Book Review

Inspired by psychology’s provocateur — Nicholas A. Cummings

This is a book about a psychological lighthouse of Greek ancestry that lit up, fired up and transformed the field and practice of professional psychology.

By Elizabeth Marmaras, PhD, ABPP
"Nicholas A. Cummings: Psychology's Provocateur" by Carol Shaw Austad, PhD

"Nicholas A. Cummings: Psychology's Provocateur" by Carol Shaw Austad, PhDThis masterful and comprehensive book slowly unfolds before our eyes, the biography of a brilliant, innovative trendsetter, enterprising visionary, bold and controversial psychology presence, that of Nicholas Cummings (born 1924), “psychology’s true provocateur.” It is an inspiring biography about an extraordinary human being and committed professional, an ingenious Ulysses of professional psychology and practice. 

The book is inspirational and moving by showing that Cummings, despite his early losses, familial challenges and hurdles on his life path and way to immense success, through his dynamism, uncanny abilities and unwavering resolve, made immeasurable contributions and transformed the field of professional psychology and practice.

Although this does not do justice to his life and contributions, after reading this stimulating biography, the main highlights about Cummings’ life and professional accomplishments can be summarized as follows:  

  1. The book introduces his Greek heritage and talks about his early life and impact his father’s death had on young Nicholas’ emotional life; his medical illness (polio) and subsequent physical hurdles; his maternal grandmother’s unwavering belief in his spirit and abilities to overcome anything; the numerous family changes and adaptations affect his mother’s second marriage.
  2. It examines the interpersonal conflicts and emotional cutoffs between the two most important, astute and strong minded Greek-American women he felt loyal to, his mother and maternal grandmother, and the impact of their own psychology on his personality development and life decisions. It also recounts his mother’s religious conversion and zealotry and the imposing effect that had on him.
  3. It recounts his military service and post war education in psychology and psychoanalysis that served as the foundation of his psychology career.
  4. It presents the courtship, marriage and strong, loving relationship and family life with his charming wife Dorothy of 60 years. It highlights the mutual respect and significant positive influence that she had on him. It recounts his own effort to balance family and work-life and time.
  5. It spotlights his vision and innovative spirit, undying zeal and commitment, service and immeasurable professional accomplishments that advanced the practice of professional psychology.
  6. Highlights of his accomplishments mentioned include: His career as chief of mental health at Kaiser Permanente where he moved psychotherapy into the health care system; leadership, advocacy and activism within the American Psychological Association; launching the professional school movement by founding the California School of Professional Psychology; being the primary architect of the American Biodyne model of Psychotherapy, the nation’s first psychology driven managed behavioral health organization; numerous awards, including psychology’s highest, the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Practice; co-founding many professional associations; countless prolific writings; serving as distinguished professor at the University of Nevada; and his philanthropic pursuits through the Cummings Foundation for Behavioral Health. 
  7. Finally the book offers testimonials by those that crossed paths with Cummings and presents his own impressions and accounts of his interactions and relationships with “the greats” in the field of professional psychology.

What a privilege to all of us to be gifted with this exhilarating masterpiece of a book. This stimulating detailed biography is written by a very astute and thoughtful author who took the time to intimately know psychology’s provocateur, through a number of sources, such as personal interviews with Cummings, his family, friends and acquaintances and by looking at his own publications (49 books and 400 refereed articles).

Page after page, Austad presents the unfolding of the life and work of a psychology warrior. It is evident that she has put forth painstaking effort and time to obtain intimate knowledge of all the players in his life, in order to put together a thrilling, informative and highly specific human account of the development of Cummings.

This is a book about a psychological lighthouse of Greek ancestry that lit up, fired up and transformed the field and practice of professional psychology. Cummings’ contributions to the practice of professional psychology can be seen as powerful as Pericles’ gift of democracy to the Greeks and to the entire world.

Being of Greek descent myself, I felt tremendous pride and privilege to read about this extraordinary mover and shaker, with the wisdom of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates combined, and the strength, spirit and courage of Alexander the Great.

Despite his early losses, familial, emotional, educational, religious, cultural and health challenges, Cummings, has stood and fought bravely at the frontlines of the psychological thermopiles. A true developer of the practitioner movement of psychology, who was not only able to foresee the future of professional psychology, but helped to create it. 

This book documents not only the history of a visionary and uncompromising truth-sayer in a powerful parallel way, it also documents and presents to all of us the transformations in the field of professional psychology from the 1950s till now. Wow, this is a priceless, inspirational gift.  His biography, struggles, spirit, resilience and deep personal work is the biography of each one of us, tireless psychological warriors.

I would support the idea that this book that chronicles the history of a psychological leader and visionary be included as a seminal and informative reading in the history of psychology so that future generations of practitioners can be inspired, mobilized and deeply moved by the human accounts of psychology’s true provocateurs, such as Nicholas Cummings.


Elizabeth Marmaras, PhD, ABPP, is a Greek-American, and a board-certified clinical psychologist. She practices psychology and psychoanalysis in New York City, and is passionate about empowering others to find their true calling.