Family Therapy: An Intimate History
By Lynn Hoffman
W. W. Norton. 277 pp. ISBN 0-393-70380-0
There may be no more engaging way to familiarize one's self with the history of family therapy than to read Lynn Hoffman's new book. Family Therapy: An Intimate History is an intellectual memoir, and it is the reader's good fortune that Hoffman came of age as a thinker in the early 1960s, just as the family therapy movement was picking up steam. Hired as an editor to help Virginia Satir finish Conjoint Family Therapy , she eventually became a therapist herself, and emerged as one of the leading explicators of modern therapeutic methods.
Along the way, Hoffman's path crossed those of Jay Haley, Salvador Minuchin, Peggy Papp, the Milan team and many other therapeutic pioneers. She had a knack for getting jobs at cutting-edge institutions. As an editor, she worked at the Mental Research Institute. As a therapist, she worked under Minuchin at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center before joining the fledgling Brief Therapy project at the Ackerman Institute in New York City at the invitation of Olga Silverstein.
Although initially in awe of dynamos like Haley, Hoffman was a quick study. She soon became restive assisting therapy's titans in articulating ideas she did not fully agree with. Her determination to seek her own truth gives the book a narrative energy that sometimes flags, but usually not for long. Perhaps because she began her career as writer, Hoffman is able to discuss complex theoretical issues in an accessible way. She is also adept at placing therapeutic developments in a broader intellectual context, and explaining how the ideas of thinkers like Humberto Maturana, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault influenced the practice of therapy.
The book is at its best when Hoffman is seeking and sampling. She has a sure feel for the strengths and limitations of various therapeutic approaches. The book reaches its intellectual high point when Hoffman recounts her conversion from a directive, systems-oriented, Milan-style approach to a more collaborative, narrative-based brand of therapy that values the experience of the client more than the expertise of the therapist. On reading this book, Michael White, whom Hoffman largely credits with developing the narrative approach, may feel that not even his mother understood him so well.
But having embraced post-structuralism as an intellectual creed and an improvisational, narrative style as its therapeutic embodiment, Hoffman succumbs to triumphalism. The account of how proponents of the "new paradigm" chased away the nasty old authoritarians who believed in repressive "meta-narratives" is sophomoric--too many "demigods" being "pushed off pedestals" by brilliant young thinkers, too many insouciant theoreticians "cheerfully beheading" various psychological "myths."
Like many advocates of collaborative therapies, Hoffman can't be content with her approach's being effective, and suited to her strengths; she wants the reader to accept that it is morally superior to other therapies as well. The virtues of the collaborative approach, and the dexterity required to employ it well, shine through in the cases she relates, as does the humanity of the therapists whose sessions she describes. But the theoretical discussion of how collaborative therapy distributes authority more equitably between clinicians and clients is unpersuasive. (Clients pay therapists to help them. There is little value in conversations about therapeutic authority that don't confront this relationship-defining condition head on.)
The postmodern cheerleading gets thicker as the book wears on. A reader relying solely on Hoffman's account would never learn that the ideas of Derrida and Foucault have engendered ferocious hostility in many usually tolerant quarters, nor that the triumph of postmodern thinking is far from complete. …