Book Review: The February Man, by Milton H. Erickson
(8 min read)

George Owen

George Owen

The February Man is an old book, not simply because it was published over 30 years ago in its current version, but it took a lot of years to reach final publication. Ernest Rossi shelved the project for awhile after Milton Erickson’s death in 1980.

Milton Erickson's The February Man
The February Man: Evolving consciousness and identity in hypnotherapy, by Milton H Erickson M.D. and Ernest Lawrence Rossi Ph.D. Routledge–Taylor and Francis Group (1989). ISBN-13: 978-0-415-99095-0 (Softcover).

In essence, The February Man is a description of a series of four psychotherapy sessions with one client, recorded by a stenographer, and amplified with critically important commentary from Milton Erickson, Ernest Rossi, and others. Although there were four sessions, there were many ‘visits’ from the February Man.

The client—the first client, in what came to be known as 'the February Man approach'—was a happily married and pregnant nurse who sought help from Dr Erickson to address anxiety, phobia, and depression. Her name in the text is 'Jane' and 'Miss S', and in the transcript of the sessions she is referred to as 'Subject'.

The sessions were not typical one-to-one hypnotherapy/psychotherapy sessions by any means. Firstly, there were a number of people present, and the sessions were sometimes quite lengthy. Also, there were often curious, even bizarre, exchanges ostensibly between Erickson and his junior colleague, Dr Jerome Fink, which led to confusion in the client.

Rossi's treatment of the literal transcript is invaluable here, as seemingly nonsensical exchanges which appear to exclude the client, stimulated her confusion. As confusion is often a precursor to trance, personal change, and learning, the created confusion exchanged between Erickson and Fink left the client confounded by the linguistic complexities and non-sequiturs.

Here is one brief example of an early exchange where the client in the transcript is referred to as 'Subject'.

Erickson: Getting away from cockle shells, how do you like Gene Autry?
Fink: I certainly ought to be able to ride a horse like he can. Or doesn't that make horse sense? I'm off on the wrong foot! How do I like Gene Autry?
Erickson: what's that to do with a garden?
Fink: Well, it contributes fertilizer to the garden.
Erickson: How do you get from tumbled to garden to Gene Autry?
Fink: Purely schizoid.
Erickson: Can you hum it? (Dr Fink hums 'Drifting Along with the Tumbling Tumbleweed')
Fink: 'Tumble … tumbling tumbleweed… Gene Autry'.
Erickson: Yes, that's it. He's not tumbling. I enquired about his garden-Gene Autry sings, The Tumbling tumbleweed.
Fink: It's a song to remember.
Erickson: It's not a song - just a horse of another color!
Subject: Here I was trying to connect it up with …? (Subject blocks in confusion).

The kind of exchange extracted above seems like nonsense, but the commentary exchanges between Erickson and Rossi throughout the book point to Erickson's deep intent behind the wordplay and non sequiturs to achieve desired trance phenomena.

Students of Ericksonian psychotherapy will be familiar with The February Man. It is summarised in a single chapter of Hypnotherapy: an exploratory casebook (Erickson & Rossi, 1979), and considered in Ericksonian Approaches: a comprehensive manual (Battino & South, 1999, second edition) as well as other sources. However, serious study of the full text will prove to be beyond the simply instructive.

It works on a number of levels. At its simplest, it is an interesting transcript of sessions with a client, albeit from long ago. The richness truly begins with the commentaries and exchanges between Rossi and Erickson at key points addressing Erickson's therapeutic methods. Then there are the inferences. For example, when Erickson uses superficially innocuous language to make it safe for his client to explore particular topics of interest, even concern, to the young girl: 'Why people don't want to talk about the things they want to talk about'.

Along with the age regression, there is what Rossi refers to as 'trance writing', which is distinguished from automatic writing. As Rossi says, 'With automatic writing, subjects don't know what was written. In trance writing they know what's written on a cognitive level, but are not able to deal with it emotionally yet'.

Jane's story in itself, of course, is of interest. Hers is a story of both privilege and neglect. Born to a socialite, Jane's mother resented the fact that her birth ruined her figure. Care for the child Jane was largely left to the mother's sister who resided with the family. The busy mother travelled and often returned with expensive gifts for her daughter. The aunt refused to permit Jane to enjoy these as they were deemed 'too good'. Jane's father was busy with business interests but did occasionally find some time and energy to treat his daughter to enjoyable gifts and outings.

Jane's rebellion in later years extended to attending the state university instead of her mother's preferred finishing school. While mother was the dominant presence in the family structure, her father sought to support his daughter in many practical ways. Jane married a man without sufficient social standing to be of significance for her mother.

Concerned about the kind of mother she herself would become, Jane sought Erickson's help. In short, she feared hurting her child, for example, through neglect and resentment.

In fact, The February Man was Erickson's construct—a fictious friend of Jane's father. The title 'February Man' was provided by Jane in response to Erickson's question: 'What are you going to call me?' The February Man visited over a period of months. February was the month of Jane's birthday and the month of her first session with Erickson.

Another element of the subject's presentation was her dislike of swimming. This stemmed from an experience of unintentionally pushing her younger sister (Helen) into a tub of water while trying to lift her: '… and she got all blue'. Jane was around three or four years of age at this time. Erickson engages with her indirectly with questions such as: 'Do you think you'll make any mistakes as you grow up?' Later on, he asks: 'Did you ever pick a pretty purple flower and find stickers (thorns) on it? It's an awful way to learn that roses stick. But aren't you glad you learned from that? You didn't try to hurt the rose, did you? You just liked it and picked it'.

Erickson's capacity to metaphorically reframe Jane's sense of culpability was furthered when he guided Jane's re-evaluation and she said: 'I shouldn't have picked her (Helen) up'. His response was: 'You learned something didn't you? Suppose you had waited to try to pick her up until she was bigger and heavier and then dropped her and hurt her a lot more?'

The February Man is replete with examples of Erickson's reframing, confusions, non sequiturs, puns, and regression. In his work with Jane on her swimming phobia, Erickson explored the origin. Jane disclosed that the first time she feared drowning ('I always think about drowning') was when Helen got 'all blue'. Her strategy to deal with the phobia had been to 'stay out of the water'.

When Erickson asks if she would like to learn to swim, Jane begins coughing and strangling and shares that her mouth is full of water. The regressed Jane is experiencing a swimming lesson with a Mr Smith. Mr Smith is mentioned for the first time here and Erickson offers a posthypnotic suggestion: 'When I talk to you, you will remember everything, won't you? Now just have a rest and I'm going to see you again when you're nine years old'.

This leads to the fourth session and Erickson's early question is: 'How old are you?' to which Jane answers, 'Nine'. She explains about Mr Smith, the 'crabby' man who lived next door, the man who wanted to teach her to swim, the man she disliked. 'I didn't want him to learn me how to swim'. It transpires that Mr Smith put her in the water. She got water in her eyes and ears and mouth, and she kicked him. When questioned by Erickson, the traumatic associations between her experience of choking and coughing in the water and her younger sister's near drowning are clear. Jane prefers not to remember, because her mother's preferred standard is to only remember 'nice things'.

Later on, the client does the impossible. She surprises herself with writing forwards and backwards at the same time, with a pencil in each hand. Apart from the prowess, the inner change work required to write in an 'impossible' way is the same work that reframes relationships with presenting challenges. Unrealised abilities are evoked, which empower the client to break free from learned limitations. The client does things without knowing how they know how to do them.

Elsewhere, there is a description of Erickson inducing age regression with Jane. He first established Jane's accurate orientation in present time and then proceeded with this gradual subtle induction process:

... And that's the date. But time can change can it not? And I want you to forget something. I'm not going to tell you just what it is. But you are going to forget something gradually, slowly, easily, comfortably. It almost seems as if it might be Monday, or perhaps it might be Saturday, or, as if it might be Friday. And I want it to seem that way, and I would like to have you feel a bit amused as you begin to get confused about the date, and enjoy it (subject smiles). It's nice, isn't it? (Subject laughs). And since you don't know what day it is, it will be hard to tell what week it is. It has to be this week but what week is this week? Is it the last week in May or the first week in June? Or maybe it isn't either one. I want you to enjoy that...

His induction continues in that easy and relaxed fashion and later, in the commentary, Rossi points to the expansion of consciousness facilitated through hypnosis in psychotherapy. Erickson shares his view that 'Therapy is about getting the patient to use his own mental mechanisms and processes. It is not for the therapist to be the answer-man or the wise one who understands the patient and hands down that understanding'.

Age regression, double binds, speed talking, reframing, arm levitation, arm catalepsy, ideomotor signalling, trance writing, induced amnesia, therapeutically integrating painful experience, failure as part of successful living, converting resistance to cooperation, evoking child-like curiosity, and so on, all contributed to the broad flexibility of Erickson's approach as he sought the expansion of conscious perspective around Jane's lived experience. Such expansion led to the resolution of her challenges and the elimination of her swimming phobia.

The February Man remains a foundation text for the serious student of clinical hypnosis, notwithstanding its firm location in time, its male-emphasised language, and the presence of numerous people when the (fee-free) sessions were in progress. Any obligation for the client around the fee-free element was addressed by Erickson requesting Jane to be willing to help him out in the future with some research project.

Others involved from time to time were Miss Cameron (stenographer), Dr Jerome Fink, Mrs Mary Fink, Mr Beatty, and Jane's friend Miss Ann Dey, Margaret Ryan (colleague of Ernest Rossi), and an unidentified guest. Margaret Ryan collaborated with Stephen Wolinski, Ph.D. on an excellent later publication entitled Trances People Live (1999).

George Owen is a hypnotherapist based in Sydney, Australia. With a long-standing passion for adult education, George has been lecturing within the behavioural science arena for over two decades.

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