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Michael White taught us how to retell our life stories

By Stephen Madigan

Your study and understanding of the "rules and practices" that made up "problem lifestyles" is what fueled your highly original therapeutic questions, like "What rules of anorexia did you have to break in order to come to the session today?" "Would you see this as a step towards or away from anorexia"? "If you were to continue to take steps in this direction, do think you'll be stepping more towards perfection or away?" "Do you have a sense that other girls your age get recruited into anorexia through the back door of perfection?"

Your questions subtly helped people not only step aside from the problem, but begin to link it to a social and cultural context that was destructive to them personally. By "communalizing" problems in this way for those with whom you worked, even people considered "hopeless" by many other professionals would realize that there was something healthy and strong within them that could resist this social indoctrination and begin to live differently.

Unfortunately, many therapists mistook your therapeutic conversations as merely attending to the "positive in people," but it wasn't so simple. Your approach was different from solution-focused therapy, although many aligned you with it, and it definitely wasn't CBT! Therapies like these are informed by humanistic accounts of behavior, and don't seem at all concerned with the impact that people's places in the social order have on "their" problems. What set you most apart was the fact that your therapeutic practice wasn't informed by psychological theory.

I'm fond of telling beginning therapists that the furthest you went in your university career was a B.S.W, a fact that seems to both bewilder and inspire them. I'm often asked to make sense of your improbable rise from being an incredibly shy, working-class social worker living in the middle of Australia, who'd much rather be surfing large waves, flying planes, and cycling up tall mountains, to a kind of celebrity in the international world of therapy. Part of it was that you were the first to translate postmodern ideas drawn from the anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Barbara Myerhoff, philosopher–historian Michel Foucault, and others into concrete therapeutic practices.

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Last modified on Monday, 30 July 2012 10:47

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