Ruth Pluznick, Canada


Michael’s writing on personal failure has had significant impacts on our work with young people and families in Toronto. Nowhere is this more evident than in our program for young people growing up with parents with mental health difficulties, a program linked to the ‘gathering stories’ project at Dulwich Centre.

Michael wrote, ‘[P]ersonal failure might also represent a failure of the sort of modern power that requires that people manufacture identities that are in relative harmony with our culture’s socially constructed norms … failure might be a testimony to people’s acts of refusal of modern power … these acts of refusal might represent alternative identity projects that contribute to options for people in the remanufacture of their identities’ (White, 2002, p. 57)

Families with a parent with mental health difficulties are likely to have an experience of failure or ‘not measuring up’ when they compare themselves to norms or come into contact with people and professionals who devalue their unique experiences in life and relationships. The ‘failure map’ provides direction for conversations which deconstruct ideas about ‘good parents’ and allows for the emergence of alternative storylines about raising children despite (or perhaps because of their) difficulties. We can ask, ‘What expectations of ‘normal families’ have influenced you? Have these expectations ever limited your appreciation of your own family or someone in your family? If you step away from these expectations, what sorts of experiences or relationships in your family do you most value?’, and so on. These conversations make visible the unique responses of these families to the challenges of parenting in difficult circumstances. These responses help us to understand what is important to the young people and parents and we explore how they’ve been able to sustain values and directions despite difficulties. A different storyline becomes available, one that values what was previously diminished. As one young person told us, ‘My mother’s moods were a challenge for all of us. If she’d realised how difficult it was for her children, she might have taken medication. But if she’d taken medication, we might not have ever experienced the mother who was so passionate about life. This is something she gave us that we will always cherish’.

Michael White’s ‘failure maps’ helped us to see that a failure to ‘fit in’ might in fact suggest many other possibilities for life and relationships. This is particularly important in our community in Toronto, Canada. In this city, there are different cultures, religions, and family structures. It is easy to forget we are not all the same. Yet, there are expectations for families that can diminish or devalue differences from the ‘norm’. For many, the sense of ‘not fitting in’ can be profound. In the past, families who came for help when they were experiencing challenges were met with professional ideas that suggested there was a ‘right way’ to be family; the contribution to a sense of ‘failure’ can be seen in these practices. In asking the question, ‘What else is possible when we give up this idea of “normal families”?’, we discover many alternative routes to successful lives and relationships. In this way, the failure maps, and the ideas and values that underpin the maps, offer possibilities for acknowledging and honouring diverse ways of ‘being family’. The significance of this practice for Toronto cannot be understated.

When failure is seen in relation to expectations, and the expectations are subject to scrutiny, a different sense of identity can be constructed. It can be seen that a young person or family has responded to expectations in ways that suggest ‘resistance’ to ideas and practices that do not ‘fit’ with their own values and commitments in life. ‘Success’ in holding on to what’s important to the family can replace a sense of failure at ‘not fitting in’ with commonly-accepted constructs. Further, the suggestion that alternatives might have something of value for other families can help young people and parents to experience themselves as making contributions to Canada instead of merely adapting to it.

This lends itself to the richness of life in our city and has made possible projects such as the Intergenerational Alliance of St. James Town. The Intergenerational Alliance brings together Tamil grandparents and grandchildren. The Intergenerational Alliance was established to respond to requests by grandparents for help with their grandchildren, as many of these grandparents were significantly involved in the lives of their children. Importantly, the Alliance seeks to make visible practices which honour the values and traditions of the Tamil community while also preparing Tamil children for success in Canada. In documenting their skills and knowledge for life in a new country, their experiences become a resource for other families in other communities with similar challenges of ‘becoming Canadian’. The Intergenerational Alliance honours the unique responses of the Tamil community to life in Canada, and, in so doing, also provides possibilities for other ways to be ‘successful families in Canada’.

This valuing of ‘other ways to be successful families in Canada’ is a practice that got its impetus from the deconstruction of ‘normal’, the honouring of resistance, and the delight in discovering what’s possible when we let go of taken-for-granted assumptions. The documentation of alternative knowledge and skill takes the ‘failure maps’ one step further in providing the possibilities for collective ‘resistance’ to unfair or demeaning expectations; it can help communities to recognise that, through their own experiences, they are offering new options for ‘being family’ in Canada.


White, M. (2002). Addressing personal failure. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, (3), 33–76.

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