Meeting with a Remarkable Man

Personal Tales of Milton H. Erickson by Bill O'Hanlon Crown House, 2009 Review by E. James Lieberman, M.D. Dec 15th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 51)

Hypnosis seems to be an ugly duckling in regard to training clinicians and researchers in the mental health professions. It's fascinating, and open to many theories and research approaches, but seems tainted by association with mysticism and charlatans.  It is said that ten percent of the population is highly hypnotizable, another ten percent indifferent or immune, and the great majority somewhere in between. Much of therapy--like parenting, teaching, politics, religion, sports, literature etc.--is suffused with suggestion.  Yet few are aware of how they--we--act and talk suggestively. According to Peter Brown (reference below), if you can read this, you are trained in self-hypnosis: you can convert arbitrary symbols--letters on a page--to meaningful images and ideas.

This compact disk is one of six produced by marriage and family therapist O'Hanlon, who has conducted over 2000 seminars and workshops and authored or coauthored 29 books. A good, easy-going speaker, O'Hanlon relates his experience with this "amazing man," Milton Erickson, M.D. (1902-1980). The two met in 1973 when O'Hanlon, a student at Arizona State, did some gardening for the Ericksons and then became his student.

O'Hanlon describes a few cases that characterized his mentor's style: sensitive, imaginative, bold; sometimes cryptic, often paradoxical. He calls Erickson a "wounded healer," who transcended polio as a teenager before deciding to go to medical school because he could no longer be a farmer. A great observer, Erickson trusted his unconscious and often used indirect suggestion to engage that of his patient.

This is an attractive introduction to a complex, ingenious therapist and, to many, a guru. A handful of his colleagues and students sometimes seem to compete for his mantle. Erickson's papers are collected in four volumes. There is an excellent biography, Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer (2006) edited byBetty Erickson and Bradford Keeney.  For a broader introduction, TheHypnotic Brain by Peter Brown, M.D. (1991) has a fine example of Erickson's approach, while addressing the hypnotic phenomenon generally in its many guises.

Having studied hypnosis only in the last decade of my psychiatric career, I regret that it earns so little respect in academic circles and the health professions.  The relatively few who are trained in hypnosis have learned to pay attention to how we sound when we talk: content is important, but so is context and giving preference to positive rather than negative statements. Students of hypnosis benefit from knowing how we weaken our persuasive messages or influence more than we intend to.  Respectable researchers have made important contributions to this neglected subject in recent decades. Hypnosis is probably as well understood as most talking therapies. This CD is a good starting place for anyone interested in a psychological phenomenon that includes everything from the mundane to the mind-boggling.