Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Elvin V. Semrad (1909-1976): Experiencing the Heart and Core of Psychotherapy Training

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Elvin V. Semrad (1909-1976): Experiencing the Heart and Core of Psychotherapy Training

Article excerpt

Elvin Semrad was among the most influential and beloved teachers of psychotherapy in his generation. His legacy as a clinician, teacher, and mentor is still felt today, even among those who never knew him directly. What and how he taught remains as relevant as ever in the psychotherapeutic care of troubled individuals. His was primarily a psychiatry of affects and bodily feelings, and he focused uncannily and empathically on the patient's experience. The basis of his rich, heartfelt, wise, and inimitable approach was not just classically psychoanalytic, or existential, or ego-oriented, or self-psychological, or interpersonal-relational, or even humanistic or adaptational. Rather, it was all of these in a uniquely "Semradian" integration geared toward elucidating patients' experience that had arrested them during their life course and their avoidance of "acknowledging, bearing, and putting into perspective" what they were up against. This paper describes who he was and gives a personal perspective on his influence-how and what he taught and why he had such an effect on those who knew him.

Keywords: psychotherapy; psychiatric education; mentoring; life experiences; defense mechanisms; clinical interviewing

The skills needed to become a seasoned therapist are slowly developed through errors and disappointments, and most psychiatrists require around 10 years to grow into maturity

(Semrad, 1969a, p. 13).

Love is the standard issue; only the objects change.

(Rako & Mazer, p. 33)

In a special - modest and homespun yet profound and inimitable - way, Elvin V. Semrad taught and influenced a generation of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in the Boston area and elsewhere by example and through his reputation as a psychotherapeutic sage or even genius. He was among the most influential teachers of psychotherapy in his generation (Roth, 1970; Day et al., 1977; Margulies, 1989; Vaillant, 1992; Smith 1993; Sayfer & Hauser, 1994; Gardner, 1995; Schwaber, 2002; Levine, 2002; Russell, 2006). Many knew him in various ways, including in his roles as a clinician, healer, teacher, supervisor, colleague, friend, and mentor (Levinson, 1978; Rako & Mazer, 1980; Margulies, 1989; Rako, 2005; Martin, 2005). Levinson (1978) considered him one of the great mentors of his time. Having had the good fortune of being one of those whom Semrad taught and affected, I share here some recollections and thoughts about my formative experience with him and the setting in which he worked. My introduction to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (M.M.H.C.) and Semrad pivotally influenced my own choice of psychiatry and psychoanalysis as a career. I now write with the perspective of more than four decades in which to reflect upon his role. It is not that Semrad was the only influence; indeed, there were many at M.M.H.C. At that time a great many of them had psychoanalytic backgrounds or allegiances, even though many also had their own passions that carried them from classical psychoanalytic thinking. It was a true center for psychodynamic teaching and dialog, and at its epicenter was Semrad.


Elvin Vavrinec Semrad was born on August 10, 1909, in the village of Abie, Nebraska. Abie - in the heartland of the United States - had a population of "good peasant stock," preponderantly of Czech ancestry, which then numbered about 150 ( Found literally at the end of a paved road, Abie is in the eastern part of Nebraska, near Prague, about 64 miles west of the center of Omaha. Although Semrad's parents were born in the United States, he spoke Czech before he learned English. The family called themselves Bohemians - Bohemia being the westernmost province in what we would come to call the Republic of Czechoslovakia (established on October 18, 1918). Semrad said he had to get over the "culture shock" after coming to Boston, when he had to explain that he was "Bohemian. …

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