Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Why Are the Sixties So Sexy?

Alternative practices like encounter groups make sixties psychology compelling.

When I was a junior in high school, my American History teacher assigned the class a lengthy term paper. She instructed us to base it on extensive research, to become intimate with microfilm and microfiche, and to maintain the requisite organization by creating countless index cards of sources and facts.

The paper could be on a topic of our choice, with one exception: it couldn’t be on the 1960s.

Why were the 1960s forbidden?

I can only speculate. Maybe because the decade seemed too fun, and the paper was supposed to be hard work. Maybe because the subtopics—psychedelics and pot, the stirrings of the sexual revolution, violence and protest, a disruption of race and gender hierarchies, and students questioning authority—were too racy for a teenager at a respectable prep school. Maybe because even in the 1990s, the decade’s raw energy and chaotic pace of change still seemed hard to process.

I later inferred from college psychology classes that sixties psychology, which consisted of approaches like encounter groups, phenomenological inquiry, transpersonal study, and gestalt and existential therapy, is neglected for some of the same reasons. These practices seem like an anomaly, a hiccup in the otherwise fairly respectable progression of empirical research and evidence-based practice. The field of psychology, at the time, was cracked open. Almost every major university included courses on one of these topics, and related psychotherapeutic practices were widespread.

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Of course, by banning the topic, Ms. Bertozzi, and subsequent psychology professors who censored it only by omission, heightened my interest. When I made the full case for why I should be granted an exception (I would take it seriously! I was a hard working student with a good academic record!), she caved. I wrote the paper, mainly focusing on Woodstock and folk music and sex and mud. It was well-researched and respectable, though I have to admit it was fun, too—fun enough that now, almost 20 years later, I’ve written a book on the same decade.

At the sexy center of the book are “encounter groups,” which were somewhat distilled, more psychologically intense and intentional versions of Woodstock. They were usually conducted as weekend-long marathons, in which sleep deprivation eroded inhibitions.  In the 1960s and 1970s, they happened at growth centers across the country, like Esalen and Greenhouse. In their various forms, they were known to include nudity, psychedelics use, interracial confrontation, wrestling, and the disclosure of dark secrets.

Journalist Tom Wolfe described them like this:

“Such aggression! such sobs! moans, hysteria, vile recriminations, shocking revelations, such explosions of hostility between husbands and wives, such mudballs of profanity from previously mousy mommies and workadaddies, such red-mad attacks.”

George Leonard, former editor of Look magazine, attended a couples group early in the 1960s, and was struck by an emotional intensity that was so compelling it threatened to make participants into junkies. At the beginning of the group, everyone screamed and pounded the floor. Then each person was asked to tell three secrets to his or her partner that would threaten their relationships. Leonard recalls that a war bride from England confessed she had never wanted to get married and had hated every minute of it. A husband confessed he had been sleeping with his wife’s best friend; she responded by hitting him violently and repeatedly, then crying and claiming that he was a “shit” but she loved him anyway. The woman who had hit her husband, for example, felt intensely connected to him by the end of the weekend, but divorced him six months later. Others credited the groups with dramatic and positive changes in their lives, relationships, and self-concepts.

One of the reasons Ms. Bertozzi wanted me to stay away from these topics may have also been the reason many people thought it best to stay away from these groups. They were attractive, even seductive, but they were hard to make sense of. Even as they promised growth, they threatened destruction.

It might seem on the surface, that we, as a culture, came to our senses about this kind of psychological indulgence. Certainly these groups are no where near as popular as they were in the 1960s, but the themes they embraced—of self-exploration, authenticity, stark honesty, and the maximization of our potential—still surround us.

For more on what became of this crazy 1960s energy, well, you’ll have to read my book…. 

References 

Jessica Grogan, Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013).

George Leonard, telephone interview with author, April 5, 2006.

Tom Wolfe, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (New York: Bantam, 1977), 126–170, 135.

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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