By Robert DeRubeis, PhD
Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training
School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Aaron T. Beck and I started working together in 1983. We had met four years earlier, when I got to know him at a workshop he was leading. I collaborated with his team and interviewed to join the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, after which we co-wrote our first chapter. A deeper relationship began to develop, however, after he asked me if I wanted to hit some tennis balls with him. I became part of his doubles tennis group, and during hitting practice we would engage in extensive courtside conversations about CBT and our research, as well as sports, tennis, family, movies, politics, world events, and more. About 15 years ago, we started meeting for lunch once a week. At these lunches, which typically last for two hours or more, he asks me what my team and I are researching, and he shares the projects he has been working on. He is always keen to get my feedback about his work and to reflect on what my team is up to.
Working closely with Dr. Beck has been one of the highlights of my career. Two instances stand out to me, the first being the opportunity to write a description of cognitive therapy and the associated research for an edited volume that is now in its fourth edition. Doing so alongside Dr. Beck, having the chance to explain what he had been doing for years, and witnessing him react to, shape, and edit the piece along with me was a priceless set of encounters and discussions. A second collaboration put me together with Dr. Beck and Dr. Jay Fournier (an influential psychologist, researcher, and former graduate student of mine) on an empirical paper that, I am told, influenced the way the current DSM conceptualizes personality disorders. At the time, the DSM Task Force (a group of health and medical professionals who are leaders in their respective fields and led the development of the DSM) was about to abandon the idea that there are different disorders, in favor of a dimensional system, because there was insufficient evidence to continue to support the existing categories. In our paper, we showed a rather close correspondence between the respective clusters of beliefs obtained using the Personality Beliefs Questionnaire (PBQ) and the diagnoses made by clinicians on the basis of interviews, blind to the PBQ answers given by the patients. Dr. Beck sent the manuscript to the DSM committee at the same time that we submitted for publication. Last I looked, the personality disorders were still in the DSM.
Our working relationship has always been connected to our personal relationship and vice versa. If I was puzzling over what to do regarding issues with my children, for example, Dr. Beck would offer sage advice, which usually could be summed up in one word: patience. To be advised by someone who is known around the world for his insights, and to be asked for my opinion on a wide variety of problems and issues, has been priceless.
This leads me to another quality I admire in Dr. Beck: his humility. About five years ago, he was preparing a 90th birthday toast. Dr. Beck, knowing I am Google-savvy, asked if I could find a list of famous people in their 90s so he could mention them in his speech. The week after the event he thanked me, adding, “Everyone thought it was so funny when I read my name from the list.” He really thought, and evidently his delivery made the guests at the event believe, that I had inserted his name alongside John Glenn’s, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s, and Carl Reiner’s, among others. It spoke to his humility that I had to show him the website before he believed that I hadn’t played a trick on him. Truly remarkable for someone of his immense stature.
Dr. Beck’s vast influence is the product of so many things, one of them being that when one is in his presence, one wants to listen carefully to his every word. The attention he pays to what others are saying makes him approachable and welcoming, traits that I find rare in those at the top of their field. He has inspired countless mental health professionals around the world. Those who have studied with him or worked with him inevitably want to spread the word, knowing that the “exquisite common sense” represented in CBT will connect beautifully with the minds of therapists and their patients. Dr. Beck’s humanity shines through iall his writings, presentations, and conversations with small groups and individuals, as does his belief in the strength and power that resides in all of us, and our collective ability to learn, grow, and heal.
As we reflect on Dr. Beck’s 100 years, I am reminded that as I was hitting tennis balls with him when he was in his early 70s, he asked me to hit him some high balls at the net, because he wanted to develop a net game! It shouldn’t have surprised me that, within a few months, he was putting away any ball at the net that he could reach. His spirit of perseverance and dedication extends to every aspect of his life. At 100 years old, Dr. Beck and I are continuing to work on a paper together. He is constantly excited and willing to talk about CT-R, as it is his greatest passion to work with people given a diagnosis of a serious mental health condition, those who have historically been pushed to the margins of the mental health care system and society at large. Dr. Beck has never been narrow-minded or restricted in his thinking about human problems, their solutions, and how to help people live better. In fact, quite the opposite. He doesn’t reject ideas, because in Dr. Beck’s world the goal has always been to find what is most helpful to most people.
Ten years ago, at his 90th birthday celebration in Washington, DC, I was extremely touched when Dr. Beck acknowledged me with some kind words in his speech to the hundred or so people gathered there. He concluded that portion of his remarks by saying, “But I could never return his serve.” In fact, he had little trouble returning even my best ones, but he was showing his playful side, and his humility, which I have had the privilege to see countless times over the years. While what he has accomplished in his 100 years is nearly beyond belief, Dr. Beck’s personal qualities will always stand out to me and those who have had the pleasure of meeting him. His work here is not yet finished, and I feel privileged to have been a collaborator and friend for all these years.