DR. ROBERT W. FIRESTONE
Psychologist | Author | Theorist | Artist
My Intellectual Contribution
Early in my life, I decided that I wanted to make an important contribution to humankind and be of value to others. I have sought to realize this goal through my involvement in the field of psychology. As I said in the Introduction, for fifty years I have been absorbed in developing my understanding of resistance in psychotherapy and of people's resistance to a better life in general. I have studied this subject in various populations ranging from extreme psychotics to neurotic patients in psychotherapy to a normal population of comparatively high-functioning individuals. The theory and methodology that have emerged from this work are at the core of my legacy. My contribution to the psychological literature is multi-faceted.
I developed my own theoretical approach, Separation Theory, which integrates psychoanalytic and existential concepts in psychology in a manner that lends itself to an effective approach to psychotherapy. In the process, my associates and I have contributed to an understanding of how social structures and cultures are formed from individual psychological defenses against both interpersonal pain and death anxiety. I have described how the denial of death and various other illusions and self-protective adaptations to death anxiety lead to limitations in living. In the course of my investigations, I have identified the basic defense mechanisms that adversely affect personal relationships, society and issues of morality in everyday life.
Since my earliest days working with schizophrenic patients I have been involved in theory formation in an attempt to formulate a better understanding of humanity and its concomitant psychopathology. As time passed, my efforts were directed toward people suffering from a wide range of problems. I constantly reworked and broadened my theoretical approach in an attempt to better understand my expanding client base.
When I was a young practitioner, I participated in an innovative residential treatment program where the psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals lived and worked in close conjunction with severely regressed patients. It was a similar situation to R D Laing's program at Kingsley Hall in London, where the afflicted and the healers cohabitated on a twenty-four hour basis. Although the treatment modalities were quite different in the two situations, both challenged doctor-patient role-playing and insisted on an authentic interaction on the part of the therapist. It was agonizing for me to experience, at close range, the torment and despair of human beings forced to choose a nightmarish fantasy life over a real existence in this world. Despite the stressful nature of my involvement, these unusual circumstances allowed me to study the full range of mental illness as contrasted with the narrow vantage point of the one-half to one-hour office visit. I learned that a therapist could maintain objectivity despite the emotional involvement of living with patients in close quarters. I found that I could maintain an honest approach, be completely true to my nature and utilize my real self as a healing agent. It was a time rich in discovery for me and, without realizing it, I was being prepared for future events in my life.
Later, I generalized and adjusted the theory I had originally formulated during my work with these schizophrenic patients to explain the dynamics of a larger segment of the patient population and this same theory eventually played a part in my understanding of the so-called "normal" individual. It became obvious to me that all people have a great deal in common and that all forms of mental problems and their manifestations exist more or less on the same continuum. We all have our pain as well as our joy.
I introduced and explained the importance of the fantasy bond as a unifying psychological concept that elucidates how human beings seek comfort and security in fantasies of fusion that insulate us from emotional pain, in particular from the tragic awareness of death's inevitability. Any eventuality that threatens the fantasy bond arouses aggression. This offers an explanation of how and why people are polarized by their customs, belief systems, and religions, against others with dissimilar ways of living and different views of the world. In my writing, I have shown that these dynamics are a core issue in prejudice, genocide, ethnic strife and religious wars and therefore relevant for trying to change the destructive orientation of humankind. Hopefully these insights could lead to a worldview that encourages people to value life and humanistic ideals for all human beings. I believe that it is our personal responsibility to assure that all people on the planet have the necessities of a good life including food, shelter, and the absence of poverty.
I have defined the fantasy bond as an imagined connection, formed originally with the parent or primary caretaker, that arises in response to emotional deprivation and separation trauma in early childhood. Internalized, idealized parental images, in conjunction with primitive self-nurturing habits, provide the child with an illusion of self-sufficiency or pseudo-independence because they partially gratify basic needs and reduce tension. The degree to which children, and later, adults rely on the fantasy bond is proportional to the amount of pain and rejection they experienced in their developmental years. When frustrated, children often idealize their parents at their own expense. In the process, they internalize negative attitudes towards themselves and project the parents' destructive characteristics onto the outside world. Rather than conclude that their parents are inadequate or rejecting, a fact that is too threatening for the child to face, children prefer to think that they themselves are bad or unlovable. Choosing that defense allows the child to believe that there is a possibility of change if they improve themselves.
I have elaborated on how the fantasy bond essentially involves a self-parenting process that leads to a pseudo-independent posture toward life, insulates one from others and hurts one's personal relationships. We nurture and punish our children and ourselves throughout our lifetime in a manner similar to the way we were treated in our developmental years. For this reason, we spend the majority of our lives reliving rather than living, thereby restricting our vitality and creative potential.
Later, I formulated the concept of the "voice," a system of critical, destructive thoughts and attitudes that supports the fantasy bond and makes up the anti-self system, an alien aspect of the personality. I explained how negative attitudes are incorporated at times of stress, which has an overall destructive effect on the life of the individual. My associates and I developed therapeutic techniques that expose this destructive thought process, allow for the release of the associated feelings, identify the source of self-attacks and suggest a more effective means of coping with life.
I developed the procedures of Voice Therapy that access elements of the anti-self system, thereby advancing our knowledge of humankind's self-destructiveness. In Voice Therapy sessions, aggression toward self comes out clearly, powerfully and in a way that contributes to the understanding of the underlying psychodynamics. I feel that the material that is elicited, i.e., the negative or hostile thoughts that are uncovered, is a valuable tool in predicting behavior since all forms of self-limitation and self-destructive actions are related to these internalized attitudes and prescriptions. Empirical research has already demonstrated the predictive power of the concept of the voice in suicide and violence. The process also operates in reverse; when we become familiar with an individual's dysfunctional behavior as contrasted with their stated goals and desires, we can deduce the underlying voices.
From the very beginning I believed that the mental suffering of human beings was a valid indication of how they were treated and I determined that its primary roots were attributable to ignorance on the part of parents, lack of love, outright neglect, disrespect and overt or covert parental hostility. As I said earlier, I knew that hereditary factors and biological propensities entered into the picture, but I strongly believed that psychological issues were the core developmental influence. In working with psychotic patients, I consistently noted examples of dysfunctional family practices. These same patterns were evident in the family lives of patients who manifested a lesser degree of mental disturbance.
In feeling release therapy with a large number of both normal and emotionally disturbed individuals, my colleagues and I found that each person harbored deep primal anguish that was principally related to painful experiences in childhood. Later, in investigating Voice Therapy, I found similar indications, namely that every individual sustained voice attacks that led to varying degrees of self-destructive thought and behavior. I learned that these self-attacks begin in early childhood, traditionally considered to be a happy and delightful time. In every instance, people utilizing these therapeutic techniques connected their negative voices and prohibitions to either implicit or explicit family attitudes. What made my findings so convincing was the fact that these people developed their own insights. There were no analyses or interpretations by the professionals involved in the pilot study; they merely encouraged individuals to express their critical or negative thought processes in an active dialogue in the second person as though they were talking to themselves.
In an article called "The Universality Of Emotional Child Abuse," I defined emotional child abuse as:
"the unnecessary damage to the child's psychological development and emerging personal identity, primarily caused by parents' (primary caretakers') immaturity, defended lifestyle, and conscious or unconscious aggression toward the child. We must consider it an abuse when imprinting from early interactions with parents has long-term debilitating effects on a person's conception of self, impairs personal relationships, leads to a condition of general unhappiness, causes pain in one's sexual life, precludes creativity, intrudes on vocational choice and stifles the development of career."
I then delineated the indices that demonstrate the negative state of youth in our society, such as the alarming incidence of drug abuse, the rise in the rate of teenage suicide, the fact that over a million teenagers run away each year and the number of diagnosable emotional disorders in our population, reaching as high as 37%. Moreover, these figures are misleading in the direction of minimizing the problem because they refer only to disorders that were detected. I made the point that there is evidence of widespread mismanagement and mistreatment of children while at the same time there is an unfortunate regressive trend toward denial of family abuses and a mindless unconditional support for "family values" and practices amounting to political and religious fanaticism. I also noted that:
"grown children's attitudes toward parents reflect a good deal of conscious and unconscious hostility and a desire for distance. Parents constantly complain that their children don't write or visit. Why, if family life is constructive and personally rewarding, must these adults be coerced or be made to feel guilty to maintain contact? Why wouldn't it be a powerful choice for them to maintain close, loving relationships with their parents over the span of life?"
Many theorists have described emotional child abuse; the most prominent of these is Alice Miller, whose outstanding and courageous life's work casts light on the dark side of family interactions. In the same article, I enlarged the perspective of these other theorists, explained the underlying psychodynamics of child abuse and cited the reasons that parents damage their children, despite their best intentions. I concluded with these words:
"While it is true that increasing parental awareness can foster guilt reactions, nevertheless, when awareness is carried to a more complete understanding of the cycle, parents' guilt is actually diminished. Indeed, the dual focus of our specialized parenting groups on parents' negative attitudes and behavior toward their children and the negative experiences parents went through in their own childhoods, helps mothers and fathers to have more compassion for themselves. Regaining feeling for themselves was the key element in the therapeutic process that enabled them to alter their child-rearing practices in a positive direction."
Lastly, my theory explains the role of death anxiety as a primary factor in the formation and maintenance of maladaptive defenses that play an important part in human self-destructiveness. As noted, defenses formed before the child becomes aware of death are critically reinforced when the child does become aware of death. Existential issues continue to have a powerful impact, generally negative, on individuals throughout their lives.
On a societal level, institutionalized defenses against death anxiety (religious dogma, political systems, and other "isms") create a negative social pressure that supports the individual's denial of death and other accommodations to death anxiety. My ideas have a certain kinship with Object Relations theory, but I place more emphasis on existential issues and on society's active destructive influence on the individual and interference with his or her project of becoming an authentic self. I also take serious account of the suicidal potential that exists within the personality (the anti-self system). Aggression toward self and others is not derived from a death instinct or innate aggression; rather, the anti-self system represents the internalization of negative parental attitudes, destructive forces in society and painful existential realities.
My work, supported by the Glendon Association, has been made available to the profession at large. Glendon has held workshops, offered lectures and presented numerous documentary films at universities, hospitals and clinics all over the world. My wife, Tamsen, has developed PsychAlive, www.psychalive.org, a website which makes these ideas more available to the general public. In the future, I plan to broaden the scope of her work utilizing the Internet to reach more people. My ultimate hope is that my ideas will benefit people both in and out of the psychology profession.
This year, two books of mine are being published: The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, and Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life Affirming Death Awareness. The first book explains the psychological factors underlying unethical behavior, the dangers that immorality poses for humankind, an understanding of personal power as compared with destructive power plays, the dynamics of leadership and followership, and the principal causes of ethnic strife and war. Beyond Death Anxiety describes children's reactions to the dawning awareness of death, the typical defenses that people adopt to cope with death fears, the effect of these core defenses on limiting lives, and the expansion of individual defenses into societal systems that are destructive to each person's individuality. The second part of the book suggests a method of facing up to death concerns and expressing the appropriate anger, pain and sadness. It indicates the potential value and importance of psychotherapy in dealing with death issues. Lastly, it emphasizes the importance of choosing to find one's own meaning in life, develops a methodology for overcoming self-defeating defenses, and reveals a philosophy that embraces life in the face of a finite existence. In his Foreword to the second book, Kirk Schneider, the existential psychotherapist, wrote:
"This book represents a towering synthesis of personal and clinical wisdom about death. Particularly for the first author, Robert Firestone, this book could be viewed as a capstone for his illustrious career as both existential-analytic practitioner and theorist. However, Beyond Death Anxiety is much more than a book about death; at its heart, it is a meditation on life and how to live it really well."
These two books hold a profoundly personal meaning for me, as I care deeply about the tragic state of madness in the world today that I see as mindlessly destructive to millions of people. If our technological development continues to race ahead of our capacity for compassion, and if rational thought does not prevail, mankind's continued existence on this planet will most certainly be threatened. I hope that a better understanding of how the "fantasy bond" polarizes people against one another might contribute to the cause of peace. Understanding this dynamic might encourage people to look for commonality of experience with those who look different or entertain contrasting belief systems, rather than to perceive these differences as a threat. This would open up the possibility for people to maintain tolerance, mutual respect for one another and a peaceful coexistence.
My intellectual legacy consists of 12 books in my field, starting with The Truth, A Psychological Cure, published by McMillan in 1981 and ending with Beyond Death Anxiety, published by Springer in 2009. I have contributed numerous articles in professional journals on the subjects of child abuse, child-rearing, self-destructive behavior, suicide, couple and family relationships, sexuality and death anxiety. In addition, I have made more than 30 video documentaries covering the same subject matter and have helped develop two scales to predict suicide and violence potential. My publications are listed in the appendix at the end of this book.
While I have fulfilled my dream of making an important contribution in my field, I wish that my ideas had become more influential. I don't want personal credit, because I am uncomfortable in the limelight; rather I want the ideas themselves to prevail and make a difference in the world.