American Psychological Association

115th Convention
San Francisco, August 17-20 2007

[Albert Ellis Wake]
Photo by Fenichel: 19 August 2007: D.Wedding, D.Joffe Ellis, A.Entin, F.Farley

Memorial "Wake" for Albert Ellis - with family and colleagues

Dr. Albert Ellis
September 27, 1913 - July 24, 2007

This was an impromptu wake, organized by Dr. Frank Farley, and well-attended by colleagues, many of whom had seen Ellis present at APA conventions in the past [See below]. Some have worked with Ellis for decades, and many devotees expressed how their lives have been touched. We were honored, saddened, and reassured by his wife Debbie, who shared a perspective on Ellis the man, as well as Ellis the provocative trailblazer. Farley made the point, as he did at Ellis' funeral, that his marriage to Debbie contributed to at least another 10 years of life for Ellis, who had long been sufferering from deteriorating health. Debbie spoke at length about the man, as a professional consumed with helping people reduce pain and suffering, and as a man she often referred to as "lion-hearted", until the end.

Friends, collaborators, former students and former clients all remembered Ellis as one of the smartest and most compassionate people they'd ever met, often having their lives transformed within minutes as he cut to the core of the "problem", despite or because of his tendency to shock, with his blunt observations and well-known salty and/or sexually-explicit choice of words.

As his wife Debbie recalled, Ellis also loved fiddling with words to come up with song parodies, describing human foibles and reactions to the "musts" and whining which he found at the root of so many self-inflicted "neuroses". The audience, many familiar with some of the favorites which Ellis had loved to present in past sing-alongs, sang a half dozen or so of the "classics", to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy and other well-known show tunes. Debbie recalled that he would often play with lyrics while travelling and genuinely enjoyed this pastime.

Following are some of the remembrances, with both smiles and tears, and a great deal of awe and respect for this pioneer in psychology, who did it his way:

Debbie Joffe Ellis recalled many memories of both his life and death. She began by noting that Ellis worked 7 days a week, something others mentioned as well, in the context of their amazement that he would himself pick up the phone at 9PM, or whenever. ... "What to say? Lion-hearted... he was a lion-hearted man. The strength and courage that Al exhibited every single day I've known him, and from what I hear every day of his life. And from childhood. He spent a lot of time in hospital". His parents didn't visit him, and rather than being consumed with self-pity, Ellis (as a child!) "began developing REBT, to teach himself not to feel miserable."

And the "ego" of this man who made such a mark on other people's lives? "He didn't really have an 'ego'... he had a sweetness about him that was so pure, and so touching. He would always make jokes..." Many included references to sex and body parts, meant to shock, or get a response. More than one person at this gathering recalled near-miraculous results from his style, including one time when he insulted the sexuality of a catatonic patient to the extent that he sprung to life and attacked Ellis. Other reminiscences highlighted his put-downs of other programs for taking responsibility away from the clients themselves, or being all about talk rather than action. He was very big on education and also "homework", with one colleague recalling what Ellis said he might do if a client was not doing the homework. In typical, un-subtle fashion (and cleaned up for this article), he said he'd castrate him. Joking, of course... He loved humor, and loved eliciting shock reactions, designed to grab attention, and that it did. Debbie explained that he never meant to hurt, only to shock: "His intention was to break through rigid thinking."

One practitioner, like others, commented on how deeply his style and theory impacted on her own approach, never having dreamed that she'd find herself telling a client to "cut the crap". Another recalled having gone to Ellis as a client, with all sorts of complaints: I have this, I have that disorder... Ellis' response was, "You don't have anything! Your only problem is that you're calling yourself a sh--!" - "If you listen to him for just the first 2 minutes he can change your life."

John Minor recalled his memory of Ellis addressing an audience by stating, "I want to start this meeting on a positive note: Mi mi mi mi mi!" (or was it me-me-me?) Singing ...

Once Ellis was asked, "a lot of people think New Yorkers are crazy... why do you think that is?" His response: "Because they are!"

Frank Farley, who has a long history of arranging dialogues with, and presentations by, Ellis, shared many memories of both Ellis' public bluster as well as his thinking about his place in the scheme of things, as psychology was developing. He recalled one such event, when Farley was APA President (1994). Ellis was part of a panel with several "giants of psychology". When asked to introduced himself, after surveying the room carefully - he had impeccable timing - he replied, "I'm Albert Ellis and I initiated RBT. In part it was a response to Rogers and his therapy: It's warm and comfortable, with unconditional positive regard, and you feel good for 50 minutes and then you send them out into the same old sh--!

Recalling his 90th Birthday party, Ellis found himself in his chair looking up at tall and beautiful Nicole Kidman (whose father is a CBT therapist!). She told Ellis he looked terrific. Pausing, and then looking her up and down he replied "You're looking pretty good yourself!"

From the assemblage: "I consider Al's contribution to be the greatest contribution to psychology in the 20th Century."

And there were stories about his presentation to a nudist colony. And his opening comments at a big conference where he was asked why he thought he was invited to a conference on sex, now in his 80's. "Well," he said, "it's because I'm a sexy guy!"

Danny Wedding, who collaborated on publications with Ellis and other great psychologists for 30 years, recalled that Ellis alone submitted manuscripts which were accepted as-is.

Did Ellis really write 'The Story of O'? No.

Many stories, many memories. It is no secret there was great dissension at the Institute in his final years, but to the end this was his passion, giving all to the institute and the proliferation of his ideas, in print and also online now. Like his style or hate it, he made a great difference in both individual lives and the thinking of therapists everywhere.

Keeping this short, it was very sad to hear the details of his last years and days, his body failing (diabetes etc.) and with a prognosis of not living beyond May 2006. Still, he insisted on keeping appearances even when weak, and was always thinking of his audiences and clients, rather than himself. Near the end, his wife recalled, he presented to some students from Belgium, and looking quite ill he was asked if he might stick to around 20 minutes, to conserve his strength. "No!", he exclaimed, "A hundred minutes!" She later asked him why he didn't cancel and he replied, "So I can continue to preach the gospel according to St.Albert."

"The last night of his life was Monday, July 23. It was obvious he didn't have much time.... He knew how loved he was. The doctors said he was 'abnormal', not self-absorbed but still caring about others, until the end."

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Here you can get a taste of Ellis presenting to colleagues at past APA Conventions, in conversation with Aaron Beck and Frank Farley:

Beck-Ellis Dialogue (2000)

Beck-Ellis 2002

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