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Frederick S. Perls

Formulates concept of Gestalt therapy, Joins Esalen Institute

German-American psychotherapist who co-founded Gestalt therapy.

Frederick S. Perls, known to his friends and colleagues as Fritz, was the co-founder with his wife Laura (1905-1990) of the Gestalt school of psychotherapy. Trained as a Freudian, Perls felt that Freud's ideas had limitations, in part because they focused on past experiences. One of the key elements of Gestalt therapy is its focus on what Perls called the "here and now." During the 1960s, Gestalt therapy gained a reputation as yet another of the "feel-good" therapeutic techniques then so common. Today, Gestalt is recognized as one of several standard approaches (often part of what is called an "eclectic" approach) to modern therapy.

Perls was born in Berlin in 1893 into a middle class family. He was a bright student, but his interest in science did not emerge until after he enrolled in college in 1913. Before that he had been interested in the theater. He toyed briefly with the idea of studying law but settled on medicine.

The First World War interrupted his college years. He served until the war ended in 1918, then continued his medical studies. He received his M.D. in 1921 By this time he had decided that he wanted to focus on psychiatry. Perls was an admirer and follower of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic techniques. At the same time, he was becoming more and more intrigued by Gestalt psychology.

The English language has no equivalent word for "Gestalt," but it is commonly translated as "pattern" or "form." Gestalt psychology states, in simplest terms, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, in order to understand the various components of a particular issue or event, one must understand the event itself and put the components in perspective. In the 1920s and 1930s, Perls began to move away from the classic Freudian model and create a more holistic approach to therapy. In the meantime, he continued his education in psychotherapy in Berlin, Vienna, and Frankfurt. While studying in Frankfurt, he met his future wife; they married in 1930 and later had two children.

Formulates concept of Gestalt therapy

Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was a magnet for avant-garde intellectuals, and both Fritz and Laura Perls met many. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler quickly changed the course of German intellectual life. The Perls family left Germany in 1934, settling in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the next several years, Fritz and Laura Perls developed the ideas that would become Gestalt psychotherapy. Perls wrote his first book, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, while in South Africa. It generated limited interest; it was republished in England in 1946 but still attracted less interest than Perls had hoped.

It should be understood that Perls did not abandon Freud's teachings in developing Gestalt therapy. Rather, he modified some of Freud's theories to create what he called a more holistic approach. In particular, he focused on present influences and experience, unlike strict Freudians, who relied on analyzing a patient's past experiences going back to early childhood.

In 1946, the Perls family moved briefly to Canada and then the United States. Fritz and Laura Perls continued their work on Gestalt therapy, and Fritz Perls cowrote a book with Paul Goodman and Robert Hefferline. The book, Gestalt Therapy, was published in 1951. It was initially not taken seriously by the Gestalt psychology movement. In the ensuing years, however, it attracted a greater following. Meanwhile, Perls spent his time lecturing and opening institutes where he could train Gestalt therapists. Among the schools he founded was the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, which was run by Laura Perls.

Joins Esalen Institute

In 1964, Perls became resident psychiatrist at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. There he organized and conducted "dream workshops," in which participants would discuss their dreams and engage in role-playing exercises based on the characters (and sometimes objects) in their dreams. In the ensuing years he continued to open new institutes around the country and conduct Gestalt workshops. By this time Perls sported a long white beard and a flowing white mane—resembling to some a member of the counterculture that was to define the 1960s.

Perls later moved to an island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, where in 1970 he started a training community for Gestalt therapists. In March 1970, shortly after conducting a workshop in Lexington, Massachusetts, Perls underwent surgery in Chicago. He suffered heart failure and died there on March 10 at the age of 76.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Perls, Frederick S. Ego, hunger, and aggression: a revision of Freud's theory and method. London: Allen and Unwin, 1947.

Perls, Frederick S., Paul Goodman, and Robert Hefferline. Gestalt therapy: excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Julian Press, 1951.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists