Frank Pucelik and the early days of NLP

Frank Pucelik is one of the co-creators of NLP. I enjoyed meeting him last week – and it was a fascinating evening.

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is the science of behavioural modelling – a collation of ideas based on the premise that all human behaviour has a structure, and all structures can be modelled.

I’ve found NLP very useful but I’ve always had an odd sense that the field is dirty, that something undefinable isn’t quite right with it. Frank’s account of the very early days helped me to understand this better. I think dishonourable seeds grow dishonourable crops in a dishonourable field… and I think Frank’s story is important because it continues to resonate in the field of NLP today.

Much of what he said fits with the ‘official history’ of NLP, but there are some key deviations.

‘An Evening With Frank Pucelik’ was organised and hosted by Michael Carroll at NLP Academy.

Frank told us that he returned from the Vietnam war as a broken man, traumatised and lost. He met a kindred spirit in Richard Bandler, a warehouse assistant who worked for Bob Spitzer’s publishing company, Science and Behaviour Books. Frank and Richard had an intense friendship and helped each other to rebuild their lives. They were both good copiers and began copying the therapeutic approach of Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, using Bob Spitzer’s tapes and transcripts as references.

Their interest wasn’t in anything theoretical… they wanted to use Gestalt therapy to rebuild their own lives.

After a while, Frank said that he and Richard were doing a ‘cleaner’ version of what Fritz did because they didn’t have Fritz’s beliefs about which bits were important – they did what they observed working.

Frank was a student at the University of California (Santa Cruz) and that meant he could book rooms for him and Richard to practice in. They set up a Gestalt practice group and it attracted other students and also a linguistics professor called John Grinder. John sat quietly for the first two sessions and then approached Frank and Richard with some observations and questions. Frank says that John was the real genius of the group. Frank and Richard originally pretended that they were aware of all the things John pointed out, but later they invited John to join them and the three of them began working as a close team.

Where Frank deviates most from the ‘official history’ is by saying there were actually seven other members of this original team. Their names were Jeff Paris, Patrick and Terri Rooney, Marilyn Moskowitz, Ilene McCloud, Devra Canter and Treveleyan Houck. They were students at the university and contributed ‘a hell of a lot’. The team worked and played with modelling projects for 30+ hours each week – unpaid – and together they developed what they first called Meta and we now call NLP. These people have never been publicly recognised. Frank’s naming of them was a powerful moment – delivered with intense emotion.

This second generation of co-developers (recruited by Frank, John and Richard after the original team graduated from university) are the people we hear about now – Leslie Cameron-Bandler, Judith DeLozier, Robert Dilts, David Gordon and MaryBeth Anderson. Frank generally praised these people’s contributions, while firmly pointing out that they weren’t the original co-developers.

Frank said that John Grinder couldn’t bear to be around Robert Dilts at first because ‘he was like a walking computer’. John told Frank to ‘turn him into a human being or get rid of him’! After two weeks of working with Frank, Robert was reintroduced to the group and became a valuable member.

Frank described the living quarters in the early days. Bob Spitzer rented a house in his grounds to Gregory Bateson, a famous anthropologist and a key influence on NLP. Richard Bandler lived in a shack/tent made with paper walls and John Grinder lived in a converted chicken coop.

Frank said he dated Leslie before she married Richard Bandler, and he dated Judith before she married John Grinder. They all lived and worked in close proximity. Frank said they knew each other inside out – they were each other’s best friends, confidants, workmates and therapists – and trust between them was vital.

Soon after, Frank said that Richard Bandler asked him to leave the group and he reluctantly but willingly complied with Richard’s request. He says it wasn’t because he was scared for his own safety (he said he’d have relished a fight with Richard) but because he was worried for those he cared about. He wouldn’t expand on that.

Frank said he lost his best friends and team mates at that point, and he found it difficult to leave but did so because he thought it was the right thing to do in the circumstances.

There’s a strong sense of injustice about the way he was ousted and the way other people have taken credit for his years of work, and the work of the other seven members of the original group.

At the same time, Frank said he remains very grateful to the group because they helped him rebuild his life after Vietnam. He repeated that he was a broken man when he met Richard, as Richard was too, and they became human beings together.

My sense was that walking away was probably very good for Frank. While other NLPers of his generation often seem trapped in what they call freedom, Frank seems more alive than most, more open, more free. He hasn’t got stuck in NLP but has moved on to a successful business career and now runs many social projects in the Ukraine. His work with drug rehab and therapeutic communities is pioneering and wonderful… and more on that another time.

A final thought – Frank said he thought that Richard Bandler liked to have only one close male friend at a time, and that these close friendships have helped to shape his way of being in the world. Richard has said similar in the past, joking that he used to have a John but the John got broken so he got a new John. (John Grinder and John La Valle.) In between the Johns he had an Eric Robbie, and before all of that he had a Frank Pucelik. There have been others in between too. It was fascinating for me to meet Frank and see that, in looks, in mannerisms, and in ways of being in the world, Frank is a striking balance between Eric Robbie and John La Valle, and extremely similar to both. NLP has been shaped by a whole series of people who haven’t had fair credit for their work. Many have been delibrately written out of history. And while the field has undoubtedly made many good things possible, and personally I’ve benefited a great deal, I think the unexplainable sense of dishonour will linger until proper credit is given where it’s due.