The last farewell to Mony Elkaim
Katia Charalabaki Psychiatrist, Systemic Psychotherapist
Mony Elkaim, one of the pioneering systemic family therapists in Europe, passed away on Friday 20th of November 2020 in Brussels, after a long fight against illness and multiple hospitalisations over the course of the last year. He was 79 years old.
For those who knew him personally this causes great grief. For those who came to know him through reading his essays or attending the events in which he participated, there is a revival of references to his original, therapeutically creative and effective theoretical and clinical work. I, personally, belong to the first category, as well as the second one…
Mony Elkaim was born and raised in the city of Marrakesh in Morocco, to a Jewish family.
He studied in the Université Libre De Bruxelles ULB (Free University of Brussels) and specialised in neuropsychiatry. He then moved to the United States on a scholarship to specialise in social and community psychiatry in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. There, he also specialised in systemic family therapy. Having joined the anti-psychiatry movement, he coordinated the European anti-psychiatry network during the 1970s.
Upon his return to Belgium, in 1979 he founded, along with Edith Goldbeter, Alain Marteaux, Genevieve Platteau and Jacques Pluymaekers, the “Institut d’ Etudes de la Famille et des Systemes Humains” (Institute of Studies of the Family and Human Systems). He also formed and, with the help of his colleagues, operated the Family Clinic in the University Hospital of Brussels (Hôpital Erasme). He organised the first major international family therapy conferences in Europe, in 1981, 1983, 1986 and 1989, in which American and European pioneers of family therapy, as well as representatives of the anti-psychiatry movement participated. After having coordinated (alongside Maurizio Andolfi) the European network of family therapists, he founded the European Family Therapy Association (EFTA) and served as its chairman for many years. When EFTA was divided into three chambers he became the chairman of the Training Institutes Chamber (EFTA-Tic).
In 1979 he also founded the first francophone family therapy journal“Cahiers critiques de thérapie familiale et de pratique de réseaux’’ (The family therapy and network practices Review), which published systemic family therapy theory and practice articles, from American, European and other writers from across the globe.
On top of that, twice a month for two days at a time, he travelled to Paris where he coordinated supervision groups for French therapists from all around France.
In 1993 he became a professor of the Free University of Brussels. He had also been awarded several honorary positions and awards from countries like the USA, Austria, Poland etc.
I, personally, have unforgettable experiences from knowing and studying under Mony Elkaim.
To begin with, when I went to Brussels I applied to participate in the training course of the “Institut d’ Etudes de la Famille et des Systemes Humains” that Mony had founded. It was a three year course but I would only be in Brussels for two years. What could be done? And I finally got the answer: I would do the first two years simultaneously in my first year and I would do the third one the next year. And that is how it happened! Thus, I was attending the training seminar and I was also behind the one-way mirror (or even in the therapy room as a co-therapist) in Hôpital Erasme, where the family clinic that Mony had founded and was running with his colleagues, was operating…
What was impressive here was the lack of red tape, the flexibility and the compassion in the way decisions were made! Finally I got my “degree” with flying colours, signed by Mony himself!
Simultaneously: Paris, supervision groups with Mony Elkaim. They took place twice a month, for two days a week. Mony gave me the honour of inviting me to attend them. We travelled together on the train from Brussels to Paris and back. The French groups (consisting of therapists from all over France) had specific characteristics: Mony had allowed the setting to be casual and democratic, where everybody was on first name terms with everyone else (a blow to French etiquette), jokes were permitted and group mobility was bordering on being too loose. But when a member would bring a topic for supervision, a gradual process of self-referential and transactional exploration would begin (“from resonance to resonance” as Mony would call it) that would lead to unknown fields of emotion and understanding.
During lunch break, Mony and the group members would have lunch in a restaurant. Usually it was the Lip, a restaurant frequented by French intellectuals, including (in times past) Jean-Paul Sartre (whose framed autograph was even hanging on the wall).
This experience, from Brsussels to Paris with Mony and his colleagues, was truly enriching (on a theoretical, practical, therapeutic and intercultural level).
After I returned to Greece and founded the Family Therapy Unit of the Attica Psychiatric Hospital with my colleague Fotis Kotsidas, my relationship with Mony Elkaim remained alive and creative.
Bellow, is a short list of his participation in events organised by our Unit:
14/1/1995: “Family Therapy Today”, Mony Elkaim, Cultural Centre of the Municipality of Athens
15/6/1996: “Emotions in family therapy”, Mony Elkaim, Cultural Centre of the Municipality of Athens
30/1/2003: “Systems and Istitutions”, Mony Elkaim, Jacques Pluymaekers, NationalHellenic Research Foundation
31/1 and 1/2/2003, Workshop: “The therapist’s emotions and their utilisation in systemic interventions”, Mony Elkaim, UMHRI
And of course we would meet in conferences and other events, that EFTA would organise, with Mony as the main speaker, all around Europe.
One of the most impressive, and literally speaking unforgettable, was the one that Mony organised in his home country of Morocco from 30/10/1996 to 3/11/1996. Discussion about family therapy in another world, between Europeans and Moroccans and other Arabs and Africans, in an intercultural meeting that gave an experiential depth to the concept of globalization. There was even a session in Mony’s family home, an amazing Arab square mansion, with a huge inner courtyard, blocked from the outside world…
However, as we know from our profession and our personal lives, all relationships – even the most positive – have their negative sides. And experience has taught us that our inner world, our personal relationships resonate with the wider environment and the social conditions. That is what happened to Greek family therapists, and me personally, regarding EFTA. It is the beginning of the socio-economic crisis in Greece, Europe and the entire world: Two EFTA conventions in Glasgow and Paris presented another side of our – up to that point – coveted and beloved Society. A side that favored size over quality and width over depth. In December 2010 the “METALOGOS” journal published an article of mine titled “Paris, nothing is the same as before…” In it I write: “In Glasgow we had the unprecedented experience of being informed by a travel agency that our abstracts had been evaluated from excellent to zero, and that Greeks (we should have seen this coming) were found to be the worst of the bunch. Most of them failed. Thus, Glasgow had turned a scientific community to a student community with every implication this entails: unrest, lobbying, and forerunners of December… And when we finally got to Glasgow, we encountered a mood of multicolored cosmopolitan idleness that would be more fitting for a school bazaar than for a discussion forum for therapists…”. But later, in Paris these images were even more evident. I wrote: “… There were moments when you wondered whether you were at your honored scientific society’s convention, or in the Mall on a weekend…” And later, regarding the election for the EFTA-TIC representatives, that was held during the Paris convention: “… The most grotesque twist in the history of the Paris convention, in the history of all EFTA conventions, and of history in general occurred. The ballot for the board of Training Institutes was as such: On one side of a piece of paper were the names of the candidates you had to choose from, and on the other side of the same piece of paper you had to write your name, and even sign (on the ballot, believe it or not). I don’t think I can even comment on that…”
In the next “METALOGOS” issue there was a reply from Mony Elkaim (to whom my article had been sent). Among other things he writes: “… Katia Charalabaki is a colleague that I respect and love, an excellent psychiatrist and family therapist. I enjoyed the humor in the article. There are however certain points that I would like to clarify…” He then goes on to explain that the ballot was supposed to be cut down the middle in order to remain anonymous… Regarding the large number of participants he explains that they could not exclude people requesting to participate… A few more good points are made…
But to go back to his psychotherapeutic theory, practice and supervision:
The main feature of Mony Elkaim’s original conceptualization and theory was the implementation of Bateson’s et al. concept of ‘’double bind’’ to couples. It was what he termed ‘’mutual couples’ double binds’’. And it was on this specific topic that he published a book in 1989 titled “Si tu m’ aimes ne m’ aime pas, approche systemic et psychotherapie” (If you love me don’t love me: systemic approach and psychotherapy), which has been translated and published in Greek as well.
The main concept of this approach is that in therapy, one often sees couples ‘’trapped’’ in mutual double binds. In an initial level each member assigns blame to the other person and asks for changes. But on a second level, a different message is communicated that negates the first one (‘’I ask for something, but I do not believe I will get it’’). Each partner reinforces the other’s deep beliefs (the second message) through their behavior. The couple functions in this manner, having two double binds. Each member has one level called ‘’official program’’ and a second, contradictory one, called ‘’worldview’’. Each one assigns blame on the other’s official program but, at the same time, reinforces his or her worldview (‘’I want you to love me but I act in a way that you will not love me’’). Of course this relates to each partner’s personal genogramic history. So, in therapy meaning is assigned to the symptom, and reframing, metaphor and sometimes paradox are utilized, so that ultimately the couple will come to comprehend the double binds and thus proceed to change.
Also, Mony utilized the concept of resonance very effectively in his therapy and training seminars. His entire presence in the system (be it therapeutic or training) was mainly characterized by experientiality, emotion and interaction.
I will conclude by saying that Mony Elkaim will stay in our memory as an extremely charismatic theorist and clinical systemic therapist, and in addition to our personal recollections of him we will ‘’live with him’’ through practicing family and couple’s therapy.