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Dear Michael - Page 4

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Michael White taught us how to retell our life stories

By Stephen Madigan


The first talk of yours I witnessed took place at Karl Tomm's clinic in Calgary, Canada, on October 7–8, 1986. It was your second presentation in North America. At the time, I was completely broke and doing my M.S.W., but somehow I scratched together the cash and plane fare to see you. I wanted to go mainly because Karl had such a terrific nose for great new ideas and therapists, like the Milan Team, and because those were the halcyon days when the field seemed full of exciting intellectual risk and therapeutic innovation.

That morning, you stood up there in front of the crowd in this big lecture hall, looking so nervous and shy, and your microphone didn't work at first. You stammered and repeated yourself, and the thick Australian accent didn't help the situation either. You might have seemed nervous and timid during your presentation that day, but your message was a lion's roar. You said that the privileged of the world, including the family therapy field, often denied that power existed, but that the poor and disenfranchised knew differently. Whatever we might have been taught, you told us, there was no such thing as therapeutic neutrality. Nor were problems something that could be "privatized" within people's minds and bodies. By the end of the day, you'd completely rearranged the theoretical and practice boundaries of family therapy.

At the first morning break, I was standing by myself, doing my best wallflower imitation. You approached me and said, "Hi, I'm Michael White." Right off the bat I was struck by the fact that you approached me—I was the youngest person in attendance and probably the only person in the room standing by himself. We immediately got into a heady conversation about "dormative principles," logical types, and all things Gregory Bateson. I liked you straightaway.

I recall watching you do therapy later that night with a young boy of 10 who was struggling with soiling problems. There were eight of us seated behind the one-way mirror; Karl, you, and the family were in the therapy room. Right from the start, you blew me away with your unconventional approach of separating the person from the problem. In this case, I was astonished by the attention you gave to the extraordinary life of poo—that unpleasant smelly subject ruining this young boy's life. You talked in a way I'd never heard before, about avalanches of poo, and victories over poo, and sneaky poo, and where to place that poo. I must admit, I thought you were quite mad, but I couldn't help being drawn to the silly, brilliant way you managed to find a more affective approach to the problem, while always showing the utmost respect and care for the child.

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Last modified on Monday, 30 July 2012 10:47

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