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Albert Ellis; Pioneer In Behavioral Therapy

Psychologist Albert Ellis rejected Freudian beliefs, which focus on residual issues from childhood, favoring instead direct confrontation with a patient's behavior and emotions.
Psychologist Albert Ellis rejected Freudian beliefs, which focus on residual issues from childhood, favoring instead direct confrontation with a patient's behavior and emotions. (1973 Photo By Jim Wells -- Associated Press)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Albert Ellis, 93, a provocative psychologist who repudiated long-held Freudian beliefs to develop a straightforward form of behavioral therapy that has become one of the most widely practiced methods of psychological treatment, died July 24 at his home in New York. He had pneumonia and had suffered a heart attack in March.

Dr. Ellis, once an outcast for his iconoclastic beliefs, placed an early emphasis on sex therapy and devised a new approach to treating psychological problems. His methods broke with Freudian psychoanalytical practices, emphasizing residual issues from childhood. Instead, he favored direct confrontation with a patient's behavior and emotions.

"Neurosis is a high-class name for whining," he often said.

When Dr. Ellis first proposed his ideas in 1955, he was considered something of a crackpot. Later studies have tended to support his theory, now called rational emotive behavioral therapy or, more loosely, cognitive behavioral therapy. According to a survey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published this year, more than two-thirds of therapists follow a model first outlined by Dr. Ellis.

In 2003, a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association named Dr. Ellis the second-most influential psychological thinker in history, ahead of Freud, B.F. Skinner and Carl Jung. (Canadian psychologist Carl Rogers, who founded the practice known as humanistic psychology, placed first.)

Dr. Ellis was helped by a gift for self-promotion and a prolific pen that enabled him to write more than 75 books. One of his first books was "Sex Without Guilt" (1958), which made him almost as notorious as Alfred Kinsey, whose clinical studies revealed a nation more sexually active than most people had imagined.

In 1950, Dr. Ellis was among the first therapists to take the revolutionary step of treating couples in joint sessions, long before Masters and Johnson made sex therapy commonplace in the 1970s. Despite his interest in sex, he believed adult anxieties had nothing to do with supposed sexual hang-ups from childhood.

"Unlike Freud," Dr. Ellis said in a 1988 article in Psychology Today, "I did not believe that early sexual issues cause all emotional problems and that parents are responsible for all that comes later."

Some of his notions have been discredited, including a belief that homosexuality was a neurosis that could be cured by therapy. His confrontational, often profane approach -- he was the first psychologist to use four-letter words in addressing the convention of the American Psychological Association -- made him many enemies.

In recent years, Dr. Ellis and his third wife were at war with the institute in New York that bears his name, saying it had departed from his teachings and deprived him of money for his health care. Through his difficulties, he continued to write and published his 78th book, "The Myth of Self-Esteem," in 2005. He had completed an autobiography and at least two other books before his death.

By the end of his life, according to an article in Psychotherapy Networker magazine, Dr. Ellis had "achieved a mix of fame, cultlike worship, notoriety, and grudging respect."

Albert Isaac Ellis was born Sept. 27, 1913, in Pittsburgh and moved to the Bronx, N.Y., when he was 4. He studied business administration at City College of New York, graduating in 1934, and wrote comic verse for the school paper. He wrote but never published a 500,000-word autobiographical novel in college. In the late 1930s, he invented and tried to market a solitaire version of bridge.

Describing himself as "something of a walking encyclopedia of erotic fiction and nonfiction," he entered Columbia University in 1942 to study psychology, receiving a master's degree in 1943 and a doctorate in 1947.

About that time, he underwent Freudian psychoanalysis but found it pointless.

"As I see it," he told Psychology Today, "psychoanalysis gives clients a cop-out. They don't have to change their ways or their philosophies; they get to talk about themselves for ten years, blaming their parents and waiting for magic-bullet insights."

Dr. Elllis was the chief psychologist for the state of New Jersey before returning to private counseling in 1952. He established the Institute for Rational Living (now called the Albert Ellis Institute) in 1959 and moved it to a six-story building on Manhattan's Upper East Side in 1964. He lived on the building's top floor until his death, regularly holding court in Friday-night sessions for aspiring therapists.

His books included "How to Live With a Neurotic" (1957), "The Art and Science of Love" (1960), "A Guide to a Successful Marriage" (1961), "How to Raise an Emotionally Happy, Healthy Child" (1966) and "The Art of Erotic Seduction" (1967).

Two early marriages, to actress Karyl Corper and dancer Rhoda Winter, ended in divorce. For more than 35 years, he lived with psychotherapist Janice L. Wolfe. Two years ago, Dr. Ellis married a much younger protege, Debbie Joffe, who survives him. He had no children.


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