“Let’s Talk about Karen. A eulogy for Karen Humphrey”

Posted on 09 May 2017 | EULOGY

May 6, 2017, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Catskills
Kingston, NY

Stephanie, Beth, Reed, Isabelle, Sadie, Otto, Carla, Ken — my heart to yours — Thank you for this opportunity to participate in memorial in this way.

Karen Humphrey.

She could have been arrogant; But she wasn’t. She surely had the authority, the substance, the heart, the mind, the soul, the gravitas, the gentleness, the steadfastness; the courage, the cleverness, the irony, the skill, the experience, the education, the creativity, the talent, the politics, the loyalty, the warmth.

She certainly had all of these.

She should have been arrogant.

She had these qualities and those that you could add — and those that refuse to be tied down words.

We loved her for all these and all these made her important to the gestalt therapy world. And this is what I want you to know.

She was central to the New York Institute for Gestalt therapy. That institute and gestalt therapy were more or less born at the same time and place and with the same Big Bang struck by Frits Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman. Their fates remain intertwined. She was at the heart of the New York Institute. In some ways, she was some of its warmth. And she could have been arrogant about this. Instead she was humble.

Am I actually saying she should have been arrogant? That is laughable, really. “Arrogant.” Or am I saying something else?

As I prepared my comments, the sadness that welled up in me pointed me to this.

No one in my gestalt therapy world knows enough about Karen. No one knows how much she shaped the institute, which was the river of gestalt therapy in which we all swam. And swim. No one knows how much the stream of contemporary theory and practice of gestalt therapy includes her contribution. When word of her death spread through the international community, gestalt therapists and trainees kept asking me to tell them about her. How could they not have heard of her?

If the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy contributed to how contemporary gestalt therapy is understood, taught, and practiced today, it could not have done so without Karen Humphrey.

All my talk about “arrogance” has been my lamenting this — lamenting their ignorance, lamenting that blank look when people heard of her death.

So, I am calling on my friends and colleagues and calling on myself to make sure everyone knows how important Karen Humphrey was and still is to the gestalt therapy community.

Let’s set this right. And let speak about Karen.

Let’s begin. I will begin.

I want to tell you about this: I want to tell you a little about Karen and the institute, and her place in gestalt therapy.


As Karen tells it, while studying literature at Columbia in 1961, she was recruited by Paul Goodman to participate in the General Strike for Peace.  Recruited is her word. One thing led to another.

I quote from notes from an interview I did with Karen for a paper,

My first experience of gestalt therapy was as a patient of Laura Perls in 1962. I was, at the time, a Columbia University undergraduate. . . .Paul Goodman had suggested Laura when I asked whom he would recommend for me.

Karen soon began attending monthly institute meetings.

She left Laura’s therapy group in 1964 – in part, she says, because she met Ralph in the group. In 1967, she began therapy with Patrick Kelley and later became his apprentice and supervisee. Shortly, she co-led a group with him. This was the institute’s training model. In 1968, she began studying with Isadore From. Patrick and Isadore were Fellows of the institute.

And by the 1970’s, she was a regular in Richard Kitzler’s seminar where she remained for   decades. She credits Richard with her ongoing gestalt therapy education. Richard was another Fellow of the institute.

Karen was an Associate Member, Full member and then a Fellow of the institute. The latter two classes of membership required acknowledgment by the Fellows of levels of expertise in gestalt therapy.

Here is how Karen describes her transition,

Still can’t figure out when I became Full Member …I was leaving Richard’s Wed. seminar and he asked us if we had any instructions/requests for the Fellows who were meeting that evening.  I said, partly in jest: “Yes, make me a Full Member.” the next day Richard called to tell me I was a Full Member.  I became a Fellow, with even less participation from me, sometime between 1976 and 1980. In the brochures for those two years I am listed as a member of the Executive Board for 75-76, and a Fellow for 80-81.

Laura Perls was President for life of the institute. I think “for life” was an informal, assumed, and unchallengeable part of her title. New York State would never have allowed, “Queen.” The fellows rotated as Vice President. She twice. Once in the ’80’s during Laura’s reign and was again in 1993 — when she could have been President, but of course, humbly declined.

Let me speak from my experience and tell you what it was like to be at the institute with Karen.

Like a stone skipping over the surface of a pond, my presence skimmed and mostly missed the goings on for a while.

My skimming more or less settled down by the early 80’s and then Karen came into focus for me

In the mythology of the institute – and in the amplified memories of those who remember those days, the monthly meetings were typically characterized by hotly argued exchanges among the Fellows and occasionally among the courageous.

There were rough edges in these in the back-and-forths and I liked them. I came from a world of rough argument. I was a litigation attorney. To me, some of those exchanges were like the diamond points of drills, grinding down at rock hard matters of fact and theory. Some were less noble. Some were, shall I say, unkind and ungenerous. Some were characteristic of growling academics slamming at one another’s mistakes.

Some were personal, and those especially made me and others duck for cover.

Karen was some of that cover.

I recall Karen’s look during of some of the lashings out characteristic of the worst of the exchanges.

That look was a mix of being embarrassed, stricken, disapproving and something else. That something else appealed to me. It was an ironic sense of the absurd.

That was one of Karen’s intrinsically brilliant attributes. She dialed into a sense of the absurd. She did this with her wit and irony. And warmth. I offer this to my serious gestalt therapy friends — and, actually to everyone else.

If you are unable to scratch the surface of gestalt therapy and get access to the absurd and its door into irony, you miss some power of the modality, some of the power to release a background existential quality of our existential humanness. Then you should have met Karen. She would have taught you by example.

By the end of the 1980’s, the institute went through a reorganization in which the membership assumed power.

Karen was one of a very few of those original Fellows who continued as a Fellow into the new structure as a fellow.

She was one of those very Few fellows who supported the transition from oligarchy to democracy – such was her commitment to social justice and egalitarian values, which she knew were at the core of gestalt therapy.

The institute’s reorganization was not merely a matter of organizational re-formation. This change reflected a radical commitment to the theory/practice of gestalt therapy – that is, for the institute to be gestalt therapy. It meant that our way of governance, our way of being together, training, and exploring together would be the living-out of gestalt therapy and pushing it forward – and who knew where?

This was an experiment in radical creativity, where being radical means being committed to getting to the root of things.

As she describes it in one of her unpublished papers,

Once the institute was restructured, \we turned to this structure itself as an experiential laboratory to revisit our core concepts.

Karen’s place in these explorations is something I’d like to tell you about now. Let me give you examples. And this will lead to Karen’s contribution to gestalt therapy theory/practice.

I came to know her best in Richard Kitzler’s Wednesday afternoon seminar. I joined in the 1980’ s. We studied the basic Goodman model.

At some point, she and Lee Zevy joined and stayed for a long time. I recall others – for example…. Perry Klepner, Eric Werthman, Charlie Msywinsky, Ken Meyer…. and I can’t recall many others. The group’s – the seminar’s — membership kept changing. Karen sat to my left. Lee Zevy sat to my right. RK was off to our right.

By the 1990’s Richard shifted from an orthodox approach to gestalt therapy to something different. He began to question the sufficiency of the ground gestalt therapy claimed to stand on. This was a big deal for someone like Richard who had been so loyal to the original model of gestalt therapy.

He renamed his seminar to “The Philosophical Bases of Gestalt Therapy” and, beginning with Aristotle, began a step-by-step exploration to locate different foundations for gestalt therapy.

Those of us who knew Richard know he had a tendency to wild leaps of genius that appeared to have warp-driven us to another galaxy. Karen seemed to follow along with him and carried us with her. And when the leap would have been a leap to complete obscurity, Karen would have that smile, twinkle in her eye, and suppressed giggle, that I now call the absurd that somehow held the ground. That is, she kept Richard more or less within the knowable universe. As Joe Lay, one of our colleagues who was part of the group, just put it to me, Karen was able to do his with a critical style embodying awareness, intellect, commitment and humor.

Richard relied on her as an anchor. I don’t think I exaggerate to say that in many ways Karen informally and intermittently co-led that group.

That seminar was the ground from which new ideas about gestalt therapy, phenomenology, and American pragmatism developed. Including hers.

And this brings me to her substantial contributions to gestalt therapy theory/practice itself.

In 1999, Karen wrote an important paper, “Theatre as Field: Implication for Gestalt Therapy” in which she integrated her work with improvisational theater, gestalt therapy field theory, and the American pragmatist George Herbert Meade’s theory of self, one of the philosophers very closely studied in Richard’s group.

Here’s a quote where weaves together improvisation and gestalt therapy field theory,

        We were weaving our stories. My stories sometimes figure, and sometimes the background out of which another’s story emerged. I began to see how the theatrical event dramatized field dynamics. When our director announced that something worked she was recognizing the law of pregnänz: organization in the field tends toward maximal simplicity and balance, or the formation of as good a form as the prevailing field conditions allow. Or put the other way around, field theory helps explain aesthetically satisfying theater.

Perhaps that quote might give you a sense of the ease with which she applies field theoretical terminology – and certainly, the grace of her style. The paper is exquisite.

Here’s another example of her overlooked contribution to our theory/practice. In her paper, “Contact Interruptions “ from the 2003 New York Institute’s 50th Anniversary conference, she summarizes all the work of the institute on the topic of contact interruptions over the previous decade in a critical and clear way. It is a synopsis of many different themes of the institute’s rethinking of gestalt therapy and pitches one against the other to then consider other possibilities. She raises question after question on the final page. And then,

Please accept my apology for ending this brief paper with questions. I am hoping the work of answering the questions will begin with our discussions here in this conference. I think our task for the future is to continue the clarification and restatement necessary to maintain with integrity our belief that Gestalt therapy is indeed revolutionary: experiential, existential, and holistic.

That is how she ended her paper.

It was a paper read and heard at the 2003 conference and otherwise unknown. And the paper has remained unpublished. Still unknown. But I have news. As part of their commemoration of Karen’s life and contribution to gestalt therapy, The Gestalt Review has just this week agreed to publish her article. There will also be an introduction underscoring Karen’s importance. The introduction will show how the issues she raised and the very questions she asked in 2003 have been brought forward in, using her own words, “the ongoing clarification and restatement of gestalt therapy.”

Those themes are still at the developing edges of gestalt therapy, anticipated and encouraged by her in 2003. The paper she read to the conference was inspiring and has inspired.

Her voice was heard and now will be heard even more widely.

She could have been arrogant.

She didn’t need to be arrogant.

No one secure of her ground and personhood needs to be.

Yet she was humble, warm, supportive, and sharp.

She embodied these as a virtue and we at the institute benefitted.

We shouldn’t be humble or quiet about Karen. –

We need to keep talking about Karen,

To let people know how important she is.

We need to keep talking.

But I must stop speaking now, except to say, loving and having known Karen, being known and loved by Karen, are part of who I am.

I am grateful.

Thank you, Karen