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Dear Michael - Page 2

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Michael White taught us how to retell our life stories

By Stephen Madigan


I was told you were in great form before you died, and that, as usual, the first day of your San Diego narrative therapy workshop had met with overwhelming participant enthusiasm and wonder. I believe the key to your success on the workshop circuit was your uncanny ability to connect fully with everyone in the room. For all the hoopla that surrounded your appearances, you never delivered a dog-and-pony show. There was nothing fake or even particularly showy about your painstaking work, your down-to-earth honesty.

When you entered the scene, most therapists (and certainly psychodynamic ones) still sought out the underlying pathology of a client or family—as if this "illness," this "problem," were the most important truth about a person. But you always sought out the untapped inner possibilities, the alternative histories and "unique outcomes" in people's lives, and then used these "counterplots" that went against the presumed diagnostic categories to countermand the dominant story of sickness and abnormality. You always looked for the tiny, hidden spark of resistance trapped in a socially sanctioned psychiatric diagnosis—"anorexia nervosa," "schizophrenia," "manic depression," "conduct disorder"—that tended to consume all other claims to identity.

"There's always a history of struggle and protest—always," you said. And you made it your goal to liberate those pockets of noncooperation within the impoverished story of pathology; to help people find the kernels of personal courage, self-respect, and emotional vitality that would help them create a different story about themselves.

Your practice of therapy was the first to focus on the insidious and pervasive role that social ideology and dominant belief systems about gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture play in creating and defining psychopathology. How could people not understand, you wondered, that anorexia must be seen in terms of widespread social and cultural ideas and practices: the tyranny of thinness and constant requirement for self-surveillance, the gender training that inculcates hatred of one's own body and impossible self-demands for perfection. Why would we think that the "hallucinations" of schizophrenia—the horrible voices telling people they're terrible, evil, worthless—didn't reflect the real cultural stereotypes that such people are exposed to all the time. "Although it seems relatively easy for us to entertain the idea that much of what we think and believe, and much of what we do, is informed by culture," you once said, "for some reason, it seems rather more difficult for us to entertain the idea that psychotic phenomena are similarly informed."

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Last modified on Monday, 30 July 2012 10:47

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