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Having seen these authors in action in both large and small group settings, I was chagrined to realize how little I understood about the true genius manifest in their twenty years of collaboration and dialogue. Their combined insight is impressive, daunting, demanding, and inspiring.
Gustafson, the psychiatrist-physician, writes the odd numbered chapters. Cooper, the psychologist-professor, is author of the even-numbered chapters. That curious structural contrapuntality tells the reader from the beginning that the band is rocking and this is no slow-dance. We are jerked back and forth in an almost primitive rhythm as these mind-drummers explain to us that "the modern contest decides winning and losing very fast," and that our post-modernist era is a battlefield beyond our simple-minded understanding of the way things appear to be.
Throughout the book there are zen-like generalizations about the nature of group life. "Loyalty is the best introduction," they suggest, and "meeting crude challenges cheerfully is the least troublesome for our friends." What transforms this collection of globalizations into deeply valuable insight is the assortment of stories, illustrations, and self-reports offered by the authors. Their unabashed descriptions of failure, misery, suffering, and cruel hardship are painfully personal at certain moments. The most trivial rejection by peers or students illuminates a world of almost visionary proportion when seen properly through the lenses of interpretation and purpose.
Who should read this book? I came to THE MODERN CONTEST as a longtime student and teacher of group process, psychotherapy, and personal growth. Anyone with those interests will be properly hammered by Gustafson, in particular, who has managed somehow to be an iconoclastic survivor in the maelstrom of academic life. One gets the sense that no matter how deep the confederacy of dunces surrounding him, he gets the joke and accepts the new navigational challenge. Like a character out of James Joyce, he seems to say, "Oh? We have changed the rules? Very well, then, we have changed the rules!"
Try this on for size: "Any territory will be invaded by three kinds of armies of contest: the armies of the oblivious who have something they are authorized to check; the armies of the desperate who must have their fortunes improved or else become lost; the armies of the overpowering who can clear the room. Each ought to get a different kind of counterproposal."
And here is my own particular punchline: this book is very, very helpful in my daily work. I am not quite sure why. Certainly the value derives in part from the knife-edge humor that pervades the book. These guys are not laughing with us, they are laughing at us. What redeems them, I think, is that they are enthusiastic about letting us in on every gag, every secret, every nasty little truth about ourselves and our behavior. That is why the book can soar from a small group of medical students, behaving like primitive apes, to a vast territorial organization acting much the same way.
I confidently predict that this book will be reprinted, if not revised in a second edition. I doubt that these two sailors will circumnavigate this particular world again, at least not together. They are like Wallace Stevens' man with the blue guitar, and they do not play things as they are. I can picture the two of them, warm tea dripping from their moustaches, already planning something quite beyond the modern contest. The post-modern contest, perhaps, or the punishment of splendid little insights.
Whatever they call their next duet, I will be first in line in cyberspace to see if I can get my hands on their next commentary on our wobbling little planet and the Great Pattern which suggests that there is meaning in the cosmos.
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Gustafson takes the reader on a tour of the theories and therapies that have informed his practice over his career. Beginning with Freud and Breuer, Gustafson includes the work of Ferenczi, Rank, Reich, Alexander & French, Sullivan, Winnicott, Balint, Gedo, Havens, Malan, Mann, Sifneos, Davanloo, Bateson, the Milan teams, and Maturana.
Each chapter is designed to pull what Gustafson feels is the essence of the method of each of these therapists and he typically uses one of the therapists' cases as well as one of his own as a way to demonstrate that the work of the masters is possible to adapt and be made workable for oneself.
In the end, Gustafson works towards a "method of methods", setting a structure (beginning, middle and end) for brief therapy, within which one applies the methods of whichever theorist best matches the dynamics of the patient.
For all of his cases, he includes in the back of the book a full clinical review based on the case files of the clients. This way, the reader can see the whole picture of the case and not just the truncated view within the chapter itself.
This text has extensive endnotes and references. I started with this text a decade ago and have worked my way through nearly every original source since. It is an excellent way to shape one's theoretical and clinical world.
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I must say that I cherished the book and enjoyed it far more than the Disney movie. Peter's conceit was among the funnier moments, along with his memory.
"How clever I am," he crowed raputerously, "oh the cleverness of me!"
It is humliliating to have to confess that this conceit of Peter was one of his most fascinating qualities. To put it with brutal frankness, there was never a cockier boy.
But for the moment Wendy was shocked. "You conceit," she exclaimed, with frightful sarcasm; "of course I did nothing!"
"You did a little," Peter said carelessly, and continued to dance.
The scene above was one of my favorites, for it is rare that Wendy was ever sarcastic in any way.
In any case, this book is a marvelous lesson for children (and teenagers such as I) who fear growing up. So long as you are pure of heart, Peter will be there and you shan't ever grow up. Not really.
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