Legacies of Michael White | An extract from David Denborough

An extract from: 

Some reflections on the legacies of Michael White: An Australian perspective

By David Denborough

Legacies associated with a ‘spirit of originating’

From the crucible of those early creative years in Australian family therapy, Michael White then went on to originate such a diversity of ideas and ways of working that it is not possible for me to list these all here, let alone explain them. Let me just mention a few key contributions3:

  • externalizing the problem (White, 1988/9)
  • therapeutic documentation (White & Epston, 1990)
  • the text analogy / re-authoring conversations (White & Epston, 1990; Epston, 1992; White, 1995a)
  • saying hullo again (White, 1988) / re-membering conversations (White, 1997)
  • outsider witness practice as definitional ceremony (White, 1995b; White, 1999)
  • taking a de-centred but influential position as therapist (White, 1997)
  • considerations of the absent but implicit (White, 2000a; 2003)
  • unpacking identity conclusions (White, 2001a)
  • journey metaphors (White, 2002a)
  • deconstructing ‘failure’ conversations (White, 2002b)
  • community gatherings as definitional ceremony (White, 2003)
  • narrative responses to trauma and traumatic memory (White, 2004; 2005)
  • scaffolding conversations (White, 2007)
  • the metaphor of therapeutic ‘maps’ of practice (White, 2007)
  • and many others…

These concepts and practices have travelled the world as Michael became a major international figure in family therapy. As there is now an entire literature explaining each of these concepts and practice methods, I will not seek to describe them here. Michael did a great job of this himself both in the written word and in teaching. Instead, I wish to briefly discuss Michael’s methods of originating. Michael refused to ‘merely import ideas and methods developed elsewhere’. Instead, time and again he came up with sparkling innovations. How did he do so? While perhaps this is an impossible question to answer, I wish to shed at least a little light on Michael’s process of originating.

The final paragraph of Maps of Narrative Practice (2007) offers us a clue. In this paragraph, Michael acknowledges all of the people who sought his assistance over the years:

“I view all the therapeutic practices described in these pages as having evolved from our co-research. In the course of therapeutic consultations, I regularly solicit feedback from people about which avenues of conversation are working for them and which are not, and, at the finale, I initiate a review of what was helpful and what wasn’t helpful in our effort to address the predicaments and concerns of their lives. This feedback and these reviews have been instrumental in shaping my practice and fundamental to the development of the ideas and maps presented in this book. In concluding this book I give heartfelt thanks to all of you for these contributions, which I remain ever-conscious of in my work and my life” (p.292)

In the early days, Michael saw nine families a day, five days a week. A considerable amount of co-research took place in the course of the development of narrative practices.4

A second clue to the process of originating is offered in Michael’s descriptions of his conversational partnerships with David Epston and Cheryl White:

“In the later 1980s, I began to relate more significantly to the narrative metaphor. This was partly due to Cheryl White’s encouragement of me to privilege this metaphor in my work, which in turn was informed by her engagement with feminist writings. This interest in the narrative metaphor was also something that came out of my collaboration with David Epston. These were exciting times. David and I would be constantly phoning each other across the Tasman Sea with things to share with each other about the families we were consulting with” (White, 2001b, p.134)

Michael White and David Epston’s intellectual partnership and friendship was a key factor in the originating of narrative practices. So too were the contributions of Karl Tomm.5 These were conversational partnerships of challenge, debate and the sharing of ideas. Such partnerships create a context for originality.

A third clue can be found in Michael’s writings, in his references to a wide-range of authors. For many years, come January, Michael would retreat into his books. He would look forward to this treasured time of year. Summer was associated with reading and it was through a creative engagement with a diversity of authors that Michael would find a new language to describe innovative therapeutic practice. He did not read to confirm ideas, instead to further stretch them. Different authors provided inspiration for different practices. In the early years, it was Bateson (1972, 1979) who provided metaphors of redundancy; Goffman (1961) who provided the term ‘unique outcome’; Geertz (1983), Bruner (1986) and other interpretive social scientists who laid the groundwork for the text analogy; Myerhoff (1982, 1986) who provided concepts of re-authoring, re-membering and definitional ceremony; and of course, Foucault (1979, 1980, 1984) who provided a framework by which to understand modern power/knowledge and normalizing judgment and therefore enabled Michael to set a course towards resurrecting subjugated knowledges. More recently, it was the writing of Derrida (1978) who inspired the notion of ‘the absent but implicit’; Vygotsky (1986) who offered scaffolding to consider the significance of concept development; and Deleuze (1993) who was providing new understandings and appreciations of ‘difference’.

After immersing himself in new readings, new authors, Michael would then begin to write. And in the process of writing ideas would take further shape. It was around this time each year, just as the days were getting hottest, that Michael would share his first drafts. There was always a sense of considerable anticipation as he handed these over.

But the writing was not an end in itself. The process of originating would continue as Michael taught the ideas that he described on paper. The practice of teaching was not separate from originating. Michael was also learning when he was teaching. He would regularly describe the process of teaching, sharing and reviewing video-tapes of his therapeutic consultations with others, as both generative of ideas and a form of accountability. One of the key principles of family therapy was to bring the once private domain of therapy out into the light where others could witness, question and critique the actions of the therapist. Michael remained true to this family therapy tradition. He was constantly video-recording his work and sharing this in teaching contexts. There was something about this process that clearly also contributed to originating ideas and practices.

There is one further aspect of originating to which I wish to draw attention. This relates to cross-cultural partnerships. Michael collaborated with Aboriginal colleagues from the mid-1980s and it seems important to acknowledge the contributions that Aboriginal Australian practitioners have made to the development of narrative practice. The most obvious example relates to the development of narrative ‘community gatherings’ which were developed, as Michael describes, due to the vision of Tim Agius from the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, and the wisdom of Barbara Wingard:

“I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Tim Agius and Barbara Wingard to our first explorations of the relevance of narrative practices in working with communities. The foundation of these first explorations was Tim’s unwavering vision of a community-wide gathering that would provide a healing context for Aboriginal families of South Australia that had lost a member through death in jail or prison. The spirit and wisdom that Tim and Barbara then brought to this initiative and so willingly shared with the members of our team sustained us in so many ways … “(White, 2003, p.53)

Narrative community gatherings provide an example of a therapeutic approach developed in partnership between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal team members6.

To my mind, Michael has bequeathed not only a profound body of work, but also a particular spirit of originating: one characterized by rigor, determination, collaboration and partnership. Hopefully, alongside Michael’s ideas, this legacy of an originating spirit will also be taken up by future generations of Australian therapists:

“… one of the aspects associated with this work that is of central importance to us is the spirit of adventure. We aim to preserve this spirit and know that if we accomplish this, our work will continue to evolve in ways that are enriching to our lives and to the lives of persons who seek our help” (Epston & White, 1992, p. 9)

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