The Amazing Dr. Allen Wheelis

One of my professors in grad school recommended “How People Change” by Dr. Allen Wheelis, a San Francisco psychoanalyst. I really liked his work, and have returned to it now, as I prepare my one-man show. 

Drawing on three of his books, * I’ll share some of my favorite quotes:

Warning – If you’re easily depressed, don’t read these quotes – nothing but doom and gloom (which is why I like them).


On Sex

What I regret now is lost sexual opportunities. Only that. Only that makes my youth seem wasted. As death gets closer, only carnal pleasure seems real. It’s brutish, it’s dirty, it guarantees nothing, but it doesn’t deceive. 

Desire increases with despair. Hunger for women grows as the capacity to satisfy diminishes. 

Near at hand was my sister, her dark brown hair hanging over her shoulders.  She wore a sleeveless nightgown, and I could see a curve of breast. I felt a vague stirring of desire and unrest. 

Life is vulgar. Pursuit of the vulgar is loyalty to life. 


On Death

I distrust the wisdom of old men. I suspect a cover-up. They’re headed, mapless into the same dark that awaits us all. 

Attending my mother’s death, I preview my own, try to get the feel of it, take its measure. But cannot, can never get this matter settled. I accept what’s coming only in the sense of acknowledging its inevitability, not in affirming its propriety or rightness. 

Dirty old men are dirty because they are hanging on to life. Sex is the life force, and the nearer they come to death, the more urgent their desire. 

Laughter, dancing, sensuality – this is life. Guilt, anxiety, depression – this is death. 


On Therapy

You must proceed alone, on nerve. You are not entitled to much hope – just that you have a chance. You may take some bleak comfort only in knowing that no one can be sure you will fail, and it is your own resources of heart and mind and will that will have the most bearing on the outcome.

His patients get better and get worse. Most of them derive some benefit from his efforts, but character changes little. He is forced, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that psychoanalysis is not what it is represented to be, and he begins to be troubled by a vague sense of fraudulence. 

Everything you’ve done and said has indicated your understanding, and your willingness to accept me as a decent human being. No one else has done so much. 

A patient says: 

I’m fed up. A whole year I’ve been at this. A mixed-up, mired-down, miserable, wasted, goddamned year. Two hundred hours of supine introspection. And for what? What have I gotten out of it? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. I’m twice as miserable as before. 

Words. You do nothing. You’re just a listener – a subtle, crafty listener. If I were you, I’d cry in shame. One of these days, I’m going to find the guts to walk out of here and not come back. 


On Marriage

Do not dwell on the shortcomings of your marriage, or on the unfortunate personality traits of your wife. Dwell rather on what is right about it. All marriages are unhappy. None of my friends and none of my patients have a happy marriage. An unhappy marriage is the normal state, not a deviation.

What you have is the human lot. But don’t expect much. And remember, there is no occasion for grievance. 


On Father

My father and I have never parted. He made his mark on me and speaks to me still. He tells me I have been summoned to give an account of myself. I will be found wanting, still after all these years a low-down, no-account scoundrel. That judgment will be binding. I shall not now or ever be permitted to regard myself as worthy. 

As my father sank into darkness, my world filled with light. 

The eyes that have seen through me all these years are closed, the face that relentlessly condemned my flawed and wayward character is waxen and still.


The Quest for Identity, 1958

    How People Change, 1973

    The Listener, 1999

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *