A Proposal for a Re-authoring Therapy: Rose's Revisioning of her Life and a Commentary

Narrative Psych

Other texts:

by David Epston, Michael White and Kevin Murray

In the social sciences at least, it is now generally recognized that it is not possible for persons to have direct knowledge of the world; that an objective description of the world is not available to us, and that no one has a privileged access to the naming of reality, whatever that reality is.’ And it is generally accepted that what we know of the world, we know only through our experience of it; our experience of the world is all that we have, and that is all that we can know. We cannot even know another person’s experience of the world. The best that we can do is to interpret the experience of others; that is, the expressions of their experience as they go about the business of interpreting it for themselves.’ ‘Whatever sense we have of how things stand with someone else’s inner life, we gain it through their expressions, not through some magical intrusion into their consciousness. It’s all a matter of scratching surfaces’ (Geertz, 1986: 373). And to interpret the expressions (and thus the interpretations) of others, we have to rely upon our own lived experience and imagination. The most we can do is to ‘identify’ our own experience of the experience as expressed by others. Thus ‘empathy’ is a critical factor in the interpretation or understanding of the experiences of others.

So this is all we have - our lived experience of the world. But this turns out to be a great deal. We are rich in lived experience. To quote Geertz, ‘We all have very much more of the stuff than we know what to do with, and if we fail to put it into some graspable form, the fault must lie in a lack of means, not of substance’ (1986: 373).

Certain questions are raised by any serious consideration of this proposal about the world of experience.

  • Given that what we know of the world we know through our experience of it, what is the process by which we develop an understanding of our experience and give meaning to it?
  • How do we make sense of our experience to ourselves, and how do we make sense of our experience to others?
  • If we are perpetually involved in an attempt to articulate our lived experience to ourselves and to others, what processes are involved in our interpretation of it?
  • What is it that facilitates the expression of our experience?
  • And how does the expression of our lived experience affect our lives and relationships?

These questions focus our attention on an investigation of the ways in which we make sense of our lives to ourselves and to others; they focus our attention on the processes through which we interpret or attribute meaning to our experience.

In order to give meaning to our experience, we must organize it, frame it, or give pattern to it. To understand an aspect of our experience, we must be able to frame it within a pattern of experience that is known to us; we must be able to identify aspects of lived experience within the context of known patterns of experience.

Stories or Narratives

Those social scientists (J. Bruner, Gergen, and Harré in psychology; E. Bruner, Geertz, Clifford, V. Turner, and R. Rosaldo in anthropology; H. White, Mink, Gaillie in history, to name but a few) whose work is oriented by the ‘interpretive method’ and who embrace the text analogy propose that the ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ provides the dominant frame for live experience and for the organization and patterning of lived experience. Following this proposal, a story can be defined as a unit of meaning that provides a frame for lived experience. It is through these stories that lived experience is interpreted. We enter into stories; we are entered into stories by others; and we live our lives through these stories.

Stories enable persons to link aspects of their experience through the dimension of time. There does not appear to be any other mechanism for the structuring of experience that so captures the sense of lived time, or that can adequately represent the sense of lived time (Ricoeur, 1983). It is through stories that we obtain a sense of our lives changing. It is through stories that we are able to gain a sense of the unfolding of the events of our lives through recent history, and it appears that this sense is vital to the perception of a ‘future’ that is in any way different from a ‘present’. Stories construct beginnings and endings; they impose beginnings and endings on the flow of experience. ‘We create the units of experience and meaning from a continuity of life. Every telling is an arbitrary imposition of meaning on the flow of memory, in that we highlight some causes and discount others; that is, every telling is interpretive’ (E. Bruner, 1986a: 7). In considering the vital role that stories have in relation to the organization of experience, it can be argued that:

1 It is the stories in which we situate our experience that determine’ the meaning that we give to experience.

2 It is these stories that determine the selection of those aspects of experience to be expressed.

3 It is these stories that determine the shape of the expression that we give to those aspects of experience.

4 It is these stories that determine real effects and directions in our lives and in our relationships.

Performance as Shaping

In the foregoing discussion, we have argued that experience structures expression. But it can also be argued that expression structures experience. To quote Dilthey: ‘Our knowledge of what is given in experience is extended through the interpretation of the objectifications of life and their interpretation, in turn, only made possible by plumbing the depths of subjective experience’ (1976: 195). Thus, the stories that we enter into with our experience have real effects on our lives. The expression of our experience through these stories shapes or makes up our lives and our relationships; our lives are shaped or constituted through the very process of the interpretation within the context of the stories that we enter into and that we are entered into by others.

This is not to propose that life is synonymous with text. It is not enough for persons to tell a new story about themselves, or to assert claims about themselves. Instead, the proposition carried by these assertions about the world of experience and narrative is that life is the performance of texts. And it is the performance of these texts that is transformative of persons’ lives; however, these performances must be before relevant audiences or made known by some form of publication. [T]he participants must have confidence in their own authenticity, which is one reason cultures are performed. It is not enough to assert claims; they must be enacted. Stories only become transformative in their performance’ (E. Bruner, 1986a: 25). Thus the idea that lives are situated in texts or stories implies a particular notion of authenticity - that a person arrives at a sense of authenticity in life through the performance of texts. This notion of authenticity may be affronting to many a cherished belief that carries propositions about the ‘truth’ of personhood or of human nature; those beliefs that suggest that, under particular and ideal circumstances of life, persons will be ‘released’ and thus become truly who they are: authentic.

Indeterminate Nature of Stories

If persons’ lives are shaped through the storying of experience and through the performance of these stories, and if there is a limited stock of familial stories about who we might be and of cultural knowledges about personhood, how is it that we are not replicas of one another? Perhaps this question is best approached by considering the interaction of readers and literary texts. To do so would be to extend the text analogy in our attempts to understand more fully the processes involved in the ascription of meaning, and to liken life as lived under the guidance of stories to the reader’s experience under the sway of the literary text. And since good stories are more transformative of the reader’s experience than poor stories, this consideration could bring us to a review of the structure of texts of literary merit.

In following this premise, we believe that Iser, a literary theorist, assists us to find an answer to the question, ‘How is it that we are not replicas of one another?’

fictional texts constitute their own objects and do not copy something already in existence. For this reason they cannot have the full determinacy of real objects, and indeed, it is the element of indeterminacy that evokes the text to ‘communicate’ with the reader, in the sense that they induce him to participate both in the production and the comprehension of this work’s intention. (1978: 21)

It is readily apparent that all stories are indeterminate.’ There is a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty to all stories, and, as well, there are inconsistencies and contradictions. This fact will be appreciated by those who have read a novel that was particularly engaging and then gone to a movie of the same novel, only to find, to their dismay, that the movie director had got it wrong! In such circumstances, what is clear is that the director arrived at a different interpretation of the story through his or her unique negotiation of its indeterminacy.

So literary texts are full of gaps that readers must fill in order for the story to be performed.’ And, in likening the interaction of readers and literary texts to the interaction of persons and the stories they live their lives through, we become more aware of our need to fill the gaps in daily interaction. Just as these gaps in literary texts recruit the lived experience and the imagination of the reader, so do the gaps in the stories that are ‘lived by’ recruit the lived experience and the imagination of people as they engage in performances of meaning under the guidance of the story.

Thus with every performance, persons are re-authoring their lives and relationships. And every telling encapsulates, but is more than the previous telling. The evolution of lives and relationships of persons is akin to the process of re-authoring, the process of persons entering into stories with their experience and their imagination, and the process of taking these stories over and making them their own.

The indeterminacy of texts and the constitutive aspect of the performance of texts provide good cause to celebrate. Clifford Geertz quotes Lionel Trilling’s lament, ‘How come it that we start out Originals and end up Copies?’ Upon situating our work in the world of experience and narrative, and in accepting the idea that we must start with a story in order to attribute meaning and give expression to our experience, we would have to reverse Trilling’s question, ‘How come it that we start out Copies and end up Originals?’ To this question Geertz finds an answer that is ‘surprisingly reassuring: it is the copying that originates’ (1986: 380).

We have little choice but to start out with copies. We cannot perform meaning in our lives without situating our experience in stories. Stories are, in the first place, given. However, it is the relative indeterminacy - the ambiguity and uncertainty - of all stories that we can only negotiate through recourse to our lived experience and our imagination. And this requires that we engage in a process of ‘origination’.

So what might be the effects on a person’s interpretation of events in his or her life. if the story that framed, selected, and determined the meaning given to those events was oppressive and authored by perpetrators of child sexual or physical abuse? Kamsler (1990), referring specifically to child sexual abuse, noted a number of ‘story-telling’ practices associated with it that deny the abused their own ‘story-telling rights’:’

(1) it is usually the case that the perpetrator of the abuse has overtly or covertly conveyed to the victim the message that she was to blame for being abused.... (2) the perpetrator will often actively promote secrecy by enforcing it with the child or young woman so that she is divided from other family members, (3) and the various ways in which perpetrator exerted control over the child ... may promote the development of habitual responses of fear and panic in intimacy relationships when she becomes an adult. (1990: 17-18)

And furthermore, what difference would it make if a person who had been situated in an oppressive ‘story’ - being told –found herself either to be entitled to her own ‘story-telling rights’ or to have them restored and be enabled to tell her own life and become her own author?

Rose’s Revisioning of her Life’

From here on, Rose and I request that you prepare yourself for a different set of ‘reader responses’ as the genres become blurred. If fact and fiction are read differently, how best might you approach ‘faction’? The following is an example of a ‘re-authoring therapy’ but that process will be briefly described elsewhere so as not to intrude. So reader, can you find some way that suits you to divest yourself of those ‘reader responses’ required by academic texts? Perhaps you might set this book down for a while in order to break your train of thought and return to it later. For Rose and I offer you the opportunity of having an experience of your own as you engage with her experience of entering her life’s events in an ‘alternative’ story, a frame of reference at great variance with the ‘dominant’ story of her life. Louis Mink argues that ‘It is clear that we cannot refer to events as such, but only to events under a description; so there can be more than one description of the same event, all of them true but referring to different aspects of the event or describing it at different levels of generality. But what can we possibly mean by "same event"?’ (1978: 145-6). What we could possibly mean by the same event was more than just a historiographical problem for Rose and me. For how Rose ‘reads’ her life - under the guidance of either the ‘dominant’ story or the therapeutically co-created ‘alternative’ story - will prove to have considerable bearing on whether she lives or takes her life, and how she lives that life she chooses to keep.

The re-authoring will be represented to you, reader, by way of those ‘letters’ I (David Epston) provided for her summarizing our meetings, and excerpts from the transcript of the fourth and final meeting six months later. I have taken some liberties here, deleting many of my questions and linking some of her answers. So, reader, are you ready to proceed with my account of Rose’s revisioning of her experience as it is brought to life through language?

Rose’s employer rang me. I was informed that despite her compunctions and regret, she had no other option than to terminate Rose’s employment as a receptionist/video-camera operator at a busy advertising agency. She only too willingly acknowledged that Rose possessed obvious capabilities. Still, it seemed that whenever Rose was required to attend to a request in addition to an uncompleted task, she would ‘crack up’ and dissolve into tears. Her employer drew my attention to the fact that Rose had a genius for food preparation, something she was required to do during a ,shoot’. She had endeavoured to find Rose alternative employment in catering until it dawned on her how impossible that would be. Catering is a task, she commented, that would subject Rose to both urgent and multiple demands. She also told me that Rose had a long history of losing jobs for the same reason. Rose’s employer was ringing because Rose had become inconsolable on being dismissed and she was very concerned for her well-being. I suggested she provide Rose with my phone number and that I would do my best to meet with her immediately.

Rose and I met a day later. There was a sense of quiet desperation about Rose as she recounted her dismal employment history. She did acknowledge that she had a long-standing ambition to become a chef but discounted that, given the demanding nature of the work. She seemed so forlorn that I asked if there was anything more to her ‘problem’ than that. She grinned ruefully and nodded. ‘There’s more to it. I don’t have a base inside myself.’ I inquired, ‘Do you feel like a fake person, hollow on the inside?’ She greeted this description enthusiastically as if the linguistic resources I proffered her came as something of a relief. I went on to say, ‘There must be a story behind this. Do you feel like telling me about it?’ She sighed and grinned at the same time, ‘That’s what I’ve come for.... I just can’t go on any longer like this.’ We embarked upon a story-telling with the role of narrator-reflector shared between us. My reflecting questions and her answering led her story through time in addition to disengaging her from entering into her father’s story.

His authorship over her experience of his physical abuse had been compelling, given his hegemonic parenthood in addition to his moral sanction as a parish minister in a fundamentalist Christian church. The latter particularly confounded her as his parishioners would regularly comment after church services on her good fortune to have such ‘a good and kind man’ for a father. Her mother was a bystander to this violence, who defended her silence as the only way she had available to her to contain her husband’s violence towards their children. Still Rose felt very bitter towards her, even though she acknowledged that her mother took the action to divorce him when she was thirteen, insisting that Rose be sent away to a distant boarding school. This action was without precedent among her co-religionists.

An ‘alternative’ account was written up from my notes, taken during the meeting and forwarded to her by post.

Dear Rose,

It was a very pleasing experience to meet up with you and hear some of your story, a story of both protest and survival against what you understood to be an attempt to destroy your life. And you furthered that protest yesterday by coming and telling me that story. I would imagine that you had not been able to tell anyone for fear of being disbelieved. I feel privileged that you shared it with me and hope that sharing it relieved you of some of its weight. I can see how such a history could have left you the legacy you described - a sense of not seeming ‘to have a base’. How could you under the circumstances of your growing up when your home - most people’s base - was the site of your father’s attempt at disappearing you? No wonder you are currently finding life difficult and have mixed feelings about trusting relationships with men. I consider this inevitable under the circumstances. And no wonder, despite all your abilities, talents, and personal attributes that are so obvious to others with whom you have come into contact in the course of your life, you feel somewhat hollow and ‘fake’ on the inside. No wonder you feel like caving in when you experience other people’s demands on you!
You tell me that you were the third of four children, born to a father who ‘didn’t want children’ and since he had them, insisted on ,obedience’ to his rule and the Victorian child-rearing policy that ‘children should be seen but not heard’. From the beginning, you had some life force that refused to buckle under and submit to his authority.
You paid dearly for your vocal nature and were physically beaten for it. Still you refused to deny yourself, even though you came to feel that he was out to destroy you. From what you tell me, he was moody, controlled, violent, self-important, and holier than Thou. In some ways, it must have been a relief to get sent away to boarding school, even though that resulted from your parents’ separation.
It seems to me that you are entitled to your resentments towards your mother for not protecting you more. However, I suspect that you don’t know the full extent to which your mother endured violence and intimidation. After a certain degree of abuse, the abused person often starts to believe they deserve it. Also your father had a moral sanction, arising from his work. Some day, I believe your mother will confide in you more suffering than you know. And she may have been right that the only course open to her was to silently sit by because if she opposed him, he would have redoubled the severity of your beatings. I wonder if she has some story that is too terrible to reveal, perhaps even to herself ?
Despite your father’s attempts to rub you out, you ruthlessly opposed him. You did this in the face of his public image as ‘a good man’. You could easily have taken his opinion of you and dismissed your own. If you had, my guess is that you would not be here today. Some special wisdom must have informed you that he was bad, not you. If not, how were you able to see through his hypocrisy?
At 18, you returned to your father, thinking perhaps he would now be able to appreciate you, an appreciation you so richly deserved. You were to discover, probably not surprisingly, that ‘you can’t expect anything approaching a caring father-daughter relationship’. Still, you were able to distinguish between his inadequacies and your self. This was a critical distinction, one that I believe has been life saving for you.
Although it must have been very difficult, you were able to create for yourself a very good personhood. You must have had a lot of courage to travel abroad for 41/2 years and ‘survive’, as you put it. Surviving in such circumstances proved to you once and for all that you had ‘grit’. You were able to experience some pride in yourself for having managed so well. You said that when ‘I am up against the wall, something makes me get going ... a survival instinct’. I believe that your ‘survival instinct’ is your life force, a force that never submitted to your father’s disciplines and ruthlessness. That life force added a lot to itself during your travels. I wonder if it was then that you became more substantial as a person and started believing in yourself?
Was it then that you started seeing yourself through others’ eyes rather than through your father’s eyes? When was it that you no longer accepted your father’s definition of yourself as ‘garbage’?
It must have happened sometime or other; otherwise, you would have gone around looking for garbage collectors and a dump for them to throw you on! Somehow or other, you were able to keep your own picture of yourself alive.
And you rejected that widely shared myth that women solve their problems by being ‘rescued by men’. I guess you must have found that difficult to swallow, given your history with your father. I was also impressed by your unwillingness to seek sympathy or special concessions. You have determined to see your own way through this and to make yourself up into the person you want to be. It was interesting to note that you start appreciating yourself most when you are on your own.
I wonder if seeing your two older siblings make up their own lives, despite the violence they suffered at your father’s hands, has inspired you with the hope necessary for you to do the same? Obviously they had some advantages in finding partners at an early age who must have really appreciated them, so they could appreciate themselves.
I suggested that you might like to be curious how your older siblings were able to construct viable, loving relationships, ones in which they were able to realize themselves as ‘good’ persons. Another question you might like to entertain is this: Why didn’t you fall for your father’s type?
I look forward to meeting you again to assist you to write a new history of the events in your life, a new history that could predict a very different kind of future than your old history.
Yours sincerely, David

We met a month later. Nothing could have prepared me for what had transpired in the interval. Two days after receiving the letter, Rose had applied for a job as a sous-chef and was not only successful but so impressed the owner/chef that he had invited her to take over sole responsibility while he took his holidays. On his return, she had been made head chef. She now felt her life was ‘on the right track’ and that she ‘had made a start on it’. She had renewed her relationship with her mother and now felt both a sympathy for her and a new connectedness. She had also rung up all her siblings and met with them, one at a time, over the letter. They all legitimated her experiences of physical abuse, and took her side to the extent that they advised her to break off all contact with their father, as the two eldest siblings had done. She took her own advice here and decided to keep her relationship with her father open. Rose was radiant and witty as she contemplated her future, a future she was now anticipating. This meeting was summarized in the following letter.

Dear Rose,
Reading the letter, which provided you with a different story, seems to have led to ‘a sense of relief ... it was normal I had problems ... it wasn’t my fault ... I had previously felt weak and vulnerable ... and that I should have got it all together by now.’ Instead, you began to appreciate more fully that ‘I felt I had made a start ... I was definitely on the right track.’ And I suspect now that you are realizing that you have been on the ‘right track’ for some time now; if not, as you put it, you would have become ‘disillusioned ... and ended my life’. Well, there is a lot of life in you and it is there for all to see!
In a spectacular advancement several days after we met, you applied for a job as a chef and in no way permitted ‘terror to stop me’, put yourself on the line, and discovered much to your satisfaction, that you are very competent, so much so that you were requested to take over the restaurant while your employer has been on holiday. You feel you have been able to learn a lot in a short time and that this may be the career you have been looking for. As you put it, ‘I’m realizing I have all these opportunities ... and I am just beginning.’ I can see that you have just opened a door and there is a lot of room to explore there.
Feeling so accomplished, you were then able to appreciate your mother’s contribution to your abilities. She too ‘had an enquiring mind ... an appreciation of other cultures ... it was something from within her’. Despite this, ‘she still didn’t have much self-confidence’ but then again, what would she have become if your father, as you put it, didn’t ‘treat her like a door mat?’
You were also able to discuss some personal matters with your brother and sisters and they concurred with the letter. Their advice to you was to reject your father as they have. I believe your approach is more courageous and will have more embracing results. Still, it must have been satisfying for them to side with your story and perhaps, because of this, you have obviously been able to see yourself through others’ eyes. The result of that is for you to appreciate yourself more and to develop a more comfortable relationship with yourself.
From here, you proposed that ‘I feel I have to take some time out and work on Rose . . . I want her to grow ... I want her to be strong and independent.’ You proposed a month of consolidation rather than further experiment, especially in relation to your competence in your new career, to develop more self-appreciation, to experience fully your success and that degree of success is ‘enough for now’, and to resist the temptation of loneliness to drive you into an unsatisfactory relationship. Here you will have to challenge yet again the cultural myth that women complete themselves in relationship to men.
1 will be very interested to meet you next time to hear of your further adventures. It was a very pleasing experience for me to hear how much you are pleasing yourself and how far you have come in such a short time.
Best wishes, David

We met another month later and Rose was more full of life than ever. She had taken charge of the restaurant and had expanded her range of catering abilities. She expressed great caution about a relationship with a man she had met, as she reported her determination to fashion a different kind of relationship from her previous ones, in which she had ‘felt drained’. ‘I understand what mistakes I’ve made. I have been giving my power away and making myself available for abuse by not taking responsibility for myself.’ She said she had decided to evaluate this relationship as it went and to sustain her self-respect by communicating her own needs and desires: ‘I am going to decide if this relationship is positive for me as a person. . . . I no longer will be diminished. I am actively working at not letting it happen. I feel so much better about myself.’

Six months after our first meeting, I invited Rose to join me as a consultant to others’ and followed the protocol outlined in Epston and White (1990).

Therapy is concluded with an invitation to persons to attend a special meeting with the therapist so that the knowledges that have been resurrected and/or generated in therapy can be documented. The knowledges will include those alternative and preferred knowledges about self, others and relationships and those knowledges of problem-solving that have enabled persons to liberate their lives. (1990: 29)

‘A consultant to others’ implicates an audience, and those audiences that are recruited contribute to the authentication of the person’s preferred claims derived from rendering his or her life’s events meaningful according to the ‘alternative’ story. And reader, you have become a member of that audience. Rose herself was provided with both audio-taped and transcribed versions of this consultation, from which the following is an edited excerpt.

DE: Can I ask - what difference did it make to you having your story available to you, do you think?

Rose: It helped me understand what had happened and possibly why it had happened ... my reactions to what had happened and the end result. Looking at it and following it through gave me a sense of relief and understanding.... It was a relief that it wasn’t my fault ... that there were things that had happened to me as a child and I had been basically reacting ever since.... A lot of the negative feelings I had about myself had been enforced when I was younger by a parent figure (father?). And I took that attitude, consciously or unconsciously, and continued to think that way about myself. Having the story gave me a point of reference to look back at, to read it through, to think about it and form my own opinions from what we had discussed and draw my own conclusions. I remember getting the letter from the letter box, making myself a nice cup of tea, sitting down and reading it. I had feelings of ‘Yes ... that’s it . . . that’s the whole story!’ Thinking about it, re-reading it ... and feeling a lot better about myself, possibly understanding myself and possibly what direction I wanted to go in. Without it, I think I’d still be confused . . . I know I’d still be confused and have the same feelings of inadequacy as a person and not knowing why I felt the way I did.

DE: How did having your own story validate you? If you had felt you were a fake, phoney, hollow, nothing inside of you, not a true person, how did you legitimate yourself so quickly?

Rose: It was a number of things. I think I had all these suspicions floating around and I wasn’t too sure what was real, what was right, what was following through and what wasn’t. Possibly having my own story helped me to find out my own attitude and thoughts. And from that so much grew ... I just immediately started feeling so much better about myself. I started feeling I had validity. And that I had so many untapped opportunities that I had been too frightened to look at or thought I didn’t have a right to them. Basically feeling so much better about myself allowed me to consider a very different kind of future for myself. If this hadn’t happened, I would have remained a very unhappy person. I had got to the stage that I didn’t want to go out there again and compete and have another go at finding employment. I’d got to the point where it was make or break about living. Either I did something about it ... or I’d pull the pin and forget about living.... Ultimately, I think because I separated myself, in my case, from my father’s opinions of who I was and formed my own opinion of who and what I was. I realized the danger of being made up by others. I had to make myself up although I think other people contributed to it. They weren’t the people I expected or counted on and there is a real sense ... a lot of feelings about all that - anger, resentment ... a lot of pain. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to accept ... accept? Accept isn’t quite the right word ... understand and leave it behind.

1 summarized this ‘consultation’ once again by letter:

Dear Rose,
I am just writing to thank you for sharing your ‘knowledge’ with me and for your willingness to make it available to others. It has also added to my stock of ‘knowledge’ and has certainly encouraged me to pursue further the idea of the significance of people having their own ‘story’ rather than their abuser’s ‘story’. I can’t tell you how struck I was that once you had a ‘story’ that was truer to your own experience of the events in your life, you filled in yourself that ‘base’ that you had described to me earlier as lacking. To some extent, I see you as having made yourself up and having done so, were then able to realize many of those abilities that were there for everyone to see, but invisible and unavailable to you. Once you saw yourself through your own eyes, you started to see yourself as others see you. It was very pleasing for me to have witnessed you taking up a more comfortable relationship with yourself and to see you realizing many of your capabilities. As time goes by, I would imagine that there will be more of this. If you have the wish to keep in touch with these developments, I would be glad to hear from you.
Best wishes for a future of your own design.
Yours sincerely, David

A Re-authoring Therapy: Premises and Practices

This therapy is premised on an idea that lives and relationships of persons are shaped by the very knowledges and stories that persons use to give meaning to their experiences, and certain practices of self or of relationship that are associated with these knowledges and stories. A re-authoring therapy intends to assist persons to resolve problems by: (1) enabling them to separate their lives and relationships from knowledges/stories that are impoverishing; (2) assisting them to challenge practices of self and relationship that are subjugating; and (3) encouraging persons to re-author their lives according to alternative knowledges/stories and practices of self and relationship that have preferred outcomes.

Externalising the problem’ as one of living according to her father’s story of her, Rose and I soon came to realize that a great deal of her lived experience could not be accommodated by the ‘dominant’ story. Many events in her life, seen through her eyes or the eyes of others, just wouldn’t fit and thus Rose had been unable to acknowledge or register them. The translation of experience into meaning was ‘pre-figured‘ by the extant narrative with certain events ascribed as meaningful and others unregistered as meaningless. The performance of her life according to the ‘dominant’ story led her to self-reproach and self-blame in relation to herself as a person and to fear and self-doubt in relation to the enactment of her own capabilities. An ‘alternative’ story became very plausible as ‘unique outcomes’ were identified and new meanings performed around them and the ‘dominant’ story began to be revisioned." Rose recruited her own audiences for purposes of authentication, as did the ‘consulting to others’ meeting.


‘Take charge of your life’, ‘Be the person you’ve always wanted to be’, ‘Declare your independence’. The slogans of popular psychology books can be seen to grant the potential to mould oneself into the person one desires to be, in spite of what one imagines others think.‘ Is re-authoring therapy another version of this culture of self-reconstruction? Some consideration of this question is important in placing this clinical practice in a broader social realm.

The first obvious difference between re-authoring therapy and popular psychology concerns their respective media. Though reauthoring therapy draws on the power of textual documents, it is carried out under the gaze of the therapist as a helping service, whereas popular psychology appears to be largely a consumer product that is taken home and performed in the private act of reading. This is a difference between a dialogical process, in which oneself is reflected in the eyes of the other, and a monological process, in which the only audience for oneself is oneself." This distinction is a little blurred: the reader of popular psychology texts does have some relationship with the author, albeit an abstracted one. None the less, the author of a self-help manual is unlikely to respond to the ways in which the book’s advice is taken up by a particular reader. The presence of a person who witnesses one’s own responses is what seems here to distinguish psychotherapy from the self-analysis of reading popular psychology. The significance of this difference rests on the necessity of having one’s change recognized by a legitimate audience. In popular psychology, it is enough to introduce the book’s themes into one’s own private narrative, whereas re-authoring therapy partly involves setting up an audience in which forms of change can be authenticated.

For example, in David Epston’s letter to Rose he writes: ‘it must have been satisfying for them [Rose’s family] to side with your story and perhaps because of this, you have obviously been able to see yourself through others’ eyes. The result of that is for you to appreciate yourself more and to develop a more comfortable relationship with yourself.’ Here a family is organized as a mirror in which to compel the client to accept a more powerful self-narrative. This dimension of practice in re-authoring therapy raises particular questions for an understanding of what is involved in practices of self-transformation. To what degree does re-authoring therapy diverge from recent developments in psychoanalysis which place emphasis on the reconstruction of self-narratives?

Over the past two decades, American psychoanalysts have been introducing the phenomenon of narrative into their understanding of the therapeutic process. Roy Schafer and Donald Spence are two psychoanalysts in the forefront of this development. Schafer (1978) has examined how psychoanalysis is constituted in narrative form - as comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. According to Schafer, narrative form provides a vehicle for fundamental dimensions of human nature, such as the malleability of character, the compatibility of individual and society, and potential for happiness in life. What the introduction of narrative does for psychoanalysis in Schafer’s theory is to make those assumptions appear as matters of choice rather than essential components of theory. Differently narrativized versions of psychoanalysis may suit different contexts: for example, comic psychoanalysis suits a social work situation, whereas ironic psychoanalysis is more appropriate for long-term analysis. For Schafer, anyone who employs psychoanalysis chooses more than a picture of reality - they also implicate themselves in an ethical vision.

As a theorist Spence (1982) is less concerned that Schafer with the formal narrative structures involved in the therapeutic process. His emphasis is on the skills of the analyst in finding the appropriate structures in language for expressing the unconscious anxieties of the analysand. Spence names this quality ‘narrative truth’. Narrative truth is not a literal representation of the past, but rather it is a picture that by virtue of its ‘aesthetic finality’ gathers unrecognized experiences into a manageable whole. Spence presents a truth that is measured by its therapeutic effect, rather than its accuracy. This introduction of narrative brings to the fore the creative skills of the analyst in making up a good story.

The narrative psychoanalysis represented in the world of Schafer and Spence concerns itself with a refusal of the classical paradigm of historical truth within psychoanalysis. Rather than a specific set of truths revealed in analysis, it is the particular ‘form’ in which that truth emerges which is seen to contain the healing potential. It is this form which most sharply distinguishes narrative psychoanalysis from ‘re-authoring therapy’. The factors at play in the psychoanalytic setting are limited to the clinic. This limitation is at one with the general framework of psychological healing which is to see the problem mainly ‘in the head’ of the client: if you look at the problem differently, it will be alleviated. Though this interpretation does not do justice to the sophistication of the narrative psychoanalytic approach, it does form a major difference between it and ‘re-authoring therapy’. The emphasis in Spence on the use of psychoanalysis in finding a ‘home’ for experience in language looks at language outside of its everyday dialogical setting - it doesn’t seem to matter if no one else but the analysand and the analyst understand the problem.

One can argue that the approaches of both narrative psychoanalysis and popular psychology are fundamentally limited to this narrow context. If one looks at agency as a resource that is distributed by others - being granted the right to speak - then what others think of oneself must be taken into account; it is not sufficient simply to change one’s own picture of oneself privately; one must in addition have a convincing picture to show others.‘

It is this dialogical principle which also conditions the nature of re-authoring therapy. To a certain degree, the ideology of such a therapy stresses the freedom of the individual to construct his or her own life. Such therapy states as one of its ideological principles that it is giving freedom to the individual to construct his or her own life story." With all freedoms there is necessarily some exclusion that makes them possible: a negative makes a positive. This limitation can be found in the dialogical context. One can ask: why is it that their new story is credited by their conversational group? What do others have to gain from this accreditation? These are questions which seem to rest an inch from the nose of most accounts of therapy yet, because of that, pass largely unnoticed. The criteria by which an audience will accept a client’s claim to have changed through therapy is a form of what Gergen (1989) calls ‘the conditions of warrant’. Change in this sense is a licence that must be purchased from an audience in forms of currency that are seen as legitimate. Personal change is a restricted economy. It is one of the sparks of genius particularly to re-authoring therapy that it recognizes the power of the text to authenticate forms of personal change.‘

This development creates a space in which other forms of family therapy might follow. What is primary is a sensitivity to what it means for a person to ‘change’ in the group context. In certain Australian families, for instance, the experience of being overseas is seen to provide a legitimate demonstration of the capacities of its members (White and Epston, 1990). Travel here operates as a rite of passage that is customized by families according to their social location. At its extreme, a child is not acknowledged to be capable of an independent life until he or she has been able to return home with stories of trials in foreign settings. Such stories usually make a point that relates to the conversation between members of that family about human nature. For instance, one conversation might concern the question of whether deep down people are the same or different. A child who returns home with evidence about this in his or her experience of exotic peoples can be seen to contribute to the conversation that maintains the family The child participates in what Bruner (1987) describes as the ‘meshing’ that incorporates different points of view within the kind of conversation that brings families to the same table." Here it is possible to examine change within the dialogical context provided by the family: change is acknowledged when it contributes to the moral picture of the family. The implication of this for family therapy is to extend the kind of sensitivity to the dialogical setting evident in re-authoring therapy to the importance of understanding the narrative ecology that already exists within the family - it is to use the family not only as audience, but also as editors and script-writers.

Re-authoring therapy exists as a licence to move outside the abstract relations which typify established therapeutic interventions. To this extent, it is not just telling a story, it is also listening to the audience.


The introductory discussion and Rose’s narrative are by David Epston and Michael White; the commentary (pp. 109-12) by Kevin Murray.

1. This is excerpted from M. White (1989/90).

2. Victor Turner wrote that these expressions are ‘the crystallized secretions of once living experience’ (1982: 17).

3. By arguing for the proposal about the extent to which stories determine the meaning attributed to experience, we are not suggesting that the context of our lives is single-storied. Rather, we believe that the context of our lives is multi-storied. There is a range of alternative stories for the interpretation of experience in which we and others may situate our lives. Also, despite this assertion about the storydetermined nature of meaning, it turns out (as discussed later) that all such stories are, in fact, indeterminate.

4. When discussing the performance aspects of ritual process, Turner states: ‘The term -performance" is, of course derived from Old English parfournu, literally, "to furnish completely or thoroughly". To perform is thus to bring something about, to consummate something, or to "carry out" a play, order, or project. But in the carrying out, I hold, something new may be generated. The performance transforms itself’ (1980: 160).

5. Turner (1980), when discussing the ritual process, relates indeterminacy to the subjunctive mood of verb: ‘Indeterminacy is, so to speak, in the subjunctive mood, since it is that which is not yet settled, concluded, or known. It is all that may be, might be, could be, perhaps even should be. . . . Sally Falk Moore goes so far as

to suggest that "the underlying quality of social life should be considered to be one of theoretical absolute indeterminacy." ‘ The relation of indeterminacy to the subjunctive mood is also discussed by J. Bruner (1986).

6. For further discussion of those aspects of the structure of stories that encourage the reader to enter the story, to take it over and make it their own, see J. Bruner (1986).

7. This phrase is taken from Shuman, 1986.

8. For another case study that has parallels to the following, see Epston (1989b) with a 41/2-year follow-up ‘consultation’ (Epston, 1989a).

9. ‘Externalizing is an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. In this process, the problem becomes a separate entity and thus external to the person or relationship that was ascribed as the problem. Those problems that are considered to be inherent, as well as those relatively fixed qualities that are attributed to persons and to relationships, are rendered less fixed and less restricting. . . . The externalizing of the problem enables persons to separate from the dominant stories that have been shaping their lives and relationships. In so doing, persons are able to identify previously neglected but vital aspects of lived experiences - aspects that could not have been predicted from a reading of the dominant story. Thus, following Goffman (1961), I have referred to these aspects of experience as ‘unique outcomes’ (White, 1989a,b). . . . As unique outcomes are identified, persons can be encouraged to engage in performances of meaning in relation to these. Success with this requires that the unique outcome be plotted into an alternative story about the person’s life.’ (White and Epston, 1990: 38-41)

10. Hayden White (1973) makes a historiographical case that histories are ‘prefigured’ by their narratives. E. Bruner makes a similar point on doing ethnography: ‘In my view, we began with a narrative that already contains a beginning and an ending, which frame and hence enable us to interpret the present. It is not that we initially have a body of data, the facts, and we then must construct a story or theory to account for them. Instead . . . the narrative structures we construct are not secondary narratives about data but primary narratives that establish what is to count as data. New narratives yield new vocabulary, syntax, and meaning in our ethnographic accounts; they define what constitute the data of those accounts’ (1986b: 143).

11. Patraka defines revisioning from a feminist perspective: ‘Rich defines "ReVision" as "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, entering an old text from a new critical direction" until women can "understand the assumptions in which we are drenched- in order to know ourselves (1979: 35). To give speech to what has been requires describing, naming and reinterpreting past reality. To change what is calls for an analysis of the sources of that reality and the reasons for its persistence’ (1983: 1).

12. For a more detailed discussion of the values of popular psychology texts, see Murray (1986).

13. This difference is articulated at length in the discourse of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981).

14. The work of Erving Goffman (1968) in mental institutions can be used as a demonstration of the role of the audience in controlling the kind of agency one has in a situation.

15. The most significant principle that seems to inform the practice of ‘reauthoring therapy’ is self-fashioning. This is a concept initially popular in the dramaturgists of the Renaissance and now re-discovered by readers of Foucault’s histories of sexuality. Its most extreme form is found in the performances of artists, who shape their lives into a work of art. Rather than see a life, as under Freud, as being a quest for a certain knowledge about oneself, which when found transforms one’s existence, a life is looked at as a material to be fashioned according to whatever aesthetic or ethical principles seem fit. One of the criticisms of this principle is that it assumes that our condition of being is one of complete freedom. As such it ignores our debt to structures of meaning such as myths and language. 16. White and Epston (1990) contains reports of the seriousness with which clients took the therapist’s letters - carrying them around and showing them off to others.

17. This claim is based on thus far unpublished research on travel talk (K. Murray, ‘Life as fiction: the making sense of personal change’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne).

18. Jerome Bruner’s (1987) account of the conversational dynamics of the ‘Goodhertz’ family provides a subtle example of how a family might develop a discursive ecology which both individuates and binds family members.


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K. Murray with D. Epston and M. White, 'A proposal for re-authoring therapy' In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen  (ed.) Therapy as Social Construction London: Sage, 1992

K. Murray with D. Epston and M. White, 'A proposal for re-authoring therapy' In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen  (ed.) Therapy as Social Construction London: Sage, 1992

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