R.I.P. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy

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Innovator of Family Therapy Dies at 86: “Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a psychiatrist who helped establish a powerful therapy for mental illness that brings patients’ extended families into treatment as allies, died Jan. 28 at his home in Glenside, Pa. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Dr. Catherine Ducommun-Nagy, also a psychiatrist.

Dr. Nagy (pronounced nahj), as he was known, was one of several therapists, including Murray Bowen and Lyman C. Wynne, who in the 1950s and 1960s began to look beyond individual psychology to understand and try to treat severe mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia. (Dr. Wynne died on Jan. 17.)

Dr. Nagy noticed that destructive patterns of family interaction often spanned generations. To address them, he brought patients’ grandparents and children into therapy sessions, if possible, as well as parents and siblings. He found that by working to balance loyalties and ethical obligations among family members, he could help soothe patients’ symptoms, if not always cure them.

This work became the foundation for six books and some 80 articles, many of which have been read widely in translation in Europe and elsewhere. One of his most influential books, Invisible Loyalties (Harper & Row, 1973), written with Geraldine M. Spark, inspired a generation of therapists to think more broadly about mental health as part of a family system, dependent on hidden loyalties and commitments.” (New York Times )

During the last generation, we have seen the waning influence of extended family in American social structure. This might have made Nagy’s therapeutic techniques passé. However, what is more enduring and appealing has been his introduction of the notion of ethical obligations and commitments in family life. Talking about fairness and unfairness is a very experience-near way of addressing some of the distress people feel in families, and it is certainly amplified, and inherently more difficult to talk about, when one of them has a major mental illness. Nagy’s powerful therapeutic techniques never had the notoriety or sex appeal of those of some of his more flamboyant or photogenic colleagues, but he will be missed by many thoughtful therapists who treat the family context.