The Vault

Dysfunction in Our Alexander Family

By Neal Katz


Much research has been done on dysfunctional families and their impact on the children that grow up in them. Many of us grew up in dysfunctional families. It is my belief that it would be constructive for us to examine the dysfunctional aspects of our Alexander ‘family.’

F.M.’s father was an alcoholic and F.M. himself was a compulsive gambler (my data for this is that F.M. trained Marjory Barlow to place bets on the special racing phone he had installed at Ashley Place—that in my view is more than a hobby.)

So what?? What does that have to do with the purity and genius of Alexander work? Yes, I know that I sound like a man on a mission. There were many at the Congress who found it hard to attend to the message when the messenger came on so strongly.

In my own family, there is a history of maintaining silence on key emotional matters. My way of dealing with this is to assume the role of ‘missionary,’ who could heal by speaking all those family secrets. I’m the one who says, “Let’s talk about our feelings and our history.” There’s real love in my family but its expression is often blocked, bottle-necked behind some negative emotion that needs to be expressed first. I find once I express my own anger, I can then touch the loving feelings underneath.

We keep recreating the families we come from. The Alexander family is that type of recreation for me and I’m trying to heal within it. At the Congress, I made the choice to break my own silence by speaking out publicly at the Friday morning panel discussion and here during my scheduled presentation. What I said was:

I know this isn’t the right place but there really is no place for what I have to say and I don’t want to leave here as a silent participant in the continuing canonization of F.M. Alexander. It’s unhealthy and untrue. We have to look at the shadow of our particular saint. (Shadow is the term Carl Jung used for the difficult aspects of personality and our tendency to dissociate from and down-play those aspects.) F.M. Alexander was a brilliant genius and innovator; he was also a compulsive gambler and a racist. He was surrounded by disciples and admirers, but he trusted no one enough to share his vulnerability. His life was triumphal in its genius and tragic in its isolation. We are his spiritual descendants. If we don’t understand what we’ve inherited, good and bad, then we are destined to repeat it. The Alexander dialogue is in danger of being bogged down in scholastic arguments about whether feet should be wide apart or closer in, about just which words are the ‘right’ words for giving directions, etc., etc. I believe that many of us are isolated from each other behind walls of protective judgements. For me the central task of this conference is to find the trust in all of you so that I can bring all of me here.

Mostly you could hear a pin drop while I spoke, other than when I was hissed at or told to sit down. I was impassioned. I was accused of trying to debase F.M. This was not my intention. The task I’d set for myself was to take seriously both F.M. the charismatic genius and leading actor on the world stage, and F.M. the little boy whose alcoholic father taught him to trust no one. The little boy learned well. F.M. controlled his world and even came up with a theory of evolution that cast himself as saviour in a world that would degenerate without the Alexander Principle. The tragedy for me is that a man who touched so many could never allow himself to be touched. F.M. Alexander never knew intimacy and he died without confiding his deepest hopes and fears and vulnerabilities to anyone.

“That’s the past, we should just get on with the work,” someone said to me as if the Work was somehow separable from, and not influenced by, the people who do that work and their relationships with each other. I don’t buy it. Let me give you an example.

I believe that F.M. Alexander taught us about inhibition, direction and the power of conscious control. That was the conscious part of his teaching. I personally am inspired by his persistence, his resourcefulness, his outspokenness. There is also an unconscious teaching, a shadow teaching. For me the most poignant expression of that came when I asked Marjory Barlow about F.M. and S.T.A.T. At the end of his life F.M. gave Wilfred Barlow and others his blessings to organize an official society to perpetuate the Work after his death. At the very last minute F.M. balked, saying, according to Mrs. Barlow that he didn’t know what they’d be teaching in ten years and that he wasn’t going to give them carte blanche. At that point S.T.A.T. died only to be revived much later. To me that seems so sad. Here were his closest students, people who we now call our Master Teachers, who had devoted as much as 40 years to the Work, and F.M. didn’t trust them enough to pass on control.

This wasn’t the only instance. F.M. frustrated John Dewey’s efforts to find the work a wider audience. And Lulie Westfeldt talks about how he frustrated supporters of his dream to have the work more widely represented in education, just as the dream was becoming possible.

I submit that we can understand his distrust in the context of his growing up in an alcoholic family. Intense need for control is a reasonable response to a parent who is out of control. (lt is a common part of the ‘profile’ of adult children of alcoholics). And it’s not just in the past. F.M. didn’t trust the Master Teachers. And they don’t trust each other. Thus it’s no surprise that we, their children, have no model for honest dialogue that acknowledges both our similarities and our differences. So we gossip and judge and backbite.

Another poignant statement of distrust, and its passing to the 2nd generation, came from a story Yehuda Kuperman told publicly at the Congress about a recent meeting he had with Patrick Macdonald. He told it with a lot of feeling and love for his mentor. He told us how he put his hands on Patrick and Patrick said, “You’re pulling down.” Yehuda said he then summoned all his direction and put his hands on again. The response? “You’re pulling down.” Yehuda hugged him with affection and stopped. To me the story speaks volumes. Here was a man who himself is a highly respected trainer of teachers and I hear no acknowledgment of any change in the relationship from when Yehuda was a first year student. The subtext of Patrick’s laconic response for me is “I can still tell you what’s what, we are not equals, or even colleagues really. I am the teacher and I still tell you what the truth is.” That’s also how Alexander taught. It’s time for a change. I know I often teach from that same parental position. It’s safe. I want to change. I’d like more dialogue, more collaboration. I’d like the next Congress to have a large place to explore such collaboration. But I don’t think much will change until we acknowledge that there are ways the Technique doesn’t work for us, its practitioners, and to address our widespread isolation from each other and from other practitioners in related disciplines. Frank Pierce Jones writes in a pamphlet that the Alexander Technique is fundamentally and qualitatively different (i.e. better) than other disciplines. That is what F.M. thought too. It makes us loners in a world that’s much better served, in my view, by a multi-disciplinary approach. We don’t know much about working together as equals. Let’s learn.

These three International Congresses on the F.M. Alexander Technique—in Stoney Brook, Brighton and here in Engelberg—have been a tremendous success in my view. The brain child of Michael Frederick, they have brought the whole Alexander world to the same room and talking and sharing ideas with each other. That is a huge accomplishment. Michael has done us all a great service.

We can go further. I’d like to see the 4th Congress, scheduled for Australia in 1994, be ‘hands-on’ centered, with work outweighing talk by the same proportion talk outweighed work this time. It should be peer centered and not star centered. Star centered is the Master teachers and 2nd generation teachers as ‘experts.’ And, of course they are experts. Their classes are very valuable and should continue. But we also need to relate as peers, as equals, where no one is the authority, where each individual is acknowledged as an innovator in his/her own right, where we can be flexible, interchangeable, and playful in our roles. We need to create an atmosphere of trust so that, ideally, everyone can feel free to speak their minds. For that to happen there would need to be a lot of processing time for us to share our experience and work through the inevitable difficult interactions between people. I’d like there to be facilitators the calibre of Mary Cox to help us come to a place where we’re both honest and kind to each other. I personally would also like to hear Master teachers, even 2nd and 3rd Generation Teachers, talk about the times they were stumped, the difficult and humbling personal and professional experiences and what they learned from them. I think that would help demystify the Technique and its master teachers. That would bring us all closer together.

There is a tremendous amount of accumulated hurt, anger and judgements festering under oh so civilized politeness. All of it needs to see the light of day. Otherwise we’ll spend another 35 years publicly polite and privately denigrating each other. The all too familiar Alexander gossip and judgements of other styles is an energy leak. Public airing of long and closely held grievances would require very skillful facilitation. There’s a risk—but it’s worth it. I’ve seen Mary Cox facilitate teaching team meetings at Don Burton’s Fellside Alexander School, and, at my own school, Joel Ziff has done similar quality facilitation. When it worked, all the energy that had been suppressed becomes available in service of the best, most creative Alexander work. We’re less scared of our shadows the next time.

At the next Congress, I’d like there to be ample time scheduled for open forums where we talk about what’s working and what’s not, and where we, the participants in the Congress, have some say in reshaping the Congress to reflect what we’re discovering. For me, it’s the Alexander Technique’s exquisite sense of the moment translated into an organizational sense of lightness. 500 competent Alexander teachers sitting immobilized, listening to one speaker, is not my idea of the best use of precious time together. Speakers should be balanced by small groups, talk balanced by work, head talk by heart talk.

The Kuperman Connection

I’m grateful to Yehuda Kuperman for the single most powerful healing experience I’ve had here at the Engelberg Congress. I’d been furious when Yehuda blithely ran over the allotted one hour in his presentation on the work of Patrick Macdonald. I was angry because this cut into the precious, single hour that had been scheduled for Alexander exchange work. Yehuda and I also had a little interchange at the Training Directors’ meeting. So when he later approached me and asked if I wanted to work together, I was ready to bite his head off if he told me I was pulling down. Instead we shared wonderful work together and agreed that the important dialogue between us was about how much we shared and how our different styles stimulated new ideas. Something melted for me. I respected Yehuda and felt respected by him in a way that he allowed me to have lunch with him and chat and joke and feel the warmth that I often find under that brusque Israeli exterior. He touched me. At the next Congress, I’d like to make more time for interactions like this one.

I wound up volunteering to be program director for the next Congress. I’ve entered into a working partnership with David Garlick, the Coordinating Director and ultimate decision maker for the next Congress.

I encourage all of you to publicly express your ideas for the next Congress and your feedback about this one. Write to the new Coordinating Director David Garlick in Sydney, Australia—and send a copy to NASTAT NEWS & STAT NEWS—in order to share your thoughts with others in the Alexander community. You have the power to influence choices now that you won’t have two and a half years from now. 


Neal Katz began his training with Paul and Betty Collins and was qualified by Walter Carrington. He is now Co-Director of The Alexander Training Institute of Boston.


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