly takes all the aggression away.” Well, Petros and I have played backgammon, not every day and not during the academic year, but every day of our summer holidays, especially at our home in Paros, and it is certainly enjoyably helpful.
And the last experience that stands out for me till today with Sal has got to do with his relationship with his wife, Pat.  In 2007 I was very honored to organize, on behalf of the Athenian Institute of Anthropos, a training tribute by Sal to George and Vasso Vassiliou. It was then that I first met Pat, one of the most unique women I have ever met. For me, getting to know Pat made me admire Sal even more for both the fact that he had specifically chosen her to be his many-yeared wife, and for the way in which he related to her – with abundant respect, love and open, ongoing demonstrable appreciation. He enjoyed listening to her and at times became a young infatuated boy in her presence. I could see that he not only admired her as a woman, but also as a colleague with whom he could engage in rich conversation. When Pat passed away in 2015, Sal wrote me a personal email to thank me for posting an obituary in her memory. I am still moved today by the content and underlying emotional sharing that he expressed. This was a great man, this was a great woman, this was a great relationship.

Reynaldo Perrone: I was already married to Liliana and father of two small children. Having emigrated from Argentina and then Switzerland, I had settled in France. I had already founded the IFATC in Saint-Etienne. With pugnacity and courage, I had carved out a place for myself in the world of family therapy in France and Argentina. However, in a way, I was still a child. I knew it and tried to hide it, especially during my meetings with the great masters.
In 1987, I attended the international family therapy congress  “Institutions, Families and Systemic approach” in Brussels, organized by the Institute for Family and Human Systems Studies, namely Mony Elkaïm’s team. A sumptuous welcome reception was organized in the VIP Lounges of City Hall. Veterans or beginners, experts or modest practitioners, we all joyfully participated in the same ritual.
It was only at the end of this reception that the Mayor announced that it was possible to visit the palace and invited participants who wished to do so to follow him.
It was at that very moment that fate offered me a precious opportunity: following the invitation, several small groups had formed and Salvador Minuchin – the great master, the icon who enjoyed all my admiration – stood beside me to start the visit. We already knew each other because we had participated together several times in Argentina to congresses in Buenos Aires and Mar de la Plata. My admiration was secret; out of modesty I had never spoken about it. He was unaware, for example, that I had named my son Salvador after him and President Allende.
The guide spoke French, so I found myself translating some information for him; but neither he nor I were comfortable with such a role reversal.
By the end of the visit, each of us was more relaxed. In front of the statue of the archangel Michael slaying the devil, I dared to ask him to allow me to confide in him. With the kindness of a grandfather, he made me realize that a window of availability was opening up for me. »I am aware, » I told him, « of the enormous distance that separates your knowledge from my experience. I have to work hard to be like you one day….  » After a few seconds of silence, (my fall into the void was dizzying) he said slowly, « You know Reynaldo…. (for the first time he was speaking to me and not to a would-be successor of the master) you can forgive yourself for not being Minuchin, but… you can’t forgive yourself for not being Perrone…  »  End of the fall. I landed in another world: he had allowed me – with one sentence – to be, forever, myself. I don’t remember if I said thank you to him at that moment, but for years those words helped me to become an adult.

Judith Landau: Acknowledging with a wry smile that he borrowed liberally from anyone whose work he felt was worthwhile, then proceeded to the bathroom with his microphone on. Everyone was silent, not knowing whether to acknowledge that the great Sal Minuchin was human by protecting him from embarrassment………By the time someone got up to let him know what had happened, the moment was gone and Sal came back on to the platform slightly chagrined but owning his mistake with a wry smile and admitting that he was just one of us.

Sal was a dear friend and when he invited me to teach my view of larger system to his supervisors, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I think he might have had second thoughts when I insisted that one of the women meet with 32 members of an adolescent’s family in the rat-infested jail where a key uncle was incarcerated. However, he nobly supported my decision, and the young girl did very well.

Maurizio Andolfi:I met MInuchin for the first time in New York at the end of a workshop of Virginia Satir in 1972. I introduced myself and I told him I would have loved to come regularly to Philadelphia and learn from him at the Child Guidance Clinic. “Write  to me a letter” he said.
I wrote a letter soon, no answer. Few weeks later I wrote another letter, no answer. I thought: “that is the end, better to give up.
I wrote a third letter. He reply immediately, giving all the detail about when to go and where to meet  him at Child Guidance Clinic.
Minuchin loved challenges and used them  as a method in therapy.
I leant to never give if you really want something.

The Child Guidance Clinic was located at that time in the middle of the ghetto area in Bainbridge street. In the 70th  , it  was a very dangerous area and all the small shops there had a door with a gate  and a little window to look if people were proper to let them in. One of them was a Deli and they served the “Minuchin Special” for  Dollar 1,45. It was a Tuna fish on a rye bread.

Nevena Calovska : It was the beautiful September of 2007, in Athens. The Athenian Institute Anthropos was hosting over 600 family therapists in a workshop given by Salvador Minuchin. The topic was  “The disengaged position of the therapist in working with families.” After having shown taped sessions, (just a day or two before this workshop some tapes of local families were done) Sal invited the audience to question and comment. And there were many… He walked  to each and every one who asked, and replied in a very direct and individualized manner, giving direct answers, being very engaged.
The day after, sitting in a street café in Plaka, I saw Sal Minuchin across the street, buying a newspaper. Probably being encouraged by the experience from the day before, I immediately jumped over the knee high fence and ran straight to Sal and spoke: Can we have a coffee here?
He gave me an enigmatic look and pointed to my t-shirt with printing “Teach me to be shy”, and said – in a disengaged manner: “No one can teach you to be shy”.
I kept the t-shirt…

Carmine Saccu: When Sal decided to open a branch of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic in the slum between Little Italy and the black area, he chose as professionals – educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists – people with charisma to work with multi-problematic families. He told me this: for him at the time, power was important, perhaps because he had been behind the one-way mirror of Erikson who considered power an instrument of change.

In 1979 I went to the States to visit him. My English was terrible so I started speaking Spanish. Sal pretended not to understand: “What?” “What?”, he kept repeating to me. He didn’t allow me to speak Spanish as if he was angry because the military had killed his brother-in-law in Argentina and he rejected everything that came from Argentina. When he came to Rome in 1980 and stayed with us at the Institute for almost two months, he loved going out with me and there he accepted my Spanish. We always went to the usual restaurant (El Cabanon), the Argentine and Greek exiles passed through there. We sang as well as ate. He came to life.

We became such good friends that he wanted to visit Sardinia with me, to enjoy the island, not to work. We rented a 500 and went to a wild area. I remember that the car seats were reclining and he managed to relax. One day a dog crossed our path. I questioned aloud my wonder about how dogs think. He immediately woke up, interested: he too had had a dog, like Ulysses’  Argus. He started telling me how the dog thought of him. I was a cat lover then. Sal and I got into a cat or dog supremacy competition that lasted the entire trip!

Another time, out for dinner together, I saw him particularly sad. At a certain point she said to me: “Carmine, what would your wise cat say? I have to move from Philadelphia to New York and I have a 16 year old dog that I can’t take with me. I am very sad. » I didn’t know what to answer him. I later learned that the dog died 10 days before he moved. He notified me and told me he was relieved he hadn’t left it behind.

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