I was always happy to see Bert at our conferences. Wow, I would think,"There is Bert Karon, among the most experienced, wise, aware, caring, conscientious psychotherapists in the world, a giant in the field and he’s going to be with us." It was a validation that we were going in the right direction, that we were worthy somehow. I never tired of hearing him say, “This is my favorite conference. This is where I feel most at home.” And, then, he would actually listen to me, be interested in what I had to say and respond in his quiet, thoughtful, incisive way. He actually would come to some of my breakout sessions. That was a little scary.
I was a patient of Bert’s for a while. I had the good fortune of being listened to and responded to in a way that was affirming and helpful, if sometimes challenging.
I never missed a chance to attend his breakout sessions. I especially enjoyed it when he would talk about his experience in being with the most “difficult, dangerous” patients. Wherever he worked the staff would send him the patients they believed to be intransigent, hard to reach, “incurable,” even dangerous. I don’t know if they were testing him, curious about what would happen or desperate to do something. He would spend time with them in his quiet, unassuming way, often not knowing what to do but trusting that if he stayed in touch with himself and the other person, something helpful might happen. He was courageous, would get physically attacked from time to time. And he was steadfast. He didn’t give up easily. I remember a breakout session in which he and Annemarie Widener discussed a patient of Annemarie’s who didn’t talk for the first three months of sessions. Bert was supervising her. He helped her realize that the patient was keeping all of her appointments. There must have been something about being with Annemarie that was safe for her, somehow OK. After three months, the patient began to talk.
I think what I learned from him was that, whatever was going on with the person, no matter how bizarre, off-putting and scary it was, it was about the person’s life and his or her reaction to their life circumstances. If he learned enough about the person’s life, he would see how this behavior or lack thereof, this state of being, made all the sense in the world. What else would we expect? So, if he could somehow connect with the person in an affirming way, something helpful might begin.
He wasn’t always nice. He could be forthright, authoritative, severe, standing his ground. But always measured, genuine and respectful.