Allen Wheelis: The Artist and the Impasse

Norman Friedman

To read through Wheelis’ fourteen books of stories and ideas is to see a man twisting and turning, impaled upon the horns of a dilemma. When Science replaced Religion, we thought we had a better way of understanding life, but now that we know that Science too is contingent, what have we left? Furthermore, even if Science were more dependable, it can only answer questions of fact anyway, so we’re still left swinging in the wind when it comes to knowing how to live. And when we look at History and Society, we must realize that, regardless of Ideals, things are run by the lust for power, the rebels against authority merely becoming authoritarians in their turn.

Since he is a psychoanalyst, we might wonder whether he sees any alleviation coming from that source. He is naturally sensible of the differences between Sociology and Psychology, and intends to avoid facile connections. Nevertheless, he does see what he takes to be a meaningful way of relating them: when Freud and his followers developed their theory of neurosis, it was based on the fact that nineteenth-century society was such as to produce specific symptoms, but nowadays, in our much less work-and-character-oriented society, our problems stem not so much from specific neuroses as a vague sense of dissatisfaction and unfulfilment. The techniques developed by psychoanalysis, therefore, are more suited to the past than the present, and so they too must be re-thought.

Nevertheless, he says, to realize that our problem stems from a feeling of malaise rather than from specific symptoms does help to focus it better and to lead toward a more suitable psychotherapy, which in turn could lead toward a more viable concept of society and how to live in it. I want to trace these themes through Wheelis’ writings, as well as to discuss their cogency and viability. As I too am both a literary man and a psychotherapist, I would hope that I’m in a favorable position to attempt these tasks—although it’s only fair to say that my psychotherapy views derive more from my training as a Gestalt therapist than from psychoanalysis. What difference that makes remains to be seen.


Let us begin by outlining Wheelis’ view of History and Society. As mentioned, he contrasts the typical character-structure of the nineteenth century with that of the twentieth in terms made popular by David Riesman, Margaret Meade, Daniel Bell, et al. That is to say, our forebears were governed by internalized values and could be said to be “inner-directed,” while the mid- and late-twentieth century is governed by externalized values and so is “other-directed.” Thus the nineteenth-century character was based on the virtues of hard work, moral rectitude, and the patriarchal family, while that of the twentieth century is based on being flexible, getting along, and adaptability. The cause is traced back to the shift away from a pre-industrial, family-oriented way of life, and toward a rapidly-changing technological society, where adaptability has more survival value than consistency.

Wheelis poignantly illustrates this shift by narrating—in at least two different books (The Quest for Identity [1958] and How People Change [1973])—the fateful episode between a young boy and his father regarding the punishment for the boy’s poor marks in deportment at school.

But before proceeding further, I want to claim the convenience of assuming that this and other episodes are autobiographical, although Wheelis often writes in a blend of “fact” and “fiction” (the quotation marks indicating his own awareness of the slipperyness of these terms, which in turn ties in with his discussion of the limits of science) and gives different names to a character who can only be some aspect of Wheelis himself. If not, they nevertheless in many ways resemble Wheelis’ own CV—in most cases the mature protagonist is a psychiatrist and has many of the same problems and feelings as the other protagonists. Whatever the case may be, when I say “Wheelis,” I mean the persona who permeates these books in various guises.

Wheelis’ father and his father’s father were physicians, just as Wheelis himself is. His father, however, contracted tuberculosis during the boy’s childhood and was bedridden in his sickroom. He nevertheless continued to rule the household with an iron hand, and he is Wheelis’ chief exhibit of nineteenth-century characterology. Upon seeing from the boy’s end-of-year report card that he received poor grades in conduct—too much fooling around, etc.—the father teaches the boy a lesson in taking life more seriously by having him cut the grass around the house with a knifeblade instead of being able to go out and play with the other boys.

At first the task seems possible to the boy, but as it moves along it becomes clear that it will in fact consume most of the summer. His hands and body ache, he’s frustrated and angry, yet he has literally no choice but to continue. When it does finally come to an end, the boy is released by his father, who explains he punished the boy like this because he loves him and needs to teach him this crucial lesson, that you can’t spend your life fooling around, that life is hard work. And of course, since this lesson is being taught on the physical and not merely the verbal level, it is expected to be that much more effective and meaningful.

The problem is, Wheelis says, that like psychoanalysis itself, this attitude toward work has become obsolete, and we have had to re-define what it means to succeed in our society nowadays. Thus the morality of getting along, of how to win friends and influence people, of not only being liked but being well-liked, etc.


I wonder, however, if Wheelis is presenting this shift as being a move from better to worse, that to put behind us such sadistic parenting is to become more flabby? We’ll have to return to this question below. I also wonder about his historical frame here. On the one hand, I doubt whether the nineteenth century was as village-and-character-oriented as he makes it seem, and on the other, I think his view of twentieth-century man is more time-bound than he realizes.

The nineteenth century was in fact the time of the industrialization of the West, and the social critics and literary figures of the time were practically united in their warnings about the dehumanization of society and the creation of mass man. Thus we had Wordsworth, Carlyle, Arnold, and Ruskin in England, and Emerson and Thoreau in America, to name only the most conspicuous. And although Tennyson and Whitman at first had a tendency to greet “progress” with enthusiasm, they too learned better in their later years. The passing of village-and-town culture occurred more, then, during the eighteenth than the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, history does seem, from certain points of view, to go in cycles, so that the rise and fall of enthusiasm for one’s own culture can be seen to occur during various times of change, especially when what one has grown used to seems to be in the process of being supplanted by what is strange and unfamiliar. Recall Arnold’s quoting from Lucretius (lst century BC) in “On the Modern Element in Literature” (1857): “A man rushes abroad because he is sick of being at home; and suddenly comes home again because he finds himself no whit easier abroad. Etc.” Arnold exclaims, “What a picture of ennui! of the disease of the most modern societies, the most advanced civilizations!” Yet Wheelis is not unaware of the vaster sweeps of time when talking about history; it just seems to me that his view of the village-and-town-culture of his boyhood—born 1915—is being taken to represent more than it legitimately can. Of course there were pockets of the older sort of culture extant during his childhood, and I don’t doubt that his father represented that culture. But to take that experience as representative of nineteenth-century culture in contrast to twentieth-century culture is to base the conclusion on too small and select a sample.

On the other hand, I also doubt whether modern society can best be characterized as other-directed. While it did seem that way when Wheelis began to publish in 1958, it did not subsequently continue along those lines. The period after World War Two did lead to the conformist Fifties, the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the McCarthy hearings, et al. There was a great need to get society back together, to re-absorb the returning veterans and their new families, to build housing, expand the educational system, open up the job market, re-tool industry and commerce from war to peace, etc. There was also that brooding sense of insecurity stemming from the supposed Communist Threat inspired by the Soviet Union. All these factors tended to encourage conformity, playing it safe, and building one’s nest.

Sure enough, however, with the advent of the Sixties, the Baby Boomers, the many liberation movements, encounter groups, the Beetles, the Rolling Stones, etc., the predictable swing of History occurred, and Doing Your Own Thing became the rage. It was also during these years that the Humanistic or Third Force psychotherapies burst into popular attention—among which, of course, was Gestalt Therapy, brought to the fore by the likes of Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman (nor is it accidental that Goodman also became one of the most prominent critics of society and schools of the Sixties).

If Wheelis is correct in seeing Psychotherapy as shifting from treating symptom neuroses in the nineteenth century to struggling with problems of identity and vague discontent in mid-twentieth century, we must in all fairness add the subsequent shift of the Sixties to dealing with problems of self-fulfilment. As people such as Erich Fromm saw, it was no longer a matter of putting the ego where the id was; it was more a question of giving the id more play. It was felt that the juices of life had been dried out, and I must say, from the perspective of a former G.I. who saw his adolesecent children get caught up in the hubub of the Sixties, that is exactly
what I felt. As Margaret Meade had said, we looked to our children for clues as to how to live. It was if they were acting out what we had to repress in order to survive the war and its aftermath—and thus, confronted by our lost selves, we went mad, we acted out, and we went into therapy.

And the therapy that emerged as a result, although not always clear and responsible, did try—and is still trying—to encourage finding and fulfilling one’s true self, while at the same time attempting to place that quest in the context of the larger society. So we have couples’ therapy, group therapy, organizational development, and humanistic critiques of society—of which, as noted above, Paul Goodman is a notable representative. Thus, although the Seventies have come to be called the Me Decade and the Yuppies came into prominence in the Eighties, I do think that the forces of integration are still working.


Let us turn now to consider Wheelis’ theory of treatment and how this relates to his own self-treatment. Although he was trained as a psychoanalyst, he no longer believes that insight is the goal of treatment and the curative factor. As we know, Freud’s approach to treatment grew out of his model of the mind and his theory of neurosis. Since he saw the mind as a balance of contending forces among id, ego, and superego, he could understand neurosis as a disturbance of that balance. More specifically, he understood the ego as the executive/rational function, the factor that should maintain the proper balance. Therefore, since neurosis means that either the id or the superego is usurping power, treatment involves restoring the balance in favor of the ego. It seems logical, then, that helping the patient to understand the neurosis is the way to cure it, since understanding is a function of the ego. The treatment method, therefore, is analysis and interpretation aiming at insight.

Although there is much more to it—transference, resistance, dreams, defenses, the oedipal complex, etc.—there is enough here to make the present point: for Wheelis, and of course for many others, it often seemed not to be the case that understanding was sufficient to effect the cure—or even necessary. Even when orthodox psychoanalysis adds that the insight has to be “worked through” in many different connections in the patient’s life, and also that it must be accompanied by “appropriate affect,” it still seems either that the cure keeps withholding itself or that it takes far too many years to work. It is not clear whether Wheelis had any other treatment than his training analysis, but he acknowledges openly that he does not feel he has been cured. In fact, he keeps diagnosing his symptoms and attempting to get to the bottom of them: he is not at ease in social situations, has low self-esteem, is afflicted with satyriasis, can’t always believe in his work but is a compulsive worker who can barely find time to relax, etc.

But let’s hold off on Wheelis’ treatment for the moment in order to consider his treatment philosophy. The problem is: what do you do when you have decided that analysis and interpretation are not enough? Well, the first thing you can do, he says, is to reconsider the treatment relationship in the light of this new approach. Traditionally—although not necessarily for Freud himself—the analyst acts as a neutral observer, a blank screen onto which the patient can project fantasies and feelings, where they then become available for analysis. While it is optimal if the patient can arrive at the interpretation, it is not unusual for the analyst to offer one—at least for starters. Underlying this relationship is an unacknowledged power-structure, with the analyst in the position of strength and the patient in the position of need. Thus, if the goal of treatment is to put back the patient’s life into his or her own hands, the very structure of the treatment relationship runs implicitly counter to that goal.

Although Wheelis does not seem to have been influenced by Humanist therapy, he parallels that movement by insisting that the therapist should be more of a catalyst than an authority figure, and that the patient must take responsibility for his or her side of the work. Further, acknowledging that insight is not enough, he offers the following paradigm in its place. Rather than assuming with analysis that if you alter a person’s being, she or he may alter the way he or she acts, Wheelis says you must alter the way she or he acts, and that will ultimately result in a change of being. Awareness and understanding can lead to a change in behavior, but they do not in themselves effect the cure. Thus does he address the dilemma of analysis “succeeding” while the patient remains the same.

Related to these points is Wheelis’ notion of freedom and necessity. Faced with the dilemma, as he says, that death makes life meaningless, how is one to live? I gather that this puzzle arises from the assumption that we must be able to see some “purpose” in life in order to find it meaningful, and that it’s difficult to see purpose when life is simply cut off by death. He surely acknowledges that some people don’t need to have any other purpose in order to feel fulfilled, but he just as surely knows that he is not one of them. Why he feels this way may become clearer when we take up his own self-analysis. However this may be, Wheelis clearly presents himself as an unfulfilled man.

The point is, however, that given this iron necessity, he insists that we still have choice, depending upon whether we are able to recognize it or not. It may be governed by the constraints of necessity, but within those constraints there is still choice. His favorite example, which he discusses twice—in The Desert (1970) and in How People Change (1973)—is that of a victim being herded into the gas ovens at Auschwitz, a situation where you would think it tragically obvious that there is no choice. But for Wheelis that person has two choices: to accept this manner of dying and proceed into the ovens, or to make a run for it and be certainly brought down by dogs and bullets. There is freedom to choose, in other words, how to die even if there is no choice about whether to die.

We can choose, moreover, to balance between immanence and transcendence, between individual morality and the immoral state, between our limited mortality and our infinite longing. Or those who are not content with life as it is can choose: the real puzzle is why Wheelis doesn’t make the connection between his self-analysis and his philosophy—or rather, why his self-analysis doesn’t go deep enough to clarify his philosophical conundrum.


As we have seen, he does acknowledge and develop a relationship between History and Psychology, but then he tends to absorb the latter into the former. Our modern malaise, he observes, does not come simply from inadequate parenting; indeed, good parenting is not enough to avoid it. It comes rather from the increasingly more rapid movement of History toward technology and depersonalization. Why then, we might ask, does he keep going back, as he does, to his own childhood and subsequent relationship with his mother to search out an answer? Isn’t it the case that, even if my inner turmoil stems ultimately from modern society, the more immediate causes are to be found in my original family? And couldn’t we say further that if I could devise a way of fixing the effects of those immediate causes, I would not necessarily have to change Society in the process? To be sure, it is of the utmost importance to help fix Society as well, but would it not be fair to claim that I’ll have a clearer head for that task if I’ve addressed my inner turmoil first? Otherwise I’m in danger of projecting my neurosis onto Society in order to fix it there—which is good neither for myself nor Society.

Let’s look further, therefore, at what Wheelis tells us about his parents. We already know something about his father via the grass-cutting episode, and the wonder is that Wheelis doesn’t see fit to speculate further about the obvious psychological implications. Using it in Quest for Identity rather to exemplify his point about the inner-directed society which preceded ours, he does not get psychological until How People Change—to which we shall return below.

Meanwhile it might illuminate the problem if we speculated further ourselves. First of all, there surely must be some spirit of revenge in the father for being thus bed-ridden, and so he must dominate the household. Prevented from the normal exercise of life and career, he must focus all of his energies here. Resenting his own impotence, he must project that resentment outward onto wife and son. Mother has to nurse and tend to him, boil his sheets, and be at his beck and call; and when he dies he extracts from her a promise never to marry again—with the result, as we shall see, that she projects her erotic needs onto her son. The son, returning from school for his summer vacation, must pay for his father’s confinement by not being able to go out and play all summer.

The effect that all this must have had on the boy’s psychosexual development is not explicitly analyzed, but the effect of his mother thereon is in fact mentioned. The father dies during the boy’s early adolescence, and so he now had his mother all to himself (a sister is mentioned, but she remains a shadowy figure). His mother was the reverse of his father—warm, affectionate, dependent, and doting upon her son.
And apparently it was not unusual for them to sleep in the same bed at times. Wheelis recounts an incident where the boy tries to quietly explore his mother’s genitals; although she seems asleep and offers no resistance, he can’t actually find what he’s searching for and feels very frustrated. Much later, when she’s becoming senile and he’s a physician, she wants him to examine her, even suggesting that they get married.

Wheelis clearly identifies this as his Oedipus to her Jocasta, but he does not, that I can see, ever connect this up with the obsession with sex and women he is afflicted with. Or to his inability to openly love and identify with his father. Or with his obsessive trying and failing to find the “meaning of life.” On the contrary, his solution was to become an artist of the impasse, as he himself says. Let’s take a closer look at what this impasse means.


I think it would be appropriate to take this matter up in psychological terms, and as I’ve said, the psychology I find most useful is Gestalt Therapy. As it happens, Gestalt offers a marvelously apt way of understanding the impasse phenomenon. Psychotherapy, of course, is a technique for change, for helping people through their blocks to effective functioning, and to help them to become more truly themselves. You will recognize this, of course, as a Humanistic position, and I make no apologies for adhering to it. Nevertheless, while the traditional diagnostic categories may have to be re-fashioned to suit our present concerns, I do not reject them altogether as misleading and useless.

How, then, does Gestalt Therapy view the change process? Fritz Perls spoke of it as working through a sequence of layers within the self. First there is the layer of the neurosis itself, which he calls the Games Layer, borrowing the term, of course, from Berne. During childhood, when we experienced non-understanding and non-acceptance of our true nature from the care-taking adults, we had no choice (other than madness, to give Wheelis his due about freedom) but to act defensively by adopting roles and ploys designed to placate those adults while at the same time preserving some remnant of selfhood. The structure of these games is that of a competition: the true self tries to fend off the demands of the introjected parent by placating, promising to shape up, to do better, etc. The former has had to transform itself into the Underdog, as Perls says, while the latter has taken on the office of the Topdog.

This game, of course, can have no end, repeating itself in various guises into adulthood. The problem then is that, while in adulthood the person doesn’t in fact need parents, he or she still feels that way regardless. So the games go on, being projected now onto situations where they no longer even
have a defensive function. One may come home at night complaining about one’s boss, e.g., just as one used to complain about one’s father, not really aware of the existential difference.

The fact that these games no longer have any purpose might occur to one, on the other hand, in which case we’re
in for a crisis. Either we have to change the game, reversing roles, but the result will ultimately be the same, sinner becoming saint or coward becoming daredevil, etc.; or to let go of game-playing entirely, in which case we face a very anxious situation; or simply to resign ourselves and plod along half-alive, not hoping for much.

That’s when a person might decide to come into therapy, when he or she is feeling the futility of the games but doesn’t know how to get free of them. The games are bound by the childhood terror of abandonment, of facing the Void which would seem to open out under one by letting go of one’s parents, and the task of the therapist is to help the client accept and go through that terror. As it no longer has any basis in reality, it is in fact much less frightening to experience than to anticipate. Nevertheless, the fear can block the client and, having let go of the games, he or she cannot yet enter the Void, and so gets stuck in between. This is the Impasse, a place of frustration, desperation, seeking in vain for “solutions,” feeling stuck, in a whirl, looking for a way out, etc. In other words, this is an uncannily accurate picture of the world as it looks to Wheelis.

The only way to get through the Impasse is to accept it, enter it, explore it, and be grateful that you’ve found it—while it is assuredly uncomfortable, it is a step more healthy than the Games. If Wheelis does seem at times to accept this position, it feels more like a stoic hanging-on than a positive acceptance. In fact, it feels at times like a stubborn glorying in his stuckness, licensing him to continue on his endless quest, somehow more noble, it may be, than settling for a resolution—never mind his occasional self-derogations.

But what happens if you do succeed in staying with the Impasse? You’ll be enabled to enter the terror of abandonment which the Games were designed to defend against, and the Impasse was designed to stave off, and here you will experience an implosion, a feeling of hanging in empty space without supports, a motion of going into and holding onto yourself as the only support you have left, an experience of breathless suspension. Perls called this the Implosive Layer or Death Layer—borrowing the latter term and concept from the ancient archetype of Death and Rebirth found in so many ancient myths and rituals, and still operative today in the remnants of our own festivals. We must lose our life in order to find it.

If the patient can be encouraged and supported in entering this phase and staying with it, the Sterile Void becomes the Fertile Void, says Perls, borrowing from Taoism—and, of course, reflecting the ancient wisdom that the Way Down is the Way Up. The desert blossoms, and we are finally making contact with our original selves, that which went into hiding within the structure of the Games. This is the Life Layer or Explosive Layer, for the basic primal emotions which have been suppressed by the Games–grief, joy, anger, and orgasm—are now able to be released, and thus at the outset they may need expressive relief, coming out in mini-explosions, the therapist standing by to provide unobtrusive support if needed.

Now the result of all this is not intended to be “happiness,” a life without problems, whatever that may mean. Nor is it intended to encourage dramatic “breakthroughs,” necessarily. It is rather, first of all, to relieve us of unnecessary and archaic inner conflict, and so enable us to deal with life’s real problems without having one hand tied behind us. Perhaps Freud meant something like this when he said the purpose of analysis was to relieve us of neurotic misery by restoring us to ordinary human unhappiness. But since his model of health was to place the ego in control, as we have seen, it is still a model of tension and conflict. The organismic model, on the other hand, envisions the possibility of wholeness. Without going into a trance about this, I want to say, in the second place, that to be relieved of unnecessary conflict leaves a lot of space in the psyche for growing, expanding, and experiencing authentic joy—even ecstasy. And, I might add, for not needing to know what the purpose of life is—which, as Wheelis himself says in one place or another, is to live. But he somehow never finds that to be enough.


Before concluding, I want to follow him into that place where he almost re-invents Gestalt Therapy for himself. It takes place in How People Change (1973), his seventh book, almost midway in his writing career to date. He’s saying that Necessity and Freedom are both true, and that we may choose either, and he mentions his Auschwitz example. Then he moves into an example from his own life. Aware that he’s constrained in social situations, he tries to trace it back to its sources and notices that he feels anxious when he feels he has to give an account of himself to others. He infers a hidden conviction that this account would be inadequate, that he’ll be judged negatively and beyond appeal, which in turn seals his own view of himself as inadequate. Then he traces this back to the Grass Episode amd his father’s stern voice judging him. This voice remains within, telling him he’ll always be found wanting. Wheelis sees this incident as having determined not only his choice of being a writer but also his choice of what to write about and how, always trying to counter Determinism with Freedom. Then he enters one of his reflexive moments and wonders if he’s really as free as he thinks when he writes about freedom. Or is it actually “shadow play for a more ancient drama, a sublimated rebellion against my unacknowledged servitude?” In other words, is he still struggling with his father’s view of himself?

Not all anger is petty and mean, as he used to tell himself, yet he continues to avoid it. “When next I feel those steel fingers close around my heart I must seek a division of self, must find a way of turning around inside, as it were, to discover those pale blue eyes still fixed upon me, and to reject at last the ancient accusation, must face my father who now is the condemning part of self, and say, ‘It is you who is the enemy, not those out there. It is you who would destroy me!”’ Not those out there! What does this say, then, about all the labor he has been investing in his extensive social critique?

Yet he continues, “Anger is what I need. To cringe before that inner denunciation is to perpetuate the past, to reaffirm my father’s authority to determine how I regard myself.” I have resources now beyond my childhood powers, he adds, and the old drama can take place visibly and audibly, making a different outcome possible. There is always a margin of freedom, even within the most difficult of limits; if we can’t simply change the world, we can at least make a start by changing ourselves. “The sequence is suffering, insight, will, action, change.” Being will conform to behavior; we’re looking for self-transcendence, even if it’s usually a relative matter. If we can’t be free of conflict, at least we can learn to deal better with it.

Several important points need looking at here. First of all, he seems to be contradicting his earlier idea that the real source of the problem lies in the historical shifts we are experiencing, and that therefore personal inner change does not solve the problem—at least for those who, like Wheelis himself, are not content simply to live. Second of all, it is not exactly clear what he means by insisting that we cannot change Being without first changing Action. And third, he doesn’t seem to realize that the inner dialogue with his father he’s imagining already figures as an established technique in Gestalt Therapy (which Perls acknowledges, with his usual open-handedness, was in part inspired by Moreno’s psychodrama technique). Indeed, I find that Wheelis, for all his impressive learning, is either unaware of or chooses not to mention—not simply Gestalt Therapy or other Third Force therapies—but also the many important and fruitful developments in psychoanalytic thought itself since World War Two—ego psychology, self-psychology, object-relations theory, the work of Winnicott, Daniel Stern, etc.

But let us look a bit closer at the Being/Action dilemma. He seems generally to be saying that we can’t modify our selves unless we change our actions, that Being conforms to Action. Yet he rejects the technique of Behavior Modification, ostensibly because, as with drugs or hypnosis, it simply offers symptom relief, merely a quick fix without going to the roots of the problem. Recall that he said the sequence is suffering-insight-will-action-change. What is not clear, however, is what he means by Action. Does it refer to what one does and how one behaves in the objective world, so that if, for example, one feels blocked in social situations, one decides, after understanding the problem, to be more relaxed, open, and friendly? Or, taking a clue from his own imagined inner dialogue with his father, is it that one talks to that part of the self within that makes one feel inadequate in the first place? In other words, address the aggressor one has identified with and internalized, in Anna Freud’s conceptualization, or the Topdog, in Perls’s schema, and have it out with that figure. Do Action and Behavior in Wheelis’ model refer to outer or inner working-through?

He might reply that he means both, but I think it makes a difference. I very much doubt that advising a patient to do something in the outside world which he or she feels resistant about can be helpful, no matter how clearly she or he understands the problem and would like to solve it. If, for example, a patient is fearful of expressing anger, as Wheelis says he is, it would do little good and might even cause some harm to advise him or her to go and out into the world and express that anger to others whenever she or he feels like it. It does not even solve the problem to express that anger to the therapist, although this technique does bring us a step closer to the arena in which anger must actually be worked through—that is, toward the internalized oppressor, where the anger comes from in the first place. (As an aside, I would be especially careful when dealing with the feelings of members to one another in group therapy: here too we would not want them to cloud the issue by projecting onto others what belongs to an earlier care-taking figure.)

So far Wheelis might reply that this is what he really means. The only problem is that I don’t see him developing and following it up in his subsequent writings. Nor do I see that he is aware of the full structure of the sort of exercise that he suggests to begin with. That is to say, if one is to address the internalized aggressor, allowing oneself to feel and express one’s anger at last, one must then turn around—changing chairs if feasible—become that aggressor, and reply. That part is just as much within as the first, and therefore it must be worked through just as much as the first. The true working-through, in other words, involves the way in which they relate to each other and to the function which that relationship plays in the person’s “creative adjustment” which is the neurosis. That is to say, there is something in it for the Underdog to sustain this ostensibly subservient role, and it is not something he will easily agree to let go of. So he pretends to agree with the scoldings of the Topdog, saying, “You’re right, I’ll shape up mañana, I’ll do better, you’ll see, etc.” Likewise, there is something in it for the Topdog to keep bullying the Underdog, so he keeps saying, “Shape up or ship out, you’re not measuring up, just do what I say, etc.” There is something in it for the Topdog to stay on top, because if he lets up, he’ll disappear, so he covertly prevents Underdog from obeying by making impossible demands. In other words, they are both conspiring to maintain the structure of the childhood situation in adulthood, either because it is at least something familiar and manageable however uncomfortable, in comparison with the threat of abandonment, or because there remains a compulsion to resolve it and achieve wholeness, or both.

To be sure, such a technique involves Action and not just Being, but it is more of the nature of working through than acting out. The “action” is simply to put into active dramatic form that which is being “enacted” within anyway. “Give that feeling a voice,” the Gestalt therapist might say, or, “Can you talk from your hands—what are they saying?” If the client says “I could kick myself for being so foolish,” the therapist does not say, “So go ahead, kick yourself,” for the problem is that the client is already doing that too well, and we never want the client to literally turn against the self, for this is what the neurosis calls for in the first place. “Whom would you like to kick instead?” is the more helpful intervention, or, “Who did this to you?” We might then put that other person in the empty chair and ask if the client wants to kick him or her—having made sure in advance that there’s something soft to kick. And/or this could very well turn into a dialogue: “I could kick you for ignoring me like that!” Change chairs: “Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” And so on, until something shifts, and the therapist can make an intervention to further the process toward self-integration. And a similar approach is used for dreams as well, with the client taking the part of the various aspects of the dream and speaking from each part.

As Wheelis says, the therapist is an enabler rather than an interpreter, for only the client can know—or more importantly, feel—what each part of the dialogue was about. The therapist makes suggestions as to where to go next rather than interpretations of what it all means. Indeed, a very useful way of dealing with this, which is really an issue of the transference, when the client asks for an interpretation, is to say, “Put me in the empty chair and ask—then switch over and answer.” As Wheelis also says, insight is necessary but not sufficient, but Perls would say it is not even necessary, that change occurs in the organism as a whole, in the emotions and the body, and the mind will catch up when it’s ready. An interpretation, if it comes at all, is best left to the end of the session, after the working-through has occurred.


Thus, if I have found what appears to me to be a missing link in Wheelis’ thought, I can nevertheless claim to have done so within the framework of his own approach. And within that framework, he has done valuable work in adding to the growing body of knowledge concerning the powers and limitations of psychoanalysis as a treatment modality, and he has offered cogent, viable, and challenging suggestions to remedy the situation. Furthermore, he has enlivened his presentation by means of his technique of mixing and blending expository and novelistic approaches, as well as of creating and setting into motion a variety of personae for embodying his inner and outer quests. All of which is appropriate to his dialectical/hovering intellectual approach, encouraging us to feel and not simply think with him.

— Flushing, N.Y.