Book Review: Foundations of Psychodrama (4th ed., 2000)

Here's a review by Dr. James M. Sacks with some of my comments and responses added. The book review was published in the International Journal of Action Methods, 53 (3-4), 153-156, Winter, 2001. (Posted on this website, Sept. 2002)

Adam Blatner's new edition of Foundations of Psychodrama is certainly a classic. Psychodramatic literature is rife with technique oriented, how-to-do-it manuals, which have their place, but we have little beyond Moreno's works themselves for the why-to-do-it. Blatner, wisely, does not trust, "Trust the method". Techniques used without a clear understanding of their rationale can be more harmful than helpful. Directors who go by the book are confused when the unforeseen arises or they fail when patients sense that the therapist is operating by rote. Blatner enumerates Yalom's eleven healing factors in group therapy and convincingly shows how psychodrama can
contribute to them all. No director needs to be at loose ends with so many useful goals at hand. Though Blatner's explanations have their roots in philosophy, they are simple, logical and utterly clear. He never uses a big word when a small one will do and when it won't, he defines the big word. He is not stingy with examples when they help but neither does he fill pages with verbatim quotes from sessions. He may offer a dozen dissimilar examples in as many lines. There is no filler; each sentence is straight to the point so the book has lots to say in its 245 pages. Although the orientation is purely Morenian, a major difference exists between Moreno and Blatner: Blatner is easy to understand. He understands Moreno and explains his theories in plain English. Often I thought, "Of course. I see now what Moreno meant." With one notable exception, Blatner has only good to say about others' ideas and mercifully ignores the rest. He picks the gold coin out of the rubbish with a gentle thanks. That was not Moreno's style.

Despite Blatner's psychodramatic orthodoxy, he was ready to acknowledge what he called Moreno's "personal weaknesses." [I certainly don't think of myself as "orthodox!–A.B.] This he has done tactfully and not at all in the spirit of those who delight in demeaning famous people. Rather, he seemed out to distinguish the man's precious and copious contributions by dissociating them from certain personal traits that alienated many. Blatner calls a spade a spade and a narcissist a narcissist. Once this point has been
established, Moreno's ideas shine all the brighter.

The exception to Blatner's tendency to find only the good in other's ideas is his stance toward psychoanalysis. While he criticized Moreno's exaggerated critique of the whole field, he himself emphasizes only what he sees as psychoanalytic limitations. [I object! I value a good deal in psychoanalysis, but there is also a good deal that I question, as do many even within that sub-field! My section on psychoanalysis was included explicitly to encourage students of psychodrama to appreciate psychodynamic concepts.] Blatner criticizes, for example, the analytic premise that dysfunctional patterns develop in childhood and instead emphasizes the field of psychological forces acting in the here and now. Surely this is only a semantic quibble. Any analyst would readily agree that, while patterns developed in childhood persist in the present, they contend with the countervailing ego factors from current reality. [Alas, not any analyst. While they may give lip service, I've encountered too many who under- estimate the socio-cultural influences in the present. Erich Fromm (1992) agrees with me on this point, in his posthumously published book, The Revision of Psychoanalysis.-AB) On the other hand Blatner cannot resist using a host of analytic concepts throughout and favorably cites the work of Winnicott, Bion, Kohut, the ego psychologists and object relations analysts. Still he missed the opportunity to bridge the gap that could help bring psychodrama into the mainstream of psychodynamically oriented therapies. And there certainly is strong ground for the reconciliation between these fields. [Well, actually, I did try, and I hope others will also try–but face it, I do think psychoanalysis–and psychodrama and every other approach–still has lots of room for improvement.–AB]

Blatner is passionately committed to a "post-modern" philosophy. [Well, I wouldn't say "passionately." Actually, a fair amount of what passes as postmodernist thought I find misleading. But there are some good ideas there--AB.] As he explains, pre-modern philosophy, typified by the theologically dogmatic, constricted intellectual life of medieval times was later superseded by "modern" thought typified by the values of the enlightenment, rationalism, materialism and positivism. The current reaction against this latter world view is a "post-modern" philosophy to which he subscribes and which emphasizes the substantiality of a non-material world. [No, postmodernism does not emphasize the substantiality of a non-material world–that's mixing in some other concepts in that chapter.-- AB] Here psychoanalysis and Blatner's post-modernism are in the same camp opposed by behaviorism and pharmacological psychiatry. They both honor the reality of conscious and unconscious subjective life.

Like Moreno, Blatner has an idee fixe of his own. He is infatuated with imagination/ play/ joy. [I object! I celebrate these dimensions, but since so much of my writing doesn't deal with these aspects, I think "infatuation" and "idee fixe" are severe overstatements. – AB.] Once he has established that the subjective realm is as real as is the objective world, he takes the dangerous step of attributing objective reality to what is properly subjective. [No I don't– they're different kinds of "real."-AB]. When we say that a person thinks a thought, certainly the thought truly exists but it is another thing entirely to say that the thought is therefore true. We look inside to see what is inside but to discover what's outside, surely we must look beyond ourselves. The appeal of a philosophy that promises objective truth by revelation opens the way for wishful, magical thoughts and the breakdown of the separation of religion and science. On this point, Blatner's usual lucidity seems obscured by his idee fixe. [Well, excuuuse me! (Smile). No, I partly agree with Jim's appeal for a bit of intellectual tightening up, and I don't think I suggested these short-cuts. But I do partake of the postmodernist view that would challenge the illusion that non-trivial objective truths are universal and compelling, in contrast to being socially constructed.–AB]

Moreno's famous wish to be remembered as the man who brought laughter into psychiatry and Blatner's idee fixe tilt them toward the positive emotions. [Hey, it's an area of emphasis, one among many-- but yes, I think psychology needs to redress an imbalance of a tendency towards pessimism–AB.] If Blatner can bring joy into our workaholic, anhedonic culture, bravo. [See my book, The Art of Play –AB].  Many are those who, while not suffering a mental illness, can still benefit from a greater capacity for enjoyment. Even those suffering from real depression have been shown to derive real benefit from watching a good comedian. The limit to this approach, of course, is the danger of covering up rather than facing and understanding psychogenic unhappiness and its causes. [Yes, celebrating the positive need not involve avoiding or repressing the problems, but there's a key difference that's absolutely essential for true maturity.–AB].

Blatner gives us a very important restatement on the issue of catharsis. Because psychodrama is uniquely suited to facilitate cathartic release, there is a tendency to consider that as its primary objective. In the very early days of psychoanalysis, catharsis was thought to be the essence of the therapeutic action. Very soon, however, this factor was demoted to a much lower rank; so psychodrama then came to be seen as still attached to a primitive and long-outdated objective. Here Blatner comes to the rescue. He reminds us that, while Moreno gave catharsis very high priority in treatment, he also distinguished between different kind of catharsis only one of which, the "catharsis of abreaction", is what would generally be considered catharsis at all. Most important is what Moreno called the "catharsis of integration", a process closer to what psychoanalysts would call "working through". Insights glimpsed at a supreme cathartic moment tend to be resorbed and very soon fall prey to re-repression. The bulk of analytic effort, then, is devoted to examining in detail the manifold implications and ramifications of these insights in the analysand's ongoing life. This is exactly the same goal as Moreno and Blatner's "catharsis of integration" except, of course, that the means are psychodramatic.

Blatner includes an introductory description of sociological role theory, explains how Moreno expanded it and then gives it his own personal twist. He also includes two excellent chapters on practical sociometry. The whole explanation is, as usual, clear and eminently useful. I was especially pleased to see that Blatner appreciates the hazards of sociometry and counsels great perspicacity in the use of its data. I had seen residential psychodrama groups where sociograms were posted on bulletin boards leaving the rejected individuals devastated. Blatner convinced me that, precisely because sociometry is so potent, its powers can also be judiciously tapped for therapeutic purposes. He makes clear that the telic bonds of a group's sociometry are always a matter of the highest significance to be kept in the forefront of the director's mind.

After presenting all of the above, Blatner then devotes a chapter to succinct synopses of 72 psychodrama techniques that he had not mentioned earlier followed by a 14 page international bibliography.

To go from the sublime to the obsessive, the book has too many typos. The references mentioned in the text do not always appear in the list of references at the end of the chapters and the listed references often appear nowhere in the body of the work. But so what. [Yes, I consciously included references in those sections that hadn't been cited, because I wanted the readers to know what was available.–AB].  This book is unequaled by any psychodrama text I know of. Certainly all trainers will assign it to their students. My concern is that it might become so much of a psychodramatist's bible and that students will swallow Blatner's mysticism and religiosity along with their training. [Thanks for the good stuff, Jim, but what do you mean, "Blatner's" mysticism. Moreno was the mystic! I just tried to explain it!–AB.] But apart from this point of departure I felt greatly relieved that someone had finally written a book to serve as an anchor point to anyone who wants a clear statement of what psychodrama is about.

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