My Experience with Carl Whitaker

By Len Bergantino, Ed.D., Ph.D.
November 7, 2012

My Experience with Carl WhitakerCarl A. Whitaker, M.D., was a pioneer in psychotherapy as well as family therapy. He co-authored the master classic, The Roots of Psychotherapy, with Thomas P. Malone, M.D., Ph.D. Whitaker’s major contribution was freeing up the use of self to shoot from the hip concerning such unconscious materials as suicide, homicide, incest etc. that therapists and patients customarily do not deal with.

I first met him when he came to the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and presented to 700 licensed psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. He began by telling a story about a farmer and his son:

Son: “Dad, I’m going over the hill and get me a wife!”

Father: “Good, son. How long will you be gone?”

Son: “A couple of days.”

Father: “All right, son. I will see you when you get back.”

Two days later the son came back.

Father: Well, son, where is she?”

Son: “Well, dad, I found her but she was a virgin.”

Father: “Son, you did the right thing. If she wasn’t good enough for her own family, she isn’t good enough for us!”

The 700 clinicians in the room were in disbelief.

Later, I went up to him and said, “Dr. Whitaker, I spent a week at the Atlanta Psychiatric Clinic getting to know Tom Malone but I never got a sense of his style of work. You were very good at demonstrating your style. I wonder if you could give me an example of how Tom Malone actually worked.”

Whitaker pensively looked up in the air for a moment and then said, “Tom Malone was catatonic, but you ought to look him up. I think he has something to offer you.” He subsequently wrote the foreword to my book, Psychotherapy, Insight and Style: The Existential Moment. (Allen and Bacon Inc., Boston.)

I next saw Whitaker at The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference after Milton Erickson’s death on March 3, 1980. He said he and Erickson met only once. Erickson picked him up at the airport when he was invited to be a guest speaker at Wayne State Hospital.

Erickson said, “How many kids you got?” Whitaker said, “I’ve got six.” Erickson said, “I’ve got eight.”

Whitaker said they never spoke another word to each other.

I asked Whitaker to supervise me and he agreed to do so by speakerphone, as he was at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and I was in Los Angeles. He kept throwing down the gauntlet, realizing I was dedicated. He kept saying, “How can I take you seriously that you want to learn family therapy when you don’t have your own family in family therapy?”

So I mobilized my parents in Connecticut, my wife and her parents and her brother and his girlfriend with a speaker-phone in Los Angeles and Whitaker worked 26 weeks with all of us once a week by speakerphone coast to coast.

My parents had been considering moving to Los Angeles near me for years and brought it up in one session. Whitaker raised every fear they had not voiced:

“You have to be crazy to uproot at your ages and move close to that one-way son-of-a-bitch son of yours who is so involved in his practice that he will never make time to see you. You will be giving up all your life-time friends and family.” And then, in the last seconds of the session, he said, “Take a chance,” and hung up.

I did not think much about it, but I got a phone call from my father two days later, saying, “Len, your mother and I are moving to California. We will be there in two months.”

So, Whitaker gave me something of value: my parents for the last few years of their lives.

The other thing I learned from him is that in doing family therapy it is imperative to have the battle for control right in the beginning and win it in terms of getting all the family members present, such as mother, father, children and grandparents on both sides and, where applicable, the lover of one or both spouses. A paranoid situation will be set up if you only bring one spouse in later.

Whitaker worked with me only long enough for me to set the dynamite necessary to get all family members involved. He refused to work with a family if only some were present. “I have enough blood spilled,” he said. “I don’t need another failure. I have already failed enough times. Are you sure you want to do this? I am not a good as you heard.”

Len Bergantino, Ed.D., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in California, Arizona and Hawaii with an ABPP diplomate in fam-ily psychology. He is the author of Psychotherapy, Insight and Style: The Existential Movement. He may be reached at or 310-207-9397.

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