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Albert Ellis, 93; key figure in creating cognitive therapy

ALBERT ELLIS ALBERT ELLIS (1973 file/ap)

NEW YORK -- Albert Ellis, whose streamlined, confrontational approach to psychotherapy made him one of the most influential and provocative figures in modern psychology, died early yesterday at his home in an apartment above the institute he founded in Manhattan. He was 93. The cause was kidney and heart failure, said a friend and associate, Gayle Rosellini.

Dr. Ellis called his approach rational emotive behavior therapy, or REBT. Developed in the 1950s, it challenged the deliberate, slow-moving methodology of Sigmund Freud, the prevailing psychotherapeutic treatment for decades.

Where the Freudians maintained that a painstaking exploration of childhood experience was critical to understanding neurosis and curing it, Dr. Ellis believed in short-term therapy that called on patients to focus on what was happening in their lives at the moment and to take immediate action to change their behavior. Neurosis, he said, was "just a high-class word for whining."

"The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you feel better," he told The New York Times in an interview in 2004. "But you don't get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action."

If his ideas broke with conventions, so did his manner of imparting them. Irreverent, charismatic, he was called the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy. In popular Friday evening seminars that ran for decades, he counseled, prodded, provoked, and entertained groups of 100 or more students, psychologists, and others looking for answers, often lacing his comments with obscenities for effect.

His basic message was that all people are born with a talent "for crooked thinking" -- distortions of perception that sabotage their innate desire for happiness. But he recognized that people also had the capacity to change themselves. The role of therapists, Dr. Ellis argued, is to intervene directly, using strategies and homework exercises to help patients first learn to accept themselves as they are (unconditional self-acceptance, he called it) and then to retrain themselves to avoid destructive emotions -- to "establish new ways of being and behaving," as he put it.

His methods, along with those of Dr. Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist who was working independently, provided the basis for what is known as cognitive behavior therapy. A form of talk therapy, it has been shown to be at least as effective as drugs for many people in treating anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other conditions.

His admirers credited Dr. Ellis with adapting the "talking cure," the dominant therapy in extended Freudian sessions, to a pragmatic, stop-your-complaining-and-get-on-with-you-life form of guidance later popularized by television personalities such as Dr. Phil.

Dr. Ellis had such an impact that in a 1982 survey, clinical psychologists ranked him ahead of Freud when asked to name the figure who had exerted the greatest influence on their field. (They placed him second behind Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology.) His reputation grew even more in the next two decades.

In 1955, however, when Dr. Ellis introduced his approach, most of the psychological and psychiatric establishment scorned it. His critics said he misunderstood the nature and force of emotions. Classical Freudians also took offense at Dr. Ellis's critical observations about psychoanalysis and its founder. Dr. Ellis contended that Freud "really knew very little about sex" and that his view of the Oedipus complex, as suggesting a universal law of human disturbance, was "foolish."

A sexual liberationist, Dr. Ellis collaborated with Dr. Alfred Kinsey in his taboo-breaking research on sexual behavior, and his writings about sex drew complaints from members of the American Psychological Association.

As a base for his work, he established the Institute for Rational Living, now the Albert Ellis Institute, in a townhouse on East 65th Street in Manhattan. He lived on its top floor.

Dr. Ellis wrote or co-wrote more than 60 books, many of them best sellers. Among them were "A Guide to Successful Marriage," "Overcoming Procrastination," "How to Live With a Neurotic," "The Art of Erotic Seduction," "Sex Without Guilt," and "A Guide to Rational Living."

He often went back to his own life experiences to help explain his positive frame of thinking. Albert Ellis was born on Sept. 27, 1913, in Pittsburgh, the oldest of three children. As a child he had a kidney disorder that turned him, he wrote, from sports to books. His parents moved to the Bronx and separated when he was 11. He wrote that he had limited but amiable contacts with his father, a traveling salesman, and that his mother, an amateur actress, was not interested in domestic life.

But he maintained that the experience had left no scars. "I took my father's absence and my mother's neglect in stride," he wrote, "and even felt good about being allowed so much autonomy and independence."

He did well in school, skipped grades, won writing contests and, he said, liked himself for his accomplishments.

But at 19 he was painfully shy and eager to change his behavior. In one exercise he staked out a bench in a park near his home, determined to talk to every woman who sat there alone. In one month, he said, he approached 130 women.

"Thirty walked away immediately," he said in the Times interview. "I talked with the other 100, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops."

Though he got only one date as a result, his shyness disappeared, he said. He similarly overcame a fear of speaking in public by making himself do just that, over and over.

Dr. Ellis studied accounting at City College during the Depression and took up some entrepreneurial schemes after graduating. In one, he set up a bureau in which he counseled couples.

His own first marriage, to Karyl Corper, an actress, in 1938, ended in annulment. His second, in 1956, to Rhoda Winter, a dancer, ended in divorce. For 37 years, from 1966 to 2003, he lived with a companion Janet L. Wolfe, a psychologist who had been executive director of the institute. More recently he married Debbie Joffe-Ellis, a psychologist and former assistant, who survives him.

After receiving a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia in 1947, he spent several years undergoing classical psychoanalysis while using its techniques in his job at a state mental hygiene clinic in New Jersey. He quit in 1950 to begin private practice specializing in sex and marriage therapy and started drifting from Freudian orthodoxy, finding it, he said, a waste of time.

He turned to Greek, Roman, and modern philosophers and considered his own experience. Out of this came rational emotive behavioral therapy, which he decided would focus not on excavating childhood but on confronting the irrational thoughts that lead to self-destructive feelings and behavior. He founded his Manhattan institute in 1959.

"I was hated by practically all psychologists and psychiatrists," he recalled. They thought his approach was "superficial and stupid," he said, and "they resented that I said therapy doesn't have to take years."

In 2005, Dr. Ellis sued the institution after it had removed him from its board and had canceled his Friday seminars. He and his supporters claimed that the institute had fallen into the hands of psychologists who were moving it away from his revolutionary therapy techniques.

The board said it had acted out of economic necessity, asserting that payouts to Dr. Ellis for medical and other expenses were jeopardizing the institute's tax-exempt status. Dr. Ellis was by then requiring daily nursing care. Some board members said they were uncomfortable with his confrontational style and eccentricities.

In January 2006, a state Supreme Court judge ruled the board had been wrong in ousting Dr. Ellis without proper notice and reinstated him.

Despite failing health, Dr. Ellis maintained a demanding schedule.

"I'll retire when I'm dead," he said at 90. "While I'm alive, I want to keep doing what I want to do. See people. Give workshops. Write and preach the gospel according to St. Albert."

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