Paul Watzlawick

(1921-2007) Austrian psychologist, disseminator, philosopher

(1921-2007) Austrian psychologist, disseminator, philosopher, he participated in the Palo Alto group and was one of the founders of the Mental Research Institute group where he worked since 1960. “The invented reality (1981)” and “Reality of reality (1976), “Pragmatics of human communication (1967)” are three of his many constructivistic books well known worldwide.

Umberta Telfener: He seemed a quiet and introverted man, quite frustrating for the young student who would approach him: not one word beyond the strikt words needed. His Italian was quite good, he had graduated in philosophy from the  University of Venice. In Italy he was a myth, his book Pragmatic of Human Communication was a must for every student in systemic thinking. I was very surprised when I arrived at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, the temple of family therapy, and found out that few colleagues had read his book.

Mauro Mariotti: Certainly the MRI was my baptism, how could I forget Watzlawick’s shoes popping out, him asleep in his celestine Volkswagen, parked behind the MRI in the place that bore his name next to John Weakland and Richard Fish? How could I forget John’s sessions, him eating chicken with his hands during the conversation, while simultaneously sipping some unknown liquid, while the family spoke responding to his provocations? Professor Sarteschi’s talks come to mind, in his long white medical gown that kept you apart, a noble, a Count, a puzzled man. I remember the confusion of mine, me  who decided to leave a world to seek a new one, wonderful and frightening because unknown.

Marcelo Ceberio: When I lived in Palo Alto, Paul invited me to his birthday. Knowing that Paul was a shy person, I thought there would be about fifteen people, certainly no more. So I showed up with my gift and rang the doorbell of their house, right on time. Vera, his wife, opened the door for me: beautiful, she looked like a Hollywood star with her Italian glamour. Both very elegant, he always dressed in a gray or dark brown one-piece suit, always with a light blue shirt that highlighted his eyes; formal, with a tie, a man who laughed little, always serious even if he said something witty. Two movie stars.

The house was impeccable, she had a feminine bedroom, all in flowers, with perfumes and refined objects, he had a Franciscan room, totally Spartan, spare, minimalist. They were so different but well matched.
I arrived first, punctual, we chated pleasantly until I saw out of the corner of my eye that the table was set for three. This was his way of celebrating, having dinner with just one guest!

​Each Wednesdays in Palo Alto I could see all three of them working, Paul, John Weakland and Dick Fish. With them there was also the training director of the Brief Therapy Center Institute, Karin Schlanger, an Argentinian who had lived in Palo Alto all her life. They met to see individuals and families. I paid attention to the style, they were very different from each other: Watzlawich seemed like an Austrian linguist who used the model in a very precise way, exactly how he lived an austere, refined, not poor life. Weakland appeared as a chemical engineer, anthropologist, fanatic of Chinese culture (he had a Chinese wife). He was sarcastic and adapted to the patient’s jargon incredibly well. Fish acted like a Jewish New York doctor, full of humor. They were very different from each other, despite the model they applied being the same.

In 1994, Paul Watzlawick finally accepted the proposal to hold a seminar in Argentina. He traveled with Vera, his Italian wife, and 600 people came to see him. At that time it was the Gregory Bateson Institute of Buenos Aires, with which we organized the event. It was a fantastic seminar, full of anecdotes throughout his stay. One of the first things he asked me upon arrival was to avoid many social gatherings: “Marcelo, you know that I am not very inclined towards social gatherings and I like to go to bed early, but I don’t want to disappoint all the people who want to see me and interact with me… how do we do it?” I told him a little trick, like a child’s game of buddy-buddy: “Paul, all you have to do is nod at me or raise your eyebrows, even though we’re far apart, so I’ll know we have to leave.” So, during the meetings, I became the law at the slightest signal from Paul. He said: “Well… we have to go because we have a series of commitments tomorrow morning!” Paul replied – in a forced way – “Well, Marcelo, if you say so, fine, let’s go!” In this way, I appeared as the tyrant who forced him. Of course, in private he thanked me very much for my attention to his needs.

Mauro Mariotti: I think of Paul and his work in popularizing Bateson’s ideas (who left MRI accusing poor Paul of having stolen a lot of ideas written in the famous book Pragmatics). Of course he was the closest to me, the first one I spoke to at the MRI in Italian, who he knew well. He warned me against being overly optimistic about what I might find on the MRI. And how can we forget his parking space and his car where you would find him sleeping punctually between 1pm and 1.30pm dressed to the nines in his gray suit, with his feet wearing black shoes, from 1946 I suppose, which often appeared in the summer from the window.


Agenda Upcoming events