Magda Denes, Ph.D. - 1934 - 1996
My first training in Gestalt therapy began in 1968 when I joined a group led by Magda Denes. I was there at the recommendation of Paul Goodman. Paul and I were fellow faculty members at a special New York University program that was training teacher aides for the New York City School system. The teacher aides were drawn from the parent population of the schools they served in. Paul was a consultant to the program and I directed the counseling component. Curious about Goodman and Gestalt therapy, I accepted his invitation to join a therapy group he was conducting. The group inspired me to get some serious training and when I discussed it with Paul he said, with absolute certainly, "Get in touch with Magda Denes."
I phoned Magda and we discussed my participation in a training group she was just starting. She accepted me over the phone. After the phone call, her engaging European accent lingered in my mind. I did not, however, anticipate that I was about to meet a woman who was a remarkable combination of intelligence and beauty I have yet to meet anyone more striking.
I never asked Paul why he recommended Magda. There were more obvious choices in Manhattan at the time -- Laura Perls, Isadore From, and Dan Rosenblatt were all actively teaching. I suspect that it was because Magda had managed to transcend the anti-Fritz sentiment that was the vogue in New York at the time -- in 1968 Fritz was at the pinnacle of his Esalen fame and many on the east resented his appearance on center stage while they waited in the wings.
Magda, who was a member of the original study group that gave birth to Gestalt therapy, never took sides in the pro/anti Fritz struggle and was able to embrace both the intellectualism of the New York group and the spontaneity and oftentimes brilliance of Fritz's workshop demonstrations. As she was capable of both, she saw no need to pit one against the other. Although I have since trained with Laura Perls, Jim Simkin, and a host of other Gestalt trainers, Magda laid the groundwork upon which my theoretical foundation rests. I regret that she chose not to continue training in Gestalt therapy and to pursue her interests in psychoanalysis instead. She was a vibrant teacher and there are too few of us that had the opportunity to study with her.
Magda was only sixty-four years old when she unexpectedly passed away in her sleep last December. She was active in the practice of psychotherapy until the day she died. She was the last of the original study group that developed the foundations of Gestalt therapy theory still in private practice. With her passing only one, educator Elliot Shapiro, remains alive. Her memoir of her childhood in war torn Budapest, Castles Burning: A Child's Life in War was scheduled for publication the following month by W. W. Norton and Magda was looking forward to a book promotion tour of Europe at her publisher's expense (when the book was released in January, it received rave reviews in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and several other major publications).
Magda remained true to her Gestalt roots (she listed herself in The Gestalt Directory on a regular basis) but moved far beyond the limited circle of Gestalt therapy and became a major force in the field of psychology in general. She trained in psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm, Ernst Schactel and Erving Singer. She was the president of the New York Society of Clinical Psychologists in 1978 and later became President of the New York State Psychological Association. At the time of her passing, she served on the board of directors of Division 39 of the American Psychological Association. Her first book, In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital is an oft-quoted classic on the subject. Until her death, she served as a professor and supervisor in the Post Doctoral Program at Adelphi University, the Post Doctoral Program at New York University, and the Department of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Magda's passing is the end of an era. When I first joined her training group everyone involved in the original study group that met in Fritz and Laura's apartment was alive: Paul Weisz, Paul Goodman, Isadore From, Allison Montague Buck Eastman, Jim Simkin, Elliot Shapiro, and Lotte Weisz were all present at the creation. I have been blessed to have either worked with, trained with, or met them all. Only Elliot Shapiro, long retired and eighty-seven years old, remains alive.
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