A Birthday Tale of Two Legends: Erickson & Zeig
“This is the Erickson’s home, would you like to go inside?”
We were looking for a restaurant following one of our collegial outings, a meaningful ritual within a meaningful friendship developed since meeting Dr. Jeffrey Zeig, following the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in 2017.
Our search for a COVID-safe, outdoor eating establishment had caused us to drive around in circles, ending up fortuitously on a quiet Phoenix side street, where the Milton H. Erickson home stood.
“Would you like to go inside?” Jeffrey repeated his question.
As a psychologist, the opportunity to tour the home of a psychological legend, is an honor. When the invitation includes being accompanied by a second psychological legend – who is also a dear friend – it becomes an experience you will never forget.
I first became acquainted with Jeffrey Zeig after I had written a blog inspired by my thwarted attempt to meet my existential idol, Dr. Irvin Yalom, at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference. Evolution is sponsored by the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, a non-profit organization that Jeffrey founded, located in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. I reached out to Jeff upon returning from the conference, with the hope of getting my writing forwarded to Yalom.
I had, quite frankly, never heard of Jeffrey Zeig. But I was impressed when he returned my phone call personally, asking with such genuine care, “How can I help you?”
A profound and valued friendship ensued from there, with a colleague I would come to know as completely and extraordinarily committed to the art, science, history, and legacy of EVERYTHING psychotherapy. A Master for the Masters. So much so that he is oftentimes called, the Master “Holder of the Legacies” of our field.
Masters most notably including Dr. Milton H. Erickson.
For those who know Jeffrey Zeig, there is a very thin line between the heart of Dr. Erickson and the heart of his student, Dr. Zeig. Writing this blog, I am tempted to revise this sentence to more accurately reflect, “The heart of his most ardent protege, Dr. Jeffrey Zeig. However, if doing so, I know Jeff would be quick to insert, “Erickson had a lot of proteges.”
Walking through the Erickson homestead turned museum, I would challenge Jeff’s humble perception.
“This is where Erickson sat when I first met him.” We had entered the well-worn, authentically maintained living room immediately inside the entry door of the Erickson home. Following a brief pause and a slight inhale of nostalgia, Jeff was off and running, exploring the various books and artifacts on display in this humble room with characteristic Zeig-like curiosity. Books he has certainly sifted through endless times, but still so obviously appreciates for the feel and the wealth of Ericksonian legacy.
History involving the man and his family who so warmly invited Jeffrey to become part of their “family,” when Jeff was a young man.
“These are the carvings made out of ironwood that Erickson would gift to family and students.” Jeff was standing in front of one of the many wall-length displays holding various shapes and sizes of carvings, all of animals.
“Erickson was a carver himself and loved to gift others with these wooden figures – always accompanied by a meaningful story.” Jeff recalled.
Engrossed, Jeff handed me a beloved wooden duck while sharing an oft-told abbreviated version of Erickson’s metaphorical story of “Emerging.” A thought-provoking, characteristic moment of support offered by mentor to student, as prompted by this history-worn cherished carving. A half polished, half in-process fowl gifted to Dr. Erickson by Jeff, decades ago when he was “emerging.”
Story after story, heartfelt memory after memory, I was entranced by the care and the reverence still so deeply present within Jeffrey’s many recollections. Recollections that to this day continue to elicit such moving history within Jeff, who so purposefully relives this history every day.
Because he has made a defining and central part of his prolific Life’s work, keeping his mentor’s legacy and teachings alive. Not only for his heart, but for the Soul of our field.
“Erickson was color blind. Thus, his affinity for purple.” Jeff noted. We were standing in front of a closet peering through glass doors at a display of various outfits – all in Erickson purple. Including a jacket gifted to Jeff.
Personal artifact after personal artifact, memento after memento, carried memory after memory of a mentorship that deepened into far more than a teaching relationship, almost from the start.
As we walked through the home turned museum, Jeff shared a story related to a bronze wall decoration and pointed out each of the five children staged around Mrs. Erickson. After a lengthy description of each of the five adult children – describing their life paths past and present – Jeff noted as if still surprised, “I received an invitation to attend Kristi’s wedding after my first visit with Erickson. I had been there for only three and a half days.” Jeff stated, shaking his head. “I think I hitchhiked my way there and back.”
And so unfolded the life-altering, interwoven relationship between Erickson and Zeig. Zeig and Erickson. Legacies whose names are so frequently connected, many in our field wonder why Jeffrey has committed so much of his own legacy to honoring and highlighting Erickson’s legacy.
But as a close friend who has come to know Jeffrey well, I believe the answer lies not only in the professional similarities between mentor and mentee, but perhaps more importantly, the personal similarities.
Especially in regard to character, passion, and approach to Life.
Generosity: quiet, unquestioned support of any patient who desires to get better, regardless of funds. Humor: intelligent and witty. Kindness:lovingly embracing of others, with an absence of judgment and a humanity to help. Love of the unusual. Passionate: about work, about family, about friends, about knowledge. Mischievous: as evidenced by the playful twinkle in the eyes of both Erickson and Zeig.
“Sit in the chair.” Jeff gestured to a green vinyl chair as we entered the last room in the house, Erickson’s personal office where he treated patients and first mentored a 26-year-old Zeig. “This is where I would sit when I met with Erickson.”
Upon Jeff’s insistence, I sat and imagined what it would be like to be an aspiring clinician, sitting across from your clinical hero. Young and intimidated but longing to learn. Being willing to thrust your Self into the center of vulnerability and curiosity in order to quest your drive for knowledge.
Which is exactly who Jeffrey Zeig is, and what Jeffrey Zeig continues to do still, 47 years later.
A purple crocheted cushion rounded out the tour. Jeff sat in Erickson’s desk chair and put his elbows on the homemade cushion, leaning forward and toward me, illustrating how Erickson would sit when working with both his patients and his students.
As he sat, Jeff pointed out well-loved therapeutic figurines located all around Erickson’s desk. Artifacts used to prompt the endless metaphorical stories Erickson loved to use with well-crafted intention, to plant seeds or evoke understanding within his patients without them ever knowing directly his intent, or being offered outward advisement, direction, or being told overtly how to address a therapeutic issue.
An artistic therapeutic approach mastered by Erickson and Zeig alike.
As the evening came to a meaningful end and Jeffrey turned to leave, I asked what HE feels as he moves through this house, so poignantly full of personal and professional memories.
“Bittersweet.” Jeff responded thoughtfully.
And with that, the twinkle in Jeff’s eyes lapsed into a multitude of other deep characteristic emotions those familiar with Jeffrey Zeig experience; depth of sentiment, heartfelt meaning, love, reflection ~ and gratitude.
This blog is dedicated to my esteemed colleague and dear friend, Dr. Jeffrey Zeig, on his 73rd birthday.
Thank you for your grace, your heart, and your love for our field which has helped inspire and mentor many a clinician, across generations and throughout the world.
Our field has been made forever better, because of your Life.