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Salvador Minuchin, psychiatrist who revolutionized family therapy, dies at 96

Salvador Minuchin. (The Minuchin Center for the Family)

Salvador Minuchin, an iconoclastic child psychiatrist who revolutionized 20th-century family therapy by bringing the whole clan into the room and tugging their emotional strings like a master puppeteer, died Oct. 30 at a nursing facility in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 96.

The cause was heart disease, said his son Daniel Minuchin.

The origins of Dr. Minuchin’s work in what came to be called Structural Family Therapy took root in his work with delinquent boys and impoverished families in the ghettos of Philadelphia and New York. Many of his contemporaries in the 1950s and ’60s considered his patients clinically unreachable.

An Argentine-born Jew who felt the sting of anti-Semitism in his early life, he became a rare champion of the underclass at a time when psychotherapy was largely reserved for the well-to-do. He spent a decade fighting — mostly unsuccessfully — to convince New York’s foster care system that reunified families were better off than broken ones.

In the early 1960s at the Wiltwyck School for Boys in New York, a reform school for mostly black and Latino youths, Dr. Minuchin began to question the traditional wisdom of leaving families out of the treatment picture. His research into delinquent boys garnered attention with its premise that a child’s problems should be viewed in the larger context of the family.

“The authorities were taking children out of the ghettos and sending them to Wiltwyck for a few years before returning them home” he told Newsday in 1993, noting that the children often relapsed. That research led to his co-writing the first of many books, “Families of the Slums” (1967), and laid the groundwork for his theory of Structural Family Therapy.

He became one of a handful of pioneers at the forefront of a therapeutic movement that challenged Freudian techniques by focusing not on a single identified patient — the alcoholic father or the depressed son — but on the patient’s entire family.

While family therapy is mainstream today — former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore have acknowledged its benefits — the very idea was radical in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Researchers were only beginning to notice that mentally ill patients who improved in the hospital often relapsed at home.

Under Dr. Minuchin’s direction in the 1960s, the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center came to be known as a mecca for family therapy. The center he later founded in Manhattan continues to treat families and train therapists today, and his 1974 book, “Families and Family Therapy,” is considered a field manual for mapping out how dysfunctional families interact.

Structural Family Therapy is now recognized as a psychotherapeutic staple — “one of the most sophisticated methods for working with struggling families and a clear guide for navigating the sometimes stormy seas of family life,” said Andrea Wittenborn, a professor at Virginia Tech’s marriage and family therapy program.

When Dr. Minuchin began practicing psychotherapy in the late 1950s, he entered a field made in Sigmund Freud’s image — a blank-slate doctor with unflappable equilibrium on a tour of a patient’s psyche. In time, he broke all the rules.

He asked families to act out their problems in his office, pinpointed their troubled choreography and rewrote it on the spot — shushing a domineering mother, prodding a reticent son, mocking, cajoling, praising, teasing.

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Dr. Minuchin helped pioneer the notion that each of us is shaped by the family system in which we live, as he once put it, “with all its potential for both destruction and healing.”

With a thick Argentine accent, big black-rimmed specs and a rakish mustache, Dr. Minuchin herded his clients around the room in, as the New Yorker once described, "a tightly constructed, well-directed, magnificently acted play." There was no delving into the troubled past in Dr. Minuchin's therapy room. He was more interested in the shapeable now.

In Dr. Minuchin’s view, families fell into two troubled patterns: too “enmeshed” or too “disengaged.” His theatrical antics in the therapy room were usually aimed at changing the boundaries between family members — separating those too close and bringing together those too distant.

In one instance, he took a wilting mother and her bratty pint-sized son, stood them back to back and reminded them who was in control:

“Who is bigger?” he boomed. “How did he manage to convince you that he is so much bigger?’’

“Minuchin could size up a family in three minutes . . . herding them from chair to chair like a scrappy border collie,” wrote Richard Simon, editor of Psychotherapy Networker, which in 2007 named Dr. Minuchin one of the 10 most influential psychotherapists of the past quarter-century.

“Most therapy is like watching paint dry, but he did not tread lightly. There was artistry in his performance, it was gripping.”

Dr. Minuchin’s brand of therapy was not for everyone. Some peers found his hands-on methods too confrontational. He also came to the forefront along with a growing feminist movement that found him too willing to accept and reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypical family units.

“Minuchin was a controversial fellow at times,” Wittenborn said. “Though he worked with economically and ethnically diverse families, he was slow to acknowledge ‘non-traditional’ family structures such as one-parent households.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Minuchin’s work with children with diabetes, asthma and anorexia attracted worldwide attention in the 1970s. He said he believed those illnesses served as a sort of glue to hold the family together by deflecting attention from parental conflict.

His treatment for anorexic girls involved sitting the whole family down for lunch and urging the parents to use all means to get their daughters to eat. So would begin the real work of family therapy: exploring the underlying emotional pain and conflict and altering the way family members related.

“I bring the family drama into the therapy room,” he once said. “I encourage members to interact directly with one another in the belief that the family is the arena in which people can most fully express themselves in all their complexity,”

Salvador Minuchin was born in San Salvador de Jujuy, a town north of Buenos Aires, on Oct. 13, 1921. His father was a shop owner who later worked as a gaucho.

A scrappy street fighter who felt he needed to defend his honor against rampant anti-Semitism, Dr. Minuchin grew into a social activist who spent three months of his college life in jail for opposing dictator Juan Peron in the 1940s. Such early experiences, he said, later helped him relate to the underprivileged children he would one day treat.

After earning a medical degree from the University of Cordoba in Argentina in 1947, Dr. Minuchin went to Israel to serve in the nascent Israeli army. His interest in families first surfaced in the late 1940s, when he worked with children of the Holocaust and Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab nations.

When he came to the United States in the 1950s, Dr. Minuchin spoke Hebrew, Yiddish and Spanish, but little English. That skill he honed in Times Square movie theaters watching Hollywood westerns.

He began his psychoanalytic training in 1954 at the William Alanson White Institute in New York and began taking on the hard cases of delinquency and poverty that many in his field considered beyond help.

Under his direction from 1965 to 1975, the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, located in the heart of the inner city, became known for cutting-edge family therapy treatment and bold experimentation. He recruited fellow pioneers such as Jay Haley to train lay people from the neighborhood to work as therapists without a degree, a practice that raised considerable professional skepticism.

In 1981, Dr. Minuchin founded what is now the Minuchin Center for the Family, based in Woodbury, N.J.

After retiring in 1996, Dr. Minuchin settled in Florida with his wife since 1951, the former Patricia Pittluck, a developmental psychologist. She died in 2015. Survivors include two children, Daniel Minuchin of Brooklyn and Jean Minuchin of Boca Raton; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Through cultural revolutions, rising divorce rates and family values battles, Dr. Minuchin said he never lost faith that the fundamental institution he had devoted his life to healing would endure.

“You see,” he said, “nobody has a substitute for carrying out the essential functions of a family.”

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