Working here, in Hong Kong, has me thinking about Narrative Therapy as it is viewed and practiced in North America. It seems to me that Narrative Therapy is becoming institutionalize, particularly in the U.S.. Perhaps the fate of Just Therapy in the U.S. is even more disturbing. While there are a growing number of Narrative Therapy texts, each seemingly determined to remove all traces of social engagement from Narrative Therapy, I could find only two books about Just Therapy on Amazon, and none in our mulch-million volume university library.
Increasingly, texts speaking to Narrative Therapy appear to be intent on easing Narrative ideas into the comfortable, and more acceptable, category of Cognitive Behavior therapies. This is particularly disturbing to those of us who have utilized Narrative ideas to privilege local experience, especially that experience and expertise that arises from disability and tribal identity. Somehow, while acknowledging the centrality of context and social justice to Narrative ideas, authors simultaneously focus on the individual or family outside social context.
Two of the contested areas I find particularly discomforting are those discounting the influence of tribal knowledge and the centrality of liberatory practices to Michael White’s work. While writers such as Stephen Madigan discount the importance of both to Michael’s work, Michael told me, in several brief conversations over the years, that both had enormous impact on his vision. I did not know Michael well; indeed, many of these conversations took place during breaks at workshops.
I have no doubt Michael resisted joining any program that sought to impose a centralized plan of social change; his work was deeply rooted in showing preference to local knowledge. That, however, does not dilute his insistence on supporting the claims of individuals and groups to the right to liberation from injustice. In fact, on more than one occasion Michael voiced the concern that Narrative Therapy would be absorbed into the mainstream and lose it’s capacity to challenge deeply rooted social ills.
Michael often told stories about his early days working with Australian Aboriginal women and families, and his slow realization that social injustice shaped many of the disabling experiences they reported. Most often, the problems that saturated therapy sessions arose from the racism and economic injustice that were daily experiences in his collaborator’s lives. Michael also mused on the centrality of meetings with Aboriginal elders, and their ideas about the role of external forces, both socio-economic and spiritual, that assured him he was on the right track in his work.
In contrast to Michael’s work stand Cognitive-Behavioral ideas about the centrality of thought processes in the creation of “pathology” and suffering. These ideas place the problem directly in the body of the patient. This is of course congruent with Medical model concepts of normalcy and illness, ideas that consistently acknowledge the centrality of social conditions to the development and life course of illness, while isolating the problem within the body of the patient. This placement of disability and dis-ease in the body of the other opens that persons to further practices of power, including medication, that undermines the person’s claims to knowing, and reduces the likelihood they will develop preferred ways of living that are not regulated by institutional power.
While I do not question the disabling effects of troubling self talk, I strongly believe an over-focus on self-talk to be detrimental to the individuals, families, and communities who seek our aid. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of persons identified as “having” disabilities, and in the lives of Native people. Both groups experience astronomically high rates of poverty, joblessness, and violence, and both groups must contend with a wide array of disabling narratives, policies, and procedures that isolate them, while masking the effects of disabling cultural and political influences on persons not labeled as “disabled”.
I believe one cannot overestimate the degree to which disabled and Native lives are constricted by social narratives, political and economic power, and institutionalized medical practices. Nor should one underestimate the knowledge that disabled persons and their families, and Native persons and communities hold regarding the working and intent of these powers and their practices.