Michele Ritterman, PhD

From Milton H. Erickson Foundartion newsletter, Volume 24 #2, Summer 2004.

Interviewed by, Sharon McLaughlin, MA

Michele Ritterman authored the first systematic integration of hypnosis and family therapy, Using Hypnosis in Family Therapy; a human rights book Hope Under Siege: Terror and Family Support in Chile, and numerous papers and articles on Erickson, on "Stopping the Clock: Subjective Time in Therapy", and on "Torture, The Counter-Therapy of the State," hyperactivity, and, last but never least, on the healing powers of Love. I met with Dr. Ritterman at her home in Oakland to discuss the influence of Erickson on her work.

SM: How did you get started with Erickson?

MR: I was a graduate student at Temple University, and I was interning at Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic with Jay Haley, Salvador Minuchin, and Braulio Montalvo. A lot of great teachers were there. One of my fellow students gave me Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy that Haley had edited. I started reading it all the time, and started using whatever principles I extracted from Erickson's cases with my own. I took whatever Erickson did and applied it to family therapy. I would read how Erickson would handle the case, and he did things like playing with subjective time distortion, so I took the time distortion idea and applied it to one client, an alcoholic man. I had him visualize how many drinks he had, and had him graph them in his mind with the length of his life and how many years each drink was taking off his life. I had him hallucinate that every time he drank it was associated with death. At the same time I was working with his wife, who cried all the time. And the presenting complaint had originally been the child who was enuretic. I started to see one was taking in too many fluids, one was crying and one was peeing. So to integrate hypnosis with family therapy, I started to apply Erickson techniques with each family member. When I wrote up the case in my first book I called it a case of family hydraulics, a kind of redistribution of the family water system. This was one of my first cases, and I was applying Erickson's work.

After I'd done everything I could on my own, I went to Haley and said I had to meet this man. Herb Lustig had just made one of the first polished videotapes of Erickson's work. Herb asked to show it to Sal, and it was the first time Minuchin had seen Erickson. Sal invited me in to watch with them; he always gave me great opportunities. At the end of it, he looked at me, and said, "She is hypnotized by the video." I didn't know at that time that that undivided attention was hypnosis.

Jay sent me to Milton with a message. I was sent with hugs and kisses to Erickson. An intimate entre. I had taught myself everything I could about his work, so I could impress him, and not ask him anything stupid, which was extremely important to me. At the end of that first day, he asked, "So where's my gift from Jay?" and I said, "What gift?" and he said, "You don't remember what Jay sent you here with?" So I gave him hugs and kisses from Jay.

We were very emotionally close from the beginning. I had incredible affection for him. Betty and I write to this day; he and Betty were godparents to my children, Betty still sends my daughter Miranda birthday cards. He was more than a mentor, he was family to me, and I feel love and gratitude to all the Erickson family members that I know.

SM: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

MR: Integrating hypnosis with family therapy. I asked Erickson, "Milton did you ever think of the symptom as a trance state?" He loved the idea. It is a trance state suggested internally by one's self-talk, as well as suggested by family members in a powerful way, because they have power over you 24/7, whether they speak in unison or opposition; whether they're there or not -- sending streams of messages. And society sends suggestions about who you are: This is your ethnicity; this is your class; your gender; sexual identity, and so on. And very specifically society will tell you where you stand. It is the challenge to the suffering individual to learn to regulate the flow of these three suggestive streams.

Once I understood the symptom was a state of mind and you aren't always in trance state - that you go in and out - the question, "What suggests you go in and what suggests you go out?" became the hallmark of my work. I was tracking symptom inductions, and breaking the spell of dysfunctional rapport. These ideas were daring when I said them in 1983, as a young woman at an Erickson congress.

I also talked and wrote about the Symptom as a Gift, not something to eliminate or remove as is the emphasis even today, but as something hard-earned, with many uses, to be admired and worked with in a therapeutic model of cooperative exchange, like all shamans do.

SM: So, conflicting messages from parents becomes a confusion induction?

MR: In Using Hypnosis in Family Therapy there's a chapter called "Family Induction Techniques" in which I describe that precisely: Exactly what they do and how they work. The rest of the work is how to break the spell, and transcend those patterns.

In the early days I was one of very few women who was involved in this work.

Earlier on, I had been in a prestigious family therapy training group with well-known therapists, and things weren't going well. I went to Erickson and said, "Here I am in one of the best training programs in the world, and I'm not learning anything." Erickson said, "Oh yes you are, you're learning a great deal, it's just not what you want to know." Talk about insight and revelation!

He just knew how to capture the existential essence of the moment. His philosophy of life intrigued the hell out of me. I mean, he took a canoe trip without the use of his legs!

When I met Erickson, he asked me, "What are you here for?" I said, "I really want to learn your attitude toward life that comes forth in your cases. You're so positive" He responded, "I'm neither positive nor negative, I'm neither optimist nor pessimist, I like to consider myself a realist and that means, into every life a little rain will fall, so it behooves us to enjoy the sunshine." I just love that.

A lot of people thought he was an optimist, but he wasn't. Being optimistic is as unrealistic as being pessimistic. Keeping with that in my later years when I did human- rights work, Roxanna Erickson Klein, once told me, "I know you've been doing some work with torture survivors, and I want to tell you something I think Daddy would want you to know... do you know how Daddy suffered paralysis down to the use of one eye? He used to say, 'I find that to do anything is pleasing.' And I think in your work with torture survivors if you understand that...you can help them benefit."

A person comes out of torture no longer who they were, and they'll never be who they were again. They have to start with anything they can find pleasing...start there. Not only did I get it for torture survivors, but others including battered women. Whoever is depersonalized, which happens to anyone -- seriously ill, divorced men and women, women when their children leave home, a man whose partner dies-- you wake up and you aren't who you were. One project I'm working on is about making the smallest change, not overcorrecting.

Erickson once said, "If you can't say something to suggest that a person lift their finger, do you think you can help them go home and change their life? He’d learned that even the smallest cataleptic movements embodied possibilities for people. If they could make any movement, heartened by the smallest change positive or negative, people will go on to make changes. If you have a terrible situation and you can make it worse, if you feel you can influence it at all, it gives you power over your life. Milton’s thinking was so different from the rest of the field at that time.

SM: So the client then influences the symptom?

MR: Erickson spoke to the body. Today, with the overuse and abuse of psychopharmacology what upsets me is, he was just starting to teach people how to talk to the body, and how to affect biochemistry. He understood all these things because of his work with his own body. I spoke earlier of all the mentors I had. His mentor was polio. He had to learn to move again in small steps. He learned everything from this terrible disease, and knew of the mind/body relationship. He understood pain management, which is key to any symptom. We all hurt in some way. He worked with people to find their own way to manage their own discomfort, rather than make it all just go away.

SM: You use these concepts in your teaching and your work?

MR: After leaving a university position in Seattle, I decided to teach. I looked at my old videotapes from Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, and I was going to use them to teach. I had one of a family, but as I watched I observed that the parents and I basically suggested things to the young man which activated his symptoms. He came in the therapy room without symptoms, thinking clearly and having no chest pains. Instead of seeing my magnificent work at hand, I saw that somehow we, his parents and I, elicited his symptoms. Thinking of my teaching career, I said, "This is terrible." Then I realized, "No. This is how symptoms are produced. So I watched over and over, and used the Rossi Erickson paradigm - 5 steps, there it was. The family had spontaneously followed their model, and I had unwittingly allowed it. Thank, God, I did wake up in the tape. But from then on, I understood that what therapy entailed was a counter-induction. I learned all this from watching this process. Now, I let people do their thing to each other, I let it unfold. I study how their symptoms get activated, and that tells me how to do my work.

SM: What projects are you working on now?

MR: Teaching workshops. Couples workshops. I really want to teach a select population of good people--people who work with clients because they care about humans as a species-- and want to better the world and see the species evolve.

I'm also doing poetic inductions. Erickson was a great storyteller. I can tell some stories, and I learned a lot from his stories, but I am a poet. One of my first loves is poetry. Poetry is the language of the unconscious mind. So I thought, "Why don't you do what you do instead of what he does?" I've never been a follower of Milton's. I was inspired by him. People would call me an Ericksonian. I think Milton's stomach would turn if he thought of people calling themselves "Ericksonian." I once asked Milton, "Are you telling me just to be myself? And trust my intuitions? He said, "I certainly hope that's the message you're receiving."

So I do poetic inductions, on different suggestive levels because I'm very socially minded, I'm always seeing four levels at least, individual, social, family, and spiritual. I feel that poetic inductions in favor of human decency give people alternatives to the negative hypnosis by the media and social structures and concepts that exist: homophobia, uselessness of 50-year-old women, not having a skinny body, excessive fear of The Other. We need ongoing sources of counter-inductions to the prevailing media models. The first poetic inductions I delivered were against hate movements. I do them at workshops because I want to do them en mass.

In couples work, there's a way to respond to each member of a couple so that you (short of one being in danger) take sides equally. My job is to find a higher order resolution of the conflict. I think that can be applied on a more global level. What is the possible project of these people toward the future? If you look at each country in a conflict as a member of a couple, and work on putting aside what has happened in the past, you can not compensate for loss or the disaster of what's happened in the past, but you can orient countries and couples toward a slightly brighter shared future.

How do we take our real disappointments and pains and move on to the future?

You can't tell people to drop it, or to forgive, but you can teach them to forget. To forget means to put away. Hypnosis teaches us the mind has a foreground and a background. Hypnosis goes into the background of the mind, and brings it into the foreground. Forget means I'm going to take what you did, and it and put it on the shelf back there so we can move foreword. I know it's there.

SM: So you spell it f-o-r-e*g-e-t?

MR: Exactly. Erickson was a pragmatist. He taught you can fore-get, you still have a resource for self-protection, you can take it down if you need it again, but for now, to move ahead you can put it to the side. But you do not have to forgive, in my opinion, for healing and evolution to take place.

One time, Erickson asked me what was my definition of psychotherapy? I said something like, 'planning a strategy to make people change.' He said, "In psychotherapy the therapist changes nothing. You create the circumstances under which the individual can respond spontaneously out of change...then heartened by the possibility of change no matter how small positive or negative, they will go on to make other changes."

SM: Back to the smallest move of the finger.

MR: Yes. Back to the smallest move of the finger. The heartening possibility of change.

SM: Thank you for taking the time this afternoon to share your experiences and insights.

MR: Thank you, Sharon, for an enjoyable afternoon.


All Material © Michele Ritterman, PhD

Website by Higherkey