Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Extraordinary in Ordinariness – A Conversation with Jill Freedman

Tapio Malinen

It was peaceful in Jerusalem, when Jill Freedman and I had this conversation in the early winter of 2010. Because of her vast experience, Jill - along with her husband Gene - has earned her place in the international peak of narrative psychotherapy. She had arrived from the Evanston Family Therapy Center in Chicago to this beautiful, multistoried city in order to guide a week-long intensive seminar. The seminar focused on different applications and current developments in narrative therapy. As a teacher, Jill is known for walking her talk. While we were having this conversation, our Israeli colleague Chana Rachel Frumin was walking along with us as an outsider witnesser.

Tapio Malinen: In the introduction of his book Interviews with Brief Therapy Experts, Michael Hoyt uses a beautiful and touching metaphor for interviewing. He feels that the interview is a mental place, where the process reflects on the content, the form is born out of meaning and the tool becomes the message. During this, people make different mind views together – inter-viewing. I really like this metaphor. How about it, Jill? Shall we start inter-viewing together?

Jill Freedman: Okay. I´d like to.

TM: OK. Could you tell me something about your life around the time you first made contact with narrative therapy? What was the situation and the context like?

JF: It is actually a funny story, because I had no idea how important it would be. Gene and I had just moved from Chicago to St Louis. The move was very difficult for me, although I did not know it would be beforehand. It was difficult, because in the Chicago area, I was well-known. People wanted to see me in therapy, and I had lots of opportunities to teach. Then we moved to St Louis, and few people in the therapy community there knew me. I had to start over.

I talked about this with a friend of mine, Jennifer Andrews. Now she lives in Los Angeles, but she lived in Chicago at the time. We were speaking on the phone and I told her how difficult it was for me. She invited me to come stay with her and her partner, Dave Clark, for the weekend. An Australian therapist was going to be giving a one-day workshop at the Family Systems Program which was part of the Institute for Juvenile Researsch. Jennifer had invited hin to come to her center the following day for live consultations with families. ”I do not know much about this therapist, but I hear he is interesting”, she said. “How about if you come here for the weekend? You would get to be in Chicago with friends and learn something new.” I jumped at the chance.

I participated in these two days with Michael Whit which included many live interviews. I was fascinated by his work. He also lectured on its theoretical underpinnings. I made extensive notes trying to capture eveything he said. I have read over those notes through the years and each time I´ve thought I had no idea what the implications of these ideas were at the time I wrote them down.  I did not understand what Michael was suggesting at all. What I did understand and see was how people opened up, smiled and began to think differently about themselves through these narrative interviews. I loved these interviews They were beautiful.

TM: Were there other qualities to the narrative practice that appealed to you?

JF: I was very attracted to the kind of relationship I saw Michael and later David Epston entering into with people they worked with. They were much more collaborative and much less hierarchical than therapy interviews I had seen before. They both showed a real interest in people that was much biger than a focus on problems or solutions. I also noticed the lack of hypohesizing. I have never been good at making hypotheses, so that felt good. And the political was also important for me. I felt that through the narrative practice, I could include politics and a consideration of social justice. These possibilities appealed to me strongly.

The playfulness also stood out from the very beginning. Michael and David were always having fun while interviewing people. I'm sure there are many other therapists who also use humo and playfulness in their work, but Michael´s and David's ways of doing that were especially lovely to me.

TM: How has the narrative approach influenced your work with people, and how does it perhaps differ from your past approaches?

JF: There are several things that are quite different. One is the focus of therapy. I used to work with people to reach goals and I sometimes thought about what they “needed” to reach them or what stood in the way. Now I am much more interested in pople´s skills of living and knowledge. I am curious about how their stories will unfold and be relevant to the dilemmas they face. I find this to be a broader perspective and to include more surprises. Another difference is that I think much more about context and discourses that marginalize people. Before I thought more individualistically or in terms of family systems. Being aware of the context and how experiences of marginalization contribute to problems has been a joy. More than ever before, I appreciate what people accomplish in the face of so much. I learn lot from those I work with. I could keep naming differences but I think I will stop with just one more – the position of the therapist. I used to be in a more expert position. This work is more collaborative. I´m still very active but the people whose lives we are talking about are more in the center.

People experience the ideas coming from them. They give themselves credit for what happens in therapy, while before, I was the one making the difference. It has to do with a different emphasis, and this is something I find important. One of the effects of this more collaborative way of working is that we all develop a strong sense of partnership and that both parties (therapist and clients) benefit from it.

TM: Could you be more specific: what makes narrative therapy so influential in this respect?

JF: When people are answering narrative questions, they are generating experience, rather than simply giving the interviewer information. Asking a question is very powerful because we are proposíng a domain to explore. But answering a question is also very powerful and often includes experiental involvement. In the partnership between questions and answers something new is constructed. And this something new can be life changing.

TM: I have noticed that you have your own personal way of making these questions and therapy in general. How do you think the people you consult would describe your personal voice and way as a narrative therapist?

JF: I have heard people say that I move slowly, I am gentle...

TM: And what do you feel like? What would you say?

JF: What would I say? Well, I think I am casual and relaxed. My language is pretty simple and down-to-earth. I also think I am more practical than intellectual.

TM: Jill, what do you think, has the narrative approach influenced you outside of your work?

JF: Yes! Definitely.

TM: Could you tell me a bit more about this? Why do you think it is?

JF: When you work this way, a new world view is born, and this view affects all of our experience. I see people differently and appreciate the pulls they experience from their sociocultural context and also appreciate their initiatives, even very small ones... I have had externalizing conversations with myself that have made a difference in my relationship with myself...I think I´ve become more reflective...I speak out about injustice, even when I don´t do it so well or when I feel intimidated...I recognize the power of community...I´m more aware of cultural differences...I think I always appreciate the power of story, but now I find it everywhere. The narrative approach has made me humble.

TM: What do you mean by humble in this context? Does it have any special meaning for you?

JF: I recognize more about what people are dealing with and are up against. I am very aware of things people do and that I might not be able to do in their position. This makes me humble. I also believe I have become more open to learn from other people's experiences. 

TM: I have noticed during these couple of days that you often say: ”This interests me a lot! I have never thought of this myself.”

JF: That is exactly how I feel! I learn so much when I teach. I am happy that people have thoughts I have not had and that I get to learn all the time. Tapio, I would like to hear how you would answer that question: how has the narrative approach affected your life?

TM: At the moment, probably the most important thing for me is a feeling of connection between people and everything else.  Or like Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh expresses it, a feeling of interbeing that rebels against the illusion of separation that is so prominent in our culture. Our individualism-emphasizing lifestyle and problems related to it easily separate us from each other and from reality. Our mind has been conditioned to mispercieve the reality and this cause us much suffering.The narrative approach often works as a counterforce that breaks this isolation and creates gatherings where power is divided evenly, where instead of control, we can feel together the unpredictability of life, and where, through basic questions related to beauty and the real, we may feel we are in the same boat. We begin to percieve life as an interconnected totality. Our clients become co-researchers who often transport their therapist into inner landscapes, where our work and life show themselves as unique and exciting adventures. This possibility for connection is, at the moment, very important for me, as we live in a global separation process spreading ever wider.  

Since I am also a narrative therapy teacher, I am also especially interested in investigating the effects of my work from this viewpoint of defying the separation process. Jill, what do you think are the most common mistakes therapists make when they use the narrative approach? If you had a chance to guide them, how would you do it so that people avoid these mistakes?

JF: There are two things related to this that we already discussed in the workshop today. I think that people settle on the name of the problem far too early in therapy. They may begin an externalizing conversation based on the client's very first words. If you take enough time and move slowly, everything goes faster in the end. There are often multiple descriptions capturing aspects of the problem and therapy is richer and more relevant if we explore these descriptions. This is something I emphasize when I teach: when clients have enough time to tell us about their experiences, and we slow down in the beginning, people feel heard and understood, so that they can, in their own ways, express what corresponds to their personal experience.

Well, I do not know if I would call this other thing a mistake, but sometimes people try to combine different approaches or worldviews in a way that does not fit in with the narrative approach. I do not think a therapist can use poststructuralist thoughts and questions, if he or she is thinking in a structuralist way. I guess what I am trying to say is that if someone has a structuralist worldview and is using narrative practices, they are not doing narrative therapy, but something else. Often people come to workshops with the idea of integrating narrative therapy with structuralist ideas and practices, so that´s why I´m thinking about this.

TM: So sometimes we use methods and ideas that contradict each other, considering our world view. I think that this also easily leads us into situations where we tell our clients that their logic is valid and right, but simultaneously we question it. If we do not work within our own worldview, different methods may not organize synergically or work together. If, however, our worldview
organizes the pieces together in a integrative way, they could become more than the sum of their parts; they could multiply the whole. Jill, when you teach, what strategies do you think are the most important in training students?

JF: I think practicing is very important, and I always want to make sure that we have some of that. But I also want to develop a story about what people do in some way. I like for participants to  reflect on what we have been practising, so that experience may become a part of who people are becoming as therapists. If it is a very big group, I may do something a bit more structured. If you only talk about things, or even demonstrate them, people are less likely to take them into their work.  

TM: So you want them to learn through experience?

JF: That's right.

TM: I do not remember the year, but I once bought a book about a congress where Michael held a workshop. Karl Tomm from Canada was also there, and he had read Michael's famous article Deconstruction and Therapy. In this book, there was a brief comment by Karl Tomm. It was called The Courage to Protest. I wonder if you know this book, I cannot remember the name right now.

JF: Yes, I know it. I was in that congress with Gene as well. I believe you mean Therapeutic Conversations by Stephen Gilligan and Reese Price.

TM: Yes, that is the one. Karl was talking about Foucault's concepts of good and bad power. He describes how we are constantly bound in a complex web of knowledge power relations. If we try to minimize the significance of these relations, we often only manage to make them invisible. In this comment, there is a sentence that touches me. ”Look at your looking in order to see the nature and consequences of your seeing.   

How does a narrative therapist police him- or herself? What does his or her ”internalized gaze” look like? What are the most common normalized judgements or things that are taken for granted and never questioned in this practice, but that constantly affect how we look and what we see? 

JF: Wow, that is a fascinating question! This is tricky because it is important to critique our work to make sure that we are not reproducing marginalizing practices, but critique can also be experienced as the narrative police, putting us in the thrall of perfectionism. Nonetheless, it is important to hear how our clients experiences our work so that we can learn about its effects. It is also important to reflect on it ourselves for our own learning. But I think you had another part in your question. Could you please repeat it?

TM: What would you name as the most common taken-for-granted practices or normalizing judgements that we only rarely question when we work in a narrative frame?

JF: What do we measure ourselves against? Strangely enough, Michael White has become a  normalizing standard.  People often compare themselves to him and wonder if they are doing therapy the way Michael White did it, the way it should be done. Michael himself at times despaired about the impossibility of living up to being Michael White. David (Epston) has been a great help for me with this. He helped me by telling me that he only teaches practices that he uses. For instance, David does not use reflecting teams in his work, so he does not teach about them either. I also had a discussion with Michael once about how I do narrative therapy differently from Michael or David. He was very supportive about this. We all have our own ways, and I am not claiming by this comment that I am on the same level that he was on. (And I am awared that my last comment showed modern power at work!)

I was given a workshop once, and the person who had invited me told me I had demonstrated a remembering conversation in a wrong way. I asked her how she had learned to do it, and she said she had learned it from me at a workshop I had given five years earlier [laugther]. Perhaps these standards are generated by the idea that everything has to be done in one specific way.

TM: That's right, and nothing should change. I have always liked how Michael spoke of modern power and how comparing and standardizing things is one of these power practices. He often spoke about the political, how narrative work is political with a small p. I like this expression. Sometimes he even spoke of the revolutionary nature of narrative therapy. What things are political in your work today? What is the politics of your work?

JF: It is political to name and make visible those wider contexts that support problems. I also think it is political to ask people who come for help to observe or reflect on supervision processes. It is political to consult people when they are filling out their insurance forms, so that they get what is rightfully theirs and also have a voice in what is recorded about them. These practices are all part of my work. I have worked a lot consulting in organisations for people who have contracted HIV. One of the political aspect that evolved in one of these agencies is for residents to be part of the admission and orientation process. This way, the local knowledge of residents is acknowledged and utilized.

TM: I like the way you emphasize practical work. It makes the ordinar become somehow extraordinar and significant. It reminds me of how Ray Wendel...

JF: Wendel Ray?

TM:  Yes, that's right, Wendel Ray! He used to say that good practice is theory lived through and good theory is practice lived through. [laugther]

JF: There is something I am thinking of, that I probably should have said right at the beginning.

TM: Go ahead!

JF: Practically everything I have learned so far as a teacher is a result of my cooperation with my partner Gene Combs. I talk about myself in the singular, but I do not believe I would be here without him. It has been a true partnership, meaning that we have constantly been able to discuss things, figure them out together and try new ideas..

TM: It always takes two to tango. We will return to your partner again after a moment. Is that OK?

JF: Yes, it's OK. [laugther]

TM: Together with you husband Gene, you have also written three interesting books. What does writing mean to you? What is its place in your work and life?

JF: I have always been intersted in writing. Finding words helps me think, so the process is important to me. It is a way of reflecting that I like very much. And the thinking I do in writing informs my teaching and my practice. There is also something important in having written books. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a voice through the written word. People seem to have a sense of knowing us through our writing, which is fantastic. We have had telephone calls and emails from practitioners in Nicaragua and China and Germany, just to name few, telling us how they have used the ideas they read in our books. What an honor this has been!

TM: Which one of your books is the most important for you and why?

JF: What a hard question. But I guess the book I am happiest to have co-authored is Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. I believe that book made a contribution to the work in the sense that it made narrative therapy more accessible to many therapists. And that feels great. I love it that I co-wrote the first comprehensive overview of narrative therapy. We had a tremendous amount of encouragement from both Michael and David.

TM: Jill, I have heard that you are working in Ibuka in Rwanda. Could you tell me about your experiences? What did you learn from the people there?

JF: Ibuka means remembrance. Did you know that?

TM: I did.

JF: How did you know?

TM: Before this interview, I wrote the word Ibuka into my search engine. I found out that it is a genocide survivors' organization in Rwanda. You can also find the meaning of ibuka on their site.

JF: All members of this organization have survived the genocide. They are now helping other survivors either by offering counseling, even if they have no training for it, or by serving as what they call assistent lawyers, which in many cases means that they support people  to tell their stories within the justice system.

Most people we work with have lost their families and experienced atrocities. It was truly inspiring to recognize the sense of joy and hope that these people seem to experience every day. I was amazed at their calm approach and how they radiated with pleasure. Just getting to be around the Rwandans we met was an experience.

I also learned something about very real cultural differences while working in Rwanda. I thought that re-membering conversations would be perfect for their situation, but actually the kind of remenbering conversation that I have with people in Chicago, turned out not to fitting in Kigali. There were two prblems. First, my questions were too individualistic. People were prepared to speak of families and communities but less interested in talking about their relationships with just one other person. Second, I asked too many questions. Too many questions can feel like an interrogation in their culture. I experienced something that I thought I really knew—it is important to find culturally appropriate ways of using narrative ideas.This was an important experience for me.

Another great thing about Ibuka happened when Gene and I went back to Ibuka for the second time. Cheryl and David told us, ”Often in these community situations, you need to go over things a number of times before people find their own way to use them. Don't worry if it feels like people have forgotten our conversations. Just go over some of the same material again.” We arrived there, and everybody was very enthusiastic to tell us how they had adapted our ideas and turned them into their own practices. I could give an example. Is that okay?

TM: Of course.

JF: In our earlier trip to Rwanda we had discussed the idea of double strories and had engaged with making documents and written letters. Since we had been there the country had had its hundred days

of mourning, which they have observed every year since the genocide. The group told us that over the last 15 years, every year during the hundred days, they had done nothing but mourn. However, after we had been there many of them – without knowing about each other – got an idea to do something new that year. During the hundred days they wrote messages to their friends and coworkers and suggested that they think about how far they had come during those 15 years. They had space for mourning, but also for recognizing how far they had come. That was amazing.

TM: Jill, my next question comes up easily here in Jerusalem. Could you tell us something about how the narrative method can be used with groups who are in an unresolved conflict with each other and especially if one or both groups are working in a very oppressive way?

JF: I don´t have experience working in that kind situation. I have consulted to agencies where workers have been in conflict with the board of directors and in schools where there have been conflicts between teachers and clinical staff, but I don´t have experience with large communities in longstanding conflict. I wish I did. Have you worked with groups in such a conflict?

TM: No, but I would also be very interested in doing that kind of work Let's move away from this topic if that is OK with you. What developments would you like to see in the narrative practice in the future?

JF:Oh, I dont' know. I can image many good developments. One thing that has impressed me about Michael and David is how they continued to develop narrative practice even after they had a huge following. Usually, when a model and its developers have become famous, the model does not evolve very much anymore, but that has not been true of narrative therapy. Every time I saw Michael he was doing something new. After he died, I was worried that some of the work might freeze, exactly as he also thought in his last years. I do not know what  future developments will be, but I hope people would continue to develop new practices within the narrative world view.

TM: If Gene were with us today and heard the story we have so far created together, what do you think he would have paid attention to, what would have touched him the most during this conversation?

JF: He probably would have been interested in the early Karl Tomm article, and I believe he would have been excited when we talked about the political nature of the narrative practice. I also know he loves our work in Rwanda. We are going back in November. I am sure he would have told you something about Rwanda. We are different and complement each other: he is more intellectual than I am, and also slower, he even talks slower, and he works in different contexts than I do.

TM: What kinds of contexts?

JF: For a long time, he worked at a clinic in Cook Country hospital, which is the same hospital as... do you know the show ER?

TM: No, I do not. I do not watch a lot of TV series. [laugther]

JF: Many people from all over the world seem to know it. It is a hospital that serves a multicultural population of people who have no money. The work there is pretty intensive and difficult, and Gene met people only for thirty minutes once a month. I think he did some very important work with these people. He is also currently working with family practice residents. I recently joined him in teaching a class on talking with people about end-of-life decisions and including family mebmers. The recidents join him when he interviews people and many of them become curious about the different kind of questions he asks [a long silence].

TM: Do you think it would be time to hear what Chana has found touching about our conversation?

JF: Ok.

Chana Rachel Furim: The two things that touched me the most... Firstly, when Jill spoke about being political, recognizing wider contexts and naming them; how clients reflect on supervision and how she consults people when they are filling out their insurance forms. I recognize the resonance in the discussion of the political nature of this practice.

TM: What about the other thing? 

CF: The other thing... When Jill talked about her experiences in Ibuka and said, ”Seeing the joy and hope in those people was inspiring.” That was the other part that had a deep impact on me.

TM: Did you have some images of that joy?

CF: Of the second story? Yes, I got the image of a person I worked with some time ago. Just thinking about it warms my heart and brings tears into my eyes. I can still see her. She always used to sit in that chair, and I was transformed through that experience. I feel like she might be with me for the rest of my life.

TM: Why did you pick these two things? Is the political nature of narrative practice, hope and joy relating to your own work or life in some way?

CF: We are making this interview at a clinic, where employers have labelled it as an outsider clinic, but we have become an inside clinic because of the specific nature of our work. The setting is very political, because here in Jerusalem, only people working from the inside are supposed to get to the top. We are not on the inside, we do not work for the government. In fact, my clinic is very provocative. When I graduated, I had a 20-year work experience and I started to teach right away.

A meeting was held in my Master's program one or two years later, and my name came up. They said: ”She is teaching people without PhD's! She is teaching therapy to people who have no PhD's! Take her degree away! She is taking away our clients! She will teach therapy to just anyone!” So the setting was very political from the very start. I never talk about this to anyone, but it is in my mind and it really resonates.

I have always classified myself as non-political. When Jill said ”political”, I thought I will put my pen down now, because I am not interested in politics. Then I thought: wait a minute, what did she just call political? While listening to her, I began to realize that my work is actually very political in nature.

TM: What do you mean by political in this context?

CF: I was very surprised with by political resonance. Jill said something amazing when she stated that clients really know... At first, I thought: ”Do my clients feel this way too?” Then I realized that my clients have also transformed me; while they change through the process, that also changes me!

TM: Do you think that this realization and experience will make something possible in your work in the future?

CF: Yes. My clients have shown me that darkness can be turned into light. I think I knew this on an intellectual level, but now it feels alive.

TM: This light in the middle of darkness, how would you like to use it in the future?

CF: By keeping my voice and trusting it.

TM: By keeping your voice and trusting it. Thank you, Chana. [pause] Alright Jill, how was it like to be the audience for this story? What touched you about it?

JF: Probably hearing how meaningful the work has been for her. I think she said: ”Now I know why I am alive” or ”When I think of my clients, I know why I am alive.” I thought that was amazing. I feel a great dedication in Chana's work. It fits well with how important it is for Chana to see the change in the lives of the people she has worked with.

TM: Commitment, darkness and light, the meaningfulness of life. Do these relate to your life and work at the moment?

JF: Yesterday, we were talking about discourses – how we evaluate ourselves as narrative therapists through macro stories. When I think of the people whose lives have changed, my work really feels meaningful. I also feel that the clients are a part of my team. Chana said that one of her clients is here even at this moment. I have the same feeling about some people. I have learned so much from my clients' experiences that I feel these people are sort of involved in my work all the time.

TM: I wonder whether Chana´s story transported you somewhere?

JF: I clearly started to resonate on the political nature of my work. It was surprising to hear that Chana has not considered herself a political person before. I thought about how differently we describe the political side in our work and how we recognize it in our work in many ways. After hearing Chana's story, I decided to start thinking of this with my own work also.

TM: Jill, thank you for this interesting conversation. I wish you all the best with your important work and your life in general.

JF: Thank you, I wish you the same.



Combs, G. & Freedman, J. (1990) Symbol, Story & Ceremony. Using Metaphor in Individual and
         Family Therapy. New York: Norton
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996) Narrative Therapy. The Social Construction of Preferred 
        Realities. New York: Norton.
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (2002) Narrative Therapy with couples..and a whole lot more! Adelaide:
       Dulwich Centre  Publications.
Gilligan, S. & Price, R. (Eds.) (1993) Therapeutic Conversations. New York: Norton.
Hoyt, M. (2001) Interviews with Brief Therapy Experts. Brunner-Routledge.
White, M. (1992) Deconstruction and Therapy. In Epston, D. & White, M.: Experience,
       Contradiction, Narrative & Imagination. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre.


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