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


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Practice is theory lived through:
A conversation with Dr.Wendel Ray At the Brief Therapy Network Conference 2002

Tapio Malinen, Scot Cooper and Ian Bennet


Dr. Wendel A. Ray: Is the Director of MRI The Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto California, Research Associate and Director of the Don D Jackson Archive, Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Wendel serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Systemic Therapies and is author or co-author of numerous professional papers and six books.


Tapio Malinen: Wendel, I have the personal experience that, whatever you do it’s good to warm-up yourself in order to be where you are, and do what you want to do, and think what you think is important to think. So here’s a little warm-up question and greetings from Michael Hoyt at the same time. If Don D. Jackson would have been here in Toronto during The Brief Therapy Network Conference 2002 what do you think he would have thought about the conference? What would he have liked? What would he have not liked? And what would have probably surprised him?

Wendel Ray: What a hypothetical question! If this is the warm up....(laughter)
You know Jay Haley, John Weakland and Bill Fry too have said in a lot of different instances, in writing and conversation that they think that Don Jackson’s dying so young really changed the world. This is because during his era there was one superstar and that was him. He had the medical world’s attention and pharmacology had not yet taken over psychiatry. They felt, and I think too, that had he lived, he had such persuasive ability and credibility within those circles that we’d be living in a much more systemically and cybernetically oriented world today. Had he been here, it would have been totally different. If he had been here I imagine it would have been much longer, there would have been more medical professionals involved. His death was a huge loss to our field. I think he would be delighted that people are pushing the ideas. He wasn’t a static man at all. He was always asking where can we go next, how can we broaden this? I think he would be really delighted by how much work has gone into developing models of change. He would have been happy to be here.
He did a workshop up here in Toronto... more than one.

T: Is there anything he would have been surprised by in this conference during these two days?

W: I think he would have been surprised by what I think he would see as an oversimplification of very complex ideas – the complexities of human nature and human interaction. He would have been opposed to what I conceive to be the oversimplifications. If you look 10 years down the way, the probability is that all these seemingly glitzy, instant, packaged as dependable, ways of invoking change are going to hold up over time. This is my thought, which I wasn’t going to express, but you asked it again! (laughter)

T: When I was younger and studied in high school, sometimes I experienced history to be quite boring. Through your writings and the little experience I had from your workshop, I have noticed that you are a man with a great ability to put life into history. Personally, I think that a living history gets you in contact with your roots and from there comes a feeling of identity and meaning to what you are doing. It gives deep meaning to your activities. On the other hand, in studying history, when you seek your professional roots, there is always also the possibility of transformation; to break or destroy something, to be pushed into the emptiness. All of a sudden it transforms everything and gives a thoroughly new meaning to things you are doing. What’s your opinion about the meaning of the history in brief and family therapy?

W: The set-up of the question was that you view history as important to connect you. That’s a very valuable thing, but then it has another side to it. It can be connecting but, at the same time, it can be restricting. I agree with that completely. I would say though that I don’t see the cybernetic communication theory, information and systems theory revolution of the sixties as even history. It is an historic element in that it did, in our conception of time, not happen now, and yet all across the hard sciences, system theory is accepted as the basic matrix for all other things. Often people forget that it is a meta-theory. It doesn’t contradict any of the current models. All of the current models can easily be conceptualized within the existing systemic or interactional framework. That’s what it is; a framework, a skeleton, and people forget to conceptualize in terms of different levels of abstraction.

Very frequently it’s easy to look at things, and if it’s written in 1960 or whenever, and say... “well, you know we’ve learned so much since then”. It keeps you from going in and reading the literature for yourself and seeing what relevance it has now. This whole idea, like the way you posed your question, of things having two sides that come out of each other, that’s how I think too. It’s not good usually when you fall so in love with one half of a distinction that, way down the road, you realize.... oh my gosh... the other half comes and gets you. That’s the value and hazard of drawing a distinction, the moment you get absorbed in one half you set up the inevitable consequence of getting bitten by the other half.

There are many theories in science that have direct relevance to what we are doing now and they take their matrix equal to Einstein or anything from systems theory. Everything’s connected. Once you begin to realize that, and really take it seriously, eventually at least it makes you think that... hey, that includes me too. This doesn’t mean that everything is connected except for me. That thinking can change the world! That’s a piece that has fallen out of the recent dialogue. The implication of grasping the notion that everything’s connected – that means complexity. It’s fallen out of what’s being taught. I think that’s not to our advantage for it to occur.

T: It’s also part of a really, really old thought. In Buddhism, they say that everything is connected and interconnected.

W: Yes! Varela! Varela was a Buddhist, right? Keeping in mind that Francisco Varela was so influenced by Heinz von Foerster and Gregory Bateson particularly, it’s unfortunate that those names and these meanings have been trivialized now. For me at least, you have to read Bateson over and over again and think about it to really begin to get a sense of the tremendous implications of the ideas that he gave us. With all deference to Don Jackson, who was the great clinical influence, I can talk about Bateson, the primary theoretical influence, forever. John Weakland, Jay Haley, William Fry, any of the team… John, I miss John so much! John would regularly say these ideas that came out of the 50’s weren’t Bateson’s and weren’t his, they weren’t Jackson’s, the ideas emerged out of the interaction between the members of that group and it’s the emergence out of the interaction that gets lost.

T: Personally I think, and probably it’s a fact and not just my personal thought, that MRI (Mental Research Institute) has left us, the therapy field, an enormous and valuable resource.

W: Thank you for that.

T: What’s your opinion of some of the most important things today to carry forward and to develop from this inheritance?

W: Well, I’ll give you an idealistic response. One would be that people will begin – that somehow an interest will be revived in the philosophy of change. Not the technique, but the philosophy of change, which is that it’s pervasive, and persistent and change is a dance. So in an idealistic world, at some juncture someone, some Nelson Mandela, or whoever is the Prime Minister of Canada, would stumble upon some readings of Bateson or Varela or, Jackson, any of these, it doesn’t have to be any particular one, and say... oh my goodness, these ideas have such fantastic potential to better the lives of people, and they would be in a position of influence. It would then feed back to this field and re-awaken an interest in the philosophy on which the field was originally grounded and take, very seriously, the implications of this radically different way of thinking. If MRI is even remembered 300 years from now, it will be because somebody will stumble across one of these old articles and say... “my goodness, look at the connection these people were drawing”, and that would be a legacy. The ideas, once they’re spoken in the world, can’t be taken back even though, right now, we’re in this madness. There’s madness in the world you know, everybody’s running around trying to make a living, so there’s not the luxury of stopping to think about things. Hopefully, that won’t be forever. Hopefully, a time will come when things will slow down and people will begin to think about it.

Scot Cooper (SC): I was thinking that the ideas are so relevant that they influence many current models (perspectives).

W: We (MRI) was part of it. Yvonne Dolan mentioned Milton Erickson a number of times today. Like Erickson the MRI was a profoundly influential group. They were created to carry forward Bateson’s work.

T: So it was Harry Stack Sullivan, Bateson’s team, in connection with Milton H. Erickson and Don D. Jackson that built the background of the beginning of the family and brief therapies?

W: Yes, that was the background that set the stage for, first family therapy, and then the brief therapy. But can I say something that I often forget to say? There were a lot of women involved in this that we forget to talk about. Not the wives and daughters like Mary Catherine Bateson, as an example or Margaret Mead, which are the obvious ones. Jackson had a strong grounding in the work of Harry Stack Sullivan and we can’t speak of Harry Stack Sullivan without, if you know the era he was involved in, without thinking of a woman named Hilda Birch or Frieda Fromm-Reichmann or Karin Horney, or Mabel Cohen, or especially Clara Thompson. They were women very actively involved in the conversation the entire time and it is to our discredit and to our disadvantage to forget them. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann taught Don Jackson. Claire Thompson, MD had a strong connection with Sullivan and highly influenced his work and, in turn was highly influenced by him. I hope we don’t forget that. She was so important. I just wanted to say that. One of the criticisms, and to a degree a legitimate one, is that MRI has been a boy’s club and that’s not true. The articles I put up on a poster board for people to review during these last two days were, aside from the obvious ones like Jan Beavin Bavelas, Lynn Hoffman and Virginia Satir, there’s a half a dozen other women that have been part of MRI for a long time. Today there is Karin Schlanger, Barbara Anger-Diaz, Eileen Bobrow, and Elizabeth Martin. In many respects the future of MRI resides in the hands of these outstanding women.

T: For Finnish readers, in a nut shell, what is the Don D. Jackson archive and if one would be a therapist studying family therapy or brief therapy in Finland, how would one benefit or use the archive today?

W: I am glad you asked this question and I can fill up 10 pages of this interview with this! The archive is a growing thing. It started out with Brad Keeney and initially it wasn’t the Jackson archive. I was a doctoral student at Texas Tech, Brad was the head of the program and, like Brad, I was very interested in Bateson. He had a friend named Gregg Williams who lives in Gravel Switch Kentucky. Gregg was the editor of a little news journal, like what you guys have, called, “Continuing The Conversation” that was dedicated to helping keep Bateson’s ideas alive. Gregg is a dropout hippie that got his master’s degree at MIT. He’s an organic farmer and he had the best collection of Bateson materials in existence and he was a friend of Brad’s. Brad got me a $500.00 grant, with which I bought copy paper, put two crates of that in my truck and I drove to Gravel Switch and Greg allowed me to make a copy of his entire Bateson collection, and also allowed me to make copies of his tremendous collection of audio recordings of Bateson’s lectures. That was the beginning of the archive and it’s grown from there.

In 1987 when I started visiting MRI, I got very interested in Jackson’s work and John Weakland, this lovely man, put in my care all of the existing recordings, the file cabinet drawers full of materials of Jackson’s papers and that was the second collection in the archive. The third collection occurred when John died. Just before he died, John put in my care all of the remaining materials from the Bateson Research Projects. So all the surviving recordings and written documents from the research projects that occurred in the 50’s Palo Alto became the third collection, and the archive has continued to grow ever since. For example, there are all the materials from a project by Irving Yalom and Don Jackson on families with a member experiencing ulcerated Colitis; all of Virginia Satir’s original training seminars because she was the Director of the first family therapy training program in the world which, of course, occurred at MRI. We have all those recordings as a separate collection. All the materials from the MRI Brief Therapy Project constitute yet another enormous collection housed in the archive. This is something the people forget - something close to my heart. Jeffery Zeig is my friend. Several years ago he asked me to come to the Milton H. Erickson Foundation in Phoenix as a visiting scholar. My job was to go through all the recordings he had of Milton Erickson and begin to categorize them so they would have a clearer idea of precisely what they had. I spent an entire summer doing this. One interesting thing about this is that the audio recordings of Erickson are all teaching seminars recorded between 1952 to about 1968. All that fantastic material (and I’ve listened to it all) – only three clinical interviews exist. The rest of Erickson’s clinical materials are case reports. Think about that! All you have is the teaching seminars and the writings, which are fantastic, but in the MRI collection, what I’m talking about is raw data, thousands of hours, from actual clinical interviews with families, couples, and individuals. For a researcher, for someone who’s really interested in figuring out how did these people get people to change, the raw data of recordings of actual clinical interviews have been preserved and can be listened to. This is a gift that the Bateson team, then MRI Team, and the MRI brief therapy team gave us. They recorded all of their interviews and they still exist and they’re in the archive. Any scholar / researcher / clinician interested in really tracing what actually occurred in therapy, in how to do therapy, have access to all this data. These guys broke all the conventions of that era, they saw families together, recorded the interviews, and preserved the recordings for the purpose of research. We have all these clinical interviews from the entire Bateson era, Jackson era, into the brief therapy team, Satir’s work, and all the other research projects. The Brief Therapy group, for instance began seeing people in October 1965. Thousands of recordings – every client seen at the Brief Therapy Centre – we’ve got the tapes. Think about that. I think that’s an incredible gift. Instead of talking about what you did, let’s go listen to the actual recordings and do textual analysis, listen to the use of voice inflection, pause, and all these sorts of characteristics of interactional phenomena that you only can analyze if you have the tape. That’s the archive!

T: Your workshop was a living example of how to use the material!

W: This archives’ purpose is to be open. We want people to use it. It has to be done in some kind of controlled way, of course to protect confidentiality and the integrity of the collection. It’s to preserve it, organize it, categorize it and then give access to it. There’s plenty of other stuff, I only described the bigger collections. We also have, for example, as a separate body of data all of the team conversations of the Bateson group. Can you imagine Bateson, Jackson, Haley, Weakland, and Fry sitting together talking and they recorded and then transcribed it. We have that. That’s platinum. You don’t get more valuable in this particular philosophy of ideas.

T: So we can listen also to Jay Haley and John Weakland when they were coming back from meeting with Milton Erickson?

W: We have those, that’s what I presented the last time I was here in Toronto. Jeff Zeig has some of those conversations too, of Haley and Weakland going to meet with Erickson. Those are rich! That’s rich conversation!

T: Even this story tells me that you are a man of many passions. What are some of the other things you are nowadays really enjoying professionally?

W: I love to teach and I like doing it in workshop formats like we’ve been doing here. But principally, I’m a professor at a marriage and family therapy masters and doctorial programs at the University of Louisiana in Monroe. We have magnificent students and I just love to teach theory, so the course work that I typically get assigned is theory courses. But then I also get to supervise the clinical practice so one or two nights a week I supervise and I love that. I love clinical work and I love teaching people how to effectively select clinical dissertation topics and research proposals that derive from the dissertation. So I like working with doctorial students in that capacity too. I could be equally comfortable for the rest of my life sitting in front of a reel-to-reel recorder, listening to these old tapes because they’re absolutely mind blowing. The material and how relevant it is now and how forgotten it is...it’s shameful really. So I am equally at home with that too.

T: So what would you see as the current changes and existing developments right now in the field of family and brief therapy?

W: In my opinion, and I recognize that it’s an absolute minority opinion ? I am a not known, not a big star and I don’t write as much as I could, but I think the problem is we’ve somehow disconnected ourselves from our theory. We disconnected ourselves from the interactionally oriented philosophy/theory that constitutes the matrix out of which all of these ideas came. There are plenty of better ways of saying this. For instance, whether or not you have any regard for Murray Bowen’s work, and I am taking no stance saying he was right or wrong. One of the things Bowen said for years was, “when you find yourself emotionally cut off from your family of origin, you’re setting yourself up for big trouble”. I think in some ways that’s akin to what has happened in our field. We are so caught up in learning about new, and new is good, that we forget that there is a background. We’re doing our children, the next generation of therapists, a disservice by allowing them to disconnect from this matrix of information that made Steve de Shazer so good, that makes Yvonne Dolan as good as she is, or Dick Fisch, Zeig, or Jim Duvall. They have absorbed all these ideas from the “traditional” family and brief orientations and it provides grounding. I think we’re helping ourselves not to grow by being so dismissive of the earlier research – and this is especially unfortunate for new generations of therapist who have nothing to fall back on. I’m not saying to have the old tradition dominate you but to be aware of it and to know that you’ve got grandparents that live down the street that you could go visit occasionally.

T: I have been in contact with Peter Lang from Kensington Consultation Centre in London and what you are saying reminds me of something he said about the connection between practice and theory. “Somehow practice is always a theory lived through”.

W: Yes!

T: Theory is also practice lived through and they are connected all the time.

W: Totally! One of the driving, most useful notions out of the early work was the idea of focusing on here and now causality, what’s happening in the present. That is so valuable. That important concept, which is central to MRI brief, SFBT, and the narrative models, got translated into, “we don’t need to learn the things that people said earlier in our field”. These are two different subjects that have inadvertently been lumped together. Focusing on what’s going on now in terms of causality, in the present in your work is one thing. Extrapolating that into concluding, “I don’t have to read anything or have any grasp of the ideas that preceded this because they are, after all from the “modern” tradition (and therefore wrong or not cutting edge). Having a here and now focus in comprehending my client’s difficulties is an entirely different shift. I think the inaccurate categorizing the work of MRI in the modern tradition, for instance, is not only confusing and a misrepresentation, it has the very unfortunate consequence of misleading the next generation of therapists, and needlessly restricting their learning experience. Incredibly useful ideas are dismissed out of hand because they have been labelled as being in the “modernist” tradition. Such characterization explicitly implies that they are somehow inferior thoughts, and as a consequence an entire generation of therapists are done the disservice of being taught, inaccurately, that these ideas are not of value.
Ian Bennett (IB): So where are the absent parents to tell the ‘children’, “look behind you, go visit the grandparents?”

W: You see Ian, another idea that’s very central to these effective approaches is Jackson’s fundamental tenet, “everybody’s doing the best they can all the time given the relationships of which they are a part and the context (s) to which they are adapting”. He believed (as do I) that if we allow ourselves the dubious luxury of pointing a finger, or assigning blame to others, or ourselves it does nothing but cause animosity and perpetuate the problem. It does not move anything forward. In my view there are a number of factors that could be involved in the present generation not teaching the next generation about the revolutionary ideas of early family therapy. Here are a few ~ let’s try economics. If I want somebody to come learn from me I can’t say, “Let me teach you something that Steven Lankton said 10 years ago when Steven Lankton is still around. They’ve got to go see Steven Lankton. So there’s an economic factor. Number two, we live in an era where new... now... fresh... is demanded, if it is not new it is “passé.” I can’t find music on the radio anymore that I like because all that makes the radio is 14 year olds singing to 12 year olds. Disregard for the past has taken over the world. It’s pervasive in culture.

IB: I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to meet you when I did or I wouldn’t have known this background story. I feel I would have been robbed of something that I never would have experienced. I worry that nobody else was going to introduce it! I feel bad that there are people out there that don’t know where they’re coming from - their background.

W: I would recommend that rather than accepting without scrutiny the current dogma that any idea not labelled “post-modern” is somehow not of any value, spend some time reading the earlier literature for yourself and make up your own mind about the value of the ideas. For instance, my favourite book of Steve de Shazer’s is his first. Not to say that his more recent ones aren’t excellent, but I like his first book – it turned me on so much that in 1983 I went to Milwaukee to study with Steve, Insoo, Eve Lipchik and the rest of their team because I read his book and went, “wow”. I am also upset about this dismissal of the ideas, which are still quite revolutionary, that created our field; but then the important question is, “What are you going to do about it? What you and I can do is learn from the new, but also go out and read the existing literature. For instance, I use Fisch, Weakland, and Segal’s Tactics of Change (1982), with my students teaching them MRI brief therapy; Jay Haley’s Uncommon Therapy (1973) to introduce Strategic Therapy, and Watzlawick, Bavelas & Jackson’s Pragmatics of Human Communication as an introduction to interactional theory; but then as students really get interested, which almost always happens because the ideas are so solid, so exciting, I say, “You should read Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch’s Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution” (1972). Once they read Change and again say “wow!”, I say, “You might find Brad Keeney’s Aesthetics of Change interesting. Before long the student has walked backwards in time and discovered for themselves this rich body of ideas. For me, watching their depth of understanding and quality of clinical work improve exponentially is what it is all about.

T: Thank you Wendel.



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