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Frank Farrelly and Provocative Therapy – A Tribute

By David Lake

Katsu! Blind. Dumbell! Dunce! Ignoramus!

Used in its literal meaning, this word refers to a stupid or ignorant man. In Zen, however, it is often a complimentary term for a completely enlightened man who, to those who have no eye to see, appears to be just an everyday person with no smell of Zen about him.

{Zen phrases here are quoted from “The Zen Koan”; Isshu Mura & Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Harvest, 1965}

Frank Farrelly cannot be squeezed into any category as a therapist. He is in possession of a great art and power, which for many years he has used wisely for the benefit of others. He calls this Provocative Therapy, and it has many dimensions. Utterly validating and done with loving kindness, this therapy will bring tears and laughter together, since it is also completely invalidating to the false self of the sick role. It fosters and promotes rapid change. It moulds rebellion, opposition, intuition, paradoxical polarities and lateral thinking into therapeutic law, which looks just like life-messy and unruly, inevitably real.

He is curious, with a child-like wonder about people well concealed by an omniscient shroud. He acts more like a fool than the most foolish. He is more of a priest than most priests, and more of a rascal than most rascals are. He is a physician in the most real sense to many physicians. He can be more like you than you think you are-especially the parts of you that are hidden to others. Those who would attempt to define him are trying to cope with a brain spasm that Frank would treat effectively with humour!

He is authentically himself; there is only one of him at last count, although there is enough compassion, and commitment to real healing, in this larger-than-life man to establish holographic outposts on all continents. The closest I can come to labelling his metaphorical style of engaging with a therapeutic problem is that of a great martial arts Master at the height of his powers.

Shori ni hokosaki o zo su.

To hide a spear within a smile.

In this analogy, the Master has amassed serious internal force, and could defeat the average opponent without having to land a blow. He watches everything about you very carefully, but is a mirror to you. He can never be surprised. He is wonderfully skilled, but devious and shrewd, so in advance or retreat you don’t see the decisive strike coming; too late you realise that you are completely outmatched, and that this contest was never going to be equal.

Worse, he is also a Master of your favourite weapon (or technique), and can use this against you with devastating effect. You are defeated-but not destroyed. Substitute therapeutic problem for opponent, and alternate psycho-social reality for weapon, in this analogy, and you can begin to understand the devastating effect Frank Farrelly has on psychopathology with his humour, his sense of the absurd, his surreal misunderstanding of how things should be and his stubborn refusal to let the facts of DSM-4 interfere with his good theory: clients have strengths.

Dondo fuge.

It can’t be swallowed; it can’t be spit out.

At the same time one becomes aware of strange forces that seem to operate outrageously in the session. For some reason, the client tolerates the way Frank “speaks their unspeakable”, and feels quite contained, and even accepted and validated by the experience-as if they were viewing the horror show of their own life, projected by a mad film-maker, and it’s somehow alright! He pretends exasperation as he cartoons and lampoons and parodies and plays out the effects of such silly stupidities-as the client’s ideas-so accurately. He skewers the euphemisms of their life, and makes a mountain out of every molehill. Ironically, as he becomes more worked up about the issues, they settle down! It’s amusing, worse than they thought, worth agreeing with Frank about (this is inevitable). As if only he understood.

And worse, this awfulness is a matter of weird pride, that only they, the client could have made such a terrible mess of their life, effortlessly and unassisted. Or, if they prefer, it wasn’t really their fault because they had poor genes, or a flea-ridden baby blanket, or a dog bit them, or they were born in the wrong century…you get the picture. He elevates fault and blame into a kindly art form, where the therapist goes all out in this semi-sadistic exercise! No one is spared, and he is painfully observant. To make matters worse, the chief stirrer and rabble-rouser in this encounter blurts out ever more valiant reassurances to the “victim” that there’s nothing they can really do-it’s probably too late… or too hard… or too many people will be hurt now if you change. Frank challenges them to dare to ignore professional advice; therapists have years of sitting at desks reading books, and going to training and supervision, in order to deal with crazy people-sorry, disadvantaged clients-so get with the program!

How could you, the client, cope without this input? (Never mind that Frank’s workshop clients, with so many human failings and relationship issues of their own, are invariably highly-trained professionals. And, as a career, he gets paid to frustrate innocent sufferers, and encourage them to get worse. He weakens your weakness with barbs of humour but then does the exact polar opposite. Or the reverse of that!

Zuryo shukko.

To take what’s coming to you, and get out.

The session is a wondrous thing in Frank’s world. Time stands still. There is nothing but the face and words of this smiling therapist (more accurately described in the American idiom as a “shit-eating grin”). And the words and the cadence and the tones and the stories and the sounds. Particularly the voice, which so often has the irony and superiority and forbearance and pseudo-tolerance of a legion of bemused “helpers”. No help, or sickly sentimental support, from the chameleon therapist opposite is forthcoming.

Who is telling your secret, private thoughts to the world, then telling you how your story ends before you even experience the disappointments first-hand? Your chosen therapist! In a dazed fashion you realise this man really knows, but you wish he didn’t. And does he have to say it? You aren’t quite ready for this inexorable exposure. {Client, P: “At first, I thought I’d done my money. Then I came to realise that something had changed-as if Frank had come into my house, given it a good clean, and rearranged the furniture just the way I like it”}. But then Frank takes up your education where so many others have given up or left off. Soon you wonder why these truths have been hidden from you.

The final insult must come when those among our client population who are mentally unbalanced encounter the beast of Provocative Therapy; what must it be like to realise that the helper seems to be more afflicted than yourself, and your crazy thoughts aren’t as bad as his?

Jishi kusaki o oboezu.

He doesn’t recognise the smell of his own dung.

It is truly astounding that these clients reject Frank’s generous and compassionate offers to give up now, and save their strength for the Whispering Pines Nursing Home. Most wish to dispute the wisdom of his well-founded and appropriate advice. In fact, they start to talk about being real and getting better! An amazingly ungrateful rejection after all his earnest help.

Following a solid session of laughing at their problems it is difficult for most to accept that they should continue to stuff up in life or refuse to change anything. Frank, however, will seize this opportunity to remind them that this would be the most sensible thing to do-especially since an army of expectant therapists would be renegotiating their mortgages in weeks, if clients thought those crazy thoughts about being OK! He tells them that their past will dictate their future, and if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then you had better agree with him that it’s going to be a duck forever (of course clients have thought these variations on the theme of their problem for years).

Watching Frank at work demolishing a negative belief system is like watching a happy boy smashing a sandcastle-just because it’s there! Provocative Therapy can also be like the presentation of a sick patient, with a giant boil or abscess-the problem-“ready to go”: when they meet Doctor Frank, he pokes (and provokes) a pus-filled frolic in the treatment-room! This can be a good hurt. Healing is inevitable.

Siutte kotosara ni okasu.

To know, yet deliberately to transgress.

The second part of a teaching session in a Provocative Therapy workshop is the time and space where Frank has finished the 25-minute therapy module, and sits with the client, while he gets feedback from both client and audience. The client remains deeply immersed in the Provocative energy field (proud and relieved at having survived the bout, and defended his or her reality a little) and reflects and processes. They are not helpless after all, although Frank might maintain that the situation is “hopeless”, and little can be done. This is their life. Although nothing is sacred in Provocative Therapy, there is “sacred space”, and this is part of it. They receive validation from the others in the group merely by knowing that everyone saw through their game, but that’s what happens when you sit in the session chair, so it feels like courage and self-respect is in the air. Their awfulness was validated too! No one died. Instead, we laughed.

This is an intimacy that we haven’t felt often-and wouldn’t easily trust anyone to manage. With his endless flow of stories, aphorisms, tales of therapy, jokes, sayings, research findings invented on the spot and a cast of personae from the swamp of his id, Frank floods the room with useful information. The client relaxes; that is, if they aren’t being repeatedly re-stimulated and provoked about their problem, in any one of a hundred subtle ways. The Master continues to pretend to strike and block long after the bout…. or is he pretending? Apparently if you amputate the head of a rattlesnake, it is capable of biting you later purely by reflex-and the venom still works. Later means hours or days and the fangs still can have deadly venom after years. Somehow this reminds me of having a session with Frank.

Gozu o anjite kusa o kisseshimu.

Pushing down the ox’s head, he makes it eat grass.

Frank’s clients (and everyone he meets) for him end up existing solidly within their social and cultural frame. Frank will never let them leave that frame, as it informs and defines so much of their inner world. In India, travellers will find themselves responding to a hundred deeply personal questions from the locals as a matter of course-it’s just their way. Frank is Indian too. Merely to reveal a fact -age for example-is enough for a client (particularly a female) to stimulate Frank into a welter of negative associations and pseudo-despondency.

The client may have tried to leave the frame (for example, the burden of being a son), told themselves that they have left, or believed it was all in the past. Their role, for example, as “scapegoat”, or “chosen one”, and all its obligations, returns in horrible glory to haunt the session. The years fall away as family dynamics and constraints rise up in the client’s mind, exaggerated and amplified by the grinningly sympathetic therapist. Their “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” if Frank has anything to do with it! Even more ghastly, the unstoppable Frank may take on the personae of any number of bad parents-I think his specialty is the difficult father. Dealing with this projection while you project wildly onto the therapist (who then projects right back) quite fatigues one’s resistance, as many clients have found. Then might come a quiet word of healthy advice, with a rapid follow-up suggestion that they could reject this, if it would appear that a recovery is pending…there’s no actual rush to get better, after all…change could be stressful…maybe in a year or two?

For this highly confusing and professionally unprofessional (but usually right, correct and real) help, Frank is sometimes thanked by the client. They mightn’t be sure that it was palatable, but they value the reality-testing highly. For some, it’s the only reality-testing they have had about their life beliefs since being fined for late tax payment. They tell Frank that he understands them, and how they think, but it’s not pleasant always, to have him rummaging around in the back of their mind looking for junk. At the least it must be a relief to let go of a problem, rather than encourage Frank (by continuing) to make a Federal case out of it. Wishing and hoping and if-ing and why-ning just make him start up again! It’s somehow better to have him call you a slow learner than to slip back to your position at the start of the session, when you felt more sure of your weakness (or lack of it, as the case may be). There has been a “sea-change”.

Kanji wa jari o kansatsu shi

Netsuji ao jari o nessatsu su

The cold kills you with cold,
The heat kills you with heat.

In the process of elucidating so many of the client’s outstanding mistakes, slips, faults and wrongs in the session, Frank is frighteningly right. He is a polymath and Renaissance man in deep cover. He is right about the meaning of words (particularly semantics, epistemology and philology), about simple school-grade facts (forgotten by the client years ago), about the effects of our behaviours on others, about what motivates husbands or wives, what friends are, and what different philosophers and existentialists and Biblical scholars really meant. He is a mine of information about the mores of Middle America, and completely grounded in the slang, dialect, patois and jargon of his times (being Frank’s translator when he teaches around the world must be somewhat stressful).

This Everyman also knows what people think in their secret heart. He checks the weather in the country of their feelings. No one can defend against this armamentarium, and the implication: you don’t know what you’re saying or doing! But he is so stubbornly and delightfully wrong, too, in his reliable tongue-in-cheek predictions for the client of worse to come, this could be just the beginning of the end, you can take a lot more of this, don’t worry about the problem, or in generaldo more of the same as you’ve done for years even if it doesn’t work. The client begins to feel that their cherished guide-map for the world is in tatters but they just can’t agree with defeatist thinking like Frank’s; instead of “death from a thousand cuts”, it’s health from a thousand buts! Alistair Crowley said “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (he had his problems too) but Frank might tell the client to believe this, because-for them-the alternative’s too hard. How would you like to be told by a therapist to get deeply depressed, and to drink heavily, when you’ve had a setback in life, if what you need is a little sympathy?

Koniku o eggutte kizu to nasu.

To gouge out healthy flesh and make a wound.

Clients become energised, disputative and defensive about the positive values of their life, which are studiously disbelieved by Frank, or dammed with faint praise. It is a wonderful contest as His Reprehensibleness slyly asks for a repeat of any self-affirming statements, as if the client was spouting a foreign language. And such confident self-validation can include a decided repudiation of Frank, and all who would sail with him! This is the cue for a miffed or wounded therapist to whine quietly that he’s only trying to help…. or complain of having to work too hard… with pretty poor material… especially now that he’s getting on. Sometimes Frank makes it clear that “Tuesday’s his caring day, and that’s not today”. He doesn’t avoid giving himself the same tough treatment, and is keen to tell the client that his mind isn’t what it used to be, or that he “used to have it, but lost it“, and that things aren’t going so well in the therapy game with all the pesky clients refusing to take direction…. nor might he be able to help getting bored or sleepy in the session, in the absence of anything forthcoming that’s true or real …. .clients find this hard to go along with, being naturally suspicious.

One thing is certain: the client never wins the softening-up contest. We might need therapists to keep clients calm in our crazy culture and system, and tell them to lower their expectations, because if Frank and his psychic kung fu were let loose on a global scale it could cause havoc. People would start being responsible for the outcomes of their behaviour, stop playing their favourite victim games and think of others more, as well as have more fun. Nobody could cope with this! But I digress……

The medicalisation of social problems now demands a whole new category of affliction: the refusal to learn the lessons life is trying to teach you, and making someone else responsible for the inevitable fallout. “Burnout” is a variety of this, as well as “games people play”. Provocative Therapy is the antidote and cure for a disease that neither the glum therapist nor the unhappy client knew they had: avoiding life, and its authentic hurts and joys. A colleague of mine, Neil Phillips, said when experiencing Frank’s Provocative Therapy for the first time: “Frank has healed a bleeding hole in my soul”.

Aiote aishirzsu,

Tomo ni kattatena o shirazu.

 

I meet him but know not who he is;
I converse with him, but do not know his name.

Many elements of the most original and effective therapies resonate in Provocative Therapy, in that highly-skilled hypnotherapists think they see hypnotic subtleties, as do practitioners of N.L.P seem to see a strategic compendium of body and mind techniques. Pacing the client from the client’s view of the world is acceptable, but what about pacing their dark side? And reframing it negatively? Transference and counter-transference take on a whole new meaning when radically transformed by his crazy-real teaching. Yet he is unlimited by any of these elements, and refrains from acknowledging them except in vague allusions.

It’s paradoxically true that his interactions which seem so intrusive, are in essence not knowable in relationship in the session (and are therefore neutralising or cathartic); thus they resemble a Greek chorus, or Kabuki theatre, or fine acting. It is hard to relate to an inscrutable object, but we will react-intensely, in his case. “Baby therapists” assume his attributes and tonalities in unconscious tribute to his influence, while battle-scarred veteran helping professionals might wish to forget! You cannot contact Provocative Therapy and remain unmoved.

The man is a walking polarity and a master of confusion, in the service of showing us how to wake from a dream (or nightmare) of existing, to start conscious living. He espouses the concept of quality of life. This is all as it should be, since Frank is a natural phenomenon, of inspiring originality, and cannot be explained like some joke (and he has said “explaining humour is like dissecting a frog-you don’t learn much, and the frog dies of it!”). Can Frank be separated from his wild child-Provocative Therapy? Some of life’s mysteries will never be revealed.

Mukuteki motomo fukigatashi.

Rice in the bowl, water in the bucket.

Can anyone learn Provocative Therapy and use it skillfully in their life? Yes. All you need (apart from some training) is personal force, grounding, good boundaries and affection for people, as well as a willingness to be silly. Common sense and life experience is a distinct advantage. It can be done in many different styles, as there are different ways of being (although a certain bizarre sense of humour is a great asset and common ground to such therapists).

It is also a safe harbour for those suffering the trials of loss and loneliness, since our humanity-the way we are-is often the tonic medicine for others. Our problems and clients and friends and family and “learning experiences” are our life-they don’t need to be neglected or minimized. Utilise them, as Frank does; he is fond of saying “what’s most personal is most universal”. Here, as in all “real” therapies, you experience depth and levels of meaning which pass ordinary understanding.

Provocative Therapy entered my bones and my being to become part of my essence. In the strife of the session, there is osmosis as well as chaos. It is like coming home, and also like learning to tie your shoes or ride a bike; I never forget it. In the end we may not discover what the best therapy is, or even if it is done by therapists (I wonder if W.A.Mozart has done more good for people than most therapy), but following Provocative Therapy we may safely say we’re confused on amuch higher level.

Kyu shisaru.

To have been silenced; to have been caused to cease (speaking). Not to continue further.

The implication always inherent in this phrase is that the person who ceases speaking agrees with, or is forced to accept, what has just been said by the other.

Frank, you are one of the few people able consistently to change my beliefs-not because you are correct (which you are) but because I now realise the depths of my ignorance, thanks to your efforts over time to convince me that I’m as thick as a plank; this is a kind of relief with some issues (and leads me to get experts in, to help with any “heavy lifting”). I thank you for straightening me out over the years, taking up where my Dad retired perplexed, and helping me in ways I never knew I needed. Always I ignore your Provocative law at my own peril. How quickly do we embrace the real? If I embarrass you now by __blurting_ all this out, well, good! I’ve been taught by an expert. I know “Buddhistic nonsense” doesn’t always inspire you, but you can’t have everything your own way! In honour of your Irish-Catholic background I include this Zen teaching story:

Every-Minute Zen

Zen students are with their masters for at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: ‘I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realised that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

{From “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”; Paul Reps
Penguin 1975}

Frank, your students are grateful. Every minute.

David Lake.

August, 1999.

Copyright David Lake 1999.

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