Professor Jeremy D. Safran, a teacher, clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapy researcher, was fatally attacked by an intruder in his Brooklyn home on the evening of May 7, 2018. He had just turned 66. The news of his brutal murder sent shock waves throughout the many local and international academic communities of which he was a central part.
At the time of his death, Dr. Safran held concurrent academic appointments at the New School for Social Research (Full Professor), and Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center (Senior Research Scientist), and was a member of the teaching faculty of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (where he completed his psychoanalytic training), and the Stephen A. Mitchell Center for Relational Studies, all in Manhattan. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he joined the New School faculty in 1993 when the clinical psychology program was on academic probation, and in his role as Director of Clinical Psychology, effectively led the department to full accreditation status.
With his characteristic enthusiasm and zeal, Dr. Safran took on a number of leadership positions: he was Director of the Cognitive Therapy Unit at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, University of Toronto (1986-1990); served two terms as Director of Clinical Psychology (1993-1996, 2005-2008) and also as Director of Graduate Studies, at the New School for Social Research (2003-2005); and was President of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (2009-2011). Dr. Safran was co-Founder and co-Chair (with Lewis Aron, PhD, and Adrienne Harris, PhD) of the Sandor Ferenczi Center at the New School, was instrumental in the expansion of the Brief Psychotherapy Research Program at Beth Israel Medical Center, under the leadership of Christopher Muran, PhD, and Arnold Winston, MD, and was co-Founder (with Christopher Muran, PhD, and Catherine Eubanks, PhD) of the Center for Alliance-Focused Training.
Over his 36-year career, Dr. Safran distinguished himself as an inspiring teacher, clinician, and researcher, and each were parts of him that contributed to his passionate commitment to the ongoing investigation of complex clinical change processes. I think one of his greatest gifts was his ability to put what took place in psychotherapy into words. Dr. Safran authored and co-authored eight books and published over 175 articles and book chapters on an impressive range of theoretical and empirical topics reflective of the wide breadth of his intellectual interests. While in graduate school at the University of British Columbia, he met Leslie Greenberg, PhD, with whom he collaborated on the expansion of cognitive behavioral treatment models that were becoming popular in the 1980s (Greenberg & Safran, 1980, 1981, 1984a, b, 1987a, b; Safran, 1998; Safran & Greenberg, 1982a, b, 1986, 1987, 1988) and the early theoretical development of emotion focused therapy (Greenberg & Safran, 1989; 1990; Safran & Greenberg, 1989, 1991), and who exposed him to the task analytic approach to clinical research (Safran, Greenberg, & Rice, 1988; Rice & Greenberg, 1984), a paradigm that would shape his empirical endeavors through the rest of his life. Dr. Safran also collaborated with Zindel Segal, PhD, integrating interpersonal theory into cognitive behavioral therapy (Safran & Segal, 1987, 1990). In 2013, Dr. Safran won the prestigious Gradiva Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Psychoanalysis for what would be his last book, Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Therapies (2012).
Dr. Safran is arguably best known for his in-depth work on the role of the therapeutic relationship in effecting characterological change in psychotherapy, which he began as Director of the Cognitive Therapy Unit at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto (1986-1990), and migrated to Beth Israel Medical Center’s Brief Psychotherapy Program in New York when he left Canada for an Associate Professor position at Adelphi University’s Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies. With long-time collaborator Christopher Muran, PhD, he and other colleagues began tracking the moment-to-moment experiences of patient-therapist dyads in the course of psychotherapy, developing an empirically informed relational treatment model that highlighted mindfulness and therapeutic metacommunication as mutative interventions for personality disordered patients (Safran, Crocker, McMain, & Murray, 1990; Safran & Muran, 1996; Safran, Muran, & Samstag, 1994). “Ruptures,” defined narrowly as deterioration in the quality of the collaborative working alliance, and more broadly as a dimension of the larger communication situation (a conceptualization attributed to H. S. Sullivan), became a way of framing relational enactments going on between a patient and therapist—often exquisitely subtly—that could be identified and processed together, leading to shifts in characterological patterns of relating. Negotiating the Therapeutic Alliance: A Relational Treatment Guide (Safran & Muran, 2000), a description of the integrative treatment principles, theoretical foundation, and research support for the model, remains a transtheoretical scholarly tome for clinical training. In recognition for his outstanding contributions to psychotherapy process-outcome research, Dr. Safran was granted Fellow status by the American Psychological Association Division 29 (2015), and was honored with the International Society for Psychotherapy Research Distinguished Research Career Award (2016), as well as the American Psychological Association Division 39 Distinguished Contributions to Psychoanalytic Research Award (2017).
Dr. Safran’s interest in Buddhism, which he began studying formally while an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, is clearly evident in the therapist stance that he and Dr. Muran called “mindfulness in action.” Mindfulness in action is a type of metacommunication, “an attempt to step outside of the relational cycle that is currently being enacted by treating it as the focus of collaborative exploration: that is communicating about the communication that is taking place” and bringing “ongoing awareness to bear on the interactive process as it unfolds” (Safran & Muran, 2000, p. 108). In order to facilitate such an ongoing, moment-to-moment awareness of the interactive process, the therapist must be genuinely curious about the patient’s reactions and open to examining these contributions to the relational communication patterns as they unfold, understanding that in the attempts to step back and unpack the experience with the patient, the therapist remains, paradoxically, always embedded within the interpersonal field to some degree. Such emotional sensitivity and vulnerability on the part of the therapist is essential to the change process for some patients, and is what distinguishes this treatment model from other psychoanalytically oriented approaches that emphasize insight, rather than emotional experience, as a mechanism of change. Developing this type of therapeutic skill requires dedicated training, and a great deal of Dr. Safran’s recent work turned to further refining and teaching the experiential approach (e.g., Eubanks, Muran, & Safran, 2015; Eubanks-Carter, Muran, Safran, & Hayes, 2011; Muran, Safran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2010; Muran, Safran, Eubanks, & Gorman, 2018; Ryan, Safran, Doran, & Muran, 2012; Safran et al., 2014).
In a recent interview for the Psychotherapy Expert Talks series (“Jeremy Safran: On Thinking Relationally, Alliance Ruptures, and Emotional Openness with Clients,” May 11, 2016), Dr. Safran mused that his thinking about the role of ruptures had shifted as the result of ongoing research comparing different treatment model processes. He noted that he had always been most interested in the moments in treatment when things were not working, when he and the patient “were not on the same page.” However, in reviewing old session tapes from the 1990s, he reflected that some therapists were “relentless” in their focus on the here-and-now of the therapy process, and in certain cases “creating more problems than they solved.” While some patients show improvements without presenting any problems in the alliance, he acknowledged, attending to the subtle shifts in communication was a therapeutic stance he continued to espouse because personally meaningful change for him had always come about in subtle rather than dramatic ways.
Born on April 23, 1952, in Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Safran was predeceased by his parents (Nathan and Eeta) and older sister (Sharon). He and his wife, Jennifer Hunter, PhD, also a clinical psychologist and teacher, raised two daughters, Ayla and Eliana. Dr. Safran leaves behind his extended family, close friends, and leagues of students, colleagues, and patients who did not have the opportunity to say goodbye.
By way of an ending, I return to his interest in Buddhist psychology and the support he described receiving from his Buddhist teachers through the difficult times in his life: “Buddhism places the confrontation with death, loss, and suffering at the heart of things. And ultimately it offers refuge, not in the promise of a better afterlife or protection by a divine figure, but in the form of a pathway toward greater acceptance of life as it is, with all its pain and suffering” (Safran, 2003, p. 29).
Cite This Article
Wallner Samstag, L. (2018). Jeremy D. Safran, PhD: April 23,1952 – May 7, 2018. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(3), 53-7. .
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