Allan Fromme

Normal Neurotics

VTR Date: May 15, 1981

Guest: Fromme, Allan


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Allan Fromme
Title: “Normal Neurotics”
VTR: 5/15/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I don’t know anyone who wants to be considered neurotic, and I know hardly anyone who wants to be considered normal. But now, Allan Fromme, the distinguished clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, has written for Strauss, Gireaux what he calls “The Book for Normal Neurotics”. And as a long-time admirer of this very, very down-to-earth practitioner of the psychological healing arts, I’ve invited Dr. Fromme to explain just what he means when he writes, “Probably most of the people we know, including ourselves, are normal neurotics”.

Dr. Fromme, what do you mean by that? I don’t resent it; I won’t take exception to it, but tell me what you mean.

FROMME: Well, among other things, during this Twentieth Century of ours, we’ve learned so much, so very much about psychology, human nature, ourselves, others; we’ve become so familiar with the symptoms of neurosis, that like the freshman or sophomore student at college who reads his first book in abnormal psychology, he sees, just as he sees himself on every page and is possessed o every one of the symptoms described, so we come, because of our familiarity with these symptoms, to tend to call each other “neurotic”, and even ourselves. We’ve done it to a point where we’ve violated the meaning of the term, because it no longer seems to have a viable alternative. How often have you heard people say for example, “Do you know anybody who’s normal? Do you know any marriage that’s good?” So that, in a sense, we have to keep changing the language a little. And we do this in other fields as well. So I’m suggesting, okay, I’m in agreement. We all have some of these symptoms. We are all neurotic in a sense. But as one very wise neurologist I knew some years ago used to say, “The difference is that, whereas every man has a neurosis, when he’s sick, the neurosis has the man. He’s totally possessed by it”. So most of us who remain functional in one way or another are somewhere in between. Just as we have upsets to the stomachs and an occasional cold, so our emotional life is also disturbed by episodes of, well, difficulty. And so it’s fair to say that, if we are neurotic, most of us are normal neurotics. Not really sick. Not sick enough to require help; but sick enough for us to take ourselves in hand.

HEFFNER: Now, you say, “not sick enough to require help”. What are the signs? What are the symptoms of requiring help? When do you realize that you’ve passed that line, gone over it?

FROMME: Well, what do we do on a physical level? Suppose you have a cold. You don’t crawl into bed and not show up to work for the next week or ten days. Suppose you even take your temperature and find it’s 99. You still keep going. But suppose you took it and found it were 102. And the chances are you’ll say, “Perhaps I ought to get into bed”, or “Perhaps I ought to see a doctor”, or “Perhaps I should be taking some medication”. In other words, when there are signs that suggest that it’s going to get worse unless it’s treated. Now, of course, it’s not clear in the realm of psychology. But if we did stop and take inventory and find that we are becoming less and less functional, that we’re not cutting the mustard, so to speak, that the “solutions” (in quotation marks) we’re employing are the same ones we employed a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, in the sense we’re doing the same things repeatedly and getting nowhere, at that point, I think, help ought to be considered. But then, getting help is almost as much a matter of habit and of economic status as it is of anything else. There are some people who run to doctors to have a splinter removed because they‘re used to seeing doctors. There are others who are not fazed by the cost of such attention. And there are others who feel very differently.

HEFFNER: Do you mean that we’ve become too much involved, not just with the vocabulary, but with the treatment?

FROMME: Exactly. Very much so. Very much so. Especially today, because we know so much. But unfortunately, what we know is not really, ideally, what the patient should know. I’m speaking of psychological information. We know what the doctor should know. Doctors, for example, know a great deal of medicine. They themselves, make very poor patients.

HEFFNER: I wondered about that when I read that in the book. What do you mean?

FROMME: Well, when a doctor goes to see another doctor, it’s almost always a friend, and he doesn’t tell him simply and naively and innocently what hurts, he gives him a diagnosis. His friend knows him well enough, and if he’s, you know, honest enough with him, he says, “Now cut all that nonsense out. Just tell me what hurts”. And then he’s the one who makes the prescription. The doctor then goes to the pharmacopoeia and considers, “Well, now, should I take this medicine of should I take this other thing?” In general, he’s very poor at taking care of his own health because he’s burdened by all he knows.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, that’s a point that I really want to go into with you, because I’m quite taken with it. You say – as you just said – that we know what the psychologist needs to know, not what we need to know.

FROMME: Right.

HEFFNER: And here, in your introduction to the book, you again say, “The fact is we know too much. More than we need, but not what we need. It’s the wrong kind of knowledge for us. We’ve learned what the psychologist has to know instead of what ‘s good for the patient”. And they you say, “Most of us have been taught how we developed our emotional problems, and most of us still have them. If we want to become more normal than neurotic, we must be shown how to improve the quality of our experience, not our thought. This is the way to counter the effects of our less-than-fortunate experiences of yesterday”. And I admit that, when I read it, I thought, “My gosh, this is probably the most anti-intellectual statement I’ve ever read in the area of psychology or psychotherapy”. Do you plead guilty, innocent?

FROMME: (Laughter) I’m glad you felt that way, because this isn’t an intellectual exercise. It is for the professional psychologist. It’s his job to explain things, well, pretty much the way we’ve been explaining things ever since Charles Darwin, you remember, explained man back in 1859 in terms of his origins. So we’re explaining everything else since in terms of their origins. But the explanation of how you got to be the way you are has no therapeutic value, doesn’t change you. It just gives you the privilege of speaking more intelligently, more insightfully, about how you got to be what you are. Only last week, I happened to see someone down South, some young woman, who is a professional, who is a professional psychiatric social worker, who, in addition, had six years of psychoanalytic treatment. And she came to see me and described her present condition which was one of real sadness. We won’t go into the symptoms. And among other things, she said, “And I know, I know exactly how I got to be this way”. And I said, “Isn’t it sad that you know all of this and still can’t use it?” And she put it to me, I think, so succinctly. She said, “Yes. I got the booby prize, the knowledge of how I got to be this way”. But she hadn’t been able to translate any of that into action. And it’s only what you do that gets up on the scoreboard. Only what you do.

HEFFNER: It’s what’s up front that counts.

FROMME: All right.

HEFFNER: What’s on the scoreboard. But that doesn’t run counter to what, at least, a great many of us have been taught to believe is the basic tenet of psychotherapy.

FROMME: Right. This is the thinkingest, talkingest moment, I think, in all history. Dominated by the media. We’re flooded with information. And we’ve really learned a great deal, but not a great deal of what is truly helpful. For example: Let’s say you drive your car into a gas station because it’s overheating. And he examines it and he says your fan belt’s broken. Is it still overheating? Of course. He tells you how your car got to overheat. But that doesn’t cure it. You’ve got to replace the fan belt. Isn’t that so?

HEFFNER: Yeah, but are we talking about replaceable parts, or are we talking about human beings who change themselves through knowledge?

FROMME: Well, they don’t change themselves through the knowledge of what’s wrong; they change themselves by taking another tack, by doing something about it. Le me give you an example: Let’s say a young woman, who was brought up in a home dominated by a mother who was inordinately beautiful. It sounds a little like “Lady in the Dark”, the old lady. The father made a big fuss over her. People made a big fuss over her. And she felt like an ugly duckling, and grew up to be a very shy, retiring, withdrawn young lady. And she feels she knows why she’s shy and retiring: because she couldn’t command the attention and affection that her mother got, because she wasn’t nearly so beautiful, and still isn’t so beautiful. Her mother still walks into a room and commands the attention of everyone present. Well, A, it’s very easy to mix up the facts with your interpretation of the facts. You see, those may only be a part of the whole story, those facts presented. It may be that this child had other behavior problems that led to her rejection. But let’s say she didn’t. Let’s say it’s absolutely true. That mother was beautiful and she wasn’t. And she didn’t get all this attention. Is it true that beauty is the only way you command the attention of others? Is beauty the sole basis for popularity? Mightn’t she develop other abilities, as a great conversationalist or, you know, young athlete, or dancer, or just a, you know, “Hail fellow, well met”, that could be the basis for popularity? Of course she can. And knowing what she knows is actually hindering her, even though it’s true.

HEFFNER: Now, why do you say, “hindering her”? Why, where, in what way is knowledge, that knowledge, a hindrance?

FROMME: Well, because she is using that knowledge as the basis for her symptom. When she points out the fact that she was the ugly duckling compared to her mother, she is accepting that as a copout, as the reason why she can’t make it. It’s simply untrue. You can make it in other ways. History is full of all sorts of heroes who have compensated for shortcomings.

HEFFNER: Dr. Fromme, I have a habit – maybe it’s a bad habit; I don’t know how you will judge it – of asking my guests, when they have a particular point of view (and each one does) – what’s the downside of that point of view? In what way does what you have just said – which is in opposition, I think, to what, at least, a great many of us believe psychologists should be telling us – what’s the downside to that? Not enough emphasis upon self-knowledge?

FROMME: No. The downside, as I see it, is the fact that you’re going to have to work a lot harder than we’ve been taught to work at making our adjustment. We have been taught to learn. And I think learning is about the easiest thing to do. That is, cerebral learning. You could even do it by rote memory. Whereas, acting, developing the habit of action, is extremely difficult, extremely difficult. Just look at what happens to us physically as we grow in our large cities today. How little physical activity there is available for us. Think of how little in the way of alternatives of action there are available. Your company for which you work expects you to do the same thing each day. They’re not interested in innovative new solutions. The old, the true, the tried, the tested: these are all euphemisms in our language, and in our culture. Departures from it are looked upon as, you know, belonging to hare-brained radicals. It’s very difficult to get a new point of view across. That’s the only downside. The rest I see as benefits.

HEFFNER: Yes, but unless one is committed in terms of one’s knowledge, unless one has learned what the past has brought, the burdens the past has imposed upon us, how do you get into the action phase that you talk about? And aren’t you contradicting here – and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – but aren’t you contradicting a great many therapists who put their emphasis upon understanding learning what our own past has been?

FROMME: I’m hoping, as a matter of fact, as a result of this book, that I’ll become more popular with people, and less popular with therapists. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: That’s going to be the test.

FROMME: Then it’ll be successful. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That would be a plus.

FROMME: Absolutely. Yes, it’s very hard. I’ve tried to write the book in as appealing a fashion as I can for that very reason. I’ve illustrated it profusely for that very reason. I’ve tried to get people to see that, in the field of clinical psychology, we have an old saw that goes: “I’d rather be wrong than doubtful”. Because doubt inhibits action. Doubt tends to fix you in a position dominated by your problems. Whereas, if you tried this, that, and the other thing – if you do the wrong things, you might worsen the case, but sometimes you’ve got to worsen the case in order to improve it at all. The hardest thing is to get people to something different. Many times I say, “Say listen, this coming Saturday, when it’s a day of free choice, do yourself a favor. Have lunch before breakfast”. I mean, the thought is ridiculous to most people. If I were to ask you to do the following assignment, you’d find it interesting. To sit down tonight, before you go to bed, and write tomorrow’s dialogue; it’s amazing how much of it can be done. You know where you’re going to be, whom you’re going to speak to, what they’re going to say, what you’re going to say, and this goes on day after day after day. That isn’t much fun, when you stop to think of it, is it?

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I can’t disagree with you about that. But I’m still a bit puzzled about the…Okay. You mentioned Darwin before, and our involvement with the origin, not just of the species, but…

FROMME: Right.

HEFFNER: …of me and thee. I’m interested in the way you can dispose of, and do dispose of, a heavy involvement with the origin of our problems.

FROMME: Man, unlike all other members of the animal kingdom, can be as strongly influenced by the consequences of his behavior as he can by the origins. Lower animal forms cannot. Lower animal forms’ behavior is almost totally dominated by their past. We have far greater flexibility. We have the biggest brain structure, although we too, get stuck in our habits. We can observe the consequences more easily than other members of the animal kingdom. And what I am suggesting is that you recognize the consequences of your behavior. You see what works and what doesn’t work. This isn’t new with me. Three hundred years ago, the great philosopher, Spinoza, offered what I consider to be one of the best definitions of good adjustment. If I can upgrade his language, he said, “The happy man, the well adjusted man, is the one who has learned to like what is good for him”. That doesn’t mean he just grabs everything for the taste of it and goes from one taste thrill to the other. No. What goes down well. What sits well. What works. He’s like the hard-nosed businessman who looks at the bottom line. That’s how you determine how successful, or not, any particular program is.

HEFFNER: So, Allan Fromme has moved away from the talking cure to the acting cure?

FROMME: Talk helps a little bit. It’s like a band aid. It’s nice to, you know, have a friend, someone close to you, to unburden yourself now and then. It isn‘t enough. You’ve got to change your behavior. You’ve got to try to do something different. Life, as I see it, isn’t merely a series of discoveries; it’s a series of inventions, or creations. For example: a good marriage, or a good any relationship, is good only because, over its history, people affect each other, influence each other. Years ago, all the books used to say, “Don’t marry anybody whom you want to change”. Today we realize that if you don’t change that person in significant ways, and that person doesn’t change you, you’ve grown apart. Because you’re not going to be able to maintain what you had at the moment of marriage. So you must have this effect upon each other.

HEFFNER: Well, I want to get onto some other things. But I am quite taken with this notion of, I believe one could interpret what you have written as saying, “Let the therapist do the talking. You do the acting”.

FROMME: (Laughter) I never thought of it quite that way.

HEFFNER: Let doctors find out what the etiology has been.

FROMME: Let me report to you that the major complaint I’ve had from patients of mine who have, you know, been to other doctors in the field, is that, “I sat there for hour after hour and he never opened his mouth”. So maybe therapists have to do a little bit more of the talking than they have in the past.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’re not reticent about talking, and you’re certainly not reticent about writing, because I’ve read a number of your books, and it’s fascinating, in particular, in “The book for Normal Neurotics”, the title of which still, and I guess always will, intrigue me, you said here, page 170, you said, “Because of our permissiveness, we’re making progress”. Your book divided into a number of fascinating chapters. Here we’re talking about the pitfalls of early childcare. And, once again, you seem to be on the other side of the mob, for good or for bad, I don’t know. There’s been so much talk of late about the problems derived from permissiveness. And you say, “Because of our permissiveness, we’re making progress”.

FROMME: Well, it’s pretty much a matter of degree. You know, I don’t believe in living in a totally anarchic household. I believe that it’s a privilege that you extend to your child to have them live in an adult world. Now, you try to modify it somewhat in certain parts of your home and in certain of your behavior with them. But, by and large, the function of parenthood is to encourage your children to become adults rather than to have them transform you into children. It isn’t much fun being a child once you’re fully grown. But, many, many years ago, the days when you went to school, the chairs were riveted to the floor, and the children were riveted to the chairs, and every hour or so they’d tell you to stand up and breathe in unison or stretch your arms.

HEFFNER: The good old days.

FROMME: (Laughter) I don’t really think they were all that good.

HEFFNER: Clearly not.

FROMME: I don’t really think so. Permissiveness takes its toll too. But, by and large, there are many symptoms w don’t see today nearly with the frequency that we used to in the old days when the amount of repression was so great that a child didn’t get to learn who he was or what he was or what his limitations were. He was forced into a position of obedience before he understood it. And we give our – perhaps some people give their children too much time to discover this. And certainly, the revolution of the Sixties, when youth was finally, you know, given a loud voice and heard, met with considerable disapproval. You know, as a historian, how they feel about revolutions. The people who fight it lose their heads. The next generation inherits its benefits.

HEFFNER: You seem to feel that, on balance, this has been a good revolution.

FROMME: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for example, the decline in sexual censorship certainly raises many eyebrows, and certainly incurs considerable criticism in many quarters, but has also had innumerable benefits.

HEFFNER: One could argue that point.

FROMME: Of course.

HEFFNER: I’m also taken with this chapter of yours on family life – which, of course, is related – “Family Life: Too Rich a Mixture”. Once again, you seem to be a maverick in this posture. Most of us say, “I day me. (?) There is no longer a family life”. And we regret and we resent those influences in our society that tear the family asunder. You put your emphasis, at least purposes of talking about the normal neurotic, on the possibility that there’s just too much, too rich. It sounds a little Phillip Wiley-ish.

FROMME: Well, what I mean essentially is that, although it has the potential for enormous good, and does leave many children with a great deal of good, it’s a dangerous situation. And the risks are…

HEFFNER: A rich family life? Too rich a family life?

FROMME: Well, it gets to be too rich too easily. Let me point to some of the dangers. The first danger is the fact that there is a vast age difference between parents and children. You know, children are born when they’re very young (laughter) and very helpless, and very dependent for the longest period of time. Longer than any other animal in the whole kingdom. And, this dependency invariably gets to invest not only parents with a means to satisfy the dependency needs, but also with considerable authority, which is something difficult to give up. It’s much easier for children in the main to grow and wean themselves away from parents than it is for parent so wean themselves away from children. It’s hard for them to visualize something – this little bundle of protoplasm – once wholly theirs, now wholly grown into a separate identity who can challenge their points of view. Their omniscience, their omniscience and omnipotence as parents, for so many years, is difficult, very difficult, to release and let go of. And even the sibling relationship, you know, involved historically considerable…right from the start. Cain and Abel didn’t get along. And zillions of others after them. Then all of this takes place at home. Home isn’t a place where you just hang your hat; it’s a place where you let our hair down, where you are your most unadorned self. Unadorned by the grace, by the manners required of you in the world outside. It’s the easiest place in the world to show your worst side; also your best. Well, it’s the richness of all of these elements, of these components, that make the mixture altogether too rich. Why is it that you find grown people, grown men and women, who live away from home, get on a telephone to call their mother or dad, and in three minutes start raving and screaming in a fashion that they never do in any other situation of their adult life? Doesn’t that show that the fires are still burning strongly?

HEFFNER: You say that’s a function of too rich a mixture. I, as I read “The Book for Normal Neurotics”, thought it was too poor a mixture.

FROMME: Really? Well, poor in the sense that it didn’t work.

HEFFNER: Poor in the sense that it didn’t work. By “rich”, what do you mean?

FROMME: By “rich”, I mean that it involves too many strong, basic elements, like dependency; the easiest place in the world to develop guilt. The easiest place in the world to express yourself without concern for where the chips may fall. Those are rich elements. It’s like some strong aromatic herb that you’re going to use in cooking something. You’ve got to use just a tiny pinch of it.

HEFFNER: Tiny pinch of family?

FROMME: Tiny pinch of authority. Tiny pinch of dependency. Tiny pinch of rage. But we tend not to. That’s where we let it all hang out.

HEFFNER: The fascinating thing to me, is that, at this stage of our existence, you put your emphasis upon that. That’s why I think of Phillip Wiley, and…

FROMME: I see what you mean, yeah.

HEFFNER: And it is almost as if – you’ve chosen these chapters, you’ve written “The Book for the Normal Neurotic” – it’s almost as if you were to say, “Well, that’s the problem side of this equation. And the problem side of family life is not there’s not enough of it, there’s too…


the too rich mixture is what concerns you.

FROMME: Well, but what I do is to give specific illustrations of it and how this might be handled. Let me again use an illustration, one not in the book. There are many grown women, married, with children, that I know who daily, every morning at the same time, get a call from their mother saying, “What’s new?” Now, what in the world is new? They just spoke to them not 24 hours ago, probably eight hours ago. And they keep them on the phone for about 20 minutes in a non-conversation. And the daughter, of course, hates it, and feels imposed upon. Yet suffers through it. And little by little, it spoils the relationship still more. Now, I like to think of myself as the ultimate pragmatist. You know, find something to do that works. I’m a great believer in preparing yourself for these things, preparing for tomorrow’s dialogue. Well, there are many ways that you can prepare yourself for this dialogue.

HEFFNER: In 30 seconds.

FROMME: Oh, it’s very easy. What I generally recommend is that you keep a copy of The New Yorker magazine handy and you look at the stunning ads and you look at the cartoons, and you, “Uh huh, uh huh”, and after a reasonable time say “I gotta run. The doorbell’s ringing” or something or other. And that’s it. You just cut it short. Or instead, you, the night before, decide what you’re going to say. Say those things, and then say, “Now I gotta run again. I told you everything that’s new. Goodbye.”

HEFFNER: Dr. Fromme, I decided last night that when I got the cutoff signal I knew what to say, and that would be: Thanks very much, Dr. Fromme, author of “The Book for Normal Neurotics”, for joining us today.

FROMME: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.