Jan. 18, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 9

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    Perlman: Lifetime of leadership in social service

    When Helen Harris Perlman, the Samuel Deutsch Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Service Administration, graduated from college in 1926 with high academic honors and a major in English literature, she knew what she wanted to do: continue her studies and become a professor of literature.

    "It just seemed the world was my oyster," Perlman said. But despite her academic excellence, her teachers at the University of Minnesota said her dreams might not be fulfilled -- not only because she was a woman, but because she was Jewish.

    "They said there was not a single Jewish person employed in the humanities," she said. "There was no way to change that. I didn't know what to do."

    Then Perlman learned about a job opportunity as a summer caseworker for the Chicago Jewish Social Service Bureau. Perlman took the job, and it started her on a course that would lead her to a pioneering career in the emerging field of clinical social work.

    "A whole world opened up to me," she said. "I had no idea of the kinds of trouble people had. I got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to help people. I found that in many cases, families faced the same kinds of problems and conflicts that one encountered in the great works of literature."

    Perlman, who turned 90 this month, will be honored for her work in social services on Friday, Jan. 26, with a celebration and a lecture by William Reid, professor at the State University of New York at Albany's School of Social Work, who will discuss Perlman's role in the development of clinical social work. The event will commemorate the establishment of the Helen Harris Perlman Visiting Professorship in the School of Social Service Administration. The chair, which will be filled every two to three years, has been endowed by Perlman and her late husband, Max Perlman; Life Trustee Irving B. Harris; SSA alumnus Paul Gerstley; and an anonymous member of the SSA faculty.

    Perlman is widely known in social services for her work carrying forward and integrating diverse concepts that emerged from diverging schools of psychoanalytic thought. Her most widely read book, Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process, was originally published in 1957 and has sold nearly 200,000 copies. It is still a common textbook for students and has been translated into more than 10 languages.

    "There's no year that passes that I don't get four or five letters," Perlman said in an interview last year with Carol Coohey, Research Associate at SSA. "Usually these are from middle-aged women who have gone back into social work after they raised their kids. And they write because they're just thrilled with it. So that warms the cockles of this old heart, you know."

    Coohey, who interviewed Perlman as part of an oral history of SSA, said that in the 1950s Perlman offered an alternative for social workers who were practicing in the field. While scholars debated the merits of the Freudian and Rankian schools of thought, Perlman pulled together her clinical experience and her work studying with experts in both camps -- including Charlotte Towle at Chicago -- to develop the "Chicago School" of social-service practice.

    "She found middle ground, and it broke the deadlock and ushered in a new era in terms of practice," Coohey said. Her work, together with later work by Reid and Laura Epstein, Professor Emeritus in SSA, established the Chicago School's problem-solving approach. It is still the primary approach used in practice today, Coohey said.

    From practice to theory

    Jeanne Marsh, Dean of SSA, said Perlman's theory of practice was a new way of looking at controversial treatment issues, enhanced by a clarity that came from Perlman's years of direct practice with families and individuals.

    "It wasn't that she rehashed someone else's theory -- in fact she was an outcast in some ways because she adhered to neither of the prevailing theories," Marsh said. "In her lucid writing style, she brought together emerging social-science and psychiatric theories and her own experience into a framework for social-work practice."

    Perlman started her career in social work at an auspicious time. In the mid-1920s, she said, "there was a sudden flood of psychological knowledge." The work of Freud was widely discussed, as were the ideas of other noted psychoanalysts and psychiatrists. Debates about the best way to treat people were waged fiercely on the East Coast, while there was little discussion in the Midwest and West, she said. To enlighten practitioners in those areas, the Commonwealth Fund offered four scholarships for students at the New York School of Social Work (which later affiliated with Columbia University), and Perlman received one of them.

    While completing her studies in New York, she was a frequent lecturer on the treatment of social and emotional problems in people's everyday lives, speaking at the New York School of Social Work and other schools and conferences throughout the United States. Her work experiences gave her a variety of perspectives on social casework as she began developing the conceptual framework for direct-practice social service.

    After earning her master's degree in social work in 1943 from Columbia University, she was widely sought after as a lecturer at universities in Edinburgh, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Berkeley, Hong Kong, Canada and India. She joined the faculty at Chicago in 1945.

    Soon, she began working on Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process.

    When it was published in 1957, Perlman's book diverged markedly from the then-current popularity of long-term psychotherapy. She argued that in-depth study wasn't always necessary for people and could, in fact, hinder progress. The short-term, or crisis, treatment that she advocated -- at the time either controversial or held to be "superficial" -- is now common.

    "I had seen that when a client came in for clinical treatment, the social worker potentially faced a multiplicity of interrelating problems, issues and conflicts," she said. "Not knowing where to start -- or how -- they often took refuge in the belief that merely talking about the problems would provide a cure. Too often, it did not."

    In an effort to make the complicated social-emotional problems manageable, Perlman put forward the idea of "partialization."

    "An important feature of partialization is the fact that the problem-solving process was transferable to other areas of life," she said. "Success solving one problem could help the client and social worker deal with other issues later. Partialization proved 'workable' because small gains heightened the client's sense of confidence and hope."

    The process Perlman outlined in her book she calls the "Four P's": A person comes to a place with an identified problem, often complex, that needs to be partialized.

    "Partialization is necessary because you can't treat the whole of a person at one time," Perlman said. "I liken it to cleaning out an overburdened closet. If you go in and take everything out and pile it on the floor, you're going to look at it and say it's time for a nap.

    "The best thing to do is to take a look and see 'where should the hats go?' Concentrating on one thing is clarifying, not overwhelming."

    Perlman has written more than 75 articles and seven other books, including So You Want to Be a Social Worker, Persona: Social Role and Personality and Relationship: The Heart of Helping People. She also has edited the book Helping: Charlotte Towle on Social Casework, in which she provided a critical evaluation of essays by Towle, an influential researcher in social work at Chicago.

    Perlman also kept up with her love of writing fiction, publishing poetry and stories in newspapers and magazines, including the short story "Twelfth Summer," published in the 1950s in the New Yorker.

    Perlman has been active throughout her career in professional and educational circles of social work, serving for many years on the editorial board of the Journal of American Orthopsychiatry; the society awarded Perlman a life membership for her service. She also has served on the editorial board of Social Work, the major publication of the National Association of Social Workers, and she has served, too, on the curriculum development committee of the National Council on Social Work Education.

    She has been honored by the NASW, the National Council on Social Work Education and the Association of Clinical Social Workers, and she has received honorary degrees from Boston University, the University of Florida and her alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

    Breaking barriers

    Perlman's tenure at the University came at a time of great change for the role of women, when University officials were opening the way for women to play a more vital role in academics.

    Several times, Perlman was the first to break long-standing gender barriers. She was the first woman to be elected to the Quadrangle Club Board, the first woman appointed to the Library Board and, in January 1970, the first woman to address the annual dinner meeting of the Board of Trustees and the faculty.

    It was an important time in the women's movement, and her address concerned the role of women at the University.

    "The practical-realistic management of interpersonal and person-to-circumstances relationships are every woman's trade, even when she is a full-time, full-fledged lady professor," Perlman told the group. "In the complex of persons and passions that willy-nilly accompany the life of scholarship in a university, such pragmatic realism has manifest values and uses."

    As women's roles shifted, the changes were often accompanied by confusion. As Perlman recalled, the first women admitted to join the Quadrangle Club had to use the rear door -- not the front. So when she arrived for her first meeting as a member of the club's board, entering through the front door, she was anxious to make a good impression.

    "The 11 other members stood up behind their chairs. Thinking this to be the standard ceremony, I stood behind my chair as well. Finally, Milton Friedman said, 'For God's sake, Helen, sit down. We are standing for you!' " she said.

    "It fascinates me to look back on what my generation . . . the changes that have occurred," Perlman said in her oral history. "I know that for people who are in the midst of an upcoming generation, we seem slow. But actually, to those of us around my age, the changes that have occurred in psychological and social thinking are just fantastic."