Home PageBlogMy First Encounter with Milton Erickson

By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

I have published many stories of my time with Dr. Milton Erickson, many of which appear in the book Experiencing Erickson (1985, Taylor & Francis Group). These stories can help therapists take some of Erickson’s innovations and bring them into their clinical practice.

Let’s start at the beginning at the end of 1972. I had been studying hypnosis. At that time, a psychiatrist supervisor, Charles O’Connor, suggested that I read the book, Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Psychotherapy (1967, Grune & Stratton), which is a collection that Jay Haley had edited of Erickson’s papers. I read the book and was amazed. I had been trained as a Rogerian, in the more traditional way, and what Erickson was doing was light years beyond anything that I imagined could be considered psychotherapy. So, I wrote a frivolous postcard to my cousin who was studying nursing in Tucson, Arizona. It said, “Ellen, I have been reading about Milton Erickson. This man is a genius, so if you ever go to Phoenix Arizona, you should visit him.” My cousin wrote me back: “Jeff, don’t you remember my old roommate Roxanna Erickson?” Ellen and Roxanna spent part of their junior year of college together in Mexico learning Spanish as part of their curriculum. In 1970, I had visited Ellen in San Francisco and I briefly met Roxanna. I remember Ellen pulling me aside and saying that Roxanna’s father is a famous psychiatrist, and I thought, “Well, I won’t hold that against her,” because at that time I was more interested in organizing against the Vietnam War, even though my day job was work in psychotherapy.

So, I wrote to Dr. Erickson, introduced myself, and sent him a copy of a paper I had written about working with the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenic patients. I had applied some of his utilization techniques to help schizophrenic patients cope with auditory hallucinations. In the letter, I asked Erickson if I could go to Phoenix to become his student. And he wrote me back and basically said no. He said that he was too old and ill and that he wasn’t taking students. (A copy of this letter exists in the Erickson Historic Residence.) And at the end of his letter to me he wrote “When you read my work [presupposing that I would], you don’t have to emphasize the words, the techniques, the patter, the suggestions. The really important thing is the motivation for change and the fact that no human being ever really knows his capabilities.” Now I must have read that paragraph ten times while sitting in my car at the mailbox. I was amazed that this genius was taking his time to personalize a letter to an admiring student. So, I wrote back and said that I didn’t need to be his student; I just wanted to visit. I don’t how that was arranged, but he must have offered that I stay in his guesthouse — in a small bedroom adjacent to his office.

Honestly, I was intimidated. I knew that I was going to visit this genius who had x-ray eyes and he was going to understand me better than I understood myself. I was 26 years old and new to the field and I was nervous. In my excitement and nervousness, I miscalculated my driving time and arrived at Dr. Erickson’s house after 10 p.m. I was terribly embarrassed because I couldn’t find his home. I went to the house next door and said that I was looking for Milton Erickson and they said who? I was surprised that neighbors didn’t know who was living next door. I finally made it to the right doorstep and Roxanna Erickson greeted me, saying, “Here’s my father, Dr. Erickson.” And what Dr. Erickson did was completely unexpected to me. Gradually and slowly he looked me up and down using mechanical movements that fixed my gaze. From what I now know of Dr. Erickson, he most likely looked through me, perhaps timing my breathing. And then he looked down the midline of my body as if he was suggesting that I go down inside.

 

This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 39, Issue No. 3 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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