Uncommon Origins

An Interview with Bill O'Hanlon
Graphic for Bill O'Hanlon Interview

Uncommon Origins: An Interview with Bill O’Hanlon

Bill O’Hanlon studied with Milton Erickson in the 1970s. Strongly influenced by Dr. Erickson’s work, he has written more than 30 books, and given 3,500 presentations to therapists around the world. O’Hanlon is a top-rated presenter at many national conferences, and in 2001, was awarded the Outstanding Mental Health Educator of the Year by the New England Educational Institute. O’Hanlon will be a speaker at the upcoming Brief Therapy Conference in 2018, as well as giving a keynote presentation at the Erickson Congress (www.ericksoncongress.com) in December 2019. The following is part of the original interview for the Erickson biography project (www.ericksonbiography.com) and Foundation Archives.

Jeff Zeig: Can you tell me about your introduction to Milton Erickson?

Bill O’Hanlon: In 1973, I was a work-study student at the Matthews Art Gallery at ASU. The main floor of the gallery was several flights up and the building wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Being the psychotic optimist that I am and also feeling bad for this guy in a wheelchair, I offered to get Dr. Erickson upstairs. Later, a fellow student said, “Do you know who that was?” I said, ‘No.’ She said, “Well, you’re in psychology. You should know. He’s a famous psychiatrist… Dr. Milton Erickson.” I said, ‘I’ve never heard of him. None of my professors ever mentioned him.’ The fact that Erickson lived in Phoenix was chiasmic for me. There was a TIME magazine in the gallery with an article called, “Svengali in Arizona.” It had a case about a woman who was suicidal and Dr. Erickson essentially saved her life. I had been suicidal so it interested me. I was hooked.

Everything I read about Dr. Erickson fascinated and baffled me, because it wasn’t what I had been taught. In 1976, I trained with Bandler and Grinder and they said, “You live right there…why don’t you go study with Dr. Erickson?” I was shy at that time but worked up my courage and wrote a letter. I offered to do gardening and to write a biography on him, because his life story was so inspiring. Then I left town. When I returned, my roommate said, “The strangest man has been calling. He asks for the O’Hanlon gardening service. When I tell him you’re not here, he just hangs up.” Dr. Erickson called again early one morning and said, “Don’t you think you ought to survey the territory before you decide to take the job?” Well, that stunned me, and no doubt threw me into a trance.

I was a hippy at the time and as a good hippy I wanted to wear my best clothes to meet him. So I had my girlfriend make a three-piece suit out of a McCall’s pattern. I couldn’t afford good material so it was sort of polyester and it was white, because John Lennon had a white suit and it stood for peace. Looking back, it was pretty ridiculous, but I wore it to the Erickson house. It was so intimidating to meet Dr. Erickson because I had been dreaming about that moment for so long. I went to shake his hand, and felt I had already made a mistake because he was partially paralyzed. He was watching “All in the Family,” an American TV show, and every time the bigoted character would make mistakes with language, Dr. Erickson would laugh. I thought it was amazing, but were we supposed to just sit there and watch TV? Wasn’t he going to teach me? Afterwards, we went to the garden and Dr. Erickson asked me to get the nutgrass out of a rose bed. Now I’m a psychology student so I’m thinking nutgrass is a metaphor. I’m too shy to ask if I could go home to change so I ruined that suit, which was actually a great gift to me. After the third week of working as Erickson’s gardener, Mrs. Erickson, bless her heart, said, “Milton, the boy wants to sit in on some sessions. Let’s schedule him.” The thing I’ve treasured since I’ve learned more about his work is that if I asked him a question about psychotherapy, his answer would typically be metaphorical, vague, and indirect. But if I asked him about gardening, he would answer clearly.

JZ: What was so riveting for you about Dr. Erickson?

BO: I grew up in a family that was mean, teasing, and blaming. Dr. Erickson wasn’t big on diagnosis, finding causes, or who was to blame. He was sort of quintessential American – interested in the solution and resources. I’m Irish on both sides of my family so I was fascinated by his stories, but actually quite frightened of hypnosis. After I studied with him I got over that because he seemed so respectful and not manipulative. I once heard Jay Haley say, “If I understood 50 percent of what he did, I think I’d be a lot better therapist.”

JZ: New worlds would open.

BO: Yes. And my sense is there is so much more to discover.

JZ: Did Dr. Erickson ever formally hypnotize you?

BO: He was mostly conversational.

JZ: He called that “naturalistic trance.”

BO: On one visit, there were these two psychologists who kept trying to hypnotize each other. This went on for five minutes until finally Dr. Erickson said, “Alright, that’s enough. Now I’ll show you how hypnosis should be done.” This was an uncanny moment, because the night before I talked to a guy I knew who lived in Phoenix and was a hypnotherapist. He said, “What have you been up to?” I said, ‘Well, I’m studying with Dr. Erickson.’ He said, “You’re kidding. You’re studying with the master? Have you asked to work with him yet?” I said, ‘No, I’m his student, not his patient.’ He said, “You have to ask him to work with you on some issue because you’ll learn it from the inside out.”

I’m a finicky eater. At that time, I ate about 10 foods. Occasionally, it was socially awkward, but it bothered other people more than me. I thought, ‘I’ll ask Dr. Erickson to work with me because I’ve done some work in psychotherapy and it never yielded anything.’ I was sexually molested, orally, when I was a child, so I’m sure there was some trauma with that. Also, I never grew out finicky eating like some kids do. After Dr. Erickson said he would show us how hypnosis should be done, he began to tell stories. The first was about a psychiatrist who had asked Dr. Erickson to dinner at his and his wife’s favorite place where they always ordered the same thing. At the restaurant, Dr. Erickson was told the couple’s preferred dish, but instead ordered a dozen raw oysters. They were appalled, but he took so much pleasure in eating the oysters that the couple sent their usual meal back and both ordered oysters. Now I’m thinking, ‘Am I in trance?’ I was going to tell him that I wanted to work on restricted eating and here he is telling a story about flexibility with food.

The second story was about when he was giving a teaching seminar down South and the psychiatrist who sponsored him said, “I told my wife all about you and she’s so honored to have you to our house that she’ll make you anything — and she’s a terrific cook.” After Erickson was introduced to his wife, he said, “I don’t come down South often, but when I do, I love milk gravy. If you can make something with milk gravy I would love it.” The wife blushed and became silent. The husband fell down laughing, and then said, “I grew up in the South in a poor family and when I married my wife I asked her to make milk gravy and she said, ‘That’s for poor white trash. We don’t have that in this house.’” Not only did the woman make milk gravy, she loved it, and now the couple regularly eats it.

Dr. Erickson went on to tell more stories about food and breaking out of patterns and afterwards asked, “Now what can I do for you young man?” I said, ‘I think you already did it Dr. Erickson.’ I really did think he was psychic. About a year after he died, I was at a restaurant with friends and ordered crepes with béarnaise sauce, which I had never had. I’m kind of a junk food eater. My friends asked me what was going on, and I said, “I have a sense that something Dr. Erickson said is getting me to order this.” I ate it and I liked it.

JZ: So how did you get to Bandler and Grinder?

BO: In 1976, I came across The Structure of Magic and it raised my awareness about the importance of language. I was working at TriCity Mental Health Center in Mesa, AZ and there was a flyer advertising Bandler and Grinder in Tucson and it would be $35 for three days. I was pretty poor at the time, doing an internship and finishing my master’s degree. I didn’t have a car so I said asked another intern to go. We went and after 15 minutes I said, ‘I’ve already got my $35 worth. This is fantastic.’ They were some of the best teachers I’d seen and I became a camp follower. The following year, I went to certification training taught by Bandler, Grinder, Leslie Cameron, and Judy Delosier. At the beginning of the training they asked, “Who knows what neurolinguistic programming is?” A couple of people raised their hands, and Bandler said, “You couldn’t know because we were just drinking Scotch on our back porch the other night and we made up this name. It’s the study of the structure of subjective experience.” At that point, I became less interested because it was more formulaic. They said we were going to study the greatest chefs and that they would teach us how to become great chefs.

JZ: Modeling.

BO: Yes, patterns and modeling. Neurolinguistic programming seemed like a recipe and was antithetical to what I had learned from Dr. Erickson. Then, they started certifying and franchising and I thought it became like Kentucky Fried NLP. At the first NLP conference, a psychiatrist kept turning on his tape recorder during the introduction and Bandler threatened to break his arms. That was the end for me. I left and never looked back. I then focused on Dr. Erickson and it became part of my mission to let everyone know about this amazing fellow who could relieve suffering more powerfully than anyone I had ever come across.

JZ: Fantastic. And how did The Uncommon Casebook come about?

BO: As I mentioned, I was molested…by my grandfather. One of the ways that he maneuvered me into the molestation was by confusing me. He turned the TV volume up and began speaking in a confusing way. It only happened once, but it certainly left a mark. After that, confusion felt dangerous, so it was a challenge to study with Dr. Erickson. When I come into a confusing situation, I develop a compulsion to clarity. My first attempt to analyze and make sense of Dr. Erickson’s work was with Tap Roots; the second was Uncommon Casebook. I would listen to audios of him – there’s approximately 328 cases – watch videos, attend workshops, and talk to people who had studied with him directly. Jay Haley had written Uncommon Therapy and I asked his permission to use “uncommon” for the title of the book.

JZ: No one in the history of psychotherapy has ever reported 328 different cases. That in itself is an indicator of Erickson’s genius. Okay. Let’s talk about Dr. Erickson as the Wounded Healer.

BO: One of the things I learned from Dr. Erickson is that wounds don’t have to cripple you for the rest of your life. They’re always going to influence you, but they can become an asset. He once said, “In the Erickson family we see trouble as the roughage of life.”

JZ: Right. Utilization is one of the primary principles of Dr. Erickson, as well as his insistence on experiential realization rather than intellectual and academic recognition.

BO: I was at a personal development workshop and people were crying, laughing, grim or ecstatic. After two hours, this woman said, “When are we going to get to the experiential part?” A month later, she had left a long-term relationship, quit her job, and moved to a different city. She said, “I guess I’m in the experiential part.”

JZ: What’s your favorite Erickson case? Is it the tooth story?

BO: That story for me is apocryphal. Here’s this woman who thinks she’s hideous and had this bleak childhood. She believes her worst feature is the gap between her two front teeth. Erickson can barely see it, but she thinks it’s like the Grand Canyon. She’s suicidal and everyone wants to hospitalize her, so she asks Dr. Erickson if he’ll take her case. He agrees…on one condition – that she does anything he asks of her, as long as it’s not immoral, illegal, or unethical. He asks her to practice squirting water through the gap in her teeth. Ultimately, he gets her to flirt with a guy at her work doing this. She winds up marrying him and having kids. Again, the problem becomes part of the solution. I don’t think this is prevalent in modern psychotherapy.

JZ: It’s not prevalent, and as much as I studied utilization, actualizing that on a moment-to-moment basis is something that eludes me.

BO: Yes. I keep thinking depression or anxiety is the problem.

JZ: Right, because that’s how we were trained. How Dr. Erickson came to that pragmatism is somewhere within the weave of the context or personality, or history, or attitude, or beliefs.

BO: I believe Erickson was in awe of the natural world, believing that nothing gets created that doesn’t have a use.

JZ: And this wasn’t confined to his therapy; he lived this.

BO: That’s right. It’s counterintuitive for most of us but it seemed so natural for him.

JZ: The first 60 years of psychotherapy are dominated by analytic approaches. Then, as it becomes Americanized, there’s the behavioral movement, humanistic movement, systemic movement, and cognitive behavioral movement. More recently, there’s affective neurobiology — and still Erickson stands apart.

BO: I think Erickson was the first solution-oriented therapist. He also portended and helped birth a collaborative approach.

Erickson took several stroke cases, even after a year of the stroke, when the common thought was if a patient doesn’t recover within a month, they wouldn’t recover at all. Erickson would have them walk, sing, and say nursery rhymes. He would also insult them to evoke plasticity. I was taught that your brain stops developing when you’re a teenager. Now, we know the brain can change throughout life. What I got from Dr. Erickson was that everything is plastic.

JZ: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time.

Bill will be presenting several seminars at this year’s Brief Therapy Conference, including “Out of the Blue: Three Non-Medication Ways to Relieve Depression”, “Treating Trauma Briefly and Respectfully”, and “Resolving Trauma without Drama: Four Present- and Future-Oriented Methods for Treating Trauma Briefly and Respectfully”.

View the rest of the Conference schedule here!