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.
PN: There seems to be something of a paradox at the heart of your work. You’ve always communicated a deep optimism about how much families can change. At the same time, when the subject turns to the possibilities that individuals can change themselves, you sound much more pessimistic.
Minuchin: Let me put it this way: I never expect people to change themselves. In a struggle with yourself, somebody has to lose, and that will be you. I really mean that. So when I work with a couple, I usually start out by saying to a wife, “Okay, so how do you want to change him?” And often the wife will say, “I cannot change him. I need to change myself.” And then I will say, “You cannot change yourself, but you can change him.”
The basic idea is that we are all part of social groups that tell us who we are at any point in time. Our most familiar idea of who we are comes from the sense of self that our key social systems, like the family, impose on us. At the same time, there are always alternative narratives, alternative ways of relating to people. But those only become possible when we stop doing what is familiar and discover other ways we can be. To do that, most of us need other people to help us. All of us contain a tremendous richness of possibilities, most of which we never experience in our lives.
PN: In other words, you believe in the idea that we’re not just one self but many potential selves.
Minuchin: The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote Labyrinths, is wonderful at describing this world of multiplicity that most of us try to ignore. In a story called “Borges and I,” he talks about how he loves to think about his life in new ways, but that every time he has a new thought, Borges the writer steals his thought and puts it on paper. This is his way of talking about the different realities we each experience every day. Most of us find it difficult to accept this multiplicity because in our fantasy and in our memories, we think that we are a unity.
Yogi Berra says the same thing. He says, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We are continuously traveling on a road that leads off into different directions, and we can only take one of the roads. We forget that the other remains there; it doesn’t disappear. Life is about making those choices and living with the knowledge of alternative routes that you don’t take. We usually need other people to help us take roads that we wouldn’t ordinarily take by ourselves.
PN: You’ve been doing therapy for over half a century. In that time, you’ve gone through all these different stages and incarnations. When you look over your career, what are the signal lessons that you want to pass along to us?
Minuchin: Whenever you start something, you make lots of mistakes. To have the energy to initiate something, you usually need to oppose something that already exists. Family therapy was constructed in opposition to the status quo. So when Don Jackson in 1956 wrote the first paper that I read in family therapy, he argued that the individual does not exist. He was delivering a broadside to psychodynamic thinking. He was trying to call attention to patterns of relationship beyond the individual, and he was absolutely right, but he was also absolutely wrong. So family therapy started off by going to extremes and saying, “We will only look at systems. The individual does not exist.” It took us 50 years to say, “Yes, there are both social systems and individuals. They both exist.”
When families come to you, they bring to you their certainty about who they are. The first thing that I do is to challenge this certainty of who they are. Whatever they think, I know that it is only a partial truth. My job is to show them that they are wrong in a way that opens up new possibilities.
The way I do that has been more influenced by watching and reading plays than watching therapy. Playwrights are experts in presenting situations that seem familiar that then get disrupted in a way that allows something unexpected to happen. Maybe the best training I ever had as a therapist came when I was about 13 years old and lived with my family in our little village across from a movie house. The usher in the movie house was a friend of mine, and at 6:00 p.m. every day he would sneak me into the theater. But at 7:00 p.m., I needed to leave because at my home, my father had a strict rule that at 7:00 we eat. So everyday at night I would have to create an ending in my head, knowing only the first half of the movie. That was my first training in being a psychotherapist.
PN: As you look at your life, what are the achievements that you’re most proud of?
Minuchin: The answer to that probably depends on the audience. There are a number of things that I did in my career that seemed new at the time. One of the things I did that was new was the training of paraprofessionals. At the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic back in the ’70s, we trained 30 or 40 people who had never gone beyond high school to become skilled family therapists. That experience changed their lives and the lives of the people they worked with. I am proud of having been part of their lives.
I have two children. I have a granddaughter. I am proud of my relationship with them, and especially because my relationship with my own children is now much better than it was when they were young. I have become a much better parent now than I was as a younger man. I wish I had had the quietness and the wisdom then that I have now. I think it is a pity that beauty is spent on young people, and wisdom comes with age. It would be a very different world if it was the other way around.
I think that family therapy has made a contribution, but that today it is not very popular in the United States, where we prefer to see people as more independent, bounded, and self-reliant than I think they are. The role of family therapy will only change when the social ideology in this country changes. Family therapy is based on the idea that at the center of our lives are the human groups in which we feel responsible for each other. There is a strong ethical and a moral component to thinking about therapy in that way.
As a physician, I was trained to take over, to become a leader, and take responsibility. As a therapist, I also had to learn the language of silence, to learn how to become invisible, to learn how not to intrude, and at the same time to be central. Achieving a centrality that can get people’s attention without being so intrusive that you take too much responsibility is essential in the process of therapy.
At this point in life, what I think I do as a therapist is to guide people to find better ways to care for each other. It’s something very different from the way in which I started out. Back then, I thought I needed to give people insight and new information. I thought, “Let me give them knowledge, and with knowledge will come the experience of “aha’ and change.” But after four years of psychoanalysis, I knew that was not true. I knew a lot about myself, but not much had really changed for me. Certainly very few “ahas!”
In therapy, I always start with a process of challenge. I believe that conflict is an important part of change, and, in effect, I always start by saying, “You are wrong.” But years ago, I used to say, in effect, “You are wrong because there is some knowledge that you don’t have.” Now, I challenge by saying, “You are wrong because you are richer and contain far more possibilities than you think you do.” So I start by offering hope that at some point they can rediscover the roads not traveled. I think that’s all I want to say right now. I think I am in danger of becoming pompous.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.