A raised eyebrow. A tilt of the head. Pursed lips. A subtle shrug. Growing up, that was the language we used in my old New England Yankee family to express anger, and even rage. Yes, we were an incredibly charming and handsome family. So much so that in 1949, Look magazine printed a photo of us as a full-page, glossy model of the ideal American family. We were so well-mannered and well-behaved that you’d never guess that of the six of us, my sister and my father had florid psychosis, my mother would commit suicide, and my two brothers would end up with lifelong addictions. Of course, this family also produced a family therapist. Big shock.
Many of you could probably guess what kinds of skills I brought to family therapy at the beginning. I was so gifted at hypervigilance that I could read and interpret people’s feelings before they even knew they had them, and then put them into words so they could feel known. I was also so pathologically conflict avoidant that I could calm anybody down. I was a master at smoothing ruffled feathers, or tamping down feelings, because that’s how I’d learned to survive.
But then I collided into structural family therapy training with Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley. And in that world, where chaos and conflict were part of the plan, where often you had to have an intense family crisis in order to have the catalyst for meaningful change, I was like a fish out of water. In fact, I remember watching the famous Minuchin hot-dog lunch session on tape. There was Minuchin, sitting with a family as they’re having lunch, and he’s letting the parents each demonstrate how their way of getting their ferocious, tiny, defiant, 14-year-old girl to eat is the right way. So first, you get the mother, who’s sweet and loving and kind. As she’s encouraging, cajoling her daughter to eat, she goes into a kind of baby talk with her. Nothing happens: the girl just refuses to touch her food. And after 20 minutes, the mother ends up screaming at the top of her lungs, “You’re ruining the family.”
So the father steps in, calm, steady, and starts lecturing the girl on nutrition and how eating was going to be helpful for her, not just physically but emotionally. So he’s working that schtick, but over his allotted time, he gets more and more frustrated, and he starts yelling at the girl. And then he picks up her hot dog and actually physically tries to put it in her mouth. And all the while, Minuchin is just hanging out. So I’m watching this going, “This is insane. Am I supposed to be able to do this? This is crazy! I’d never, ever, be able to do this.” But then, I found out that the kid starting eating the very next day. And furthermore, she ate so well that she got discharged from the hospital three days later. I was dumbfounded.
That was when I met Jimmy and his parents. The mother walked into the first interview anxious and upset, the father charged up. Then Jimmy walked in. I first picked up on the subtle cues that Jimmy might be difficult when the father said, “Jimmy, would you like to start the session?” and Jimmy said, “Fuck you.” And then the mother jumps in and says, “Now, Jimmy . . .” and he interrupts the mother and says, “And fuck you too.”
Okay, so I’m a little worried about how the case is going so far. But in structural family therapy in those days, with defiant, off-the-charts kids, we were supposed to empower the parents to create hierarchy, to help them become a united front to set boundaries, limits, consequences. That’s what was supposed to happen. But this family was difficult. Whenever I got one of the parents propped up to challenge Jimmy, the other one would slip off into “Oh, poor Jimmy. He’s having such a hard time,” which would completely undermine the tough one.
On the tough-love spectrum, they kept role-reversing. And Jimmy just sat there from session to session muttering, “Fuck you.” Needless to say, it wasn’t going well. Then one evening, the father comes in all charged up because Jimmy had a bag of pot in his back pocket. Now, I’m thinking, This is structural family therapy. We’ll do an enactment! So I invite the dad to confiscate the pot.
“Jimmy, give up the pot,” he says. And Jimmy says . . . well, you can guess what Jimmy says. So the next thing you know, the father is grabbing at Jimmy, trying to get the pot, and they end up wrestling on the floor of my office.
And I’m sitting there thinking, I’m so untrained for this. Then in the middle of it all, the mom gets down on the floor to help the dad get the pot. So now I’m thinking, We should have this on videotape. Minuchin would just love this. Suddenly, I’m feeling like this is working. Soon enough, Jimmy bursts free. He stands up. The dad stands up. Jimmy pulls his arm back to cold-cock the dad and shatters my office lamp, at which point I’m thinking, No, this is probably not going well.
I know I have to do something, but I’ve lost my voice. I have no voice. The most I manage to do is squeak out, “I gotta call the police.” At that, Jimmy just walks out of the room, a cool customer. Back in their chairs, the mother is crying, the dad is sweating heavily. But before I can think of anything to say, Jimmy returns carrying a metal wastebasket full of water. He soaks them with it, throws down the wastebasket, and leaves again. By this time, I’m really glad this isn’t on tape.
Now the mother and father are looking like drowned rats, just so sad and pathetic. And I’m kinda trying to gather myself to engage in a meaningful way when, all of a sudden, the father says, “Wait a minute! Do the math. There’s three of us and just one of him. What’s happening here?” It was like a light bulb went off for us.
Although I never saw Jimmy again, the parents were united from that moment on. Jimmy would try threatening stuff, and they’d say, “Fine. We’ll call the police. No problem.” He was grounded over and over again, and the parents stayed glued at the hip. Four or five months later, Jimmy had settled down. Go figure. But, you know, the truth is that I was really glad when the parents stopped coming, because I was never really comfortable with the whole case.
Anyway, six years later, I’m getting on a plane in New York, and I see the mother ahead of me in line. I quickly try to turn away like I’m reading a newspaper, but she spots me, comes over, and she says, “You’ll never guess what’s happened with our Jimmy.” Our Jimmy? I’m thinking. Whoa. And she says, “Yep. Jimmy just was elected vice president of his college class, and he’s honoring in his major, which is accounting.” Accounting? So I’m dumbfounded all over again by this family.
Now, this happened 41 years ago, and I’ve told this story quite a few times over the years, because, you know, it’s a good one, especially for a late-night audience. But we’re supposed to be up here telling stories that have been transformative in some way. So it got me thinking, Well, how did Jimmy change my life? And in reality, he didn’t. That’s what I figured out. Decades of individual psychotherapy helped me finally not be that little boy from long ago, who was terrified of conflict and had to rescue everybody in order to survive. That was a lot of hard work to get there. Jimmy doesn’t get the credit for it.
And yet I often think of Jimmy when the shit’s hitting the fan in the therapy room and tensions are escalating. Instead of reflexively thinking, I’ve gotta calm things down, get the lid on, remembering the bizarre story of Jimmy and him dousing his parents with a trashcan of water right there in my office allows me to sit and think, What’s right here? I can breathe into just being in the moment without having to contain it all. The containment is just the way I knew how to take care of myself, and it works for some families. But the crises, the conflict, the challenges, the explosions, those work for some other families.
In fact, about a week ago, as I’m thinking about all of this, I was sitting with a pretty buttoned-up couple during an escalating conflict and thinking, This is a good thing. I’ve gotta let them get into it. I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the conflict, and the next thing you know, the wife storms out of the room and slams the door. The old me would’ve quickly felt like I had to chase after her, cajole her to come back, step in and save the day. But I didn’t. I could just sit still. I could calm myself.
“What do you think we oughtta do?” I asked the husband. He said, “Why don’t we give her some time?” And we did. Soon, what do you know? The wife walked back in, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry I walked out of the session and slammed your door. But that was a really good thing I did. I was about to say some very hateful, maybe irreparable things to my husband, and I had to do that to protect him and us.” It was a touching moment for all of us, and it happened because I didn’t chase after her. I didn’t go to rescue her in order to take care of myself.
So where does this end? It ends with my feeling like I want to say, “Thanks, Jimmy.” And I wonder what his version of the story would be.
Photo by Sam Levitan
David Treadway, PhD, is a therapist and trainer of 40 years. His latest book is Treating Couples Well: A Practical Guide to Collaborative Couple Therapy. He’s also the author of Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and three other books.