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AFTNC clinical members are MFTs, psychologists, social workers, and counselors with special interest in working with families and couples. Members may work with indivdual adults, children, adolescents, and groups as well as doing conjoint therapy

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On Being a Family Therapist

Judye Hess, Ph.D. | Published on 10/1/2003

I grew up in a family with a dad who was a prominent psychoanalyst in New York City and an older sister who followed his footsteps to become a psychoanalyst on Long Island. With a background like that, it was pretty clear that I would follow suit in terms of career path. I proceeded to go to graduate school in clinical psychology back in the early 70s at the University of Rhode Island. While working on my dissertation, I was able to secure a part-time job in a youth guidance center, which would help pay the rent. The only problem was, I had never been particularly interested in working with children or teens. Lo and behold, I was assigned a supervisor who had been trained at the Ackerman Institute in N.Y. back in the 60s. Now, mind you, I had never so much as taken a course in family therapy at graduate school since there were no such courses. When Eliot Brown, my supervisor, saw my reluctance to working individually with the children, he smiled and said, "Well, why don't you see the whole family?” I started to grow pale when he added, "You can tape record the sessions and then I’ll go over them with you." That was some relief.

And so began what has been the focus of my personal and clinical odyssey: the family. Once I found myself sitting in a room with four, five or even six members of the family, something clicked. I found that this was indeed my natural state. I felt at home and seemed to make the family feel at home as well. I realized that I had found a new passion for myself: "work" that I loved as much as any so-called pleasurable activity. I couldn't wait to see the next family! A chemistry seemed to occur among us all that allowed for healing to take place in these often multi-problem families. I couldn't have been happier, and so were the families! And so, of course, was my supervisor, who realized he had found a convert to this very new and growing field!

I wound up doing my dissertation on adolescent girls and their families and spent that year going to the homes of about fifty families to administer tests to the parents and their adolescent daughter. Meanwhile, I would be sitting and watching TV with the younger children or playing with the family dog or cat. In these often cold winter nights in New England, I found myself very much at home in this family setting as I had felt with families in the therapy room, quite unlike the feelings I had grown up with in my own family. In fact, what was so neat about these situations was that not only were the families being healed. So was I!

Coming out to California in 1977, I was soon to join up with AFTNC, and continue counseling families at Xanthos Family Counseling Agency in Alameda. I remember some of the early AFTNC retreats down at Soquel with Carl Whitaker and Helm Steirlin. I still quote from the conversations that took place with some of those great icons of family therapy. And in addition, the swimming pool was a lot of fun!

I soon found a really good mentor to continue my training, none other than past AFTNC president, Alan Leveton. In this weekly five-hour course that I took with him at the Family Therapy Center on Sacramento Street in 1979, there were only six of us and we worked on client families as well as our own families of origin. At the time, I was going through a particularly difficult time with my own family.

I once brought in a very guilt-inducing letter from my psychoanalyst father to share with the class. I can never forget Alan's almost blasé attitude upon hearing it. He said something like, "Oh, I've seen so many of these letters before.” and was clearly unperturbed. When I conveyed how anxious I was at the idea of seeing my parents coming out to visit me in California, Alan said, "Well, why don't you bring them in? I'll see them with you.” WOW! Could this really happen?

Well, I broached this subject with my parents by saying the only way I would be willing to see them was if they agreed to come to family therapy with me. My father, who was very identified with the role of doctor, was not happy with the prospect of being someone else's "patient". But my mom, who had thirty years of unresolved issues to work out with my dad, talked him into it. And so it was. They came out here and we did a six -hour marathon session with Alan, something none of us would ever forget.

In 1984, I was offered a position at the California Institute of Integral Studies teaching Family Dynamics and Therapy. It was my dream of a lifetime and still adds incredible satisfaction to my life. While the nature of the class involved doing psychodramas where students would act out the parts of the family members, the last five years have brought more and more actual families into the classroom for sessions. At times it will be just a parent or a sibling of the student; at other times the student will bring in his or her whole family for the demonstration session. As one student recently remarked in her paper, "When people brought their family members into class, they changed in a moment. They started looking as part of a whole. Everything in them changed. I believe that the reason for that change is the huge potential lying in the family system. A potential for deep intimacy and creativity.”

So when the question comes up, "Are you in this field 'because of' your family"? I cannot deny that growing up in my family has been a significant factor in my career choice. The inherent yearning I have always had to be part of a healing family; my familiarity with deeply embedded dysfunctional; my skills at being an agent of change; and the inborn passion for this work that I was endowed with in this lifetime, have all led to a path that has brought incredible fulfillment to my life.

Judye Hess, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies where she teaches Family Dynamics, Couples Therapy and Group Dynamics. She is an adjunct faculty member at JFKU and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Judye also has a private practice in Berkeley where she sees mainly couples and families.