July 8, 1893, is the birthdate of Fritz Perls, the German-born psychotherapist who co-founded Gestalt therapy. Over the course of his life, Perls experienced some of the most significant events and movements of the 20th century, and the psychological school of therapy he developed, whose heyday was in the 1970s and '80s, very much captured the zeitgeist. That being said, his method is still being taught and practiced, and many of its ideas have been adopted by other schools of treatment.
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Friedrich Salomon Perls was born in Berlin to Amelia Rund and Nathan Perls, a wine merchant. The family was for the most part secular, although Fritz, who had two older sisters, did have some religious education and celebrated his bar mitzvah. He described his parents’ marriage as unloving, and his father as bullying to his wife and children.
After being expelled from one gymnasium (high school) for poor marks and bad behavior, Perls enrolled in a more progressive school, where he became very involved in theater, and also excelled academically. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of a famous uncle, Herman Staub, one of Germany’s leading lawyers, but was drawn to medicine instead.
The start of Perls’ medical studies coincided with World War I. Although initially rejected for military service, because of various medical deficiencies, by 1916, recruitment standards dropped, and Perls was able to enlist. He served for a year as a medical officer in the trenches, where he was gassed and wounded, and later decorated for bravery. The experience was extremely traumatic for him and turned him into a lifelong leftist.
Perls returned to his medical studies in 1918, and graduated two years later, specializing in neuropsychiatry. He set up a practice in Berlin. In 1926, he met Laura Posner, a graduate student in Gestalt psychology (Perls’ Gestalt therapy is derived from the psychological school) at the University of Frankfurt. The two married in 1929, but also became intellectual and professional partners. Posner had studied existential philosophy and introduced Perls to many of the concepts that influenced Gestalt therapy, which the couple developed together with Paul Goodman.
Gestalt therapy emphasizes experience and the here-and-now over reflection on past memories. By incorporating various experiential methods, the therapy can help the individual confront directly, in a safe environment, conflicts that are troubling him.
In 1933, shortly after the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, the couple and their two children fled, first to the Netherlands, and the following year to South Africa. There Fritz was authorized by the International Psychoanalytic Association to open a training institute for Freudian psychoanalysts. He also became an acolyte of South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, a holistic philosopher who had his own theories about the interrelationship of organism and environment.
In 1946, the family left South Africa, eventually resettling in New York. There Perls worked briefly with both Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich, the latter of whom had been his analyst for some time in Germany. In the late 1940s, he asked the writer and social philosopher Paul Goodman, who was American-born, to help him organize his notes in book form: the result of this was part of Perls’ second book, “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality,” of which Ralph Hefferline was also co-author. Shortly thereafter, Fritz and Laura opened the first Gestalt Institute in their Manhattan apartment.
In a 1969 book, “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,” Perls presented the “Gestalt Prayer,” which emphasizes the importance of the individual’s looking after his or her own needs, and not to try to live up to others’ expectations, or what are perceived as those expectations:
“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.”
During much of the 1960s, Perls lived and worked at Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, a humanistic, alternative-therapy retreat center. By now, he had also incorporated elements of Zen Buddhism, particularly the concept of mindfulness, into his work. Laura Perls, from whom Fritz had effectively separated some time before, stayed behind in New York. In 1969, he left Esalen and set up an institute on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
He had suffered for some years from heart disease, and was hospitalized in Chicago in 1970. There, after heart surgery, Perls died on March 14, 1970.