The Artistry of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.
Alex Vesely: How did you get to meet Dr. Erickson?
Herb Lustig: The first time I met Dr. Erickson was 41 years ago.
In the summer of 1973, I had just finished my training in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic and had started a private psychiatric practice. That fall, I took a weekly course in hypnosis, sponsored by a local psychiatric hospital. One day, the focus was on Milton Erickson. Alexander Yanovsky, Jay Haley, and Kay Thompson all talked about Milton Erickson, and each of them described a totally different man. At the Child Guidance Clinic we had had a seminar that highlighted Milton Erickson and his strategic therapy. But when that day’s course was completed, I was perplexed. ‘Who is the real Milton Erickson?’ After having heard these three people, all of whom knew Milton well, describe three different Milton Ericksons, I decided to find out for myself who Milton Erickson was.
So I went back to my office, and after considering what I’d say, I phoned the Phoenix information operator, obtained Dr. Erickson’s telephone number, and then called him. I explained who I was and what my credentials were, and then told him that I’d like to come to Phoenix to visit him. He agreed, and we planned that I would come out in the spring of 1974.
Upon hearing that I was going to visit Erickson, some of the people at the Child Guidance Clinic suggested that I videotape him. I thought, ‘Why not?’ At that time, Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic was the bastion of Salvador Minuchin, Jay Haley, and Braulio Montalvo. There, it was standard practice for therapy sessions to be videotaped, studied, and then sometimes used for training. So it was not unusual for trainees to videotape and evaluate their therapy sessions, usually while having supervision.
In those days, the standard non-professional videotape equipment was a half-inch reel-‐to‐reel machine that recorded and played in black-and-white. I didn’t own one. Sony was the manufacturer of the popular model, so I called them and said that I wanted to videotape someone in Phoenix. They called me back a day or two later and referred me to a company in Phoenix that sold and rented their equipment.
I rented a half-inch reel-‐to-‐reel deck, two lapel microphones, a tripod, and a monitor. During that first visit, we videotaped Milton with me as the subject. No one was operating the camera, so the video quality and sound recording weren’t too good. They were adequate for training purposes, but certainly not for anything other than that. Afterward, I realized that the therapeutic experience that had just been videotaped was too personal and that I wouldn’t be comfortable showing it to others.
In the fall of 1974, I visited Milton again, and that time I brought along two patients from Philadelphia and hired a videographer in Phoenix. Milton did fabulous work with the patients, Monde and her husband Nick. Unfortunately, during the entire time we were videotaping that day, the long microphone cable had served as an antenna and caused a Country and Western radio station that was off-frequency to have its entire broadcast recorded permanently in the soundtrack of the videotape. Milton had done fine work, but that session couldn’t be used for teaching, either.
After that experience, it became my personal quest to ‘preserve Milton for posterity.’
When I went back to Philadelphia, I didn’t know how I was going to create the audiovisual document that I wanted. Few people with whom I spoke had any knowledge of professional video recording. One evening, when I was watching the local news, I realized that the channel’s program had won awards for its live-editing. Live-editing was the least expensive way to create a video program because it avoided the cost of having to record from several cameras simultaneously and the later cost of having to edit those recordings into a final program. So I carefully read the name of its video director at the end of the broadcast, and the next day called him at the station. ‘I have a phenomenal opportunity for you,’ I told him, ‘to videotape the world’s greatest hypnotherapist,’ who was wheelchair-bound and living in Phoenix. I would cover his expenses there and, I added, I also would arrange for him to have personal therapy sessions with the hypnotherapist. He thought about it for a few days and then agreed.
It was through his contacts that I was able to rent the studios and technical personnel of the KOOL-TV television station in Phoenix on April 28, 1975. Back then, commercial videotape machines for broadcasting were very large and used two-inch quadruplex analog tapes. Each 60-minute roll of Quad videotape cost $400 in 1975 (equivalent to $1,800 in 2015). It was imperative that I achieve my objective as economically as possible. It was also imperative, since Quad tape began to disintegrate physically after 10 years, that I find a more permanent way to preserve the program – other than copying it every decade and therefore losing some electronic fidelity in the copying process each time.
When I had started my private practice, I was not married, didn’t own a house, and had some disposable income. But it was not enough to pay for the equipment that would be needed to videotape Dr. Erickson properly. So I went to the bank and borrowed $45,000 ‘to make a movie.’ “Oh great, Dr. Lustig, will it be in the theaters?” ‘I don’t think so. It probably will never come to your attention, except if I don’t pay my bill.’ The bank was very accommodating, and my loan payment became equivalent to a mortgage payment. That was how I obtained my funding.
When we did a test videotaping at KOOL-TV on that day in April 1975, we discovered that Milton’s recorded voice was very faint. The station had the usual studio microphones on booms and stands. Their microphones recorded me, Monde and the new patient, Nick, quite easily, but they couldn’t capture Milton’s soft voice. The studio technicians had to use a really sensitive lapel microphone for him. Also, Milton had deliberately dehydrated himself so that he wouldn’t have to take personal breaks during the taping. He knew that we only had rented the studio for about four hours and that we had to complete the whole project within that time frame.
Another complication was that in Philadelphia, the video director pushed his own switches, which meant that when he decided which camera to record, he just pushed its corresponding button. But at KOOL-TV, the technical director was the only person who was allowed to push buttons on the recording console. The video director had to tell the technical director which button to push, as the program was being edited live and permanently recorded.
I was in the control room with the video director from Philadelphia, Richard Pyle, and marveled at how he was creating the program that he wanted. Pyle kept tapping his finger on the shoulder of the technical director so that the TD could get the rhythm of how Pyle wanted the camera shots to change. After a while, the technical director could almost anticipate what camera Pyle would be choosing. Fortunately, the end result was a broadcast-quality, color video recording of Milton Erickson performing his unique blend of hypnosis and psychotherapy.
AV: Probably the only one.
HL: Certainly the best. The only one that has both excellent video and sound quality, and also the potential to have therapeutic value for the viewer. I had deliberately brought Nick, who had never had any kind of therapy and who obviously had never met Dr. Erickson before April 1975, so that there wouldn’t be the issue of, “Well, this patient has already been trained by Erickson. Whatever we’re seeing now, all the work for it has been done already. Erickson just has to say ‘trance,’ and the person goes into a trance; and then he says ‘get better,’ and they get better.” In the second videotaping that I had done, Monde was a subject. She had had private sessions with Milton before then, but I can’t imagine that she ever experienced hypnosis quite as deeply as she did when we were doing Artistry.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know how sensitive Milton’s lapel microphone really was. It transmitted the sound of a jet plane flying overhead while he was being recorded. And, even though there were sets of soundproof doors between the TV station’s lobby and the recording studio, at one point, a fellow walked into the lobby yelling, “Hotdogs! Hotdogs!” Milton’s microphone picked that one up, too.
Because of those acoustic distractions, I had to make and send two-inch Quad copies of the videotapes to special sound technicians in New York for them to edit out most of the extraneous sounds. In addition, by the time the second therapy session with Nick had begun, Milton was both tired and dehydrated, so his voice was not as intelligible as it had been during the first session with Monde. Consequently, the New York technicians also had to “sweeten” the soundtrack, making Milton’s voice more comprehensible while also maintaining the unique quality of his voice.
In 1975, the only way with any certainty to preserve the Artistry videotapes, which would have begun to decay after 10 years, was to convert them into film. The process was expensive and imperfect, and the usual method produced a slightly blurred image. However a company had come into existence in 1972 that was able to convert with almost perfect fidelity the video signals that were being sent to NASA from its Apollo space flights. So I had the company convert the two-inch Quad videotapes into 16 mm film, and ordered two sets of negatives, just in case something unforeseen might happen to the first set a few decades later. Fortunately, careful storage in a film and tape vault, and improvements in the science of audiovisual recording, allowed Artistry to survive relatively intact.
AV: When you first presented this idea of video recording to Dr. Erickson how did he feel about it?
HL: I don’t know, he just agreed. I only learned later that no one had ever done it before.
AV: Do you think Dr. Erickson was aware that this recording would be watched for generations to come, and that perhaps he was offering something to viewers as well so that they too could benefit if they chose to enter a trance while viewing it?
HL: I’m sure that he designed the therapy sessions for Monde and Nick in such a way that it would provide a universal message to viewers too because everyone has similar issues. For Milton to have used the opportunity in that way was an incredible accomplishment, and most likely, it was high on his wish list. It had also become my personal quest to preserve Milton’s therapeutic work for posterity. That’s why I went through so much effort to use state-‐of-the-art equipment and studios, and to use the best post-production facilities and resources that were available.
AV: Did Dr. Erickson ask to be reimbursed for the project?
HL: He never asked for a penny, even though I offered to pay him. He didn’t know how much I spent, but I think he could figure out that it was costly. And, for the weeks that I visited him in Phoenix, he never asked me to pay for anything, either. After the second time that we did a video recording, I went to the Heard Museum and bought us sand paintings. I didn’t know anything about the paintings, except that I liked their images. His was called, “Father Sky and Mother Earth,” which pretty well encompasses our world. I chose a sand painting for myself that a Navajo Indian medicine man uses to heal a sick child – a strange coincidence, considering that child and adolescent psychiatry is my subspecialty.
One time, I shipped Milton a case of scrapple. Scrapple is a local breakfast meat specialty that’s Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. It’s usually sold as a refrigerated package, but I couldn’t send scrapple to Phoenix that way and expect Milton to survive its consumption. However, I was able to find a manufacturer that packaged it in vacuum-sealed cans. So I sent him a case. He loved it and ate it with grape jelly, which I don’t think too many people do. It was common for us to give each other gifts.
About a year after the videotaping, Milton sent me a beautiful ironwood carving of a seal resting on a rock. Since April 1976, it’s been in my office and has been a serene witness to all the therapy sessions that I’ve done there.
AV: Do you think he was precise in choosing that figure for you?
HL: He said it had meaning for him, but he never told me what that was.
AV: What do you think it was?
HL: I don’t know why Milton chose a lone seal on a rock. I can only speculate. He might have been giving me his “seal of approval.” Or he might have been telling me about his own estimation of me.
AV: You had a lot of personal contacts with Dr. Erickson. Is there any particular story you remember.
HL: I can’t remember any specific ones. But I think he was conveying to me: enjoy the mystery that is the mind and learn how to use it in all aspects of your life. And as a corollary: teach the members of your family how to use this knowledge, so that it can be a gift to them for the rest of their lives. Consequently, I employ a diverse set of distinct states of consciousness to enhance my functionality throughout the activities of my personal and professional lives. And I’ve taught this to my family, as well.
If it weren’t for my knowledge of different states of consciousness, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated an event that happened to me some years ago. I was having prostate problems, so my physician prescribed a medication that is an alpha-1 blocker and also used to treat hypertension. The short-term memory in my personal life virtually dissolved, but I could remember everything that I needed when I was doing therapy with my patients. I learned from that experience that I was using a different part of my brain, not affected by alpha-1 adrenergic receptors when I was working with patients. Of course, my physician stopped prescribing those kinds of medicines for me.
Knowledge of how the mind works and being able to use that knowledge has been an incredible gift for me. Milton once said, “It’s nice to be able to follow a thought to its logical conclusion.” I also considered it from the other direction: if you can follow a thought to its logical conclusion, can you then follow a thought back to its origin? That might provide valuable information about the person who had had the thought because it would offer information about their circumstances and their particular state of being at the time.
When I’m conducting therapy, if someone says something that is unexpected and not within their usual pattern of thinking, part of me automatically starts working in the background to find out what could have prompted their thought. Later, I may bring it up in a session, asking them about what may have been the trigger for their particular thought. I’ve mentioned this to other people and they say, “Huh?” Reversing a person’s thought process wasn’t something they did usually, but for me it was one of the major things I learned from Milton.
AV: How much of how Erickson’s worked can be taught, learned, and passed on?
HL: A lot of what Erickson did was based on experiential learning. Reading about it can only offer someone an intellectual appreciation. But to fully understand it, and more importantly, to be able to do something similar, one has to experience it.
Milton, by virtue of his life circumstances and his gifts, was brilliant in using both verbal and nonverbal language to communicate with his patients, and in helping them to transform the quality of their lives into a healthier functionality. That can’t be taught intellectually; it needs to be experienced by the student.
Watching the Artistry videotapes of Erickson offers people that experience, particularly the Nick tape. Erickson understood that this was his opportunity to provide viewers with the experience of being in a therapeutic state, and of using that therapeutic state with their own resources for their own purposes.
Part Two of Artistry is one of Milton’s greatest teaching accomplishments and perhaps his greatest contribution in conveying to a viewer the experience of his therapy. If someone meticulously watches that videotape, they will learn, they will experience, and they will become the object of Milton’s voice. In effect, they temporarily will cease to be in their usual state of consciousness, and instead will be able to use their experience of Artistry for their own personal healing, without ever really knowing how or why it is that their healing is occurring. And therapists can study the session to find out how it was that Milton could make that happen.
AV: We are so glad that you were able to capture that.
HL: I’m glad too. Interestingly, after we had completed the project, Milton and I agreed that we would be co-‐owners of the copyright. He said, ”We’ll both own the copyright to the videos, and whoever dies first, the other person will own the copyright by themselves.” I said, ”Milton, the likelihood of me dying before you is a heck of a lot slimmer than you dying before me.” He replied, ”That’s okay.” And that’s what happened.
I believe that Milton gave me a special gift, one that I have protected to the best of my ability. Artistry was a result of that gift, and it enabled me to “preserve Milton for posterity.”