Dead Basement: Opening a Family Therapy Time Capsule By Jay Lappin, MSW, LCSW on 6/27/23 - 11:46 AM

It all started sometime last year when I began a quest to clean out my basement — I’d not seen the Swedish “Death Cleaning” shows yet, so I was on my own. I mistakenly thought I could just start tossing the mounds of journals, articles, books, and conference nametags so our kids could be spared the work after I died — but then…there it was…

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Family Therapy History Makers

A December 1974 — Volume 13 Number 4 issue of Family Process. A Multidisciplinary Journal of Family Study Research and Treatment, with a faded stamp from the Library of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. An article by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Luigi Boscolo, Gian Franco Cecchin & Giuliana Prata entitled: The Treatment of Children Through Brief Therapy of Their Parents. An asterisk: “Translated by Paul Watzlawick.” I smiled remembering a dinner with them, drinking, laughing, and telling jokes. Hmm, when was that…?

As I opened the journal to page 429, something happened. It was as if I were just teleported back 49 years, now the eager graduate school student who just got out of the Army. The moment even had a soundtrack — Amy Correia’s song, “The Bike,” in which she told the story reflecting on the life of her uncle Pat, from whom she’d inherited the bike. She sang that in his youth “… life was laid before him like a platter before a king/he was young, and he was handsome/and the world was alive with meaning…”

So, I re-read the article — a treat from my younger self. It reminded me of when I was in the service and smoked heavily doing mental health reports in the stockade. Cigarettes were 26 cents a pack on post. I remembered watching the puff of the clouds as I exhaled, which evoked another song — a commentary on aging — David Bowie singing, “Time may change me, but I can't trace time…” So, I kept the journal, for now…. only a hundred or so other journals in the “Dead Basement” — waiting for the right music.

I felt like ditching these old journals would be the academic equivalent of tossing my Beatles albums because they’re “too old,” which is to say that my “toss-to-keep” ratio is terrible. I feel like I’m one of those seniors in an Atlantic City Casino — smoking, hunched over “my” slot machine, air tank and hose to my nose, my ciggy aglow, and hoping for the Triple Cherries that may never arrive. (BTW, the RTP — “Return to Player,” averages $90.00 on $100.00 of betting if you play long enough…)

I wonder if people in other professions hoard in the same fashion. Does a doctor flip through their stack of appendix pictures and say, “Yep, this one’s a keeper…?” And how does all this play out with our respective “bucket lists?” Are therapists really cool “bucketeers,” driving through national forests in their RV’s stuffed with journals, texts, piles of Family Therapy Networkers from the ‘80s (like the one with the EST guy, Werner Earhart on the cover) and plastered with bumper stickers that have the AAMFT logo, a Forest Gump, “Shit Happens” classic, and some retired social work humor, “Social Workers Work…But Not Any More ?” And then, the Fireside Chats — hopefully fascinating and diverse, or like listening to Dwight, from The Office talking about how much he misses his Beet Farm…

Today was rough — Trash Day. I managed to get four journals out. If Gregory Bateson were here, he’d say that I’m only reaching half of the what’s necessary and what’s sufficient equation. While it’s necessary to chuck the old journals, I’m not tossing enough to make a dent in the piles. It happened again this morning. The culprit: a journal with yet another Philadelphia Child Guidance cover, this time with the library stamp for library shoplifters: “Please Do Not Remove from Library.” At that moment, past became present and I could feel it — my personal time machine: “Volume 4 Number 1 January, 1978: A Structural Approach to a Family with an Encopretic Child,” by Maurizio Andolfi and then, “Struggling with the Impotence Impasse: Absurdity and Acting-In" by David Keith and Carl Whitaker.

I hadn’t thought about Carl in years. I was very lucky. I’d worked with him after Minuchin left for New York and started the Minuchin Center for the Family. Carl and his wife, Muriel, came to PCGC “in residence twice for months at a time.” During one of those residencies, he and I were seeing a family together and one of the kids was noisily zooming around the room. I whispered, “Dr. Whitaker, shouldn’t we do something to help quiet things down?” But I said it so quietly that he didn’t hear me, so I said it again, louder — all he said was, “Not my kid.”

The father heard him, got up, and caught his son on one of his noisy rotations and then gently put him in his lap and the session went on successfully. Whitaker had worked his magic in just three words. Today, staring at the journal, I heard him again, and again, he taught me to trust our unconscious, like when ET was leaving Earth to go home, touching Elliot’s forehead and saying, “I’ll be right there,” so too will our memories — even if we don’t have the prompts.

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections