By Allan Erickson
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 57 seconds
With comment by Betty Alice Erickson
Recently, I was in Gent, Belgium talking about my father’s early career work. I was shocked by the myths and misconceptions that seem to have been perpetuated about my father. I was stunned to discover that my father is often viewed as physically feeble by a large percentage of his followers. From the perceptions expressed, it seems that most of the people who are writing books and giving talks about my father met him in the 1970s when he was confined to a wheelchair and had changed his practice to align with his physical limitations. This perspective has clouded the true picture of how my father was when he was younger. I remember my father quite differently; he was a vigorous man. The following story sheds light on my view.
In about 1953, when I was twelve, there were some articles in the newspaper about a canyon in western Arizona with wild palm trees in it. It seems seeds had blown in from southern California and taken root in a canyon that was wet enough for their growth. I expressed an interest in seeing the trees. A while later, Dad said we would be going to see the canyon with one of his patients. It was not unusual for my father to integrate patients into family activities and lives, so this didn’t surprise me at all. Within a few days, my father and I were in this patient’s car on the way to Lost Palm Canyon. No one else was with us. The patient was driving, and I was in the back seat.
Even though it happened nearly 60 years ago, I remember several things about that three-hour drive from Phoenix. As soon as we started, my father looked at me and said that he and his patient were going to be discussing things, and I was not to listen. Now my father knew that you could not tell a twelve-year-old not to listen for three hours. Upon reflection and given the wisdom of years, what my father was doing was telling me that I was not to repeat what I heard. He knew that I was going to listen, but if I told anyone what I heard then I would have to admit I disobeyed my father by listening. For nearly 60 years, I told no one that for three hours my father and his patient discussed what a man should look for in choosing a wife.
The last part of the drive was over a dirt road for about seven miles. Then we parked the car by the side of the road. There was no path, and we had to walk more than a mile across a rock-strewn valley and up a gully leading to a cleft between two mountains. At one point, my father told me to grab the end of his cane. I did, and he pulled himself over a rather large rock. I remember thinking that I really had to hold on because I was the only one keeping my father from having a bad fall. Also, it was here that I understood, “Hey, my Dad is lame—I had not realized that before!” After about an hour, we were at the level of the trees, which we all admired. Then, of course, we had to scramble back to the car.
I do not remember much about the ride home except that I was quite tired from the activity I had done. Thus, you can see why I was shocked by the view that my father was physically feeble.
Comments from practicing therapist, Betty Alice Erickson, who also grew up about the same time as Allan—
Since Erickson was an expert with indirect messages and enjoyed using them, I am convinced of several things. First, he was employing the time-honored method of all parents—giving good information to someone in front of a child. In other words, he was talking to his patient while simultaneously giving good information to Allan. Allan even remembers various details. Furthermore, he sensed something else important was going on that he didn’t totally understand.
Secondly, I am certain that the event probably was used with the patient on many levels. One of Dad’s constant messages was to enjoy life— to put out the effort and find things to enjoy; that overall, you receive out of life exactly what you put into life. This trip was a perfect example.
Additionally, Allan’s recognition that his father was lame as he helped pull him with his cane is a sign of Erickson’s vibrant persona. Neither Allan nor I ever knew him without a cane. I remember realizing for the first time that my father was lame when he was unable to use the “bride’s walk” as he escorted me down the aisle at my wedding. He just smiled at me when I looked at him with surprise and said, “That’s right. I can’t.”
One of my jobs, as a little girl, was to rubber-band his foot to his bicycle pedals, so I certainly knew he was lame— even if I hadn’t noticed his cane, I knew. But, I never thought about his lameness as a disability because he treated it so naturally. He was rightfully amused at my wedding to discover that although I knew he needed a cane, it was so insignificant I’d forgotten the need. Similarly, Allan never consciously realized the impact of his disability until he hoisted him over the rock.
These events speak to Erickson’s dynamic aura and personal energy. He was always amused that adults sometimes thought his cane was affectation; although children always knew he needed it. Without considering Erickson’s energetic force of life, people who study him cannot totally understand his later work because his personal drive was the underlying spirit and directing force of his practice even as his health deteriorated.
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 31, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.
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