(c) Thomas Bader, 1999

Miriam Polster -1923 - 2001


Michael Vincent Miller

Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them

                                                                                              Exodus 15, verses 20-21

            The death of Miriam Polster from a recurrence of cancer on December 19, 2001 deprived Gestalt therapy of its loveliest and warmest diva, if one dare apply this term to someone who had as much generous nobility of soul as Miriam. Even noble souls live their lives in human bodies, and Miriam throughout her life was too down-to-earth and colorful a personality to be a mere angel, although I have no doubt that she is residing among the angelic orders now. She was a genuine diva among teachers of psychotherapy, a natural aristocrat in a profession that, alas, too often seems to breed teachers who claim for themselves unearned powers and accomplishments. It is true that the word "diva" may suggest a prima donna, and Miriam had a touch of the prima donna, although I have never seen anyone wear it more gracefully, easily, and, if one can accept the oxymoron, humbly. But the word also suggests a quality that partakes of the divine, and there was indeed something divine about Miriam. Her death took from me, along with countless others throughout much of the western world, our wonderful teacher and friend.

            That life is over for Miriam also diminishes the world's store of pleasure. Pleasure is not just internal gratification, nor does it reside wholly in that which yields pleasure. It's a relationship that includes the experience of radiating warmth, well-being, and excitement in response to what one receives from the world's abundance. People who make evident their pleasure at receiving something good give something good back to the world. Miriam went further; she made pleasure contagious. To have dinner with Miriam in a gourmet restaurant or to listen with her to great music was like going sightseeing in a new city with a wise and enthusiastic guide.

           This quality was evident in her teaching and in her manner of doing therapy. In her work as in her life Miriam loved to play in all senses of the word. She loved the play of words, the interplay of dialogue, the staging of a play or performance, and the moments in a melody line that resemble the soaring playfulness of a bird's flight. It's worth emphasizing that play does not necessarily suggest something that is light, happy, or frivolous. The Dutch historian Huizinga considered "serious play," as he called it, the most innovative force in culture. In a sense, Miriam used "serious play" to create innovative openings for her patients. In one of her best essays, "The Language of Experience," originally delivered as a keynote speech at The Gestalt Journal's 1980 Annual Conference in Boston, she tells how an instance of her playing with the concrete liveliness and metaphoric resonances of a phrase made a difference in the life of one patient. The patient was filled with profound sorrow over all the leave-takings throughout his life. He was just now retiring from a meaningful career and ending a long marriage. "In describing his sadness," writes Miriam, "he said a phrase that to me was magical. He said, 'I guess I'll have to pick up my baggage and leave.' I said to him, 'It sounds to me as if you are not leaving empty-handed.'

            This was something that had not occurred to him but it had a great deal of significance for him." Like many of the most important teachers of Gestalt therapy, her commitment to psychology and psychotherapy came after an earlier devotion to an artistic discipline. In her youth she had trained as a serious classical vocalist, a performer of lieder and operatic music. Her first college degree was a B.A. in music. An artistic sensibility remained the foundation of her professional as well as her personal life. The idea that one can draw on the aesthetic element in human experience to liberate the personality from neurotic fixations is close to the heart of what makes Gestalt therapy distinctive. Miriam was among the leading figures who made an aesthetic perspective a practice as well as a theory. Her very style exemplified it as did her thinking about Gestalt therapy. During a symposium that I moderated at the same conference I just mentioned, she made a beautifully articulated case in musical terms for dialogue over identity as the pulse-beat of psychotherapy. She pointed out that "anybody who worries about having an identity, doesn't have an identity, and is compelled instead to take positions, to deal in pat phrases and set attitudes I talk about music as much as I can. And it came to me that what you find in a good performance in music, or in a composition beautifully written, or in artistry in general, is the spirit of dialogue."

            "When you listen to a fine performance of a concerto, for example," she continued, "what you hear is dialogue between the solo instrument and the orchestra. The solo instrument proposes an idea. The orchestra considers it and responds and the solo instrument is then affected by this, and it goes back and forth. So what I want to consider then, is how will we as Gestalt therapists carry on our dialogue with the environment, with otherness in its myriad forms, without allowing a struggle for our identity to intrude and become obsessively figural?"

            The artistic dimension of Miriam's Gestalt therapy is among the reasons I consider her one of my most valued teachers. After my initial training experiences with Frederick Perls in 1966 and 1970, I decided that I wanted to join my professional life to Gestalt therapy, and I planned to follow him to Vancouver for further training. However, Perls died within days of my making that decision. Then, in the early 1970s, I discovered Erving and Miriam while they were both still teaching at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, and I spent two years in a training program that they directed in Boston. Both of them influenced me a great deal; indeed, they probably made it possible for me to become a Gestalt therapist. As fascinated as I was with the slashing insights and powerful theatrical methods that characterized Perls's experiential teaching, I didn't know what to make of his highly directive, often confrontational manner and his tendency toward anti-intellectualism. The gentle, good-humored compassion with which both Erving and Miriam approached their work was a revelation to me. At the time I was still teaching at M.I.T. and deeply involved in the student and faculty protests against the war in Vietnam. Erv helped me discover the inventiveness of intuition and feeling. At the same time he made clear the importance of intellectual and political awareness. But it was Miriam in particular who opened up for me the aesthetic possibilities of psychotherapy.

            When Miriam worked with a group of trainees, her presence was dramatic. She had a kind of imperious grace, quite different from the sly, mischievous hair-trigger gracefulness of her husband. They exhibited quite distinct ways of being alert to the potential for something new inherent in each moment. Whether standing or sitting, Erving seemed already moving in response to the forming action, like a restless shortstop ready to go for the ball no matter where it came from. Miriam was more like an actress or concert artist waiting eagerly for the curtain to rise, so that she could play her part in making a yet unknown, improvised script come to life. Erving's eyes gleamed with warm curiosity and a hint of mischief. Miriam's sparkled with excitement at the performance that was about to unfold.

            She could be as gentle as anyone I have ever known, but there was a tougher side to her as well. As with all those who care about artistic integrity, she had little tolerance for duplicity or the cliches of inauthentic expression. You might say that she insisted that the singing be in tune. Support for expressive truth, I believe, was her guiding ideal. She was extremely patient, but she also knew how and when to draw the line. She drew it, however, not with aggressive confrontation but through humor and irony. In the many training workshops and demonstrations that I participated in with her during the 1970s, I never once saw her shame a trainee. She could provoke her students into bringing out their best by telling jokes, playing pranks, and involving them in inventive skits of a kind that were never at the expense of a student's dignity.

            Although I have to delve back nearly thirty years for my own personal memories of Miriam as a teacher, there was one incident during my training with her that I have never forgotten. I think it captures something of her essence as a teacher. I was a hopeful novice therapist making a transition from ten years of having been a professor of literature to becoming a psychologist. I was in the early stages of the two year program directed by the Polsters. It was a hot summer day, and our training group was working outdoors, broken up into triads, each little threesome busily trying practicum sessions with one another. Suddenly Miriam appeared, wearing a peasant blouse, a long skirt, and sandals. She sat down in the grass to observe my triad. I was playing the role of therapist, and I instantly became tongue-tied in the face of having to make therapeutic "interventions" (whatever those were!) under the judgmental gaze (as I imagined it) of this commanding woman with her reddish-gold hair tied back like a ballet dancer. I was mostly silent while my "patient" chattered on. At the end, I expected the worst. But Miriam, looking amused, only said, "Michael, you sure have a noisy face!"

            How liberating I found her words! They have stayed with me to this day. I realized that I had been responding the entire time, whether I thought I was or not, whether I wanted to cover my tracks or not. I felt teased, but not all shamed teased, if anything, into being more fully present. And I came away with an important insight: That therapy was not a matter of coming up with the right thing to say or a clever intervention, but sprang from the way one was there with the patient. Like a painter who can change the mood of a canvas with one brush stroke, Miriam needed only a few words to help me transform my embarrassed silence from a symptom into a creative possibility.

Return to The Gestalt Therapy Home Page