Friday, May 18, 2012

Narrative Practice 1

The following sequence of posts are sections of an essay I wrote recently for an M.A. in Human Development.

Michael White (1948-2008)
Our first woman president Mary Robinson pledged herself to listening to the stories of others in her inauguration in 1990.[1] To tell a story, to listen to a story, to share a story is such a profoundly human thing. To listen to the real life story of another human being is a privilege. To tell your story to another human being is to reach out to the other, to say this is me, this is what I am about, this is where I came from, these are the ways I got here and there is where I am going.  Richard Kearney (2002, p. 2) puts it succinctly that when you tell your story you get “a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime… In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” Stories are also essentially about healing as many scholars from various disciplines attest to.[2]

Describing Narrative Practice
In short, then, we may say that Narrative Therapy is a form of psychotherapy using narrative. It was initially developed during the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Australian Michael White and his friend and colleague, David Epston, of New Zealand.  Winslade and Monk (1999, pp. 2-3) describe Narrative Practice by referring to the fact that we all tell stories both to ourselves and to others so as “to make sense of ourselves and of the circumstances of our lives.”  In short, then, stories provide us with a framework by which we can make sense of what it means to be a living being.  In the following several posts, I will outline the main ideas behind Narrative Practice with particular attention to the work of Michael White and will indicate how I have attempted to implement these ideas both in my professional and personal life.
Philosophical Basis of Narrative Therapy
Michael White (1990, 1-3), one of the founders of the Narrative Practice school of psychotherapy, emphasizes the fact that he found the writings of Michel Foucault on power and knowledge a solid foundation on which to lay the theoretical base for his practice.  He also adverts to the fact that he also borrowed the idea of the “interpretative method” from Bateson (1972, 1979) and hastens to define this method as comprising “those processes by which we make sense of the world.”  In other words, none of us, he argues, can objectively describe the world in itself, and so each of us must make sense of the world for ourselves in “an act of interpretation.” Now in Narrative Practice the clients are encouraged not only to tell their various stories but to engage upon re-authoring negative ones, and philosophically this is, therefore, legitimate because it is such “an act of interpretation” which gives meaning to the person’s life.  Unlike positivism, which argues that we can have objective knowledge of the world as it really is, this type of therapy works on the assumption that everything we know is personally interpreted in our own “lived experience.”
Further, we order our personal experiences in a certain sequence to give continuity and meaning to our lives.  Hence, we can tell our own stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, or, in other words, with a past, a present or a future.  White (1990, p. 12) argues that this process of making meaning through stories can be called “storying our experience,” and further points out that when noticeable gaps appear in these stories that the task of Narrative Practice is to encourage the client to fill them in so that the story may be performed.  He continues to argue (White, 1990, pp. 17-18) that “the re-storying of experience necessitates the active involvement of persons in the re-organization of their experience.”
Michel Foucault had a significant influence on the thought and practice of Michael White and Michael Epston, his friend and colleague, with whom he founded this way of therapy.  All our stories are framed by the contexts within which we are reared and within which we grow to maturation.  These contexts, whether we like it or not, exercise a power upon us. White (1990, 19-20) argues that according to Foucault we are subject to this power through “normalizing truths” that shape our lives and our relationships.  Some of these “truths” we accept unconsciously, though we can be encouraged to question them and re-construct our lives through various forms of therapy, most notably Narrative Practice.  Foucault advances the history of sexual desire, which from Victorian times was presented as dangerous in the extreme especially for children, as a powerful example of a “normalizing truth” that resulted in considerable sexual repression.  Ironically in this way, while supposedly consigning sex to the periphery of life, they ended up “speaking of it ad infinitum” in their various manuals on education and sexual conduct.

[1]‘I want this Presidency to promote the telling of stories — stories of celebration through the arts and stories of conscience and of social justice. As a woman, I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, “finding a voice where they found a vision.” ‘ (Robinson, 1990)

[2] See Bourke, A (1997)., Language, Stories, Healing in Arguing at the Crossroads, pp. 58-76 which gives the insight of a Celtic Studies’ scholar into stories.  Storytelling has been used for healing in many traditional cultures and it is also a valuable device when utilised in therapy by qualified therapists.

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