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

 

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Ratkes, 1/2005

Narrative vignettes
Part 1: Re-authoring (and renewing) conversations

Tapio Malinen


Words are the world. So take a careful attitude on how you talk. Words that fly by us all the time contain whole universes. Our conversations are sacred: they are where people create themselves.

Some months ago, a mother called me. She wanted to discuss her son Jaakko, a 12-year-old sixth grader, who refused to go to school after the autumn break.

”He feels sick just thinking of going to school… Jaakko got anxiety attacks in the school cafeteria and now he’s even afraid of seeing our friends with me… He just stays indoors and feels miserable.”

The parents had contacted a doctor, who had examined the boy without finding anything specific. The mother had read about “panic disorder” and wanted to know if her son was suffering from it. In the beginning of our first meeting, in my office outside the school, I asked Jaakko and his mother to participate in a guessing game.

”Let’s assume that our meeting is now over and Jaakko is happy and thinks that coming here was worth it, something moved in the direction he wants things to go. What do you think he would answer, if I then asked him what thing was the most useful to talk about?”

I asked Jaakko the same question concerning her mother. They both guessed each other’s expectations and goals. Jaakko and the mother both thought the most useful thing would be to discuss “feeling bad”. It appeared in the family every morning before school.

”How long has this problem been bothering you? Has it become easier or more difficult with time? What do you remember about the time before feeling bad? How broad are the effects of this problem on your life? Does it affect how you feel about yourself? Has it had an effect on your relationships with your friends? How does it affect your parents? How much does it weigh on your mind? What part of your body does it live in and how does it feel exactly? Do its effects vary or do they stay the same all the time? Are the effects good, bad, or something else? Why?”

Jaakko told me that, among other things, Feeling Bad made him feel that there was something wrong inside him and…

”Right now it doesn’t want me to go anywhere, but two days ago I did go to the kiosk and rented a video.”
”Do you think Feeling Bad threatens something that is very important for you?”

Jaakko told me that he appreciates ”freedom” and ”independence” in his life, and that Feeling Bad was stopping him from seeing his friends and doing the things he enjoys doing.

”What do freedom and independence mean for you on a practical level?”
“Well, they mean that I can go see my friends and no one is pushing me around.”
“Why is a lifestyle like this important for you?”
“Well, because no one wants to be pushed around, of couse!”
“When you went to the kiosk and rented the video, did Feeling Bad try to control you or were you able to do things freely at the time?”
“I had other things to think about, and everything went OK.”
“How did you prepare yourself for this step? What was on your mind? Did you hesitate? Did you possibly tell yourself something that helped you in taking this step?”
“I just thought that I wanna watch a video tonight, and then I went to the kiosk.”
“What skills or qualities did you use in keeping Feeling Bad away from this situation?”
“I just kept It inside and was strong and powerful and walked on, and It went away.”
“Was this something new or have courage and inner strength been in your life before?”

Jaakko told me other stories about situations where Strength and Courage had helped him do things.

“Is there someone among the people you love who also possesses these qualities?”
“I think my Dad and Grandpa also have these qualities.”

I then guided Jaakko to change roles with both his father and his grandfather, and I interviewed him for a moment as his father and grandfather. Freedom and Independence got their voices heard in many ways through three generations: in the war story of the grandfather, the work story of the father, and in Jaakko’s own experiences.

“What do you think your father and grandfather think about how you’ve defended freedom and independence against the tricks of Feeling Bad? What do you think your actions mean to them?”
“I think they would be proud and happy about these things.”
“What do you think they’ve seen you do when you were younger that told them that one day, you would defend your freedom and independence so bravely?”

Jaakko told me a story of going fishing with his father when he was five years old. After catching a big perch, he had been determined to pull the fish out of the water all by himself and had refused his father’s help. He could still remember the look of amazement on his father’s face and the powerful feeling of taming the fish. When we departed, we decided we would meet again at school in two days, and that his father would come too.

Jaakko and his father came to see me at school, like we had planned. This time we talked a lot about the values, hopes, and dreams of Jaakko’s family, particularly those of the male family members. Jaakko’s father was proud of his son for being a link in the long chain that had defended Freedom and Independence in many different ways. After this meeting, Jaakko came to school regularly. We decided to send a letter to his grandfather and tell him what the boy had done; how he had kept the tradition of his family alive.

During the third meeting, where his father and mother were present, Jaakko told everyone he was feeling well and had been going to school for over a week.

- What does this development reveal about you, the legacy of your family, and the lifestyle you have been defending lately? What does this reveal about what you want from life? If the things you value now would support you in the future, how could you tell?

As a sign of his independence, Jaakko told me he no longer needs these sessions. When asked how he would like to name the story, where the family’s tradition had shown itself in his life, he replied, “This has been a life-defending story.” His father promised to call me in two weeks and tell me how things were going. When the family left my office, I sat quietly for a long time. Gratitude, joy, and the feeling of amazement at what it is to be a Finnish man stayed in my body for a long time.

As so often happens in meetings with other people, who come to us for different reasons, Jaakko taught me something about life. It would seem that our inner reality is shaped through the meanings we give to our experiences. They are related in the form of different stories, which constantly shape our lives and views of ourselves. Our feeling of self, our identity, is therefore not something solid or innate, but rather a dynamic, cultural process. Absent, yet implicit stories are also a part of our lives.

Jaakko also taught me that so-called truth statements about human beings and the human nature are often formed with the support of social and historical powers. And what is built in this way can also always be deconstructed. The best case scenario is that this deconstruction makes something exotic out of everyday experiences and challenges the taken for granted ideas that lurk in our social practices and disguise as the truth or reality. It reveals the effects that discourses born within the community have on a person’s identity, and it opens up alternative conclusions about who and what we are.

Canonized, problem saturated stories that have been constructed socially and historically are always full of gaps. Unique outcomes in these stories open gates to the alternative territories of human life. A rich and thick description of these outcomes also often contains the knowledge and skills that are needed in facing one’s problems. Narrative therapy reunites a person with the beginning: it returns the fossilized experiences, words, values and dreams to the person’s life and into a living dialogue with other people’s words, bodies, values, and with loved ones. Exploring the history of unique outcomes is also, as an experience, a completely different process than a one-dimensional or thin pointing at positive things.

Something strange is happening in my mind. Studying narrative therapy is making me look in the mirror more and more these days. According to one of the basic assumptions of the narrative practice, we create our identities all the time, not so much by searching for the meanings of the prerequisites of our behaviour, but by deconstructing the formalities, through which we examine and categorize our experiences. The union of knowledge and power is a part of all “self techniques”, and this is also true of narrative therapy. While possessing my new practice, I am currently pondering on this question: does the discourse I use not become a part of the therapy process, too? I cannot escape myself or my part in constructing that process, for my questions are never neutral. Like all other practices, the interview maps of narrative therapy also consists of what Stephen Madigan calls “the unholy trinity of power, knowledge and rhetoric.”

So what do my new questions reveal about the direction my work has had up to now? What is their meaning? Why do I like these questions? What am I searching for while asking them? What social discourse is most supported by my questions? Do I ever – in my excitement – question my work while making these questions?

Where do these questions about these questions, which also create the silence I need to raise my voice, actually come from?


References:

Madigan, S. 1998: The Politics of Identity. In: Madigan, S. & Law, I. (Eds.): Praxis. Situating
Discourse, Feminism & Politics in Narrative Therapies. Yaletown Family Therapy.

Morgan, A. 2000: What is Narrative Therapy? An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. 1995: The Narrative Perspective in Therapy. In: White, M.: Re-Authoring Lives:
Interviews & Essays. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. 1992: Deconstruction and Therapy. In: Epston, D. & White, M.: Experience,
Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination. Dulwich Centre Publications.


 

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