Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Panning for Gold: Panning for Gold

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Panning for Gold: Panning for Gold

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO AUSTRALIAN THERAPIST MICHAEL WHITE, a disconcerting effect of his new celebrity on the international therapy conference circuit is the recurrent experience of getting off a plane, being met by a workshop sponsor and told something like, "We sure have a real humdinger of a family for your live consultation. Oh, and by the way, about 500 people have signed up to watch." Whereupon White, the most visible representative of what is loosely called the "narrative method" of therapy, is plunked down in front of an impossible situation, while the audience waits breathlessly for a therapeutic miracle. White, who finds the hoopla attached to his new status puzzling, denies that there is anything magical about what he does. He says he is just very "thorough," very painstaking, and that "it's silly that people expect to get a good idea of this kind of work by setting me up in one meeting with the most complex situations they can find." Then he adds, "Certainly, the idea that I've got all the answers doesn't fit the spirit of the work."

Nonetheless, over the past decade, White has developed a worldwide following of both senior therapists and neophytes on several continents who insist he has something vitally important to say that the field needs to hear. But it can hardly be his therapeutic style that explains his elevation to the ranks of the illuminati. Watching him in session is a far cry from seeing one of the recognized lions of clinical performance sweep grandly into the middle of a dysfunctional family circle and in one session transform it into a little kingdom of love and harmony, while being wildly entertaining in the process. Far from it. His pace is measured, even monotonous some find it maddeningly slow the therapeutic persona respectful, solicitous, inquisitive, slightly donnish, almost deferential, the circuitous language an eccentric mix of the folksy and the politically correct. It is hard to imagine the following questions appearing in any psychotherapy textbook: "Do you know how you got recruited into these habits of thought that have been so capturing of your life?" "What skills have you developed as a couple that allowed you to hold on to your relationship in the face of adversity, and in spite of the politics of heterosexist dominance and ageism that marginalize your ways of being?" "What's it like for Anorexia Nervosa, which has been pulling the wool over your eyes, to witness these recent, more positive developments in your life?"

During sessions, White hunches down in his chair over his notes he seems almost to recede from view. He almost never asserts anything, rarely utters a declarative sentence, just patiently asks questions, hundreds of questions, often repeating back the answers and writing them down. Like an archaeologist, White sifts through the undifferentiated debris of experience for minuscule traces of meaning the tiny, precious shards of struggle, defeat and victory that reveal a life all the while doggedly taking notes, even occasionally requesting the speaker to slow down so he can take it all in.

At the same time, there is a startling tenacity about the process, a kind of polite but unshakable insistence on participation, a refusal to let people off the hook, even after hours and days of non-response long silences, embarrassed shrugs, parrot-like reiterations of "I don't know." White will not allow the people who consult him to slip away into the sad night of their misery. He simply will not give up.

In one session, for example, the parents of a deeply shy and isolated pre-adolescent girl, are trying to coax her away from her perch in front of the television and go walking with her father. But the girl's reluctance is such that even when she does consent, she dawdles so that her father says he must then take a second walk in order to get any exercise for himself. He is disheartened and wonders if the effort is worth it. In this segment, White tries to get a statement of feeling from the girl herself. …

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