Al Pesso (1929-2016)

Juliet Grayson and Sally Potter with an appreciation.

Al Pesso, who died aged 86 on 19 May 2016, was an innovative master of body-based psychotherapy. With his wife Diane Boyden Pesso, who died two months before him, he co-created the Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP), a unique contribution to psychotherapeutic healing. In 2012, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy, one of only seven ever given (the other recipients are John Pierrakos, Alexander Lowen, Ilana Rubenfeld, Stanley Keleman, Ron Kurtz, and Peter Levine). Al has visited UK regularly since 2002 to lecture, lead experiential workshops and teach his UK students.

Al studied modern dance under Martha Graham, inspired by the intense expression of primal emotions. Through dance he and Diane met at Bennington College; they married, later establishing a dance centre in Massachusetts. As choreographers, they worked with dancers struggling to express inner feelings with their bodies. To free up their dancers’ expressiveness and capacity for authentic physical movement, they experimented with especially created interactive exercises, catharsis and therapeutic touch. By 1961 this evolved into Pesso Boyden System Psychotherapy, a new therapeutic group method, used beyond the dance world. Pesso spent the next 50 years refining PBSP in line with developing psychological and neuroscientific understanding.

From 1960-1972 Pesso was Director of the Dance Division at Emerson College, Boston. He worked at McLean Hospital USA applying PBSP in a clinical setting. From 1963-1968 he was a Consultant in Psychiatric Research at the Boston VA Hospital. He featured in a film about his work for in the Congo called, “State of Mind” (Icarus Films, 2010). 

Until autumn 2015, Al Pesso travelled the world much of each year, teaching PBSP and demonstrating his assertion "Present consciousness is a tapestry woven of memory” in countless workshops and seminars. A PBSP session is strikingly individual yet classically structured. Therapist and client, working together, externalise the inner landscapes of the client’s heart and mind, including internalised beliefs and repressed parts of the self beyond awareness. As memories flood in, therapist and client note the childhood deficits, and any areas of trauma or intrusion (this could include shouting, physical violence or sexual abuse). Then, using group members to role play Ideal Figures, they co-create a symbolic, alternative history, using specific words and touch to create a life-affirming ‘new memory.’ This more fitting history enables the client to more fully express their true self. Later, Pesso found ways of teaching this potent approach and also adapting PBSP for use in one-to-one sessions.

A core of PBSP therapists, supervisors and trainers in the UK will take his work forward. Many clients have been profoundly impacted by just one session with Al. 

Al Pesso was a small but strong man with a brilliant mind, an extraordinary way with words and a powerful ability to read people. He demonstrated deep compassion, hope, and a profound acceptance of what it means to be human. Al leaves three daughters and four grandchildren.  

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