Dan died this week, I just learned. He was someone I met back in the 1980s, someone whom I once considered a best friend, a great stimulus, a major influence on me, but who, without apparent reason, eventually became a monstrous enemy, causing me to order him off my property and out of my life, something I have never done to anyone else. Yesterday Dan’s adult daughter called his seventh ex-wife with the news and she in turn called me. Neither one of us had contact with him after early 2006.
He was an extraordinary character, very energetic, very articulate, very gregarious, very voluble, who, at his best, seemed to exude a boundless optimism, enthusiasm, confidence, and conviction; almost charismatic at times. At the time I met him and his then-wife (#4) I was down in the dumps, discouraged about my life and pessimistic, feeling trapped in dead-end jobs. They weren’t’ getting rich but they seemed much more resourceful than me, much more satisfied with their lives, living out their values. They were close to my own age and each of us had comparable master’s degrees in the humanities and social sciences. They acted like I was the most fascinating person either one of them had met in years, sought me out frequently, and offered a lot of interest, warmth, acceptance, appreciation, and encouragement. In turn I became very loyal to them. They had created the first successful private practice in counseling in the small Colorado town we lived in; defying predictions there was no market for such services outside the local community mental health center. Within two years their critics were opening their own private practices, going into competition with them, after Dan and his wife had shown it could be done. I felt they had a right to brag a bit about that.
Brag is something Dan did a bit too much of. Over time I saw more clearly that much of what he said was an attempt to impress people with an account of his erudition, his varied accomplishments and skills. He dropped names and would quote Thales, Plato, Kierkegaard, and Freud, but I was well-read enough to know they were often not accurate. Later I was uncomfortable when I realized he would exaggerate his accomplishments and embellish incidents I had been part of, or had witnessed. I rationalized that he was not under oath, after all. He was telling a story to entertain and amuse and taking a fiction writers liberties to make it a more dramatic and compelling story. Is that wrong?
They included me on camping trips to Moab and the red rock canyon country of southern Utah that I had never seen before. It seemed stark at first, harsh and forbidding but then was to fall in love with that country and ultimately did much more canyoneering than they ever did.
Their encouragement influenced me to return to college and acquire a second master’s degree to become a mental health counselor and psychotherapist myself, in mid-life. I had confidence in my intellectual capacities. It was improved people skills I needed, such as how to put nervous people quickly at ease, how to establish rapport with difficult, highly defensive people. Already I had mentally distanced myself from Dan in some ways, however. I was put off by his hectoring, lecturing, domineering manner in which he did a lot more talking than listening. A basic tenet of counseling and psychotherapy is the client does most of the talking and the counselor/therapist does at least 75-80% of the listening. Therapy is not advice-giving. Still, he was always provocative, forcing me to reflect and clarify my own thinking.
Dan could have had a successful career as a motivational speaker, like Tony Robbins or Wayne Dyer. He was an excellent public speaker and could repeat even tired clichés, slogans, and platitudes with such conviction, energy, enthusiasm and confidence that to listeners they seemed like wonderful, new and novel pearls of wisdom.
I had also slowly grown critical of his concept of psychological trauma. He asserted that trauma occurs because the person represses the memory of what really happened. Therapy and resolution—a crucial concept that may hide a multitude of sins-- consists of revering the repressed memory. Once that is done, the person is free of the trauma and ready to go on with their life, no longer haunted by the past. I disputed this with him, noting that for many people, the problem was not that they couldn’t remember but that they couldn’t forget. Vividly reliving the trauma may well re-traumatize the person, and finally, a complete cognitive understanding of exactly what happened often does not resolve it or free the person up. This is the weakness of some (I do not say all) forms of psychoanalytic therapy: “Well, now I understand fully why I’m messed up, what events and forces in my early life made me this way, but I’m still this way.” Dan and I went round and round of such issues, with him always being much more voluble than I while failing to convert me to his perspective. I was also disturbed by how freely he told me so many details about his clients’ struggles and complexes, even telling me their names. At first I felt flattered because he was confiding in me knowing I would never tell anyone else but then came to realize it is still a gross violation of his clients’ confidentiality.
Then exactly one year after he and wife #4 had a darling daughter, he ran off with a woman who was a recent former client. This shattered his carefully constructed image despite how much he tried to explain it away with talk of displacement, childhood role models, unconscious associations, etc. This act also destroyed their credibility as marriage counselors (their specialty) in this gossipy small town. Dan asserted he had generously signed over the practice to his soon-to-be ex-wife and she had willfully allowed it to wither on the vine; however the obvious truth was his running off with another woman, a recent marriage counseling client, to boot, was what destroyed the credibility of their counseling practice. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge this obvious reality disturbed me. But perhaps it restored the power balance and marked the end of the time that I was his protégé in some ways and I now had something to teach him. His contradictions intrigued me, challenged me to solve the mystery of what made Dan tick.
Still I did not reject him as a friend and I remembered what he had done for me. Yet I had new insight into his capacity for self-deception, something we all have.(to be continued)