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It has been said that “MRI began before it came into existence,” and in a way it did. In the early’ 50’s, Gregory Bateson, the eminent anthropologist, was awarded a grant to study communication – its different levels and channels, and how one message modified another or was significant in understanding another. Together with Jay Haley, William Fry, who had just finished his psychiatric residency, and John Weakland, Bateson began the communication project at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park.

The “strange communications” which were going on at the hospital provoked the interest of the Bateson group in the behavior of schizophrenics, whose “non-sensical” language the team began to study.

In 1954 Don D. Jackson gave a lecture at the VA Hospital on “family homeostatis.” Bateson was in the audience. That encounter was the beginning of a collaboration between Jackson and the Bateson project which would lead, five years later, to the formation of the Mental Research Institute.

Jackson acted as a consultant on the Bateson project because of his experience in treating schizophrenics and their families, and his ideas about homeostatis, which dovetailed with the others’ notions about feedback and cybernetic systems. From this project, the seminal double-bind theory of schizophrenia was developed. The impact on the mental health community was extensive and still continues.


First ten years

In 1959, Jackson, with private financial backing, started MRI as a division within the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation in order to study schizophrenia and the family. The original staff consisted of Jackson, a secretary, and two people who had heard of the double-bind and family work and who were eager to join in it: Virginia Satir and Jules Riskin. The Bateson project was awarded another grant that same year form NIMH to study schizophrenics and their families. While this project was separate from MRI, it was also carried out through PAMRF.

As interest increased in conjoint family therapy, Satir received a grant from the Hill Foundation of Minneapolis in 1960, for a two-year training project. She had not only been practicing but was by now informally teaching other therapists, often late in the evening. Then in 1962, NIMH awarded a sizeable grant – its first ever for formal training in family therapy – to cover five more years of the training project. With these grants, MRI’s training program was launched.

In 1961, an Austrian, who had spent several years teaching psychology in San Salvador’s National University, became intrigued by the work in Palo Alto. MRI welcomed Paul Watzlawick, and soon he began working, with the help of Janet Beavin, on a recorded anthology of verbal communication taken from tapes of conjoint therapy sessions.

Also in the early’ 60’s, Haley, who along with Weakland had recently joined MRI, was experimenting with ways of measuring communications in families. He used a number of objective measurements, including a mechanical device which automatically recorded who spoke and after whom. Riskin was also working on quantifiying family interactions. He began to develop a methodology for studying family interaction. This project was funded by NIMH and eventually, with the help of Elaine Faunce, produced the Family Interaction Scales (FIS).

One of the major technical aspects of these early works was the recording of all the therapy and research interviews. Traditionally, an accounting of what took place in a therapy session was done by reliance on notes and memory. The Bateson project and the MRI staff broke with this tradition – first with taping, then direct observation, then filming, and finally videotaping.

This practice created something totally new: family interactional data which could be directly studied.

By 1963, MRI was large enough to become an independent organization. It had several psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals in the behavioral sciences. Conceptualizing the family as an interactional social system, research expanded from the original focus on schizophrenia to examining how family interactions affected such diverse phenomena as ulcerative colitis in children, asthma, and preschool children’s academic potential.

Family therapy training continued through 1966 under the direction of Satir. Satir’s model evolved into a federally-funded program to train nurses in communication skills; it was directed by Elaine Sorensen. The Institute was also conducting special training programs at neighboring universities and hospitals. Staff members were speaking to an increasingly wider variety of professional groups and conducting seminars and workshops.

MRI staff were important contributors to the literature of interactional therapy and research. Satir’s book, Conjoint Family Therapy, was published, and Jackson was writing his significant theoretical papers on family rules, and the marital quid pro quo. Watzlawick was writing about the pragmatics of communication.

MRI, in conjunction with the Family Institute of New York (now known as the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy), started the journal, Family Process, in 1962; Haley was editor. Family Process (which became an independent entity in 1974) publishes papers devoted to family research and treatment.

During the ‘60’s, Weakland was studying Chinese Communism films. While these were blatant instruments of political propaganda, he used them to explore and better understand the social patterns of Chinese families and larger social groups, and their relevance to political and international relations.

In 1967 the Brief Therapy Center opened, under the direction of Richard Fisch. The staff included Watzlawick and Weakland, as well as Arthur Bodin, who had come to MRI in 1965. BTC’s original intention was to explore what could be achieved in a brief time with a variety of specific problems. The duration of treatment was limited to ten sessions, with very active intervention and a primary focus on the main presenting problem. It soon was found that this approach was effective and that successful resolution of the presenting problem often led to changes in other problem areas, as well.


Second ten years

January, 1968, brought the untimely death of Jackson. With the loss of the charismatic director and the tightening of federal monies on research, some difficult years lay ahead. MRI’s programs, however, were considerably helped by grants from local, private foundations. Despite the declining research monies, the federal Administration on Aging did award MRI and its new director, John Bell, a grant to work with families having older members. Hence, the Family Futures Center was formed, growing in part out of the training program for nurses. FFC evolved into the Family Interaction Center, directed by Elaine Sorensen, and work continued for three years. (This project led to John Herr’s and Weakland’s newly published book on Counseling Elders and Their Families [Springer Publishing Co., 1979].)

Under the leadership of Bell and Norma Davies, MRI developed a program to help patients hospitalized for physical illness to reenter their families. This project was carried out in conjunction with the Department of Physical Therapy at Stanford University.

In the early ‘70’s, a research project began in which first-break schizophrenics were viewed as going through a development crisis instead of being only “mentally ill.” This conceptualization drew upon the family interaction theories developed at MRI. The program was funded by NIMH. Soteria House, the alternative community residential treatment center, opened in San Jose under the direction of Alma Menn; Loren Mosher of NIMH’s Center for the Study of Schizophrenia, served as consultant. Eight years later, Soteria House still operates, along with Enamon House, a replication study in an adjoining county. The progress of residents of the houses is compared to a matched sample being treated at the county hospital psychiatric wards. This form of residential treatment (in which most of the patients do not receive any drugs) appears to be at least as effective and cost efficient as treatment in the traditional hospital environment for certain types of first-break schizophrenics.

By 1973, MRI’s finances were in very poor shape. Because of this, Bell resigned as the full-time director, and Riskin became MRI’s third director, serving part-time.

About this time, Bodin became interested in working with police who were called to deal with families in crisis. Together, he and Diana Everstine created a demonstration project based on a 24-hour crisis intervention strategy. This project soon became established as the Emergency Treatment Center, funded by Santa Clara County. ETC, now a separate entity and directed by Everstine, is affiliated with and housed at MRI. It offers 24-hour crisis intervention, especially geared towards victims of assault-rape, child abuse, family violence, incest, and child molestation.

Also during the ‘70’s, Riskin shifted his focus to the study of “healthy” families. Five years have now been spent on the “Non-labeled” Families Project, which has involved meeting with two “normal” families once a month over the course of two years, with follow-up interviews every six months during the subsequent two years. The interviews were taped, and they continue to be analyzed from both quantitative and qualitive perspectives.

In 1978, MRI started an out-patient psychotherapy clinic under the direction Davies. Currently averaging about 10 client hours a week, the Clinic is working to develop a pool of research data. Davies and her colleagues are launching a project to study the outcome of psychotherapy in terms of effectiveness, future problems, etc.

The early years training programs developed into a series of short-term workshops given three times a year at MRI. In addition, off-site workshops and seminars occur regularly, and MRI staff criss-cross this continent and Europe, presenting their work to wider audiences. In 1978 Carlos Sluzki and Watzlawick began a year-long externship training program in family therapy.

MRI’s second decade has been more constrained by tightened finances than the first. However, the work on dimensions of communication, family systems, and larger social systems has actively continued and expanded. Hundreds of visitors have come, staying from a few days to a year. MRI is still characterized by unique blend of research, clinical, and educational activites. The list of staff publications contains an impressive number of influential books and articles.

The twenty years of work will be celebrated this August by the Fourth Don D. Jackson Memorial Conference, when six pre-eminent family therapists will talk about their enormously active field, one that twenty years ago was the domain of but a handful of people.