How I learned behavior therapy
As part of the first generation of women invited into doctoral programs, we had the advantage of seeing with “beginner’s eyes,” as the Buddhists say, what was passing for psychotherapy at the time. We did not take for granted the underlying assumptions and biases that were taught to us as “objectivity.”
I/we had many questions. I eventually learned to call these questions epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy that asks the simple question “How do we know what we know?” It is the question of a child, a beginner and it is a good question, perhaps the best and most complex there is. From the answers, many have made entire careers and I am among them. From the answers, feminist psychology was soon introduced, but not quite yet…
My second assignment as a therapist-in-training was to learn behaviorism by working with an autistic girl in a local institution. I arrived to find one of those old-fashioned institutions and my “client” tied to a bench to keep her in control. My job was to try to socialize her by popping an m and m in her mouth every time she responded to me in a way that was deemed appropriate. This began with making eye contact, something we now know is one of the last things such a severely autistic person can accomplish.
I dutifully followed my supervisors instructions and reported to him weekly. Needless, to say I disliked the blatant cruelty and ineffectiveness of this intervention, but as the good student I once was, I persevered. He would tell me over and over “Behavior is a function of its consequences,” smiling proudly as if he has discovered the true meaning of life. “What about the consequences to me,” I thought to myself. “What if she doesn’t even like m and m’s?” I pondered aloud. “Why can’t I untie her?” “This is the only accepted and effective procedure that we have. Untying her would be a disaster. You will see. You are too new at this, but you will eventually get good results.”
And I really did try. I also questioned my fitness for this profession. I was not really supposed to help her, but to hone my skills at behavioral intervention. She was this semester’s rat in much more complex maze. But so was I. Did I learn anything? I did not develop a respect for this sort of therapy or for “necessary” cruelty, but what I was learning was to ask better and better questions, to question the very systems of psychotherapy. And isn’t this really what education is about. The questions are what produce the answers,after all, and better questions produce better answers.