Training Tales in Family Therapy: Exploring the Alexandria Quartet

By Kaufman, Barbara A. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Training Tales in Family Therapy: Exploring the Alexandria Quartet


Kaufman, Barbara A., Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


Once upon a time, in a freshman English class, my instructor turned me on to The Alexandria Quartet, a captivating tetralogy by Lawrence Durrell (1961a, 1961b, 1961c, 1961d). This intriguing story, told from multiple perspective and time sequences, became a prime source of enlightenment as I embarked upon my adult life. Little did I know that rereading the Quartet 20 years later would provide a relationship between literature and family therapy as I struggled to assimilate new epistemological concepts from course work and live supervision during my doctoral training. An integral part of my studies involved reading Gregory Bateson's (1972) ideas about the corrective aspect of aesthetic formats in Steps to an Ecology of Mind and seminar discussions about isolated versus integrated ways of knowing. I flashed back on the Quartet as an illustrative example of what I was learning, found gaps in my understanding, and thereby enhanced my grasp of family therapy. How and to what degree, I wondered afterward, would this and other literature benefit students similarly experiencing an epistemological shift.

Influenced by and compared to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence (Fraser, 1973; Moore, 1962), Durrell's literary achievements include plays and literary criticism as well as other novels. Reviewers lauded the Quartet, however, in a distinctive way: "Anyone caring for the language and the future of the novel will have to come to grips with this singular work" (Steiner, 1960, p. 495). Its four volumes (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea), "conceived as an experiment, . . . a new form telling its own kind of truth" (Weigel, 1965, p. 56), convey the futility of searching for verifiable truth and obtaining a precise, definitive knowledge of the world.

The Quartet evolved as the focus of a family therapy training project to demonstrate how a novel can be useful for understanding concepts, specifically multiplicity and uncertainty, frequently associated with family therapy epistemology (Allman, 1982; Anderson & Goolishian, 1991 ; Goolishian & Winderman, 1889; Watzlawick, 1990). For purposes of the project, respective definitions of these concepts are: (a) different perspectives coexist simultaneously, providing equally valid observations and interpretations and (b) there are many possible outcomes, meanings, and alternatives that can occur and that cannot be predetermined or predicted accurately.

MULTIPLICITY AND UNCERTAINTY IN THE QUARTET

Other novels from various literary traditions (e.g., classical, modern, fiction, and nonfiction), including China Men (Kingston, 1980), Cities of the Interior (Nin, 1974), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez, 1970), and The French Lieutenant's Woman (Fowles, 1969), to name just a few, also portray the futility of searching for verifiable truth and obtaining a precise knowledge of the world. I chose the Quartet as a fertile resource for illustration these concepts because it radically challenges the conventional framework of the novel much as family therapy epistemology challenges the conventional framework of psychotherapy.

The Quartet is a multilayered tale of human perception, complex relationships, and political conspiracy in the exotic Egyptian port of Alexandria. Each of the Quartet's four volumes provides selectively different aspects of the basic plot line, with the story revolving around who searches for precise meaning in his life. Justine focuses on Darley's written memoirs of time spent in Alexandria and his passionate but elusive affair with Justine, an enigmatic woman and wife of an influential banker. Balthazar includes new details of Darley's relationships and his love affair with Justine. Darley's friend, Balthazar, reads Darley's narrative about his experiences, editing and revising them in the process. Balthazar discloses, for example, that Justine was merely using Darley as a decoy to deflect her husband's suspicions about her true lover, the mysterious character Pursewarden. …

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