Obituary of Frank Farrelly

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Frank Farrelly (Founder of Provocative Therapy)

26th August 1931 – 10th February 2013

Though Aristophanes clearly shared a concern for humanity with his illustrious contemporary Socrates, his approach was very different. Eschewing the tragic perspective, Aristophanes chose to hold up a comic mirror to his fellow citizens in order to shock and provoke them into more emotionally congruent behaviour. This tradition would later be developed by writers such as Voltaire, Swift and Twain as well as insightful stand up comedians such as Lenny Bruce. It also saw a specific iteration in the form of the court jester who was given permission by a monarch to use humour to provoke wellbeing and authenticity.


It was Frank Farrelly’s brilliant innovation to apply what can be learnt from these traditions - empathic humour, satire, reverse psychology and playing the Devil’s Advocate - in a psychotherapeutic context. This was a radical departure from any conventional method; he named it Provocative Therapy. Like the great satirists, Farrelly made his patients laugh at their self-sabotaging behaviour, but only, like the court jesters, by treating them as sovereign, by acquiring their permission to provoke therapeutically. The central thesis of the approach is that the solutions to most patients’ problems are locked within them. Farrelly saw that with therapeutic provocation people will locate, articulate, own and finally enact those solutions.

Frank Farrelly was the ninth of 12 children born to an Irish Catholic family in St Louis, Missouri. His father once told him: ‘I married your mother and kids started coming like shots out of a machine gun!’ – a style of pithy communicating that would be retained by Farrelly and put to good effect in the Provocative Therapy clinic. His first choice of vocation was to be a priest, but although he always remained a believer and loved quoting the Bible with provocative irony - he soon left the seminary and trained as a psychiatric social worker. Here he came under the influence of the seminal work of Carl Rogers, the father of Client Centered Therapy, known better today simply as ‘counselling’. Rogers differed from theory-heavy psychoanalysis in that he maintained that the results of therapy were dependent less on the theoretical knowledge of the therapist than on three inherent human qualities: Empathy, Warmth and Genuineness.


Farrelly used Client Centered Therapy effectively with resident patients at Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin until a moment in the clinic changed his life forever. The patient was a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic with a poor prognosis and this was his ninety-second session with Farrelly. No progress had been made and the man remained an inpatient. Frustrated by this, Farrelly suddenly departed from the counselling methodology and, hearing the client describe his future in the bleakest terms, spontaneously ‘agreed’ with him. To Farrelly’s amazement the patient became animated and started to argue and to attempt to prove his therapist wrong! What he was demonstrating Farrelly would later describe in Provocative Therapy (1972) as the first hypothesis of Provocative Therapy: “If provoked by the therapist (humorously, perceptively, and within the client's own internal frame of reference), the client will tend to move in the opposite direction from the therapist's definition of the client as a person.” Within a couple of months this patient had improved dramatically and was ready to leave the clinic. A multitude of clients with many types of problems would go on to laugh at, enjoy and benefit from therapeutic provocation and Farrelly travelled widely to demonstrate and teach his innovative technique.


Provocative Therapy is not without controversy and hardly taken ‘seriously’ (though this is not one of Farrelly’s favourite words) by the psychodynamic/psychoanalytic schools of thought. It is nevertheless a potent form of brief therapy where, unlike the sombre tone of the analytic process, sessions are often energized and mirthful. Rather than focusing on past experiences, patients are warmly provoked to laugh at their inner jokes, at the funny side of how they are keeping themselves from fulfillment.


Although Provocative Therapy is capable of dealing with a wide spectrum of people and psychological issues – it is not a panacea. Some patients require a therapeutic relationship where trust is built up over many months or years. Farrelly’s detractors have even claimed that provocative remarks could be damaging or cruel, but this is elegantly refuted by his Golden Rule of Provocative Therapy: “Proceed with affection in the heart and a twinkle in the eye”. Farrelly’s dynamic approach has some similarities with that of maverick and charismatic therapists such as Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy) and the influential hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson but his contribution is distinguished from theirs by his unique methodology. A grateful client once described him as "the kindest, most understanding man I have ever met in my whole life, wrapped up in the biggest son of a bitch I have ever met." Frank Farrelly was a master of his own technique, and during his working life, thousands of clients responded to this empathic, playful, caring and very amusing psychotherapist who emanated kindness and affirmation.

Frank Farrelly is survived by three daughters and a son. His wife, June predeceased him.