Book / DVD Reviews
Milton Erickson DVD Reviews
In the Room with Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1(October 3rd–5th, 1979), Discs 1-6, by Milton Erickson
Video/Book Review by Stephen Lankton LCSW, DAHB
American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis
Volume 57, Issue 3, 2015
Special Issue: Mapping the Domain of Hypnosis
In the Room with Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1
(October 3rd–5th, 1979), by Milton Erickson
(2014). Produced by Jane Parsons-Fein. $360.00 (6 DVDs, 12 hours), ISBN: 978-0-9910991-1-5. New York, NY: Parsons-Fein Press, 254 pp., $100.00 (hardbound accompanying text), ISBN: 978-0-9910991-0-8
Video/Book Review by Stephen Lankton LCSW, DAHB pages 355-358
Until now my opinion has been that the best recorded examples of the work of Milton H. Erickson were the 1975 VHS video The Artistry of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. by Milton H. Erickson, Herbert S. Lustig, and Dick Pyle (Haverford, PA: Distributed by Herbert S. Lustig) and the 1981 Ocean Monarch Lecture Hypnosis in Psychiatry (New York, NY: Irvington). Those are wonderful resources and I used them in my training programs for years. But all that has changed and changed with panache. Jane Parsons-Fein has assembled 35 hours of Dr. Erickson’s teaching entitled In the Room with Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1. Discs 1–6 are now available. Volume 1 covers her visits from October 3–5, 1979, just five months and three weeks prior to his death on March 25, 1980. These are representative of the final evolution of his work, and I highly recommend them to all professionals interested in studying and learning more about his work.
Before discussing the content of the videos, there must be some recognition of the production aspects of this material. It had to have been a labor of love like no other that Parsons-Fein drew upon to create this package. There is literally no stone unturned and no step overlooked. The plastic DVD case is built with hinged flaps so each DVD has its own individual holder. Each DVD has an attractive photo and label. Within the box set, there are two glossy printed guides. The first is a general guide for how to best read the transcripts and understand the editing, subtitling, punctuation, viewing options, and so on. The second guide is a startlingly thorough table of contents (TOC) for each disc. In general, the purchaser of a DVD would not expect a TOC other than, perhaps, on the “Play” menu of the disc itself. So, I was surprised to see this durable four-page document. I was even more surprised to see that it contains numbers for each of his stories, names for the stories, and the time–location on the disc (down to the hundredth of a second!). In addition, the TOC references page numbers.
These page numbers refer to the pages of text found in the last piece of the available material: a hard-bound, 254-page book, sold separately, containing the complete text of the six DVDs. This book, too, is a work of art. It contains photos from the DVD, and as a result, their visual quality is of course reduced. But the layout of the book—the fonts, the use of white space, the TOC, even the page numbering—has been thoughtfully designed to keep the reader focused on “being” with Erickson. The DVDs can be watched without interruption or from one story to the next, whichever works best for the viewer.
I viewed the DVDs on both a computer and on a large flat screen TV. Going inside the first DVD, the viewer is presented with four buttons: Introduction, Play Movie, Story Selection, and Subtitle Setup. I recommend that viewers turn on the subtitles. They have been painstakingly derived from the audio and paired with the video. This will enhance understanding Erickson’s speech; I wish I’d had subtitles in the room when I studied with him! The introduction is a 5:25-minute talk by Parsons-Fein regarding her introduction to Erickson and the roots of the project that resulted in this set of DVDs. Subsequent videos only list the last three choices of buttons. The Story Selection buttons list each of the main stories: 10 on the first DVD, 12 on the second DVD, 10 on the third, 16 on the fourth, 9 on the fifth, and 5 on the sixth.
By today’s standards, the video quality may seem sub-par due to lighting issues, as lighting was not controlled in the Parsons-Fein videos like they were in the Lustig videos. Using Erickson’s office required that he partially cover the large north-facing window, behind him to his right, to keep the Arizona sun and heat from blazing through it. Without light, the focal distance is short (photographically, a short depth-of-field), resulting in parts of his image being somewhat out of focus a good bit of the time. As a result, the video quality suffers slightly. For example, the brightest part of his forehead might be in focus while the side and back of his head are slightly out of focus. The image of Erickson is always central in each video. To complicate the issue of focus, Erickson is quite animated despite his paralysis. Extreme close-up shots of Erickson experienced less of this phenomenon and were of better quality (e.g., DVD 2 at 32:00–38:00 minutes). Nevertheless, this is not noticeable on all the DVDs, and it is a small matter that is insignificant in the overall picture.
Now and then, the DVD will terminate mid-story simply because the video recording tape ran out (e.g., the end of DVD 3 stops in mid-sentence). However, DVD 4 continues the story as soon as possible. This somewhat enhances the experience of being in the room with Erickson, since that type of recording problem happened to so many of us; we all experienced scurrying to get a new audio or video cassette in our machines as fast as we could. This happens on DVDs 3–4 and 5–6. For viewers who never visited Erickson, such interruptions are a forgivable and a quickly forgotten hiccup.
The audio quality is excellent. Adding to the clarity of the audio the subtitles make it easy to understand what he is saying every minute on each disc. If the viewer has the hardbound book with the complete text, it is even easier to review and study the points Erickson makes. This is no small matter. Erickson’s cadence of speech is often so slow that listeners’ consciousness wanders toward and into personal associations. For example, Story 1 on DVD 2 is approximately 850 words. Erickson used 8:30 minutes to tell it. That means he is speaking at a rate of about 100 words a minute, which seems to be about half the speed of normal speech. A listener’s mental wandering makes it difficult to embrace just the content of his stories and their points. Most certainly, the conscious wandering to one’s personal memories due to his ambiguity and rate of speech (and he often was even slower than that) resulted in his students coming to the conclusion that his stories pertained to each of them and their personal thoughts, feelings, and conduct. This was a common report by those of us who sat with him, and trainees commonly reported going into trance listening to his stories. Viewers will likely have a similar experience, and this is where the book of transcripts becomes most useful. It makes it possible to easily study just what he said and chose to do in each case.
Dr. Erickson’s skillful use of ambiguity, his kindness, his humor and frequent amusement, and his formidable ability to carefully listen can be viewed repeatedly on every DVD every few minutes. Story 7 on DVD 1 concerns a case at the Boston State Hospital with Dr. Leo Alexander in charge. This familiar case is of special interest to me. When I first heard it in 1976 I thought it was a fabrication. In short, a nursing student he called Anne was selected and used for Erickson’s demonstration of trance phenomena. Prior to calling her on stage, Dr. Alexander warned that the nurse was a compensated depressed psychoanalysis patient. She was thought to be suicidal and that her suicide might occur upon her upcoming resignation three weeks in the future. Nevertheless, Erickson insisted upon using her because he’d given his word to her.
His suggestions to her were about the varieties of life, seeds, the arboretum, the zoo, cycles of life, an aviary, migration, the life and mysteries of the ocean, and so on. Erickson worked with her before the participants and then she vanished … not seen again for 16 years. In the interim years, it was thought that hypnosis had precipitated her suicide, and Erickson—with his use of hypnosis—was blamed for it.
While teaching in Pensacola, Florida, I told this story, and a psychiatric nurse in the audience of participants said she worked with Erickson at the Boston State Hospital in the mid-1950s. To make a long story short, she was the nursing student in the story. I reunited her with Dr. Alexander, who was to my surprise going to present this very case before the first Erickson Congress in Phoenix in December 1980. She and Dr. Alexander discussed her interesting case in a workshop at the Congress.
Now, a great deal of Erickson’s story concerned the immediate, 2-, 5-, 10-, and 15-year duration of her disappearance and the conclusions that others developed about Erickson’s role and the role of hypnosis in her apparent suicide. When I heard Erickson tell it, I wondered how much of that elongated suspense had been created for dramatic effect. Until I met her, I thought the case was just confabulated to hold the listener’s attention and make a particular point. The point being that he was doing therapy as he spoke about life and that we all are doing therapy by our selection of words at all times and especially in trance. But, of course, the story was true … and that makes the point even more telling. She had relocated to Florida, completed nursing school, eventually met a military officer whom she married and with whom had five children. When I asked Anne if she was the woman who disappeared for 16 years, she firmly and sternly said to me, “I didn’t disappear, I just left!” Thanks to Jane Parsons-Fein, we can say this same thing about Erickson as well: He didn’t disappear, he just left.
Stephen Lankton, LCSW, DAHB
Graduate School of Social Work
Arizona State University
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