In Memoriam: Marjorie Toomim

by Siegfried Othmer | February 10th, 2005

One of the privileges of working in the early development of a field is that most of the pioneers are still around, and we get to know them all personally. We have lost Neil Miller, Chuck Stroebel, and Barbara Brown, and now Marjorie Toomim, but most of the people from the early days of the field are still with us.

I attended a lecture by Marjorie some years ago at a Biofeedback Society of California Conference in which she described some of her most difficult cases. At the end I asked her if she would rank these cases in her mind in the order of the clinical challenge that they represented to her, and whether she would be more or less likely to use biofeedback at the more difficult end of that distribution. She answered at once that the more severe the challenge, the more she would rely on her skills as a psychotherapist. In fact, when she did use biofeedback techniques, she would often use them simply as information for herself rather than as information for the patient. “I was never so humbled in my work as when my instrumentation told me that I was wrong.”

So Marjorie was most at home as a psychotherapist, and although her reputation spread far and wide here in Southern California, she always remained humble. One attendee at her Memorial Service told me privately of her original encounter with Marjorie. She was in Hawaii at the time and had the sudden, strong sense of needing to visit with Marjorie as a client. She did not at that time have a clue what was driving all of this, but she bought a plane ticket and showed up at Marjorie’s door in Santa Monica. With the formalities of acquaintance barely past, she dissolved in Marjorie’s presence into a gusher of trauma relating to her early childhood history, something of which she was previously unaware at a conscious level. She speaks of having been taken in by the Toomims until her recovery was well launched, and she is now a mental health therapist in her own right.

It is not possible to tell the story of Marjorie Toomim without also telling the story of Hershel. With Marjorie’s primary identification as a psychotherapist, Hershel’s primary identification was that of an engineer. Their focus remained somewhat different throughout. For example, I believe that during her period of illness over the last few years, Marjorie never availed herself of the HEG instrument that Hershel had developed.

Our own points of contact with Marjorie and Hershel deserve mention, if for no other reason than to point out the varied and diffuse influences that they have had on so many people now active in the field. Sue took the Toomims’ biofeedback training course early on, on a path to biofeedback certification. EEG biofeedback played a very minor role in that training course, even though Hershel had developed one of the early alpha trainers.

When it came time for Sue to take the BCIA certification exam, candidates were told to show up with their instrumentation at the appointed hour for their practicum examination. Sue did not have “her” instrumentation, or indeed any instrumentation for peripheral biofeedback. She had become acquainted with the J&J suite, so she approached Steve Stern at his booth for help. Could she borrow his demonstrator unit for a brief time? That turned out to be a non-starter. So Sue approached Hershel. He offered his Biocomp system right off the exhibit booth, and also taught Sue how to use it on the spot. A few minutes later, she walked into the exam and passed.

Years later, when we were in legal tangle with Margaret Ayers fighting for our place within this field, we again approached Hershel about whether he might be willing to testify on the issue of the claimed uniqueness of what Ayers was offering. Hershel had nothing to gain from this, and a lot to lose, but he did agree to testify. I am convinced that his perspective as an independent authority on a variety of arcane issues helped the arbitrators to their decision in our favor.

Some time thereafter Hershel and Marjorie bought one of our NeuroCybernetics instruments for their biofeedback operation on Robertson Blvd. Marjorie did not actually spend much time there because of her own environmental sensitivities or, if you like, toxic building syndrome. Several of their biofeedback clinicians got trained, and started using the system. (One of them was Victoria Ibric.) The instrument was starting to attract attention in the office, which kindled Hershel’s competitive instincts. At the time he was engaged in the development of a myographic instrument that could be used to discern whether patients had back-pain with muscle involvement or whether they were perhaps merely malingering.

Hershel was convinced that our instrument was nothing more than a very expensive way of inducing activation and blood flow, and ultimately more capillary formation, in the brain. Surely this could be done more straight-forwardly with a direct measurement of blood oxygenation, which he then proceeded to prove through plethysmography. At that point there was another stroke of good luck. Hershel had told quite a number of people of his interest. One of them was Julie Weiner. And as it happens she got a visit one day from some fellows with the Physics Department at NYU. They had developed a plethysmographic unit for probing cortical function and were casting about for an application. Hence their visit to the biofeedback practitioner over in the Psychology Department. As soon as she laid eyes on the unit she knew just who would be interested: Hershel Toomim.

The above are my recollections from various conversations, and undoubtedly the details need refining. In broad brush, the above shows the strange way in which progress in this field is sometimes made, and more importantly, the huge impact that Hershel and Marjorie have had on the field of biofeedback over time through their courses, their instrumentation developments, and through their ever-probing minds. They both approached this discipline very differently. Their complementary perspectives continue to be needed.

Author: Dr. Siegfried Othmer

At the Memorial Service, and again at the Winter Brain Conference, Hershel shared with everyone the poem that he had written for Marjorie:

Marjorie’s Requiem

The love of my life has died.

That Marjorie is gone is my burden.

Sharing it with you helps.

I have yet to drain the sad cup,

Shed all the tears that keep welling up.

It’s a great sadness.

Marjorie was the light of my life.

Through her I learned to love.

We had the best of everything

Through our time together.

Marge was life’s strong solid rock.

I was the anchor in her life.

I have a great sadness.

I have shared in my life

The most beautiful satisfying love

Ever granted to man.

Still that doesn’t change the growing sadness.

I know not where it will go.

It seems to grow with every note of condolence I am receiving.

I can’t talk about it without tears that well up from nowhere.

Any other subject is crisp and redolent of my past feelings and way of being,

Far more pleasant but somehow non-rewarding.

All that is in my mind now is

Bon Voyage, Marjorie my love.



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