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An Author Reviews His Reviewers

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 3, Winter 1998

Authors, I suppose, vary in response, to reviews of their work. I'm aware of an initial concern when a review of a book of mine is called to my attention. That concern often occurs when the review appears in a professional journal. It is not that I feel what I do is above criticism. It has to do with common misinterpretations of what I am trying to do.

The first is what might be termed the "oneirophobic" response, a response concerned with the danger of dream work and generally accompanied by a caveat to the professional reader that emphasizes the professional skills and training necessary to do dream work and the professional responsibilities involved. This, of course, flies in the face of my effort to deprofessionalize dream work in a safe and effective way.

In a recent review of my book Appreciating Dreams that appeared in the journal Social Work, writer Dr. Helen Northen commented positively on the way the group process assures the safety and privacy of the dreamer and spoke respectfully and with understanding of the process. She ends the review, however, on so cautionary a note that I doubt that very many social workers reading the review would attempt to engage in experiential dream group work. While caution and responsibility are features of dream work, an overemphasis on danger plays into the mystique that dreams should remain in the domain of the experts.

From the review:

The dreamer controls the process, being in charge of what she or he wishes to share and what is wanted from the members. That principle assures safety and privacy for the dreamer whose needs are paramount. The group is a helping agent only to the extent that the dreamer wants help from the members. The dream process is not a group interaction one. The author writes: "The only occasion in which the dream process should justifiably be transformed into a group process is if a tension occurs between members of the group to the point that it impinges on the dream work" (p. 240). That involves holding the dream process in abeyance until the tension is relieved.

The author has a strong conviction that, being universal experiences, dreams should be made accessible to everyone and groups are ideal media for that purpose. He believes that the process can be mastered by anyone, lay or professional, who has a natural curiosity about dreams. He recognizes, however, that competent leadership requires time and practice. Owing to the problems and risks involved, in my opinion, social workers should not engage in this practice without thorough knowledge of dreams, the interrelated responsibilities of dreamer, group and leader, and skills in relieving tensions and avoiding risks to the dreamer or group. Supervised practice would seem to be essential. (boldface M. U.) But the book can be a valuable resource for social group workers. Many of the principles and skills that are discussed can be translated and adapted to our practice. Read it and discover its relevance to improving you own practice.

A second review of the same book appearing in a group psychotherapy journal is more characteristic of the questions raised by psychoanalysts who have never been in a group of mine but are called upon to respond to the process. In the following review substantive issues are raised. In my response to the review I tried to show that these questions have been anticipated and dealt with in the book. I consider the review a fair one. It raises issues that should be set to rest. Here are portions of the review followed by my response.

In the theoretical exposition of this book, unfortunately relegated to a mere appendix at the very end, he indicates his belief that there is something "in dreams that binds us together, points to a common heritage, and provides us with a common language." "I postulate an inborn structural preparation for a nocturnal language capable of communicating to ourselves," he further asserts. "No one taught us this language, but we all speak it fluently" (p. 254). He positions the dream in a social context and, although he deals with it as quite an individual expression, he considers it "related to notions of interconnectedness and 'unbroken wholeness'" (p. 256). When shared, he considers it an intrinsically interpersonal event, a communication that is interpsychic as well as intrapsychic. These underlying assumptions provide the rationale for members of a group who, although untrained in the art of dream interpretation, have the insight and capability to work on and comprehend one another's dreams, and help one another decipher the unconscious messages contained in them.

Ullman's dream work is not, however, therapy. He asserts this emphatically and often, and is careful in his attempt to draw a clear distinction between the dream appreciation, as he calls it, practiced in his groups, and dream analysis. Nevertheless, the difference is not always as evident as he would like to have it appear. In this minute depiction of his technique, curious similarities still emerge. In the narration of the actual work with dreams, one can discern that the kinds of associations proffered by both the dreamers and the group members, as well as the apparent uses to which they are put, are historically and dynamically as incisive, and appear to have as much impact, as any therapeutic dream analysis might. Although he concedes that as "emotional healing is a social happening," (p. 224) and this type of dream work can provide emotional relief, he claims that "it is not therapy in the formal or technical sense of the term " (p.229). That designation he reserves for what he characterizes as a more hierarchical arrangement, in which communication flows primarily in one direction and expertise in the other, where a body of theory is ostensibly being implemented, a certain authority is being exercised and the relationship is distinguished by the elicitation of earlier "entrenched" attitudes.

One is tempted to contemplate, as Gertrude Stein's famous poem does, whether calling something by a different name will make it in fact different. Skilled practitioners will explore a dream, will apply its meanings, its contextual relevance, its historical references, its contemporary clarifications, and its dynamic explications in much the same way as Ullman suggests is done in his groups. There, as in therapy, dreams are merely another language in which we communicate, whether the recipient of that communication is a therapist, a peer, a lover, a friend, or a fellow group member. His delicacy toward the sensibilities of the dreamer does not differ from what any skilled therapist would do with a patient whose defense and anxiety tolerance must be respected. Such consideration of an individual's psychic imperatives is a necessary part of an effective and empathic professional's competence in this field. In short, then, the nature of the work is, by all appearances, virtually indistinguishable from the therapeutic use of dreams.

The belief that it is possible for a leader to be seen as an equal by the group's members - especially when he is as eminent a presence as the renown (sic) Montague Ullman - seems another illusion. In his dream appreciation groups, he protests, the leader is merely the first among equals; he goes so far as to suggest that in order to convey this reality to the group members, the leader occasionally shares his or her dreams with the rest of the group, just as the other members of the group are invited to do. Further, he asserts repeatedly that the proceedings are in the hands of the dreamer, who can go as deeply or as superficially into the dream as he or she might wish. The laudable effort and intent is to introduce an egalitarianism and sense of safety that is often not present in therapy groups.

The context in which Dr. Ullman intends his method to be applied, however, remains ambiguous. Although not a form of therapy, it could apparently be used in a therapeutic group context. He seems to imply that the groups are organized for their own sake alone: a group of individuals convening for the sole purpose of appreciating their dreams and using them to deepen their life experiences. But could this happen in an institutional context? In private salons as a form of entertainment? In teaching seminars? As a personal growth initiative akin to the 1960s? One might expect him to be as explicit and detailed in his guidance for its use as he is in its depiction.

Whatever the nominal designation of his method may be, however, Dr. Ullman's description of it in this little volume is admirably thorough and complete. He includes a structured guide to leaders of such dream groups, detailed and explicit instructions for every step of the procedure, warnings of potential pitfalls, suggestions for enhancement of the process, detailed descriptions of each phase of the method, and recommendations regarding the facilitation of associations. Although an experienced clinician might consider some of his guiding suggestions for inquiry or facilitation simplistic, he is scrupulous in his attempt to cover any possible contingency that might arise in the group's ongoing work. Further, each phase of the procedure is nicely illustrated with case examples and vignettes demonstrating the particular stage or substage of the work. Included as well are three chapters which together comprise a manual for leaders intending to conduct such "dream appreciation" groups. These alone would render the book eminently useful.

Dr. Ullman's method of dream work is decidedly unique and interesting, one with which group therapists who experience themselves drawn to working with dreams should be familiar. Although purportedly not psychoanalytic, its unique and cooperative exploratory methodology can nevertheless render dream work in groups a remarkably helpful tool in bringing to light ordinarily obscure inner-life experiences of the participants. In this book, the exposition of that method is clear, comprehensive, and readily applicable. You will want to see it in the "dream" section of your bookshelf.

My response:


International Journal of Group Psychotherapy

I am writing in connection with Dr. Peter J. Schlachet's thoughtful review of my book Appreciating Dreams. (47 (4) 1997). There are several points he raises that require further clarification. The first has to do with the distinction I draw between dream appreciation as I use the term and dream analysis as it occurs in the therapeutic setting. There is much that is the same, as he notes, in what goes on between the group and the dreamer and "what any skilled therapist would do with a patient whose defenses and anxiety tolerance must be respected." The approach I use in teaching dream work experientially in a group is the distillate of my psychoanalytical experiences with dreams. The transformation from a clinical to a teaching context, however, does highlight certain distinguishable features. The essence of the difference lies in the nature of the contract between the dreamer and the helping agency. These many differences are described in the book but the two essential ones are first that no one is under explicit obligation to share a dream, and second that with the dreamer in control of the process, no one in the group assumes the role of a therapist in recognizing and resolving resistances. It is these and other features of the group approach that form the basis of the distinction I draw between formal therapy and dream appreciation. There are many experiences in life which are therapeutic other than formal therapy and dream appreciation is one of them. If it weren't I would never have been drawn to it.

I can very well understand Dr. Schlachet's concern that I may be underplaying my personal role with regard to the effectiveness of the group. At the beginning this was very much a concern of mine. Transferential reactions do appear and when they do they are recognized as such and dealt with through the various strategies the group employs. What mitigates this and makes the process different from working with a dream in group therapy is the fact that the focus is not on group dynamics but on the life the dreamer leads outside the group. Happenings in the group are of course part of that and when they do surface in a dream, they are dealt with. With everyone including the leader sharing dreams and everyone participating in all phases of the process, a truly egalitarian atmosphere develops in which my presence is experienced as someone with more experience with dreams in general but not set apart from the group by his use of any particular theoretical or technical knowledge that the others are not privy to.

Dr. Schlachet raises a question about the range of contexts in which this process is applicable. It is a very broad context. I have personally conducted groups with patients on an open ward in a day hospital, with the staffs of psychiatric hospitals, in geriatric day care centers and in a variety of training settings from residency programs in psychiatry to psychoanalytic training centers. My weekly groups are a mix of therapists, people in therapy, and anyone with a serious interest in their dream life. Others trained by me have used this approach in their work with incest survivors, Vietnam veterans, prisoners and college students. The one place you won't find the process as I use it is in "private salons as a form of entertainment."

These amplifications in no way diminish my gratitude to Dr. Schlachet for capturing the essence of what I have tried to say.