by Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.
Albert Camus wrote in The First Man: “There are people who vindicate the world, who help others just by their presence.” “Yes, and they die,” Malan said.
As a eulogy, I offer this excerpt from my personal journal. It is a small token of my esteem for Viktor Frankl who died Tuesday, September 2, 1997 at the age of 92. Professor Frankl keynoted both the 1990 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conferences and 1994 European Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference organized by the Milton H. Erickson Foundation.
January 25, 1997 Vienna
Today I visited 92-year-old Viktor Frankl in his hospital bed at Station 20 J at the cavernous Allgemeines Krankenhaus. It was our fourth meeting. Frankl’s wife, Elly, of course, was there along with their son-in-law, Franz Vesely. Charlotte Wirl, who organized my workshop, accompanied me. She had accompanied me on a previous visit to Frankl.
When I entered the room I shook Viktor’s hand and hugged Elly who responded with a typical effusion of warmth. It was difficult to determine whether there was more affection in the way she beamed, “Hello” or in her hug. Viktor raised himself from the bed to kiss Charlotte’s hand. His touch was gentle, like a young child would use in holding something precious and fragile. I felt a palpable kindness.
I teasingly asked Viktor if hospitalization was his idea of doing something “meaningful.” Elly immediately and definitively answered that being in the hospital was not meaningful. I told Viktor that if he remained in the hospital people would assume he was getting old.
“Meaningful” is a sacred word in the Frankl household. I remembered an incident from the 1994 European Evolution Conference. The meeting had ended and Renee, my fiancé, and the Bernhard Trenkle, the conference co-organizer, and his wife and I were to meet for dinner. Just before leaving, Bernhard received news that his father was in the hospital and was terminal. I told the Frankls. Viktor said, “Then they can’t join us. It would not be meaningful.” It was the closest thing to a malediction that I could imagine him muttering.
Elly told me that I was to sit on the bed at Viktor’s feet, which I did. Charlotte, not wanting to intrude on my visit with the Frankls, stood at the door and chatted with Vesely while I talked to Viktor and Elly. Since I last saw him in 1994, Viktor looked thinner and frailer. But, physically he looked fit–exceptionally fit for being more than 90-years old. Mentally he was as sharp as ever.
Elly explained that Viktor had had many medical problems during the last few years especially pulmonary and heart problems. They have been difficult years, especially for Elly who matter-of-factly stated that she had not slept soundly for a full night for the last two years because of her concern for Viktor.
I told Viktor that he should send Elly to Phoenix for a vacation so I could take care of her. She explained it would be impossible because they never separated. Elly fretted noticeably when she said that.
I remembered that Carl Whitaker, M.D., one of the founders of family therapy, once remarked that if he survived his wife, Muriel, he would most miss the ” we-ness.” I suspect that a similar thought crossed Elly’s mind. Victor remarked that they had made more than 70 trips to the United States. Elly accompanied him each time except a few in the early years. They had just celebrated their 50th anniversary.
We talked about the difficulties of being on a “mission.” Viktor indicated that a person must follow his destiny. Elly described how strenuous it has been to support Viktor’s pace. His fulcrum is meaning; hers is honesty.
Elly looked tired. She told of being called the previous night by a suicidal woman from California. The phone was on because the hospital might call. The caller needed help so what could she do? Elly was on the phone from 1:30 am to 3:00am. The woman called her back and told Elly that she was her saving angel.
Elly has no training in therapy. Viktor said how good it was to be with someone who was not in the field. They discussed how Elly read to him because of his macular degeneration. She read him the paper and psychology books. We discussed how there was so much chaff in the current literature and little germ. Elly said that she was glad she did not have psychological education; it made her more able to listen from the heart.
I gave them a copy of the Evolution of Psychotherapy: Volume III, which I had edited. I autographed it in the room, “To Viktor: For your role in my evolution. To Elly: For your warmth. For your honesty.” I asked Viktor what it was like to live with a woman who suffered from “abnormal integrity.”
Viktor was animated during our conversation. His renowned podium power shined forth. At one time Elly had to remind him to speak more quietly to avoid disturbing patients in the neighboring room.
Viktor told me a number of jokes. He related his indirection joke. Perhaps he told it because of his knowledge of the Ericksonian method. Perhaps he told it because admittedly it is his favorite joke. It is the story about the Jewish man who wants to find the whorehouse. A stranger in the town, he does not want to be conspicuous. He goes to the town center and asks where the Rabbi lives. When he finds out he exclaims, “The Rabbi lives in a whore house?” The informant says, “No. The whorehouse is the red building over there.” The man replies, “Thank you very much,” and whisks off in that direction
Viktor commented to Vesely that I represent one of the few schools of psychotherapy that the majority of experts would view with few criticisms. He indicated that most experts would agree with in its central tenants. Vesely asked what the other schools were. Viktor indicated that he found favor in the Behaviorism and relaxation training. He commented that Adlerian therapy was not harmful impishly implying that it was not especially helpful.
I reminded Viktor that the first time we met we had a subterranean struggle. Each of us worked to make the other feel good about himself. I told him who had me “outclassed.” Viktor immediately commented to Elly about how nicely I crafted my words. He remembered how we dined in 1990 at the Italian restaurant near his home. Elly found a way to say how much she loved me.
I indicated after 45 minutes that it was time to leave. Viktor indicated that I could stay as long as I wanted. Elly commented for the second time on how tired I looked. Viktor thanked me for taking time from my busy schedule to see him and said how much it helped him.
I got up from the bed, shook Viktor’s hand and kissed him on the forehead. Elly hugged me affectionately. Although it went with out saying, she reminded me that they had not allowed visitors but had made a unique exception for the because, “We love you.” Elly said, “Send our love to Renee and Mrs. Erickson.”
I stood at the foot of his bed and told Viktor, “Thank you for being.” I explained that he etched a place in my soul when he said that to me at the end of our first evening together. I said that I wanted to return the compliment. As we left, in the hall, Vesely apologized if he pressured me to visit tonight after I was tired from teaching. I blew a kiss to Elly from the corridor. I was seeing Frankl for the last time.