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The History of the First Evolution Conference

Evolution of Psychotherapy 1985 Faculty Staff Photo first Evolution conference

Faculty of the ’85 Evo Conference
(top row)Bruno Bettelheim, James Masterson, Jeffrey Zeig, Ronald Laing, Ernest Rossi, Erving Polster, Salvador Minuchin, Lewis Walberg
(middle row)Rollo May, Arnold Lazarus, Judd Marmor, Aaron Beck, Carl Whitaker, Murray Bowen, Thomas Szasz, Paul Watzlawick, Jay Haley, Joseph Wolpe
(bottom row)Albert Ellis, Mary Goulding, Robert Goulding, Zerka Moreno, Cloe Madanes, Virginia Satir, Miriam Polster, Carl Rogers

by Jeffrey K. Zeig, PhD

The first conference I organized was the 1980 International Congress on Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy. Shortly thereafter, I conceived of organizing the first Evolution Conference, which was held in 1985. This was in keeping with the philosophy of the newly formed Erickson Foundation since Board members agreed that we did not want to establish a school of Ericksonian therapy. Rather, our goal was to present and advance Erickson’s teachings to promote effective treatment.

In late 1984, a steering committee for the first Evolution Conference was appointed, which included experienced Arizona clinicians who met monthly to suggest policy. The Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine agreed to become nominal cosponsors. The final faculty selections were made and it was decided to limit the conference to schools of therapy that were currently influential. Biological approaches, or “body therapists,” and research methodologists would not be included. The administration of the conference was handled by Sherron S. Peters, Administrative Director of the Foundation, and her staff. Publicity was sent to members of major professional organizations.

The response was incredible. In the original proposal to the faculty, it was predicted that attendance would range between 3,000 and 6,000. On September 2, 1985, approximately three months before the conference, we were sold out with 7,200 registrants. Unfortunately, several thousand were turned away for lack of space. We even received reports that registrations were being scalped! Registrants included approximately 2,000 doctoral practitioners, 3,000 master’s level practitioners, and 2,000 graduate students. Professionals from 29 countries and every state in the U.S. registered for the event.

The conference was a grand success, even though it snowed the first day of the meeting –the first measurable snow in Phoenix in four decades! Many of the sessions were packed, but most attendees could get into the ones they wanted. There was a palpable spirit of camaraderie that developed amongst attendees. One example of this took place immediately following a workshop demonstration in which Miriam Polster worked with a young black woman whose mother was seriously ill back home in South Africa. The woman was deeply torn between returning to South Africa to be with her mother (living under intolerable conditions) and remaining in the U.S. and continuing her graduate school education. A great source of sorrow for the woman was that she could not easily keep in touch with her mother because her mother did not have a telephone. Attendees spontaneously collected over $2,000 as a gesture of support for the two women and not only did this make it possible for the mother to install a phone, but there was also enough left over to help pay for her medical expenses.

In 1985, the Evolution Conference was the largest meeting held in Arizona. Attendees were housed in 19 hotels and there was a bus system to bring people to the downtown conference location. The conference occupied the entire Phoenix Civic Plaza Convention Center, which spanned two city blocks, so a shuttle service of golf carts transported the faculty between hotels and meeting rooms. The two largest meeting rooms seated 3,500 and 7,000. Two other rooms seated 2,000. The smallest room seated 450. To enhance visibility, large screen projectors were used in three rooms. A staff of 160 graduate student volunteers monitored rooms and assisted attendees.

With the understanding that attendees would want to attend more sessions than was physically possible (up to seven were held simultaneously), tapes of the sessions were made available for purchase. Much of the conference was videotaped and all of it was audiotaped. And because it was such a unique conference, many commemorative items were sold, including large posters with the conference logo and names of the faculty. Faculty members were regularly asked to autograph posters. The profits from the items sold were used to endow graduate students with scholarships.

A special evening event featured the grandchildren of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in a conversation hour entitled, “The Masters.” Each discussed what it was like to grow up in their respective households. The panels were meant to symbolize the mending of old rifts and the move toward integration, which was a philosophical underpinning of the conference.

Sophie Freud, PhD, Professor of Social Work at Simmons College, and Dieter Baumann, MD, in private practice in Zurich, agreed to attend. Alfred Adler’s son was also invited, but could not participate. At the last minute, Adler’s only grandchild, Margot Adler, agreed to join the panel. Margot worked for public radio and happened to be covering the conference as a member of the press! Held on two consecutive evenings, the event was moving and inspirational. The first night, Sophie Freud could not attend due to an airlines delay, but Bruno Bettelheim participated and discussed Freud’s Vienna.

The first Evolution Conference celebrated the 100th anniversary of psychotherapy. (Some historians traced the birth of psychotherapy to 1885 when Freud first became interested in the psychological aspect of medicine.) The media recognized the importance of the psychological goings-on in Phoenix and covered the event in local and trade papers, on television, and national radio. Feature articles later appeared in TIME, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. A thought-provoking critique was published in The Fessenden Review, a literary magazine. The New York Times called the conference, “…the Woodstock of psychotherapy.” Press conferences were also held with Bruno Bettelheim and Virginia Satir on “Children and the Family” ; R.D. Laing and Carl Whitaker on “Schizophrenia and Mental Health” ; Carl Rogers on “Psychotherapy and Social Issues: South Africa”; and Albert Ellis and Judd Marmor on “Human Sexuality.”

The faculty for the 1985 Evolution Conference included: Aaron Beck, Bruno Bettelheim, Murray Bowen, Albert Ellis, Mary Goulding, Robert Goulding, Jay Haley, R. D. Laing, Richard Lazarus, Cloé Madanes, Judd Marmor, James Masterson, Rollo May, Salvador Minuchin, Zerka Moreno, Erving Polster, Miriam Polster, Carl Rogers, Ernest Rossi, Virginia Satir, Thomas Szasz, Paul Watzlawick, Carl Whitaker, Lewis Walberg, Joseph Wolpe, and Jeffrey Zeig.

This December the Evolution conference will be held in Anaheim, California. Many of the original faculty will be joining us for this 8th incarnation of the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference. Click here to see who’s presenting in 2017!