Dr Harry Wilmer

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Dr Harry Willmer

Therapeutic Community Memories:

Dr. Harry Wilmer died March 13, 2005 at the age of 88. A Jungian analyst, Dr. Wilmer was one of the pioneers of group therapy in North America. He had a measurable impact on the field of social psychiatry, beginning in the 1950s.

He was responsible for introducing the therapeutic community to North America at the US Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. His work at the Naval Hospital described in his book, Social Psychiatry in Action, was made into the 1961 Emmy-nominated TV docudrama "People Need People." He explored new avenues of prison reform as a consultant to the California state prison system in the mid 1960s and set up an experimetal project at San Quentin Prison. As professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, he created the Youth Drug Ward, an innovative community to treat the drug casualties of the Haight Ashbury, utilizing the emerging technology of videotape.

He moved away from his Freudian roots in the late 1960s to become a Jungian analyst. As professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, he created one of the first projects for the training of AIDS patient caregivers, as well as studying the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vietnam veterans, assisting their recovery by listening to and analyzing the dreams and nightmares that haunted them.

Below is an article by Dennie Briggs who worked with him.

People Need People. Selections from the Works of Harry A. Wilmer

The atmosphere and spirit of the therapeutic community —its

very essence—are part of a universal symbolic dream of man

that has merely been given this form at this particular time.

It is a dream that will emerge again and again

in another garb, another ritual,another method,

just as it has throughout recorded history.

Over his lifetime, Harry Wilmer established six major projects all unique in terms of the populations he was concerned with: war veterans, adolescent drug abusers, convicted felons, and chronic schizophrenic patients. He founded the first democratic therapeutic community in North America. In addition, he conducted a private psychoanalytic practice. He was a prolific writer, authoring or editing 16 books, including three for children, and more than 200 articles, plays, poems, and essays.

His career began as a physician; originally a pathologist, he moved into traditional psychiatry, had a Freudian analysis, then later in his life, was trained in Jungian psychology and analyzed by Jung’s successor. This development is noticeable in his work and in his writings.

As a practitioner he combined action with reflection and was able to flush out theoretical aspects as well.

Harry Wilmer received a PhD and MD from the University of Minnesota. While serving his internship at a hospital in Panama, he contacted tuberculosis and spent two years in recovery.

This experience left an indelible impression on his life, always to be aware of the patient’s point of view. He visualized his disease and made drawings which became a book for children to understand this sickness.

  • The Patient’s World. Following recovery, he moderated weekly group sessions at a tuberculosis sanatorium for patients and staff and introduced films and recordings “as a means to activate the imagination” along with art therapy. Together with the patients, he produced a series of sound recordings of “short dramatic sequences, in which a parent and child were involved” expressing various emotions. As a kind of sociodrama, they wrote a ballad for patients, staff and families to better comprehend the malady, published as a book, This is Your World.
  • People Need People. During the US Korean War, Dr Wilmer was called to active duty in the US Navy and put in charge of the admissions ward of a psychiatric treatment center at a Naval Hospital. He had been to the UK where he spent time with Maxwell Jones, Tom Main, T.P.Rees and others. He introduced the therapeutic community idea for navy and marine corps patients evacuated from Korea and the Pacific. Patients were a mixture of those suffering from psychoses, neuroses, and the behavior disorders. The program treated nearly one thousand patients in one year. The experiment was made the subject of a docudrama and aired on American television and the BBC. (People Need People.Selections from the Works of Harry A. Wilmer)
  • Action for Mental Health. Dr Wilmer returned to teaching at Stanford University Medical Center. In 1960, he arranged for Maxwell Jones to come there for a year as Visiting Commonwealth Professor of Social Psychiatry. Together they established a comprehensive community mental health program at a nearby locality, which was to become a prototype for President Kennedy’s nationwide strategy.
  • Prison Does Not Spell Hospital. Next, Dr Wilmer was asked by the California Department of Corrections to design and start up a community at a large maximum security prison that was to become a mock up for the state’s other prisons. The program included family therapy and groups for children of prisoners. He contributed substantively to understanding the nuances of incarceration and its effect on both prisoner and staff. He saw the fundamental issue of bringing about change as that of acculturation and stressed the importance of viewing the inmate culture, both before and after incarceration. His focus was on “deinstitutionalizing” inmates rather than rehabilitation per se. “It is necessary,” he wrote, “to realize the great seductiveness and value in status, in being a member of the criminal society. When we are, in effect, asking him to renounce something of value, we must appreciate its value to him and give him something better in its place. . . It is a complex task to help the prisoners free themselves from the dependent gratification of prison and crime, and renounce the rewards and types of satisfaction inherent in the criminal life.” Studying the operation of the prison community, he found that“ when a group exceeds the size of the primary group of approximately five to seven, it can no longer efficiently perform the small group tasks and spontaneously reorganizes itself into subgroup patterns to cope with the tasks and effects of the large group. The degree of efficiency of larger groups may be determined by the changing patterns of the free-forming sub-groups, and the skill of the therapist to deal with them in the context of the total group as a community.”
  • Electronic Odyssey: A Multimedia Community. The middle 1960s presented another challenge to Harry Wilmer. While teaching and conducting research at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, he focused on devising ways to use videotape for teaching psychiatric residents. Then applied his work to establishing a community for youthful drug abusers from the Haight-Ashbury district. Dr Wilmer’s “multimedia community” embodied the basic model he had developed in the Navy project, modified by his experience in the community mental health program and that of the San Quentin experiment. Now it was time to go forward into a new realm leaving traditional psychiatry, and move into “consciousness expansion,” and social learning. “We are developing entirely new treatment and social learning methods. Enormous energy was spent to create an innovative program that is in tune with the youngsters’ lives on the streets and with what is happening in their heads. Treatment is within the framework of a living-learning experience, more like a school than hospital. Breaking with traditional psychiatric methods, we emphasize developing the creative potential of patients. We believe that a new kind of awareness, a new kind of consciousness’ expansion can substitute for the drug experience. An objective of our therapy is to invoke as many dimensions of sensory experience and imagination as possible. The usual ‘insight’ psychotherapy is deemphasized. We rely on television, film making, photography, motion pictures, telephone talk-shows, stereoaudiotapes, as well as music, art, and creative writing as therapy. Once a week we have a creativity seminar to which we invite writers, philosophers, and artists of all kinds as guests.” One of the procedures he developed was, shortly on admission, to give each resident a session with a television camera on which he recorded anything that he or she thought was important to tell their story. The monologue was the resident’s property to use as he saw fit.
  • The Collective American Shadow: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nowhere is the reconciliation of the inner and outer worlds of the unconscious and consciousness more urgently needed than for the schizophrenic, suffering his tragic split in personality. To understand and help the schizophrenic heal himself, Dr Wilmer maintained that we must know both the world of his reality and the world of his unreality. “We cannot even begin to understand this latter world, which is another, separate reality for the schizophrenic, unless we both listen and look for it, and indeed help it to appear. For it contains the very seeds of healing.” As an important part of that healing process, Dr Wilmer introduced art as a means for the patients to recognize and integrate elements of their unconscious. Each patient was given art supplies and a palette and encouraged to paint his delusions, hallucinations, dreams and so on. “If a patient wakes up at night, staff encourage him to go back to the easel rather than reaching for some pills for him.” Patients interpreted their art in groups. Dr Wilmer also included dream seminars (“to help redefine ego boundaries and overcome the fear of closeness”), psychodrama, video-therapy and poetry and film seminars. The community meetings were videotaped for further study and for the night staff to view.
  • The Healing Nightmare. It was his interest in dreams that led to Harry Wilmer’s full time study of the persistent nightmares of combat veterans from Vietnam. And so he took a three year leave of absence from his project to interview patients with recurrent nightmares. He conducted 120 interviews averaging three hours each (ranging from one to 20 hours) “Detailed studies of combat nightmares were an essential part of this study because in nightmares the war is relived as if it were still being fought, and the re-experience is undistorted by conscious attitudes and reflections.”
  • Retirement. In 1980 Harry Wilmer retired and founded the Institute for the Humanities at Salado, a small town of 1500 in Texas. In a newspaper interview he said, “I needed the intellectual stimulation, and I thought my friends in Salado might appreciate it” So he began his “down to earth” low-key organization. Low key in the sense of no frills, but not in terms of its mission or accomplishments. He brought outstanding speakers from the arts, politics, literature, religion, philosophy, jurisprudence, and sciences including Nobel Laureates for conferences, symposia, workshops, and film festivals. He kept the organization small—about 300 members with that many more on the waiting list. About twenty-five percent who attend the lectures and discussions at the Stagecoach Inn, were local residents. The atmosphere was informal and attendees had the opportunity to mingle with the guests, sometimes over luncheon or dinner seminars for ten people in the local participants’ homes. “Participants say the Institute is a refreshing change from the typical university lecture, where the audience usually has little opportunity to interact with the speaker.” As to be expected, Harry Wilmer applied group dynamics practices in his new venture. The seminars and workshops were conducted in a manner resembling the “Dialogue Groups” initiated by David Bohm who spoke of the “shared meaning,” “impersonal fellowship,” “authentic trust” and openness that is characteristic of this type of group. The composition of Dr Wilmer’s speakers and audience was such that the group was a representation of the larger culture stimulating it with numerous viewpoints and values. About every two years, Harry Wilmer sponsored a conference, where following the format of his smaller gatherings, brought in speakers, followed by question and answer sessions and then meetings in small groups with one of the lecturers. “Understanding Vietnam,” was the topic in 1982; “Coping” in 1986; “Understanding Evil “in 1987 (filmed by Bill Moyers as a docudrama for national public television); “Closeness,” in 1989; “Creativity,” in 1990; “The Human Spirit,” in 1991; and “The Dream: One-third of your Life,” also in 1991, all subsequently published as books.

Bibliography and Resources

  • Dr Wilmer’s bibliography is available at: http://www.pettarchiv.org.uk
  • An Interview of Dr Wilmer with Dr Craig Fees is on deposit at the Planned Environmental Therapy Trust Archives & Study Centre: Church Lane, Toddington, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL 54 5DQ, UK. http://www.pettarchiv.org.uk
  • The Institute for the Humanities at Salado, Texas is located at: One Royal Oak Street, Salado, Texas 76571. http://www.salado-institute.org/
  • His papers, photographs and writings are archived at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. spl@mail.utexas.edu.
  • He published more than 200 papers in a wide variety of journals and media, made films and recordings.
  • His books include:
    • This is Your World
    • Huber the Tuber
    • Corky the Killer
    • The Mind: First Steps
    • Social Psychiatry in Action
    • Correctional Community (ed)
    • Practical June: Nuts & Bolts of Psychotherapy
    • Creativity: Paradoxes and Reflections (ed)
    • Closeness: in Personal & Professional Relationships (ed)
    • Quest for Silence
    • Vietnam In Remission (ed)
    • Understandable Jung: The Personal side of Jungian Psychology
    • Facing Evil: Light at the Core of Darkness (coeditor)
    • Mother/Father (editor)
    • Dictionary of Ideas: “Closeness”
    • How Dreams Help

Dennie Briggs 2006

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