Honoring Violet at the Future Conference at Esalen by Peter Mortola, Ph.D.
It turns out that it’s not so easy to get a good night’s sleep at Fritz’s house. Violet Oaklander, Lynn Stadler and I all can attest to that. Although the setting of the place is amazingly beautiful, perched on the cliffs above the surf at Esalen, none of us slept well as we shared the “house that Fritz built.”
We were all at Esalen to attend the Evolution of Gestalt II: Relational Child, Relational Mind conference in February of this year. Violet was the honored guest at the conference in which we focused on the latest developments in our understanding of children as they develop and how we can work most effectively with them in therapy.
Despite the fact that Lynn, Violet and I would share stories in the morning of how we tossed and turned all night listening to what should have been the lulling sound of waves rolling up on the shore below us, it was a pleasure to share Fritz’s house with them. There was a richness and poignancy to the fact that we were back at the place where Violet herself had learned the art of gestalt therapy. In the seventies, Violet had visited Esalen to work with Jim Simkin (perhaps the ghost of Fritz was jealous and that is why he wouldn’t let us sleep!) and the rest is history.
On the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Violet was presented with an incredible and huge chocolate cake at Esalen and was sung to by all the conference participants. Violet also gave the opening address at the conference as well as a plenary session in which she focused on the importance of attending to relationship and contact in working with children. Book-ending the conference was an timely address by Dan Siegel, author of The Developing Mind, in which he discussed the latest research on how both relationship and contact are the necessary processes by which a child’s neural development enriches and becomes more complex from the very first day of life and through childhood.
In this way, the intuitively correct and pioneering work of Violet was substantiated and reaffirmed by the latest research on brain development. As Gordon Wheeler stated in his introduction for Violet at the conference, “We are truly lucky to have had a pioneer who also could see the future.” Lynn Stadler made sure there was attention paid to the future of the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation at the conference by enlisting new participants in VSOF and our activities. And when we all got home to our own beds, we slept great.
Violet: Reflections on turning 80…
by Sara Oaklander and Mha Atma Kalsa
Our mother, the world-famous psychotherapist, turned 80 on April 18. We celebrated her birthday by traveling with her to New York City, where she spent some very formative years of her life, from age 18 to 27. On our first day together in New York, we visited Ellis Island, where we were able to find the ship’s record of mom’s grandmother, mother, and aunt, who arrived from Russia in March of 1912. It was a most poignant and celebratory moment – perfectly appropriate for the occasion!
On the Big Day, April 18, we visited mom’s favorite painting, Picasso’s The Three Musicians, at the Museum of Modern Art (and some cool Andy Warhol stuff too!) and had a great time seeing A Chorus Line on Broadway. Then we had a lovely birthday dinner at a great little Italian restaurant, celebrating on the eve of mom’s 9th decade, reminiscing about each of the eight decades she has lived thus far.
She recalled the personal and professional milestones in each decade of life – the joys and the sorrows and the remarkable achievements. She told us many wonderful stories about her life and her work. Each time we share these kinds of memories we hear something we’ve never heard before. And this time we understood more clearly the profound joys and the many personal tragedies she sustained throughout her life. Our mom had loving and devoted parents and older brothers, and she fully appreciated raising three wonderful children. She also endured many personal tragedies, including being badly burned at the age of five, the death of her beloved brother in the waning months of the War in 1945, and the death of our brother just before his 15th birthday in 1969. All of this contributed to and informed her unique personality, vision and talent and, in wondrous ways, led to the many amazing professional accomplishments that have made her an icon in the world of therapy for children and adolescents.
In her 30s, our mom earned her undergraduate degree and became a teacher while raising three kids. In her 40s, she earned two masters degrees and a doctorate and wrote Windows to Our Children. In her 50s she began traveling all over the U.S. and the world teaching and training others in her therapeutic approach, and she started her intensive summer training program that has since been attended by folks from all over the planet. At age 60 she closed her busy practice, moved to Santa Barbara, and started all over again, all the while continuing to travel. In her eighth decade, as she began to gradually wind down her professional life, she wrote her second book and participated, along with a team of folks dedicated to carrying on her work, in the founding of the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation.
We’re very proud of our mother and the fortitude that allowed her to endure tremendous personal tragedy and loss, always continuing to grow and reach and expand herself as a student, a teacher, a therapist, and a writer. There is now great anticipation of what’s to come in her ninth decade: the challenge of making a new life for herself in Los Angeles…reconnecting with old friends….living in close proximity to Mha Atma and Martha... attending their hootenannies…seeing more movies… relaxing and enjoying life… And who knows?! She might even start playing her guitar again! And, with our encouragement and support, we look forward to our mom writing her next book - Violet’s memoirs!
Founding Member Spotlight on Claire Mercurio Ph. D
by Lynn Stadler
There were about 25 people from around the world at Violet’s two-week Summer Training in July 2000. Besides Violet, Claire and I were the only two “locals” living in Santa Barbara. We had never met before that training, and as I look back, I think we were a bit careful with each other at first. Our friendship evolved gradually. We began meeting together for supervision with Violet, then we started having monthly lunches with another friend, but things really got cooking after the first VSOF meeting on the porch of the infamous Taffy’s in 2003.
Every quarter or so, the VSOF Founding Members had a meeting, and before long it was 2005, and Claire and I were working shoulder to shoulder on the official launch of VSOF – creating our brochure, mailing lists, invitations to our fabulous (if I may say so) launch party at Casa de Maria in Montecito. It was during our hard work that Spring and Summer that I really got to know Claire. I learned that she is not only one of the most sane and stable people I know, but she is truly a Renaissance woman – child psychologist, devoted wife, super mom to two wonderful sons, gardener, decorator, hula dancer, yoga practitioner, horse woman, hiker, tennis player, avid reader, world traveler, sister, daughter, aunt, friend. She even has a foster pet – the endangered tortoise! And she teaches psychology to sixth graders!
And there’s more. By her own admission, within Claire, a Gemini, resides two very different personalities. One a bit reserved, one a little wild. She’s reliable, thorough, efficient, and super intelligent, yet she’s flexible, spontaneous, light-hearted and super fun.
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan (by what sounds to me like near-perfect parents), Claire (like Violet) began her career working with young children as a camp counselor. When she got involved with “Summer Play Camp” at age 14, her professional goal was to work with children.
Claire graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Honors Psychology from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. She worked with adolescents during both undergraduate and graduate school. She first read Windows to Our Children while interning at a clinic in Los Angeles. The clinic had just developed their children’s program and Violet’s book was required reading. It was then that Claire thought, “This is exactly what I want to do.”
A few years later, Claire moved to Santa Barbara, heard that Violet lived here too, and called her up. Of course, Violet picked up her own phone. (That always seems to amaze people.) Claire got busy taking workshops with Violet and also with Felicia Carroll. Her private practice is now full with children, teens, and young adults. She often offers therapy groups for children and is currently training children in grades 4-8 the basics of peer mediation – active listening, “I” messages, and appropriate anger outlets.
Claire is on the VSOF Board of Directors, and is currently our Treasurer and a valued Treasure.