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His vision was heroic. "We were trying to liberate people of low socioeconomic background. We believed in social revolution, which made it all very exciting," he recalls. Recruited by the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and working with people like Cloe Madanes and Jay Haley, he created the template for the emerging field of family therapy as set forth in his classic 1974 text, Families and Family Therapy.
Minuchin's approach was linked inextricably with a unique personal style. Brusque but suave, somewhat rakish, with a trim moustache, dark-rimmed glasses, and a thick Spanish accent, he worked with families like a veteran theater director rescuing a troupe of amateur actors from their messy improv. The actors might be mystified by what he was doing and not necessarily happy with their parts, but they couldn't resist his charismatic force.
Videotapes of his interactions capture his legendary therapeutic impact: Minuchin could size up a family in three minutes, then in rapid succession, he'd mock, reassure, flatter, charm, needle, encourage, congratulate, and confront them, ordering them around, joking with them, touching them, and herding them from chair to chair like a scrappy border collie. He'd throw them off-balance by looking bored and staring vacantly into space, smoking a cigarette, while they went on haltingly interacting, until suddenly he'd hammer a point home with high intensity, crowing in delight. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
To a field emerging from the stultifying methodology of psychoanalysis in the 1970s, with its snaillike pace and verbal meanderings, Minuchin was a revelation. Watching him in action was to see old psychoanalytic commandments smashed to smithereens—he swept away the dusty ethos of passive taciturnity, infinite discretion, and unassailable privacy, trampling underfoot the standard assumption that nobody can change anybody else, that psychological change must come from within. He poked, prodded, and jollied client families into changing right then and there, insisting that, in the words of his colleague Jorge Colapinto, "It's through the power of human context—our relationships with each other—that we change."
Another standard assumption he rode roughshod over was the idea that people's feelings have to change before their behavior can change. Minuchin not only made people change, he seemed to do it regardless of what they were feeling, or whether they even knew what they were feeling. He acted on the premise that if you change the way people relate to each other, their feelings will change as well. This premise—that relationships change people—so commonplace now, so novel then, opened the door to an astonishing new view of personality itself. Says Braulio Montalvo, one of Minuchin's earliest colleagues: "Personality has always been assumed to be something innate to a person, something solid and static, as if made of stone. But Sal could examine a family in a way that showed how malleable human personality was—that it shifts according to context."