Intrusions, Part 2: Narrative Therapy

The post is a continuation of the discussion begun in the previous post.

I was lucky enough to spend several days, spread over several years, with groups listening to Michael White. Within those days glow a few alone times; ten minutes here, ten there.  Each of those alone time memories is rich with contact, humanity, and warmth.

Michael thought a lot about stories, and loved to listen to, and tell them. He was enthralled by the ways we story our lives, and by the possibility that by changing the narratives we use to explain the world, we might alter the way we see ourselves. He was also profoundly concerned about the ways the of misuse power traumatizes, erasing the storied lives of persons and peoples.

Michael developed many of his ideas about family therapy while working with Native peoples in Australia. He noticed that Indigenous people traditionally tend to understand problems as separate from persons. In this view, problems are seen to influence the behavior of people, but unlike Western thought, do not reside in persons as personal flaws. Rather, they are more akin to intrusions, cajoling and encouraging suffering.

Although he utilized Western literary theory as a framework for, and way of explaining his thoughts about, problems, he freely acknowledged the influence of Native beliefs on the evolution of his style of Narrative therapy. In one of our brief encounters Michael and I talked about how the fundamental intertwining of Native ideas with his work seems to be marginalized in the teaching of Narrative Therapy in the United States, where Individualism, Psychology, and Managed Medical Care weld problems and persons together. Here, Narrative Therapy becomes a method, rather than a critique. In larger trainings Michael was concerned about making visible the forces operating on individuals and families, the play of happenstance and power. He taught that therapy was, at its best, an act of resistance, and believed that when problems could be separated from those they effect, freedom may ensue.

In this light, Narrative Therapy becomes a form of extraction, challenging, and hopefully removing, the influence of large cultural ideas privileging power, and demeaning individuals and families. Michael’s view of Narrative Therapy sought to understand the person as filled with potential that is limited by problems that influence thought and behavior. These problems arise in the course of living life. Some are the result of violence and oppression, and they are perhaps the most insidious.

Narrative Therapy, in Micheal’s view, offers families and individuals the opportunity to understand the ways problems, forces, and systems operate on their lives.  The information unearthed in thoughtful discussions and analysis is then utilized to inform new behaviors and strategies for reducing problems’ influence. In the end, Narrative Therapy does what Michael did so well, it encourages therapist and client to see themselves as moral beings engaged in a sacred, liberating activity, and invites them to step outside the isolating influence of problems and partake in the wider community.

Michael died suddenly about this time, two years ago. His life created an extended community of persons dedicated to joy, equality, and human rights. Michael, you are much missed.

2 thoughts on “Intrusions, Part 2: Narrative Therapy

  1. What a beautifully written description of Michael’s work. I am forever changed personally and professionally by my exposure to such a kind, ethical thoughtful man.

  2. Thank-you, Michael, for this. I echo Diane’s words. In your short piece, you capture something about the heart and soul of Michael W’s work. And I am grateful for his presence in our lives and work. I especially appreciate your reminder about the presence of Indigenous people and the influence of Native beliefs on the evolution of narrative therapy.

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