San Francisco – Curmudgeon or charismatic, confrontational or provocative, infuriating or forceful, petulant or tolerant – any or all of these may very well describe Albert Ellis, Ph.D., but none capture the true essence of the man that many of his peers considered a genius.
“He was an irascible old fool and did not suffer fools gladly,” said Ronald Fox, Ph.D. “He was not the easiest personality to deal with all the time. He was more in-your-face rather than conciliatory.”
Nevertheless, added Fox, “I thought he was brilliant. He had one really great idea. Sounds like I’m short-changing him. But how many of us ever have a really big idea?”
The big idea was the development of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), which Fox described as, “… if you get people to act differently they will feel differently.”
The approach challenged the theory that a person’s problems evolved from his past. To the contrary, Ellis thought the present was crucial. REBT was an action-oriented therapy aimed at making emotional and behavioral change through challenging self-defeating thoughts.
In a tribute at the APA convention here to Ellis, who died in July at 93, hundreds of his friends, colleagues and admirers “came to say good-bye.” They also came to eulogize a man that many of them said had changed their lives. Instead of a wake, they were regaled with stories that had a few psychologists in tears and other tales that left them laughing.
Most of the remarks covered Ellis’ indelible personality, his frankness, honesty and integrity, a one-of-a-kind personality that dedicated his life to the foundation he began in the 1950s and the Friday night seminars that continued almost until the time of his death. Two years ago he was voted off the board of the institute he founded, but a New York judge later reinstated him. At his death, he was president emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute.
One of his favorite approaches, according Robert Alberti, Ph.D., “was to remind people just how sorry they were for themselves.”
“He had a special way of getting to you,” said Arthur Freeman, Ed.D., who once paid $25 for a half-hour session with Ellis. Freeman said he was having difficulty writing his dissertation and asked Ellis for help. “You’re not finishing your dissertation,” Ellis told him, “because you’re too lazy.” Added Freeman, “Al changed my life and my career.”
Aaron T. Beck, M.D., the father of cognitive therapy, told the audience that Ellis had a wonderful life and had given him encouragement to continue with his research. He told of a time when he was giving a speech at a seminar that Ellis was attending. After his speech, someone asked Ellis how he felt about Beck’s remarks. “I didn’t hear a f…… thing he said,” Ellis answered.
“He was very important in validating my approach and for that I will always be thankful,” Beck said.
Bill Knaus, Ed.D., said Ellis lived a frugal life and gave nearly every cent he earned, including profits from his many books, to his institution. “One night I had him over for dinner,” Knaus said. “After the meal Ellis commented there was a lot of bread and meat left over and requested that I pack a couple of sandwiches so he could take them with him.”
John C. Norcross, Ph.D., said Ellis had a lot of courage. Ellis, he said, was the first to take on the analytical group, one of the first to stand up for homosexuals and one of the pioneers of group therapy. He was incredibly sensitive to integration, Norcross added.
The “consummate” psychologist is how John Minor, Ph.D., described Ellis. He spoke his mind in clear and concise verbiage and not in parlor language. Minor said he was impressed with Ellis’ clarity and directness. “I spent about 20 hours with him at a nudist colony so I came to know him intimately.”
Gerald Corey, Ed.D., told the group that he appreciated Ellis’ wit and humor “and not taking life or himself too seriously. He wanted to bring psychology to the world and the Friday night sessions he held for years was a way of doing that.