Eugen(e) Gend(e)lin was born in Vienna on December 25, 1926 as the only child to Sylvia Gendelin-Tobell and Leonid Gendelin (who changed their name when in the U.S. to Leo Gendlin.) His maternal grand father was the leading engineer involved in channeling the Isonzo river in Italy. Eugen’s father was born in Russia in 1889 and acquired his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Graz. The mother was born in Trieste in 1893. The Gendelin family lived in the ninth district of Vienna at 25 Rossauerlände, Eugen excelled as a student, attending the Schubert elementary school located on Grünentorgasse for four years, followed by two years at a secondary school on Glasergasse.
After their flight from Vienna in 1938, the family re-settled in Washington D.C. Twenty years later Eugen Gendlin received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. From 1958 to 1963 he acted as Research Director in the Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute of the University of Wisconsin. After 1963 he was Associate Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago. As a young philosopher, Gendlin followed his interests in Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Dilthey. He became absorbed with the question of how experience becomes symbolized, as well as with understanding the fundamental process through which thoughts and feelings originate. In psychotherapy—particularly in the person-centered approach of Carl R. Rogers—he found an area of experience in which he could empirically verify his theories. Thus he became first a student, then a colleague, and finally a successor of Rogers at the University of Chicago.
Gendlin developed a comprehensive phenomenological-process-oriented theory of experience and its transformation (Experiencing Theory). In the field of psychotherapy this theory led to the question of whether the success or failure of a psychotherapeutic treatment could be predicted. The empirical evaluation of numerous tape recordings of therapy sessions revealed that there was one single significant predictor of the therapy’s success: this was the way in which the client related to his or her own experience. Gendlin gave the name “Focusing” to a form of bodily relating that was both self-aware and transformative. He described the individual phases that transpired in Focusing and developed methods to initiate, accompany, and teach such a process.
Over the years, he developed an effective self-help method for partner Focusing or for Changes Groups as well as for Focusing Therapy in a holistic form. Focusing entails the mindful and detached perception of the physical flow of experience together with its inner symbols and outer events. This process also allows the bringing of a present-centered reality to rigid attitudes and stoppages found within.
A first account of Gendlin’s ideas appeared in 1962 with his book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. His 1978 method-oriented book Focusing was translated into eight languages, and into German in 1981. Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams followed in 1986. Later he published many articles that were unfortunately dispersed. In 1963 Gendlin founded the magazine “Psychotherapy, Theory, Research and Practice,” which served as the journal of the psychotherapy division of the American Psychological Association; he remained its editor through 1976. In 1970 he was the winner of the first distinguished professor award given by the therapy section of the American Psychological Association.
Now 66 years old, [in 1994] Gendlin recently wrote me in German the following account of the 1938 flight of his family from Vienna.
That evening when the Nazis invaded the country my father was at a conference. At home he told us afterwards: "On the way to the conference there were red-white-red flags everywhere, and all the windows were full with people who leaned out and who yelled: 'Rot-weiß-rot bis in den Tod!' (Red-White-Red Until Death!) [Austria Until Death!]. When I left the conference, there were flags with swastikas, and from all the windows people were yelling: 'Heil Hitler!' Were they all the same people?" Surely not. They were divided opinions; many did not want the Nazis. Even in the early days one heard many terrible things of break-ins into Jewish people's homes and throwing everything out of their windows. People were beaten in the streets as well as in schools. But I also saw many who did not want to have anything to do with such behavior.
After a few days my father sent my mother and me to my grandparents who were living in the fifth district. There was a small Czech flag at their door. My grandfather was born in Prague. When the monarchy fell apart in 1918, he was informed that he was a Czech citizen and would have to re-apply if he wanted Austrian citizenship. This made him angry, and so he had never changed [his Czech citizenship.] Now this is what saved us.
My grandmother kept one room always locked up. One could only look into it through the glass windowpane in the door. It was called the "salon" and it was furnished with antique furniture. Only when special guests came, like Mrs Zweig, was it opened. Stefan Zweig's mother was a friend of my grandparents. Now the drawing room served as our bedroom. Everything was now different.
Finally, on the third day my father joined us. His business had been confiscated immediately. Everything he had built up was lost. For a moment I saw him cry, something which had been unthinkable. He also had heard that the police was looking for him. Therefore he had not come home during those three days. He then took me with him on a long walk and explained a lot to me. In his work he had been the only Jewish person, and someone had immediately used the opportunity to steal his business. They also wanted to lock him up. "Many are locked up, only because they are Jewish," he explained to me. It was important to him that I would understand that clearly. He did not want me to think that my father was a criminal. (I would not ever have thought that in any case.) He also said that I should be careful when being outside, for example, not to stay in neighborhoods displaying large pictures of Hitler. I understood all that very well, and we then went home where he was arrested immediately. My mother and I had to bring toothpaste and underwear to him in prison. He was gone forever, for about three months.
Others were arrested as well. I heard some guests of my grandparents say that those who were put in prison had to have committed some crime for sure. Then I understood why my father had explained this so carefully to me. Those adults were stupid, and I was better informed. The truth became apparent soon, when almost all Jewish men were locked up. Also at other times I knew more than the adults. They said they could not understand all that was going on, they simply did not get it. People were used to proper, rational order; now they were disoriented. They expressed that they were very confused: How could everything be like this? It seemed quite simple to me. Some very bad people had come to power.
Once, while walking on the street, my grandparents, mother and I were pushed by some men into a large group of Jewish people. Around us they were yelling: "Hang them from the street lights!" Then for a while we had to march through the streets in rank and file. But in the end they let us go. At last my father came home again. It was then summer. We could live at home again. They let him go after he had signed a paper saying that he wanted to emigrate and after he had promised not to come back. That was strange because all we wanted was to get out and stay away. At that time there were many different regulations; every office was allowed to invent new ones. Since then, I have never heard of such a contract anymore, but it terrified us when a few months later they wanted to send us back from Holland to Austria.
Next difficulties had to be faced as they set up new requirements. There were twenty or thirty documents which one needed to obtain from different offices. There, a lot of people stood in a long queue around the building and also along the road for days and nights. Many times my father gave me the briefcase to hold in order to make it look inconspicuous and so nobody would take it away. I learned to follow my father everywhere and not to ask or to say anything until we were alone again. To obtain the license to emigrate turned out to be the most difficult part, and it took us months. Autumn came.
Now we could finally turn to the question of where we wanted to go. My aunt in Argentina and my uncle in the United States were going to arrange visas for us, but that could still take a while. My father wanted to leave immediately. In those weeks we heard of different possible ways to leave Nazi Germany. Some fled through the Czech Republic, simply with an old passport which did not say that the holder was Jewish. At that time the border guards did not know anything about a new passport for Jewish people. But now that was not possible anymore. With a certificate of baptism it was possible to get through to Yugoslavia. That one could buy also without being baptized, but the date needed to be from before 1920. My father said: "We'll probably not be very lucky there." It was also possible to go to Lithuania, if someone in London paid 50 pounds. But we knew nobody there. My father said: "I already was in the East, let us go west." Another possibility was to travel to Italy in a sleeper. One paid someone a certain amount of money, and then one passed the border without being noticed or awakened. My father thought that was not safe enough. Because of his contract, he would be put in prison immediately should we be sent back. Our first effort had to be successful immediately. It was also possible to fly to Switzerland, if one paid someone in Vienna for that. That also did not seem safe enough to my father. Also in Strasbourg there seemed to be someone who brought you across the Rhine into France. My father thought: "What if he leaves us in the middle of the river?" Another option was in Germany: In Cologne someone was selling an address in Belgium. My father chose this option. In Vienna we bought "the address" in Cologne. In Cologne one had to pay even more in order to be led through the woods into Belgium. Now we had finally found a way.
We only took a very small suitcase. Some jewels were sewn into my green jacket. The taxi was waiting downstairs in front of the house. My mother and I got in. I wrote the first page in my diary. My father went to look just one more time to see whether there was any mail. He came back with a blue envelope that contained the blue affidavit of our relatives in the United States! (An affidavit is of course no visa. It is only a document that says that the process for our visa has officially been initiated. Some months later we were arrested in Holland, and the affidavit kept us from being sent back to Germany.)
Now we went to Cologne by train. In Regensburg my father got out to buy me some lemonade. There was no one else in our compartment, just me and my mother. Two men in grey suits came in. They showed their documents, said "Gestapo," and asked: "Where is Doctor Gendelin?" We said we did not know. The train started to move and the two men got out. Soon my father came back from the carriages at the back where he had entered the train again. He had not seen them; he did not know anything about them. My dear parents, who always wanted to give me everything! The lemonade had saved us. We still were afraid, but we did not hear anymore from the Gestapo.
In Cologne my father took me with him to "the address." It was in the Jewish quarter—poor, grey streets. It gave us an uncanny feeling that Jewish people simply continued to live here, as if nothing had happened. The Germans were not as fanatical at that time as the Austrians. Already since 1933 the Jewish people had been staying voluntarily. In Vienna, on the other hand, there was danger for life immediately, and all Jewish people wanted to leave Vienna on the spot. We found the right house and an apartment on the upper floor. There, my father went into a room with a man, and I waited maybe for a quarter of an hour. When my father came out, he was pale and said: "Let's go." Outside he explained that he could not trust this man. My father said that his feeling had said "no" to him. My father had already said this many times: "I follow my feeling." But at this time I did not understand what he meant when he said he trusted his feelings. We were in a strange city and without any way out. We had put all our hopes on "the address," and now this hope was destroyed, only because of what he had "felt."
I was surprised then and also asked often myself later what kind of feeling it must be that tells you something. Sometimes I tried to find such a feeling within myself, but I could not. But that I started to look for it, had its effect in the end. Forty years later when I was asked how I could explain focusing, I remembered these circumstances.
My father took me to my mother in the hotel and left us again. From the window one saw the wall of the cathedral of Cologne very close by. In the evening he came back and he had brought something with him: a new "address." Next day, it was a Saturday; we traveled to Borken, a village at the Dutch border. Why Holland? It was the only country that had been unattainable from Vienna. Then we went to a house in Borken. Again there was my father and another man talking. This time my father seemed OK after this conversation. We all went into the temple to pray Maariv! It was Sabbath and the day before Rosh Hashanah. And again there were Jewish people who did not even try to get out of the country: unbelievable, frightening. On the next day I secretly described in detail the breakfast we received in the little pension in Borken. My father went back to Cologne to get something. I did not know what this was about. When he came back, he had three train tickets to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Only train tickets? I knew exactly that there were no countries that would allow us in with only a train ticket. We left Borken in a little train with hard, yellow wooden seats. Only a few people were on that train. It stopped at the border, we got out. Another Jewish family traveled with us, also only with tickets. My father insisted that we be first to go to the checkpoint. In the small building a uniformed man was standing at a long table. One had to go past him between the table and a handrail. We showed him our tickets. He looked at them, nodded, and gave them back to us. We passed him and left the small building.
My knees were shaking, but I was able to walk. Further back was another train, or maybe it was the same. We got in and it started moving. That was all? Had we come through? Could I write into my diary that we had succeeded? I still was not sure. Later my father told me: "The man with the address knew that Sunday morning the border guard always went to church. The officer who replaced him did not know much. The Saturday before he had let people through who only had train tickets." The train was almost empty. It bumped along in the direction of the village Winterswijk. There we got on a proper train, a train now full. Now I know are in Holland, no doubt about it as I hear a language that I do not understand. At the window in the compartment there is a fat man sitting and he surely is Dutch. My father sits down opposite to him, my mother next to him, then me.
Can I now write into my diary that we are free? Not yet. I see my parents remain very silent, making no signs. They have not even looked at me, so I am not sure. The train is moving, and the fat Dutchman takes a big cigar out of a box and offers my father one. Of course I know that my father smokes cigarettes and only smokes cigars on his birthday. But my father accepts the cigar, makes a hole in it in order to smoke it. At that point I get my diary out of my bad and write: "We succeeded!" Later we had to change trains and wait for the train to Amsterdam. I asked my father why we still could not be relieved. He said that we were still to close to the border and that at any time someone could stop and arrest us and take us back in a car. I did not believe him, but it stayed in my memory.
The small Jewish Hotel Eden in Amsterdam was alongside a canal. There was no street at the front side, only water. The room had a small balcony from which one could look over the canal. The white birds who were flying there were free, just like we were. Since then, these seagulls always have been symbols of freedom for me. I still see them at the coast of Lake Michigan where I live. It was Erev Rosh Hashanah. We asked for a temple and went there. It was a beautiful, big temple, but inside it was very dark. It was hard to see anything, and the prayers were alien to us. Now I know that it was the famous Portuguese synagogue and the prayers were Sephardic. There were men wearing hats like Napoleon's standing there with burning torches that, however, were not very bright. After half an hour we left the temple and asked whether there was another synagogue. Yes, people told us, a small one. It was a bit far to go. It was full of people, but we found a place to sit at the back. It was bright, and the prayers were like those at home. So we were happy. After a while people started whispering, and some looked at us. Was it maybe because we had just come in? Then people came towards us, and we were led to the front, to the very first row where they made space for us.
This document is an informal translation from the German by Elisabeth Zinschitz and Marlys Mayfield of the following: Korbei, L. (1994). “Eugen(e) Gend(e)lin.” It appears in an anthology edited by O. Frischenschlager (Hg.). The title of the work is Wien, wo sonst! Die Entstehung der Psychoanalyse und ihrer Schulen, pp. 174-181. Wien/Köln/Weimar: Böhlau. (Vienna, Where Else! The Origin of Psychoanalysand its Differetn Schools.) Used with permission for translation and reprint in 2017 from Lorie Korbei, and Böhlau Verlag.
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- Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices (http://www.focusing.org) stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
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