Under the Influence: Reflections of Albert Ellis in the Work of Others
Edited by Emmett Velten
A Reveiw by Steve Lake
Albert Ellis’s books are of such immediate practical value to the reader, so usefully dispensing insights and ideas and ‘self-help stuff that works’ (to borrow Adam Khan’s phrase), that their ‘literary merit’ is never discussed. These are books that are, firstly, functional, for Ellis’s primary goal was to share information and to encourage readers to take action to change their lives. The books are written in many styles. Yet Windy Dryden and Joe Yankura wrote two volumes about Ellis without even mentioning the range of authorial voices he employs; Daniel Wiener, in his book “Albert Ellis, Passionate Skeptic”, says only that Ellis’s writing lacks the “elegance and grace” of Freud’s, overlooking the fact that Ellis could be as graceful or as blunt as he wished, always gauging his tone to the nature of the job at hand. Scientific, scholarly, journalistic, philosophical, anecdotal, comical, confessional, he was continually readjusting his focus on the essence of REBT, getting his point across from any angle and by any means necessary, but also exploring language and writing for himself, creatively.
Ellis was a writer before he was a therapist and it shows, making his books more readable and re-readable, more enjoyable, I’d say, than those of most of his contemporaries or his disciples. His bibliography is an adventure in writing as well as a systematic outlining and unfolding of REBT theory and it is fascinating to trace the changing nature of his style(s) - to compare, for instance, books written for a professional and for a general audience, to follow his experiments of writing in E-prime (whole books composed without any recourse to the verb ‘to be’), even to compare different editions of the same title and examine the sometimes radical revisions involved. The 1994 edition of “Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy” openly disputes a number of the positions held in the 1962 edition, and so on. There, we find Al arguing with his younger self. For Ellis, contrary to some of the barbs aimed in his direction, was often critical of his achievements, his conclusions, and his personal failings. The bracing honesty of the written work is part of its multi-layered appeal: “I, too, had to be alert to my self-lauding, instead of my activity-lauding, when I succeeded in fighting my self-damnation. That was really hard!” (Ellis, “The Road to Tolerance”, 2004).
A ‘critical edition’ of the complete Albert Ellis, the many books reeled in from the corners of the publishing world, collected in one place and newly annotated, would certainly be very valuable on many levels. As studies of ‘bibliotherapy’ are developed, and we find out more about the mind and the capacity of readers to heal their own psychological wounds, an argument, perhaps even a need for this will eventually be seen. A Complete Albert Ellis Edition, however, would have to include not only those books authored by Dr Ellis alone but also those that are collaborations. Each of his co-authored works has its own character too.
One of the most engaging of them all is “Optimal Aging” (1998) written together with Emmett Velten. Recommendable to readers of any age it can almost make you impatient for the twilight years, the better to test your stoicism in the face of the challenges that aging throws at us, and to see if you too can ‘get over getting older’. If it doesn’t quite manage to make falling apart seem like fun, it comes close, takes the ‘horror’ out of the aging process, offers plenty of practical advice with wit and warmth.
Where “Optimal Aging” was aimed at the general public a new book edited by Dr Velten is directed– although no contributor quite says as much – primarily at a professional readership, but this needn’t stop the rest of us enjoying it. “Under The Influence”, subtitled “Reflections of Albert Ellis in the Work of Others”, scythes its way through a thicket of therapies that owe a debt to Ellis or parallel REBT in some important aspects. Few scientific ‘discoveries’ are the work of a single researcher, of course. The hospital patient whose life is at risk will not care who ‘really’ discovered penicillin, and this is also the underlying message of Ellis’s concluding chapter here: if the principles of REBT work, please take them and use them! Ellis has the last word in this book, in what must have been one of his final pieces of writing, and he is characteristically generous.
But the drive to assign credit where credit is due is understandable. In a majority of cases Velten and his fellow authors make their points persuasively, showing for instance how closely popular books on psychology, by authors from Wayne Dyer to Denise Beckfield, echo Ellis’s ideas. Sometimes, however, partisanship leads to overstatement. Dr Velten has a large axe to grind with Steven Hayes and his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and his assessment of it is not altogether fair. “Hayes et al.’s fashionably hip prose got on my nerves,” he writes at one point. Was it the prose, Ellis (or Epictetus) might ask, or what Velten thought about it? Speaking personally I have found Hayes’s book “Get Out of Your Mind And Into Your Life” (2005) to be a helpful and relatively straight-speaking volume. Ellis, in “The Myth of Self-Esteem” (2005) wrote favourably of ACT (“an innovative form of cognitive behavior therapy that tries very hard to help clients have unconditional self acceptance”) but seemed puzzled by Hayes’s insistence that it cannot be integrated with REBT. Velten finds plenty of parallels between REBT and ACT and also usefully explores connections between ACT and Morita therapy. (This chapter prompted me to read up on the latter and to learn much from Shoma Morita’s book ‘Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based Disorders’, written in 1928, and available in a 1997 translation from State University of New York Press).
Velten also takes a chapter, “Postmortem for Postmodern Constructionism”, to attack ‘postmodern’ therapeutic standpoints, as if these were diametrically opposed to REBT’s pragmatism, yet Albert Ellis in later life clearly endorsed postmodernism. See “Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviours” ( 2001): “Although I was formerly in the logical positivist camp, I now consider myself largely a postmodernist and constructionist.” Ellis had no qualms about changing his mind. Life is or can be a learning process, and self-invention belongs to REBT. In turn REBT, as Ellis often pointed out, is one of the most flexible and eclectic of therapies. He was constantly tinkering with it and modifying it and adding things to it. It could probably be argued that this widening embrace has made it harder to write about REBT - and to market it.
I would be interested to know when “Under The Influence” was compiled and when the individual essays in it were written. In the light of the very sharp divisions of opinion over AEI policy and the treatment of Ellis himself in his final years it seems almost surprising to find James McMahon and John Minor, for instance, on the same contents page. McMahon was treasurer of the AEI at the time when lawyers were hired to move against Dr Ellis and in several accounts is considered a leader in what has been termed the ‘palace coup’ at the Institute. Velten and Minor were lined-up on the other, pro-Ellis, side. Here however McMahon co-authors an insightful chapter on Ellis’s pre-REBT activities as a love and marriage counselor in the 1940s and looks at ways in which Ellis’s philosophical approach to relationship maintenance anticipates the research studies of John Gottman in the 1990s.
John Minor, quoting assiduously, runs his pop psychology targets to ground. He says of Denise Beckfield, “Was Beckfield simply ignorant of the history of the thinking that underpins her book (‘Master Your Panic And Take Back Your Life’)? Or was her writing a particularly breathtaking example of chutzpah? We’ll never know,” And this reader can’t help thinking (and not only here): Well, why will we never know? If one of the intentions of “Under The Influence” is to imply plagiarism or at least over-indulgent borrowings left and right, isn’t there a journalistic obligation to put the question to the authors critiqued? To ask simply: “Why have you not acknowledged your debt to Albert Ellis?” I’d like to read the replies.
Minor has a good chapter on Ellis as scientific-practitioner. But, like Velten, he has little time for psychologists who claim inspiration from Zen. Velten goes so far as to suggest that Western psychologists professing Zen influences are generally hacks and frauds: “If we got our ideas from Ellis our Rogers but attribute them to Buddha or various conveniently unpublished Zen masters…we can piously bask in the freedom from criticism afforded by pretense to non-Westernism, cultural diversity and spirituality.” John Minor seeks to blast through this smokescreen in the case of Marsha Linehan and her Dialectical Behavior Therapy. “Is it true that Linehan’s writings about acceptance of self and external reality(… ) are really something new in psychotherapy? Do her ideas go beyond practices that have been standard in counseling for half a century? No they do not. Were Linehan’s claims not cloaked in the Emperor’s New Zen Buddhist Clothes they would be laughed at openly.” Not many punches pulled in this lively book which also has an undertone of exasperation as the authors confront Ellis’s unflappable REBT-fueled cool: here they are, associates and friends, concertedly indignant on behalf of an author-psychologist capable of penning blurbs for the very writers who copied him!
The overriding value of “Under The Influence” is that it keeps bringing us back to Ellis’s ideas and innovations and intellectual independence. It also offers facts and historical details that will be new to many. I was previously unaware, for instance, of the existence of a book length Ellis manuscript entitled “The Art of Not Being Unhappy” , written in 1936 and still unpublished, a self-help volume that predates the “official” formulation of Rational Therapy by 30 years. There is also tantalizing reference to an “unpublished 747 page autobiographical novel”, “Youth Against The World”, written when Ellis was only 19, which apparently also maps out some of the philosophical foundations of REBT. According to Ricks Warren, “cognitive restructuring and skills rehearsal” were already consciously employed by the young Ellis. I hope to read more about these early works in Emmett Velten’s forthcoming biography, “Albert Ellis, American Revolutionary”, publication of which is currently scheduled for 2009.
“Under the Influence: Reflections of Albert Ellis in the Work of Others”, edited by Emmett Velten, PhD, is published by See Sharp Press, LLC of Tucson, Arizona. The contributing writers are John Minor, Hank Robb, Ricks Warren, James McMahon, John Viterito, Nando Pelusi, Joseph Pedoto, I.J Barrish and Albert Ellis. Introduction by Michael Mahone, foreword by Sam Klarreich.