A Community of Heart Profile: Neil Daniels

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There was a man who walked among us modestly but with far-reaching influence. His name was Neal Daniels. He died on April 13, 2006. This is a celebration of the quiet brilliance of his life as told to me by his wife, Mary Daniels, his friends and colleagues, and from my own experience.

Neal spent his childhood in Long Island, one of two children in a rather conventional family. His father was in the first graduated class of chemical engineers from Columbia University. His mother, a skilled musician who studied piano in Munich, was involved in teaching and community work. Both parents were third generation German Jews. In their later years and at Neal’s encouragement, they both became interested in painting and sculpture.

As an adolescent, Neal’s varied interests and abilities left him uncertain about a vocational or professional direction. He was drawn to the experimental college of Antioch with its program of alternating academic and work semesters. One of the most significant experiences in this program for Neal was his participation in a Quaker service program for political refugees from Nazi Germany. There he met Karl Korsch, a Marxist philosopher, and friend of the psychologist Kurt Lewin. Karl Korsch became a life long influence on Neal’s thinking and values.

While at Antioch College, Neal’s major became political science and determined his decision to transfer to the University of Chicago for his last year. His roommate at Antioch, and life long friend was Mary’s brother, Bill. It was through Bill that Mary and Neal met. Mary was in high school. Both Bill and Neal, like the rest of the young men of their generation, were faced with the turmoil of World War II, the threat of Nazi Germany, and the imminence of being drafted. While Neal felt it was morally and historically necessary to take a stand against Hitler, he was determined that he would not be trained to kill.

His alternative was the Medical Corp and his strategy was to work in a hospital gathering expertise until his draft number came up. Neal worked for almost a year in the tuberculosis ward of Bellevue Hospital.

After Basic Training, came the Army’s placements tests and with Neal’s characteristic consistency, he refused to test competent in anything other than work in a hospital, thus succeeding in forcing the army to finally recognize his non-combatant status. He was assigned to a base hospital near London where he worked as a lab technician for three years.

Returning to New York after the war, Neal took advantage of the GI Bill to study social psychology at the New School for Social Research where he had the opportunity to work with Solomon Asch. Neal participated in the intensely stimulating intellectual and artistic climate of the New School, in the post war era, and the bohemian life style of the village.

Mary shifted her graduate work in anthropology from Cornell to Columbia University to be with Neal. They lived together in the heart of Soho in an apartment that was a sixth floor “walk-up.” Many of Mary’s friends from her undergraduate work at Black Mountain College had also found their way to New York. (Black Mountain College was created in 1933 with the idea that a strong liberal and fine arts education had to occur both inside and outside the classroom. The faculty – many refugees from Nazi Germany - fostered an environment conducive to interdisciplinary work. The results impacted deeply the arts and sciences of those times.) In Mary, Neal had found a like-minded spirit with whom to share his life.

By 1948, Neal’s paramount interest was in the relationship between the individual and the group. His master’s thesis, titled “Changes in Response in Atmospheres of Social Pressure” was a study of the effects of group pressure on the individual. With his M.A. in hand, again, the question came up: what to do for work? Neal was a socialist and a social psychologist. He was innovative but not – at the time - interested in clinical work. He talked it over with Karl Korsch and decided to follow Korsch’s daughter, Sybila Korsch Escalona to The Menninger Clinic in Kansas. Neal and Mary married in 1947 in preparation for moving to a less bohemian part of the country, Kansas.

Neal was accepted into the newly organized joint Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas and The Menninger Clinic. It was a rigorous course of study that included clinical training at Menninger, and internships at The Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Topeka, The University of Kansas Child Guidance Clinic, and in the clinical department of the Boys’ Industrial School in Topeka, Kansas. Since there were no anthropology degrees to be had in the area, Mary completed her Masters in Psychology from The University of Kansas. Neal’s doctoral dissertation (which he wrote with characteristic speed, six months) was an experimental study of social influences on perception.

Throughout graduate school, Mary and Neal’s goal was to celebrate with a trip to Europe. With the $3000 they had saved by working at an assortment of part time jobs fitted into the academic schedule – Neal a taxi driver on night shift for a while - they left on a cheap boat to Spain, determined to stay until their money ran out. It gave them almost a year of vagabonding. Neal loved to explore and master a new city, its contours and special areas: harbors, parks, markets, old town, museums. He enjoyed walking all day long. On this first trip, they established a pattern and love of traveling that lasted the rest of their lives together.

They came back from their European travels, with only subway fare and the promise of a place to stay at a Settlement House in NYC run by a politically radical friend. There, Neal taught carpentry and Mary taught dance. Neal looked for a job.

He became the first clinical psychologist at The State Home for Boys in Jamesburg, NJ, a new position created by the state Mental Health Office in an effort to turn the institution away from punitive discipline toward a treatment approach. When the violence from the staff resulted in the severe fracture of a young boy’s skull, Neal became the star witness as the whole system of brutality was exposed – and subsequently collapsed. The superintendent begged Neal to stay but he decided that he had had enough and wanted the job of a Chief Psychologist with an established program and other psychologists with whom he could interact.

It was during the stay in New Jersey that two beloved daughters, Valery and Leslie, were born to Mary and Neal.

In 1958, they moved to West Philadelphia and Neal became the Chief Psychologist at Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH). Here, he met Jim Harris, a psychiatrist, marking the beginning of a dynamic collaboration that changed psychiatric treatment at this institution. They developed a Group Therapy ward that they called “Social Therapy.” They did everything in a group format, at a time when this was not done. Neal included the nurses and aides in the groups and later decided to include all who came to visit. Patients were involved in the decision making of each member of the group. They were included in the important question of whether a patient was ready to go on leave. Neal paid attention to the physical environment as well, bringing plants, toys, and magazines to soften the sterile atmosphere of the public hospital. He rotated his psychologists so that they would have varied experiences in the inpatient, outpatient and children’s wards or clinics. He made sure that the psychiatric nurses and aids who were closest to the patients were their primary therapists; this was in contrast to the traditional psychiatric wards. Neal and Jim Harris were true innovators in their fields. This friendship lasted all their lives. Jim Harris died in 2004.

Neal stayed at PGH until 1965. At that time Salvatore Minuchin came to Philadelphia’s Child Guidance Clinic. He had heard about Neal’s background and his group work. Neal trained with Minuchin in Structural Family Therapy and then became a trainer of this model. As the Family Therapy movement grew, Neal was a central part of that expansion. His duties included designing and supervising a liaison system to 19 elementary schools in the Clinic’s catchment area. He formed a transition group for at risk youth in 6 th grade going into Junior High School, working with a group of underachievers at West Philadelphia High School, and evaluating children while parents observed through a one-way mirror. He started groups and began home visits to conduct Family Therapy in the home, and visits to schools where he included the teacher, therapist, family, and child.

He stayed at Child Guidance for 15 years until Jim Harris persuaded him to be the Director of an innovative unit at Norristown State Hospital. It was to be a special collaboration between the mental health and judicial system to work with adolescent boys who were involved in violent crimes, boys who were evaluated as needing treatment, specifically family therapy as an alternative to incarceration.

The chance to control the total design from the onset was intensely attractive to Neal. Norristown was a lot farther from his West Philadelphia home than PGH or Child Guidance and for the first time in his life, Neal abandoned his bicycle and commuted to work. The staff he hired was committed to group process and family therapy. They designed the ward using group discussions. Family therapy was intrinsic. Judges and the families had to be convinced to participate. The unit flourished but unfortunately, lasted only 10 months before the State stopped the funding. Even though the team fought for the chance to bring their dream into fruition, it did not happen and the team was devastated. At 60, Neal contemplated retirement – but only briefly.

In the meantime, with the shifts in state policy, Jim Harris had moved from Harrisburg to the Coatesville, V.A. A call came on Armistice Day, November 11, 1981 from Jim asking Neal if he wanted to accompany him to the VA and run a unit for Vietnam Veterans in Philadelphia. The following Tuesday, he went for his interview at the Cherry Street VA and was hired on the spot.

Perhaps it is a paradox that Neal with his long history of opposition to war, a non-combatant in World War II, extremely involved in the peace movement all during Vietnam, should be working with Vietnam vets many of whom felt betrayed b y the peace movement. Neal followed his beliefs in relieving human suffering, fully understanding the horror of war.

In 1979, the V.A. established PTSD as a condition for which a veteran could be compensated. Few treatment approaches had been developed. As in all of his other undertakings, Neal set out to learn all that he could about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. He worked with flooding as a technique, but he noted quickly how painful it was for his patients. Group work agitated the veterans more. Neal felt that he must find a way for the men to stick with this painful work without relying on drugs or simply dropping out. He did this by building structures to support them. He started women’s groups so that the men’s wives could be involved, and as a way to bring his patients out of isolation. He worked with social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. He made videotapes with patients who were willing to take part - for support - and built in group work to engage the men as much as he could. He was using every skill that his background as a Structuralist and a Social Psychologist provided.

In this process of continual investigation for what would help his PTSD patients, Neal found out about EMDR. He decided to call Francine Shapiro directly. Instead of going off and getting trained, Neal made sure that the whole team got trained. This type of decision was the kind of solution that characterized Neal. His values provided the clarity and the social framework: if this was something that was going to help his vets, no bureaucracy was going to stop him and his team from being trained. He found a way to get the funds.

After Neal and the team were trained, he began to use EMDR on every one that set foot in his office. He would call back patients who had left treatment and tell them that he had something that would help. He was so interested and excited about EMDR that he poured his creative energies into the process of working with his patients and encouraging his staff and other colleagues to learn and work with EMDR. Many friends would come to Mary with stories about how Neal had cornered them to tell them about his excitement about EMDR.

We are all the beneficiaries of Neal’s creativity with EMDR. To counteract the vets re- experiencing the emotional devastation of their traumatic memories, he built in the central idea of the “safe place.” He was very interested in this concept and found that there were gender differences concerning the safe place: primarily that it was harder for women than men to find one. He would focus on the triggers, and make a list of the traumatic memories, asking his patients to number them in order of difficulty. This structure helped the men know where they stood concerning their memories. It offered them clarity and a system that they had not had before. Sometimes a patient would reappear after a long absence, surprised and perhaps suddenly able to trust a little more on discovering that Dr. Daniels remembered exactly where they were on their list. So many of his vets had such a long experience of alienation, despair and profound mistrust, he would tell them, “Don’t trust me, just try it.” He was committed to them, and because they knew this, he could get them to try EMDR.

Convinced by the usefulness of EMDR, Neal shared in the pursuit of a full theoretical base for its efficacy while continuing to refine and define the central pragmatic concepts. At the time of his retirement he was working on a before and after study of the systematic desensitization of triggers. Neal was also deeply engaged by the concept of the Positive Cognition. Because Neal was such a highly visual person, he would often help his patients create positive visual images. For example, he would have a vet working on an incident where he had been ambushed on the road and his buddy was killed. The soldier could not do anything. There was no one visible on the road to shoot. The patient was unable to move forward concerning this incident. Neal would suggest images such as “The road is grown over.” Or, “there is no road. It is healed. No one can ride over it.” Each suggestion was attuned specifically to the patient in front of him. He thought of these concepts as highly effective tools. He became very skilled in working with the safe place, the triggers, the positive cognitions and the list of traumas/memories. He was a great support to his vets as they traveled through their own arduous roads.

From 1990-98, the EMDR work was a continual source of invention and adaptation for Neal. He used his weekly meetings with staff and lucky people like myself (whom he allowed to attend even though I was not a member of the VA) to discuss what was going on in our treatment rooms. It was in this fertile ground that many of us began to use our own creativity and helped move forward many new ideas about the process of EMDR and into the worldwide organization it is. All the different elements of the protocol were discussed and worked on.

At the invitation of a dear friend and colleague, Maria Bylund of Stockholm, Neal returned to Sweden where he was known as a Family Therapist to describe EMDR for the staff of a treatment center for victims of torture. Two days later the whole staff signed up for EMDR training. This was the kind of quiet impact that Neal had. He was considering volunteer work with victims of torture after he retired.

As Mary says: “Neal fixed what was broken. He worked at repairing the world, he repaired our old house, he made things last. In terms of EMDR – it was a pinnacle for him in many ways. In his own secular way, he was a missionary.”

If Neal were here and I asked him to share something that he would like to say to the EMDR community perhaps it would be from a paper that he wrote on “EMDR and Burnout”:

“Psychotherapy should properly be defined as a high stress occupation with multiple sources of stress. Treating difficult patients in intense sessions one right after the other places heavy demands on the therapist’s sense of effectiveness and wellbeing. It is easy to become pre-occupied mulling over the negative affects, especially anxiety. I speak from my own ten-year experience as therapist with a population of chronic PTSD Vietnam veterans with multiple traumas. EMDR has been my therapeutic technique of choice for the last three years. EMDR can also be used effectively by the psychotherapists on themselves in order to debrief, de-cathect and reduce personal stress.

The procedure is short, simple, effective. Right after the session or later on in the day when it is possible, bring up the image of the patient; do 10-15 eye movements; generate a positive cognition and install it with the patient’s image and another 10-15 movements. Once the negative affects have been reduced, realistic formulations about the patient’s future therapy are much easier to develop. Residual feelings of anger, frustration, regret, or hopelessness have been replaced by clearer thoughts about what can or cannot be done. Positive, creative mulling can proceed without the background feelings of unease, weariness and ineffectiveness. Daily, weekly, or even career –long “burn-out” can be viewed as the accumulated residual of negative feelings that were not dealt with effectively when they occurred.”

Let us end this tribute with remembrances from his colleagues and his peers: Neal Daniels was a sweet and gentle man completely dedicated to healing the combat veterans he cared for. His reports on the use of the Safe Place exercise with the veterans supported and inspired its implementation as part of EMDR standard care. More concerned with practice than with politics, he was one of four directors of VA PTSD units who advocated for EMDR very early in its history on a panel at ISTSS. We were blessed to know him. -Francine Shapiro, Originator of EMDR; Co-founder of the EMDR Institute

I only had an opportunity to interact with him on a few occasions...and each time I was enchanted with his intelligence, charm, quick wit and storytelling. The first time I met him was at a VA training in Philadelphia where it was obvious that he was well respected and considered one of the pioneers in the field of psychology by his peers/colleagues. Neal's professional reputation and his enthusiasm for the positive effects of EMDR with the VA population were instrumental in the acceptance of EMDR throughout the therapeutic community. Robbie Dunton, Co-Founder of the EMDR Institute

Thinking about Neal takes me back to when we were just starting in EMDR While I'm sure just about everyone who goes into the mental health field does so out of an idealistic desire to help others, thinking they put the client first, it doesn't take long for many to get set in schools or approaches, fidelity to which then somehow becomes primary. Cynicism often follows. I'll spare you the essay that tries to explain this. Neal, even with his many years of experience did not succumb to that. As I knew him he was enthusiastic, bold and willing to continue exploring for better ways to help. He was knowledgeable and wise, and, generous and fun to be with. While pride is dangerous, I'm willing to let some in around the knowledge that Neal was a fellow long time VA therapist. Howard Lipke, colleague from the Veteran’s Administration in Chicago

Neal was a pioneer in using EMDR to treat combat trauma in veterans. After years of seeing slow gains using a standard cognitive-behavioral treatment model, Neal embraced EMDR, ever thankful for a treatment approach that brought rapid, long-lasting results. He encouraged, sometimes insisted, that all of us on the PCT (PTSD) Clinical Team at the Philadelphia VAMC use EMDR with our combat veterans. Our weekly team meetings focused on applying our new therapeutic approach and being successful. Neal was the creator of pairing eye movement with safe place imagery, and did this so that we could introduce EMDR to our patients in the least threatening manner. He taught us to begin with a safe place and to return to this calming image when patients’ images or affect became overwhelming, unmoving. He was acutely sensitive to the needs of combat veterans, forever respectful and compassionate. He wanted them to find relief, to regain their life, be able to think clearly and sleep again. He was devoted to them, and felt EMDR was what he had been waiting for. He called many former patients back into treatment, telling them “We have something now that really works!” He encouraged all of us to do the same. He remained energetic in his use of EMDR until he retired at the age of 79. And during his many years as our Director, he led the PCT to do their most exciting, focused and successful period of work ever.” -Susan Del Maestro, Clinical Psychologist and colleague at the VAMC

“His strength was in his quiet wisdom. He would not shout others down…He was the reflective, wise counsel that the louder ones fell back on. He was opposed to war in general, and Vietnam and Iraq in particular. Neal listened to men tell stories of combat trauma from the war he morally opposed in order to help them cope.” -John Grant, president of the local chapter of Veterans For Peace and friend

“I knew him as a professional psychologist, and as a person. I know what new ideas he brought to the profession and to people, through his marvelous logic and intelligence. He was not a touchy feely person. He did not go around hugging people. But, he was a soft touch for veterans seeking help. In an era of psychoanalysis, individual, insight-oriented psychotherapy and unconscious motivation, he introduced the use of group, family and milieu therapy and the therapeutic community. He promoted the use of getting inside the other person to better understand his/her view; the idea of phenomenology and the idea that insight may follow action, coming out of an existential perspective. In an era when psychologists specialized and focused their work on psychological testing and individual therapy, he sought to broaden their role, to become generalists, with many skills and able to fit into different settings. At a time when most professionals and intellectuals focused narrowly on their fields of work, he worked on broader social issues as well. He had wider interests in world peace and social justice… A German poet writer began a piece with the lines: guide, philosopher and friend. That is how I think of him: Guide, philosopher and friend. Neal Daniels. Frank Trotta, colleague at PGH and Veterans Affairs Medical Center; a portion of the text graciously spoken at Neal’s Memorial Service.


“A Community of Heart Profile: Neil Daniels,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed October 26, 2020, https://emdria.omeka.net/items/show/7644.

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