The Question of Structure
"Would you like to see a new family with me?" Carl said. The voice on the telephone was that of my present colleague and former teacher, and he sounded less casual and confident than usual. "A father who's a VIP lawyer, an angry mother, and a teenage daughter who sounds stormy as hell." His invitation sounded a little like a friendly dare.
"Sure," I said instantly. "When?" Usually I would think carefully before agreeing to be someone's co-therapist, but not when the person asking was Carl Whitaker.
We found a joint opening later in the week. "I'll check with the family," Carl promised. He was about to hang up when I asked, "Anything I should know before we begin?"
Carl was obviously in a hurry. "Nothing except that the situation is very tense. The family was referred by a child psychiatrist in town who says that the girl's getting worse. He's been seeing her individually. The family isn't sold on family therapy, but they say they'll all come once."
"How many in the family?" I asked.
"Five. There's a younger brother and sister."
"I'll bring my work gloves," I said amiably, letting him go. "See you Thursday."
Even though the distance from my office to the Psychiatry Department where Carl teaches is only a couple of miles, I was late for the appointment. It was a cool, beautiful June day, and I had let the drive be a leisurely one. As I strode into Carl's office, I realized that
Carl introduced me to the family. "This is David and Carolyn Brice, their daughters, Claudia and Laura. We're waiting for their son, Don."
Here was that perpetually awkward moment: not knowing whether to shake hands. There is a social component in the beginning of family therapy, but there is also a professional distance. Uncertain, we wavered between the two for a fraction of a second until the father resolved it by extending his hand to me and smiling anxiously. "Glad to meet you," he said, of course not meaning it. Still, he looked genial enough--a tall, square-shouldered man wearing glasses. He looked directly at me, a sharp, perceptive gaze, yet at the same time he seemed to recoil, as if he thought he might be hurt. He seemed at once assertive, alert, friendly, and afraid. The hesitant posture, the baggy tweeds, the glasses, the keen analytic gaze: clearly his work involved the use of his intellect.
His wife did not offer to shake hands. A slight woman, almost pretty, she looked depressed. Like her husband, she had dark, curly hair. She wore an expensive tailored suit of natural linen, a bright red scarf flaring out of the edge of the neat collar, and a silver pin curled sinuously on her jacket. I sensed that she was angry as well as depressed, her smile token.
The adolescent daughter smiled tightly, nodding to me, but sitting firm and unmoving. She was prettier than the mother, with the same delicate features, the same curly hair. Shewas very anxious and very angry. After she nodded, she looked down as if in shame, thus identifying herself as "it"--the reason the family was there.
The other daughter, about six, sat in Carl's miniature rocking chair, a little too big for it but pumping back and forth eagerly. "Hi," she said cheerfully. She looked like a happy, active child. The mother made a gesture in her direction to indicate that she should rock less energetically, and she slowed perceptibly.
Carl's office is furnished with two large leather sofas that face each other across the length of the room. At one end three leather-upholstered chairs fill the space between them. At the other end are Carl's swivel chair, placed beside his desk, which faces into the corner, and the co-therapist's chair. The seating forms a tidy rectangle. The father and adolescent daughter sat next to each other in two of the chairs, and the mother sat alone on one of the sofas. The youngest daughter was very near the mother in the little rocker. I noted the seating: each daughter with one of the parents, and the parents separated.
Carl was sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe, relaxed and waiting. In his mid-sixties, he is professor of psychiatry at Wisconsin and is the department's resident family therapist. He is a solidly builtman of medium height whose bearing conveys a mixture of casualness and precision, ease and alertness. He has kept the large forearms and hands shaped by his boyhood on a dairy farm, and he has also maintained the relaxed friendliness of those origins; but in the interim he has acquired a look of scholarly acuity, a subtle, worldly-wise half smile of the person of wide experience.
"So," I said to Carl, my voice relaxed, "can you tell me something about the family?" We deliberately save such briefings until the family is present.
This extraordinary book presents scenarios of one family's therapy experience and explains what underlies each encounter. You will discover the general patterns that are common to all families-stress, polarization and escalation, scapegoating, triangulation, blaming, and the diffusion of identity--and you will gain a vivid understanding of the intriguing field of family therapy.