In Remembrance of William Smukler
by Dr. Joseph R. Sanders
At the 27th annual convention of the International Primal Association held at Elmer, New Jersey in September of 1999, a tribute was held for Dr. William Smukler. Both as therapist and friend Bill had profoundly touched all of our lives. During one of the closing days of the week-long convention we arranged our chairs in a large circle to honor Bill and to tell him what he meant to us. Many acknowledged the unselfish love and leadership which Bill gave to all and the love which we all held for him.
I was particularly moved by the tribute given by Dr. Joseph Sanders, a retired Professor of Clinical Psychology. When I learned of Bill's death at age eighty-four on November second, I telephoned Joe and asked that he write a tribute to his long-time friend. Dr. Sanders graciously agreed to do so.
-- John A. Speyrer - Webmaster, The Primal Psychotherapy Page
The news of Bill Smukler's death came as I was mulling over the Chapter entitled: The Event Retold in Erik H. Erikson's 1969 book: Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. Though he served with valor as a soldier in World War II, Bill Smukler used "Gandhian principles" throughout his career as a psychologist. I never perceived them as such until this very moment, but I suspect all those who knew Bill's literal and figurative touch as a therapist know about what I speak.
Though I had known him since 1973 when one of my graduate students at the University of West Florida suggested I participate in a workshop in which Bill was to be a leader, his true essence as a therapist and as a man only came through to me in January and February of 1998, when I served as one of the leaders of The ARK-1998. During all of its forty days and nights of intensive therapy, even though Bill was already suffering excruciating pain during sleepless nights from the loss of circulation in his legs, he saw to it that all of us, staff and trainees alike, behaved towards each other as members of a loving family.
Like so many others within the Primal movement, Bill's trauma, or "shock" as Terry Larrimore would label and describe it, came before the age of reason. Indeed, during a pogram, when Bill was hidden at age five in a basement in Russia where cow carcasses were hanging from the ceiling, Bill thought one of them was the body of his newly deceased mother.
He had known his mother long enough and fully enough to absorb all of her love and to be sustained by it through the years when he was without love from a mother substitute. All he had during the rest of his youth was an older brother who took him in when he arrived in Philadelphia upon his coming to America, presumably that same year and a father who could not speak English.
Somehow, Bill survived childhood and came to the attention of a teacher who recognized his gifts as a student and a young man hungry for the love he had not had since his mother died. He became Bill's mentor and guide. And through him, Bill was able to enter and complete a bachelor's program in Bee Keeping at Cornell University before being drafted and becoming a soldier in the Second World War.
The story of his participation in that war is told in a book Bill edited about the Army Engineering Company in which Bill served as top sergeant. How a man so utterly bereft of the qualities of a fighting man achieved that rank is a story in itself. It is one which comes down to being able to think clearly and act quickly in a moment when all around him fled in terror.
In Italy, his commanding officer had inadvertently dropped a hand grenade and when everyone in the room had fled in fear Bill quickly picked up the grenade and hurled it out of a window. The grenade had been a dummy! It had all been planned, and when Bill's commanding officer saw that thinking and action, he decided then and there to make Bill his top sergeant!
Bill survived WWII unharmed and went on to use much he had learned as a top sergeant in a company of engineers to create a flourishing business by buying large lots of army surplus materials and selling them in four Philadelphia stores he owned. He married and raised three loving and bright sons.
However, all was not well with Bill and his wife. When I met Bill in 1973, he was divorced but still committed to making enough money to support his now ex-wife and their sons through his work as a small businessman -- though one whose stresses manifested themselves frequently in the form of migraine headaches until he discovered the work of another Bill -- Bill Swartley.
It was Bill Smukler's son who had experienced a Swartley workshop and who suggested to his father that he participate in one. He did and to his amazement, it cured his excruciatingly painful headaches.
Bill plunged into working with Swartley as an assistant and student intent on learning how to do primal integration therapy. His skill and stamina as a marathon therapist soon set him apart. While Swartley was a brilliant theoretician and teacher, he depended on others, such as Smukler, to work with the most difficult clients in what became quickly known as "intensives."
It was just such an intensive -- ten hours a day for ten days -- which a graduate student of mine had had with Bill Smukler. This was from a man who still had no formal education in psychology, who depended for financial security on the money earned from his four "G.I. Joe" army surplus stores.
Why was he risking the possibility of being sued by a client or a client's relatives and of losing his businesses? The answer was that Bill had turned down a suicidal woman who had come to him for therapy because he lacked credentials and a license. She later committed suicide.
Then his best friend, Bernie, had come to him -- also feeling suicidal following his wife's death. Bill said to hell with the danger. He would not stand by and see his best friend die. He worked his wonders with Bernie who not only lived but went on to thrive in a second marriage, but one which did not keep him from the annual trips he and Bill would take all over the world.
Bernie did much more than that to show his appreciation for what Bill had done for him. He took over the managing of the four stores so Bill could devote his time to being a therapist.
By then, Bill had graduated from the informal training provided by Swartley and others at the Center for the Whole Person operating in Philadelphia and at Mays Landing in New Jersey.
But, without legal recognition and protection as a mental health professional, Bill could have lost everything if sued by a client. That became a matter of personal interest to me after I, myself, participated in a five day workshop with him in March, 1973.
The therapy had saved me from a zombie-like state I had entered after three years of worried concern for a son, who, rather than face the draft, had run off to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and who was heard from infrequently thereafter.
It was only during that five day workshop, watching both Bill Smukler and Ninalee May perform their magic that I dared to open up emotionally and let three years of what I now call "muscle tension build-up" ooze out of me in a process Wilhelm Reich had called streaming.
One of my most vivid memories of that five day workshop is of Bill Smukler walking a woman I was sure was schizophrenic in circles for hours in order to keep her lucid. I was as awed by him as I was of Swartley and Ninalee. I immediately became hooked on the Primal Integration process. Who would not have been when it triggered hours and hours of streaming release which was like a continuous ejaculation, but one that left me feeling energized rather than enervated?
It took me years of unsuccessful efforts to repeat the experience before I finally realized that it had been the product of a release of a cumulative buildup of tension and could only have been repeated if I had experienced a similar degree of tension build-up. God forbid!
The affection and high regard I had developed for Bill Smukler and others involved in the growing primal integration community prompted me to urge Bill to come to the University of West Florida to earn a Master's Degree in Psychology. From my involvement in licensing of psychologists in New York state, I knew that six states still licensed psychologists with only a Master's degree and that Pennsylvania was one of them. I also knew that Bill's skill at reading and clearly synopsizing books had enabled him to become a leader of a Philadelphia-based Great Books Club.
That ability coupled with his proven cognitive skills clearly indicated to me that he could, at age 60, still do the work needed to complete all graduate school requirements . He must have agreed since he soon came to UWF and in only nine months completed all of the coursework and the thesis required for the M.A. degree!
During his short stay at UWF he lived in a dorm with students who were as much as two generations younger than himself. He returned to Philadelphia, where he first practiced therapy in a high-rise apartment, and along the way, not only became licensed as a psychologist but acquired a Ph.D. degree as well!
Bill Smukler's Master's thesis topic was the birth and growth of extended-time therapy. He named an article based upon it: Beyond the Fifty Minute Hour. It was soon after Bill's return to Philadelphia that his mentor, Bill Swartley, asked him to run a truly intensive, long-term program designed to train former clients and mental health professionals in Primal Integration therapy and other essentially non-verbal forms of therapy. The result was the first ARK in which Bill, now schooled in basic research methods, wisely included a broad array of measures to produce change among all participants, trainers and trainees alike.
Thus, when the opportunity came to take doctoral degree training with Jean Houston and her associates, Bill already had the data for his dissertation in the records of his first ARK. I was privileged to be a member of his dissertation committee so I became steeped intellectually, but. at that time, not emotionally or behaviorally, in the ARK's forty-days and nights training.
Following Bill's attainment of licensure, degrees and a wife, we kept in touch via mail and phone until, as a sort of reward for my work as the Director of UWF's first self study for accreditation program, I was awarded a sabbatical in June, 1975.
By that time, the total emotional openness I had known during my five-day workshop at Mays Landing, New Jersey in the Spring of 1973, had almost vanished. But I had made a vow to myself that, if I ever again opened up emotionally, nothing would be allowed to close me up again.
At this point, Bill offered to let me use the records of his now thirty-six former clients (if they would permit it) for an evaluation of the "staying power" of this new therapy. The study was to be the basis for my sabbatical year's study and it was to be preceded by my taking a 21 day intensive with Bill at his now beloved-by-everyone Carriage House in Philadelphia.
I gleefully accepted his offer and spent the next 15 months shuttling between Pensacola Florida, Philadelphia and Toronto where both Bill and his associates were then regularly conducting training workshops. The experience cemented a friendship and professional association which was to last the rest of Bill's life.
By becoming intimately knowledgeable about Bill's therapeutic methods and his client's problems, I became convinced that, particularly for persons whose trauma either preceded the age of reason (roughly 8 to 12) or after it, but during an altered state of consciousness, traditional talk therapy just did not work. To reach such trauma and enable people both to relive and exorcise it, I realized that one needs an array of methods which tap into much more than the brain's so-called dominant cerebral hemisphere.
Clients need to use all of their senses as cues for tapping into their verbal and non-verbal engrams of early hurts. Long before the neuroscience information available today, Bill's work with clients taught him how to tap into all of those sources; how to invite his clients to trust him unconditionally and then trust themselves enough to let the bile, the horrors of childhood come forth, be relived in a totally benign milieu and eventually leave them, all the time with the confidence that Bill would not leave them.
Bill would never leave his clients, no matter the hour, if they were still in the throes of anguished pain. He, himself, had been left in such an hour, through the death of his mother at the age of five. All of this taught me that, not only does it "take one to know one" but to empathize with one as well. Thus, it is no surprise to learn that the best Primal Therapists are those who are wounded healers -- those who have known the severest and earliest traumas. Bill was one of those.
* * *
Bill Smukler's Truth was Gandhi's Truth. Both knew that there is a way to save one's people other than taking up arms and dying on the field of armed combat. Very simply, it is being there for them totally, as good parents are always there for their children, (to quote an old song) "not for just an hour, not for just a day, but always."
Those of us who went to Bill Smukler and dared to open up totally in his presence now have a bond, not just with him, but with each other. As we are all members of one family -- the family of mankind -- we have no choice but to be there for others as Bill was there for us. Such is Bill's truth and also his legacy for us.
Joseph R. Sanders, Ph.D
November 4, 1999
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