BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Spontaneous, creative ...

I was very pleased to see Bellevue Literary Press' continuing participating in the “Early Reviewers” program, with Jonathan D. Moreno's new Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network … I had, in a previous “batch” hoped to have been matched (by the LTER “Almighty Algorithm”) with his previous “Mind Wars”, but hadn't at the time, and I was thrilled when the earlier book arrived along with this release … I don't know if this was a bit of serendipity, or if the folks at BLP had paid attention on who had requested what books when, and seen that I'd been interested in getting that, but I'll give them the credit for being amazing.

Moreno is described as “The most interesting bioethicist of our time.” (which, frankly, has the vibe of being “the most interestingly drying paint brand”), but “bioethics” doesn't enter into the equation here. This, instead, is a remarkable book, a rare case of a son getting to tell his father's story, with eloquence and understanding, and, naturally enough, compassion. For every child of a remarkable parent, this is the model of what a book honoring that life might be.

While Jonathan D. Moreno did have a chance to know his father, Jacob Levy Moreno, it was not a long relationship. The younger Moreno was born when the senior was in his 60's, with most of his pioneering work behind him, and his father died when the author was in his early 20's. Needless to say, that's a big shadow to deal with, and this book is very much exactly the younger Moreno doing that. One odd thing here is that the father is referred to by his initials J.L. throughout the book … an avoidance of having to use “dad”, “my father”, or generating confusion with “Dr. Moreno” that I am quite familiar with (having spent the first fifteen years of my career working for my mother, who became M.T. pretty universally).

Who is J.L. Moreno? He is the doctor/showman who developed “Psychodrama”, popularized group therapy, and created the science of “sociometry”, whose relationship mapping via “sociograms” were the forerunners of social network analysis – the theoretical underpinnings of the platforms that have exploded across the world as social media. Big stuff … and I wondered why I'd never heard of him. As I read through this, that question gained substance, because “J.L.” was a tireless self-promoter and was famous in his day.

His biography is fascinating, having been born in Romania, his family moved to Vienna when he was a child, and he grew up amid the decline of the Hapsburg Empire. He attended the University of Vienna, and in 1917 became a Doctor of Medicine. He rejected Freud (having attended the elder psychologist's lectures), and began to both develop his theories for group therapy, and theatrically-based work. The culture of Vienna was amazing at this time, with Moreno attending lectures by Albert Einstein, and rubbing elbows in the cafes with famed psychiatrists, philosophers, composers, writers, and actors (and having an encounter in a park with a “disheveled postcard painter”, Adolf Hitler). Moreno was trying to develop a theatrical model of “spontaneity” where actors were given, for instance, the basic details of a story in the day's papers, and expected to perform … the broad strokes of which eventually took root and became what we currently call improv. His efforts, however, were not getting traction in Vienna, and in 1925 he had an opportunity to move to New York.

Needless to say, given the history of the time, this move (spurred by an involvement in a radio recording device on which he held the Austrian patent) was quite fortuitous, and even though it was difficult getting established in the U.S., it did mean that he avoided becoming either a victim of or refugee from the Nazis, as so many of his associates did in the following decades. Even after getting his medical license in 1927, it took what the author describes as “a marriage of convenience” to establish his citizenship. A rather charming term that Moreno came up with is “surplus reality” (generally “making stuff up”), and this came into play in this case, as Moreno claimed that his wife, Beatrice Beecher, died soon after their divorce (in the 30's), but state records indicate that she survived until 1972.

Once established, it took some time for Moreno to “pick up where he left off” in Europe. He had his book The Theater of Spontaneity translated to English, but had difficulty finding a publisher – eventually having it come out via Beacon House, a press that he established to publish his books and journals. Initially, Moreno was surviving seeing individual patients, but eventually worked his connections to be able to present programs at companies (such as Macy's) where he would put employees through “spontaneity tests”, and returned to the theater with a “Living Newspaper” program, and eventually established his Impromptu Theater in 1931 and Group Theater soon after. Although these never reached the audience (or critical response) he had hoped for, they did seed other projects whose models are still very much with us.

While Moreno's theatrical ambitions were stalling, his psychiatric influence was growing. At the time, “mental health” was largely a warehousing issue … people determined to be inconvenient to the society were shunted off to asylums, and it was in these contexts that Moreno did most of his work. One of his most enduring (from what has grown out of it) concepts was the “sociodynamic effect” (which is expressed in the variance from randomness in the “choices people make about with whom to associate” in any given community), which came to be visualized in “sociograms”. Oddly, this seems to have started with observing the interactions of groups of infants at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Diagramming these interactions was a major breakthrough (albeit a challenging one in the pre-computer age), and the use of this method expanded from hospitals to schools, to asylums, to prisons, and eventually into various organizations – governmental and corporate.

One of the things which arose from his prison work was “group psychotherapy” - a term that he claimed to have coined in the early 30's – which also drew on other sources (Freud had written of Group Psychology in 1922), and eventually collided with the “therapeutic community” movement (the most famed example of which is Alcoholics Anonymous), further blurring Moreno's influence. In 1936 he was able to establish his own institute (initially “sanitarium”) in Beacon, NY, where he was able to explore his theories of psychodrama, etc. for the next 30 years.

In WW2, Moreno was tapped to help develop assessment tools for the military. It appears that he was primarily working with the British OSS (based on sorting for “leadership”), although many of his associates began using his assorted methodologies with the U.S. Military. Following the war, several of these approaches were quickly implemented by the corporate world, although, again, Moreno's role in developing the ground of these was generally lost in the shuffle.

In the 60's, Moreno's concepts spread far and wide, with his concepts of “encounter”, etc., cropping up in organizations such as Esalen, EST, Synanon, movements such as Transactional Analysis, and others, while his theatrical work inspired hundreds of new experimental theater groups. Towards the end of Impromptu Man, the author pulls in a long litany of things his father had influenced, and writes of following up with various associates that Moreno had worked with.

This is a fascinating look at a man, who in his time was “larger than life”, but has been largely forgotten in the popular memory … perhaps his son's book will help change that. This just came out this month, so you will likely be able to find it in the better-stocked remaining “brick and mortar” book vendors, but (of course) the on-line big boys have it (currently at a 22% discount). Just as Moreno's influence exhibits itself across a number of areas, this would be interesting to many different types of readers.

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Tags: book review

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