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Salvador Minuchin, a Pioneer of Family Therapy, Dies at 96

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“We are dazzled by Dr. Minuchin’s instant understanding of the deeper dynamics of every case and by his imaginative interventions,” Professor Freud wrote.

Paul L. Wachtel, of the City College of New York, called Dr. Minuchin “one of the founders of family therapy.” Discussing that branch of psychiatry in his review, also in The Times Book Review, of “Institutionalizing Madness: Families, Therapy and Society” (1989, with Joel Elizur), Professor Wachtel invoked the “no man is an island” metaphor.

“Family therapists,” he wrote, “are disciples not so much of Freud as of John Donne.”

Dr. Minuchin explored what he called psychosomatic families, finding that their common characteristics included avoidance of conflict and an ostensible civility that masked submerged anger.

A child may become anorexic as a result of rifts between her parents, he said in 1974. “So the child doesn’t fight; she doesn’t say, ‘No, I won’t,’ ” he explained. “She just doesn’t eat.”

He added: “We work with the family to get their conflicts out into the open, so that everybody can see that their problem isn’t that they have a little girl who won’t eat, but that the family is enmeshed — they are all into each other’s lives so much that the system simply can’t work. The children have no rights as children; the parents have no rights as parents.”

Dr. Minuchin said it made no sense to blame parents for their children’s psychosomatic disorders.

“There’s no perfect family; it’s a myth,” he said. “One set of circumstances might lead to an anorexic child, another to a depressive. Perfect parenting is an impossible thing, like being a perfect president or something like that. It’s trying to do good through a series of mistakes. It’s part of the human condition.

“No one,” he added, “knows how to do it right.”

Dr. Minuchin, a son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, was born on Oct. 13, 1921, in San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina, north of Buenos Aires. His father, Mauricio, owned a small store and, after it failed during the Depression, herded horses. His mother was the former Clara Tolachier.

Salvador Minuchin was inspired to help young delinquents after a high school teacher, quoting the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, described them as victims of society. He later became active in leftist protests opposing the military government’s seizure of Argentine universities and was jailed for several months.

After earning a medical degree from the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, he enlisted in the Israeli Army during the 1948 war for independence.

Dr. Minuchin studied child psychiatry in the United States with Dr. Nathan Ackerman, who later established what is now the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan. He returned to Israel to treat Holocaust orphans and children displaced by wars, then came back to New York to train in psychoanalysis at the William Alanson White Institute.

He went on to work as a child psychiatrist at the Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys in the Hudson Valley, where he developed his theory of what became known as structural family therapy. He recounted his experiences with several co-authors in “Families of the Slums” (1967).

In the mid-1960s, Dr. Minuchin was the director of psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

He retired as the clinic’s director in 1975 and served as director emeritus and head of training until 1983. He then returned to New York to establish the Family Studies Institute (now the Minuchin Center for the Family), a nonprofit training center for therapists. He also joined the faculty of the New York University School of Medicine as a research professor.

Dr. Minuchin retired in 1996, moving first to Boston and then to Florida, but continued to teach and write.

His wife, who died before him, was the former Patricia Pittluck, a psychologist and author. In addition to their son, Daniel, he is survived by a daughter, Jean Minuchin; a granddaughter; and a sister, Sara Itzighson.

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