Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

March 29, 2010: Michael White died on April 5, 2008. We are now approaching the 2 year anniversary of his death. How can this be? I was just reviewing and archiving some of our old posts so we can and making room for the new. However, I left in our 2008-09 tributes to Michael. And I am starting this post for any new reflections.

Many of us relied on Michael for his leadership and ongoing inspiration. I never imagined a world without him. Sometimes the loss of his physical presence in the world still seems surreal. Maybe Michael is still coming back to Vermont or Maine or Boston in 2011 to give another workshop? Mostly, the shock has worn off and the reality has set in. I/we will also carry Michael with us “saying hullo again” in many ways. I/we will consult with him in our minds and hearts. Yet, I/we also must “go on” without him.

When I started this study group, I wanted most of all to find a way to connect with others inspired by narrative practice – both to grieve together, and to study/carry forth a commitment together. We started by reviewing the tributes to Michael and many of his earlier writings. I would hear his voice encouraging rigorous practice, and his belief in “the copying that originates.”

I also remembered Michael’s frustration with how his voice became centered. He did not want hegemony or to be our hero. I have thought often about how I/we – and the U.S. culture of hero-worship – contributed to putting him on this pedestal. It’s complicated, isn’t it?

I do not believe there will ever be anyone who could possible fill Michael’s shoes. Now, I am heartened by the many possibilities – new growths, centers, ideas, etc. – people are co-creating throughout the world. This study group is one example. I keep thinking about that bundle of sticks. I think Michael would get pleasure out of seeing us coming together, supporting each other to step forward with creative expression of deeply held beliefs/values AND with responsibility.

I’m starting this space for anyone else who might want to add reflections/tributes to Michael. As we approach the 2nd anniversary of his death, where are you? What are you thinking? How does Michael come into your life these days?

And if you have time, please do review the tributes listed in this section – by people who knew Michael and those who did not. We all have contributions to make.


Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

March 29, 2010: I am very aware that we are entering the week of the 2 year anniversary of Michael’s death. Are others aware of this too? Would you join me in creating a space to recollect and envision together? Remember those lovely questions Michael would often ask about how a given experience changed someone/transported him/her to a different place? I wonder if you we could reflect here about our own “fourth category of response” in relation to Michael: stories of how his ideas and practices continue to transport us to different places.

Michael was so good at evoking the metaphor “Saying Hullo again.” While no longer here in the flesh, his ideas are being significantly carried on in various work contexts. Just this study group is evidence of this.

Sarah, you mentioned that you are often in conversation with Michael – consulting with him, asking for guidance. Me too! And I actually sometimes find myself disagreeing with Michael more than I allowed myself when he was here. Maybe “disagreeing” isn’t really the right word: extending the conversation with some of my own thoughts, rather than simply wanting to hear from him.

I love that phrase “it’s the copying that originates.” I think it is ironic that many of us were finally beginning to come into our own – ready to originate- when Michael died. I hope that what we are creating does justice to the foundation that he gave us. Time will tell.

Watching Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius reflections for me about Michael’s genius reminded me of Michael. He really did not want to be put on a pedestal, and yet he knew he was good at what he did, fully believed in his ideas/creative process, and believed in hard work.

When I went to a Michael White workshop, I often could not put into words what I had experienced. Something felt like touching the Divine. I think it was at times easy to confuse this experience of the Divine as though it was “Michael The Divine” rather than “a glimpse of God.” I wish we were better at making that distinction.

My sense is that narrative practice is becoming less “Michael-focused.” I’m glad about this. Sometimes I feel sorrow for my/our contributions to making him into a kind of “rock-star.” I think the USA is particularly bad at creating contexts for this kind of hero worship toward someone visited with genius (and charisma) like Michael.

Okay here is one story of Michael’s ideas have transported me. Narrative practice profoundly contributes toward living with joy, an embodied life within a fabric of support. Rather than focusing on the effect of personal agency, circle of support and resonance on the people who consult with me, I want to focus here on the ripple effects on my own life.

I am so grateful for the people that I have met through Michael and narrative ideas. The bonds run deep (and thick)…These connections continue to ripple – even cascade – into my life. I will list here just a few of many…(knowing I leave out LOTS).

Last week, I stayed with Sarah Marx and her family in Tuscon. If I was still in Maryland (I flew home last night) I would try to meet up with Jennifir who coincidentally is in Silver Spring, the next town over from where I grew up. Next month, I will be sharing a hotel room with Sarah Hughes in Vancouver (anyone else going to Therapeutic Conversations 9?). I look forward to later in April when I will visit Andre in Montreal. Martha Lopez is helping my niece, Sonya, connect to people in Colombia – and we might even visit Colombia together. Tomorrow morning, I am scheduled to Skype with Gaye in Sydney to plan for our upcoming Vermont narrative gathering in June. And tonight I will talk with Chris Behan, my dear dear friend, simply to catch up, and on a very personal level about our lives. Etc. I don’t know anyone who has developed such a sense of sustained community – and friendship- through their work.

Thank you Michael for your contribution to widening my circle of support. It’s not just that your presence reminds me to cherish these connections. I deeply appreciate how you taught me to think of identity – including my own – as being a social achievement. Every one of these connections – and more – enriches my life.. I have always believed in surrounding oneself with “good people.” Yet Michael gave me/us words to describe the process of actively shaping membership to my own “club of life.” At a time when isolation is an occupational hazard, I thank narrative practice for giving me the inspiration and tools for situating my work (and life) in a web of connection.

I know Barbara Myerhoff also had lots to say about membership to the club of life.. Do you think Michael and Barbara are now having amazing conversations?


 April 2, 2010

Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

During the past week, I corresponded with Maggie, as we approached the 2nd anniversary of Michael’s death. Maggie had just returned to Adelaide after an incredible teaching trip to Denmark and Lapland. She sent me a reflection that I found so moving, I asked Maggie for permission to share it with you.

Here is what Maggie wrote:

Maggie Carey

Maggie Carey

And I have been in Denmark with dear friends and have been in the same teaching situation as two years ago and that brought back many of the feelings of then and very much the presence of dear Michael. And there was also a sort of peacefulness, as the sense of his work is so strong in Denmark. There are photos of him on notice boards in the teacher’s room and the training room at Dispuk where I was, and in the teacher’s room this photo of Michael was joined by a shot of the newest baby to be born to one of the staff – little Magrethe who is the daughter of Thilde, a stunning young practitioner in these ways of working and thinker and developer of ideas. And as the sun streamed in on these photos one afternoon I could imagine Michael and Magrethe having a conversation about life or just enjoying each other’s presence there in the warmth of that place. It meant a lot to me that there is time for this in his life now, and that the ideas are going on and that the influence of them continues to contribute to many people’s lives.

When I initially asked for permission to post this, Maggie wrote to Thilde in Denmark just check with her about having a reference to her daughter Magrethe posted here. Thilde wrote back to say that she is delighted to have Magrethe’s name linked with Michael’s especially since Magrethe’s Dad is also a Michael.

Thilde wrote:

Thanks for asking about putting Margrethe out on the web – but we would only be delighted (and proud) to have her name out there together with Michaels. It was very moving to read about your experience around their photos, the thoughts of them talking together and your being at DISPUK at this moment of year. I would have loved for Margrethe to meet Michael and get a sense of his lovely ideas. I hope to pass some on to her through my way of practicing parenthood with my Michael. These days I often think of his thoughts about ‘adultism’ and how many skills of living and knowledges of life children have if we just attend to them.

I feel very moved by this exchange. Thank you, Thilde, Margrethe, Maggie…and Michael(s)! Peggy

Sarah Hughes: April 8, 2010

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes

Thanks Peggy for posting these lovely conversations and images. These words stuck with me all day yesterday as I thought about Michael in a different light. Not just with his brilliant ideas but as Maggie said with him now having time just to be. I love thinking about him having great conversations with Myerhoff and Foucault (and there was a list of great thinkers he wanted to meet but they died before he had a chance – he used to tell a funny story about this) but I also love that Maggie and Thilde’s words brought back the memory that Michael had a photo of my son Bailey on the bulletin board in his office. Bailey is about 18 months old and is sitting in the pilot’s seat of a plane with the big headseat on. Michael is holding him in place and Bailey has a HUGE smile on his face. We were about to fly ( with Michael as pilot not Bailey!) over to Kangaroo Island. What a wonderful trip and I loved that Michael had thought the photo so special.
Thanks Peggy and Maggie and Thilde.


André Grégoire

Grégoire: April 9, 2010

Hi Peggy, Sarah, (and Maggie, Thilde, Margrethe and Bailey through your postings…)

A short note to thank you about these “pictures” of Michael in this special week… When I think about Michael in the recent months, it’s a double experience. Sometimes thinking about his ideas or having a memory of a moment when he presented ideas, concepts, or showing the practice of these. And at other moments, what comes in my mind are some memories that don’t have anything to do with narrative therapy, but more with personal qualities he carried or the way he was as a human being. This week, at a few times, I thought about his “humanity” and the special way he had to be present and “caring” in his personal contacts… being present and making you feel important by the way he was present, a bit at distance which carried a sense of respect, but a “warm distance” if I can say so… And reading the memories you put in your text reactivates that experience. And I can well imagine this conversation happening between Michael and Margrethe. Thanks for sharing…

André Grégoire

James McCracken: August 18, 2010.

JamesPhoto-150x150 2

James McCracken

In 2008, during the time of Michael White’s passing, I was enrolled in a course at social work school called “Practice with Individuals and Families” where we were studying the plethora of theories and orientations we, as NYU-trained social workers, were being cultured into. I feel quite fortunate that my professor at the time had seen Michael during a presentation in years prior, where she saw he and Minuchin square off over the “Maps” of practice… apparently Salvador Minuchin was present during some family therapy conference in NYC where Michael was explaining his ideas on narrative practice. My professor said she found his presentation somewhat confusing (herself being oriented to systems theories and ego-), but fascinating because of its uniqueness… and apparently Minuchin found it ridiculous. She describes this scene where Minuchin raised his hand at the end of the presentation, Michael called on him, and Minuchin proceeded to say that what Michael had described was “just good therapy… but that’s it… these ‘Maps’ are not practical.” The room apparently grew silent, and Michael was reported to have smiled kindly at Minuchin and the crowd, and then responded to the effect of “Thank you for the feedback… you’re correct it’s not practical, but it is good, and I hope more people can do it if they can read these ‘Maps’.” Remembering my professors smile when she told the story, and where my imagination goes when I remember this brings me a fuzzy feeling. This was my introduction to Narrative Therapy.

After reading a chapter in a “Theories for Social Work Practice” text, I was much more curious about this way of practicing, but after the story my professor told, I was quite more curious about Michael White. I had seen Minuchin speak before, and knowing how brash he can come across (he was pretty hardcore the time I saw him address a crowd… it must be a NYC thing), picturing Michael’s candid response in the face of a “therapy great” gave me a sense that he truly believed in what he had conceptualized despite how “off the radar” to other therapy thinkers these ideas were. After all I’ve read in tribute to him, and some of the stories I’ve heard (from the more experienced professionals I learned with in the learning circle I was in prior), I gather that he was a transformational figure to his clients, his friends/family, to his colleagues and trainees/students, and a considerable chunk of the fields that help/heal (Columbia University is actually doing a Masters in Narrative Medicine now!)… and while I understand he didn’t want to be idolized or put on a pedestal, my internalization of his actions is something I can hope to encapsulate in some of my own actions. I don’t believe this is a “bad” or “good” thing… this object of him in my mind is something I find comforting and reassuring when assessing what I’m doing.

What strikes me about Michael’s rememberances the most, is this sense of wonder and ongoing curiosity about him. I would assume that other narrative thinkers also possess this, but Michael’s anecdotes in “Maps” and others’ anecdotes about him paint this picture of him as always “not knowing” but also always having confidence and security. His ability to formulate questions that hit just off the expected target, but land at some place that touches off a chain of deep and hope-filled conversations grabs my attention when I read. And his ability to integrate seemingly dissimilar theories and information, and then being able to transmit his ideas to others is something that I am drawn to. Do I wish to put him on a pedestal? Out of respect for his wishes (now knowing them), and my own feelings about putting people on pedestals, no. Do I wish to strive to enact these qualities about him that I am drawn to in my interpretation of these anecdotes, yes!

Death to me is a strange topic… although I deal with it all the time… as I’m sure it is for most of us… intellectually we know it’s coming sometime, but emotionally we never know what to expect. Death of anyone I’ve known or admired has saddened me terribly, but I think a part of my grieving process is acknowledging this thankfulness I feel for having shared some space in my life with that person, and how less enriched I would be if I hadn’t had that experience of them. I think it would have been neat to have seen him in person and heard him speak, but I feel quite fortunate to have been exposed to his ideas in the first place (many of my colleagues and peers have no clue what I’m talking about when I mention “Narrative Practice”… they think I’m talking about “journaling therapy”), and SO fortunate that he wrote his ideas down and was published… now I can access his anecdotes and ideas with the hope that through remembering and understanding what he was able to do that I may be able to help others with equal respect and finesse. James

Peggy: August 18, 2010

Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

Hi James,

Let me first say what a pleasure it is to have you join us. You bring fresh eyes and clear voice to this study group. I love the way you have jumped right in, and in the process, extend yourself to others, and invite shared exploration. Is this a talent with a history? Somehow I Michael would also see and appreciate this about you.

I am looking forward to learning more with and from you.

Thanks too for taking the time to really ingest and reflect on these tributes to Michael, which brought forth your own recollections. I wish you could have met Michael – I know you would have enjoyed each others’ company. I suspect you might have recognized in each other a deep respect, and sense of wonder and curiosity in approaching the world. Michael had so many friends, and there was always room for one more: every one of us felt special, and even loved. I’m glad you “get” that Michael hugely touched our lives, not only as a therapy innovator but as a human being. I often think back to Alan Jenkin’s remembrance:

Michael’s death was untimely. However, he was never one to stop exploring and developing in all aspects of his life. He was reaching towards exciting new places in his thinking and being. I believe that his death would have been untimely whenever it transpired.Michael’s work from a life imbued with generosity, humanity and a keen intellect with a subtle but wicked sense of humour, will continue to nourish, sustain and generate new possibilities.

James, I was keen to read the story told by your NYC professor. Do you know when she witnessed this exchange between Michael and Sal Manuchin? I was very fortunate to witness two other public chapters between Michael and Minuchin. (Michael always called him “Minuchin” or “Dr. Minuchin” – he just couldn’t quite say “Sal”).

In March 2003 , they shared a day of presenting together at the Family Therapy Networker conference in Washington DC. I remember the date well because it was when the USA invaded Iraq, and the Iraq war began. war. It was a remarkable day – I wonder if there is a video or audio recording? They took turns – a 1/2 day each with one presenting his work, then the other responding, with a brief time for questions from the (HUGE) audience. I think it was listed as the most popular workshop that year.

And then in December, 2005, Michael and Minuchin co-presented a public conversation at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Anaheim, California. Michael knew he would be asked again to speak about aspects of his work beyond the maps, and he gave his response a lot of forethought. That one is recorded and I have a copy. You can see the very beginning here:

Even in these few minutes, I am reminded of the graciousness you describe through your professor’s eyes…It is really worth hearing. So much to say and too little time… Would you remind me to get that recording in the media library? I really would love to share it.

I know that a tenderness evolved between Michael & Minuchin. Did this begin back at this NYC presentation when Minuchin was in Michael’s audience? I could see in Minuchin’s responses how much he admired Michael. And Michael greatly admired him. I recently heard about a conversation where Minuchin was very moved in remembrances about Michael. I also know David Epston has recently been in touch with Sal Minuchin to review his introduction to the soon-to-be published (Norton) manuscript of Michael’s unfinished papers. I think he must be 89 by now (he was 84 at The Evolution of Psychotherapy). No one could have predicted who would still be living in 2010.

I too have struggled with putting mentors on the pedestal – the ease with which idealization can happen. And how Michael hated that part of being in the limelight.

Your last paragraph really made sense to me – grief is a strange blend of sadness for the loss and gratefulness for the gifts. It’s been 2 1/2 years, and my eyes still well up when I re-remember Michael is no longer here.

Thanks again, James, for your words.


Sarah: August 18, 2010

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes

Wow, thank you James and Peggy – for your words and that video clip. I had not seen that before and just hearing his voice – I wasn’t even hearing his words so much (other than his awkwardness at saying “Sal”) But the sound of his voice was just like home for me. It made me think of that metaphor that he like around words like a soothing foot bath. I feel soothed and reconnected. For me, I know I was really blessed to spend a lot of time with Michael and I had not idea at the time how he was transforming my life and my thinking. I am thankful for knowing him and for just spending the last few minutes hearing him.

I did a teaching at my agency yesterday on externalizing. I told many Michael stories – the one with the boy in the tiger suit and the one with the bear named Pilot. I love those stories. I bet others have seen those videos or heard those stories too. When I was watching this video right now I was loving wondering how Minuchin might react to watching Michael scream and knock over a chair as he pretended to be afraid of a tiny boy in a tiger suit.

Ok I am going to watch again!

James: August 18, 2010

James McCracken

James McCracken


Thank you for sharing that video clip with us… I’ve searched high and low for Michael White footage, and rarely have I found it. His presence really is something (I do mean “is”). Please do post most of that footage sometime… I would so appreciate viewing this further.

Something else that comes to me about narrative practitioners, that I think Michael enacted so well in this video clip… it’s something that I find comforting… is how there is such intentional use of language that is still quite… soft (atleast that’s how it feels to me). It’s not overly intellectual… there’s always talk about being drawn to something instead of placing personal values all over thing, and there are plays on words or phrases that are so comical, yet so true (i.e. “I grew up in the Anti-Vietnam era”). It’s the same thing that Patch Adams and the crew at School for Designing a Society are great at enacting… there’s this “play” to communication that is so deep and meaningful, but avoids clinical harshness (I was once told by Susan Parenti on a phone conversation that “dysfunction” and “disorder” could be equally substituted by the words “differentfunction” and “differentorder” and do so without dashing the spirits of someone as subject where these words are adjectives or adverbs… Just think of the message that could be conveyed if a professional were to explain ADD to a parent as an Attention Differentorder or of a differentfunctional family system were explained to someone). So, something else my attention is “drawn” to about narrative practice.

Thank you for the welcoming note, Peggy and Sarah… I’m really glad to be a part of this. I’m trying to hammer out a schedule that allows me to read at a reasonable pace, and discuss on the internet a couple of times a week at least. It’s nice to be back in these conversations more regularly.

Good night!