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|From Revolution to Evolution|
Salvador Minuchin Reflects On His Therapeutic Legacy
By Richard Simon
Salvador Minuchin was born in 1921 in what was essentially a shtetl within a small, deeply antisemitic town in rural Argentina. Always keenly aware of his status as an outsider and the danger of challenging the social order, he became a political dissenter as a young medical student, and spent time in jail for protesting the policies of dictator Juan Per—n. After receiving his medical degree, he left Argentina and a brand-new pediatric practice to join the Israeli Army and fight in the 1948 war, feeling a responsibility to help establish the new Jewish homeland. Later, as a freshly minted psychiatrist, he codirected residential programs for disturbed children, many of them orphans of the Holocaust.
In the early 1950s, he came to America and, despite his rudimentary English and unfamiliarity with our culture, began a new life in the tradition of the quintessential American immigrant. With his strong sense of social justice, he wound up working with poor kids, many of whom were, in their own way, fighters against political oppression, as he himself had been. At the Wiltwyck School, with Braulio Montalvo and others in his group, he began to develop a pioneering way of working with families. Eventually famous as both an iconoclast and one of the world's great therapeutic practitioners, he not only transformed the lives of the families he saw, but created a new vision of what a therapist could be and do.
Throughout his career, his work has been grounded in the conviction that people hold unrealized capacities to empower themselves and those around them. In many ways, his style and approach run counter to today's predictable, constrained, carefully modulated therapeutic culture. Instead, he thinks of himself as an artist, more like a playwright or a poet or a filmmaker than a traditional clinician. Those who've seen a Minuchin session know that he doesn't "do therapy" as much as create in every session a fascinating, often funny, endlessly stimulating, and always dramatic little play.
He can say the most outrageous things, but with a mix of curiosity and sly irony that makes everybody he works with seem more interesting to themselves and their families than they ever imagined they could be. His secret—if he has one—is the ability to take what everybody has seen a thousand times and focus attention on the obvious in a way that allows a new truth and, most important to him, new possibilities for action to emerge.
At the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C., last March, the 87-year-old Minuchin sat down for an interview before an audience of 500 therapists. What follows are selections from that conversation, which explored the evolution of his thinking and how he perceives his therapeutic legacy.