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Fritz Perls

Founder of Gestalt therapy

Known to his friends and family simply as «Fritz», Frederick Salomon Perls co-founded the Gestalt school of psychotherapy with his wife and long-time collaborator, Laura. Fritz Perls trained as a Freudian, however he believed Freud's concepts has their limits based upon his own empirical observations and experience. A principal element of the Gestalt school was a concentrated focus upon what Perls described as the «here and now». Through the Sixties, the Gestalt school and methodology was «dumbed down» as just another «feel good» therapy which was in fashionable vogue at the time. Gestalt therapy has now been adopted as one of the standard approaches in modern psychotherapy, as part of what is referred to as the «eclectic approach».


Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy

Fritz Perls born in Berlin in 1893, his family was decidedly middle-class. A keen and intelligent student, he was still a late developer in terms of his aptitude for science, which did not emerge until later college life. His first love was theater, though he also considered law before opting for medicine.

His time at college was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One, in which he served in the military until 1918. After the war, he concluded his medical studies, receiving an M.D. in 1921 and by now he had decided to pursue psychiatry. Freud's psychoanalytical methodology appealed to Perls; however he was also drawn to the Gestalt concept.

A «Gestalt» is perhaps best described as a «form» or «pattern», however this does not give full justice to the word, which has no direct equivalent in English. In the context which Perls placed it into, a gestalt entity is something which is greater than the sum of its parts. In order to understand an event, or something or someone, you must consider the entire situation and the components which go to create that particular form at that point in time.

During the Twenties and Thirties, Perls drifted from the Freudian school in favor of a more holistic therapeutic approach. He also continued studying, furthering his academic education in leading universities in Vienna, Berlin and Frankfurt. While in Frankfurt, he and Laura met; the couple married in 1930 and they had two children together.

The interwar years, through to the mid-Thirties were great times to be in Germany with the intellectual and avant-garde community which formed there. The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) and Adolf Hitler's assumption of power in Germany reversed this intellectual flowering, and many chose to leave the country. The Perls joined the growing exodus of the intelligentsia from Nazi Germany, and in 1934 they settled in South Africa in Johannesburg.

It was in South Africa that the Perls started to formalize their Gestalt ideas. Perls authored his first book here, though it did little in terms of generating interest or enthusiasm (the title was «Ego, Hunger and Aggression» and it was also published in the UK in 1946, again to little interest).

Freud was not neglected by the Perls; Freudian concepts and ideas were built upon in the formation of the Gestalt model of psychotherapy, and they were essential to the creation of a more rounded and holistic view of the patient. Departing from strict Freudianism, Perls concentrated on patient experiences and influence factors in the present, rather than looking to historical experiences or delving into a patient's childhood.

The Perls moved to Canada in 1946, but soon moved again to the United States where they continued working with Gestalt therapy. Fritz Perls also co-authored «Gestalt Therapy» with Robert Hefferline and Paul Goodman, which was published in 1951. Again, the work was not well received even by the growing movement interested in the Gestalt model. However, over time the book did attract a growing band of supporters and loyal followers, and this led to the Perls founding the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, and which was managed by Laura.

By 1964, Perls was the Esalen Institute's resident psychiatrist in Big Sur, California. Here, he used «dream workshops» where a patient would be provided with a forum to discuss their sleeping dreams. This also included the use of role-play and characterization. The popularity of the Gestalt model grew and institutes and centers were opened across the country, with a much larger number of therapist workshops being conducted. Perls had by this time, started to sport his signature long, white beard and long white hair, which associated him with the growing Sixties counterculture endemic to the Sixties. Perls moved Canada and took up residence on an island off Vancouver. He founded yet another Gestalt therapist school to train practitioners; however he continued to tour the country holding workshops. In March 1970, it was at one such workshop in Massachusetts he was taken ill, and shortly after died of congestive heart failure after surgery in Chicago on March 10th, aged 76 years.