By Jon Blend
Violet Oaklander died in Los Angeles on 21st September, aged 94. With a background in special education and Gestalt therapy she was renowned for bringing the worlds of play therapy and Gestalt together, to work with individuals and groups of children and young people. She published two seminal books, the first – ‘Windows to our Children’ – publishedby Gestalt Journal Press in 1978 available in 17 languages and ‘Hidden Treasure,’ published by Karnac in 2006. She founded the Violet Oaklander Institute and taught a fortnight-long child and adolescent intensive each summer for twenty seven years. Her legacy also includes: several chapters on the theory and practice of Gestalt psychotherapy with children, a series of three training videos depicting her work with young people, a set of audio tapes in which she describes her method, and ‘Making Lemonade’, Claire Mercurio’s touching, intimate documentary about Violet’s life and times. Her obituary can be found in the Los Angeles Times; another will appear shortly in the autumn edition of the British Gestalt Journal.
How to write about the passing of one’s mentor and friend? Though two weeks have passed I can still scarcely take in the news. This morning I had a yen to show her what I was writing – I imagined her voice saying, ‘Jon, be specific; what are you trying to say here?’ And then I realised she was gone. Rewind a few days and I recall how many of the hundred or so people on a commemorative zoom call to honour life were reminiscing too, tears flowing, the crack in the voice – all too familiar… how can someone so vibrant not be around now?
The truth was she had been suffering deteriorating health for several years; a challenging gallbladder operation seemed to have been the final straw. Nonetheless she remained wonderfully present cognitively to the end. Given the increasing number of physical hurdles she encountered from hearing difficulties, loss of sight and inability to walk, in hindsight it was amazing that we had her with us for so long. Undoubtedly the constant support and loving care of her son Mha Atma and daughter-in-law Martha was a factor in keeping her going during these difficult times.
One of the unexpected blessings of the Pandemic was an emergent series of international monthly seminars on Zoom. These meetings, originally intended as a form of ‘crisis intervention’ support, were hosted by Foundation co-founder Karen Fried with assistance from other Foundation members. Violet was a keen supporter of this initiative, present with family assistance on almost all of the sessions, graciously sharing memories of her work and responding to questions about particular work conundrums. I counted 105 participants from over 20 countries on some calls – clear proof that interest in the Oaklander Model, dispensed by those who had trained in this approach, continues to gather momentum across the globe.
What follows is a series of scenes – moments I recall as days go by:
1. Who is this Oaklander character?
I’m meeting Hilda – an integrative child psychotherapist from Venezuela – she’s brimming with optimism and confidence amid the West London autumn drizzle. The year is 1998 and she is keen to recruit me for an afterschool project she is setting up for deprived children in her area. As she tells me about training with Violet the year before Hilda’s eyessparkle: ‘She’s something else – you really should do her summer training too!’ – she exhorts.
2. 2019: Visiting The Big Apple
I’m at my first AAGT conference at the Manhattan Hilton, working a shift on the ‘work for study’ desk in return for a discount on the conference fee. There’s a buzz in the air: old friends are embracing, swapping news… during a break from registering new arrivals I thumb through the programme and – glory be! There’s Violet’s name – she’s running a workshop! I join a large oval shaped group and there’s Violet herself, teaching us how to adapt the House Tree Person, a former psychological drawing test, into a parlour game – a fun way of engaging the child in a first encounter. My mind goes back to my own meeting with Donald Winnicott as a nine year old; I can never recall his face but I do remember the‘Squiggle’ (scribble) drawings we did together which were fun…. Back in the conference
room the group is large; everyone now is curious about what their drawing reveals about themselves. As time is short Violet runs around the group – offering an instant pithy comment to each of us…. ‘It’s simply my guess,’ she says. ‘I’m not interpreting though – you are free to agree with what I suggest or to refute it—it doesn’t matter. Either way we’re into the beginnings of a conversation,’ she explains. Her enthusiasm is infectious yet her lively presence is also grounded. I definitely want to join her summer training – where do I sign?!
3. Santa Barbara 2000: Violet’s Summer Training
There’s well over twenty people gathered here in July at the El Prado hotel in downtown Santa Barbara. I’m meeting counsellors, therapists, educators and others from Turkey, South Africa, Australia and the US…. We’re sitting on low ‘Backjack’ chairs, Violet is in front of us with her assistant Peter, a psychology lecturer who enjoys playing bongos seated at her side… a weighty spiral bound folder has been given out to everyone, crammed with theory notes, newspaper articles, cartoons and exercises. A veritable treasure trove! Violet welcomes us and introduces the arc of week one of the course. To introduce ourselves she invites us to close our eyes. ‘Imagine you could go back in time, in a time machine,’ she suggests. ‘What age are you now? Look around you, where are you, what’s life like for you at this point? Now slowly bring yourself back to the present day, and this room. When you open your eyes, you will find a bunch of crayons, charcoal and marker pens near you – take what you need and draw yourself as a child, using shapes, lines and colours. There’s one simple rule: remember there is no way you can do this that is wrong! OK – you have six minutes.’
4. Back to Nature
It’s the first Saturday of the summer intensive. Those staying at the hotel are relaxing, enjoying the pool, chatting in the sun. After these first five days of intensive training Violet suggests a walk – she’s keen to hike one of the local trails… Peter is going too. ‘Bring your swimming costume,’ she advises….
Violet strides out in front – so much energy; she’s first in to bathe in the little creek – the water is sooo refreshing and swimming outside, in nature, feels enlivening…. Later as we’re heading back down I’m thinking about planning my supper…. I’m staying in a little room in a modest commune out of town, high in the Mission region…. Violet interrupts my train of thought with an offer of food for us both and a suggestion that we catch a movie afterwards – there’s a new Iranian film in town. She loves movies! Whilst she assembles a salad I peruse her books and several quirky toys and sand tray miniatures on her living room shelves. ‘You got to become a collector for sandtray work,’ she says – eying the little figures. ‘I don’t buy new – they’re pretty expensive; check out the Thrift (charity) Stores and local Yard sales; some people go dumpster diving (searching in skips) too – it can become a wonderful lifelong obsession!’
Later the Persian film tells the story of a group of Kurdish refugees trying to survive after the chemical bombing of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces…. The photography is beautiful and the story is sadly reflective and compelling. Afterwards I catch the late bus back up the hill with a full heart….
5. 2018 Serra Retreat, Malibu
It is summer 2018 and we’re back at our biennial conference held as usual in the lovely Benedictine monastery set back in the hills, high above the famous shoreline. It’s been an emotional time and a great opportunity to reconnect in person with friends in the Foundation and meet new people. Violet seems in better health than last time, enjoying taking part in the Q&A about her method. Mine is the last workshop: we’re exploring musical improvisation in embodied ways.
After warming up participants are invited to close their eyes and breathe out into a note – any note, sustaining their sound as long as comfortably possible. The combination of sounds shifts and changes, as people’s breath capacity varies like patterns in a kaleidoscope. Pausing to gather breath each participant listens to the sounds around her, re-joining when ready. The resulting patchwork of sounds begins delicately, ethereal in tone then becomes raucous as people let go. The silence that follows feels satisfying, spacious, replete with relief and calm. I catch a glimpse of Violet and her son smiling….
6. 2021 Fast forward
Here we are, weathering the Pandemic and meeting on Zoom for another monthly ‘Just for Now’ seminar, the first after the Foundation’s successful online conference in June. Presenters from various countries share experiences of their work; we continue to learn how other regions are dealing with changes in working practice in response to Covid. People from many countries are on the call – some keen to catch a glimpse of Violet for the first time, others want to express gratitude for her books, which have illuminated a path for their work. Violet listens avidly, with assistance from Mha Atma and Martha; she responds to questions, happily sharing memories and vignettes from her work. It feels so good to have this opportunity to be in her presence; Violet seems amazed too, taking in with pleasure this testimony to the value and respect being accorded to her pioneering work and the enduring love people have for her.
7. Sept 2021: A Last Goodbye
I call Violet at the nursing home at the time we agreed: eventually her nurse answers, tells me she’s sleeping and I arrange to call again. Later, I receive a message from her family – Violet wants to speak with you tomorrow – is that possible? With the wonders of Zoom we reconnect at last; Mha Atma is by her bedside as is Shayna, her sweet recently homed cat –bringing a little comfort and joy to Violet after the death last winter of her beloved
Maydeleh. Both have Yiddish names. The nurse is around too. It’s apparent that this is the last conversation Violet and I are likely to have. She asks about what I’m doing and I tell her about a recent invitation I’ve had from a Haredi school counselling organisation near Manchester to return and do some more reflective practice using the Oaklander approach. This time the brief includes facilitating work with a group of rabbis who oversee the welfare of pupils in their religious schools. She responds with enthusiasm interested in how this might ripple outwards. I realise I am ‘talking about’ and not wanting to end our conversation. I start to tear up and, heart breaking, I tell her I love her, adding, ‘you’ve been a good momma to me,’ before wishing her well…. I‘m desperately sad and full of gratitude at the same time: I don’t remember how our call ends….
8. October: Memories
As the days tick by the reality is sinking in. Violet died – she’s not coming back – though I hear her voice sometimes when I wake and in the afternoon breeze……. my mind goes back to those ‘turn of the century’ days when we both younger, fit and agile, enjoying a batacca (encounter bat) fight, watching the humming birds outside her porch, discussing how the largely al fresco Gazebo School Park at Esalen continues to model a Gestalt approach to working dialogically with young people….
When I left Santa Barbara for the first time after Violet’s training I found an old ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine at the tiny airport… pulling a sprung lever started a ball bearing rolling though a vast sequence of events – a rich and almost impossible seeming chain reaction. Violet started such a reaction: her spirit lives on in all who encounter her works.
Shalom aleichem: May she rest in peace.
Jon Blend MA Dip Psych Dip Child CQSW (he/him/his [why?]) is an adult, child and adolescent psychotherapist working with children and families in private practice in London. He is also an author, supervisor, trainer and Lifemusician. He is a faculty member of the Institute for Arts in Therapy & Education, IATE (Wellbeing) London, Nurture, Education, Training & Therapy (NESTT) Yorkshire, and a guest trainer with Pathways, Prestwich and the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation www.vsof.org.
Jon brings over 40 years’ experience of working with children, young people and families in the fields of community mental health, social work and performing arts. He has delivered workshops and presentations to counsellors, psychotherapists and other health and education professionals in Bath, Budapest, Chepstow, Florida, Goole, Kyiv, London, Manchester, Naples, Oxford, Prestwich, Rzeszow, Sofia, Tbilisi, Toronto and Zagreb. For nine articles and training information visit www.gacp.co.uk.