Albert Ellis, the foul-mouthed father of cognitive therapy, is a modern Diogenes. Now severely ill, and at odds with the institute he founded, he remains convinced of the value of Stoic wisdomby Jules Evans / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
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On July 24th—after this article was published— Albert Ellis died at his flat on the top floor of the Albert Ellis Institute. This was the last interview he gave.
When I got in touch with Albert Ellis’s office to arrange an interview with him later in the year, they told me that he was very old and ill and might not live that long. They said that I should come as soon as possible, so the next day I took a plane to New York. I was prepared to drop everything to interview Ellis. He is one of the few living legends of psychology. The magazine Psychology Today described him as the “greatest living psychologist,” while the American Psychological Association voted him the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Carl Rogers came first; Freud was third).
Ellis is considered the father of the “cognitive revolution,” which has caused a huge shift in the way we see mental disorders, and has led to the present popularity of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). He is also a colourful character, given to swearing like a fishwife (he has suggested that Freud’s ideas were “horseshit from start to finish”) and insistent on his view that “most human beings are out of their fucking minds.” You could say he is a modern Diogenes: foul-mouthed, free-thinking, trying to liberate us from the mental habits that make us miserable.
Ellis has also had a huge personal influence on me. I had post-traumatic stress disorder for six years or so in my twenties. I developed this condition after reckless experimentation with psychedelic drugs. I’ve seen many other people my age develop similar mental problems through use of ecstasy, speed and LSD. The disorder, which manifested itself when I was at university as an almost permanent feeling of unease in social situations, brimming over into the occasional panic attack, laid waste to my self-esteem and ability to socialise. In my first years in the workplace, the effort to cope with and hide the disorder from others left me exhausted. Like the hundreds of millions of people with emotional disorders in western society, I was underachieving, alienated from society and very unhappy.