A Helluva Mentor

In reading a review article on psychotherapy, I came across the name George Allen who I always will associate with fond memories.  Out of curiosity I googled his name and discovered  he had passed away a few months ago.  His obituary reflected the type of extraordinary individual he was in pointing out his many accomplishments in the field of psychology.

I first met George when I was a Psychology Trainee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Danville, Illinois while in my first year of a doctoral program of psychology at Purdue University.  The supervisor I was assigned to at the time I will refer to under the pseudonym of Dr. Alice.   I had heard some horror stories describing her overbearing personality from several Purdue students that had trained under her.  Unruffled, and as I have indicated in an earlier essay, being inclined toward people pleasing I set out to make a good impression.  When I first met her, I was somewhat perplexed by the very critical, and if I might say, nasty evaluation made by my more senior, fellow classmates.  I perceived her as an attractive woman in her mid to late 40’s, blazing red hair, well dressed and well-mannered with her desk neat as a pin.   She possessed an ostensible swagger of confidence that gave the impression of one completely in charge of her surroundings.

Dr. Alice introduced herself by telling me about all the terrible experiences she had had with some of my classmates.  I recall her telling me that she believed one of them really wanted to be an opera singer, and had showed little aptitude as a psychologist.  She ended this diatribe by hoping that I would not be following in any of their footsteps.  Furthermore, she stated that she much preferred working with the students from the University of Illinois rather than those from Purdue.  Clearly the consensus of student opinion from Purdue and that of Dr. Alice was congruent in each of the mutual dislike shared by the other.

As a Psychology Trainee in my first year of graduate study at Purdue, Dr.  Alice quickly realized how green I was knowledge wise in the field of psychology.  She recommended I meet with George on a weekly basis inasmuch as he was in his last year at the University of Illinois and, who she held in great respect, would be able to show me the ropes.  This turned out to be a blessing for me.  But because I could see from the start that Dr. Alice, who had leanings toward a psychoanalytic orientation, viewed George with such high regard, I was puzzled.  The University of Illinois was staunchly behavioral in its approach to psychotherapy.  Would not this wide difference in theoretical perspective cause some sort of dissention or discomfort between Dr. Alice and George?

When I met George, I found him to be one of the most genuine and stable individuals I had ever encountered.  He immediately calmed any fears I may have had with his attitude toward Dr. Alice by declaring her to be a brilliant woman though his orientation in psychology was much different than hers.  That he could accept her with no misgivings was a far cry from the ranting of those students who had preceded me from Purdue.  George’s patient self-assured demeanor really set the stage for a most positive experience that the two of us shared.  Spending that hour per week with George was like a breath of fresh air:   Soon some of the quirks in Dr. Alice that my colleagues had spoken about became evident.

Most “memorable” was when Dr. Alice asked me to interpret Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventories (MMPI’s) that had been administered to patients.  In the second semester at Purdue, I studied the history, development, scoring and interpretation of the MMPI from a faculty member that had done a lot of research on it.  Briefly, the MMPI consists of 9 clinical scales, a social introversion-extroversion scale and 3 validity scales.  Dr. Alice had concocted a scoring and interpretive system in a cook book form that instructed the user to precisely follow her instructions.  As I recall, the instructions were endlessly long being several pages and, if you made a mistake, you needed to begin again from the start.  Even in 1968, this system seemed antiquated.   What I found most disturbing was the fact that when, after several hours, I successfully completed all the directions, my actual diagnosis and treatment recommendations were limited.  I thought to myself all this input but with so very little output.  Furthermore, when I started studying the MMPI at Purdue, not only did I learn of much faster ways of getting at the same data but also how this information could be better employed in the understanding of the patient’s condition.

This experience with Dr. Alice demonstrated her micromanaging and controlling nature.  I remember Dr. Alice had asked George to administer a Rorschach Test to a patient who had been out of control.  Although the Rorschach was peripheral to the core of his training, he willingly accepted the task.  At times, I felt like throwing in the towel and telling Dr. Alice to bug off.   George’s flexibility along with his mature wisdom steered me away from any impulsive desire to give up.   By cooperating with Dr. Alice, I had won her over, so to speak, and I understood it not worth creating an enemy out of her.  My people pleasing tendencies, in conjunction with George’s own respect for Dr. Alice, allowed me to surpass her own low expectation she may have had of psychology trainees from Purdue.

The many good things pointed out in George’s obituary reinforced my strong opinion I had of him during the year I met him.  Among other things, George had been the Director of the Clinical Training program at the University of Connecticut from 1984 to 2003 where he served as a major advisor for about 100 doctoral students.  There he influenced positively hundreds of additional graduate and undergraduate students.  I can proudly state I was perhaps his first advisee, and indeed, it was a wonderful experience.  Thank you, George, for reducing my anxiety in my first year of training at the Danville V.A.H.