Nathan W. Ackerman

(1908-1971) Born in the South of Russia

Born in the south of Russia from a Jewish family of merchants went to America in 1912. He trained as a infant psychoanalyst, in 1937 he published his first systemic article and since then he identified with systemic thinking. His is the concept of the child as the family’s scapegoat. Nathan Ackerman, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, believed that if one person in the family had a problem, everyone in the family was impacted and that the place to solve that problem was in the family. Dr. Ackerman’s idea to position family therapy as the primary therapeutic modality in the treatment of children was revolutionary at the time.

Maurizio Andolfi : I met Nathan on March 1970, just one year before he died. My month visit with him was the turning point of my life and professional carrier. After meeting him in New York I decided to move to the States, which I did just two years later.  First, I like to start form the personal side. I had an appointment in front of his Institute at 9 am and I was sharp on time. I saw a short man at the door and I thought he was the doorman. I asked him very properly to meet “Prof Ackerman (Italy was a very conservative country and we used always ‘Professor’ for respect) and he answered “In person!”. I was asking myself how gentle is this man who receives me at the door of his Institute. I was even more surprised during the following days. He asked me to join him everywhere. He was doing  a very direct and provocative life supervision in the round room of his Institute. Parents were there with a couple of children and with a black nanny carrying some toys for the smaller child. The therapist was in the middle of the family group and once in a while Ackerman would ask the therapist to go out of the room with him. After a short time, they would come back and the therapist would seem more in charge of the session. Who knows what he had told the therapist, for sure the context was different when they were back.

During the week, he was doing clinical work at Columbia University where there was a sophisticated video system and a large one way mirror. Several people (colleagues, students) and myself were watching his sessions. At the end, everybody would take an elevator going to a lower floor where, in a big room, family, therapist and observers were sharing a feed-back session. He anticipated of many years the idea of the reflecting team!

Nathan was a very direct, warm and provocative therapist with great ideas about the family as a social unit. His first paper was published in 1938 and he wrote several books in the late 50th. There were not yet many people ready to understand his work with children and their families. He died young and too soon in the field (1971). He was for sure the founder of family therapy and this historic fact has never been recognized. He was neglected in his own Institute after he died and for a long time the child was neglected in the field too. Incidentally Sal Minuchin was a student of Nathan Ackerman at Columbia University.



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