MINUCHIN : You explain to people that families make people into specialists. The specialty may be "I need to defend myself from criticism," or "I am accepted when I help others," or "I am acknowledged only when I am a winner." Each one of the these labels for the self comes with a view of the complementary roles others take and with certain preferred strategies for dealing with life. So people develop a set style of transacting with significant others, and while they may have other alternatives, they are specialists in this one. As a therapist, you look at the past in order to see how the past created constraints that are not useful now. And you say to the client, "Let's use that understanding to free you from the constraints that don't serve you anymore."
FTN : Does that understanding in itself free people?
MINUCHIN : It's basically Harry Stack Sullivan's concept of parataxic distortion, the idea that you are not really responding to the present, but seeing it through blinders that you have forgotten you are wearing. And the therapist says, in effect, "Let's take those blinders off."
FTN : What do you think of the statement by Jay Haley in his most recent book that "Rather than assume that insight into the past causes change, it's better to think of change causing insight into the past."
MINUCHIN : I think he is wrong and he is right. I am an old man, but I still have memories of my childhood that cannot be erased. Some of them are uncomfortable and I would like to erase them, but they don't go away even though I have changed and am experientially much richer. I know the way in which these early experiences still organize my thinking today. But to a certain extent, I am able to marginalize them so that they are not significant in the way in which I function. Still they are part of me, and I really do believe in the importance of understanding the past in order to give people the freedom to take their blinders off and see how the past organizes the present. From this perspective, I would disagree with Jay. But I also think he is right. There is something else that happens when you deal with memory. Not only do you change how people look at the present, you also rearrange the past.
FTN : What do you mean?
MINUCHIN : I think that we are always rearranging our past. Some therapists, like Milton Erickson, would sometimes deliberately introduce through hypnosis old memories that never actually took place. But even outside therapy that happens automatically all the time. I'll give you an example. Years ago I paid a visit to my high school in Argentina, where I met a woman about my age who asked me what I was doing there. And I replied, metaphorically, "I am lassoing ghosts," which is a very Argentinean thing to say. As we talked, we discovered that we both had been in that high school at the same time. But even though she had told me her name, I could not remember who she was. So later I went to the office in the high school and asked for a roster of former students. As soon as I saw her name on the roster, the memory of her as an adolescent came full-blown into focus. Clearly her presence as an adult interfered with my memory. Suddenly all kinds of memories that had not come to mind for 50 years came back to me, not in the competitive and timid way in which I originally saw them, but from the perspective of being older and looking back. My memory created something very different in that moment from earlier memories of the same period.