By Andrew Feldmar
Reviewed by Murray Gordon, M.A.H.P.
Credo is a new book by Andrew Feldmar, a well-known psychotherapist in Vancouver, Canada, published in English. His previous books were in Hungarian, so this book is the first to allow many people in the English-speaking world to have access to his writings. The book is really (at least) two books in one. On the one hand is his biographical story, detailing critical events in his life, and the other is a sort of psychotherapeutic bildungsroman (to coin a phrase) – a story of how he came to believe what he does (and does not) concerning psychotherapeutic practice and how he continues to work in that area to help his patients and residents of the residential community he launched in Budapest. In sharing his thoughts here on what he learned over the years, he now shares his considerable experience with a wide range of people – patients, therapists and all who have suffered trauma.
Talking of traumatic events – Andrew miraculously escaped from the Nazis in Hungary in 1944 when he was just a few years old. His parents were taken to Auschwitz but before they left they managed to arrange to leave Andrew with a Catholic woman named Iren Igaz who pretended he was part of her family. This wouldn’t have been possible if he’d been circumcised. Fortunately his parents were not strict-practicing Jews, so he wasn’t circumcised. He grew to love this Catholic woman as his mother. She loved him and cared for him and went to extreme lengths to keep him safe from the Nazi sympathizer Hungarians who would’ve turned him into the Nazis. At one point, an Arrow Cross man (a Hungarian Nazi operative) found out that she was harboring a Jewish boy, and threatened to tell the authorities unless she slept with him. She thought this over for a long time, wondering what to do. As Andrew is still alive today, we can guess what she finally decided.
After the end of the war, his mother returned and expected that he would bond with her like before – like a “nice” mother-child duo. However, Andrew had no recollection of this woman, and couldn’t relate to her as a loving mother, as she expected. Andrew recounts various other problems which occurred over the years, as his mother tried to convince him to behave as she thought a good loving son should behave, but she also had numerous put-downs for him – concerning his looks, his intelligence, and so on. She also saw to it that he never contacted Iren Igaz again.
Subsequently, Andrew tells us about life and its dangers in Budapest where he grew up, and lived until the time of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. He narrowly missed being shot one day by Russians cruising by in a tank when walking to the bakery in the city. Later, he managed to escape from the Soviet regime by fleeing across the border into Austria. Subsequently he went to Canada, where he reunited with his parents several years later. He then set out on his own, leaving his controlling (biological) mother to live in Vancouver. He never spoke to his mother again. He was free of her controlling actions. “She treated me like a puppet,” he writes. He wanted his freedom – freedom to be who he wanted to be. He took it when he could. This theme of freedom from controlling others resonates throughout the work.
These personal experiences are remembered by him and influenced his practice of psychotherapy in subsequent years. In fact, one recurring theme of his psychotherapeutic methodology is this movement or push towards freedom. He writes later in the book about how he sometimes encourages young kids to leave home, when he finds they’re stuck inside a social nexus which constrains them, and the parents are trying to get the child “fixed” by the psychotherapist – that is, trying to get him or her to conform and comply – rather than being attentive to the child and his or her needs and desires. This could be seen as being consistent with a Levinas-ian approach. This could be recognized as a recurring theme throughout the book, and within the theoretical approaches of Feldmar, Laing and others – therapy as a movement towards freedom from controlling others. This could be seen as a politics of experience, a politics of therapy – how to gain power for yourself so that you’re not subject to the control of others.
Andrew finished his college years in Canada, winning awards for his achievements in mathematics. He began a career in computer science but later abandoned that to train as a psychologist – that’s where he felt his true calling was.
Unlike many of us, and many therapists, Andrew has known first-hand about being close to danger, close to death – experiencing severely traumatic experiences. Instead of labelling patients using diagnostic categories as many (most?) conventional therapists do, Andrew focuses on the trauma that the patient has experienced. He understands trauma of various types. He understands trauma directly from his experience. He wants to work at alleviating trauma, helping a person free themselves from the weight of past traumatic experience of whatever sort.
Concerning relief from trauma, and working with what is referred to as PTSD, I was a little disappointed that he did not expand more on his experience in using MDMA and other psychedelics with patients — he was a pioneer in this area, discovering a long time ago how MDMA can be used to help resolve the constraints of the persistent remnants of trauma – what is referred to as PTSD. (He has written of his use of psychedelics in therapy in other places.)
Andrew approached his work with dedication. He wanted to learn more, to excel in his field. He wanted to learn from the best. He thought that he needed to decide between studying and working with the most thoughtful and profound – Erich Fromm or R.D. Laing, who he met when Laing gave a lecture in Vancouver. Although he was impressed with Fromm’s intellectual capabilities and his theories, he was drawn to Laing, for his theories and his qualities as a person – his human-being-ness. Andrew decided to study with Laing and went to London to apprentice with him, be in therapy with him and train as a therapist. Or perhaps, we should say “… to become a healer …”. Laing said at one of the early seminars that Andrew attended that some people are born healers, but that others must learn to become healers.
The book takes us on a tour of the events — life events and intellectual encounters — and people who Andrew encountered during his one-year stay in London, studying and training with Laing and others in the Philadelphia Association (“The P.A.”), the organization Laing and several others had set up in London. Initially the aim of the P.A. was to create safe harbors – asylums in the true sense of the word – for people in mental distress – people who’ve been traumatized in some way and are stuck in a state of extreme disturbance – what some people would call “mad”. The community houses (asylums) set up by the P.A. were places where residents could experience madness (or whatever state of mind they chose) without being controlled, drugged, confined, given electric shocks, etc. One well-known case here was that of Mary Barnes, chronicled in the book Mary Barnes – Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness. She was a resident at Kingsley Hall, the first community house/asylum set up by the P.A. – where she descended into her madness for an extended period of time. Laing had become known throughout the western world in the 60s from his notion – proffered in his books Politics of Experience and The Divided Self – that madness is not always a breakdown, but could also be a breakthrough. In the 1960s, many aspects of our society were being put up for question. Laing put the culture’s values and mores up for question: Who is to say who is mad and who is sane? The culture that produces the psychiatrists who define sanity and insanity are bred and educated in the schools of the societies which have killed untold millions during the 20th century. Laing began a questioning of the values and morals of the entre society – the questions of who was sane and who crazy was “up for grabs”– a phrase he liked to use.
On the one hand, Laing’s assertion that madness could be breakthrough instead of breakdown could be taken as a flippant motto, as if propounded by hippies on acid. On the other hand, it’s a call for a re-examination of values and ideals – of the Truth propounded by the society – the standards laid down to define what states of mind are legitimate and good, and what states of being are defined as acceptable and “normal” and which are considered bad or mad.
The book’s title, Credo, suggests that it will be about the guiding principles of Feldmar’s life and the guiding principles of his psychotherapeutic practice. So, one could delve into the book, looking for the answer, looking for the statement of the essential guiding principles of Andrew’s successful therapy practice. The book is presented in 4 parts – Ruptures; Origins; Journal Entries and A Conversation with R.D. Laing.. So we launch into it – like fervent detectives, looking for the answers to the important questions of therapy, madness, anxiety, etc. – waiting to see what we can find. One finds however that there is no single golden nugget, no essential driving principle, no newly invented phrase or principle we can hook onto. So, we read on, recovering many nuggets of practical wisdom as we progress. We accompany Andrew, as readers, in the adventures that he encountered in London with various members of the Philadelphia Association network. If you have studied a range of diverse psychotherapeutic practices, you will find you can understand and relate to aspects of his search as it unfolds. If you’re new to the discipline of psychotherapy or if you’re a patient somewhere, or a student of psychology or psychotherapy, then there will be much for you to think about, mull over, learn from and digest.
Andrew states that his purpose in writing the book is to help you – the reader – express your own credo – like Laing’s Wisdom, Madness and Folly, or John Fowles’ book, The Aristos. In that way, we become fellow travelers, fellow explorers. It’s a bit like therapy itself! Andrew states that he found writing the book was like a process of therapy for him!
He writes: “This book is also therapy for me.” (32) And the book proceeds in the spirit of therapy – a process of questioning, of coming to terms with what life throws at you, and the way you are thrown into the world – your mode of being-in-the-world (to speak Heideggerian) and how you relate to that being-there-ness.
It is at this point that the book switches from being an intriguing autobiography – albeit a very fascinating one – to an exploration of the practice of psychotherapy, as practiced by Laing and subsequently by Andrew and others (including myself, I must say) who studied and trained with him. Laing himself never produced a book detailing methodology or technique for the practice of psychotherapy. This is Laing’s radical approach – do not try to create fixed rules and dogma for the practice of psychotherapy – the art of therapy requires the ability to modify one’s approach as one proceeds,. There may be some rules concerning therapy which are the same as for any psychotherapist – like the rule that the therapist should avoid sexual encounters with the patient, confidentiality must be maintained, a fee is exchanged for service – generally a 50-minute hour – and so on. But there is no all-encompassing metaphysical view, like Freud introduced with his model of the patient’s psyche as comprised of ego, id and superego, and his theories of psychic development, particularly the Oedipus Complex, theories of child sexuality and so on and on. However, Laing, Feldmar et al don’t throw out all of Freud’s practice, or all of the practice of subsequent psychoanalysts. Rather, they take on the difficult task of finding the truths in psychoanalysis that have been explicated by figures such as Jung, Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Medard Boss, Otto Rank, Lacan and others. The problem is: how does one define therapy and how does one train new therapists when there is no hard and fast theory that can be explicated?
It should be mentioned that Laing called his methodology phenomenology or existential-phenomenology, in some of his written works. He is considered by many in the field of psychotherapy, philosophy and psychoanalysis to be a representative of the existential school. So, if we want to describe the method of Feldmar and Laing and those who studied with Laing and the P.A. in some way, it could be called a phenomenological-existential approach.
As we read Credo, we see how Feldmar deals with various issues surrounding therapy as they arise. How much to charge a client? Laing tells him he should charge some very wealthy patients he’s seeing in London a considerable amount, commensurate with their earning power. If you charge them a low rate, you might be perceived as being on the same level as the plumber, and they won’t give you due respect. How close can one get to a patient outside of the “therapeutic hour”? Should one advise against taking psychiatric drugs? What about electric shock “treatment”? As he proceeds, he likes to evaluate and understand each new patient freely – without diagnostic labels, etc.
Different types of therapy respond differently to the exigencies of the patient’s pain, her loves and hates, her life, her relationships and ambitions and/or despair. Each therapeutic methodology poses a method for analysis of the patient’s weltanschauung, and generally suggests, explicitly or implicitly what the therapist can and should do about it — to produce “a cure”. However, the idea of a cure is not primary in the world of Laing and the P.A. There is a line in the play based on Mary Barnes’s experiences in Kingsley Hall where someone asks Joseph Berke, Mary’s therapist, whether Mary will be cured. He responds” “Curing is something you do to bacon. We’re talking here about healing.”
We ask ourselves what methodology Andrew proposes, and what he sees as the goal of therapy – what constitutes the healing process. We might say “healing” is a making whole. Although Andrew formulates the purpose of therapy in different ways at different times.
This is not specifically an instruction manual so there are times when the signposts may be lacking – if you’re reading the book as an instruction manual. We can all understand Andrew wanting to take up the study of psychology rather than work with computers, but how to understand the vast domain of psychology and psychotherapy? How should we understand the distinctions between Fromm and Laing? Why did Andrew want to study with one of these existentialists rather than some of the more traditional types?
There is a great deal of material here, divided into sections with intriguing titles – Ruptures; Origins; etc.. There is also a “bonus chapter” from another author – Francis Huxley, who was a significant influence on Andrew and a long-term friend and colleague of Ronnie Laing – Shamanism, Healing and R.D. Laing.
Andrew experienced a number of ruptures in his life. First, the move from his biological mother to his new Christian mother who he experienced as warm and loving – and who saved his life.. Later on, the hazardous exit from Hungary. Then subsequently, the departure from his parents’ home in Canada to live on his own in Vancouver. There are more ruptures, which he expands upon in the book.
In The Journal Entries section, we follow Andrew’s intellectual and experiential journey in London – from his first encounters with members of the P.A. through his experiences with various people in the P.A. during the year, and of course his encounters with Laing.
We learn a great deal about the P.A. from reading these notes. The P.A. consisted of five members, each one of whom had remarkable prowess, intellectual curiosities and their own set of patients. From Hugh Crawford, who was very knowledgeable about Merleau Ponty and ran one of the successful P.A. houses (where I also worked for a time when I was in London). Then there’s John Heaton, a graduate of Oxford and a student of Bertrand Russell, who was well versed in the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger, and Laing of course, as well as the psychoanalytical works of Freud, Jung, Winnicott, Bion, Lacan, etc.. He had studied widely in philosophy and psychoanalysis and gave seminars on Heidegger, Hegel and Lacan, amongst others. In later years he wrote books on Wittgenstein, re-interpreting psychoanalysis as a process of demystifying language. There was also Leon Redler, an American psychiatrist who came to London to study with Laing, and stayed. He was the “Zen representative” of the P.A. He had a Zendo in his apartment and held daily Zen meditation sessions. Last but certainly not least, there was Francis Huxley, the son of Sir Julian Huxley who studied social anthropology, and the effects of psychedelics, as well as several other disciplines. He also wrote several books on social anthropology, exhibiting his unique approach to the subject. He also wrote a book on Alice in Wonderland called The Raven and the Writing Desk – an exploration of the logic of the (non-)sense in Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
We also meet many other figures who were around the P.A., including Mina Semyon, the yoga teacher, Arthur Balaskas, Haya Oakley and others. As we read of his encounters with the various characters of the P.A., we follow along with the progression of his training as a therapist.
He records with a great honesty – his self-doubts, his affirmations, his escape from his mother’s hypnotic hold on him — a theme that wends its way throughout the book. At one point, he talks about feeling very challenged and overwhelmed in dealing with a particular case Laing has referred to him. Laing tells him that the reason he’s finding it difficult is because it is difficult! Andrew is relieved at this point – it’s not like his mother said, that he’s stupid – it’s about an intelligent, competent person confronting a complex, difficult situation.
What can we learn about what it takes to become a successful and responsible psychotherapist? We might attempt to look for consistent principles and theories, but we may be frustrated in the search if we’re looking for some easy formula or dogma to define the therapist’s modus operandi. The principles that guide Feldmar, from the simple and practical to the more esoteric and philosophical – are arrived at and revealed in the course of events – the encounters that occur between him and various patients. Traditional psychoanalysts might frame their reflections on these encounters in terms of transference and counter-transference, other psychoanalytic jargon and so on, but Andrew presents the incidents and his reflections in simpler, more direct terms. But this doesn’t mean that the thoughts are less profound. On the contrary, they are perhaps more translatable and understandable for all, in that they are not buried within complex psycho-theoretical clothing. Andrew debates concepts such as self-knowledge – which he dismisses ultimately — the influence of Buddhism, perhaps. Laing and he also discuss trends in the New Age therapy and self-development movement going on in the 1970s. Laing thinks that a lot of material is presented to people in a way that encourages them to simply want to add more “stuff” to their New-Age Groups plate.
In conclusion: I found this an intriguing book to read. One can learn much about the formulation of a radical psychotherapeutic method here. Of course, we must consider that what we can glean here is theory. It is not the final end result. It is not the practice. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon itself.
The reader may ask: What is the success rate of this form of therapy? What are the results? Evaluating the efficacy and success rates of various therapeutic methods has always been a tricky endeavor. What criteria do we use to judge the success rate? Ultimately, any attempt to measure efficacy relies on the subjective reporting from patients, before and after therapy. There have been no formal studies, so far, as far as I know of the Laing-P.A.-Feldmar radical approach (radical = going to the roots).. However, I have heard many positive reports from people who have been in therapy with Ronnie Laing and Andrew Feldmar.
Ultimately, what can we say about this approach? What is Andrew advocating for new (and existing) therapists? Do we need to follow the extensive intellectual journey which Andrew has travelled – much more than the average psychoanalyst has done? A journey through philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, literature, poetry, religious texts and more? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps the best we can say is that the therapeutic method is really the practice of Zen – an open attentiveness to the other. As Leon Redler writes in his book, Just Listening, the philosopher Levinas provides a guide from his philosophy – putting the Other first. Levinas’ philosophy is referred to as “Ethics as first philosophy”. Andrew refers to Levinas’ approach as “maternal ethics’ at one point in the book – referring to the mother’s unique propensity to put the child (the other) ahead of herself..
The performance of good, honest therapy lies in the authenticity and the being of the therapist. It’s a work of love. It comes from the heart. Not the intellect. In some sense then, what we learn is that we must dispense with all theory in order to authentically be with a patient in the therapeutic relationship – Bion’s ‘zero state of mind” — without preconceptions, without judgment, without attempt to fix or cure the patient even! A loving being-with.
We may find that the best we can do is to return to concepts such as good and evil to discern the intentions of this sort of therapeutic practice. As Andrew puts it in the book:
“Lucifer is science lacking love.”
Laing did not initially like the term “humanistic psychology” – perhaps because it had become associated with a wide range of practices, many of which had little or no founding depth. Later on, he was happy to be called a “humanistic therapist”. The idea of humanistic psychology arose with people like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers (who had been an inspiration for Laing in his early days as an army psychiatrist) who wanted to distinguish their methodology from the mechanical, technical methods of behaviorism, etc., and the reductionist approach of psychoanalysis. All psychology should be human! The term “humanistic” only arose because much psychology had drifted into the non-human technocratic realms. So, humanistic refers to this movement which re-humanizes psychology and psychotherapy. So, we can refer to Credo as a valuable contribution to the world of Humanistic Psychology, amongst other things.
Murray Gordon, M.A.H.P., M.A., M.Sc.
Living Philosophy Association
Murray trained and studied with Laing, Francis Huxley and others in the Philadelphia Association in London in the 1970s. He studied a variety of approaches to psychotherapy and learning as part of his self-designed Master’s program in Humanistic Psychology with Antioch University International in London. He was awarded a M.A.H.P (Master of Arts in Humanistic psychology) degree in 1979..
Subsequently, he went to the United States where he taught and studied philosophy at Stony Brook university, receiving a M.A. degree in philosophy. He also studded computer science and received a Master of Science degree in computer science.
He is now living in Australia and practicing as a psychotherapist and philosophical counselor.