APA conventioneers missed the presence of a noisy, provocative and exceptionally talented man at convention this year. With the death of Albert Ellis earlier this summer, they lost not only one of the giants of the field-Ellis is widely considered a grandfather of cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT-but also one of its most colorful characters. Known as "the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy," he was widely known for his zinging one-liners on people's follies: "All humans are out of their f---ing minds, every single one of them," he liked to say.
But Ellis's sailor's mouth belied enormous theoretical and professional contributions, colleagues say. When he died July 24 at age 93, Ellis left behind a vast legacy in the form of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, considered the first expression of the now-pervasive CBT. At a time when Freudian theory dominated therapy, Ellis's REBT, first popularized in the 1950s, challenged people to deal with reality, overcome their irrational beliefs and take positive action.
"Ellis's breakthrough was that if you want to change the emotional consequences of an event, you have to change your beliefs about it," explains University of Scranton psychology professor John C. Norcross, PhD. This view contrasted with Freudian theory, which maintained that a traumatic event itself led to the emotional consequences. For the first time, REBT encouraged people to challenge their negative thinking about life events and to move on.
Indeed, Ellis injected a powerful dose of reality into his work with clients, helping them overcome their tendency to "catastrophize" and "awfulize" events, to use familiar Ellis buzzwords.
"Albert helped people break down the kinds of artificial standards that we hold up for ourselves-that 'I'm a worthless human being because I'm not a success,' for example, or that 'I must have perfect relationships in my life or I'm a failure,'" says psychologist Robert Alberti, PhD, publisher of five of Ellis's books and author with Michael Emmons, PhD, of the bestselling assertive-training tome "Your Perfect Right" (Impact, 2001), now in its eighth edition. "He helped people realize that we need to put aside those irrational expectations, deal with realistic things in a rational way, and get on with it."
A salty persona
Ellis developed REBT from a combination of readings in Greek stoicism and his own mastery of childhood difficulties at a time when others were challenging the orthodoxy of the day as well, says University of Akron psychology professor David Baker, PhD, director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology. Carl Rogers was developing client-centered therapy. Fritz Perls founded Gestalt therapy. Aaron T. Beck created his form of cognitive therapy around the same time Ellis was touting REBT.
REBT and CBT are similar theoretically but different stylistically, Norcross notes. Beck was the consummate academic scientist, inciting clients and researchers to test CBT theories to prove they work, and manualizing CBT techniques so that anyone could practice them. By contrast, Ellis was the quintessential independent practitioner, and his REBT is less structured and more philosophical and rational, though just as teachable as CBT, Norcross explains.
But the most dramatic difference between the two men was their personalities, Norcross says. "Beck presents as the Ivy League professor that he is," while psychology's "Lenny Bruce" loudly spoke his mind, often in outrageous ways. He bragged about using the "F word" at professional conferences including APA, and he enjoyed tweaking colleagues and clients with similarly salty language. In fact, Ellis first rose to fame in the 1940s as a pioneer of sex therapy, at a time when talking openly about sex was extremely controversial, Norcross notes. He preached acceptance of homosexuality, and he advocated for public sex education-a position that almost got him arrested several times for violating decency statutes, Norcross adds.
Ellis's maverick sensibilities carried into the way he publicized his work as well, says former APA President Ronald E. Fox, PhD. "Ellis didn't publish in the usual journals-he had a sort of contempt for them," Fox says. Instead, he wrote his own books-83 of them-many of them self-help volumes penned at a time when self-help was frowned upon.
"Ellis didn't just go up to the cathedral door and tack up a list of complaints, he tore down the doors and stomped on them," as Fox puts it. "Had his style been different, had he published in different places, he would have been recognized a lot earlier," he surmises.
That said, it is difficult to overestimate the impact that Ellis has had on psychology, colleagues say. REBT centers exist worldwide, and REBT has influenced a number of specialty areas, including behavioral medicine and substance abuse recovery. Ellis is considered the "patron saint" of SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery, for instance, a cognitive-behavioral alternative to 12-step programs for substance abuse, says University of Washington addiction expert G. Alan Marlatt, PhD. Instead of relying on a higher power, people at these meetings examine and attempt to change their negative thought patterns "because they are often the kinds of thoughts and feelings that can trigger urges and relapses," Marlatt notes.
If CBT's popularity is any indication, Ellis's contributions were legion, Norcross adds. In a survey Norcross and colleagues conducted of all clinical, counseling and combined APA-accredited programs, more than half the faculty endorsed a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral orientation. Even Ellis's personality style is starting to seep into CBT training: "CBT is getting a little less stodgy," says Nick Cummings, PhD, of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Profane and beloved
Close colleagues say Ellis's provocative demeanor was a public persona, one that he developed in part to overcompensate for his intense shyness, and as an emotional response to his rapid rise to fame. Cummings recounts that when Ellis would talk to him in his bombastic manner,Cummings would wait until they were alone and say, "'Come on, Al, this is me you're talking to! Let's settle down and talk like two friends,'" he remembers. And they did.
Indeed, most who knew Ellis well viewed him as a "closet mensch" (Yiddish word for "good" person), the term his companion of 37 years, psychologist Janet Wolfe, PhD, used to describe him. His real motivation was to help as many people as possible, an aim Ellis summed up by saying, "I'm gonna cure every f---n' screwball in New York one at a time!"
To this end, Ellis held weekly Friday night training seminars at the Albert Ellis Institute, a nonprofit training organization in Manhattan that he founded with his substantial earnings. There, he "counseled, prodded, provoked and entertained" groups of 100 or more students, psychologists and others, according to his July 25 obituary in The New York Times. He gave innumerable talks to innumerable groups-one of his last sessions was with a group of elderly supporters of The Israel America Foundation-and he answered scores of fan e-mails with care and detail until the end of his life.
A life well lived
As in life, Ellis died amid controversy. In a complex set of events chronicled by New York magazine and others, the board of the Albert Ellis Institute fired him in 2005, claiming they could no longer pay his medical expenses-the one condition he had set for the institute's use of his savings-without risking the group's nonprofit status.
The situation did not deter hundreds of people from all walks of life from singing Ellis's praises in person and through e-mail after his death, however.
One admirer, Peter L. Valunas, remembers e-mailing Ellis a few months after 9/11, asking Ellis what he would have done had he had been in the Twin Towers that day. Would Ellis's often-touted belief that "nothing is 100 percent terrible" hold up in the wake of such a horrific event?
Replied Ellis: "I would tell myself that although this is a terrible thing, I have still lived a good life and was useful to myself and to others. And although I would prefer to live and not have this happen, there is no reason why it must not happen. For these reasons," he concluded, "even this is not more than 100 percent terrible."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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