History & Origins

Excerpted from a chapter by Lousia Howe, PhD, in Moving Psychotherapy: Theory and Applications of Pesso System/Psychomotor Therapy, co-edited by Al Pesso and John Crandell (Brookline Books, Brookline, MA, 1991). 

Louisa Howe, PhD,  (1915 – 1998) was a sociologist and Chair of the Education Committee of the Psychomotor Institute for many years. She was the first woman to hold the Sigmund Freud Memorial Fellowship. She  worked in the US Bureau of Prisons, taught sociology at Skidmore and joined the faculty at the Menninger Foundation. Here she testified in the famous trial, Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, and her disposition, that segregation was psychologically damaging to children, played an important part in the Supreme Court decision of 1954. She held teaching positions and carried out research in the University of Kansas, UC Berkley, Harvard School of Public Health, and many other places. In her later years Dr. Howe became interested in the therapeutic uses of movement, and joined the faculty of the Psychomotor Institute. She was active in many professional organizations, including American Sociological Association and Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, published many scientific papers, several of them on the problems of drug-abuse, and fought for social justice throughout her life.

Pesso Boyden SystemPsychomotor (PBSP), or Psychomotor therapy, as it was called during its early years has fascinated me from the time I first heard about it in late 1961. A friend and neighbor of Diane and Albert Pesso, Ellsworth T. Neumann, M.D., who was Administrator of the Massachusetts General Hospital and a guest lecturer in a community mental health course I taught at the Harvard School of Public Health, had mentioned it as a kind of psychotherapy that I might find of interest. He told me that Dr. Erich Lindemann, with whose training program in community mental health at the Massachusetts General Hospital I was associated, thought this new method of therapy offered promise. He in fact told Dr. Neumann that if the Pessos were doing what he thought they were doing, they should be given a Nobel prize.

Not long afterwards my interest was further piqued by a write-up in The Boston Globe of Diane and Albert Pesso as dance and movement educators who had developed a largely non-verbal method of psychotherapy. I learned also that Dr. Charles Pinderhughes, a psychiatrist trained at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Boston V.A. Hospital, was enthusiastic about the Pessos’ work, which he said was “opening up a whole new world.”

Mind and body, and especially emotions and bodily movements, tensions, or sensations, were then and still are a primary focus of PBSP. This focus was not all that initially attracted me, however. Although I am licensed as a psychologist, have taught and supervised psychologists, and have also been trained in psychoanalysis, my academic training has been mainly in sociology and I consider that to be my primary field. What particularly appealed to me in descriptions of this new kind of therapy was its sociological character, its emphasis upon interaction: in PBSP an individual’s expression of emotion or of need was responded to by one or more specially designated other person(s) in such a way as to provide satisfaction of the individual’s need or a satisfying validation of his or her emotion.

This occurred, furthermore, on a symbolic level, not literally; it involved the playing of roles, and thus was an example of what George H. Mead, an influential figure in sociology, called symbolic interaction. Back in the early 1960s psychologists and psychiatrists for the most part gave little attention to interaction (except for transference, to be sure), and were unacquainted with the sociological concept of role; rather they prided themselves on being concerned only with what was inside the individual human being and on ignoring “the empty spaces between individuals.” To find an approach to psychotherapy that matched my sociological orientation was therefore quite exciting.

From what I had heard about PBSP as a primarily non-verbal form of psychotherapy, I also wondered if it might offer a way to reach troubled people for whom orthodox psychotherapeutic methods had little success or appeal, including people whose use of language differed from that of upper middle class psychotherapists. I suspect that this may well be the case. PBSP has, however, increasingly become a verbal as well as non-verbal therapy. (This now strikes me as one of its outstanding strengths: information comes in and goes forth through verbal and non-verbal channels: words convey meanings; bodily sensations or movements convey meanings, of which the person may or may not be conscious. If incongruent kinds of information appear, the ones to trust most are those that involve the body).

What I want to do in this chapter is trace some of the major elements and events in the development of PBSP therapy, drawing on my own experience, on certain written materials, and on accounts provided by Diane and Albert Pesso during interviews in 1975 and in 1989-90. Their method of therapy has evolved over the years, and it still continues to be modified, although its fundamentals remain essentially the same.

My first contact with Al and Diane occurred during January, 1962, when I telephoned to express my interest in their work. Al responded by suggesting that I join a recently formed group that met weekly in space belonging to the Charles Street Meetinghouse, an innovative Unitarian-Universalist church of which the Pessos were members. I liked the confident sound of Al’s voice on the telephone. Now I would get to know him, and his wife.

At the Meetinghouse the Pessos greeted me and introduced themselves and the group members. These were eight or nine men and women in their late twenties or early thirties, most of them engaged in academic or professional work, who evidently saw participation in the group as a means for personal growth.

Al was a broad-shouldered man in his early thirties, strongly built. His brown eyes were alert and glinting, and over his nose a straight vertical furrow bespoke concentration. He was conventionally dressed, his tie slightly loosened at the collar. His voice was pleasantly resonant, and he spoke, moved, and gestured easily and sometimes enthusiastically, in a natural way, totally without ostentation or artifice. He conveyed no sense that he was “performing”; he seemed comfortable with being simply himself, complete with both the strengths and the wryly acknowledged weaknesses common to humankind.

Diane was about his height but of a more slender build, with lighter, smoother skin, hazel eyes, an attractive face, and with a softly rounded figure. Her ponytail of long brown hair was occasionally tossed about as she moved or spoke. She had a strong, flexible body and moved with grace and spontaneity; she found evident pleasure in her own physical capabilities and her exuberance sometimes burst forth in an unexpected leap or caper. Sometimes she seemed serene; sometimes she seemed full of joyousness and warm affection; at other times her jaw would be set firmly as she stated her views.

In their different ways both Al and Diane conveyed a sense of kindliness and gentleness combined with modesty and eagerness to learn and develop more. In later years I was to recognize more fully the extent of Diane’s creative gifts, her excellent mind, and the indispensable part she had played in giving birth to PBSP. But at the time of my first meeting with the group, in an era when male dominance was unchallenged, I directed most of my attention to Al.

The first exercise was to assume the species stance or reflex-relaxed stance, as Diane prefers to call it. Everyone in the group was following Al’s instructions to stand while being as totally relaxed as one can be without falling over, maintaining the upright stance that is characteristic for the human species. Heads were dropped forward, arms hanging loose, stomachs sagging, bodies occasionally teetering back and forth as the group members let their reflexes keep them upright. Total relaxation when standing is somewhat different from relaxation when lying down; one’s standing reflexes have to be allowed to function freely so that one does not fall over. These reflexes are not a matter of conscious effort or voluntary control. “The floor is there and the force of gravity is there,” Al explained, “and you can trust them to be there. You can also trust your reflexes to keep you from tipping over, even when all conscious controls are relaxed.”

Out of the corner of my eye I watched others in the group being taught other exercises while I continued trying to meet Al’s exacting requirements for the species stance. “Your right arm isn’t relaxed,” he would say, returning to me after coaching some of the others. “Your head isn’t relaxed.” I stood for long minutes trying to let myself go more and more loose. Finally I achieved what felt like complete relaxation, gently swaying as I stood there droopily. Al returned and scanned me from head to foot. “Your tongue is not relaxed.”

Of all things! Startled questions came to my mind. How can he tell? How can he see inside my head? What does it mean if I do feel tension in my tongue? So what if I’m verbal, not physical? What kind of procedure is this, anyhow? I resolved to find out, and have been doing so intermittently, with growing conviction and enthusiasm, ever since.

What is it, and Why Call it “Psychomotor”?

Since its beginnings around 1960 PBSP has developed into a comprehensive, flexible, subtle and finely-tuned instrument for accomplishing therapeutic change or, in the words Diane prefers, “emotional re-education” or “emotional growth”. It has become a system of formulations and practices based mainly on many years of empathic observation of people’s bodily movements, listening to their reports of physical sensations, discovering what these sensations and movements meant emotionally to people, and experimenting with diverse ways of facilitating and responding to the expression of feelings through bodily actions and wished-for interactions. Al and Diane clearly recognized that such interactions, the active accommodating responses of one or more other persons playing roles which precisely fit and match one’s own emotional interests, actions, and impulses toward action, offer an exceptionally persuasive invitation to the expression of feelings.

Simply expressing feelings is not enough, however. Through structures, which are episodes of therapeutic work that usually involve role-played figures and that take place in a carefully controlled setting and on a symbolic, emotionally powerful level, provision is made for resolving an individual’s past conflicts, satisfying his or her previously unmet needs, healing past emotional injuries, and enabling hitherto unborn parts of the self to emerge and become integrated into the being and functioning of the whole person.

As new issues, puzzlements and challenges have arisen over the years, Al and Diane have tried out and thoughtfully assessed various modifications of their ways of working. New techniques and modes of understanding continue to be introduced or elaborated. Throughout its still ongoing evolution Psychomotor has demonstrated its exceptional power — “It’s changed my life!” former clients or trainees sometimes exclaim. At the same time it continues to ensure that each person who engages in this form of therapeutic emotional re-education is treated with thoroughgoing acceptance and respect.

The relationship of the PBSP therapist with the client — that is, the adult, conscious, rational part of the client, the ego — is one of collaboration in the task of enabling that client to develop more fully the capacity to find satisfying ways of interacting with the people who constitute his/her world. Al has said that he does not “lead” clients in PBSP therapy; instead what he does is “follow the person very closely,” giving special attention to bodily cues while making sure at all times that the client’s ego remains or becomes aware of and is in charge of whatever happens. Al also added a further requirement: that the client would agree to work with the therapist in making sure that the structure was completed in a way that would be positive and satisfying for the client.

Diane describes the PBSP process as one of assisting a person to do his/her emotional improvisation. At the same time she makes contact with the rational, aware part of the person. She also ensures that other group members provide the needed accommodation (emotional interaction) to satisfy symbolically the person’s spontaneously expressed needs. She says this feels much like being a coach for the client, a stage manager for the setting, and a director for the accommodators, all at the same time.

The “psycho” part of Psychomotor refers to the psyche (soul or mind; that which is psychological). The “motor” part refers to bodily sensations and movements — motoric actions — including incipient or blocked actions, powered by sources of energy connected with the psyche. The word “emotion” quite literally means the outward expression (“e” from the Latin “ex”) of that which “moves” us, whether by way of an external stimulus or an internal need. We respond with motion or with various degrees of bodily preparation for emotional expression; we engage in motor activity, including vocalization. We may, however, try to suppress or hide or detach from emotions, sometimes to the point of rendering them unconscious. Under the latter circumstances emotions can appear in the resultant form of physical illness or as pain or tension (which Al has punningly linked with “intention”.) When the client with these or with other, nonphysical, symptoms finds that any and all feelings can be satisfyingly expressed and responded to in the course of a PBSP structure, the symptoms’ basis for existence is counteracted and symptoms tend to diminish or disappear.

Europeans attach a different significance to the term “psychomotor”, using it to refer generically to a variety of body-oriented methods ranging from massage to martial arts. In Europe people now speak of “Pesso Therapy” or “Pesso Groups” to distinguish it from what the French call “Psychomotricite”. (Since 1980 an annual “International Congress of Psychomotricity” has been held, at which Al has twice served as a plenary session speaker).

In the United States Diane and Al decided to call their method “Pesso System/Psychomotor therapy”, thereby retaining the original designation of “Psychomotor” and also emphasizing the extent to which it constitutes a well articulated system of psychotherapy rather than merely a set of techniques.

Diane and Albert Pesso’s Backgrounds: Significant Influences

Diane Boyden (Pesso) and Albert Pesso were both born in 1929, Al in New York City and Diane in Boston, Massachusetts. Although their childhoods seem quite different, both had interests and engaged in activities that contributed to the later development of PBSP.

Al, a youngest son struggling to keep up with his older brothers, grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, in a family of Sephardic Jewish descent that had come to the United States from Bitola, Yugoslavia, fifteen years before his birth. At age five he began a disciplined regime of body-building, going daily to a nearby park to work out on ladders and parallel bars. Being able to “do strong things that his brothers couldn’t do” (Note 1) became a source of considerable satisfaction to him. As time went on he aspired to fulfill the Greek ideal of a strong mind in a strong body; he excelled academically as well as physically and was one of the students gifted in science and math who won admission to New York’s Stuyvesant High School.

During Al’s mid-teen years a weight lifter named Dan Lurie, who had a national reputation as “the most muscular man in America,” opened a studio around the corner from where the Pesso family lived. Al made himself known to Lurie, who soon turned over to him much of the work of running the studio and teaching acrobatics and various methods of body building. Al started a boys’ club which he coached in these activities, and also developed a hand balancing team whose members did handstands on each other hands. In all of this, Al has later commented, he was very much aware of the aesthetic aspects of acrobatic and other physical activities. Diane comments that Al’s physical sense of line was unusually well developed, as documented by weight lifting photographs of him at the gym which look like “wonderful Greek sculpture” (Note 1).

Al was seventeen when he was first introduced to the world of dance. Dan Lurie’s girl friend, who was often at the studio, gave Al his first exposure to modern dance, which she was then studying with Gertrude Shurr. Much intrigued, Al attended a class taught by Gertrude and her teaching partner May O’Donnell, who were both disciples of Martha Graham and had been in her early company. They were impressed by Al’s physical skills, drew him into their group, and for two years served as his mentors. Within a month of attending his first dance class Al started teaching dance to youngsters in his neighborhood. One of Al’s older brothers undertook to pay for his dance lessons for a brief period; thereafter he was given scholarship assistance and in exchange swept the floors, washed windows, etc. Gertrude Shurr used numerous photographs of Al doing exercises in her book Modern Dance: Techniques and Teaching (1949).

Gertrude Shurr and May O’Donnell (as well as Diane’s teachers Jose Limon and Martha Hill) were, as Al later wrote, part of the Denishawn school, headed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Theirs was a highly eclectic school, which offered every form of dance then available, coupled with St. Denis’s mystic attitudes and Shawn’s conviction that dance was just as much a ministry as the pulpit (1966, p. 8).

With this introduction to the world of art and theater, Al left the family home in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan. He was excited to be immersed in the avant garde of the time, and read extensively, including works by Freud and other psychoanalytic writers.

Diane grew up as the eldest of three children in a financially strained upper middle class, Protestant family. Her mother had wanted to be a concert pianist and her father had wanted to be an artist. With both parents highly valuing artistic expression in music, dance and art, her creativity and individuality were encouraged.

By age five Diane knew she was going to be a dancer and loved to give spontaneous improvisations for her appreciative grandparents. She entered public school in the second grade, having been taught by her mother at home the first year. During the grade school years she was given lessons in piano by her mother. She later studied violin and then ‘cello. In dance she studied tap, acrobatic and then ballet. Even at that young age she knew her mother was very unhappy and sought ways to help her feel better. Her father was prone to sudden violent outbursts of temper, and she learned early to keep quiet and never disagree with him. At other times she found him playful and fun. But in the early years there were frequent crises and her mother would periodically prepare to leave with Diane and occasionally did leave for a short time.

In her teens, while attending Woodward School for Girls, she studied ballet in Boston with Harriet Hoctor and had occasional classes with Russian ballet stars. To ease the financial pressures which she thought were the cause of her parents’ conflicts, at age fourteen she started the Diane Boyden School of the Dance. By age sixteen she had a hundred dance students and occasionally danced at night clubs to earn more money. She still studied the ‘cello (which was very important to her mother) and commuted to Boston several times a week for dance classes with Jose Limon, becoming a member of his Boston dance company. She also studied with the pioneer creative movement teacher, Barbara Mettler.

Diane choreographed and designed costumes for several productions including Woodward School’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some concert pieces for herself, and a show for eighty of her students. During this period she was buoyed by the knowledge that many people expected her to become a notable concert dancer in the tradition of Isadora Duncan.

Despite constant fatigue, she tried to give emotional support to her parents. If it had not been for the satisfactions of dance and music, and the artistic encouragement of her teachers, she feels she would not have survived those years (Note 1).

Diane attended Bennington with scholarship assistance from the college and further help from philanthropist Helen Frick. Miss Frick sponsored the concert careers of several young women artists and was the benefactor of a summer camp for underprivileged girls where Diane served as dance counselor. Diane loved Bennington; she gained from the dance teaching style of Martha Hill, and was strongly influenced by the philosophical attitude of the faculty and of the college as a whole. She was able to pursue her interests in the physiological aspects of emotion in an atmosphere where she was free to explore and learn.

Al studied for a year with Martha Graham, on scholarship, with the expectation of becoming a member of her company. Then, at her suggestion and through her recommendation, he was awarded a full scholarship to Bennington College, where he and Diane met. Although they were not drawn to each other romantically at first — Diane had in fact tried to find a young woman for him who would be a suitable mate — they talked often as friends and could hardly help recognizing attributes they shared in common. Both had disciplined themselves to perform feats of physical prowess when they were very young. Both had started in their mid-teens to teach others what they had learned. Both felt that they had the wherewithal to undertake important innovations; both harbored within themselves a sense of destiny; neither of them wanted to be like everybody else; both wanted to be their unique selves in life and dance. And both felt that they had formed their personalities, and that they were on their way, at a very early age. When these two highly individuated people met it was not surprising that a connection between them was formed.

Although Al feels that he gained much inspiration and support from his Bennington experience, he left after one year; he wanted to face more challenge and difficulty. He taught dance for a year at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia while Diane taught at the Frick summer camp and returned to Bennington. He also opened a dance school in the college town, and choreographed the West Virginia State Forest Festival, using, for the first time in that area, a dance group in which black and white dancers performed together.

Every day during that summer and autumn Al wrote to Diane. The bond between them had already been formed at Bennington. While in West Virginia Al phoned to say he wanted to marry Diane. He came up to Bennington on a visit trying to convince her. That night, sitting with Diane on a trail and looking up at the expanse of stars, he felt certain that they would be together in their lives and that the two of them were destined to do something important. Eventually, after many letters, she was persuaded. Diane left Bennington and married Al.

They established themselves in New York, dancing professionally, teaching, learning and enjoying the excitement of the New York dance world. Diane took courses with Alwin Nikolais and music composition with John Cage at the Henry Street Settlement. Unfortunately Diane’s married status resulted in the loss of her Frick sponsorship, and they found they could not make a living through concert dance.

For six months they were acting/dancing members of a touring company of “Kiss Me Kate”. Al also choreographed several off-Broadway productions, taught at settlement houses in New York, and was persuaded by Diane to do some musical comedy style dancing with her at night clubs — although, as he says now, at first this felt like sinning because in his view dance represented something so pure (Note 1).

Meanwhile their first daughter, Tana, had been born. As she began to approach school age, and as her parents realized they wanted to have more children, it became clear that their life style would have to change. They would have to abandon their dreams and settle down. They moved to Diane’s home town in Massachusetts and started a dance school, bringing to it all their exciting hopes and high artistic standards.

Their first years in the Boston area were emotionally very difficult. Giving up the creative, artistic dance world of New York — and even more, giving up their hopes of becoming great dancers — was devastatingly hard and painful. Al, after two years of struggling — fairly successfully — with palpitations, a “loss of meaning” and rage that was not clearly felt as rage, sought psychotherapy. It was helpful, though as he began to understand the process he felt a sense of dismay about certain aspects of the way it was carried out. After each session Al talked about it at length with Diane. Sometimes this discussion evolved into processing through action and sound the emotions that came up, and this was an important prelude to the development of PBSP.

Earlier, while still in New York, Al had taught a class in creative dance at a halfway house for former mental hospital patients; later, in Boston, he volunteered to do the same at the Center Club, a rehabilitation and resocialization center for former mental patients. The Center’s executive director and its staff psychologist, Al wrote, made strong note of my apprehension of members’ states of mind and my ability to relate to this in the class… In retrospect it is probable that their approval of this skill motivated further exploration in the therapeutic milieu (1966, p. 12).

He was also by this time aware of Marion Chace’s pioneering work in applying dance-based experience to therapeutic purposes. Others to whom he gives special credit as sources of influence on the development of his and Diane’s ideas included Merce Cunningham and Barbara Mettler; also the writings of Delsarte and of Stanislavsky, and earlier, Isadora Duncan as a founder of modern dance.

During this period Al was intent on continuing his education, taking some courses at local universities and finally, as a non-resident student, obtaining a degree from Goddard College in Vermont. He read widely in the field of psychology: not only psychoanalytic writers, but also James, Watson, Skinner, and others. Eastern philosophies also drew his attention. Besides carrying a full teaching schedule, Diane took courses in anatomy, art, literature, and in Hindu and other styles of dance. By devising emotional sound and movement exercises for herself and her students she continued her exploration of the physical aspects and origins of emotional expression.

While the aim of the Pessos’ approach to dance was, in Al’s words, “to give students tools of body and feeling which they could use toward communicating their visions, images, ideas, etc., to an audience,” the aim of PBSP was not only to enable people to communicate with others but also to communicate

with themselves or various parts of themselves; the self of the past with the self of the present; the impulses of the past with the thoughts and feelings of the present; the sensations and needs of the past with the body and thoughts of the present. This communication and interaction of various parts under the aegis of awareness, or the ego, is an important integrating act. No part of the being is left in isolation…(1966, p.15).

In their first dance school Diane and Al tried to maintain the high standards of artistry and creativity that meant so much to them. As Al put it, “What we had in New York we tried to bring to these students, and we had to refine and define the basic ideas behind the way we taught; we had to simplify. We had to rediscover dance and the reasons for it by ourselves. It was like being in the wilderness. Out of these two facts — the breakdown of my meaning and the attempt to reconstruct it through movement — we began to really understand the organization and generation of movement very, very clearly, which was the first step that led to Psychomotor.”

Al remarks that “This happened awfully fast; it seemed like an eternity…It never would have happened if we hadn’t had those losses…” As new formulations and ways of implementing them occurred to both Diane and Al they wondered, speculated, and argued strenuously with each other in an attempt to reach common ground.

Diane’s and Al’s school, the Wollaston Dance Center, was located in Quincy. They also had their own concert group, the Pesso Dance Company, directed by Al. Diane danced in it, choreographing her own solos. Over a period of several years their teaching activities kept expanding as they instructed some five hundred students per week. Al recounts that he himself taught as many as forty classes a week. Diane would have preferred to focus on her own concert work but could not find time due to her heavy teaching schedule and her primary responsibility for management of the home and children.

In the late 1950s the parents of some of the students joined a creative movement class led by Diane. This later grew into an experimental group mainly led by Al that included older students. Diane and Al were devising many new exercises involving movement and emotional expression. This was the ongoing “experimental group” that I eventually joined.

Exercises that were introduced in order to improve the performance abilities of the concert dance group also contributed to therapeutic formulations. Some of the dancers were surprised to discover a significant, measurable change in balance, flexibility, or strength as a result of the work.

During the years they lived in Quincy, Diane taught dance at Wheaton College, transferring this to Al when she gave birth to their second child. Then Al accepted a faculty appointment in the Theater Division at Emerson College, later being appointed associate professor. He established a dance major and became head of the dance department. Diane later joined Al in teaching at Emerson. Their third daughter was born, and that year they began a gradual transition: their main center of activity shifted to Boston. They moved to Beacon Street and after a year closed the Wollaston Dance Center. They had become active with the innovative Unitarian Church at the Charles Street Meetinghouse, which became like a second home. Diane was invited to teach part-time at Sargent College (Boston University). The basis for the new therapy was developing and was beginning to become the main focus of their energy.

Modalities of Movement

What Al and Diane had concluded through the explorations they undertook in the process of training dancers was that the body utilized three distinguishable modalities of movement: reflex, voluntary and emotional. Although this was not wholly original — Delsarte’s school had arrived at a similar formulation — Al and Diane felt that they had contributed by developing exercises and practices “which tended to sharpen awareness of motion and expression and the concomitant subjective states experienced during the performance of these exercises” (Pesso, 1966, p. 10).

Their formulations of the three movement modalities were first presented in a 61-page essay written by Al that they distributed privately, entitled “New Perspectives in the Generation of Movement: With Implications Important to Dance Composition, Criticism and Appreciation” (1963).

They saw these modalities as constituting three interwoven strands. As Al wrote in l966, “The stance is the first exercise in combining awareness with freedom from inhibition, or restraint. If consciousness were reduced then there would not be the element of communication between one part of the brain and another and integration would not be furthered. Even when the subject is doing extremely primitive movement his awareness is perceiving himself doing that movement and this can be a very educational experience (p. 21).”

A second strand that Al and Diane separated out from the “woven fabric of complex motor behavior” (p. 22) is controlled, or volitional movement, in which the subject attempts to consciously program an action in advance of performing it, and in carrying it out takes care to turn off feelings and associational imagery, thereby attempting to avoid emotional coloration of the movement.

Volitional or voluntary movement, Al wrote (1966, p.27), “is isolated from the internal environment and exercised for itself. This develops mastery of the body and in a sense mastery of the external environment.” He suggests that voluntary movement may be considered as a prerequisite for abstract thinking and as a sort of “abstract behaving” that is impaired in brain-damaged persons and in schizophrenics.

The third strand is emotional movement. Whereas voluntary movement is oriented to the external environment, emotional movement relates to that which is felt or sensed about the internal environment, and is need-oriented. As Al states, “After a subject can achieve the species stance and reflex movement and after he can control his body and move it in an affect free and image free manner, he is given the opportunity to explore and discover the relationship between strong emotional states and subsequent action” (p. 29).

He further remarks, “It is important to stress that in Psychomotor Therapy all movement modalities are exercised with awareness so that ‘acting out’ behavior in an unconscious form [is] reduced” (p. 30).

One of the emotional movement exercises starts with the reflex relaxed (species) stance; subjects are then asked to generate a feeling such as fear and then to allow it spontaneous expression (direct emotion). If they cannot generate the feeling or emotion they can be asked to imagine a situation that would arouse the feeling. After this emotion has been expressed people move on to the next, such as anger. After that they are asked to generate a feeling of love in each of two forms: love being given and love being received. The final emotion to be generated and allowed expression is joy.

Diane and Al used the exercises for diagnostic purposes and as a starting point for structures. They considered the exercises a necessary preparation for doing structures — a preparation that clearly carried an important therapeutic impact of its own. Al’s first book, Movement in Psychotherapy (1969), was written to guide therapists in teaching the exercises and subsequently leading structures but did not include the sort of rationale for the exercises that is presented in his l966 paper. Evidently, and understandably, he did not wish to repeat himself.

The Pessos’ interest in disentangling the three strands of movement arose from the needs of dancers and other performers who found that what they intended to convey to an audience could be different from what the audience experienced. As Al put it in a statement written in 1974,

If conscious intent is not the only source of movement and expression, what are the other sources and how can one isolate and gain control of their expression? There seemed to be three motor systems constantly operating and interweaving with one another which could be explored individually for understanding and control… While attempting to move in and explore one modality and to eliminate behavior arising out of the other two modalities, one could note the appearance or lack of appearance of [actual] or nascent movement in the other two modalities.

Through Psychomotor exercises awareness of such movement could be enhanced and with it control over what might otherwise appear as at least minimal “acting out.”

Al argues, in his 1966 paper, that “an emotional action would be more capable of evoking and unfolding to awareness an unconscious impulse than would a thought or words.” He notes that in real life, actions sometimes have a way of getting out of hand; accordingly therapists have shied away from this arena despite many therapists’ feeling that “words by themselves are insufficient in treating mental illness” (p. 35).

The Transition From Dance To Psychotherapy

Various components of PBSP gradually began to emerge as a result of Al and Diane’s experience in teaching dance and in working with their concert dance company. This group, as Al recalled (Note 2), “received rave reviews for its honesty of expression.”

The creation of Psychomotor was not a single idea occurring at a single moment but the culmination of all that Al and Diane had done and thought about and discussed with each other for many years. It could not have been created by either one of them alone, any more than one of their children could have been created by just one of them. PBSP resulted from the intensity of their relationship and their dedication to understanding their students and themselves as well as from their wish to solve their own difficult inner problems.

While teaching a highly disciplined class in dance technique, Diane gave her students a brief period of spontaneous emotional improvisation as a way of discharging tensions. This improvisation, which was not dance, she called direct emotion. She told the students that they were not literally to hit or hurt anyone, but were free to move and make emotional sounds; it seemed that this rule would allow all emotions to be safely expressed. She noticed, however, that although the expression of most feelings resulted in a sense of satisfaction, students seemed to lose energy after moving in ways that expressed anger. The next day she tried the exercise out with the children in her creative movement class, and then with one of her college classes. In all three groups the students lost energy after expressing anger and many eventually sat on the floor, some slowly rocking back and forth. This seemed to be an undesirable result; she realized that it came from the frustration of expressing anger toward someone who did not respond in a satisfying way.

Recalling children’s way of playing “Bang, bang! You’re dead!” with the target person pretending to have been shot and tumbling to the ground, Diane told the group doing emotional improvisation that any time angry gestures or sounds were being made toward them by a group member, they should put their own feelings “on hold” and respond by pretending to succumb to the anger. Then they could again go back to the expression of their own feelings. Getting this kind of response made a notable difference; the person expressing anger no longer suffered a loss of energy and the whole experience became quite enjoyable. Diane was always careful to provide a corner of the room with a barricade available as an “off limits” safety zone for anyone that didn’t want to play the “game”.

This was an early version of what was later to be called negative accommodation. Clearly no specific role-playing was involved, and the person who had pretended to be attacked quickly went back to doing his or her own emotional improvisation again. Diane notes that all of this activity, which could appear to be wild mayhem, was within the conscious awareness and control of her students and that they would stop immediately when she gave the designated signal of raising her arm. Certainly there was no question of any uncontrolled “acting out” on anybody’s part. The group or class would then return to whatever they had previously been working on, finding that tensions had been relaxed and that they could now perform their exercises with greater ease and clarity.

Around this time Diane, working by herself in the Quincy studio, was doing “direct emotion” (not dance, but emotional improvisation in movement and sound). As she did it, she found herself vividly re-experiencing a long-forgotten, frightening event that had occurred on a Memorial Day many years earlier, following a visit to her grandmother’s grave. She then realized that this was a way of enabling lost memories to be relived and remembered.

Another piece of important learning came when Al and Diane asked their students to work with a partner, one pair at a time, doing emotional movement and sound improvisation. A tall young man and a short older woman ended up intently gazing at each other, both with a discontented look. When asked, each reported that the partner had been perceived as a parent figure. This showed Al and Diane how readily another group member could serve as a stimulus for projection. They further realized that two people who were improvising simultaneously would only rarely happen to act in ways that would provide fully satisfactory experiences for both partners. This was a step toward the decision that only one person at a time should have a turn while others would remain available to provide satisfying responses. Later this was formalized as accommodation.

Diane’s creative movement class at the Charles Street Meetinghouse also played a part. Her class was attended by the Pinderhughes children, and what they had to say about activities there prompted their father (psychiatrist Charles Pinderhughes) to make inquiries about the work the Pessos were doing.

Responding to a question during the 1975 interview about how structures began, Diane described how at one meeting of the experimental group she had decided to dive down and explore her lack of feelings at the funeral of her dearly loved grandfather when she was ten years old. She suspected that there were some strong emotions that had never been experienced; in her family it had not been acceptable for her to show emotion.

Enlisting the help of the group she set up the scene to depict the funeral parlor with people attending the service, and someone lying down to represent her grandfather in the coffin. Diane said, “ I felt in my body as if I was my ten-year-old self again. I told that child part of myself that it was OK to go ahead and do “direct emotion”. A torrent of emotional movement and sounds came out of me, with enormous feelings of anger, grief, need, and rage switching back and forth. Meanwhile another part of myself was observing — and this was the same type of observing process that Al and I both used when developing a new emotional dance sequence. Now I had access to feelings that were repressed before. I felt free and safe in that room with today-level friends that I knew cared about me and wanted to help. I was also aware that they, including Al, were very puzzled about how to help. Al was reassuring them and telling them just to be there, so I felt I could let my ten-year-old self continue to use my body and learn from the feelings that came. Later, after I had huddled with my arm around a pole in the middle of the floor and grieved, Al and the group members stayed with me and gently touched me. It was very important .”

Diane had been trying between sessions with her psychiatrist to recover memories of her childhood since she remembered very little of her life prior to the age of fourteen. She had learned about Freudian ideas first from a friend at Bennington who talked about her psychoanalysis, and then from discussions with Al. Thus it made sense to her that early events shaped people’s later patterns of behavior, and that current problems needed to be traced back to their roots in the past. She also now knew from her experience that through spontaneous emotional expression memories would surface. In her words, “the memories came up as I did the action.”

It was during a vacation absence of her psychiatrist that the improvisation having to do with her grandfather’s death occurred. The sense of relief afterwards was extraordinary, and she eagerly awaited her psychiatrist’s return in order to tell him of the exciting material she had unearthed, thinking it would help in the progress of her work with him.

His response, as Diane remembers, was “You know I don’t like that type of thing, and if you do that again you can not come back, and you must pay for the next two appointments.” She continues, “I felt that the movement exercises Al and I were developing, in conjunction with what I was doing with my psychiatrist, would move me much more rapidly. When forced to make a choice between the two, I felt that what Al and I were doing would take me further.”

Al chimes in: “He really put her on the line… That was a terrible thing to tell her after she had been in therapy twice a week for two years, because of the transference that had developed…That manipulation was dreadful; it was very hard for her to make that choice and it resulted in a painful loss.”

Al was particularly sensitive to Diane’s situation because of his own therapy experience, two years earlier. While helpful, it had also left him feeling distressed. His once-a-week appointments for one year at a mental health outpatient department, though helpful, had also been upsetting. Some disturbing parts of the process, he later learned, had been experimental and were subsequently discontinued. He had come for help with his condition of recurring panic attacks, anxiety, heart palpitations, and sleep often interrupted by terrifying bodily sensations.

At the time of each appointment Al’s psychiatrist appeared in the waiting room and nodded for Al to follow him. They then walked through a room containing about a dozen men to another room with a one-way mirror, behind which the men were sitting. When Al asked what they were doing, the psychiatrist responded, “What do you think they are doing?” Years later Al learned that these were psychiatric residents observing the therapy as part of their training. In those days it was not customary to explain such arrangements to patients or to ask for their consent.

The psychiatrist never directly related to Al or answered his questions, and Al proceeded to make highly distressing projections both upon him and the men behind the mirror. As the sessions continued, Al slowly began to understand the processes of projection and transference that were going on, with the unseen men representing his brothers. The men never responded even with eye contact when Al walked through the room again on the way out.

Al thought there must be a better and more humane way to evoke and work with projection and transference, so that they would not operate in such a blind, uncanny, and untestable way. Very likely this contributed to Al’s later insistence on carefully enrolling and derolling accommodators and demystifying the function of the therapist.

Some time after the establishment of PBSP Al’s former psychiatrist began to refer patients to him. Al then arranged a meeting with him during which, for the first time, there was direct and normal conversation. Al remarked upon his objections to the approach that had been used. The distress it caused him, he said, had influenced the procedures he and Diane developed to counter the ambiguity, fear and helplessness he had experienced during his therapy sessions. The psychiatrist replied that he was glad that something he had done had contributed to the development of PBSP.

Years later Al was invited to give several presentations to the psychiatric residents at that hospital. This was certainly a startling shift from his earlier experiences there as a naive, innocent, and bewildered patient.

Returning to Diane’s account of her experience with her psychiatrist and the ultimatum he had given her about doing ‘that type of thing,’ “I told him that I wouldn’t do any more before I came in for the next appointment. When I next arrived, I said I had chosen the movement work, but that I thought the two together would be best and really wanted to continue working with him. He suggested I wait to complete my work with him, and when I told him I had decided not to wait he told me that I would be back. I never went back. All those needs that got put on him, the effect of the transference… I learned to hate the effects of transference… the less transference there is to the therapist, the safer and better.

“Subsequently, I have always emphasized getting the transference off the PS therapist and onto the roleplayers as soon as possible. I believe in the power of the caring part of human beings, the therapist and the other clients, but using transference on the therapist as part of the therapy is fraught with danger, provides no opportunity for reality testing and is bad for the therapist who can’t behave as his or her imperfect real self.”

Diane remembers that around this time she and Al had visited Charles and Elaine Pinderhughes at their home, and that Elaine’s supportive reaction to her situation was very helpful as she struggled to deal with this abrupt termination of her therapy.

Diane’s recollections concerning the first Psychomotor structure, that occurred one week after the improvisation connected with her grandfather’s funeral, are as follows: “Al suggested I try doing direct emotional expression from the species stance. I started moving with anger and Al got somebody to stand in to respond as if the anger was effective. As the anger was expressed I realized that it was my father I was angry at, so that person was now standing in for him. When my anger was over I was left with the still unsatisfied emotional need that had caused the anger, and the wish for my father to behave differently. Al and I were perplexed about what to do about this. We knew it wouldn’t make sense to change the behavior of my real father because that wouldn’t be true; there was no way of changing his past behavior in the current situation. But the need was very strong and was directed toward that figure. We wanted that need satisfied and we looked for ways to make it happen. I knew that other parents, if I had been their child could have treated me differently. We came up with the idea of someone represent a brand new father. Then the problem was for me to get my child self to give up trying to get needs satisfied by my role-played “real” father and to turn my needs toward my “new” father. I did so and it was wonderfully satisfying.”

Al and Diane thus began to recognize that two kinds of figures were needed: a responsive target for the satisfying expression of anger and a strong, positive figure who could provide an antidote for past hurts, deprivations or losses. This they saw as a bodily as well as a psychological need. Since early negative experiences very often had to do with parents, the polarized figures were likely to be designated respectively as “bad” mother or father and “good” or “wished-for” father or mother. The “good” parents not only counteracted the influence of the “bad” parents but also were a source of acceptance, support, and validation, that were especially needed after a “bad” parent or other figure had been symbolically attacked through angry gestures and vocalizations.

Knowing that accommodating responses would occur made it easier to express emotion spontaneously. This expression in turn helped structure enactors to summon up recollections of events in childhood which were still charged with their original emotional meaning, even though the events and feelings might have long been absent from conscious memory. These early, remembered events usually set the stage for the structure that would then be enacted. From the development of accommodation to the enactment of structures was a short step; one led almost irresistibly to the next.

Training was necessary for the negative accommodators who represented “bad” figures: they were not to retaliate, nor defend themselves, but were to let themselves be defeated, responding to each angry sound, statement or gesture with a body movement and vocalization modulated to match the intensity of the attack against them. Structure enactors were repeatedly reminded of the “four foot rule”: the “attacker” was to maintain a distance of at least four feet from the person being “attacked” by hand and arm gestures or by kicks.

Also useful for structures were exercises, originally designed for dancers, that sensitized participants to other people’s locations — whether nearer or farther away, whether standing higher or sitting lower than one’s self, whether located in front, in back, or by one’s side — and what the significant feelings were that these positions evoked, to say nothing of how it felt to have an “accommodating” person faithfully follow one’s bidding. Thus exercises designated as “controlled approach” and “stimulus figure” were performed, as well as various circle exercises which emphasized the difference between inner and outer, and between acceptance and rejection. (These exercises are described fully in Movement in Psychotherapy, 1969).

Positive accommodation in PBSP structures was modeled on the normal, healthy kinds of physical contact that occur between parents and children in the real world. Parents could touch children in caring, non-sexual ways; members of the group could accordingly touch each other in ways that were equally non-sexual when they were enacting structures or serving as accommodators.

Diane was more easily able than Al to voice the belief that what they had discovered and created together was the foundation for a new method of psychotherapy. Al had always been the more psychologically-minded and theoretically oriented of the two, and would have liked nothing better than to think that what they were doing could be considered an advance beyond existing methods of psychotherapy. This seemed, however, to be more than he dared to hope for. Dancers they trained had started to do structures and had been surprised at the lessening of their tension and anxiety and the improvements in their performance. According to Al, “Diane was the one who believed all the way through, while I found it hard to say such things aloud. I said, ‘We can’t be doing what we seem to be doing; we can’t be!’ and Diane said serenely ‘We’re doing it.'”

First Version of PBSP: Early to Mid-’60s

At the time of my first contacts with Al and Diane and with PBSP the essential elements already described were well in place, although some things were quite different from what has since evolved. First, it was considered to be “non-verbal”, a designation that in the l990s would hardly seem apt, even though the underlying emphasis upon spontaneous emotional expression through movement and sounds still remains. In l966 Al wrote, “Psychomotor Therapy, as it is now practiced, proceeds on a primitive non-verbal base, with words used only as expletives by the patients and as instructions by the therapists” (p. 88). And in l973 a statement concerning the purposes of the Psychomotor Institute described it as “devoted to the development and furtherance of non-verbal techniques in the broad field of human development — psychotherapy, education and the arts.”

Second, as the reference to “expletives” suggests, considerably more emphasis was placed on the expression of anger during this early period than was the case later on. During my first experiences with structures I found it impressive that while enactors gave full vent to their anger, their sense of current reality remained wholly intact. If, for example, the “four foot rule” was accidentally overstepped and a slightly miscalculated “blow” happened to graze an accommodating “bad” figure ever so lightly, the rage would be interrupted by a crestfallen apology: “I’m so sorry!” as the structure enactor stepped back and then, again at a safe distance, resumed the furious symbolic attack as before.

Occasionally group members would be directed to hold up one or more tumbling mats as a barrier and let the structure enactor beat against it in rage. It may have been on one such occasion that suddenly a loud banging was heard at the door. A group member went out and found a passerby from Charles Street, pale and frightened, who managed to ask if anyone needed help. Through the windows, he said, it sounded like someone being murdered. Assured that it was only a rehearsal for a play he left, dubiously shaking his head. Diane decided that a sign should be posted saying ACTING CLASS IN PROGRESS.

Shortly after I had joined the Meetinghouse group the Pessos invited me to come to the Wednesday evening “experimental group” that met in their apartment on Beacon Street in Boston. Here now familiar exercises were done and new ones were tried out: one member of the group would be lifted and supported at shoulder height by the others; or one would lie on the floor looking up while the rest of the group stood in rectangle formation looking down at the recumbent one’s face. The purpose was to see what feelings, associations, memories, or emotional behavior would be triggered by these exercises.

In this group Diane and Al took turns with the rest of us in doing therapeutic work (structures) for themselves. Often we stayed afterwards, over coffee in the kitchen, trying to understand what seemed to be going on and how it could best be formulated and perhaps improved. During the meetings of this group the Pessos’ attractive daughters — three year old Tia, middle daughter Tasmin, and firstborn Tana — would sometimes come in to claim their parents’ attention.

Although the effects of PBSP on the persons involved in it, including me, were certainly impressive, I still felt some doubts. A great deal of time had to be spent in mastering the three modalities of movement and carrying out other preliminary exercises. It seemed to me that no one other than the Pessos would be able to lead Psychomotor sessions — especially structures — the way they did. Most likely, I thought, only someone trained as a professional dancer would have keen enough awareness of body movements and the ways in which emotions affected the body to be able to lead this sort of therapeutic group. Probably I was better cut out for the more orthodox, verbal type of psychodynamic therapy in which I had been trained.

Although I felt unqualified ever to be a PBSP therapist there was a great deal that appealed to me in the Pessos’ approach. In a group the exercises served powerfully to strengthen group members’ trust in one another and in ourselves. We were helped to realize that it was permissible, safe, and in fact rewarding to express both positive and negative feelings toward the figures that accommodating members of the group agreed to represent symbolically. And in doing structures, what a satisfaction it was to have a whole array of clearly defined transference figures, rather than just one whose identity seemed to shift so that there was no way of knowing whether one’s feelings were toward that “real” person or were products of unwitting transference! Increasingly we could let ourselves get in touch with forgotten or unrecognized feelings by following the leads given by impulses we became aware of in our bodies, and could let these impulses move us into symbolic actions and interactions we would never have anticipated. Doing a structure was always a voyage of discovery; in the language of a slightly later era, it was a trip. Somehow it tapped another level of consciousness, something like a trance state, or a waking dream. But it simply expressed our own inner, often previously unconscious, feelings — and there was always a positive outcome at the end.

Al and Diane’s insistence that both the preliminary training exercises and structures should always end positively was one of the things that very much impressed me about their method. In contrast to some of the other (verbal and nonverbal) group approaches to sensitivity training and the like that were being developed elsewhere, in PBSP groups no one was ever allowed to end up in a negative situation. If someone was ejected from the group, s/he was always brought back and made welcome again. If a person wanted everyone else to leave the room so that s/he could be alone, that person was persuaded to keep at least one positive accommodator in the room to call on in case of need. If someone wanted to end a structure by “dying”, s/he was encouraged to look for an alternative means of expressing what felt like a wish for death. This might be done either by turning self-destructive impulses outward in an attack upon a negative target or by understanding the wish to die as a wish for symbolic rebirth — for reunion with a “good mother” — who could then be accommodatingly supplied.

The positive ending of a structure was due not so much to the therapist’s insistence that it should occur as to reliance on information furnished by the structure enactor’s body. Al has commented, “We’ve never changed in that belief — that the [pathogenic] experience was in the body and that the solution was also in the body, and that when we stayed close to that we always had an outcome. I was amazed that we always had a positive outcome, so long as we stayed with the body… Truth was in the body.”

Also impressive was PBSP’s ingenious multiplication and polarization of transference targets. Ambivalence no longer blocked the expression of feeling because negative and positive emotions had different targets to interact with. One could experience purely negative feelings from — and toward — a “bad” figure and purely positive feelings toward — and from — a “good” figure. They were separate, and neither interfered with the other. Giving vent to negative feelings toward one symbolic person opened the way to expressing and experiencing surprisingly strong positive feelings toward — and from — another symbolic person. Getting the wished-for positive response sometimes reactivated negative feelings — “Why couldn’t my real mother (or father) have been like this!” — and the enactor of the structure might again make angry gestures toward the “bad” figure, who would revive and accommodate to the renewed symbolic attack. After this the enactor returned with even stronger positive feeling to the “good” mother and/or father, who would respond in ways that seemed suitable. Although Al or Diane (as well as the structure enactor) sometimes suggested responses the “good” accommodators might make, the latter still, at this stage, remained free to respond as they saw fit. In deference to the view that this was an essentially non-verbal method, however, words were used only quite sparingly.

A “bad” father could be chosen from among the men in the group; a “good” father could be another male; “bad” and “good” mothers were selected from the women, and if need be “good” and “bad” versions of a brother or sister or other significant figure could be chosen as well. A woman was never asked to accommodate in the role of a male figure, nor a man in a female figure’s role. Generational identities were also made clearly explicit. “Good parents” in a structure related to each other in ways that they did not relate to their “child” (the structure enactor), but the “child” could be assured of some day having a contemporary partner of his/her own. Meanwhile the “good” parents provided for the satisfaction of all the basic needs of their “child”. (How extraordinarily much simpler and easier this was, it seemed to me, than having one lone, ambivalently regarded therapist, with his/her single gender and generational identity, transiently take on and then give up one after another of these manifold transference roles!)

Starting in the autumn of 1964, Al had been asked to try out Psychomotor techniques with a few patients at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. Al subsequently brought Diane to assist him and later to run independent sessions with patients. The patients chosen for them were usually, predictably, the ones the staff found most difficult to deal with. Working with Al and Diane, many of these patients began to make noticeable improvements.

The following year, in the spring of 1966, Jim Garland, then Director of the Activities Department at McLean, invited Al to conduct a series of training sessions for staff members, and Al asked me to help as an accommodator and also try to evaluate the sessions’ effectiveness. This series marked the beginning of Al’s efforts to train other people in the use of PBSP techniques, and we kept careful notes on what was done.

Many members of this and later training group were on the staff of the Activities Department. One psychiatric resident started with the group but apologetically withdrew after a couple of sessions. His analyst, he said, had forbidden him to attend after learning that PBSP entailed actually, physically, touching people.

A visitor from abroad who was a dance therapist had pleaded for a chance to join the group, and was admitted, but proved unwilling — or unable — to carry out the simplest action without irrelevantly adding a stylized, “artistic” flourish of her arms or hands. She left after a meeting or so, remarking that this wasn’t any kind of dance therapy. (I then began to wonder if dance skills were as necessary a preparation for PBSP as I had thought.) The rest of the group continued through the ten sessions, and at the end tried to make arrangements to have more. For the most part the sessions were devoted to the exercises but there was time near the end for one or two members to have a structure turn.

Around this time Al, sometimes joined by Diane, had started giving lectures that included demonstrations of certain PBSP techniques and exercises. Some of these were in psychiatric settings and others in universities, the latter usually at the invitation of psychology department members. Al also gave a series of presentations for the American Occupational Therapy Association throughout the U.S. In addition he had begun to travel in response to invitations from various professional groups and growth centers, including the Advanced Pastoral Counseling Association, which resulted in prominent mention of PBSP in Clyde Reid’s book, Groups Alive, Church Alive (19–). Al gave a series of workshops for Oasis, a growth center in Chicago; subsequently Wilson Young, a psychologist, became the principal contact person for Chicago. Other cities in which he gave workshops included New York, Boston, Atlanta, Winston Salem, and Philadelphia.

The Pessos moved to the suburbs of Boston, first to a big hillside house in Brookline and then to a beautiful woods-surrounded house on another hillside in Weston. Their house was designed and built to include rooms for two PBSP groups to meet simultaneously, led respectively by Al and Diane, each of whom had an active practice.

During this mid-sixties period a few psychiatrists who had referred patients to PBSP groups had found this to be a valuable adjunct to the treatment they were conducting. Patients whose therapy had slowed to a standstill overcame whatever was blocking them and then continued to move ahead very rapidly in their treatment, according to these psychiatrists’ reports. Now PBSP was also beginning to be seen as a valid treatment method in its own right, and as the treatment of choice for some clients. In addition, a number of people were attracted to PBSP as a means of furthering their emotional growth and achieving a higher degree of self-actualization.

Some work with psychotic or other seriously impaired patients continued, but it was difficult to treat them in a group because they were not well enough attuned to each other to be able to accommodate adequately. A number of individual sessions generally had to precede the psychotic patient’s introduction into a group, and since additional, relatively normal, accommodators had to be brought in, this kind of treatment was likely to be quite costly. Alternatively, a psychotic person might be included in a group of non-psychotic people; I recall Al once remarking that any group could handle one psychotic member. And certainly there were Psychomotor techniques available to handle whatever quasi-psychotic states of mind might occur from time to time in group members whose behavior for the most part appeared to be reasonably normal.

The question of who, in diagnostic terms, benefits most from PBSP therapy (or emotional re-education) was often raised by people associated with the Pessos. Very likely — and this may well be true of other forms of human service — those who need it least are able to use it best. Yet people with a wide variety of problems and diagnoses have found their way to PBSP, apparently with benefit, and with no indication of harm.

Accordingly, during the later 1960s referrals and self-referrals grew apace, and the Pessos prospered. Neither of them, however, devoted full time to PBSP. Besides his private practice, Al was still a full-time faculty member teaching dance at Emerson College, seeing patients at McLean Hospital, consulting at the Boston V.A. Hospital and pursuing his studies for Goddard College. Meanwhile Diane, besides having her practice at home and at McLean Hospital, was getting people and plans together for a “total living community” (TLC) on property some miles from Boston that they proposed to buy and develop according to what impressed me as an ideally convivial and sensible plan.

Except for occasional social gatherings — and the Weston house was a splendid place for parties — I saw relatively little of the Pessos for a couple of years. In the spring of 1969 I was again drawn back; Al suggested that I participate in a group that was meeting with him at the Weston house in order to catch up with new developments in Psychomotor that had been taking place.

Intermediate Version, 1969-76

I joined the group and was astounded. No more preliminary exercises! Even no more species stance, unless someone was at a loss about what to do in a structure. Then it could be useful as a way of discovering unnecessary tensions in the body that could point the way toward action or toward wished-for accommodation.

There were other changes, too. Negative accommodation now utilized large foam-filled cushions on which kicks or blows were inflicted while a role-playing negative parent or other figure, now safely distant, winced and cried out with each impact. It was no longer necessary to worry about accidentally hitting the accommodator; also, hitting a yielding substance gave some people more satisfaction than striking the empty air four feet short of the target.

A further major change had to do with sexuality, which had not been a topic dealt with directly in structures at the earlier stage. Now it was taken for granted that parents and children were likely to have sexual feelings toward each other, and these feelings were given clear symbolic expression in the structures that were carried out. Earlier the issue of sexuality had not come up in structures because the Pessos believed that what might seem sexual was actually a disguised need for nurturance. The latter was what they regarded as a young child’s principal need.

A particular kind of positive accommodation known as limiting was developed by Al. A precursor of limiting had occurred earlier, when accommodators playing “good” parents (often assisted by others in the group acting as extensions of the parents) lifted up tumbling mats as a barrier so that anger expression or furious onslaught of their “child” (the structure enactor) could take place safely. During this symbolic attack the “good” parents murmured sounds such as “Um hm” to indicate that they acknowledged the expression of anger by their child and were not letting themselves be harmed by it

Another early form of limiting occurred in response to a structure enactor’s Oedipal strivings. A person might become aware of having had a childhood impulse to push his or her parents apart. The therapist would then instruct the couple accommodating in the roles of “good” parents to hold each other firmly around the middle, asking help from others in the group if their “child” had unusual physical strength. The enactor could then try with all his or her might to separate the parents, and would inevitably fail. This experience could offer a wholesome corrective to the person’s past situation if real parents had not been emotionally close to each other and had all too readily allowed their child to come between them.

The need for limiting is one of several basic needs of the growing individual, needs which, before birth, are satisfied by the mother’s body, and usually by the mother or by both parents after the baby is born. Besides the original need that Al and Diane had identified, the need for nurturance, they now specified three more: the need for support, for protection, and for limits or containment. Two further needs were subsequently added: the need for a place (where one belongs), and the need for respect. The identification of these needs resulted from Al’s giving attention to the question of what kinds of response (interaction) would best match or satisfy each emotion that people might experience. As the “good” parental responses of providing support when the child felt insecure, protection when the child was frightened, and nurturance when the child was hungry or in need of comfort were experienced and internalized, the child was enabled increasingly to be self-supporting, self-protecting and self-nurturing.

Recognition of the human individual’s need to be limited, to have what might be called a “holding environment”, was — it seems to me — a particularly significant development in PBSP. Parents’ provision of limits for their child enables the child to internalize the meaning of this particular interaction with the parent(s), so that from this time on the child can impose appropriate limits on his or her own behavior in similar situations. Lacking adequate experience of such limit-imposing interactions, the child is unsure of his or her own boundaries and vulnerable to a sense of omnipotence on the one hand and total powerlessness on the other.

Interestingly, in view of Freudian instinct theory, the two realms in which limits are imposed during PBSP structures are sexuality and aggression.

During this middle period the enactor of a structure in which limits were to be imposed on the expression of anger was asked to lie on the floor on his or her back. “Good” or positive parents then usually limited the person’s arms, assuming positions that allowed them good leverage. “Extensions” of the “good” parents held the person’s head and legs. Not until everyone was in place did the struggle begin. When it ended the exhausted enactor realized with surprise and gratification that his or her anger was not, after all, so powerfully dangerous that it could destroy the world; instead, a mere handful of ordinary mortals were able to deal with it calmly and kindly. As a result there was less need to deny anger or hold it back inappropriately and the person felt a new sense of validation and empowerment.

Except for the Oedipal limit structures already described, I believe sexual limit structures came along well after the limit structures for anger had become part of the PBSP repertoire. One sort of sexual limiting also took place with the enactor lying on his or her back on the floor. Then ideal parents (as they were beginning to be called) placed their hands over the enactor’s hip bones to limit his or her pelvic thrusts toward either the ideal mother or father. Statements made by the ideal parents validate the enactor’s sexuality at the same time that their superior strength keeps the person’s sexual energies appropriately limited, or contained. The meaning of this external, interactive restraint can then be internalized so that the person no longer needs to fear sexuality, inappropriately hold sexual feelings back, or punish him- or herself for having them.

Another kind of sexual limit structure entailed recognizing and respecting the structure enactor’s wish to invite sexual contact with a parent but not permitting this to happen. Originally the response in this situation was to have ideal parents wrap their arms firmly around the enactor’s knees, saying that it’s all right to want to open up sexually to, say, ideal father, and it’s all right to try to do so with all one’s strength, but they won’t let the enactor literally do that. Ideal parents then add that they have literal sex only with each other, which they very much enjoy, and that neither one of them would ever do anything literally sexual with their child, no matter how appealing the child might be. More recently Al has shifted to having only women do the limiting of a woman’s openness by restraining her knees.

Al’s second book (1973) referred to what he called a “species ego”, describing it as a system for catching the interactive energies that slip past the ego and would seem to endanger the species… a massive circuit breaker for the emotional system [that] works for the safety and satisfaction of others rather than the safety and satisfaction of the self (p. 145).

Limit structures are designed to repair gaps or deficiencies in the ego which permit interactive energies to move toward infinity and omnipotence, a movement that the species ego would otherwise counter either by turning off the energy or by deflecting it back toward the self, perhaps giving rise to fantasies or hallucinations.

At a later period limit structures tended to be carried out with the structure enactor remaining in whatever position he or she had assumed, rather than being asked to lie down on the floor and wait for accommodators to assume the positions that made limiting relatively easy. This shift avoids the break in continuity required by the earlier method and works well when there are enough people in the group.

Establishing the Institute

By l969 there were several people who had been trained to conduct PBSP exercises and structures. The process of teaching, along with lecture-demonstrations presented by Al or Diane to new groups, challenged Al to try to work out increasingly clear concepts and theories concerning PBSP and its effects. The pattern of a more formalized two-year program was beginning to emerge from the rather informal apprenticeship type of training that the earliest students of this new approach had experienced.

It seemed essential to Al to set up an organization explicitly devoted to Psychomotor teaching, practice, and research; accordingly the Psychomotor Institute was established during the summer of l970 and approved as a nonprofit corporation the following year. Besides Al and Diane, the incorporators were Ellsworth Neumann, M.D., Administrator of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Charles Pinderhughes, M.D., psychiatrist at the Boston V.A. Hospital; Leo J. Reyna, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist involved in the research on Psychomotor at the V.A. Hospital; Eugene Smith, M.D. a psychiatrist in private practice who was interested in seeing Psychomotor develop further. This was another period when I was not much involved with Psychomotor and the Pessos, but Al sought me out to join the roster of incorporators and to sign the necessary documents.

Next it seemed clear to Al and the trainees that a building was needed, a place more accessible and better adapted for training than the Pessos’ house out in Weston, where the trainees could begin to practice what they were learning. In l97l the Psychomotor Institute bought a handsome former residence — most recently a music school — at 25l Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, a six-story building containing numerous large wood-paneled, virtually soundproof rooms. Here trainees could learn, be supervised, and practice Psychomotor.

During the next couple of years I continued to have only slight contact with the Pessos, and that occurred mainly when the Incorporators or the Board of Directors met. The Board included Al Pesso as President and Diane as Vice President, positions they have retained to this day. Arthur Perry, trained by the Pessos in dance and in PBSP, served as the first Secretary, through 1973. In early l974 I took over this office and have held it ever since. Diane and I were the only women on the Board.

Although Rufus Peebles was named as executive director of the Institute and Arthur Perry as administrator, I gradually came to realize that Diane had assumed most of the work of managing the Institute: acquiring office equipment, desks, and other furnishings, developing a mailing list, doing public relations work, hiring and supervising work-study students from Emerson College, arranging and publicizing lecture-demonstrations, attracting clients, etc. She worked long hours without payment and with minimal acknowledgment of her efforts. She was much involved in technical discussions with Al but had dropped her former private practice to work on the community model, and to meet the needs of both the Institute and the family. Except for the family’s living and schooling expenses everything that they earned was now devoted to paying the Institute’s costs, and the family’s former life style was sacrificed to the Institute’s financial needs.

Al, meanwhile, was carrying an overload of work, still teaching full-time at Emerson College, seeing a number of clients, doing most of the training, working up to ten hours a week at McLean, completing his studies for Goddard, striving to build a network of people who were informed about and supportive of PBSP, and, during a brief vacation period, churning out a second book, Experience in Action (1973).

In early 1973 I was asked to assume a more active role, becoming a member of the Institute’s staff. While Al and Diane had hoped that applicants for training would be well-experienced psychotherapists, including psychologists and psychiatrists, some new trainees had more limited preparation, both academically and clinically. Accordingly it would be my task to fill the gaps in these trainees’ conceptual and theoretical background. A few months later a half-year sabbatical for Al from Emerson College was scheduled to begin, and I was also asked to keep an eye on the Institute during their absence. The Pessos planned to travel, partly to visit Al’s relatives in Yugoslavia and also to respond to the interest in PBSP therapy that had been kindled by the publication of Al’s first book, Movement in Psychotherapy, especially in France, the Netherlands, and England. They also planned to meet with various professional groups in other parts of the United States and in Canada.

The Boston Institute’s program suffered during and after this period. The Pessos’ absence was resented; financial problems became exacerbated; antagonistic feelings developed; some people left. Al and Diane became concerned that drop-outs from the program might represent themselves as fully trained PBSP therapists — which might be dangerous to clients, with a technique as powerful as this one was. Damage also might be done to PBSP’s reputation, if inadequately trained people started to claim that what they were doing was PBSP therapy. Guarding the integrity of PBSP, and establishing as firm a theoretical and research-based foundation for it as possible, seemed to Al to be the most promising way of attracting well- qualified psychiatrists, psychologists and others to seek PBSP training.

While Al and Diane agreed that the spreading of knowledge about PBSP was extremely important, they differed on how to accomplish this. Diane argued that if marketing was done so that the general public became aware of what PBSP could do, a demand for this kind of emotional re-education would build up from potential clients and thereby motivate psychotherapists to get training in this new modality. As Diane comments, it was Al’s viewpoint that won out.

A further vision of Diane’s was that high school students all over the country might some day, through PBSP education that they would receive, be given an opportunity to overcome the effects of whatever inadequate parenting they might have suffered before they made their choice of mate, and be enabled to become more fully adequate parents themselves when they had children. She felt that PBSP help for this age group would be a highly cost effective way of preventing future psychological problems.

A training committee was set up for the Institute, which recommended that intensive training in PBSP should in the future be offered only to people who had already been professionally trained in psychotherapy. Certification standards were tightened and steps were taken to register “Psychomotor” as a service mark or trade mark. Trainees under supervision were expected to lead PBSP workshops and therapy sessions, but were not granted the right to claim that they were Psychomotor therapists until they had completed the certification training program and had been certified. Therapists who had merely attended a few workshops could say that they were utilizing Psychomotor techniques, but not that they were conducting Psychomotor or PBSP workshops. As Secretary of the Institute I wrote a number of letters to people who had announced workshops they were conducting in what they called Psychomotor therapy, asking them not to do so since they had not been sufficiently trained.

Members of the Board of Directors were loyal and helpful, meeting a total of six times during 1974 in an effort to deal with the problems the Institute was facing as well as to plan for the exciting possibilities of future development that evidently lay ahead. Financial problems were considerably relieved when a confused real estate tax situation was straightened out, and when the Pessos sold their Weston house to clear up the Institute’s debts.

By this time I had been finally and fully drawn into the PBSP fold. As a method of psychotherapy it amazed me — it was so finely, thoroughly, coherently developed — and it was still developing. I enrolled as a first year trainee (while also a staff and Board member) in l974, looking forward to being certified as a Psychomotor therapist in a couple of years. Our small group, which eventually consisted only of Gus Kaufman and me, met usually with Al, sometimes with Diane and often with both of the Pessos, who took turns along with us in doing structures as well as teaching us about them. Our sessions were held three mornings a week, from nine in the morning till noon; fortunately Gus — who had moved from Atlanta to Boston for the sole purpose of being trained as a Psychomotor therapist — and I both had work schedules that permitted this time commitment. At last I believed I could learn to do therapy this way, and that it would be the best and most effective way from the standpoint of clients. But I also found that it was a highly complex set of skills that had to be learned.

The Pessos’ involvement with trainees and others helped in clarifying, extending, enriching and refining PBSP theory and practice. During the early l970s, for example, Nat Hollister, M.D., a neurologist who had attended PBSP groups in Ohio with his wife, Jane, came to realize that a large number of his patients suffered from emotional rather than neurological problems. They decided to come to Boston so that Jane could enroll in the Psychomotor Institute’s two year training program and Nat could be trained in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital and also attend the first year of PBSP training.

Subsequently Nat decided to focus on the treatment of chronic atypical pain patients. The therapeutic program he developed used PBSP as a major treatment modality and was established as a special unit at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Woburn, Mass. This became a very innovative and effective program. He hired as many PBSP therapists as were available and sought training for the rest of his staff.

Nat then moved his staff and program to the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Hospital (now Spaulding Hospital) in Boston. Subsequently, New England Rehabilitation Hospital appointed a new psychiatrist to continue the work of the pain unit, and requested that one of the Pessos and their trainees provide the essential PBSP component. Al worked with the patients and staff for a short time and then turned the work over to Diane.

While Director of Psychomotor Therapy at the Pain Unit Diane found that patients’ great difficulty with anger expression interfered with the usual structure work. Needing to find a way for patients to access their historic unmet emotional needs without triggering off the blocking effects of anger, she devised two new exercises, the ideal parent and the self/self – self/other exercises. These made it possible for patients to go directly to positive structure experiences.

Nat’s wife, Jane Hollister, a therapist whose orientation was Jungian, recognized that what the Pessos had been calling “good” or “wished-for” parent figures could be considered to be “archetypes”; the concepts of “animus” and “anima” were also useful in illuminating the “phallic” attributes of women and the receptive, nurturing and creative qualities of men. Jane became one of the early graduates of the Institute’s training program and for a while a member of its teaching staff. Other early graduates were Arthur Cobb, Ph.D., David Doolittle, M.A., Gail Murray, M.A., Charles Nordby, Ph.D., Rufus Peebles, J.D. and Michael Werle, Ed.D.

For my part I believe I contributed to some clarification of what had been called “good” and “bad” parent figures. Rather than such judgmental terms I preferred words like “positive” and “negative” parents. It then became clearer that these were aspects of real parents which it was useful to polarize (or “split”), and that in addition to these two sets of opposing aspects of real parents, there were the ideal, archetypal parent figures who could be constructed to supply precisely what the negative aspects of real parents had failed to provide. This meant that there were now three sets of parent figures rather than just two. Though the concept first arose with reference to archetypes, it seemed simpler to speak of them as “ideal”, rather than archetypal, parents. (Diane, for her part, liked to call them “alternative” parents.)

During the course of our training Al conveyed to Gus and me the importance he placed upon the spiritual nature of PBSP therapy. His view of spirituality was not doctrinaire, but allowed individuals to define as they saw fit the nature of “all that is”, which some might choose to call God. Al considered that parents — and especially ideal parents — served as conduits through which energies traveled between the young child and what might be called a higher power. At the same time the child, him- or herself, was part of the higher power; the power existed in the child as in every other part of the universe. Similarly we, as therapists, could feel ourselves to be conduits for energies existing in the universe that traveled through us, as well as through accommodators, to bring benefit to the people with whom we worked. Since so little of our own energies needed to be expended because we mainly were conduits, it seemed to me to follow that there was very little need ever to feel tired!

I continued to be impressed with the close correspondence between PBSP and Freudian theory, especially if the latter were augmented by a sociological emphasis on interaction and its internalization — such as has been more recently supplied through the development of object relations, self psychology, and family systems theories. Further augmentation of psychoanalytic views occurs through PBSP’s emphasis on the body and its ways of moving and acting, an emphasis that seems quite compatible with Freud’s views even though it was not developed by him beyond his statement that “…the ego is first and foremost a body ego.”

Although the use of limiting figures to handle and help structure enactors to handle their sexual and aggressive energies seems compatible with Freud’s designation of the latter as “instincts”, PBSP’s postulation of the child’s inherent basic need to have such limits imposed is significantly different from Freud’s view. Freud saw the child’s wish to murder one parent and marry the other as opposed only by the fear of punitive retaliation — castration anxiety — subsequently internalized as a guilt-laden superego. By contrast it is the Pesso System’s more optimistic view that a need to experience opposition to these omnipotent wishes exists innately within the child. There is something within the child, they believe, that welcomes the firm and kindly parent figures’ non-punitive, non-retaliatory, non-judgmental and non-guilt-arousing imposition of limits on his or her wishes.

Freud saw the ego as a “surface entity”; Al Pesso similarly referred to it during this period as “the skin of the self”, later using the term ego wrapping to describe how, through the loving, caregiving, validating responses of parents, ego is wrapped around the individual’s soul or core self. As for gaining access to unconscious thoughts and feelings, for PBSP it was primarily the body and its sensations and movements, rather than dreams, which represented “the royal road to the unconscious.”

Out of a wish to remain hospitable to all possible theoretical views that might be held by potential PBSP trainees or clients, however, and to avoid alienating anyone, Al and Diane deliberately chose not to align themselves with any particular school of psychotherapy, and they readily acknowledge that many elements of their approach are also found elsewhere.

Perhaps as a reaction to the Pessos’ (and my) efforts to deter people from improperly claiming that they were PBSP therapists, some individuals who have attended workshops have then gone on to teach PBSP techniques to people being trained in types of therapy bearing other labels, without mentioning the source from which these techniques came. As a result it has sometimes been supposed that Al and Diane derived their techniques from these other practitioners, rather than the other way around.

I recall one Board meeting when Al told about having led a small, undersubscribed workshop in the same building where another, very popular, workshop was being conducted. He soon became aware of a familiar sound: a blow being struck on a yielding surface, accompanied by the outcry of a negative accommodator. He later ascertained that a whole two-day workshop was being devoted to negative accommodation alone. Not surprisingly, it was being called by a different name.

© Copyright Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden Pesso 1997 all rights reserved

One thought on “History & Origins

  1. Thank you for a clear, concise biography of a therapy that aided my development tremendously. I hope to attend a group meeting with Al in Richmond in September.

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