Dr. Sonia Nevis, 90; Gestalt psychologist founded center in Wellfleet
When a course of therapy with psychologist Dr. Sonia Nevis ended and a client struggled with goodbye, she would ask her patient to pick up one of the many glass figurines in her office — a little glass horse, perhaps, or a cat. Then she would tell her client to break it.
“They are often surprised and may physically pull back. They will sometimes say, ‘Don’t you care about it?’ I might answer, ‘Yes, very much.’ They will say, ‘So why do you want me to break it?’ ” Dr. Nevis said in an upcoming book.
“I’ll say because the sensation of loss is one that most of us avoid, even though it is so ordinary,” she added. “We all have to learn to experience it in the moment. If we are lucky, we can do it with another.”
Over the past few decades, Dr. Nevis taught and mentored thousands of psychology professionals, managers, and business leaders in the concepts of Gestalt psychotherapy at the Gestalt International Study Center in Wellfleet, which she founded in the late 1970s with her husband, Edwin. Unlike the Freudian focus on mining the past, Gestalt psychology focuses on living in the present and teaches that the whole of relationships is greater than the sum of its parts — with the parts deriving character from the whole.
Dr. Nevis was masterful at living in the present and helped develop the center’s core training programs, colleagues said. She was 90 when she died Sept. 10 in a Brighton nursing home, where she had lived for several years and led sessions on finding happiness.
“She had this marvelous way of connecting with people,” said Mary Anne Walk, a former student who now coaches executives and formerly was executive director of the Gestalt center. “She didn’t believe in using your energy to be negative. She believed in using your energy to find the best in herself and in others.”
No one could predict what Dr. Nevis might say, said Stuart Simon, a Gestalt practitioner who teaches at the center and formerly was her student. “Usually it was creative, brilliant, and rarely without some commitment to the heart,” he said.
He said he used to joke with her that she was “a mutant” — she had a difficult childhood, but emerged optimistic, strong, and full of kindness.
She was 5 when her mother died while giving birth. Her father was mostly absent in her life, and she was shuttled among relatives who paid little attention to her. She had no one to say, “I love you,” and no one to say, “I hate you,” one colleague observed.
Dr. Nevis “never conveyed the sense she had to overcome something,” said her daughter Amy, of Brookline. “She was such an expert at living in the moment. She was an incredible observer. She saw things and heard people in a way I think was really beyond what most people can do.”
“When you were in her presence, you just felt better,” said psychologist Joseph Melnick, a longtime friend of Dr. Nevis who had been her student and then taught with her for many years. A collection of their conversations are included in their book, “The Evolution of the Cape Cod Model, Gestalt Conversations and Practice,” which will be published next year.
Dr. Nevis, who stood a little over 5 feet tall, could scribble a few sentences on an envelope in preparation for a lecture and command an audience. “You couldn’t say anything to shake her,” Melnick said.
When a male therapist she was supervising blurted out that he would like to sleep with her, Dr. Nevis’s comeback became famous among her friends.
According to an anecdote in her book, Dr. Nevis sat back and said, “Let me think about it.” Then she stretched her hands about a foot apart and said, “This much of me would like to sleep with you.” Then she stretched her hands out to more than a foot and said, “This much of me wouldn’t.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Dr. Nevis was the daughter of Kelman March and the former Ruth Kwitko. She graduated from Brooklyn College and met Edwin Nevis in New York while socializing with friends at the movies, according to her family.
They married in 1948 and moved to Cleveland, where she graduated with a doctorate in psychology from what was then Western Reserve University. In 1956, they helped found the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland with a mission of training couples and family therapists.
Edwin, who also taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, died in 2011.
While Dr. Nevis was raising her two daughters in the 1950s, she became a student of Gestalt founder Fritz Perls. Friends invited her to attend a Gestalt workshop in Cleveland with Perls, and Dr. Nevis experienced a transformative moment.
“Suddenly I could see what was happening between myself and other people,” she said. “I could name some of the feelings I was having. I realized what was happening between myself and other people. It was the first time I felt seen, and the first time I could see . . . the fog was lifting.”
In addition to her daughter Amy, Dr. Nevis leaves another daughter, Melanie, of Brooklyn; a brother, Ronald March, of Wyckoff, N.J.; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.
About 100 friends and colleagues gathered at the center last Sunday to celebrate her life.
Dr. Nevis enjoyed playing bridge and poker. She also loved listening to the great female jazz artists of bygone eras and going to a Wellfleet theater for live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.
Her book includes a paragraph that contains a few guiding principles for navigating intimacy while remaining authentic and human.
“Be generous; it’s good for your heart,” she wrote. “Disappoint people with regret, but do disappoint them. Be curious; you’ll learn continuously. Talk directly to people, not about them to others. Enjoy differences; we need others’ perspectives. Think optimistically, so that you see what’s working. Look for the humor in your life.”