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John’s Story

When John was very small, most likely between his third and fourth year, his mother came to the inevitable conclusion that she could not hem him in. His older brother would obediently stay in the small front yard of their apartment building, The Cavalier; never venturing beyond the prescribed boundaries, but John would not obey. Teaching him by using the only spanking she ever remembered giving him, she taught him to stay out of the street and then gave him and his red tricycle run of the thirteen hundred block of Virginia Street in Charleston, WV, the state capitol.

It was the nineteen-forties, an eon before the present time. Well-meaning strangers would frequently bring him and his bike home, finding his mother on the front patio. They would report to her that he had been found over on Quarrier Street or up on the corner on Morrison Street, but always on the block. His mother would express her appreciation with the trenchant observation, “Well, he will be back over there again soon.” Truth to tell she would relate these episodes with some obvious relish at her son’s adventurous nature. Today, of course, his mother might face arrest for child neglect, or worse.

On June 9, 1969 John boarded a plane bound for Juneau, Alaska; not knowing precisely where that was. He had been inspired by one of his Seminary (Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) professors to pursue a summer in southeast Alaska, perhaps as a seine fisherman. So, he went. He drove a taxi in Juneau (Taku Taxi), worked for a homesteader in a wilderness sawmill at Eagle Cove, fished with the crew of the seine boat Yukon II (pronounced The Yukon Second), did time in a fish cannery at Excursion Inlet and preached a sermon in the tiny Presbyterian Church in Hoonah. Being short of money, he made it as far as Washington by air and then hitchhiked across the country back to Kentucky and seminary. He grew a beard in Alaska and kept it for twelve years.

The following fall, his senior year, he was attending his class on group counseling when a guest lecturer came for one session. He was a wild looking man with long hair, his shirt tails out, his shoes untied and deep cigarette stains on his teeth. This unorthodox man startled John in a way he had never felt inspiration or attraction before. He was gob smacked. In an interview the following day, the man, Bob Goulding told John to come to California the following year and train with him at his institute. Without hesitation John said yes and arrived in the Bay Area the following August, a small U-Haul trailer behind his car.

In order to make money to help finance his move to the Golden State, he again had gone to Alaska for the summer, this time hitchhiking from his home in WV. His mother offered to buy him a plane ticket and then with a pale face mumbling, “I never know what you are going to do next,” submitted to the determination of her son to be off on adventure; a set of mind she had always admired and was cast in contrast to the constrained life she had accepted at great expense to herself. In Idaho, John called home to secure help in cashing a check in a country store. His mother assured him that, yes, his cousin Dick McNeel was indeed president of the small country bank where the whole family had their accounts. Yes, she was sure Dick would be happy to assure the owner of the store that the check would be good. As he related this particular adventure and the others he was having, she said with some awe, “Someday you have to write all of this down.”

Sitting in the hot tub that was built into the swimming pool at the Western Institute for Group and Family Therapy, John looked up at the large imported palm trees bracketing the front walk and realized to his astonishment that he had found home. Not long after this revelation Bob Goulding swam over to John, again sitting in the hot tub, threw his arms akimbo over the edge and said to him, “The world needs good ministers, but I think it needs good psychologists even more. I want you to go back to school and get your Ph.D. so you can have a more powerful license than you can have with your master’s degree.” Once again without the slightest hesitation, John felt his life change course and he began to look for a program that would accept someone who had, after all, graduated last in his class from college.

He found such a school in San Francisco, a three-year program that would award John a Ph.D. on August 8th, 1975. It was a start-up school before that phrase was part of everyday vocabulary. Having been founded by the California Psychological Association along with three other campuses throughout the state it was in its third or fourth year of operation, waiting to be fully accredited. Fortunately, that happened. While in his second year, John was engaged in his favorite pastime, talking in front of people who wanted to listen to him at a training seminar conducted by a friend in San Anselmo. Later that same evening, John called this friend and asked for the name and number of the beautiful girl who had been sitting on the front row.

The following week he took Penny Yannacone out for dinner on a Wednesday night, August 27, 1973. As they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, he slightly terrified his future wife by telling her they were going to the Valhalla Restaurant, a fine upscale eatery in Sausalito. It was terrifying because she was a working girl on a tight budget and could not afford fifty percent of the tab, the ungallant habit of the time. During the meal of sautéed crab legs and Wente Brothers Grey Reisling, John looked into those eyes and smile. In that moment he decided to marry her if he could. Without benefit of realization, Sally Stanford, the former mayor of Sausalito and a one-time madam witnessed that bit of history from the barber’s chair she had installed at the end of the bar and where she held court.

They were married on the front lawn of the Western Institute for Group and Family Therapy with friends, family and Bob and Mary looking on, with most people in attendance looking like recent attendees at Woodstock. In that wedding service, written by the newlyweds, there was not a trace to be found of the Presbyterianism into which John had been ordained only four years previous. As his mother witnessed this wedding, like no other she had ever attended, surrounded by the odd folk that therapists tend to be and in a California setting that was a foreign sight to her mountain home eyes, she might well have wondered if John had not finally broken the rules and wandered across the street and off the block, far off of it.

John’s pedigree in psychotherapy is steeped in Transactional Analysis, the creation of Eric Berne and Gestalt Therapy, created by a contemporary of Berne’s, Fritz Perls. Both men were deeply affected by WWII, one being in the medical core as an army psychiatrist and the other a happenstance refugee (he drew the “short straw” among three, losing and had to go) to South Africa that meant he was not consumed by the holocaust. The dynamic of that time pushed both men beyond the bounds of their psychoanalytic training to seek more transformative forms of psychotherapy. Bob and Mary Goulding were friends with both men and claimed, probably accurately that the only time they were ever under the same roof was in their home. The Gouldings liked both approaches and combined them, creating a non-word, “Redecision” Therapy. Berne and Perls were both too preening and competitive to countenance such a thing.

Taking Penny with him in November of 2018, John returned to Louisville and the seminary for the first time in forty-eight years. All of his professors, now most late, were all there stenciled onto his brain, indelible in their love and stewardship. Happily, they will always saturate his life. Shortly after pointing out to Penny the very spot where he first time ever had hugged and been hugged by another man (Dr. Dan Wessler), John found himself alone in the Chapel weeping, both in gratitude and also as a token of apology that he could not fit into the box of being either a minister or a seminary professor. He had tried and had stayed on that block as long as he could.

His application to graduate school had asked each person to describe a day in their lives ten years in the future, a very 1970’s question to ask. Reading that text today one would not find much of John but would hear described his best attempt at being Bob Goulding, down to running his own imaginary institute and drinking Manhattans. He had learned their material from every angle, even making one of their weekend workshops, called “marathons,” the subject of his dissertation. Unsurprisingly, his dissertation, with special dispensation, was allowed to stray from normal bounds. He had no control group, only the people being treated in the workshop. He drilled as deeply into their material as possible and became a working imitation of his funny, iconoclastic, loving, erasable and alcoholic heroes. Not having the gene, he was not able to follow them into alcoholism, but that was a gift of nature, not virtue. But eventually he strayed even from this magical block, causing no little pain to his mentors, his friends.

“What do you read, Dr. McNeel?” was the first question ever asked of John by Dr. Meyer Friedman, the cardiologist who discovered what he called Type A Behavior. They were on the phone. John had just sent his resume to the Meyer Friedman Institute at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Dr. Friedman had written a letter of invitation to all bay area psychologists, looking for potential group leaders. Within an hour of receiving the letter, John had responded, having read and admired his books. Dr. Friedman had called John immediately upon receiving his resume because John was a seminary graduate. Being Jewish, Dr. Friedman had no incentive to spread the Christian faith, but he knew that reading voluminously was endemic to seminary life and that was of great attraction in looking for group leaders.

In this way, John acquired yet another father figure, his last. John did not have to leave this block because Dr. Friedman was a scientist, the discoverer of the coronary thrombus and seven other original medical discoveries. He was the author or co-author of over five hundred (“we always loose count”) papers of original research. His place in the medical biosphere was seemingly impregnable, even having been nominated for a Nobel in medicine at one point. Then he wandered off his block and began to notice that all of his coronary patients, hundreds of them, shared only one characteristic in common, Type A Behavior. He published. He became a best seller. He fell like a stone in the eyes of many of his medical peers as he proposed a “talking cure” for coronary heart disease. To an internee at his Institute he said, “Don’t make it public knowledge that you interned here. I would not want it to harm your medical career.”

John has been married to Penny for a long time now. There are many things that can be said of a marriage that has survived almost a half-century and, God willing, will last much longer than that. The one thing you should not say of such a union of great length is that it is “happy.” It’s not that it might not be, but there are legions of marriages and partnerships in the world that have stood the test of time without the slightest trace of happiness, warmth or even common courtesy. The length of time can mean many things, but the one thing it will not mean is an unbroken chain of one happy moment leading to another. The truly good ones have found their own block, cherish the good memories and find courage in the bad ones, create their own language that belongs to no other couple in the world and becomes healing. Despite the odds and his own narcissism John lives gratefully in one of those.

Unlike an awfully lot of people, John has an almost unbroken string of warm memories concerning his religious upbringing, his church and, most of all his ministers. He was never harmed, only cared for. His maternal grandfather was a humble self-taught genius with an infinite capacity to laugh at his own foibles. He ran the family weekly newspaper in the remote hills of West Virginia and lived a life of faith, while imposing himself on no other human. It inspired him to seek justice and most of all, to fight for the well-being of the environment. In response West Virginia named a state forest after him, to which he commented wryly, “It is odd to get your tombstone before you die.” His print shop was next to the Presbyterian Church, which his own father had founded, and for good reason. It was a short walk from the one to the other and it was said of him, “If the door of the church was open, he was there.”

Even the juggernaut of his grandfather’s example and adherence to the Presbyterian Church and to the Protestant persuasion could not keep John on that block either. Despite his family’s adherence to Presbyterianism and Methodism for at least seven generations, he found himself being received into the Roman Catholic Church shortly after the turn of the century. This made his Catholic wife very happy, but it was not done to please her. It was where this eternal strand of his life took him and it pleases him greatly to be there. And, on occasion, he is even invited to preach. On the other hand, none of this was a foregone conclusion for John’s father, a devoted public servant, never darkened the doorstep of a church. His mother took the boys to church and his father stayed home and read the Sunday paper in casual clothes, an unspoken and amiable compromise.

More to come…