Wallace McAfee got up, out of his chair; looking somewhat like the Colonel Sanders of country fried chicken fame. He stepped across the room with a large hand held out to shake mine, saying, “I’ve heard so much about you.” I was’t sure that this was a good omen but he had a large, friendly smile and was mildly effusive. At the recommendation of a close friend, I had requested an interview. Although this initial interview was about personal questions, I ultimately became interested in clinical counseling and therapy. I was to work toward my counseling license, requesting his supervision. This was our first meeting.
Dr. McAfee was a psychologist who had been in practice for more than 20 years. This was after retirement from the Presbyterian Ministry, which had added another 25 years to his general experience of dealing with both social and personal issues. I make the last distinction as he had received his Ph. D. in sociology but had continued his clinical interest with a dissertation evaluating the therapeutic effects of Alcoholics Anonymous which was, at that time, a new organization. He practiced a combination of individual and group therapy, stating that we all need a social commitment to both maintain our mental health as well as grow psychologically. This was the 1960s when similar messages were becoming part of popular culture. He told the members of his Group that this had been his approach to social organizing since his first assignment as a missionary in China. He and his wife Edna, who was also a Marriage, Family, Child Counselor and former school psychologist working with ‘high risk’ adolescents and their parents, had gone to China in the 1920s as missionaries straight out after his completing seminary and their marriage. They spent 7 years there and left when chased out by communist revolutionaries, early followers of Mao. This is a story in itself that must be postponed for another time.
After China he became a minister of a church in Palm Springs, and, later, a church in Chicago. He apparently ran into trouble with a very wealth family, the inheritors of a well-known soap company. They objected to his sermons when he indicated that Jesus had taught that the wealthy had responsibility to the poor; the rich may even have trouble entering heaven which he made clear was synonomous with the description of an ‘inner reward’. He would point out that The Bible itself (Luke 17) gives this description which is largely ignored by most people and ministers. He liked to refer to people getting stuck in the eye of a needle. He told of a lady who he treated for severe depression because she was down to her lasts $6 million, having lost much more in the depression. He never would say whether this story was a bit tongue-in-cheek or not, but asked how the poor dear could possibly survive on a mere 6 million.
I would like to describe his approach to therapy and supervising a therapist-in-training. There are many techniques and approaches that he practiced which I later recognized by the names of certain schools of therapy, some that had not been developed or named at that time. I will begin with participant observation. I was part of the Group and discussed my experiences in private sessions with him. In the first Group that I participated in, he asked me to be the center of a psychodrama in which I role-played a person who could not express his anger at arbitrary authority (possibly more personal than I wanted to admit at the time). I felt very self-conscious but he laughed and told me that I had done just the right job at this except that he wanted me to express the anger that I felt with even greater volume. (Expression of anger is the first part of a psychodrama.) After the psychodrama we, the Group members, had a very erudite discussion about the relationship of science, philosophy, and religion. In private session he explained that anger and a dogmatic view of life often go hand in hand. After an intense psychological experience intellectual discussion is a productive way to lighten up. Too much, too fast can lead to blocks. While the type of rigidity and anger that he was describing came originally from family of origin, specifically anger at parents, this is difficult for the psychodrama participant to see at first. He could confront without you quite realizing what he had just said. I am not portraying all the details of the discussion, but I went home with my mind buzzing.
Later he explained that there were some people who needed their minds stimulated, challenged, but some, often identified as patients, needed help communicating. With the former a therapeutic double bind gets them working. With the latter we need to listen carefully and use sophisticated interpretative-reflective communication techniques to help them become more comfortable with themselves and the therapist. They were originally alienated from themselves and others. Now they are part of a Community of Caring, his favorite name for the Group. As the patients come to trust themselves and the other members of the Group, they venture and risk. When difficulties arise, they can discuss these with the Community of Caring members. This leads to a deeper group process and what has been lately described as a ‘corrective or therapeutic experience’.
Dr. McAfee’s philosophy of change centered on his conviction that we are all working to increase our freedom. Unconscious living is living under compulsion. As we work to improve our ability to evaluate and choose we increase our freedom. Group members help one another, through both support and friendly criticism, to accomplish these goals. His philosophy was complex and included a therapeutic theory of change based on both his ministerial experiences dealing with problems of guilt and forgiveness and his social-psychological perspective of the benefits of participating and building a community of interested, helping people. He saw people who live under compulsion as feeling guilt. They are not making free choices about their lives. The experience of guilt means that they know that they could do better but are unable to. In therapy they work toward admitting this failure and accepting forgiveness as they develop their ability to choose with increased freedom. He could explain his philosophy in either Christian, secular, or clinical terms as the situation demanded. His clients included a Jewish family, Buddhists, and at least one atheist.
As a supervisee, I was challenged to both allow members of the Group, many of whom had come for psychological help, to help me become a better therapist, and develop future goals and ideals for myself, both professionally and personally. Dr. McAfee would comment that we clinicians expect our patients and clients to expand their own horizons. Shouldn’t we all be doing the same?
In retrospect, I feel that I was deeply affected by my relationship with Wallace McAfee and his wife Edna, who was a co-therapist at times, a mother figure for all members of their Groups, and a minister’s wife and hostess. He had an original mind, enjoyed using it, and encouraged others to use their own. He liked open discussion of ideas and did not seem at all threatened by ideas that he disagreed with, although occasionally he seemed temporarily speechless at another person’s outrageous statements. He would blink his eyes furiously. Or, maybe this was his way of very subtly disagreeing.