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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, December 9, 2013

Further "Festhaltetherapien": A Therapy Weekend

I’ve been reading further in Ute Benz’s edited book Festhaltetherapien, which examines various aspects of holding therapy as promulgated by Jirina Prekopova in Germany and the Czech Republic and by Martha Welch in the United States. Today I want to discuss Marika Sommerfeldt’s chapter on a weekend of family constellation and holding therapy in Prekop’s style. Once again, I have to say that I have not asked permission to translate or to post any of this material, so I will summarize most of it and translate only a few passages. This translation, by the way, is my own and my dictionary’s, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, it was “clawed into English by unremitting toil.”

Sommerfeldt signed up for a therapy weekend as one who had read about it and wanted to know more, but as an excuse for her participation she invented a fictional grandchild who cried a great deal and was difficult to comfort. The story she tells of this weekend is strongly reminiscent of any “encounter group”, church-sponsored retreat, or (for those who remember this) the National Training Labs events of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Each person has a story to tell and “shares” his or her difficulties with others, a proceeding managed by several qualified and student therapists. These self-revelations are followed by various group rituals and by individual therapy sessions intended to ameliorate the problems.

Sommerfeldt seems to have brought to the weekend a genuine willingness to observe, and a real interest in her fellow weekenders, combined with common sense and a delicate sarcasm. To amuse herself when on her own, she also brought a copy of Bulgakow’s The master and Margarita, a novel in which “madness” and its treatment play primary roles--  very appropriate for the milieu in which she found herself.  As advised, she packed comfortable clothes in the expectation that participants would be sweating.

Introductions over and stories told, with tears in several cases, the first day of the workshop began with a ritual farewell to accompanying children, who would be taken to be cared for by young people who were students of special education or of theater [! JM]. All sang a song about a mouse who was going on a trip around the world and all the things he packed. (Sommerfeldt noted at this point that the organizers addressed everyone in the familiar form, as if they were relatives or close friends.)

Further stories were told by the adults, some of them having to do with marital conflict. Sommerfeldt noted “I was always asking myself, how the others and I got to this level of intimacy. Perhaps this is usual in group therapy. I don’t know, but I found it misplaced. The speakers lost all restraint--  they cried and sobbed. The therapist tried to calm them, but it seemed to me a mistake to advise ‘deep breathing’ or ‘putting both feet on the floor to be grounded’. My first impulse was to take these crying women in my arms and comfort them, but perhaps this was also the wrong reaction. We were asked by Ralf [a therapist] to explain what we expected from the weekend. The hopes were very great.”

A later ritual for the adults was to form two circles, with men and children in the inner circle, women in the outer circle, singing in alternation. The children sang the song about the mouse again, following Jirina Prekop’s dictum that “children need rituals”.

An organizer then began a description of Bert Hellinger’s family constellation therapy, without mentioning his name. She explained the family hierarchy and the order of places of father, mother, children, and grandparents. The father is always at the top  of the hierarchy because he determines the descent of the children. For example, she said, if a mother is from Saxony and a father is French, their daughter will also be French. Sommerfeldt commented, “It’s never occurred to me in this way. The father of my children is of Saxon background, but he considers himself a Berliner, because he was born in Berlin. My children will not be too pleased when they hear that after this workshop they are no longer Berliners.”

The organizer also stated that the order of relationships remains the same even if the parents divorce. If the order is broken, the child feels unprotected and becomes oppositional and tyrannical. If the mother has conflicts with her own mother, the child will take over and display the conflicts. Indeed, it was said, there is a “seventh sense” and an instinct by which when the child sees her own mother in her child, the child cannot love her. Sommerfeldt commented, “this speech seemed to me completely confused, I simply couldn’t understand it.”

Now Sommerfeldt had to give a more complete story of the fictional crying grandchild. “No, mother and child were not separated after birth, and the mother showed very affectionate concern for the child, so ‘Philip’ was not suffering from a maternal deprivation syndrome, and no, the family’s relationships were not disturbed. Nor did the child go to day care. The rest of the extended family was somewhat odd.” The therapist Maximilian created a family tree, then he explained. “My problems obviously came from my father’s first wife, who had never been welcomed by the family and who died a long time ago. I understood that my grandchild cried a lot because my father never talked about his first wife and she no longer belonged to our kindred. Confusion had been brought into the family order. My mother, my sister, and I had profited from  the abandonment of the first wife and must thank her for this and bow before her sad fate. … I was happy when my therapy hour was at an end.”

Subsequently, Sommerfeldt asked with some trepidation (brave woman!) for holding therapy. This was presented as being done in a modified form, and was done by several therapists rather than by a person with whom she was at odds [this seems to me contrary to what Prekop advises, but I suppose the arrangements are made to suit each case. JM]. It was done in her bedroom at the conference hotel, and a point was made of doing the holding on an extra bed, not on the bed she slept in. She was asked to sit leaning against a woman therapist, with her head on the other woman’s shoulder, and was advised that she should not talk and question and that her failure to understand with her heart was a cause of problems. Memories stored in the body were also mentioned.  Rather than lasting to exhaustion, as seems to be recommended for children, the holding sessions stopped after about an hour.

The weekend continued with various ritual performances, such as pretending to be hedgehogs in a nest, and concluded with a candle-lighting ceremony in which candles were to be dedicated to those each person loved. Sommerfeldt commented that she found the ceremony ludicrous, but others found it calming and good to do.   

Sommerfeldt was left with affectionate feelings toward the other participants and felt she would like to stay in touch with some. “When I left, my daughter was already waiting at the exit. She immediately asked me how it had been. By this time I really had holding therapy and constellations or whatever they’re called up my nose. I told her, I don’t want to talk about it now--  and didn’t stop talking until we got to Berlin.”

There are many more details that I’ve skipped, and this chapter is a real contribution to understanding of holding therapies and of the involvement of Hellinger’s ideas in the Prekop system.


  1. And this happens in Germany? I always thought us germans to be so stiffly conventional. And I most certainly never heard of "Festhaltentherapie". Lucky me.

  2. Looks like your luck ran out! But have a look at the Benz book if it seems unlikely to you.

  3. No, unfortunately it seems very likely that this is a "treatment" for unruly children.
    In Germany there are the ones that want to educate through discipline (also physical disciplination) and the "Antroposophen" that educate through non-scientific belief systems. It's a conundrum and not easy to find the right way.