Glass of WaterHe was scary. Everyone was scared of Milton Erickson, because they never knew what he was doing to influence you. He was so agile of the mind that he got bored doing any one thing, so he was always doing two or three things at once. As you're chatting with him about a case, he was trying to get you to move a hand on a table, or turn the other way. I remember one time, we had dinner in San Francisco, and John [Bateson] reached out for his glass of water and his hand stopped. He said, "Milton, I can't reach for that glass of water and I think you have something to do with it." Erickson said, "Would you like to have the water?" John said, "Yes." Erickson said, "Well, you can have it." And John reached over and took the glass of water and drank it. How he did that I don't know. It was something he might spend twenty minutes to a half-hour setting up while he was talking about other things ... He was constantly practicing; if he turned this way, would you turn this way? Would you go the other way? He used to say that if he went to a party in college and he could get a person sitting over here to move over there without asking them to, then the evening was a success...
At that time, we were studying schizophrenia and the issues in schizophrenic families. We got interested in the question, "How did the relationship between the hypnotist and his subject compare with the mother of the schizophrenic and the schizophrenic?" because there were similarities. For example, if the hypnotist was being resisted by the subject, he would say, "I want you to resist me." If the guy's hand got heavier when asked to have it lighter, the hypnotist would say, "It will get heavier still." In the same way, we should see a mother say to her child, "I want you to resist me and be independent because it will help you" when the child was already trying to be independent. So, we got interested in sequences like that to see if they were similar.
In 1955, John and I went to spend a week with Erickson and talked with him many hours about similarities with schizophrenic communication and hypnosis, such as hallucinations. Erickson thought they were different. But he'd never thought about it, either. So, we did a lot of exploring and then we came back and went over that material and worked quite a bit with it. In the material there was Erickson talking about cases, and we began to realize he was doing a special kind of therapy. At that time, there was no therapy, except that which was based upon psychodynamic ideology. There was no behavior therapy; there was no family therapy. I was very much influenced by Zen in terms of an ideology about life. Ultimately, I realized that Zen practices and Erickson's therapy were similar in many ways. So, I could see that he had something that was an alternative to the existing therapy that really wasn't all that successful. We went back again and again to talk to him about therapy.
In 1956, I went into practice. I had been teaching hypnosis to local psychiatrists and psychologists. I went into practice as a hypnotherapist, set up by Don Jackson, who was head of a clinic. I realized I didn't know how to cure anyone. I knew how to hypnotize them, but not how to change them. I had a few successes that puzzled me. So, I went down and spent a week with Erickson just posing cases to him, and that's how I began to work with him for years, going over cases: I'd say, "Now, what would you do with this kind of problem?" and he'd always surprise me. I had a woman who lost her voice, who couldn't speak above a whisper and there was nothing physically wrong. So, I said to Erickson, "What would you do with this woman?" Milton said, "I'd ask her if there was anything she wanted to say!" His comments often came off sounding impractical, until you started to think about it.
He's probably the most recorded therapist there ever was. He gave freely of his time with anyone who was interested in his work. He was a very dedicated teacher.
One of the reasons I didn't see him so often during the 1970s is that I was feeling sad about him. When I knew him, he was a physically strong man, and very articulate. He was one of the few therapists who said it was extremely important to control your physical movement, and to control your voice. For example, you need to be able to have a slight inflection in your voice which will itself be a message. If you tell someone to "wake up" with a little questioning inflection, they won't wake up because it's a question. He could do the most subtle kinds of inflections that you couldn't recognize, but the subject could tell that it was a question. What made me so sad is that when he got older he lost some of his speech because of his polio, and he lost his movement. To other therapists, it might not matter, but it was so important to him...
I mean, he was a gracious, active guy who walked with a cane, but he was physically very active when I knew him. I think it's a shame to remember him that way. If only there were earlier films, like the one I have from 1958 which shows him in his prime. The subject is a Stanford student. The Bateson Project brought in a cameraman and had Milton filmed talking to a young student and doing an induction. It's not a good film because it's a long distance camera shot, but it does show him in his prime. There's a 1964 film, which I loaned around and will be putting a narration on because he does some extraordinary and intricate work with several women in a demonstration. But anyhow, if there were more films available of him in his 50s then showing the older ones wouldn't matter so much. But people think of him in that way and it's a shame.--- Excerpted from an Interview with Jay Haley
Author, Uncommon Therapy,
The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter