Obituary: Psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Berke

Psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Burke

Psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Burke - Credit: the family

Medical doctor, psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Herman Berke has died aged 81 from congestive heart failure.

All the world’s a stage, and one man, Joe, in his time, played many parts. He was a hippie and beatnik, and later a Hasidic Jew.  He came to love Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. For years, once a month, a Kabbalah group met at his home.

In 1970 he co-founded with his wife Roberta Elzey, my wife Vivien, me and others, the Arbours Association. Arbours was set up as a charitable foundation where people, who might otherwise be in-patients in psychiatry wards, could live communally. Arbours also set up a training programme for psychotherapists, a low-cost psychotherapy clinic, and a crisis centre. Joe directed the crisis centre for many years, and this was among his great achievements. Many therapists who worked there treasure it as a crucial experience in their education and training. Joe was also an individual and family psychotherapist.

I got to know him in the winter of 1960/1 during America's intervention in the Vietnamese civil war. I was a third-year medical student at the Albert College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, and he was in his first year. He and I wanted not to be conscripted into the American military, as we were against that war. Joe was my moral model. He applied for conscientious objector status. Gaining that status meant having to offer evidence that one's religion opposed killing and - at least in those days - that it believed in a supreme being. Judaism does not oppose killing an enemy in war. 

Joe got a letter from his local rabbi in Newark, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who was then chairman of the World Conference of Jewish Organisations. I kept a copy of that letter, which dates from February 1964. Here is an excerpt:

"Dr Berke, whom I have known since his childhood, was a student in our Hebrew school, and I confirmed him. He was a particularly sensitive person, always engaged in some appraisal and reappraisal of religious problems. He is a deeply sincere man. I do not have the slightest doubt that the convictions he sets forth in his application, and which I have seen, stem from any motive other than that of profound belief that serving on the armed forces would not be in keeping with his religious creed. I want to emphasise the complete honesty and sincerity of the applicant."

I wrote a letter the same month in support of his application. In my letter I wrote that one of his "chief concerns has been with the removal of the barriers that isolate human beings from each other".

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"His main interest in medicine has been in psychiatry. Within this field he has consistently tried to reach out to, and communicate with, those patients who are most isolated from other human beings and whose barriers to human relationship seem most impregnable.

"This past year (1964) he spent five months working with such patients in Great Britain. Much of his energy over the past few years has been involved with trying to see these sick people as human beings who can be helped if only the walls that separate them from those who wish to help them can be broken down.

"I feel that his deep interest in the removal of barriers between people in order that encounter, as he calls it, may take place underlies his opposition to participating in the military. He believes that armies are a reflection of a deterioration of understanding between human beings of different national states, and that their existence in turn serves to perpetuate the mistrust and hostility that stand in the way of encounter between people of different national allegiance or of different political beliefs.

"His position is essentially a religious one, although it is buttressed by many intellectual convictions. The energy and zeal which he devotes to the pursuit of his beliefs in his relationships to friends, to strangers and to patients make credible the sincerity of his position."

Joe's application succeeded, and he did two years of an alternative civilian service to substitute for military service. Joe got approval from his Selective Service Board to do that service working with RD Laing and the Philadelphia Association in London. That is what he had wanted to do in the first place. I came to value his gift of mixing piety with practicality.

The quotes from the cited letters reveal Joe’s moral fibre that stayed true all the years I knew him.

Joe's mother and father had thought they were unable to conceive. In 1938 Joe’s father, a teacher at Central High School in Newark, of German and business subjects, and an executive of a local savings and loan society, died suddenly from a pulmonary embolus. His mother, who previously had polycystic ovaries, became amenorrheic, which was thought to be a result of grief. She found out at seven months that she was pregnant.

Joe was born with a genetic defect in his hands and toes - a variant of polydactyly, syndactyly, or both - that made them look abnormal. This did not hinder his ability to write by hand, and he could type with his forefingers; nor did it affect his walking or running. It helped him feel empathy for others.

He was raised by his mother and grandmother in a large Jewish community. He attended Weequahic High School in Newark, a four-year state school of several hundred students, and graduated as class valedictorian, the top student. He went on to Columbia College, where he finished the four years of courses in three. He graduated despite not passing a required test in swimming. 

He studied medicine at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. At medical school he grew a beard, the only student to have one. No hospital doctor had a beard either. Joe’s beard was to do with his being a hippie and left-winger. He joined peace marches and political demonstrations. I recall concerns expressed about his beard being possibly infectious in operating rooms. Needless to say, the beard, which he did not shave off, came to mean something different later in his life. A few months ago he told me jokingly that, politically, his views were "to the right of Genghis Khan".

The biggest influence on Joe in medical school was Dr John Thompson, a teacher in the department of psychiatry. Thompson used to spend time sitting with psychotic people, often for many hours, just being there with them in silence. Joe was drawn to Thompson, an island of inspiration for him in a medical education  that he was not interested in. 

As a medical student Joe read RD Laing’s The Divided Self and found its point of view arresting. He wrote to Laing, but got no reply. Joe went for a long visit to Dingleton Hospital in Melrose, Scotland, where Dr Maxwell Jones allowed residents to socialise freely in a therapeutic community. From there Joe wrote to Laing again, and this time Laing replied: "Come down and meet me, if you must."

Laing invited him to work with him for a few months. Joe accompanied him on home visits to families of people seen as schizophrenic. 

Joe qualified as a doctor in 1964 and did a year of internship to fulfil his medical requirements. He returned to London in 1965, where he lived the rest of his life. In July 1967 he, together with Doctors Laing, David Cooper, and Leon Redler, organised a two-week international conference called The Dialectics of Liberation at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. It was a major political and cultural event, attended by well known writers, artists and activists. 

The Philadelphia Association, of which Laing and Cooper, and later Redler, were members, had set up a project at Kingsley Hall, where disturbed people could live in a non-hospital environment. It is a three-story building in east London. About thirteen people could live there comfortably. The Philadelphia Association leased the building for five years starting in June 1965.

Among the people who lived there was a nurse called Mary Barnes. She was in a very disturbed mental condition, and lay in her bed amid her urine and excrement. Joe became her carer, feeding her, bathing her and cleaning up her bed and her room. She and he were to write a book together that has become well-known called Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness. It is a remarkable story of their relationship and reveals Joe’s unusual qualities as an outstanding therapist. It is also about how Barnes became a painter, first smearing faeces on canvas with her fingers, then smearing paint. The book was adapted as a stage play by David Edgar and has been performed in London and other cities.

Joe was remarkable in his ability to tolerate difficult behaviour in people who entered his orbit. No one seemed too strange for him. He firmly believed in the value of psychotherapy. The biology of psychiatric disorders did not interest him, nor did the pharmacotherapy given by psychiatrists. He was not comfortable with the idea that the drugs prescribed by psychiatrists and GPs to help people with mental disorders were needed. Always he thought that psychotherapy was central. He believed in long-term therapy, the longer and more frequent the better. Until nearly the end he went on practicing psychotherapy and supervising other therapists.

In New York he had met Roberta, who came to London to join him. She became his wife in 1968 at a hippie-style wedding in the New Forest. Roberta is a published poet, literary critic, lecturer, and radio broadcaster. 

They had two children, Joshua and Debbie. Joshua is a neuroscientist in San Francisco, and has three sons. Debbie is a director and experience designer, and has two sons. Debbie says that 'her father's method was to create a safety net of unconditional love and absolute acceptance' and that he imbued her with this quality.

Joe and Roberta divorced. Joe married his second wife Shree in October 1993 in Jerusalem at a Hasidic wedding. Shree is also a psychotherapist.

Their Highgate home hosted cultural activities, such as Tu Bishvat, the festival of the Jewish New Year for Trees. It celebrates fruits and ecology, as well as trees. Among Joe’s own writings, he was especially pleased with what he called a Highgate Haggadah, an order of service for Tu Bishvat. Joe’s Haggadah has pictures, prayers, reflections and songs; and records some historic customs from communities around the world. He said about the holiday that "it’s a very joyful occasion that celebrates the renewal of life".

Psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Burke

Psychotherapist and author Dr Joseph Burke - Credit: the family

For as long as I'd known Joe, I'd played the same basic role in his life. It was to curb his enthusiasms, to moderate his excesses. I didn't do very well. The Reader’s Digest has a feature every month called "The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met". It is one person writing about another person who had enriched his or her life with humour, wisdom, adventure, affection and a special touch of humanity. Looking back on the entries, the Digest editors said that what makes an Unforgettable Character unforgettable is one common attribute: ‘skill in that most difficult of pursuits, the art of living'. Joe has been my Unforgettable Character.

At a birthday party of mine a few years ago I'd given a welcoming speech to everyone. Then Joe, without advance notice, said that he wanted to say something. He said he envisioned himself and me in the hospital some day lying on beds in a terminal care ward attached to intravenous drips. He and I were holding hands as we both lay there dying. I was stunned by Joe's declaration and just stood there in front of the guests rendered speechless. I didn't comment. Well, I've now had time to mull it over. I appreciate the great love that Joe was expressing, but I’m grateful that it didn’t turn out that way.

Joe died on January 11 and was buried two days later at the orthodox Jewish Cheshunt Cemetery, where a traditional funeral service was held. In a year his remains will be exhumed and flown to Israel. They will be re-buried outside Modi'in in a site Joe had previously chosen.

He should have the last word. The Hebrew name for the five books of Moses, the first books of the Old Testament, is the Torah. Playing on the word, Joe called the psychotherapy he did "Torapeutic".

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