"I do my thing and you do your thing"

One very interesting segment of the upcoming movie Paul Goodman Changed My Life discusses Goodman's role in the origination of Gestalt therapy and his association with Friedrich (Fritz) Perls. Perls, along with his wife Laura, conceived and popularized the technique of Gestalt therapy, which remains a relatively popular product in the mental health marketplace.

Fritz and Laura Perls emigrated from Germany in the early years of the Third Reich and spent the war years in South Africa. As the human potential movement got underway in the 1960s, Fritz Perls became one of its most visible gurus. He was a fixture at the Esalen Institute in California, and became known for performing highly dramatic, on-the-spot, blitzkrieg therapy on audience members at his talks. He also wrote the well-known "Gestalt prayer" that made it onto some bad-taste 60s-hangover posters—the one about "I am not in this world to live up to your expectations," but "if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful." That one's always creeped me out, quite frankly.

By chance Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman found each other in New York in the late 1940s. Goodman had already established his chip-on-the-shoulder persona of calling himself New York's finest unknown writer. He had some reason for this disgruntlement, having recently published two unheralded, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces—the virtuoso city-planning treatise Communitas (1947), co-written with his brother Percival, and the novel The Dead of Spring (1950), which became Part 3 of The Empire City (1959). Goodman was in therapy himself, having digested Freud and moved on to Wilhelm Reich.

Perls hired Goodman to produce a manuscript, from Perls' notes, explaining his new therapeutic model. Goodman took that ball and ran a marathon. The work he produced—the theoretical half of the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951)—is still considered the field's foundational text, number one on the required-reading list for aspiring Gestalt therapists.

At least some of them. In his later years, Perls essentially disowned the book he co-authored with Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. He liked to dispense his own "perls" of wisdom and expressed heavy disdain for any theoretical statements more elaborate than a pithy one-liner. To be precise, his stock phrase for rigorous explanations of psychological phenomena was "elephant-shit." This cavalier attitude helped burnish the brand image Perls was creating, but it had lasting, unfortunate effects. A rift developed between the West Coast and East Coast schools of Gestalt therapy—a rift that epitomized and helped define the stereotypes each coast deploys against the other (the one too stodgy and intellectual, the other loosey-goosey and intellectually flabby). Gestalt therapy became indelibly associated with Perls and his celebrity, receding from prominence after his death in 1970, and was subsequently, incorrectly, dismissed as a showy model without a coherent theory to back it up. Meanwhile, that theory—Goodman's psychological magnum opus—just missed the conveyor belt to the zeitgeist.

"If not, it can't be helped."