(this is a letter I sent to Bert just 6 months before he died)
I'm not a particularly generous guy. But you've generously given me many things over the years that I've known you. Your work with people labeled “schizophrenic” and your writings about that work was a contribution to everyone – and I benefited, as did my therapy clients.Your graphic descriptions of your work makes clear that primarily, your clients were the major recipients. You collaborated with me on more than several occasions in presenting to the APA, ISPS and ISEPP. You've given me referral options to your respected former students in other regions, who themselves have made clear that they benefited greatly from your teaching and guidance. You immediately supported our initiative to develop Volunteers In Psychotherapy, several times offered to speak to reporters who doubted the rationale or feasibility of this service, and you've selflessly and repeatedly donated in support of VIP's work. When I wanted a trusted consultant to review my thinking with a complicated client, you again didn't hesitate and made time available to discuss complexities from a thoughtful, experienced perspective.
Now I want to thank you for sending me a copy of the compilation of your writings, The Widening Scope of Psychoanalysis: Collected Essays of Bertram Karon.
As has happened repeatedly, I've learned a lot from your influence. Some of the lessons that stood out for me were your encouragement to try to be comfortable in your ignorance when working with someone in therapy, because we never fully understand another person. That we have to be open to our impressions of what the therapy client is communicating, but we also have to be open to alternative perspectives, other meanings for what the client is saying and what's going on between us. It helped me to hear from you that, when in doubt, we should always remember to be kind to people who have probably been hurt in multiple ways – and that, when in doubt, reacting as a decent human being is never a bad choice.
It helped me to see your model of boldness. You don't hesitate to tell people about the powerfully helpful changes psychotic clients have made when you've helped them to figure out the clues they've given about the source of their misery and confusion.... even while the profession as a whole insists that these people suffer from [unverifiable] brain diseases. You don't hesitate to contradict those who undermine the idea that traumatic memories can be suppressed and then recovered – and your use of a clinical example of a Second World War veteran's recollections of a traumatic crash landing was particularly compelling. Maybe that particularly touched a nerve with me because of so many people I've worked with who've had sexual assault or childhood abuse as part of their problems, and myself having had a father who described crashes at his airbase in England in World War II. You also encourage others to publish findings when they've encountered evidence that the field would benefit from. I've had a hard time thinking through how I want to write something myself, and I appreciate your common-sense encouragement toward publishing as an important attempt to express previously underexamined but important truths.
All of these are lessons that I've needed, in order to do better work. I have no doubt that there are many people, like me, who've found in your writings particular needed corrective messages, or reminders, to help them in their work. Many of us haven't had the long term benefit of formally being your student – but have still gleaned much from your writing. I've gone back to your book several times in writing this letter, and each time I've recognized new perspectives, new gems or food for thought that I only began to appreciate in my previous readings of the essays: Deeper recognition of the full perspective of what you're saying. New encouragements to rethink my clinical impressions of difficult therapy situations I've been dealing with.
Bert, I wrote the bulk of this letter recently... but after multiple sessions with that same complex person I'd consulted with you about – I'm even more enthusiastic in thanking you and recommending the many benefits of reading your essays. I know that some of the progress in recent therapy sessions with this person came from the renewal, the reminders, the re-thinking of my approach that came with reading your book of essays. It gave me the impetus to think through slightly different and more effective approaches to understand a set of problems that that client and I have struggled with over the years.
Your writing has helped me when I've been stuck. Your ideas have gotten me to reexamine assumptions I'd been making, or “stones I'd left unturned”... and so you've been very helpful to me.
Thanks again for all your help, Bert.