Family Therapy's Neglected Prophet


Family Therapy's Neglected Prophet

Murray Bowen knew that personal freedom never comes cheaply

By Mary Sykes Wylie

March/April 1991


AT HIS FINAL PUBLIC APPEARANCE TWO DAYS BEFORE HE DIED last October, Murray Bowen was obviously very ill. Shrunken and frail, he sat hunched in his chair before an audience of 800 people at the annual conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), hardly able to breathe even with an oxygen tube, his voice raspy and faint. Nonetheless, he looked out at the packed room with glittering, almost defiant eyes, as if to say, "However sick, however fragile I appear, I am still very muchhere."

Every person in the room, certainly almost all 5,000 conference attendees, and probably every family therapist practicing in America uses or at least knows about the theory Bowen developed and the terms he invented. The concepts of differentiation of self, family emotional systems, triangles, emotional cutoffs, the family projection process, sibling positions, and the multigenerational transmission process have been woven into the fabric of the field. "Bowen was the intellectual beacon for everyone who was first trying to understand the family," says Braulio Montalvo, who together with Salvador Minuchin helped create structural family therapy in the early 1960s. "Almost every major concept in family therapy can be traced back to him. He taught everybody." Yet, Bowen looked out at the crowd honoring him at AAMFT as if he believed that whatever his influence, however many among them called themselves "Bowenians," the vast majority had completely…

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