Lynn Hoffman

(1924–2017) Social worker, major in English. She has been a historian of the systemic movement

(1924–2017) Social worker, major in English. She has been a historian of the systemic movement as well as writing very interesting books on her own. She started co-authoring a book with Jay Haley and continued her work at the Ackerman Institute in New York. She has been the muse of the Post-Milan teams, teams geographically defined who were finding their creative way of working. In the late years she connected therapy with the work of Deleuze and Guattari, being always interested in new ideas.

Umberta Telfener: I met her the first time at the Ackerman Institute (1977) where I had gone in order to get to know her. From then on she invited me many times in New York to sit behind the one way mirror and participate in the reflexivity of what was going on. We were there as plotters, we felt we were participants of a revolutionary movement. The conversations behind the one way screen went on for a long time, each trying to be witty and more elaborate than the other one. A symmetrical explicit competition full of humor and good will among these incredible masters. Lynn was seduced by theory, narrations and interpretation, always capable of seeing something more than the rest of the group.
When we were not talking about theory we would fall into talking about love, relationships and fashion.
Her specialty was writing what she had understood: she was clear and creative, and wrote in beautiful English. We could stay up for hours talking theory and elaborating on families we were seeing, excited by the possibility to apply new ideas to therapy.
I owe her my involvement with the Milan Group since she was a guest at my home in Roma (it was the end of 1980) and we decided together to call the Milan team who had not jet split and to ask to be behind their one way mirror. We stayed there three days and enjoyed every minute of it.

Once I called Lynn, she was in a protected home with other friends. She answered me very excitedly: “I have news!” She told me – she was in her eighties at the time – she had met a man a few years younger than her, that they had fallen in love and decided to go and live together, since they had not infinite time ahead of them. “We kissed at the first encounter, yes time is precious!” She was a lucky lady since her companion took very good care of her till she passed away. He became friend of her friends and we all would speak to him as well as to her.

In 1987 with Peggy Penn, Boscolo and Cecchin, Lynn wrote a Book on the Milan school (Milan Systemic Family Therapy, Basic Books); in 1997 I went to Lisbon with her for a Conference and I was surprised that she had changed her mind towards her beloved Boscolo and Cecchin and also towards the need to consider oneself systemic in thinking. She was into rizomas and the thought of Deleuze. I tried to convince her that she still could be systemic and describe interactions through rizomas, but when Lynn would fall in love with an idea there was nothing one could do to make her include it in her previous thinking. She was extreme and passionate and would “marry” in total her new ideas. I felt quite disappointed since my best systemic friend had betrayed systemic ideas, but I learned to live with it.

Robin Routledge: I am sitting in the 25th row up and a long way in over to one side at Lynn Hoffman’s first presentation in Vancouver about the connection of all things… like a rhizome.  She had just compared the sprawl of cables connecting speakers and microphones to a mycelium and then called a break.  The auditorium is mostly emptied, and I am making notes trying to understand, and she suddenly sits down beside me (whom she has never met) and asks: “So what do you think?”  And I did not think she meant only in response to her talk.  She was an omnivore of curiosity and about to devour me.

Pietro Barbetta: After retirement, Lynn moved to Easthampton (or Southampton, I do not remember exactly the name of the village), nearby Amherst and Northampton, West Massachusetts. I used to go there. It happened many times, from 1991 to 2016.
When I went there for the first time to study, I was living in a house just adjoining Northampton Graveyard: the thin wooden walls of my bedroom were exactly touching some graves on the other side. January or February 1991 was the first time I met Lynn I had never met before, in the middle of a frozen winter.
Lynn was not alone there, she was living within a Community of Systemic Therapist and Thinkers among which Ernst von Glasersfeld, Barnett Pearce, Vernon Cronen, Carlos Sluzki, and the new rising colleagues: Marcelo Pakman, Jack (John) Lannaman, Mary Olson, Sara Cobb, Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Sheila McNamee, Judith Davis, Chus Arrojo, and others. During the 1990s she was still working as a Family Therapist, she then  retired and moved in the village I mentioned above, while I was coming back and forth to this area, invited by Marcelo Pakman to teach FT in Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.
Throughout the last years of her life, she used to invite people to Tertulia, a social gathering,  and I went whenever I was there. Of course, I met her many other times, in Italy, Spain, Canada, and so on. Many times, she was invited by Marcelo Pakman, sometimes I myself invited Lynn in Italy: she gave a Seminar at the Milan School, lectures at my University and one time we conducted a session together with an immigration man from Morocco.
As I knew her, she was a woman out of  time and space, for this reason she was a fantastic therapist, as I saw, for example, with the immigrant man I mentioned: together the three of us were playing with spirits (djinns), as to face the emergency of this man going to Hell. Spirits became griims, the spirits of his family to put on shoulders and on his arms to face his emergency: he was not alone to go to Hell, as Dante Alighieri the family and us two became his own Virgil.

Lynn appeared sometimes strange and funny, always tender. I remember a “gaffe” she did, not to me directly – because I was used to her and in Italy the same statement is received as a compliment – but some colleague and friend of mine, New England style, were critical of this.

I was in Amherst, and I called her. She invited me to Tertulia, a social gathering, a few days later. She said: “Come please and prepare  your fantastic Risotto for the group!”. The old telephone had a speakerphone, and I was with some friends around, so they listened to the phrase and got offended on my behalf. One of my best friends said: “This is unbearable! If you were French, she asked for la soupe à l’oignon? Or if Spanish la Paella?”.
I started to laugh because for me that was a compliment – Lynn had been at my home and I had made a Risotto for dinner  – for the others in the room who listened was a kind of imposition, a gaffe. Definitively, as Lynn was a marvelous psychotherapist, she was, as well, a weird natural woman, and the second quality – to be a bit weird – nourished her way of doing therapy.

Christopher Iwestel Kinman: What can I say about Lynn Hoffman.  Well… there are things we all know already.  She was a leader in the early systemic awakening that transformed into family therapy.  She was a genius in thought during a time when women were all-too-often considered light-minded and frivolous (we can also put the likes of Harlene Anderson, Virginia Satir, Umberta Telfener, Imelda McCarthy and Nollaig Byrn into this camp).  She was a tremendous writer, who knew how to share systemic ideas from the nitty-gritty of the ground on which they were created and practiced.  I don’t think anyone in the family therapy field, past or present, was able to write about the complex ideas that were influencing our field with the kind of clarity and accessibility she was able to convey.

And there is more of the obvious Lynn Hoffman.  For one, she was very funny.  She could weave a tale that would leave a whole room rolling with laughter.  Here’s an example, a story she told about Satir.  Lynn witnessed Satir as she was about to begin a family therapy session with a teenage boy and his parents.  The father was a Christian minister.  He and his wife sat in their chairs, eyes down, looking thoroughly dejected.  It turned out that this young man had recently made two girls in his school pregnant.  Satir, sitting at her desk writing some kind of note, without lifting her head said to the boy: “Well, we know something about you for sure – you have very good seed.”  Whenever Lynn told this story to an audience, the group would break out into laughter, then Lynn would follow with, “Satir was so respectful… good seed… so respectful.”  Lynn loved this story.  And so do I.

There is more to Lynn Hoffman.  Some parts to her story shook people up a bit.  She looked like she kept changing her models – though I don’t see it in quite that way.  I don’t think Lynn liked the idea of models to begin with.  Rather, using an idea that she found in Deleuze’s writings, she saw assemblages of ideas that were intimately linked to time and place.   For example, Tom Andersen’s reflecting teams and reflective practices were intimately connected to the Norwegian lands, waters, and skies in which Andersen lived and worked.  Another example was in my own work.  She saw the ideas that I was discussing as tied to the land, waters, people and histories connected with these same lands that I was connected to.  I remember being told by an elder from Sts’ailes First Nation that the land and the people are one, one cannot be talked about without the other.  No more Cartesian split separating our work and practice from the lands and waters, animals and plants, landscapes, seasons and weather with which we are connected.  Lynn Hoffman believed this strongly.  She didn’t adopt and then leave models; she just expanded her sense of the assemblages form which these ideas came from.  And she always looked for new languages to talk about what we were doing.

Something else that is important to mention about Lynn Hoffman — during her last days she no longer considered herself a family therapist.  She had come to not believe in the idea that we can operate from a higher platform and act upon individuals or families (or other units of social or natural division) to help them make changes for the better.  This very idea had become unpleasant for Hoffman.  In the end she used, though in a somewhat tentative way (perhaps all language was tentative with Lynn), the language of “communal practices” to talk about the work she wanted to be connected with.  In such practices there is no magician in charge of producing change, rather there is a coming-together, with a minimum of predetermined goals and agendas, and something beautiful, something wonderful, almost always comes to life in such contexts.  But, in Hoffman’s world, we must not expect to know beforehand what such a coming-together will produce.  There is always this “unbearable lightness of being” in her work (to reference the Czech writer, Milan Kundera), where we walk in with a certain blindness before us, what Harlene Anderson calls a “not-knowing.”  Not a quality valued by the traditional Western mind.

One other thing you should know about Lynn.  Something that should leave you with a peaceful heart.  Lynn died in love.  She fell in love late in life and found a partner who adored and admired her.  His name was Eddie.  They were a true love story.  Just a few weeks after Lynn died, Eddie also died.  After Lynn’s death, he quit eating.  He wasn’t unhappy, he was just ready to go.

There is much more that could be said regarding my dear friend, Lynn Hoffman.  But let me just finish by saying that I miss her immensely.  I long for our regular long, wandering phone conversations.  I wish we could still have our yearly visits (I would either bring her out to the West Coast of Canada or I would join Lynn somewhere in the world).  I still love this person, and there is a hole in my own soul that can never be filled.  Thank you for the opportunity to muse about this most wonderful friend.

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