Friday, August 03, 2007

Rogers and Sarbin

Entry for 3 August 2007:

Barry Farber (an old SPR friend who teaches at Columbia University) and I are writing an chapter on Carl Rogers for a book on important psychotherapy researchers. To help with this, I managed to get a hold of an advance copy of Howard Kirschenbaum’s forthcoming The Life and Work of Carl Rogers. I’m supposed to be skimming it for relevant bits on his career as a psychotherapy researcher, but it is a fascinating read, and I keep getting distracted by interesting bits.

This morning I ran across a curious synchronist bit in the chapter on Rogers’ Ohio years. In 1940, a junior faculty member at the University of Minnesota invited Rogers to come give a lecture on counselling and psychotherapy. This turned out to an historically important lecture, because it was here that Rogers began to lay out his critique of directive approaches to counselling and to describe a more growth-oriented alternative. In order to support his point, he quoted a passage from a recent article, in which the author described a not-very-successful attempt to get an undergraduate student to change his major.

What really caught me eye, however, was the identity of both the junior faculty member and the counselor in the quoted passage: It was Ted Sarbin, my undergraduate mentor from the University of California at Santa Cruz!

Kirschenbaum notes that Rogers reported having been mortified to learn that the counselor in the passage was in the audience and was fact Ted Sarbin. However, Kirschenbaum also interviewed Sarbin , who said that he was impressed by Rogers' tact in mentioning him by name! My sense of Ted Sarbin is that he would not have taken it personally and would have been amused rather than offended by Rogers’ using him as an example of bad practice. In my experience, that was the kind of person he was. When I took his course, “The Social Psychology of Deviant Conduct” at UC Santa Cruz in 1971 or so, he told us many interesting and unusual stories of clients he saw, not all of whom had good outcomes.

I am fascinated by this conjunction between two key important figures in my development as a psychologist. It’s ironic that I am writing about Carl Rogers, whom I only met once (casually, at APA in 1980), whereas I knew Ted Sarbin fairly well. But it made me think again about Ted Sarbin and the role he played supporting my intellectual development: His sparking my interest in metaphor; his critique of traditional mental health concepts and practices, different but parallel to Rogers’; the strength of his loyalty to his students, which has come to mean more to me over the years as I have appreciated how unusual it is; and his intellectually adventurous spirit and courage.

Ted Sarbin died in 2005, at the age of 94. Three years before he died, he contacted me to invite me to my first “Sarbin dinner.” This dinner was a 40-year tradition that he held for his students and friends at APA, during which he gave out the Role Theorist of the Year Award, the remit for which had broadened over the years to include contributions to narrative and critical psychology as well.

I had not seen him in years, but there was something he wanted to tell me and the others there: That for years he had felt badly about not having properly credited my thesis research in a book chapter he had written a couple of years after I graduated. For my part, at the time I had been a bit bothered by the incident, which I soon came to understand as one of those stupid, embarrassing things that sometimes happens in producing a paper; but I had long since moved on. Nevertheless, I was immensely moved and touched by his public confession. After that, I attended two more Sarbin dinners at APA. In the summer of 2005, he contacted me twice to make sure I was going to be there, and then at that years’ APA conference in Washington, DC, knowing that he was dying of cancer, he gave out two of his awards, the last of which he gave to me. He died ten days later. The award plaque he gave me is one of my most treasured mementos.

All of this came back to me this morning as I read about the long ago encounter of these two key figures in 20th century American psychology, who are also two of my own most important influences and role models. Ted Sarbin never became a person-centred therapist – he followed no school, although he is the founder of narrative psychology - but he and Carl Rogers shared much in common, and I think I can say that he always supported my growth tendency and inspired me to follow it, while treating me with acceptance, empathy and integrity. It is one of my main goals to try to live up to his example.

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