(originally published in the Obituary Section of The Guardian on August 10, 2007)
Shyness was among the many problems successfully treated by the American psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who has died aged 93. But it was not an affliction that it was wise to bring along to his legendary Friday night workshops, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: there, patients were hauled up on stage in front of an audience of hundreds, to be rigorously cross-questioned by Ellis, usually with plenty of swearing. “Let me tell you why people are always making you so angry,” he informed a troubled young woman, one warm evening in 2005. “Because they’re screwed up! They’re out of their fucking minds! We’re all out of our fucking minds!”
This mantra, lustily repeated whenever he got the chance, summarised the philosophy behind Ellis’s “rational emotive behaviour therapy” (REBT) – a version of cognitive therapy so influential that, four years ago, the American Psychological Association voted him the second most influential psychotherapist of the 20th century, after Carl Rogers. Trailing in third place came Sigmund Freud, whose theories Ellis had done as much as anyone to render obsolete. “Freud was full of horseshit,” he liked to say, while neurosis, the central concept in the Freudian model of personality, was “just a high-class word for whining.”
Behind the rambunctious language, however, lurked a deeply insightful, pragmatic and forgiving approach to human emotional life, influenced by figures as diverse as the Buddha, Epictetus the Stoic, and the maverick psychoanalyst Karen Horney. Its starting point was that we have negative emotional reactions not to events themselves, but to our beliefs about them. Ellis rejected – perhaps too completely – Freud’s focus on unpicking a patient’s childhood experiences. Instead, he advocated identifying and modifying these “irrational” beliefs, which usually take the form of a hidden demand that reality should be different than it is. “There are three ‘musts’ that hold us back,” he wrote. “I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” We upset ourselves with the grandiose requirement that we should perform perfectly, and that others should be nice to us. But in fact we are imperfect: we fail, in love and in work, all the time. And other people, often enough, “act like jerks”.
Placing cognitive phenomena such as beliefs at the heart of his psychological model also led Ellis to emphasise short-term treatment, aimed at changing one’s way of thinking in the here and now, rather than seeking to understand the past. “As I see it, psychoanalysis gives clients a cop-out,” he told the magazine Psychology Today. “They don’t have to change their ways or their philosophies; they get to talk about themselves for 10 years, blaming their parents and waiting for magic-bullet insights.” It was an attitude perfectly tailored for self-help publishing: Ellis wrote or co-authored 78 books, with titles including How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable, and How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything!
Ellis was born in Pittsburgh, the oldest of three children, to a mother he said was melodramatic and selfish, and a father who worked as a travelling salesman, and was rarely present. Self-sufficiency was unavoidable, especially from the age of five, when Ellis began a sequence of extended periods of hospitalisation for a kidney disease. He went on to earn a degree in business from the City University of New York, but the Depression forced him to seek unorthodox niches: one money-making scheme involved locating jackets and trousers of similar colours, then selling them as suits. Having failed to find a publisher for a novel, he began to write on human sexuality, and established, without any professional qualifications, a sex-counselling service for couples.
Early glimmers of REBT could be discerned in a nerve-racking experiment Ellis conducted as a teenager, with himself as the subject. He recounted it – certainly not for the first time – when I interviewed him in New York two years ago. (His failing health meant he spoke from his bed; his failing hearing meant I had to speak into a microphone, so that my voice could be piped into headphones clamped to his ears.) As a 19-year-old, he said, he was painfully shy around women. So during a month of daily visits to the Bronx Botanical Garden, he sat on a bench and spoke to every woman he saw. His 130 attempts at conversation did not lead to true love, but that was beside the point. He had proved to himself that rejection, though unpleasant, was not unbearable: there was no need to “awfulise” it. “Nobody vomited and ran away,” he wrote. “Nobody called the cops.”
The experience led directly to the “shame-attacking exercises” he later prescribed to his patients. “Stop somebody on the street,” he advised, “and say, ‘I just got out of the loony bin. What month is it?’ And [learn] not [to] feel ashamed when they look in horror at you, and think you’re off your rocker, which they think you are. But you’re really not. You’re being very much saner than they are.”
In his late 20s, Ellis enrolled at Columbia University to study clinical psychology, obtaining a master’s degree in 1943 and a doctorate in 1947. He practised psychoanalysis for six years, until his divergence from its principles became too great. In 1956, he published the bestselling How to Live With a Neurotic, and by 1959 had opened the Institute for Rational Living, later the Albert Ellis Insitute, in the Upper East Side townhouse that would become his home and professional base.
His ideas met with open and regular hostility from the psychotherapeutic establishment, whose members accused him of misinterpreting Freud, and – a little richly, for Freudians – demanded evidence for his claims. But cognitive therapy has since been subjected to rigorous testing, not least by Aaron Beck, its other major progenitor, and has been shown to rival drug treatment for many problems; it is now widely available on the NHS. A more enduring criticism of Ellis’s approach is one of tone: it can sometimes sound as if he is urging people suffering from severe depression, for example, simply to pull their socks up. Furthermore, one early book, which he later vigorously repudiated, accepted the prevailing view that homosexuality was a mental disorder in need of cure.
Ellis’s own energetic love life included – among numerous other liaisons – two early marriages, and an open relationship of nearly four decades with the Ellis Institute’s executive director, Janet Wolfe. His third wife, former assistant and long-time carer, Debbie Joffe-Ellis, survives him.
His last years were complicated not just by intestinal problems and pneumonia, but by a dispute with the institute’s other directors, who removed him from the board, cancelled his Friday workshops, and stopped paying for his accommodation and medical care. He sued, and in 2006 a New York judge ruled in his favour; by the time of his death he was back in his flat at the institute. True to the principles of REBT, he insisted that the contretemps never made him upset: there was no point, after all, in demanding that the whole universe fall in line with his wishes. The other board members, he told one reporter, were “fucked-up, fallible human beings, just like everyone else.”