David Berg

By Stan Persky | February 1, 2002

Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy, came to Vancouver around 1970, a couple of years before his death there. Gestalt, unlike protracted Freudian analysis, emphasised the existential "here and now," proposing a psycho-dramatic technique for "getting in touch" with one’s suppressed feelings, and enacting the divided elements of self in an effort to create a more integrated or whole person. Perls, a rambunctious man in his seventies–possibly a lascivious old fraud, but possibly a legitimate guru–quickly gathered around him a corps of students whom he trained in the particular techniques of this latest manifestation of the "talking cure."

The most brilliant of Perls’ young adepts in Vancouver was a junior philosophy professor at nearby Simon Fraser University, David Berg, a friendly bearish man in his early thirties. Berg was bored with the dryness of academic philosophy, and its distance from both ultimate questions about how to live and the immediate turmoils of the social politics of the late 1960s. That disaffection drove him toward the personal authenticity promised by Gestalt therapy. Soon, with Perls’ imprimatur, Berg gave up his teaching post and set up shop as a therapist in a studio space in Vancouver’s Gastown district, an older part of the city that had recently been refurbished in a redevelopment scheme then typical of North American urban centres.

Many of the factors that led Berg to therapy brought many of us to "group," as the activity of attending sessions with Berg and other practitioners was called. We, in this instance, were a collection of mostly university students and artists living together in communal housing circumstances. At group, we discovered others with similar interests. It was at Berg’s, for instance, that I first met Tom Sandborn, who quickly became one of the half-dozen intimate permanent friends in my life.

The underlying question about any therapy, I think, is whether it really works. Once we’re formed–whether in infancy, childhood or adolescence–can we, as deeply habituated adults, significantly change ourselves? The argument against the possibility of change is evidenced, to take an easy example, in the failure of dietary progams–half of North America, at any given moment, is on a diet (including me) and yet the population just gets fatter and heavier. But if there was a counter-example of refashioning oneself, it was Tom. At the time that he arrived at Berg’s group, Tom–as he later described himself when we reminisced about all of this–was a half-formed pup, who had come to Vancouver from a redneck small-town California trailer park to evade the American draft board and to sort out the doomed tangles of an early marriage. In short order, there was a remarkable and lasting transformation. Tom revealed himself to be an astutely sensitive intelligence, enormously trustworthy, and committed to changing the world, a political project for which he had unusual organizational talents. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a characterological change as simply the revelation of something nascently present in him, but certainly Berg was a catalyst for Tom. In any case, as Berg was Perls’ star student, Tom would become Berg’s most talented therapist-trainee.

Gestalt therapy was very much of a piece with the late 1960s–a period subsequently much maligned by conservative critics and historians–in which we experimented with a wide range of aspects of our lives. Politics, art, sexuality, domestic arrangements, and even our identities and minds came under intense scrutiny. In psychology, books like R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self and Perls’ own Gestalt Therapy (written with Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline) challenged the reigning shibboleths of a seemingly insipid social science. If Rimbaud’s nineteenth century call for "a systematic derangement of the senses" was ever heeded, it was in this period of twentieth century North American life. For those of us engaged in radical politics, on campus or in the city, Gestalt promised humanising relief from the sterility of sloganeering and the rigidity of a renascent Marxism.

Gestalt, under Berg’s perceptive tutelege, was magic, certainly at the outset. After one particular moment of tearful personal illumination in group, Berg asked the person who had just "worked," a characteristic therapist’s query, "What are you experiencing now?" Having just produced an intense half-hour or so of interpersonal pyrotechnics, she paused, and then said, with some wonder, "The room seems brighter now." The rest of us burst out laughing, and that utterance became a kind of catchphrase about emerging from our shadowy, repressed inner world, like baby chicks newly-hatched from the egg.

Therapy, as near as I could tell, was more art than science, dependent on intuition and a comedian’s sense of timing, and refined through the therapist’s accumulation of experience. Once, there was a young man in group, a slim, attractive blond of Russian extraction named Mischa, who was obviously distressed, and during a particularly strained session in which he slowly worked up his courage, he finally blurted out that he was a homosexual. I was surprised, since my radar hadn’t picked up the slightest hint of his secret. When he made his "round" of rather defiantly telling each of us of his sexual orientation and got to Berg, the most authoritative figure in the room to whom to make this declaration, David leaned back in his chair, very faintly smiling, and said, with his exquisite sense of timing, "Do you want me to be for you or against you?"

There was a moment of puzzled silence in the room–as with "the room’s brighter now" remark–and then, as we simultaneously got the point, we all erupted into laughter. Although Berg wasn’t conventionally "political," he had astutely cut to the core of the "coming out" dilemma. Beneath the resistance to coming out as a homosexual, there was the anticipation of not only the hostility of others but, as well, the loss of affection among friends, family, and even strangers. What Berg’s remark pointed to was that the act of coming out wasn’t merely a declaration of identification, but a challenge to other people, a challenge in which the person revealing himself was not a helpless subject of others’ acceptance or rejection, but someone making a demand: "I’m gay, and I want you to be for me." Part of the feeling of illumination in this analysis was Berg’s brilliant condensation of it into a single, seemingly offhand, remark.

He did something similar in working with a woman named Joan, whose mother had committed suicide when she was a girl. Berg suggested that she make a "round," beginning her contact with each person with the phrase, "My mother killed herself when I was twelve, and…" As she worked her way around the room, one could almost see the waves of grief, rage and fear roll over her. By the time she got to Berg, she was in full throat. "Oh, god, David, she killed herself and I never got over it." Again, Berg leaned back in the big armchair he occupied, looked directly into Joan’s eyes, smiled his particular version of the Mona Lisa smile, and said, "Well, Joan, don’t let it come between us." Two beats of silence later, Joan threw back her head and began to roar with a laughter that appeared audibly healing. She seemed to let go of the frozen posture of grief and grievance she’d built up around her sorrow, and melted into genuine adult amusement at how much she had let herself harden into a mask of loss. Once more, Berg’s point wasn’t that one wasn’t haunted by such tragedies, but that one needn’t be necessarily immobilized by those events, that there might be at least some degree of self-determination in how much the suicide of even your own mother affected your actual, individual relations with others.

Although there remain questions about the enduring effect of such momentary enlightenment, there was no denying the power of those dramatic moments. In working with Tom and me, Berg examined figurations he saw us as having internalized. For me, there was the discovery of an inner beast, a creature who thought it was more useful to be wary than aware, and who could be reached not through my characteristic deployment of language, but by growling and roaring in the voice of this creature with enough force to truly alarm those among whom I was doing my round. If this frightened beast could talk, he would say, I want to frighten you enough that you won’t hurt me.

With Tom, on the other hand, Berg encouraged him to externalize his pained relations with his father–what Tom later called one of "the usual run of Long Day’s Journey into Night family legacies"–into imaginary, "here and now" conversations with the image that he had stored of that tortured and torturing parent. Although such exercises, by definition, change nothing in one’s actual past encounters, the theory is that what’s relevant, and alterable, is the introjected, imaginary figure who now affects one’s present-day behaviours.

One summer afternoon, Berg was sitting on the upstairs back balcony of our communal house, along with me and my housemate, Lanny Beckman. A woman, walking in the lane, was berating her six or seven year old son for some minor misbehaviour, and suddenly Berg intervened from our second-storey perch, loudly chastising her for possibly traumatising her kid forever. The embarrassed mother quickly scuttled down the lane, her child in tow. Again, while this instant, public intervention in family relations hardly settled anything, it pointed toward a utopia of more transparent interpersonal encounters. I encouraged Berg to write about some of what he had learned and he dutifully produced a short, but interesting, mimeographed book called White Gestalt, Black Gestalt.

And then Berg collapsed. I don’t know very much about the process of his falling apart, because I had drifted away from group, partially, I suppose because the novelty had worn off, and we now recognised the predictable stages of "human growth potential" as almost therapeutic cliches, and partly for other practical reasons–new jobs, political engagements, etc. I heard that Berg had had a breakdown and was now a patient in the psychiatric ward of Vancouver General Hospital. Lanny and I went to visit, and found David in the "occupational therapy" room, obediently working on some small craft project. A shocking transformation had occurred–this large, jolly, confident guru had shrunk into a fragile, depressed, broken man. We offered him a place to live at our communal house, but Berg mentioned that another friend had made available a rural cabin and that he was thinking of going there for a while.

Later, I thought of Berg’s breakdown as possibly a result of cracking up on the reef of certain philosophical questions, but I may be wrong, and I don’t really know the cause. However, there are questions in philosophy about the meaning of life that take you to the limits of possible understanding, and they can drive you crazy. The modern exemplar of confronting such issues is Wittgenstein, who avoided shipwreck by deciding that "what cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence." What made me think that Berg had reached an absolute intellectual impasse were the rumours I’d heard of his flailing about in search of some framework that might save him–he apparently tried everything from Scientology to various New Age mysticisms.

But it may have had more to do with his private life. I knew little about it, though I’d been at his house–a spacious place with large rooms, broad staircases and solid oak beams–and had met his wife, Marie, and some of his children. Like other therapists at the time, Berg had had affairs with various of his woman clients–then, such sexual activity between therapist and group member wasn’t seen as the reprehensible relationship it is today–and I don’t know what affect that had on his family or himself.

The injunction, "Physician, heal thyself," utterly failed. One day, there was a phone call from Tom. David had killed himself. Along with my predictable, shocked, "Oh, no," I asked the inevitable question, "How?", as if knowing the method of suicide will tell us something about its cause. Marie had come home one afternoon, and found David hanging by a rope attached to a beam in the broad stairwell. In our speculations, it seemed to us a cruel means of declaring to his immediate intimates, You can’t save me–from myself, as if the self was making a final, futile assertion of narcissistic power, but then, what idea did we have of his desperation at the end?

The funeral ceremonies were a blur. I was, with others, at Berg’s house. I looked at the stairwell in which he had hung himself. I was at the gravesite in a North Vancouver cemetary. A fine drizzle was falling. I smelled the woodsmoke from neighbouring houses perched on the slopes of the first ridges of the nearby mountains. Much later, I would work at the college located next door to the cemetary.

Where are you now? the therapist might ask in group. I’m with the Hanged Man–as on a Tarot card–who is an imaginary figure in the gallery of the people in my life. The suicide accuses us of our ultimate failure to save him, although the echo of that accusation grows fainter. If I said, Oh god, David, you killed yourself, would the therapist lean back in his chair, wistfully smile, and say, "Well, don’t let that come between us"?

February 1, 2002: 2263 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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