Betty Alice Erickson: Teacher, Inspiration, Friend

(July 17, 1938–January 17, 2019)

By Jeffrey K. Zeig, PhD

Betty Alice Erickson, or “BA,” as her family, friends, and students called her, was my colleague and friend. She was a favorite subject of her father’s, and when I was there visiting him in the late 1970s, he asked her to serve as a demonstration subject to illustrate hypnotic procedures, but he also had a strategic purpose. During the trance, he talked to her about how she would feel when the family dog died — and how good memories could transcend her grief. I did not get the impression that BA consciously grasped the metaphor that Dr. Erickson was offering: that he too would soon die, which turned out to be only a few years later in1980. But it was apparent to me that he was lovingly and indirectly preparing his daughter so that she would not be overcome with grief with the inevitable. I believe that on an unconscious level she responded to him and perhaps the parallel her father drew helped her during times of loss. I have since used similar parallels to help others.

Betty Alice Erickson was Milton Erickson’s fourth child and Mrs. Erickson’s first. She was independent, spirited, and adventurous. She was a born teacher, which was her first career before she earned a degree in counseling and embarked on a new vocation as therapist and teacher of therapists. Along with her sister, Roxanna, and her sister-in-law, Helen, both of whom are on the Foundation’s board of directors, BA has graced the podium of many Erickson Foundation events. She was a great friend of the Erickson Foundation, and served as moderator at two Evolution Conferences. And, she was openly supportive of my efforts to develop the methods I learned from her father.

BA’s special area of exploration was conversational trance, also called the “naturalistic technique” in hypnotherapy. She was an engaging and expert storyteller, and worked tirelessly to bring her father’s wisdom to others, teaching Ericksonian hypnosis and psychotherapy throughout the world.

BA has written numerous book chapters and compendiums, many of which have been published through the Erickson Foundation, and received many awards for her work. Along with Bradford Keeney, Betty Alice wrote Milton H. Erickson, An American Healer (2006), and additionally co-authored Hope and Resiliency (2016) with Dan Short.

In one of her lectures, BA emphasized the fact that Ericksonian therapy centers on expanding potentials. In addressing patient resistance, she said that her father’s approach was to take pleasure in giving. It was up to the recipient to enjoy the therapeutic gifts. Watching BA offer hypnotic therapy was a pleasure. And, like her father, she often smiled radiantly, delighting in her client’s accomplishments. Many of us are the recipients of BA’s gifts, and take pleasure in offering them to others.

BA’s sister, Roxanna, shared:

I remember working for five years side-by-side with BA at our homes in Dallas as we co-edited the Foundation newsletter for five years and it provided a forum to acquaint many people with us. After that, we both continued to write for the newsletter. BA had a real gift for getting people to contribute, and for establishing a lasting appreciation for her and for our father’s ideas. Of course, as a sister, I also appreciate BA on a personal level. She taught me how to sew using our Mom’s old Singer sewing machine and she was a dynamite cook. Her adventuresome spirit certainly came alive in the kitchen. She made many special birthday cakes for me. Betty Alice knew how to have fun! 

Sister-in-law, Helen, remembers:

I first met Betty Alice in 1956 when she lived in Michigan attending college; Lance and I were engaged. From the first to the last time we were together at the Evolution of Psychotherapy, she always found a way to make an ordinary event into one of adventure, fun, and imagination; she would make it exciting. Her letters describing some of her adventures read like a storybook! Lance and I would read them to each other, laugh (sometimes belly laughs with tears running down the face) and comment on her ability to make the hum-drum interesting. I am grateful for those memories that still bring a smile to my face. So, on behalf of Lance and I: Go in peace BA and have fun. I doubt that anyone will dampen that imagination or spirit of yours! 

Becky Lairson, niece and fellow educator wrote:

She was a wonderful person! She was a great listener, aunt, speaker, author, and friend. She traveled all over the world sharing her knowledge and passion. She wanted to continue the legacy of her father’s work. She was caring, compassionate, and professional. I respected and loved her very much. Fortunately, her legacy of outstanding work is a lasting one. She will be truly missed, but never forgotten.

Robert Staffin, PsyD, ABPH, shared this:

I first met Betty Alice at a small gathering in the home of Jane Parsons-Fein. I was immediately struck by her warmth and genuineness. Over the years we would catch up at conferences. She was a delightful storyteller with a wicked sense of humor. During one of our conversations, we were interrupted by a person who had a question about her father. She politely answered his question and he moved on. I asked her if she was bothered by these kinds of interruptions. She stated that, for the most part, she did not mind and then went on to describe an interesting experience. She said, “Every once in a while someone will come up to me and say, ‘I did something that was sooo Ericksonian,’ and that’s when I get this strange whirring sound in my ear and I know that it’s daddy spinning in his grave.”

A few years ago, when I was doing research for a biography I am writing on Dr. Erickson, I was blessed to have met BA’s children, Michael and David, and her adopted daughter, Kimberly; also her former husband, David Elliott. I spoke with BA by phone shortly before she died. She was weakened from her struggle with cancer, but ever thoughtful, she wanted her good wishes for all to be known.

I am certain she will be deeply missed by her family, friends and colleagues, but like her father taught her in trance decades ago: with loss can come many rich and lasting memories.

Thank you BA for enriching our lives. Rest in peace and know that your wisdom and blessings will be carried forward by those who loved and appreciated you.

The following provides a list of Betty Alice’s publications, and link for a free audio of one of her demonstrations at the 2011 Erickson Congress:

PUBLICATIONS

What’s right with him? Ericksonian positive psychotherapy in a case of sexual abuse.( in press). In Happiness, healing, enhancement: your casebook collection for applying positive psychology in therapy. (Burns, G., ed). Wiley & Sons. Hoboken, New Jersey. Milton H. Erickson ,M.D., An American healer. 2006. Ringing Rocks Press, Sedona, AZ. (with Keeney, B.) French, Italian, Russian and Spanish language editions currently under contract Hope and resiliency.  2005. Crown House. 2006. Williston, Vermont. (with Short, D., & Klein, R.E.) Ericksonian at heart in The art of therapeutic communication. 2004. S. Kane & K. Olness (eds). Crown Publishing. Williston, VT. Ericksonian, cognitive ,behavioral, strategic or all four?  in Brief therapy: Lasting impressions.  2002. ( Zeig, J. ed.)  Erickson Foundation Press, Phoenix, Arizona. New lessons in hypnosis.  2002, 2005.  Klass Press, Moscow, Russia.  (in Russian) Jay Haley:  A model of communication, teaching, therapy and leading in Changing  directives:  The strategic therapy of Jay Haley. 2001. Zeig, J. (ed).  Erickson  Foundation Press, Phoenix, Arizona Hypnosis for the 21st Century in “Hypnos: Swedish Journal of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine and the Journal of European society of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and  Psychosomatic Medicine, June, 2001.  Vol XXVIII, No 2.  pp 48-57. Storytelling in The handbook of Ericksonian psychotherapy.  2000. Geary, B., & Zeig, J. (eds). Zeig, Tucker & Co. Phoenix, AZ Comments on Ericksonian therapy in Six therapists and one client. (2n edition). 1999. Durmmond, F., & Corsini, R.(eds).  Springer Publishing Co. New York. Age progression:  Discussion  in “Hypnos: Swedish Journal of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine and Journal of European Society of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, “March, 1999. Vol XXVI, No. 1. pp 50-51 (Case Presented by  Noboru Takaishi, M.D.) Erickson: A framework of therapy and living  in Current thinking and research in brief therapy. Vol 3.  1999.  Matthews, W. & Edgette, J. (eds).  Taylor & Francis, Inc.  Philadelphia, PA   (with Erickson, E. & Klein, R.) My voice will go with you.  in “Paradigm Journal.”  Summer, 1998.  Vol. 2, No. 2., pp 22-23. Effective brief therapy: Conceptualization and intervention  in Kurzzeit-Psychotherapie in Theorie und Praxis. 1996.  Edited by Hening, H., Fikentscher, E.,  Bahrke, U., &  Rosendahl, W.  Pabst Science Publishers.  Lengrich, Germany. Resource focused therapy (Foreword).  in Ray, W. and Keeney, B. 1993. Karnac Books. London, England. Ericksonian therapy demystified; A straightforward approach in Ericksonian Methods: The Essence of the Story.  1993. Zeig, J. & Gilligan, S. (eds).  Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York. Reprinted in:  “Hypnos:  Swedish Journal of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, the Journal of European Society of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine.” June 1994.  Vol. XXI.  No. 2 – 1994.  pp 68-79. Comments on Therapy by Stephen Lankton, in The Essence of a Single Session Success. 1993. Lankton, S., & Erickson, K. (eds). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York. Milton H. Erickson’s increasing shift to less directive hypnotic techniques as illustrated by work with family members, in Views on Ericksonian brief therapy: process and action. 1991. Lankton, S., Gilligan, S., & Zeig, J.(eds). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York.  (With Klein, R.) Family myths and reality: Ericksonian approaches to family of origin.  in Brief therapy: Myths, methods, and  metaphors. 1990. Zeig, J., & Gilligan, S. (eds). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York. Training by Erickson: The mirror within.  in Developing Ericksonian therapy.  1988. Zieg, J., & Lankton, S. (eds). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York. Reprinted in:  “Rapport:  (Journal of Instituto de Hipnoterapia, Buenos Aires, Argentina)” September, 1990. Vol 1, No 1, pp 35-41. How Milton H. Erickson encouraged individuality in his children (Panel Discussion) in Ericksonian Psychotherapy.  1988.  Zeig, J. & Lankton, S. (eds). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York. Reprinted in: “Raport: (Journal of Instituto de Hipnoterapia, Buenos Aires, Argentina)”September, 1990. Vol 1, No 1, pp 42-45 “Therapy Redefined in “Texas Association of Counseling and Development Journal.”  Fall 1986.  Vol 14, No 2  pp 21-24 Keynote address: Special panel on Milton Erickson.  in Ericksonian psychotherapy, Volume I; Structures.  (Chair and Participant)  1985.  Zeig, J. (ed). Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York.

Erickson Congress Clinical Demonstration

Listen to her clinical demonstration titled “Conversational Hypnosis for Hearing and Expanding What They Say”, from the 2011 Erickson Congress.

Fundamental in Ericksonian work is expansion of perspectives rather than removing problems. Learning to hear underlying meanings in clients’ stories, enlarging those and then presenting new perspectives in direct and indirect ways clients are willing to hear will be demonstrated with a volunteer. Click here to download

By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.

In the last issue of the newsletter, I initiated this column (Vol 38 No 2 – Page 10) so that I could share the experiences I’ve had in meeting masters of psychotherapy, recycle the wisdom I gleaned, and further my lifelong mission of honoring forebearers. I started off with Viktor Frankl, and in this issue continue with Viktor Frankl Part II; Part III will appear in the next issue.

In 1990 when I visited Viktor Frankl in his home, I signed a second guestbook. I skimmed the first guestbook, which was already filled with the distinctive signatures of prominent visitors and existential philosophers I had studied in college, including Heidegger.

After giving me a tour of his office, Frankl announced that we would go for dinner. I said “Fine. But I am inviting you and Mrs. Frankl.” He immediately declared, “Don’t give me any of that manipulative Ericksonian stuff. I am taking you to dinner.”

At the restaurant, Frankl talked about his experiences with Freud and Adler. He started out a disciple of Adler’s and was therefore expected to defend him when he was attacked by colleagues. But Frankl did not do this, because he thought the criticism was justified. This resulted in Frankl’s excommunication from the Adlerian society, and he was also shunned at the Vienna coffeehouses, which at that time were a center for discourse on the development of psychotherapy.

Frankl met Freud when Freud was on a walk in Vienna. Aware of Frankl’s interest in psychoanalysis from their correspondence, Freud referred him to a colleague. At the initiation of the meeting with the colleague, the colleague asked Frankl in a desultory tone, “And why do you want to become a psychoanalyst?” as if the profession was chosen because of a character flaw. Frankl said at that moment he knew he did not want to be a psychoanalyst. He instead wanted to focus on a patient’s strengths, not on pathology.

As Frankl continued telling stories, I turned to Mrs. Frankl and said, “I’m sorry. You must have heard these stories many times.” She replied, “No. Some I am hearing for the first time.”

There was understructure to the dinner conversation: Prof. Frankl and I were in a Herculean struggle. I was working hard to make him feel good about himself, but Frankl, who was more adept at this, was also working to make me feel good about myself.

In afternoon of my arrival at Frankl’s home, we exchanged autographed books, and he wrote “To Dr. Zeig. Thank you for visiting me at my home in Vienna.” At the end of dinner, I asked Frankl to autograph another book, and gave him my copy of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl had advanced macular degeneration, so using only his peripheral vision, he first drew a caricature of himself, and then wrote: “To Jeff Zeig — after hours of discussion, discussion enriching me. Viktor Frankl”

When we were leaving the restaurant, Frankl warmly hugged me and remarked, “Your idea for the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference is a great one, but the field of psychotherapy would be so much better if there were more people like you in it.” He paused, and said: “And thank you for being.” Then he and Mrs. Frankl headed home, and I went to a coffee shop. Deeply moved, I felt the need to immediately make notes about my experience.

Viktor Frankl keynoted the 1990 Evolution Conference and this revealing conversation hour is available for streaming at our store online: Conversation Hour with Viktor Frankl.

By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet many psychotherapy masters, and their wisdom and influence has been indelible. Among the most notable were Milton Erickson, Viktor Frankl, Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, Carl Rogers, Jay Haley, and Virginia Satir. By their mere presence, these passionate, inspirational therapists made this earth a better place. And, each could turn a phrase in such a way as to make it into a permanently inspirational lesson.

I have had many transformative experiences with these masters, and therefore I feel compelled to share them with others—to recycle the wisdom that I gleaned. As such, when teaching workshops or offering therapy, I often recount exemplary moments I have had with these therapists.

To further my lifelong mission of honoring forebearers, I am initiating this column in the Erickson Foundation Newsletter, so I can memorialize some of the experiences that have changed my life. I am beginning with Viktor Frankl, and the following essay is Part I in a series of encounters with him.

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