Marilene Grandesso, Brazil
While narrative therapy, and narrative practices in general, have been known in Brazil since the 1990s, they have really flourished and spread throughout here since 2005. I have had the opportunity to lead groups of study in therapy and narrative practices in São Paulo city since 2006. I have also held short-term courses in many Brazilian states such as Salvador city (in Bahia state); Belo Horizonte city (Minas Gerais state); Recife (Pernambuco state) and in São Paulo city (São Paulo state) where I live. In all these places, narrative has been received as a hopeful approach that brings innovative possibilities to tackle the challenging problems we face.
Brazil is a country that lives under intense social inequality, and has a multicultural face due to its mixed ethnicities, different religious beliefs, and different traditions. Besides that, it is a country that lives with constant migration movements that deconstruct social and familiar nets and can drive people away from their cultural roots. In this context, a practice that acknowledges each person and works to strengthen authoring and agency, is not only a therapeutic practice, but also as a way of social transformation based on equality, respect, and social justice values.
Narrative practices have contributed to give visibility and voice to people oppressed by problems, many of which are due to degrading conditions, coming from the macro socio-economic and cultural factors people live within. While working with people and asking them to evaluate the effects of their problem’s activities and justify their evaluations (as in the ‘statement of position map 1’), I have realised that many of them are no longer present in the world as ‘docile bodies’, as Foucault says, so that they can be alarmed and angry again towards life conditions that hurt their dignity. One of Michael White’s greatest contributions to our context was to highlight a political dimension to therapy, which is practiced at any moment when we acknowledge a person as an agent of choices, and denounce the totalitarian discourses and practices of subjugation of selves.
Besides the change that narrative therapy has brought to the private clinic context, it has spread to institutions (schools and hospitals, training courses for therapists) and community work. We have started to develop collective narrative tools using the transformation power communities have in the use of community collective documents, the community as outsider-witnesses, and a context for a definitional ceremony. This has been the work I do as a community therapist. Besides this, narrative ideas and practices bring a theoretical axis to this practice: informed by these ideas, the community therapy I develop today not only externalises problems but also engages in re-authoring conversations. Using outsider-witnesses and definition ceremony has proved complementary to Paulo Freire’s ideas which also guide community therapy practices. Moreover, collective narrative practices such as the Tree of life and the Team of Life have been used in many different contexts, such as institutes training therapists for community work, when attending to families, and in institutional contexts.
Another highly hopeful idea and practice we learnt with Michael White is re-membering conversations. I agree with Jill Freedman that these conversations create an antidote to loneliness. I have seen when I give classes and develop this practice with students how it mobilises meaningful emotions as a path to hope and appreciation for own self and others, both in life in the past and life in the future.
- How do you imagine the futures of narrative practice in your local context?
Many of us are walking to practices outside disciplinary boundaries, especially those posed by mental health professionals. We have been restricted a lot by territorial barriers between different fields of knowledge. I foresee a narrative practice mixed with new ideas, organising the fundamentals of a therapy to provide guides for therapists who can continue to innovate. I see non-conventional contexts unfolding inside therapy rooms, expanding narratives practices in the direction of larger groups and communitarian contexts in general.
I consider the following concepts the most precious for us to keep alive when we do our narrative practice:
- The listening of what is said, but also of the unsaid, as derived from Derrida’s ideas, that Michael formed into the concept of ‘the absent but implicit’
- The denunciation of technologies of oppression of the self, present in externalising conversations, where we can see the dialogues with Michael White and Michel Foucault’s ideas.
- Practices which increase connectivity, such as outsider-witnessing conversations and definitional ceremonies, which also brings an anthropological dimension to the therapy context.
- The patient way of constructing scaffoldings to develop new meanings and concepts, emphasising meaningful relationships, as Michael brought to narrative therapy, inspired by Lev Vygotsky.
- The listening and discursive movement in the double landscape of action and landscape of identity, as in the re-authoring conversations map, as based on Michael’s had based on his readings of Jerome Bruner.
- The awareness that the map is not the territory, the map leads the narrative therapists to ask for distinctions, so that people construct narratives of differences which are richer and preferred (proposed by Michael, who was inspired by the ever-present Bateson).
- The understanding that experience is always richer than the narratives made about them. As a consequence, there is a constant attitude of confidence and hope, as it is believed that there are always neglected stories that can represent a great difference even in the face of the roughest situations.
- Can you share some examples of Michael’s ideas being carried on in significant ways?
One of the most important ideas always highlighted in Brazilian contexts, is the one of separating people’s identities people have from problems. This non-essentialist conception of the self allows us to look at people as holders of a chance to re-authoring their own lives. It also enables us to see problems as circumstances of life, and not as inherent to them.
Another significant influence of Michael on my work was the coherence between what he said and what he did. Using John Shotter’s words, I can say that ‘he inhabited the words he said’ ¬ through his respect for the human being, his politeness to ask to come in people’s life contexts, always asking for their approval, and asking permission to take one path or another. The instances of appreciation that I saw in his videos, or in sessions that I could personally watch, and in transcriptions of section that I read, are source for reference for all of us therapists.
- Can you share some examples / stories about local innovations – about how practitioners are developing their own diverse forms of narrative practice?
One local innovation is the union of Community Therapy, created in Brazil by the psychiatrist Adalberto Barreto, with narrative practices, an approach that I developed at the institute that I coordinate, The Interfaci – Institute for Therapy: Family, Community, Couples and Individuals. There we have had the opportunity to work with communities as partners, not only in re-authoring their participants’ stories, but also constructing a collective ‘tissue’ that covers organising narratives of collective identities. In Community Therapy, the use of collective documents in final rituals gives visibility and enables fragments of conversation to remain present, transforming them in an aesthetic patchwork. Our training courses in Community Therapy, therefore have narrative as a theoretical axis for conversational practices, together with the structure of the traditional Community Therapy created by Adalberto Barreto.
Work with the Tree of Life and the Team of life has been developed in different contexts here: institutions for adolescents involved with the law under a restricted liberty system; hospitals that work with people who have problems such as compulsively shopping, loss, and grief among others; schools; organisations and training contexts for family and community therapists. Narrative practices are being taught to students of many Brazilian family and community therapy courses, such as at the Catholic University (NUFAC-PUC-SP), FAMERP-PUC (Rio Preto-SP), UNIFESP-SP, and INTERFACI-SP. In another context, Ana Lúcia Horta and Celina Daspett, working in a big hospital in São Paulo city at the Family and Community Intervention Unity (UNIFESP), have developed group work with parents, children, partners, and siblings who are mourning for a lost beloved family member. With these groups, family members have the opportunity to create documents which are then shared with other people suffering from the same type of loss. In one session with a family, the father asked if the psychologists by any chance knew what is the name given to a person that losses a child – because children whose parents have died are called ‘orphans’, and people whose partners die are widows and widowers. We took this issue to the group of mourning parents and children and a conversation between the group and the family arose, enlarging concepts and values for all of them.
- Are there particular cultural / language considerations in your context that may require or inspire adaptations / innovations in narrative practice?
Brazilian culture has noticeable differences in the way conversations develop. Usually, when people get together in room for therapy, it is common that people talk at the same time, they interrupt each other, and so one. Therefore, to develop a space for an externalising or a re-authoring conversation, for example, we need to create the ‘generous listening’ that Lynn Hoffman talks about. That is, there is need of developing an environment where the condition of speaking and being heard can at least exist. In order to go in the direction of what narrative therapy proposes, we have to create conditions of ‘conversability’ (or conversation) as a first step. Among some ideas proposed by Michael, the ‘re-positioning’ approach, presented by him for couple therapy, has been extremely useful for me. However, I understand that other tools are still necessary, as while this practice makes sense in some moments, it doesn’t make sense in the ones that a person proposes to talk with the other. This is an area in which I am interested in studying further.
- If you were to have a particular wish in relation to the future of narrative practice in your context, what would it be?
I wish narrative therapy could expand to more unusual contexts, especially to needy communities. My great dream is to give a narrative profile to the Community Therapy carried on in Brazil. Narrative practice has spread much in Brazil in the last five years, after Michael White visited to Salvador. Although narrative therapy has been known and practiced since the early 1990s for some therapists, including me, much of what had been done before was to use the narrative practices as ‘techniques’, especially externalising. Therapists ended up falling into oversimplification when understanding externalising conversations – as if we only needed to give a name to a problem, objectifying it. When Michael White was in Salvador, Brazilian therapists could understand narrative as a more consistent practice, explicitly substantiated, illustrated with maps guiding the way to organise the ‘mental way’ a therapist could walk. This was new to many people. So, my dream is to see these practices disseminated more in Brazil.
When I give classes on narrative practices, I see people to get enchanted with the respectful form these conversations take. Each time that it happens, my enthusiasm increases and so does my will of moving forward. I would like to formalise a training course of narrative therapy in Brazil, and I do believe that there is room for that. Every single day I think about some delicious fruit, the most precious one in my ‘tree of life’, which is the book Maps of narrative practice that Michael left as a legacy. What a wonderful gift! In his generosity, while revisiting his twenty years of practice, Michael showed us how he instigated journeys through people and communities’ lives. I will be always grateful because I can ‘Say hullo again’ to Michael every time I read a part of his book.