By David Denborough

This paper which appears in a special 30 year anniversary edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy reflects on the legacies of the work of Michael White. It begins by looking back on Michael’s time as Editor of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy. Of the many themes that were discussed in the Editorials and Letters to the Editor section of this journal in the early 1980s, this paper focuses on three in particular to explore the legacies of the work of Michael White. The author describes how Michael has bequeathed not only a profound body of work, but also a distinctive spirit of originating, and ways of working that consider the effects of social issues and that examine the politics of experience. It is the author’s hope that this approach to considering Michael White’s legacies honours his work and also honours the contributions of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy in its 30th year.

Keywords: Michael White, narrative therapy, family therapy

Thirty years ago, in 1979, Australia’s family therapy field celebrated the launch of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy1. Here was a publication that was to become a vibrant forum for discussion and innovation, to accompany and contribute to the development of family therapy ‘downunder’. Moshe Lang, Graham Martin, Brian Stagoll, Eleanor (Ruth) Wertheim and Michael White were key members of the inaugural editorial team of this journal, with Michael as the foundation editor.

In preparation for writing this piece, I have immersed myself in the early journal issues, particularly the ‘Editorials’ and the ‘Letters to the editor’ sections. I have done so because they offer a glimpse of the family therapy field in this country in the early 1980s and they also set a particular context for understanding the legacies of the work of Michael White.

There are three particular themes that emerge from the early editions of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy to which I wish to draw attention:

  • a spirit of originating,
  • considering the effects of broader social issues, and
  • examining the politics of experience.

A spirit of originating

In the July 1982 editorial, Michael wrote:

There has been considerable debate over whether an unique style of family therapy has developed in Australia or whether we have merely imported ideas and methods developed elsewhere. I would like to invite readers to enter this debate by forwarding their views in the form of a ‘Letter to the Editor’. Such an exchange of ideas would enable this question to be investigated further. (White, 1982, p.171)

In response, in the following edition of the journal, a lively discussion ensued (see Cornwall 1982), one that surely furthered the development and acknowledgement of unique approaches. The question had become not only how to develop family therapy in Australia, but how Australians could originate ways of working therapeutically with families.

Considering the effects of broader social issues

Throughout family therapy writings in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a considerable interest in how broader social issues affected families. One particular social issue emerged in the April 1984 editorial, in which Michael drew on writings from a recent Family Therapy Networker:

The March/April 1984 issue of the Family Therapy Networker was devoted, in part, to discussions of the effects of the ‘nuclear shadow’ on the family and the issue of ‘nuclear anxiety’ in therapy. Robert Simon states:

‘Our predicament in the nuclear age is historically unprecedented and it can’t help but have an impact on the contemporary family. Yet, while nuclear anxiety has been investigated in individual psychology, the family therapy literature has remained silent.’

I would like to hear from readers, in the form of a letter to the Editor, who would like to share their thoughts about the effects of the ‘nuclear shadow’ on families and their ideas about addressing the issue of ‘nuclear anxiety’. (White, 1984, p.91)

When this editorial was written, I was fourteen years old growing up in the nuclear shadow. I vividly recall times when a plane would roar overhead and I would think for a moment that this might be the beginning of the end.2 To realize that the Australian Family Therapy field was trying to consider how these broader social issues were affecting Australian families is powerfully significant to me. I will return to this later.

Examining the politics of experience

The third theme that emerges vividly within the journal issues towards the end of Michael’s tenure as editor is the influence of feminism. The letters to the editor sections of these journals are filled with animated, passionate, thoughtful discussions about a range of feminist concerns. These discussions soon coalesced into key papers published within this journal on themes including:

  • The development of a ‘non-sexist language policy’ for the journal (see Chapman, Martin, Park, Potts & Scicchitano, 1984)
  • The status of women in Australian family therapy (Cross, 1984)
  • Marital therapy and feminism (Chapman & Park, 1984)
  • Domestic violence: A case of the Disappearing Victim (McIntyre, 1984)

Perhaps the culmination of this generative period was Kerrie James’ (1984) highly influential paper ‘Breaking the chains of gender: Family therapy’s position?’ This was written at the time when separate women’s meetings were being held within family therapy and this was causing some consternation. The final words of Kerrie’s paper were as follows:

So, some of us have decided to take space for ourselves and meet separately … my claim to my separateness does represent a challenge to men on a number of levels. I am challenging your power to define and circumscribe my experience, to provide words and to assume to know my meanings. I also challenge you to reflect on your power within patriarchy. Some women claiming their space represent a challenge to other women as well as men to explore the chains and restraints of gender and to incorporate gender and an understanding of power into their work as family therapists. I ask that you take up this challenge and thereby, maybe experience what all the fuss is about. (p.248)

These were significant days.

In the next part of this article, I would like to use these three themes: a spirit of originating, considering the effects of broader social issues, and examining the politics of experience as a way of conceptualizing a number of key legacies of the work of Michael White.

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)

Legacies associated with considering the effects of broader social issues

I mentioned earlier, that in 1984, in his role as Editor of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy, Michael invited practitioners to consider the effects of the ‘nuclear shadow’ on the lives of families. One year later he published in the Dulwich Centre Review, his influential paper ‘Fear busting & monster taming: an approach to the fears of young children.’ (White, 1985).

If you witnessed Michael working with young children in relation to their fears or night terrors, you might recall seeing a small child holding with pride and determination the box in which their fears are now being kept tightly secured, or the look of relief, joy and celebration on parents’ faces as their child is awarded a ‘Monster and Worm Catching and Taming Certificate’ or ‘Fear busting Diploma’. You might also recall the irreverent humour that accompanied these conversations. But these consultations were not only funny. They were tender, poignant and, in a way, ‘political’.

Michael refused to locate the fears children were experiencing as in any way reflective of their ‘inner character’. He refused to participate in internalizing descriptions of problems. Instead, he believed there were good reasons why small children might be afraid in this culture:

The connection between sexual exploitation and other forms of child abuse with the likely development of fears in relation to the night is an obvious one. Another explanation that has, until recently been overlooked, relates to the profound insecurity that children may experience in relation to the threat of nuclear war and ecological catastrophe … These explanations should always be entertained by therapists when assessing childhood fears and their context. If an exploration of the context of the fears supports or points to these explanations, appropriate action should be undertaken. (White, 1985, p.107-108)

The approaches Michael White and David Epston developed in relation to externalizing conversations (seeing the problem as outside of the person) provide the opportunity for therapeutic consultations to take into account the effects of broader social issues on families.

An evocative example is described by Michael in Maps of Narrative Practice. He describes his conversations with Martin, an 8 year old boy, who had been affected by fearfulness since he was four. So much so that Martin was at risk of being simply considered a ‘fearful boy’. Through a process of externalizing conversation, however, Martin was able to openly characterize his worries, to describe them as separate from his being. He was also able to name each of these worries, to clearly distinguish them from one another, to graphically describe them, to articulate the ways in which they operated, and to convey the plans these worries had for his life. As the worries became richly characterized, Michael was then able to enquire about the wider social forces that were supportive of them. This is what he discovered:

I learned from him that these worries were powerfully supported by global events, including the 2004 tsunami, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suicide bombings in the Middle East. How had he come to be so well informed about these events? Unbeknownst to his parents, he regularly watched news of world events on television.

Martin now found himself in a conversation with his parents that validated his worries. These worries were no longer considered irrational. Not only did Martin now feel joined in his worries, but he also experienced an honoring of what he attributed value to in life, and felt his parents’ pride in him over this. He was now not simply a fearful boy in their eyes, and their joining with him in conversations about these concerns in making plans for addressing them was deeply relieving to Martin (White, 2007, p. 36-37)

This is a vivid example of externalizing practice. It enabled the definition of ‘the problem’ to move from an internalized description of ‘fearful boy’ to a rich characterization of particular worries. The ways in which these worries were supported by broader social issues were then articulated in order to provide the opportunity for this eight year old boy’s values to be acknowledged and appreciated, and in turn for the effects of the worries to be lessened.7

There are three reasons why I am re-telling this story and emphasizing this particular legacy of Michael’s work. Firstly, as I mentioned previously, I was a child who grew up in the ‘nuclear shadow’. I personally appreciate the efforts of family therapists to take children’s fears seriously. Perhaps, as adults, we have much to learn from children’s fears.

Secondly, much of my work is now with groups and communities who are experiencing significant hardship which is a result of injustice (Denborough 2008). Externalising practices, methods which refuse to locate problems within individuals, and processes which unearth the values that may be implicit within certain fears or terrors, are of invaluable assistance. We are continuing to explore ways in which narrative practices can assist groups and communities to respond to broader social injustices8. This work draws upon long histories.

Thirdly, and most importantly, having watched Michael work with children in relation to fears, I would find it impossible to reflect on Michael’s legacies without honouring this particular realm of work. He was an exceptionally skilled practitioner and in these conversations, children were no longer left alone, fearful in the dark. Instead, they came to see themselves as knowledgeable and as joined with many others – soft toy team members, parents, care-givers, other children. Michael loved working with children and they loved working with him (see White 2000b; White & Morgan, 2006). Somehow, pride and dignity would come to replace terror in their eyes. Michael would weave conversations that brought freedom and dignity to children, and in ways that were always looking outward towards social issues.

Legacies associated with examining the politics of experience

Feminism swept through the family therapy field in the 1980s, as it had through wider Australian culture, changing understandings of families, relationships, parenting, power relations and abuse as well as conceptions of therapy and professional disciplines. In fact, looking through the early editions of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy, it seems clear that many things that had been taken-for-granted were now up for questioning.

This was the context in which Michael White, David Epston and others began to develop what has come to be known as narrative therapy. The first writing about narrative practice that I ever read was handed to me while I was working in a maximum security men’s prison in Sydney. It was a special edition of the Dulwich Centre Newsletter (1992 No. 3&4) entitled ‘Some thoughts on men’s ways of being’ which had been put together by Cheryl White and Maggie Carey. It included a paper by Michael titled ‘Men’s culture, the men’s movement, & the constitution of men’s lives’, in which he proposed an:

… alternative frame of reference for men’s attempts to transform the dominant men’s culture, one that I have referred to as the constitutionalist perspective. I believe that this perspective makes it possible for us to face and to come to terms with our history, and frees us to do something that is very difficult – that is, to take the courage and to find the wherewithal to act against our own culture. It is a perspective that draws together the personal and the political at several levels. (White, 1992, p.51)

At the time, I had been searching for ways of working with the men I was meeting with in prison and also the young men with whom I was meeting in schools. I was particularly looking for ways of addressing men’s violence against women, children and other men. As I read this collection of papers, it was clear that it had been developed within a network of people9 who were trying to question traditional gender relations and to consider the politics of experience of gender, class, race, and culture within therapeutic practice. To me, this was profoundly hopeful.

Michael’s writings of these times were significantly shaped in response to feminist concerns and challenges. This included forms of recognition:

Despite our very best efforts to challenge the dominant men’s culture, and to develop and to enter our lives into alternative modes of life and thought, and thus alternative identities, it is only reasonable for us to expect that we will be prone to inadvertently reproducing problematic aspects of this very culture. This does not add up to failure. It is not tenable for us to assume that we can achieve a vantage point from the outside of men’s culture from which to address men’s culture. By accepting that we are prone to reproducing some of the problematic aspects of men’s culture, and by expecting that we will carry this proneness into the future, we can be more open to others who might be in a better position to challenge the reproduction of that which we might not be aware of. (White, 1992, p.45)

Michael developed ways of responding to women who had experienced abuse (White, 1995c) and also described ways of engaging with men who have enacted violence against loved ones (White, 1986a). In the mid-1990s, influenced by the work of the Just Therapy Team from Aotearoa, New Zealand, and their example of forms of cultural and gender partnership accountability (Tamasese and Waldegrave 1993, Tamasese et al 1998), Michael described a range of practices of gender accountability in relation to this work with men (White, 1994).

Much of Michael’s writings were characterized by a particular emphasis on the politics of experience and considerations of power and its effects in therapy. The following two quotes are drawn from an interview in the early 1990s:

… We can solicit critical feedback from persons of other races, cultures and classes. We can openly acknowledge the political dilemmas that we face in our day-to-day work… (White, 1995d, p.46)

… I think that whatever ‘good’ therapy is, it will concern itself with establishing structures that will expose the real and potential abuses of power in the practices of the good therapy itself. (White, 1995d, p.49)

To me, these descriptions of narrative therapy represent a direct lineage from the feminist considerations and challenges that were described in the mid 1980s in the Australian Journal of Family Therapy. As Michael conveys below, narrative therapy had its origins in a time in Australian history in which feminist perspectives were altering everything:

Feminism has been perhaps the most extraordinary social achievement of the last few decades, and I think its influence within family therapy has been enormous. I believe that it has contributed to a sea-change, many of the implications of which are still being worked out. I know that there has been a backlash to feminist ideas, but, despite this, the ripples are ever widening. Feminism has changed, and is continuing to change, so much of what we think and what we do. (White, 2001b, p133)

Why, you may ask, in an article about Michael White’s legacies, am I focusing on feminism and the politics of experience? Because time and again we witnessed Michael working in ways to resurrect subjugated knowledges, and to provide possibilities to those whose identities had been marginalised to ‘reclaim their stories and reclaim their lives’. Michael’s dedication to question the power of professionals and deconstruct expert knowledge shone through. It was perhaps particularly obvious in his work with those who had received psychiatric diagnoses and who had spent time within psychiatric institutions10. Within Michael’s work there was an attendance to the politics of experience that, to me, is one of his most profound legacies.

When I was in my early twenties, I travelled to Adelaide with a group of other young men who were exploring ways of taking local social action in relation to men’s violence. Michael White, Cheryl White and the community of practitioners associated with Dulwich Centre provided us with a context to consider ways of addressing the very real harm caused by men’s violence and by dominant constructions of masculinity (Flood, 1995; Kriewaldt, 1995; Morgan, 1995). There was a dedication to rigorously examine the real effects of dominance and to find ways of working in partnership across relations of power. These are legacies that I hope will not be forgotten. These are legacies that I wish to honour here.

About this paper

In this paper I have discussed differing aspects of the legacies of Michael White and I have organized these around three themes: a spirit of originating, considering the effects of broader social issues, and examining the politics of experience. These themes emerged as I read the early Editorials and Letters to the Editor sections of the Australian Journal of Family Therapy while Michael was its inaugural editor11.

Of course, this is just one of many papers I could have written in relation to Michael’s legacies. I chose this particular approach because this paper is to be included in a special issue honouring the 30 year anniversary of the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. In this context, it seems particularly relevant to honour Michael’s legacies and this journal at the same time.

There is a second reason I have chosen this approach. Over the last twenty years, within Australia, a tension has existed between some sections of the field of family therapy on the one hand, and what has become known as the field of narrative therapy and community work on the other. So much so, that at times these fields have been described as discontinuous and discrete12. It is my hope that it is possible to honour the past, to maintain clarity in relation to distinctions of thought and practice, and also to revel in conversations and collaboration across differences13. When I interviewed key family therapy figures for the book ‘Family therapy: exploring the field’s past, present and possible futures’ (Denborough, 2001), what was perhaps most illuminating was the respect displayed by the originators of different ‘schools of thought’ for each other. No one was shying away from significant differences of opinion14 or approach, but there was clearly a sense that these differences can be generative. Michael conveyed a sentiment that seemed shared by all those I interviewed:

It has been my experience that the family therapy field is one in which can be found support for people to explore a range of ideas, and the implications of these ideas in regard to practice. It is not a closed shop. I have really appreciated this. There are particular schools within the field, and I acknowledge that all schools have the potential to run into some of the hazards of orthodoxy, but there is no orthodoxy in a general sense in the field of family therapy. This fact is, I think, something worthy of celebration (White, 2001b, p.138).

It seems profoundly appropriate that the current editors of this journal are compiling this special edition. I would like to express my appreciation for this and I hope it contributes to further conversations and collaborations between a diversity of practitioners.

Postscript: Archive

In different parts of the world, many practitioners who have been influenced by Michael’s ideas are now considering how best to work with his legacies. There are many ways in which this will be done. As this paper draws to a close, I am sitting surrounded by the Michael White archive here at Dulwich Centre. There are books, articles, manuscript notes, dvds, videos, tape recordings of teachings and translations of his writings into many different languages. Every so often we receive an email, letter or parcel from a family or practitioner who wish to contribute to this archive. They may be sending a particular story they would like to share, or an idea that Michael described in a workshop but which never made it to print. In weeks, months, years to come, we will continue to welcome people’s suggestions and contributions. We are now beginning to hear from those who consulted Michael in therapy as children. Their perspectives will be significant to include. Perhaps someone out there might still have a box in which childhood fears are secured. If so, it would be great to hear from you. But please make sure the box is tightly fastened before you try to move it. That’s something we learnt from Michael that we will never forget. That, and so much more.

Author details

David Denborough works for Dulwich Centre and the Dulwich Centre Foundation as a community practitioner, writer, editor, teacher and song-writer. He is the editor or author of various books including Beyond the Prison: Gathering dreams of freedom (1996), Family therapy: exploring the field’s past, present and possible futures (2001), Trauma: Narrative responses to traumatic experience (2006), and Collective narrative practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma (2008). Recent community assignments have included work in Rwanda, Uganda and a range of Aboriginal communities. David first trained with Michael White at Dulwich Centre in 1993 and they collaborated for many years on community assignments, teaching programs and writing projects.


I would like to acknowledge helpful comments and feedback on an earlier draft by Amaryll Perlesz, Karl Tomm, Kaethe Weingarten, David Epston, Chris Beels, Cheryl White, Charles Waldegrave, Jennifer Andrews, Daria Kutuzova, Barry Bowen, Yishai Shalif, Frank Pittman, John Winslade, Lorraine Hedtke, Ruth Pluznick, Kerrie James, Ann Hartman, Joan Laird, Martin Payne, Rob Andrew, Michael Durrant, Mark Gordon, Jill Freedman, Gene Combs, Ian Percy, Rudi Kronbichler, Imelda McCarthy, Jeff Zimmerman, Yael Gershoni, Mark Trudinger, Tali Gogol-Ostrowsky, Alan Rosen, Brian Cade, Carolyn Markey, Moshe Lang, Angela Tsun on-Kee, Barbara Wingard, Froma Walsh, Vicki Dickerson, Maurizio Andolfi, Marcia Sheinberg, Banu Moloney, Chris Dolman, Jodi Aman, Jane Hutton, Angel Yuen & Brian Stagoll.


1. Later to become the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy.

2. Within my own family, this issue was predominant. It was in 1984 that my parents, with others, formed the NDP (Nuclear Disarmament Party) and our kitchen table was the venue for the creation of the regular newsletter.

3. I have deliberately focused this list on some of Michael’s more recent contributions. I am most familiar with Michael’s work from 1993 onwards when I first trained at Dulwich Centre. For other descriptions of Michael’s contributions see Furlong (2008) and Beels (in press). It is also relevant to mention Michael’s earlier contributions to family therapy literature (see White, 1979; 1983; 1986). These publications were particularly significant as they represented some of the first publications in overseas journals by an Australian family therapist.

4. David Epston and Michael White eloquently described the process of discovery associated with this co-research:

…our sense is that most of the ‘discoveries’ that have played a significant part in the development of our practices … have been made after the fact (in response to unique outcomes in our work with families), with theoretical considerations assisting us to explore and to extend the limits of these practices. We acknowledge the fact that it is always so much easier to be ‘wise’ in hindsight than in foresight. (Epston & White, 1992, p.9)

To read more about the process of co-research see Epston (1999; 2001) and Epston & White (1990).

5. Karl Tomm was a key conversational partner to Michael, as he described: ‘I always appreciate Karl Tomm’s attention to the power relations of therapy. He is a good friend who is always offering challenges and invitations to take up questions about different issues’ (White, 2000c, p.114).

6. I would also suggest that Michael’s willingness and openness to the metaphor of ‘saying hullo again’ (1988) to those who have died may in some way be linked to his work within Aboriginal communities in which continuing relationships with those who have died have rich cultural significance. While a thorough investigation of the ‘cultural roots’ of narrative therapy practices is beyond the scope of this paper, it may be a task to take up at some point. As Michael’s 1984 Editorial particularly related to the hope of Australian practitioners originating forms of therapeutic practice, it could be interesting to consider whether there are particular ‘Australian’ or ‘downunder’ (Epston, 2008) resonances to narrative practices. For instance, Michael developed a particular positioning of the therapist he described as ‘de-centred but influential’ (1997). There is a sense of egalitarianism to this concept, and a questioning of the reified expertise of the professional, which to me sits very well within key themes of ‘Australian’ culture. But these are considerations for another time.

7. Significantly, Michael notes that ‘although he (Martin) remained highly concerned about world events, this concern was no longer in the category of preoccupation that made it impossible for him to proceed with his life (White, 2007, p.37).

8. For greater exploration of how externalizing and other narrative practices can be used to respond to broader social issues see Denborough (2008), ‘Strengthening Resistance: narrative practices in responding to genocide survivors’ (Denborough, Freedman & White, 2008), and Aboriginal Health Council (1995).

9. This network at that time included Cheryl White, Michael White, Vanessa Swan, Chris McLean, Jussey Verco, Steve Golding, Zoy Kazan, Greg Smith, Ian Law, Alan Jenkins, Rob Hall, Maggie Carey and many others.

10. Michael dedicated much of his working life to trying to change understandings and practices within mental health systems. From the 1970s onwards, he developed ways to resurrect the subjugated knowledge of those defined by psychiatric discourse. In doing so, his work enabled ‘patients’ to be seen by themselves and others as ‘persons’ with distinct, skills, values and purposes in life which could then be put to use in dealing with the effects of mental health difficulties (See White, 1987; 1995e).

11. In response to an earlier draft of this paper, Moshe Lang and Brian Stagoll suggested I draw attention to the behind the scenes encouragement and opportunity that Michael offered to authors in his role as editor. Moshe Lang particularly mentioned Michael’s willingness to go out on a limb to publish different sorts of manuscripts, while Brian Stagoll described the ways in which Michael was influential in shaping, correcting, advancing, punctuating, clarifying and raising issues: ‘Michael’s voice and ideas inhabit many of the articles and reports of those early years… [many articles in early editions of the journal] were markedly shaped by conversations and exchanges with Michael.’

12. Perhaps this is what David Epston and Michael White were seeking to avoid when for many years they refused to name their work:

We have been steadfast in our refusal to name our work in any consistent manner. We do not identify with any particular ‘school’ of family therapy, and are strongly opposed to the idea of our own contribution being named as a school. We believe that such a naming would only subtract from our freedom to further explore various ideas and practices, and that it would make it difficult for others to recognize their own unique contributions to developments on this work, which we regard to be an ‘open book’. (Epston & White, 1992, p.8-9)

12. One possible realm of discussion and collaboration involves the ways in which storylines of identity are formed within families. It is within family relations that our identities are initially shaped (Karl Tomm, personal communication) The storylines of childhood identities, and the very language we use to construct these storylines, are formed in the context and culture of ‘families’, in all their diversity. This is just one realm in which those interested in the narrative metaphor and those interested in the significance of family relations in identity formation may have much to discuss.

13. For a good example of robust discussion of differences in approaches, see Minuchin & White (2003).



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[This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Australian Academic Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy (ANZJFT), Volume 30, Issue 2.

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