(reprinted from Inside Stories)

Here’s a Vicki Dickerson conducted in 1999 with Dr. Kaethe Weingarten about her work as a postmodern narrative family therapist. Dr. Weingarten is a clinical psychologist, peace psychologist, family therapist, as well as an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). She has been up to a lot since our interview, and her most recent work focuses on “reasonable hope, chronic illness and sorrow.” For a full bio, see after the interview.

What is narrative therapy and how is it distinct from other models of psychotherapy? 

I don’t think anybody has got a lock on narrative; most therapies rely on narrative to some extent, and most cultures rely on storytelling to effect healing or changes in people’s lives. Postmodern narrative family therapy, which is the kind of therapy that I do, is distinguished from other forms of family therapy practiced within a modernist frame.

Family therapy practiced from a modernist perspective takes an empirical approach to problems of individuals and families. There’s now a body of literature that’s been produced over the last 50 years that a competent modernist family therapist would study and feel that there would be no problem [a family was] likely to present that [she] wouldn’t have read about or seen before. She would assume that it was her responsibility to know something about the causes of a problem and the solutions to that problem; and [further she] would consider it essential to be able to diagnose the problem. The therapist sees herself as an expert, and does what experts do.

In contradistinction, a postmodern family therapist doesn’t have an idea that the problem is an entity that the family brings into the room. Rather, she believes that through dialogue, a description of a problem emerges. That description is considered to be highly fluid, evolving, changing, changeable. Diagnosis isn’t the point; the point is helping people participate in the conversation, so that a co-constructed definition of the problem will evolve through the conversation. The expertise that a postmodern family therapist is coming into the room with is expertise in helping people participate in a conversation, and keeping the conversation going.

Tell me more about the “narrative” in “postmodern narrative family therapy.” 

Postmodern narrative family therapy was developed by Michael White and David Epston in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. People who practice a postmodern narrative family therapy have one basic orienting belief, and that is that everybody’s life is a story, or is storied, and what gets people into trouble is when there is a dominant story that is relatively inflexible for current circumstances, and that relief comes from developing alternative stories. Often the alternative stories have elements in them [that] are marginalized or subjugated, and it requires deconstruction of the dominant narrative in order to free up enough collective space in a family for an alternative story to develop.There is a view that stories are always a contrivance, that they make meaning out of essentially random events. Is there such a thing as a “natural” narrative that emerges in postmodern narrative family therapy, as opposed to a constructed narrative?

My position would be that all narratives are co-constructed through the process of conversation. If a different group of people were present, a different narrative would emerge. At the same time, I do think that there are constraints on how varied the narrative can be. So I’d probably take a more moderate position on that.  

Are you as the therapist the co-constructor of these narratives?  

Absolutely. There’s a wonderful phrase, “every question is fateful.” You can’t ask a question without it having profound effects. As a therapist, primarily what I do is listen and ask questions, and I would say that my listening is as fateful as my questioning. 

What are you listening for in therapy? 

I’m listening for content. I’m listening for the process of what’s being communicated, by whom, through what verbal and non-verbal means, at what pacing, with what rhythm. I’m listening for inconsistencies across content and process. I’m listening carefully when language stops or is difficult to access. There are times when people have a lot of difficulty finding language for their experience. I’m particularly interested in those moments, because [often they are] very fruitful places for newness to emerge. I’m listening for silences, I’m listening for absences, for what’s not being said. I’m listening for silence as punctuation, not as a gap, but as a full, meaningful, shaped moment in a conversation. 

You’ve written a lot about mothers. What are some dominant cultural narratives about mothers and their children? 

That’s been the subject of my research for the last decade, so I could certainly talk about that for a couple of days. I think the primary cultural narrative about mothers is the splitting of mothers into good and bad, and mothering practices into good and bad. I think that’s virtually universal, and it’s invariably pernicious. Mothers tend to internalize that judgmental view, and begin to code their own behavior [and] feelings as good or bad, as opposed to on a very broad spectrum—or, more importantly, as context-dependent. Another dominant discourse is around maternal selflessness, which affects a narrow band worldwide of mothers, but with very pernicious affects. The idea that a mother needs to encourage the development of the child’s self, and that when the needs of the child and the needs of the mother conflict, that a good mother is selfless. 

In your book The Mother’s Voice you talked about “radical listening,” and said that listening to mothers would help effect social change. What’s radical about radical listening? 

To be listened to carefully is an incredibly unusual experience; that in and of itself is political, and therefore radical, [in the sense of] “from the root.” In the book, I’m really talking about children listening carefully to their mothers—and not because mothers were imposing on them, which is something that I have tremendous concerns about. But assuming that the context were appropriate and it would not be burdensome for a child, I think that it’s radical because it promotes a mutuality that’s generally not experienced by people. And so if in the crucible of the family, young people are exposed to relationships of mutuality, what could be more radical for society than having its young people emerge into public life capable of genuine mutuality? 

About Kaethe Weingarten. Kaethe Weingarten, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, peace psychologist and family therapist who is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). She is founder and director of The Witnessing Project, a nonprofit organization that consults to individuals, families, and communities locally, nationally, and internationally to transform passive witnessing of violence and violation into effective action. Dr. Weingarten was a faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge from 1982 until it closed in 2009 and it is there that she founded and directed the Program in Families, Trauma and Resilience. Dr. Weingarten has worked in Kosovo and South Africa for the last several years, addressing issues of community-wide and continuous trauma. In 2002 she was given the award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Theory and Practice by the American Family Therapy Academy.  She has over 90 publications, including six books, and her most recent book, Common Shock — Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal, won the 2004 Nautilus Award for Social Change. In 2009, she was a Fulbright Specialist Scholar to New Zealand. Dr. Weingarten lectures widely nationally and internationally and maintains a private consultation practice of individuals, couples and families. Her current work focuses on reasonable hope, chronic illness and sorrow.