How to start your arse

A workshop with Frank Farrelly

By Sebastian Potter


I write this with the colourful pen handed to me at the end of a workshop entitled "Provocative therapy", returning home on a cold snowy November day on the train from Pullach, a small town near Munich, Germany.

The name is written in bold black letters (UPPERCASE, OF COURSE) over a psychedelic red into yellow, green and fading blue. Frank Farrelly is written in Bold, lower case below. Farrelly is the 73 year-old Irish-American therapist and founding father of the Provocative Therapy movement.

Nothing lower-case about him.

He's very bold.

An Archetypal father figure, with a strong likeness to old-man Freud, complete with neatly trimmed short grey beard and sporting a very American string tie, he has the audience of forty in fits of laughter and awe. Wave after wave, he provokes, teases and cracks jokes with his clients-those of us brave enough to volunteer as his guinea pigs.

Did he overstep the mark? Probably not, in absolute terms. But he came damn close. This is no boundary-bound psychoanalyst. He certainly had me in awe as I sat opposite him for my 25-minute module of first-hand provocation-allowing him to tear apart a handful of my delicate issues.

Maybe my uncomfortable feelings in the chair next to him came from all the trappings: tape recorder, video camera, two translators-one either side- English to German, German to English. But that wasn't it either. It was the hard, down-the-line provocations that really got my Wilhelm Reich antenna out on stalks and my neck-hairs prickling when I watched him from the audience. Sitting opposite him, I got a different feeling.

Provoke (deriving from the Latin vocare, meaning to call) means to elicit, call forth, excite or stimulate controversy, to intentionally cause a reaction, to elicit anger, to draw out.

And that is exactly what he does, to the point of drawing blood! But Farrelly does this within a cloak of love, a mantle of friendship: he refers to the Buddhist "open heart Chakra" very often-the empathic Rogerian influence not escaping us-such that one laughs and laughs and laughs. One ex-patient described Farrelly as "the kindest, most understanding, warmly accepting person I've met in my whole life, wrapped up in the biggest son-of-a-bitch I've ever met".

That's Frank Farrelly.

If I'm honest, I battled to take a real liking to him, but I am dumbstruck by his work! To understand what I mean, you've got to feel it. Watching him doing therapy in the modules left me with a bad aftertaste, apparently a very usual reaction for spectators. The Brits reportedly reacted to him in the same way.

I really did a double take when I first encountered some of the things he says. In the words of one funky aphorism that's a lot younger than he is, he takes the piss out of taking the piss-no holds barred-and the audience of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and others loved it.

His style is fast, he talks ten to the dozen-the client is lucky if he or she speaks for 10 percent of the session. Stoical, silent Freud must be turning in his grave. As a client, you'd battle to get a word in edgewise.

Farrelly apparently has no qualms about barking at his clients: "Shut up, I'm talking!" And its not just his vocal antics that entertain client and audience. He can be quite theatrical, acting out various scenes he describes in his fantastical, embellished sketches of the psyches of his subjects.

A session with Farrelly is not unlike chatting to a buddy in a bar, he says, retrospectively deconstructing one of his modules: "You can say anything to your buddies, as long as you do it with a twinkle in your eye!"

Add a dumb grin, a conniving wink, a secretive lowering of your voice, a soft kick in the leg, a laugh and a hand on an arm and you can appreciate the idea of the client feeling wrapped up in a humorously comfortable bubble.

His seminars-now standard fair in the UK, Holland, Austria, Poland, Australia and Germany-follow a fairly predictable formula. After receiving a volunteer from the audience, he elicits a contract from the viewers: No talking, whistling or other poor Shakespearean catcalling from the audience will be tolerated.

If you're lucky, he starts by asking what the problem is. If you're less lucky, he kicks off with a few witty remarks about the client's clothes, hairstyle, facial expression, or something less predictable that catches his eye or imagination. During this opening banter, he makes a fair number of assumptions about what the client's problem might be (deduces this from, say, their being in a mental hospital).

Any denial of said assumptions (I'm not evil, fat, crazy, a failure, that ugly) only adds fuel to his fire. One guy, after listening to Farrelly's opener "so you're crazy huh?", made the mistake of saying "I don't like the word 'crazy'." Well, he had to put up with all the similes Farrelly could dredge from his semantic archives: Lost your marbles, crazy as a cuckoo, gone bananas, nuts, loony and so on.

Once Farrelly has settled on what he reckons is your theme (usually based on a question or two) and right about when the client is getting a might uncomfortable in his chair, Farrelly launches into an hilarious tale, involving all, some, or none of the following: His time at a monastery, his Irish daddy, the universe, proverbs, various humorous anecdotes, jokes or over-generalisations and scientific facts (all made up of course!). He exaggerates his tale to the point of absurdity, the experience of which appears often to literally turn the client on.

He takes the client's stated problem and immediately bombards it, swamps it with his own embellishments and fantasies. Always, never, only, all blondes, all men; for therapist beginners he offers an inventory of Male-Female tribal wisdoms, a list of typical all Xs are Ys, e.g.: "When men marry they expect women to stay the same but they don't and when women marry they expect men to change but they don't." He is the prototypical devil's advocate.

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