FERDINAND VAN DER VEEN A Life Recalled (1930 – 2009)

Tribute by Will Stillwell & J. Wade Hannon

Ferdinand van der Veen was ten years old in 1940, living in Harlem, Holland when the invasion by the German army led to his family’s flight. They settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. His life continued in post-war America, attending local public schools, then working toward a degree in engineering from The University of Cincinnati.

During his university time he became close with his sister’s husband, the young scholar Richard Rubinstein. Rubenstein was to later become a rabbi and professor, and his influence as a youthful man had a life-changing effect on Ferdinand. Much to his father’s consternation, Ferdinand transferred to Ohio State University to take his undergraduate degree in philosophy.

Van der Veen began to do doctoral work at the University of Chicago with Don Campbell in Social Psychology. He found Campbell a very impressive thinker able to be truly creative with methodological issues in research. Methodology in research, and later in practice, remained important to Ferdinand throughout his career. However, Campbell left after a year. Disappointed, yet continuing writing a dissertation in social psychology, he interned at the University of Chicago Counseling Center. Ferdinand immersed himself, and gratefully “kind of fell into” clinical psychology. Client-Centered Therapy (and Psychology) under the inspiration and leadership of Carl R. Rogers grew in that Counseling Center hotbed of divisiveness and turmoil and incredible productiveness. Ferdinand worked particularly with Stan Stendal; his mentors and colleagues included John Schlein, Goff Barrett-Leonard, Eugene Gendlin, Bob Butler, Roz Diamond, Des Cartwright, Nat Raskin and Stan Lipkin. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1958.

While in Chicago, Ferdinand met and married Marge Trugman. She remembers, “I know exactly why I married Ferdinand, and I’m not often so exact in my self-awareness…He taught me empathic listening, and it was a true life-changing experience (maybe carrying on the legacy of his experience with his brother-in-law, Dick Rubinstein). It opened up or unfurled something I couldn’t explain then, and not so well now, but I switched from English Literature to Psychology at the university…and have never ceased to be grateful for that gift (or for our children we raised together).”

The van der Veen family went to Madison, Wisconsin where Ferdinand carried out post-doctoral work and joined Rogers ’ large-scale research group working with studying Client Centered Therapy with hospitalized clients diagnosed as schizophrenic. Ferdinand and Marge worked at the Dane CoMental Health Center. In 1963 he became a chief psychologist for Kansas City. His career in research, academia, and practice continued at the University of Kansas, and at the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago Illinois .

Van der Veen’s learning from the Schizophrenia project remained a lodestone for the rest of his career. Using sophisticated methodological and statistical methods he had relished in graduate school, Ferdinand tested various hypotheses from Client-Centered theory. In two detailed studies (van der Veen, 1965, 1967), he investigated therapeutic process and outcomes from the perspectives of patients, therapists, and observers.

In his later life, he noted the trend that research in Person-Centered Approaches (and many “talk” therapies) has largely moved away from studying therapeutic process and outcome for people with severe emotional disturbance. But he continued to see relevance of these two studies for our understandings today. “I hope my early work in this area will be useful to people who want good scientific research to back up their own work. Back then, I underestimated the importance of scientific methodology to bringing progress in helping clients by means of PCA. I failed to take my work to the next step, I didn’t communicate it to make it more meaningful in the world.” (Personal Communication, 2007).

Ferdinand van der Veen began to believe that psychotherapy is ill-conceived as “progress” in a process of one person, the patient (or client). In the study published in 1965, he discovered client therapeutic behavior is a function of the level of engagement between a particular client and a particular therapist. Likewise, when the level of therapeutic behavior of one partner is high, it tended to be higher for the other. The level of therapeutic behavior of a client seems to be a function of that particular person, the particular therapist, and the client-therapist combination. Individual therapists in this study behaved consistently with different clients, but certain pairs of therapist and client accomplished better results.

In the second study, van der Veen (1967) concluded that successful therapeutic outcomes are more likely when a client is able to link personal events to his own problems. Van der Veen’s general impression was that clients tend to disconnect thought from feeling. A client engages in positive therapeutic behavior as a function of her/his own immediacy of experiencing and linking that experience to expression of her/his problem.

Additionally, van der Veen (1967) found that success is more likely when the therapist is able to accurately express the client’s experience, and his or her own experience, and to point toward further self-expression. A therapist’s ability to carry this out is strongly related to his or her own attitude of empathy. Somewhat less important was a therapist’s congruence, and therapists’ unconditional positive regard seems to be unrelated. The clients’ perception of these conditions in the therapist also showed no relation to therapeutic success, except that a client’s perception of the therapist opening himself leads to the client continuing in therapy.

In a later distillation from his continuing clinical work with people diagnosed as schizophrenic, van der Veen (1990’s) became intrigued with what seemed from their testimony to indicate their cessation of their own mental processes. He concluded that a person can quiet his traumatic pain by some method that later comes to be experienced as stopping or blocking one’s own mind. “A profound connection between the person’s thoughts and feelings is no longer intact. While it is again possible for them to think rationally, they no longer have a direct sense of their inner experience, including the experience of their own thoughts. They cannot think about their feelings nor feel their thoughts…They cannot communicate their experience…And they can not judge their own state of well-being…The task facing the therapist, to help this person achieve some stable sense of personal integrity and adequacy, is therefore both puzzling and uncertain.”

While this remembrance omits discussion of more than 10 other papers, several of which were concerned with the “family concept,” a construct similar to but different from the “self concept”, the key question for van der Veen became, “Can a client enter a relationship with a therapist that engages awareness, a relationship that explores thoughts and feelings about enduring concerns, a relationship that allows change to emerge?”

This question relating to his studies of clients and therapists seem to have been, in one form or another, the important consideration for Ferdinand throughout his professional and personal life. He was careful to encourage that we express feelings in ways that were true to our own experience. He was carefully slow and persistent to find his own accurate approach to his feelings and those of his companions. Over many years and occasions in Ferdinand’s company, presuming he and I (WS) were accompanying one another’s thoughts or feelings, I could find myself talking on my own. I had not checked that he and I were understanding one another, and almost in seeming despair he had stopped, or disengaged, or given himself distraction. In a small paper called “Dialoging” written in the early 1960’s (citation unavailable) he suggested that in interaction before going ahead with our own contribution we reconfirm to our companion what he or she had intended. While this carefulness was surely characteristic of Ferdinand’s personal style, it was not only that. Ferdinand knew how hard it was for him (and others) to continue being heard by ourselves and others, and how that lack of being heard made more difficult our move toward completion of our internal/external integration. He knew that many of us jump ahead way too fast and miss thoughtful articulation of our experiences.

By the late 1970’s Ferdinand was divorced from his wife, and moved to California and began a private therapy practice that he continued into his final year of life. He became an active colleague at The Center for Studies of the Person, a community of practitioners for Person-Centered ways of being. Sometime in this period from more or less out of the blue he experienced his “God Event,” a moment that moved him to seriously deepen and broaden his spiritual life. He re-engaged his birthright Judaism and among other practices sat in Buddhist meditation.

Person-Centered approaches remained integral to Ferdinand’s ways of being. He was well-known and fondly regarded in several Person-Centered international communities. In his final decade he wrote a paper sharing his view on the values and principles central to Person-Centered practices and organizations. He proposed two basic complementary principles: self-direction and mutuality. “The Person-Centered therapist (facilitator, trainer, teacher, consultant, and so forth) seeks to foster self-direction and self-responsibility of the client (student, trainee, member, participant, consultee), within the constraints of the social situation.” Ferdinand sought our individual autonomy and self-responsibility, he sought consensus and equality among us in our decisions that affect one other.

Within his last years, Ferdinand dealt with a deeply troubling public accusation directed toward him in a Person-Centered community. He struggled with the original event, the accusation and with their multiple ramifications. He was deeply distressed by how some people of the international PCA community responded to him and to the matter. He experienced that some long-time friends and colleagues who ideally embraced person-centered principles turned away from him, not seeking to hear him, not showing interest in his experience of the happenings, not offering to facilitate or witness his exploration of what the whole incident might have meant for him. He also found great comfort in those friends that did stand by him. For himself surely, but also for the community Ferdinand persevered. To the sensitive issues and strong reactions he strove to carefully confront his own and other people’s secrecy, or discretion, or non-self-investment, or guilt, or gossip, or authoritarian condemnation, or fear of legal liability, or strong emotional disturbance. Ferdinand worked for and wished for a community based in self-responsibility and mutuality, a community in which through a process of participation and dialogue, we all (even accused and accuser) would understand and find acceptance for ourselves and others.