Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, author, and artist, has established a comprehensive body of written work that is focused on the concept that defenses formed by individuals early in life tend to impede the individuation process, often impair their ability to sustain intimate adult relationships, and can have a damaging effect on their children. The primary emphasis of Dr. Firestone’s theory development has centered on the study of resistance in psychotherapy and combines a challenging blend of psychoanalytic and existential ideas. His complete body of work is a valuable contribution to the field of psychology and, taken as a whole, is a fully realized “paradigm” of what it means to be fully human.
R.W. Firestone was born in Brooklyn in 1930, the son of a doctor and a fashion designer. In those two sensibilities one can trace the beginnings of his diverse interests. From his father, the community G.P., on call at all hours of the day and night, he received his first exposure and appreciation for a life devoted to service. The comings and goings of the myriad of patients through his father’s home office was certainly a spark in Firestone’s lifelong interest and commitment to people. His mother’s career as fashion designer in New York was an early important influence on his developing artistic sensibilities.
His childhood in Brooklyn had a profound impact. In the relatively compact area of the few city blocks surrounding his neighborhood, one could experience a wide diversity of ethnic cultures and Firestone relished this exposure to the varied cast of characters he found in his wanderings.
‘My feeling when I was growing up was to attach to everything and to experience everything,” he says of his early days. ‘I wanted to learn about myself, to know myself on a deeper level. I found that involvement with people, even if led to hurt, was a way to get to know about life, and myself, in the context of real experiences. I think as a child I was searching for and drawn to people who seemed alive and spontaneous and real.’
Intelligent and inquisitive, Firestone advanced through school easily, enrolling at Syracuse University in 1946 at the age of 16. His desire to understand himself and people in his life led him to study psychology. His need for a creative outlet led him to painting. Both passions were influenced by his early studies of the great men in both fields, especially Freud and the early psychoanalysts in psychology, and Van Gogh and Gaugin in art. While obviously impressed with the ideas and creations, Firestone was even more influenced by the lives these men led, finding inspiration in their devotion and dedication to express themselves in manners beyond ordinary life. Freud’s intellectual courage and willingness to follow his ideas in the face of conventional resistance and hostilities were an inspiration and model for Firestone’s own innovative, sometimes controversial, psychological contributions. His adventurous nature found a kindred spirit in Gaugin’s restless search for places that captured his imagination, and Van Gogh’s existential pain and aloneness resonated deeply in the young man’s keen awareness of life’s fleeting, often painful, nature.
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1949, Firestone attended graduate school in Nebraska and Denver. His postgraduate work was spent studying schizophrenia and working with patients in the extremes of emotional suffering. During this time he also began his first serious artistic endeavors, although the pursuit of his doctorate degree in psychology dominated most of his intellectual and creative energy throughout the mid-fifties.
Firestone worked for a time with Dr. John A. Rosen, author of “Direct Analysis”, at his innovative live-in treatment center for schizophrenics in Pennsylvania. Firestone was impressed with Rosen’s concept of dealing directly with the psychological factors of schizophrenics; a concept frowned upon in the general profession. This experience had a powerful effect on the young psychologist:
‘I had the benefit of actually living with the problem of schizophrenia in close quarters. I found it very easy to move in that circle even though there were some very uncomfortable scenes – serious violence and turmoil. I got to understand what was happening with these unfortunate people in a way that would be impossible under any other circumstance. The essential humanness of the people was emphasized in the living situation. You come face to face with the fragility of their adaptations. And I found them to be very honest, not directly, but in their symbolism and their hallucinations. They were telling a kind of truth and I felt that by listening I was able to begin to understand them.’
He received his PhD from the University of Denver in 1957. His doctoral dissertation A Concept of the Schizophrenic Process was largely based on his experience with Rosen and was presented as a theoretical paper rather than the typical research project. Stuart Boyd, Firestone’s doctorate sponsor, recounts the impression Firestone made that day on his normally skeptical audience:
‘I presented Bob to the examining panel of my colleagues and for the first time in my experience, a genuine and exciting conversation took place on a dissertation which was a moving and intense description of the attempt to come to grips, physically and intellectually, with pain and human wretchedness. This was no mechanical response to mechanical administrative demands; this was real understanding, a real illumination of a dark and seemingly hopeless corner of those human prisons called hospitals. The committee responded in a way I had never seen them do before. They genuinely tried to understand, learn and see the implications of what Bob had faced them with.’
In 1958, Firestone and his wife, Louise, moved to Los Angeles to begin a private practice and to raise a family. Amidst the sprawling city and near the sea he loved, he began to draw together the components of what would lead to an amazingly creative and productive period, both in the development of his psychological theories and concepts and in his rapidly developing sailing expertise and adventures.
Firestone’s primary activity through the 60’s and much of the 70’s was his practice as a clinical psychologist, in which he was able to apply and expand on his early theories developed while working with schizophrenics to a wide variety of people. During this exciting period, he expanded the ideas he originally formulated in his doctoral dissertation into a systematic theory of neurosis that addressed the psychodynamics’ in couple and family relationships, child abuse, suicide, and self-destructive behavior. The hallmarks of his success as a both a therapist, and as a theoretician, are a strong belief in individualism and personal freedom and his deep compassion for the human dilemma.
It was at the end of this time that he met and fell in love with the woman who would become his second wife. Intelligent and beautiful, Tam shared Firestone’s humanitarian ideals and adventurous spirit.
Firestone retired from private practice in 1979 to devote his time to research, writing, and documenting his psychological ideas. He also joined the Glendon Association as its consulting theorist in 1979. This work has resulted in the publication of 13 books, dozens of documentary films, and many articles.
Firestone’s professional and personal experiences, international travels, and sailing adventures continue to powerfully influence his theoretical work and his art. Always prolific, his artistic output has recently been enhanced by the creative application of advanced technology to his traditional artistic techniques. This has allowed him to create an impressive body of work in a short time, resulting in a showing of his collection in June 2002 in Venice, Italy. His passion to further refine and express himself through his ideas and his art continues to be a main driving force.
‘My experiences as a psychologist, and my many travels, have given me a window into the complexities, depth and uniqueness of each individual and a glimpse into the transcendent meaning beyond the simple facts of existence. In my life, I have tried to integrate my perceptions, ideas and feelings for the human condition with my appreciation for the beauty and wonders of the world. Art has allowed me the opportunity to express and share my feelings and insights visually in a manner that, to me, is both aesthetically beautiful and personally meaningful.’
Currently residing in Santa Barbara, CA, Firestone leads a full life. A life dedicated to seeking the truth, even when it leads to pain. At the same time, it is a life filled with humor, laughter and joy, travel and adventure on the high seas. It is a productive life, one of rigorous intellectual inquiry, writing, painting, and artistic expression. It is a life lived in an atmosphere of congeniality, generosity, and direct, honest personal communication; an exceptionally inclusive life with a close, loving relationship with his wife and children and meaningful relationships with numerous men and women friends. It is a life that has touched many people in many ways, great and small.