Carl Whitaker was a 20th century psychiatrist, educator, and family therapist who helped found the field of experiential family therapy, sometimes referred to as the symbolic-experiential approach to therapy. 

Professional Life

Carl Whitaker was born in Raymondville, New York in 1912. Whitaker received his MD in gynecology and obstetrics, before returning to school in 1938 to study psychology at Syracuse University. At the Syracuse Psychopathic Hospital, he worked with schizophrenic patients, whom he found fascinating. In many cases, Whitaker observed that the patients’ symptoms would disappear for a period, only to reappear when they were sent back home. This revelation led Whitaker to begin exploring a family therapy approach, rather than just treating the person.

Whitaker chaired the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University from 1946 to 1955, where he continued to work with schizophrenic clients and their families to design new and innovative approaches to treatment in family therapy. In 1955, he founded the Atlanta Psychiatric Clinic, where he further refined his family therapy techniques. Whitaker returned to academia in 1965, when he took a position in the psychiatry department of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He remained there until his retirement in 1982. 

Contribution to Psychology

Whitaker is most well-known for acknowledging the role of the entire family in the therapeutic process. He is the founder of experiential family therapy, or the symbolic-experiential approach to therapy. Rather than scapegoating one family member or even a specific family problem, experiential family therapy looks at the entire family system. Several other approaches to family therapy have drawn heavily from Whitaker's theories.

Whitaker’s humanistic approach focused on getting at the heart of the feelings experienced by all members of a family. He aimed to stir things up in therapy sessions and allow family members to express themselves more fully. Whitaker often called his work absurd as he used unconventional strategies, such as humor, play, and directness to try to draw out and expose family members. Confrontation is common in experiential family therapy, but it is tempered with encouragement, support, and guidance from the therapist. Whitaker’s views are outlined in The Family Crucible, written in collaboration with August Napier and published in 1978. His last book on the subject, Midnight Musings of a Family Therapist, was published in 1988.

Whitaker also developed a practice called co-therapy, in which a pair of therapists work together to serve clients. Whitaker first employed this method while providing back-to-back intensive, brief sessions during World War II, and he continued to use it throughout his career.


  1. Carl Whitaker. (n.d.). Family Therapy. Retrieved from
  2. Goleman, D. (1995, Apr 25). Carl whitaker, 83, therapist who focused on family life. New York Times. Retrieved from