The untold story of the MRI and the Brief Therapy Center (BTC). Then and now

Welcome to our Blog. We are delighted that you are stopping by and we hope that you will be back often. Because we preach an interactional model, we hope to create a space that will spark a lot of discussion so that everyone can continue to expand horizons and grow. Ultimately in a safe context, our exchanges will help us all learn both as professionals and as people.

The idea of the Mental Research Institute (MRI) existed before it was born. Here is a brief history which we think is relevant. We are constructing it, of course, the way history is always constructed by the person telling the story. We would like to tell a story in which we pull back the curtains to allow a glimpse into how it is actually the work/research at Brief Therapy Center which molded the perception that MRI is where it all started. Yes, for the first 7 years and then it all changed. 

The team at the Brief Therapy Center presents a uniqueness that few other centers can claim: team work from 1966 until 2019. FIFTY THREE years of uninterrupted filming, work, preparation and growth in the field of psychotherapy and family therapy. Now, while the team is scattered around the world, the filming, supervision, teaching and learning continues.

Some of the ideas of the Macy Conferences, which took place in New York between 1940 and 1953, organized by Warren McCulloch rooted Bateson’s language. They were scientific meetings and eventually Bateson brought those ideas to the Bateson Group, which functioned at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Menlo Park from 1952 to 1961. Funding for this research came from different sources: The Rockefeller Foundation (1952-54), Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation (1954-56) and after 1956, it fell on Don Jackson to acquire funds. Because he was a psychiatrist, this is when the research in the group -- G. Bateson, J. Haley, W. Fry and J. Weakland—took on a more psychological slant. Gossip of the time tells the story that Bateson was unhappy with this slant, given that he was interested in a broader look at systems interaction and communication in general. Their research at the time included trips to the San Francisco Zoo to study communication in otters: what was play? What was fight? How did they interact as a group? Nora Bateson also talks about her interactions with her father at home: he looked at communication and interaction in every facet of life!

Around the same time, Don D. Jackson, MD was returning to Palo Alto from studying at Chesnut Lodge with Harry Stack-Sullivan: his psychoanalytic perspective was already tuned to look at the context in which behaviors occur. It was Jackson who procured the National Institute for Mental Health funding for the continuation of research around 1959.

Bateson and Jackson, both giants with enormous capacity to invent new paths, collaborated in the Schizophrenia Project at the Menlo Park VA at the end of 1952. Bill Fry was the Medical Supervisor but was called to serve in the Navy in 1953. Don Jackson was hired to fill that position in 1954 until 1956 when Dr. Fry returned to the group.  Many important papers and books were published out of Bateson Group research because it sent shock waves of change in the traditional field of psychoanalysis prevalent at the time and invented the field of Family Therapy. 

In 1958 Don Jackson, then the head of psychiatry at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation – currently Sutter Health—founded the Mental Research Institute (MRI) which was “A non-profit Public Service Institution dedicated to Research in the Field of Mental Illness”. In 1966 he, personally conducted an intense fundraising operation with the help of the MRI Board, and funds were acquired to move MRI to the location on Middlefield Rd, where it functioned until the sale of the building in 2019. 

Because of the dates mentioned, it is quite clear that there was an overlap between the work of the Bateson Group at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and the founding of the MRI and the cross-pollinating of ideas was famous. Bateson and Jackson admired each other and Bateson had the title of Research Associate at MRI and never was hired by  MRI: he was the ‘big thinker’, collaborator and inspiration. 

In 1961 Paul Watzlawick was on his way to Italy, back from El Salvador but had heard about the work being done in Palo Alto by Don Jackson. He ‘stopped in’ and, according to the story told by him, never left. He was ‘trapped’ by the intellectual stimulation, new ideas and potential for big changes. His background had been in Jungian psychoanalysis but was fascinated by the idea of the Interactional View – in fact this is the name of a book he wrote with John Weakland. Paul will be the subject of another article, so let us stick to our story at hand: how the Brief Therapy Center was a separate group, always operating in the MRI building.

That same year, Richard (Dick) Fisch, MD, also came to MRI, attracted by John Weakland, who was using hypnosis without trance in the treatment of his clients and obtaining results/change in people’s lives in a very short period of time. John Weakland and Jay Haley’s visits to Milton Erickson in Phoenix will also be the subject of another article in the future. Those trips had started around 1955. 

And if you are wondering, Virginia Satir was there all along, bringing her unique brand of intensity and power to a nascent field. One of the first women in a field almost completely composed by men, she too, deserves their own article.

In 1966, Dr. Fisch wrote a memo to Dr. Jackson. That would be the first step in the creation of the Brief Therapy Center. The original – in possession of Karin Schlanger—reads: “Creation of a center for the use of brief techniques in out-patient treatment for the development of newer brief treatments, and for the training of therapists in the use of brief treatment”. If you, readers, are interested, it is a very enlightening memo, since it becomes a description of the therapy being practiced at the time. Maybe this will be another article. This is the Center that, after the death of Don Jackson in 1968, made the MRI internationally famous. Most of the publications attributed to MRI and translated in many languages, stem from this Center from then on. It is the BTC, Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch who one could argue, carried the fame of the MRI into the world. They, of course, saw no reason to leave the MRI building: it was their home, which in turn they nourished. 


The mid/late 60s was a turbulent time. Virginia Satir left in 1967, Don Jackson died in 1968 and Jay Haley left the MRI and the Brief Therapy Center in 1967 to go work with Salvador Minuchin at the Pediatric hospital at U. Penn. At the time, the services rendered in that unit were influenced by psychoanalysis. It fell on Haley to change that, with the experience he brought from Palo Alto. Minuchin had spent some time with Haley at MRI in 1962 and Haley became the Director and worked with Salvador Minuchin (from Argentina) and Braulio Montalvo (from Puerto Rico). His Strategic Therapy was greatly influenced by his stay with Minuchin and both those models are normative models: there is a given way in which interactions should occur and a deviation from this norm is what created problems in a couple, family or individual. This deviation from the norm creates an imbalance in the power structure in a relationship and the problem then becomes the symptom for which people require help. Again, another article with similarities and differences between the Problem-Solving Brief Therapy (BTC from MRI) and Strategic Therapy. 

Jay Haley and his second wife Cloe Madanes started the Family Therapy Institute of Washington DC in 1976. Haley left the institute in 1994 and spent the rest of his academic life in La Jolla with his third wife, Madeleine Richeport, a renowned anthropologist. Jay Haley died in 2007. 

Upon his retirement in 2008, Richard Fisch made Karin Schlanger the next Director of the Brief Therapy Center in the MRI. She has held this position ever since.

In 2019 the Director and the Board decided to sell the iconic MRI building on Middlefield Rd. in Palo Alto, effectively ceasing all training and services to clients. At the Brief Therapy Center we saw the need to continue with these valuable activities but we found ourselves without an actual home – at least for the moment. Most of the trainings in Spanish are being conducted face to face at the Brief Therapy Center Mexico: mx.brieftherapycenter.org. For the current director of the center, Karin Schlanger, MFT it has become an imperative to embrace technology and continue training online, both in English and Spanish on that platform. This Article is the first attempt to put those wheels in motion. We wanted to start by emphasizing that, actually, the MRI’s reputation rests in great measure on the shoulders of the work done at the Brief Therapy Center, which is alive and well.


Karin Schlanger
MFT

Karin Schlanger was the Director of the Brief Therapy Center in MRI since 2008 until the sale of the building in 2019. She continues to be the director of the BTC currently. She has worked as a psychologist, supervisor in the Brief Therapy Model and professor at several universities internationally.She studied Psychology in the Universidad of Buenos Aires - Argentina and graduated in 1982. She arrived at the MRI in 1983 having head of the work of John Weakland, Dick Fisch and Paul Wazlawick and worked with them until the end of their days...

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