Dream Network Journal, Autumn 2008

Photo by the author

Montague Ullman, M.D. in his Saturday dream group, Summer 2007


Montague Ullman – A Retrospective

by William R. Stimson


Awe and amazement shot through me the first time I saw Montague Ullman work on a dream.   It was the year the woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with fell in love with another man and moved out.   To rid myself of the feeling of betrayal and make way for a new beginning, I threw out onto the street the bed we had slept in and then all the furniture we'd bought together.   In the beautiful big empty front room to my Chelsea apartment, I started up the Dream Community of New York.   I thought if I could bring together people who connected on the level of dreams, the bonds would be meaningful, deep, and lasting; and we could grow into a community.  

It started out as a big weekly dream group that was free and open to all.   Every week I phoned around and found a different outside leader.   One came who introduced us to the Montague Ullman method.   I'd never heard of Montague Ullman.   I learned he lived just north of the city.   Some months later when I needed a leader, I phoned and asked him to come down.   By then the Dream Community of New York had put out its first newsletter and morphed overnight into the worldwide Dream Network.   I spent every penny I had sending out newsletters all over the world.   Montague Ullman had somehow gotten one and said he liked my lead article, "Dreams as a Subversive Activity."   He said he agreed with what I said about dreams and with the grassroots network of free dream groups I was endeavoring to bring about; and that he'd be glad to come down and demonstrate his process.   What a difference it made when he led the group himself!  

He phoned some months later and invited me to his upcoming dream group leadership training weekend.   He made it clear I was to come for free, as his personal guest.   I took the train up along the Hudson to Dobbs Ferry, where he waited at the station with his car to drive me, and some others who also came on the same train, to his home on the forested mountain in Ardsley.

Off and on, for the next two and a half decades the trek up to his Ardsley leadership training weekends was my spiritual pilgrimage.   He invited me back again and again as his guest.   If I came in the door with a check written out to him, he handed it back to me.   "No, Bill," he said firmly.  

Montague Ullman called himself a "recovered psychiatrist" but the psychiatrist part still showed.   Through his every insight ran a professional brilliance, an intellectual subtlety, and a psychological astuteness that was as uncanny as it was accurate.   With dreams, he was inimitable.   He stood head and shoulders above any one else I ever met.   It was mesmerizing to be in the room with him when he worked.   He was a real master.

He was a quiet and thoughtful man, slow to speak.   He weighed each word and phrase before uttering it, and often paused to gather his thoughts before proceeding.   His every utterance was tightly structured, edited down, and concise.   I was different.   I came from working class people, ran away from home, went to Duke and Columbia on scholarship, and pulled myself up by the bootstraps.   I'd never even taken a psychology course.    My doctorate was in biology.   I left science to become a writer because I wanted to be more fully alive -- I wanted to be the whole of me, not just my mind.   But then when I began to write I discovered to my dismay I was all ideas.   I wanted to find my feelings, and my creativity; so turned to my dreams to see what was there.   I learned to do dreams all on my own in little black notebooks that I kept endlessly, year after year.   I devised my own methods, an amalgam of Freud, Jung, and everybody else I came across in my reading.  

In Montague Ullman's leadership training groups I was at first wild and ungovernable, like a mustang that had never been corralled and saddled.   Over time, and out of my enormous respect for him, I struggled to master what I saw as his "rules."   Yet, even when I did, I still came to a dream in the group much in the way I had all those years alone at home.   I flashed out associations left and right, improvising as I went, flying by the seat of my pants.   I never knew where I was going beforehand.   I never thought out in my head what I was about to say before I uttered it.   My ideas became evident as I spoke them.   I did it all the way I write.   Mine was a messy creative process, like that of the artist who may come up with a masterpiece but splatters paint everywhere.  

The way I worked in his groups irked Monty to no end.   He didn't like that it took me so many words to say what I had to say, or that I had so very much more to say than others and took more than my share of the group's time to say it.    Yet, he kept inviting me back and always refused payment.   If he came down to the city he phoned ahead to invite me out to lunch.   He told me over and over again, in somewhat of a helpless voice, "You're not good in the group, Bill."

Just before I left New York and came to Taiwan, the discord between the two of us in the weekend trainings grew to such a pitch that one group member put forth the idea that just as Jung broke off from Freud and went on to establish his own system, I was breaking from Monty and creating my own approach.  

This wasn't true at all.   From the bottom of my heart I followed Monty in every particular when it came to dreams -- for the simple reason that everything he said and did with dreams accorded so exactly with my own experience with my own dreams.   I had no desire whatsoever to revolt against his reign or implant my own in its place.   I had no ideas different from his and no aspiration to change or alter his group process in any tiny particular.  

What I did demand, though, was the freedom to do his process in a way that was authentic to me, that sprang from my own history and came from the center of my being.   I categorically refused to ape Monty's every mannerism and personal habit of thought and speech in the way I saw so many others doing.   It's not that I didn't appreciate Monty every bit as much as they did.   I felt I appreciated him more.   I saw my connection to him as a Cordelia to a King Lear.   I was the one who loved him the best and was most loyal.   I wanted to cleave to what was really the process and not pander to Monty's ego by endeavoring to mimic his unique and inimitable personality style.   To be real and to have fire in it, work with dreams, I knew, had to rise up out of one's own depths.   Otherwise it became blandly institutional and drab.   We didn't need to be Monty.   We couldn't be.   We needed to find and to be ourselves in order to master Monty's experiential dream group method.   Only this could make the group electric, give it that spark it needed to jump with life.  

It was after I came to Taiwan, and began leading my own dream groups here, that I came to see that much of what I'd taken to be Monty was actually a subtle and substantial part of the process.   Somehow he had managed to put into the experiential dream group, in the most apt way, those very features of his personality and his style that were most effective with dreams and that we all loved the most.   The experiential dream group requires a heightened considerateness for the dreamer, and for everyone in the group.   It has nothing to do with showing off one's own brilliance.   It's more important to back off enough to let the dreamer and the group have the space they need with the dream.   There's a quality of listening, a kind of quiet, a meditative but attentive waiting that is required to allow what the dreamer wants from the process to come forward and take control.   I could go on and on detailing the subtleties Monty has built into the process.   There is really quite a bit more than initially meets the eye in this way of working with dreams that Monty gave us, and I still learn so much each time I lead a group that I can see how it might take a lifetime to perfect one's leadership skills.  

I phoned Monty more and more frequently from Taiwan to confess all this.   Our connection deepened and became more intimate.   He was excited at the work my wife and I were doing here to bring his process into the university curriculum; and he was thrilled my wife translated into Chinese his book Appreciating Dreams .   He told me I should start doing dream group leadership trainings and I did.   The more I did, the more I learned.   The more I learned, the closer I became to Monty and the more I appreciated his rare qualities.   It touched me how delighted he was every time he picked up the phone and heard me on the line.  

Toward the end I phoned every month or so.   Shortly before he died he came out with a sentence that surprised and astonished me so much I grabbed for a pen and jotted down his words on a scrap of paper.   That paper sat in my desk for months and months with the worlds on it, "Bill, you're the best dream teacher I've ever seen."   Whenever I felt unsure about myself I looked at Monte's words.   I knew I would never hear anything like that from him again; and I never did.  

How different Monte was from certain other dream professionals back in those early years when I labored frantically to jump-start a worldwide dream network.   While some of them seemed affronted that an amateur upstart who waited tables for a living would presume to take the high ground with them when it came to dreams, Monte came down to New York City unpaid and led benefit workshops to help fund the fledgling dream network's newsletter.   He glimpsed in my efforts the vindication, the living proof, of everything I later discovered he himself had written about the huge grassroots potential of dreams to transform society.  

Montague Ullman saw what other professional dreamworkers couldn't, not just because he was of a higher caliber, but because he himself was every bit the visionary I was -- only more so; and, in his sweet, quiet way, every bit the rebel -- only more so.   Raised by a Jewish mother pushing him to become a doctor, he slipped away to experiment on the sly with séances.   Indoctrinated in medical school with scientific materialism, he never lost his fascination for and belief in what was invisible to science, beyond its ken and out of its reach.   A practicing psychiatrist trained in psychoanalytic theory and in the interpretation of dreams, he did the unthinkable and devised a simple group method of working with dreams that dispensed with theory and even with psychiatry.   What professional audacity to remove dreams from the keep of the privileged expert and give them back to the dreamers themselves!   What astounding genius to dispense with dead theory and glimpse that every dream was its own theory of who the dreamer was at that moment!   What true visionary scope to grasp the truth that ordinary people with no special training could untangle their most complicated dreams and benefit immensely from doing so!

Montague Ullman's greatest contribution, though, was who he was.   He could see a person -- I know it was true with me -- as better than they were because he had it in his power to ease, or in my case to hack, away everything that stood in the way until that person really was what all along Monty had seen they were.   He had this wonderful faith in all of us who came to him.   Even those I myself couldn't believe in, he believed in -- and I have no doubt his belief transformed them to one degree or another.   I was certainly the most challenging student he ever ran up against.   From the day he met me, it took him the whole rest of his life to make me what I was.   By the time I fully realized what he'd done, and before I got a chance to thank him, he'd died.

This great man is sorely missed, not just by me but by countless others -- especially in the north of Europe I believe -- where his process took root to a much deeper extent than it ever did in the United States.   I'm on my way to the Dream Group Forum of Finland next month; and anticipate that after all these years, thanks to Montague Ullman, I may finally discover in faraway Scandinavia the dream community I set out looking for so long ago.

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Dr. William R. Stimson is an adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at Taiwan's National Chi Nan University where, with his wife, Dr. Shuyuan Wang, he co-teaches a course on dreams.   This course has no lectures, uses no textbook, and demands no study.   Every four-hour class meeting starts with an hour's open discussion of student's questions and then turns into a three-hour Montague Ullman experiential dream group.   Everything the students learn in this course about dreams, they learn from working with their own dreams.   Montague Ullman's writings on dreams can be found at http://siivola.org/monte .