by Joel Glenn Wixson
This article first appeared in Gecko: A Journal of Deconstruction and Narrative Ideas in Therapeutic Practice, 2000, no 2, 50-58.
In 1985 I took a job working as a clinician in the streets of Boston. I was working with people who are often described as homeless. My role was to develop connections with the people I met. Working in the street necessitated a change in my approach to working with the people I had come to think of as clients.
One change was that I could no longer expect people to come to me. Not only did I have to go to them, I also had to find out where they were. I looked in abandoned buildings, vacant lots, abandoned cars, shelters, detoxs, bars, alleyways; anywhere I thought I might find someone looking for help.
Letter writing was a tradition I had been exposed to through my interest in narrative ways of working (White & Epston 1990; Freedman & Combs 1996; Zimmerman & Dickerson 1996) .
As a narrative therapist working in an office, I had been using letter writing as a way to extend conversations with people beyond our fifty-minute sessions. The letters I wrote in more ‘traditional’ contexts became topics for ongoing sessions. These letters conveyed questions I had that I had not been able to ask in the session, or thoughts that had arisen after the client left my office. In most instances they were a part of an ongoing process.
The relationships I developed with people who lived in the street were different from the ones I’d had with people in offices. We didn’t meet regularly. They didn’t have addresses. I would find someone and share some of their life with them, then they would be gone.
It occurred to me that letter writing might be a way to continue these conversations as well, even if they couldn’t continue in person. It occurred to me that I could use letters to share with the recipient some of my ongoing questions. I also thought I might use the letters to document aspects of people’s lives that stood outside of the despair and hopelessness they might be experiencing.
What follows are examples of the sort of letters I wrote. Out of respect, I have changed some of the details to mask the identities of the recipients. There was one ground rule that I followed in the writing of these letters. The rule was that I would always ask the person if it would be okay for me to write to them about conversations we had had. I was concerned presenting people with letters without asking for permission to write down their words might seem intrusive. As it turned out, no-one ever refused, and my suggestions and letters were consistently met with much excitement and enthusiasm.
You will also notice that each of the letters is written in a narrative style. For me, the narrative style of letter writing includes externalising problems, tracing the history of the problem, bringing back to people ways in which talking to them has affected my life, and attending to exceptions to the problem-saturated narrative. Connected to this last idea is the idea of documenting those parts of people’s lives that are consistent with their preferred ways of being. These are aspects of their lives that they have been able to stay connected to in spite of the influence of problems.
I used quotation marks to indicate words and phrases that came from other people or the person to whom the letter is addressed. Quoting what people told me was an attempt to stay connected to their expertise about an issue, and not take over by rephrasing things as I would have written them. I included quotations from other people in an attempt to share the expertise of others and remove myself from the position of the one with the knowledge. It was my intention to share the experience and knowledge of others, thereby supporting the development of letter-based communities of concern. I hoped that these people who are so often without anything to hold would have, at the very least, a letter.
A letter to David
The first street letter I wrote was to a man named David. The conversation I refer to in the letter happened behind a hedge in the midst of a busy city intersection one hot day in early summer. It was a spot people used as a refuge for drinking and sleeping. David had been there the previous night, and when I caught up with him he was already intoxicated from a morning of drinking.
We talked for about an hour. During our conversation I mentioned the possibility of a letter. He was interested. I wrote the letter later that day when I got home. I delivered the letter the next time I saw him. It was about one week later. I found him in the middle of an abandoned lot. He was with a group of people. He was quite surprised to see that I had actually written the letter. Not wanting to embarrass him in front of his friends, I gave him the letter and left.
This is what I wrote:
I just wanted to write you this letter to thank you for helping me realise what a big deal it is that you guys who live out there ‘help each other out’. To tell you the truth, in my years of doing this work I have usually thought about you guys helping each other out as a way to avoid looking at what is going on for you. Many times I have seen people who really seem to need detox spending all their time trying to get other people into detox. I always focused on why they weren’t trying to get themselves help. You have helped me realise that there is a lot more to helping each other out than I knew.
I used to think it was part of what alcohol did to keep you from thinking about your own situation. To ‘take the focus off yourself’. Now, thanks to you, I think of helping each other out as a caring part of who you are. It also seems like a part of you that alcohol ‘hasn’t been able to touch’. It was also really helpful for me to realise that you guys helping each other out is one of the things that keeps me aware of the part of you that is fighting against alcohol. As I said on Tuesday, I want to support these parts of who you are.
As a part of supporting these parts of you I wanted to ask you how you have kept alcohol from getting you to not take care of each other. It seem like alcohol would rather isolate you guys from each other and have you not helping each other out. How is it that you fight this part of what alcohol wants? What is it about you that doesn’t let alcohol rob this part of you?
I also want to remind you of some of the things we talked about and tell you about some questions that occurred to me after I left. Along with your words about helping each other out in the street, I was also struck by your talking about how you’re ‘better than this’, and what you are ‘capable of’, and about how you choose to stay alive because ‘death is too final’ and that you want to have ‘the choice’.
I really appreciate your sharing these parts of yourself with me. As I told you, I think about these things as parts of who you are that are different from what alcohol wants you to remember. I was wondering about how you remember these things when alcohol doesn’t want you to. How do you keep in mind that you are ‘better than this’? How do you remember what you are capable of? How do you keep alcohol from making you forget that ‘you can do anything’?
We talked a little about who in your life supports your thinking that you are ‘better than this’. Are there people along with your uncles that know about this part of you? What would they say about what they know about you and what you are capable of? How would they explain your ability to remember these things even when alcohol doesn’t want you to?
I was also really struck by your saying what a bad job alcohol does at dulling your pain. I also remember you saying that you thought it would be hard for people to care about you. I was wondering how alcohol has tricked you into thinking that it would be hard to care about you. I find it very easy to care about you.
Well that’s it for now. Again, thank you for helping me understand your helping each other out in a different way. Also, I want to tell you again that I want to support the parts of you that remembers that you are ‘better than this’ and ‘capable of anything’. I hope we can continue to talk about these parts of who you are and how you keep alcohol from convincing you to forget about them.
Seeing David some weeks later he thanked me profusely for the letter. He told me he kept it with him, and often re-read it as it had become a source of support for him during his days in the street. I was happy to hear that the letter was of value to him. It was heartening for me to know that even in my absence I might be one of his allies supporting his knowledge that he was ‘better than this’.
I saw him only once more. At the time he had just left the program and was looking for housing. He thanked me again for the letter and said he would love to sit down and talk about ‘helping each other out’, and the other questions I had asked him. Sadly, we never had the chance to have that conversation.
A letter to Andrea
I’m writing this letter for a couple of reasons. One is because I don’t think I will see you again since I am leaving my job in Quincy at the end of June. I will be moving to California to start a new job. Before I go, I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for some of the things you have taught me. I also want to leave you with some questions our work together has brought up for me.
Recently I had a conversation with one of the other folks on the street. He helped me understand how the fact that you folks ‘help each other out’ isn’t necessarily about ‘taking the focus off yourself’. He helped me realise that ‘helping each other out’ is part of who you are that alcohol hasn’t been able to take away from you.
You have been a part of this learning, too. Your concern about your friends out there now seems more like a reflection of a positive part of you, not some form of denial. So I want to ask you – What is it about you that keeps alcohol from robbing that caring part of you? How do you keep hold of that in the street when alcohol convinces you to forget a lot of other positive things about who you are?
I also want to thank you for letting me into your life around the time when your mother died. As you know, my father died around that time as well. It was so helpful for me to see someone else in a similar situation. I was so impressed with how you pulled yourself together and stood up in the face of a lot of people’s negative expectations about how you would act. You sure proved wrong those who doubted that you could make it through that time in your life. How did you stand up in that way? How did you keep alcohol from convincing you that the only way to deal with the pain was to get drunk? What was the thing about you that kept you going? Are there other people in your life that wouldn’t be surprised about that thing that kept you going during that time? What would they say about that part of you that helped you during that time?
It has been a pleasure to know you during these past years. You have taught me that intelligent, resourceful, creative, and caring women can get caught by alcohol’s tricks. You have also taught me that even when alcohol convinces people that living in the street is a reasonable alternative to living life without alcohol, there are still parts of people that alcohol can’t touch. I am really interested in learning how you keep alcohol from taking everything away from you? How do you keep from giving up?
Some other people I have spoken with, have talked about realising that they are ‘better than this’, and that they know what they are ‘capable of’. They tell me that their ‘self-preservation’ keeps them from giving up. Is this part of what keeps you from giving up? Are there other things you would name that keep you from giving in to alcohol? Do you know that you are ‘better than’ what alcohol wants you to think about yourself? We have talked about your work in the accounting. How do you keep alcohol from making you forget about that and what you are ‘capable of’?
Before I close I want to be clear about the questions I have asked you. I ask the questions I ask because I really want to know how you hang onto these positive ideas. I also want to keep the ideas like ‘self-preservation’ up front and in the open while alcohol tries to make you forget about them. I hope this is clear and helpful to you.
Finally, I want to thank you again for all you have given me. I will miss you. I know you will continue to be able to keep alcohol from robbing all of your life from you. I will always be one of the people who supports those parts of you that alcohol hasn’t taken away. If you want you can contact me at the shelter through to the end of June, or Tri-City Mental Health in Medford after that. Peace to you.
I was shocked to learn that the letter I wrote to Andrea had become such an article. It had been stolen from Andrea by another woman, and eventually someone had taken it from her. It was circulating and being read by many people. (Hearing this I provided Andrea with another copy.) Though I was saddened to hear about the theft, I was struck by the value that could be placed on something as simple as a letter. It was in fact the theft of Andrea’s letter that prompted me to write this paper.
Hearing of the theft it occurred to me that letter writing was not only a useful tool applicable in a variety of different contexts, but it was also highly valuable to the letter recipients. I hope others will be encouraged by the response of the people I wrote to, and consider using letter writing in contexts that exist outside more traditional clinical environments. It is clear from my experience that this practice can have powerful effects on people’s lives.
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. 1996: Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York: Norton.
White, M., Epston, D. 1990: Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: Norton.
White, M. 1997: Narratives of Therapists’ Lives. Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. 1996: Re-authoring Lives: Interviews and essays. Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Zimmerman, J.L. & Dickerson, V.C. 1996: If Problems Talked. New York: Guilford.
Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 2000