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Books, Part XXXXII
The Family Crucible
Agustus Y. Napier & Carl A. Whitaker (1978)
Chapter I- The Question of Structure
'Would you like to see a new family with me?" Carl said. The voice on the telephone was that of my present colleague and former teacher, and he sounded less casual and confident than usual. "A father who's a VIP lawyer, an angry mother, and a teenage daughter who sounds stormy as hell." His invitation sounded a little like a friendly dare.
"Sure," I said instantly. "When?" Usually I would think carefully before agreeing to be someone's co-therapist, but -not when the person asking was Carl Whitaker.
We found a joint opening later in the week. "I'll check with the family," Carl promised.He was about to hang up when I asked, "Anything I should know before we begin?'
Carl was obviously in a hurry. "Nothing except that the situation is very tense. The family was referred by a child psychiatrist in town who says that the girl's getting worse. He's been seeing her individually. The family isn't sold on family therapy, but they say they'll all come once.'
"How many in the family?" I asked.
"Five. There's a younger brother and sister."
"I'll bring my work gloves," I said amiably, letting him go. "See you. Thursday."
Even though the distance from my office to the Psychiatry Department where Carl teaches is only a couple of miles, I was late for the appointment. It was a cool, beautiful June day, and I had let the' drive be a leisurely one. As I strode into Carl's office, I realized that I had unconsciously given him time to tell the family why he felt he needed a second 'therapist and to offer my credentials for the job. He would have mentioned that I was a psychologist in practice nearby and a trusted colleague. He would have talked about the power that families have and how we therapists can be more effective if we work as a team. Since the family had been referred primarily to him, the public. relations effort would be helpful. I wasn't sorry for the delay.
Carl introduced me to the family. °This is David and Carolyn Brice, their daughters, Claudia and Laura. We're waiting for their son, Don."
Here was that perpetually awkward moment: not knowing whether to shake hands. There is a social component in the beginning of family therapy, but there is also a professional distance. Uncertain, we wavered between the two for a fraction of a second until the father resolved it by extending his hand to me and smiling anxiously. "Clad to meet you," he said, of course not meaning it. Still, he looked genial enough —a tall, square-shouldered man wearing glasses. He looked directly at me, a sharp, perceptive gaze, yet at the same time he seemed to recoil, as if he thought he might be hurt. He seemed at once assertive, alert, friendly, and afraid. The hesitant posture, the baggy tweeds, the glasses, the keen a. gaze: clearly his work involved the use of his intellect.
His wife did not offer to shake hands. A slight woman, almost pretty, she looked depressed. Like her husband, she had dark, curly hair. She wore an expensive tailored suit of natural linen, a bright red scarf flaring out of the edge of the neat collar, and a silver pin curled sinuously on her jacket. I sensed that she was angry as well as depressed.
The adolescent daughter smiled tightly, nodding to me, but sitting firm and unmoving. She was prettier than the mother, with the same delicate features, the same curly hair. She was very anxious and very angry. After she nodded, she looked down as if in shame, thus identifying herself as "It"—the reason the family was there.
The other daughter, about six, sat in Carl's Miniature' rocking chair, a little too big for it but pumping back and forth eagerly. "Hi," she said, cheerfully. She looked like a happy, active child. The mother made a gesture in her direction to indicate that she should rock less energetically, and she slowed perceptibly.
Carl's office is furnished with two large leather sofas that face each other across the length of the room. At one end three leather-upholstered chairs fill the space between them. At the other end are Carl's swivel chair, placed beside his desk, which faces into the corner, and the co-therapist's chair. The seating forms a tidy rectangle. The father and adolescent daughter sat next to each other in two of the chairs, and the mother sat alone on one of the sofas. The daughter was very near the mother in the little rocker. I noted the seating: each daughter with one of the parents, and the parents separated.
I settled in my chair, looking fondly around Carl's familiar office. It was clearly and comfortably his nest, lined with rows of bookcases, every available surface covered with the memorabilia of his career: sculptures, paintings, photographs, newspaper clippings, cartoons, posters, miscellaneous objects of art or interest, all joined together somehow by the complex pattern of a large Oriental rug.
Carl was sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe, relaxed and waiting. In his mid-sixties, he is professor of psychiatry at Wisconsin and is the department's resident family therapist He is a solidly built man of medium height whose bearing conveys a mixture of casualness and precision, ease and alertness. He has kept the large forearms and hands shaped by his boyhood on a dairy farm, and he has also maintained the relaxed friendliness of those origins; but in the interim he has acquired a look of scholarly acuity, a subtle, worldly-wise half smile of the person of wide experience.
"So," I said to Carl, my voice relaxed, "can you tell me something about the family?" We deliberately save such briefings until the family is present In this way they get to know exactly what we know about them, and we establish early in therapy a principle of open communication.
"Well . . . Carl began, hesitating slightly. I realized he was concerned about beginning without the missing son. He resumed, "Well, I'll catch you up while we wait for Don." pause while he thought "Mrs. Brice called me last week about an appointment. She was referred by John -Simons, who had seen Claudia for a couple of months." The name was familiar; Simons is a child psychiatrist in town who works mostly with adolescents. "John felt things weren't getting any better, and the family apparently agreed." Another pause. "Over the phone Mrs. Brice talked mostly about the problems between her and Claudia: how they had been fighting, how Claudia had begun running away, and how she was concerned about her on a number of counts. Mrs. Brice felt that Claudia has had some strange ideas of late. It sounded as if the stress in the family was quite high, and-Mrs. Brice was clear that it was beginning to involve everybody. She didn't want the youngest, Laura, to be exposed to the family struggles, but I thought we had an agreement over the telephone that everybody would coma at least once. As I said to you earlier, it feels like a pretty loaded situation.'
Claudia glared at her mother, angry at hearing This account of the conversation. She spoke, her voice harsh and strident. "Well, I think you have some pretty damn strange ideas yourself, Mom dear, like rm supposed to get to bed at sunset and be a good little six-year-old!" Her anger was so intense that it startled us.
Carolyn Brice glared back, stiffening and locking her gaze into the daughter's. It was as if someone had turned on a strong electrical current that magnetized the mother and daughter, pulling them toward each other. The mother: 'Well, I think some of your ideas are strange, and I am concerned." Her response was a blend of attack and worry, and she was defensive about Carl's account of their conversation. The father looked scared, as if he knew what was coming.
Mother and daughter clearly wanted to fight, but it would have been a mistake to allow them to. Carl extended his hand toward them, as if to block the current between them. His voice was firm. "Let me stop you two. Because really do want to wait for Don." They looked away from each other, and the moment passed.
"Where is her I asked, turning to the mother.
"I don't know," she said, sounding tired, discouraged. "A couple of days ago he said he wasn't coining. He didn't want to be in family therapy. Then this morning he said he would come. When we left, he wasn't home from his art class yet. Could we go ahead and begin? Maybe he'll come in. I left him a note to ride his bicycle over here."
Carl answered as I knew he would. "I think we should wait. If we begin now, we don't have Don in on the beginning, and I'd hire to start out with us all together.' There was nothing unkind about the way Carl said this, but it was pretty dear that he wasn't going to begin without Don. He added, raising his eyebrows in question, "You want to use the phone to call him? Maybe he's home by now."
"Sure," the mother said, rising from the couch and striding toward Carl's desk. A tense silence while she dialed. More silence while she listened to the ringing of the phone. No answer. She sighed and sat down. "I don't know what to do now."
Carl seemed unperturbed, tilting back with a creak of his
desk chair, drawing on the pipe. "We -have the time reserved anyway. We can wait."
"I'll call the art class,' the mother offered, going again to the desk.
With that everyone seemed to relax. We had apparently been anticipating sitting through an hour staring at one another and trying to make talk, and the possibility that Don might be at the art class offered us a moment's relief. The father spoke admiringly to Carl. "I like that tobacco. What is it?" I wondered if he wasn't unconsciously saying something else, like: "I admire your firmness "
While Mrs. Brice tried several phone numbers, the casual talk continued. Claudia loosened a bit and, smiling, pointed toward the coatrack. "What are those for?" Hanging on the coatrack were two billy clubs, one painted pink and marked HERS, and the other a longer white one, ins. A present from a former patient.
Carl, smiling back: "You guessed right Except I don't let people use them until I get a bigger one for me."
"Oh," said Claudia, intrigued and somewhat horrified.
Then Laura, chirping in her cheery little voice: "And what's that?" She was pointing to the steel abstract sculpture on Carl's wall. It had always looked to me like a billowing tree shape. But I felt like shifting the focus from Carl and his office, and I interrupted before he could tell his story about it. "It's his grandfather." The group laughed nervously, not knowing why it was funny or if, in fact, it was funny. I added, "And if you think it's strange-looking, you should see his grandmother!" This time they really laughed, and Mrs. Brice turned from the phone to see what was so funny. When people are anxious, almost any Joke will do. I smiled in Carl's direction. "I'm sorry. I interrupted your story."
Carl looked a little flustered, but he grinned. 'He can't wait to hear my story for the hundredth time." I shrugged, and Carl began. "Well, when I bought that sculpture, my patients had a lot of associations to it Everybody saw something different in it. But one day somebody asked me what I thought it was, and what suddenly popped into my head was this crazy. thought: 'It's the glued-together bones of my grandfather: And I knew right away where it came from. 'Cause I'm a soft sort' of a guy, and my father was the same way. But my grandfather was this tough character who, when he got gangrene in his big toe, took a pocketknife and cut it off. He didn't need no damn doctor! Well, I figured out that I bought his sculpture because I was trying to get for myself some of the iron that was in my gran sortie of his toughness."
Even though we were still waiting for Don, therapy was well begun. We were engaged in a subtle, often predictable, and very important contest with the family about who was going to be present at the meetings. Carl and I had revealed some of what our relationship had to offer: a good-humored Lilting for each other, an ability to cooperate, and an insistence on remaining ourselves. I was clearly not going to be the reverential assistant to the older man. And perhaps most important, Carl had intuitively modeled some of the process of therapy for the family. By sharing insight into his own personality, he was saying by demonstration, "It's important to search for your own unconscious agenda."
Meanwhile, the battle over whether or not we were going to have an "official" meeting was becoming more serious. Don could not be found at the school where the art class was held. The mother, worried, spoke with a kind of grim insistence. "Why can't we meet now and have Don come next time?"
It was my turn. "I agree with Carl. I think it would be a mistake. What we are talking about is the prospect of the family as a whole changing. And to start that process with one fifth of the family absent would be unfair to Don and I think unfair to you. He's part of the family, and we need him here if the family as a whole is going to change." There was an edge of toughness in my voice.
Mrs. Brice didn't give in easily. "But Don isn't the problem. The problem has to do with Claudia." Her voice was chilly, too. We were definitely having a fight.
Nor was I giving in. "But you see, that's your initial definition of the problem. We assume that the problem is much more complex and much more extensive than Claudia. And the whole family just has to be involved." I hesitated, gazing with level intensity at the mother. I realized that pushing the family might mean losing them, but I knew that it had to be done. "Now, maybe you guys aren't up to this kind of major job that we're talking about. We really can't decide that for you. But it's clear to us that we need the whole family." A very large and imposing silence.
"I agree," Carl said quietly, adding a final nail to the argument.
The mother spoke in a soft and faintly bitter voice, "It's easy for you to say that, but as her mother I have to worry about tonight and tomorrow.' Anger crept back Into her words now. "I mean, I don't know what's going to happen if we go back home now. And frankly, I'm worried." —
Carl was losing patience, too. "But you're missing the other side. If this is such an emergency, why didn't somebody get that message to Don and make sure he got here? Because it was perfectly plain over the phone that we couldn't meet unless the whole family was here." He backed away slightly from the tough statement, softening his words if not- the position he had taken. "Or was I not clear?"
"You were clear," Carolyn said, resigned. "Don just didn't keep his part of the agreement."
Carl smiled, easing still further away from the anger. "Not as I see it. And let me try to explain." He was friendly now, but speaking with conviction. "My view is that Don is not acting just for himself, but that through a very complicated unconscious process he got elected by the family to be the one to stay home. That way the family wouldn't have to face the full electricity of this thing, and you'd find out if we really meant business about working with the whole family."
"Elected?" she said with skepticism.
I explained. "Probably something in your and your husband's voices that let him know you really didn't mean it. when you said he had to come." I could see her feeling cornered with the responsibility. "We're not trying to blame you personally," I said. "It's really the family that has the anxiety about everybody's getting together, and the family he's acting for." She looked relieved at the shift in focus.
David Brice entered the conversation with a quietly argumentative rationality. "I don't really understand what you mean by all this, but how do we deal with this practically? What do we do now? We are concerned about Claudia, and I think we have reason to be." I could feel the husband-wife coalition against us, realizing that Carolyn had been fighting not just for her own view, but for a thoroughly unconscious agreement between the couple that they would keep the focus on their "sick" daughter. The force of "concern" which both parents directed at Claudia did not feel very loving; under the surface of caring was a steely attack. As they talked about her, Claudia cringed.
Somehow we had to get around the immediate problem of the parents' accusation that we were being professionally irresponsible by delaying the appointment I turned to David, the father. "Can you say what you're concerned about that can't wait till tomorrow? Because we can find the time to meet if it's that urgent. Are you afraid she will run away or that she's suicidal?"
"The latter is what I'm worried about," the father said.
"Yes,' the mother resounded softly. What a dilemma. We were being given the choice of surrendering our insistence an meeting with the whole family or perhaps acting irrespon- silly in the face of a suicide threat. With every added minute of interaction with the family, we were weakening our case for not having the interview, yet there seemed no alternative but to deal forcefully with the suicide issue.
"How about it?" Carl said to Claudia. "Are you suicidal?" The girl started with the directness of the question. She looked pale and tense and very angry.
"I've thought about it," she said with mysterious intone-tiens that had to be pursued.
"How about my question?" Carl said. "Are you suicidal now? Or do you think you might be tonight?"
The slightest of smiles crossed the girl's face, like the sudden but tiny flash of brightness that occurs when a distant car strikes a reflective angle with the sun. "I don't think I'd do it." A pause. "But I have thought about it."
"How would you do it?" I asked. If the fantasy was explicit and well worked out, there was plainly greater immediate danger.
"I don't know—maybe sleeping pills. There doesn't seem to be any really good way." I didn't like the passivity in her voice.
"You still didn't answer my question about now," Carl reminded her gently. "Do you think there's any danger you might kill yourself before we can meet again?"
"No," Claudia answered firmly. Then she glanced angrily at her parents. "Especially if they will leave me alone for a while!"
Carl turned to me. "What do you think we should do? How do you see Claudia?"
I was momentarily surprised by his question, but it was obviously an appropriate time for a conference. Pausing as tried to collect my thoughts, I felt exposed to the family's scrutiny. The situation called for decisive action, and Carl and I had to be together in whatever we did. "Claudia seems Pretty alive to me," I said. "I like the fact that she's angry and fighting with her parents rather than taking the anger out on herself. I feel that Claudia is very stressed, but that suicide, right now is an option that she keeps open rather than an obsession. As a fantasy, it seems very much a. part of her battle with her parents." I summarized. "She- doesn't feel suicidal to me." Claudia seemed to brighten with the words.
Carl turned back to the parents. "I agree with everything that Gus said. And while I might not trust either one of us alone, I trust the 'we,' the stereoscopic vision." He breathed in deeply, then out, and with this long breath seemed to relax. 'Tell you what I think we ought to do. You guys go home and think about whether you want to be in this as a family. And if you do, call me and we'll set up a time tomorrow or Monday or even Saturday if it's absolutely necessary."
The father settled the question with a move that seemed authoritative, all the more so since he had remained so hidden in the "interview." "I don't think we need to do that I think we should make an appointment now." Then he turned to his wife. "Don't you?"
"Yes," she said, sounding a little disconcerted, as well as relieved. "Do you have an opening in the morning?"
"Well make one," Carl answered positively. "How about your he said to me. "You have time?" Since I had an opening at nine, Carl agreed to shift his appointment.
With the decision made, everyone relaxed, and it was not until the tension began to ease that I realized how ca t up in the family's battle I had been. But just as the f y was getting up to leave, Carl again did something surprising: he- sat down on the floor beside Laura and began to talk with her. "What do you think of all this crazy stuff?" he asked with confidential warmth. "You think we can all stand one another for a year or so to work this out? How about you? Can you stand it?"'
Laura looked at her mother for a response, and Carolyn merely smiled back. Half the group was standing, the other half sitting; everyone was both interested in the dialogue and a little confused by it. "I don't know," the little girl said hesitantly. Then she somehow found the courage to add, "But I don't like it when they fight."
"Think you and I could teach them how to love? Carl asked. " 'Cause I've got a feeling that you already know how. And if you and I teamed up, we might teach the rest of your family. Laura was embarrassed, but she also liked Carl and couldn't avoid smiling at him.
"Maybe we could start with something easy like shaking hands. You want to shake hands?" Carl extended his hand to her, and she offered her own. "Very nice," he said. "I liked that." And so the interview ended. Though Carl had not planned to sit down with Laura until it suddenly occurred to him, it was a useful moment. The family could see that in addition to strength, we could offer them warmth.
Fortunately, most families do not present us with such a crisis in the first interview. But many families do engage in some form of struggle over membership at the meetings. So predictable is this challenge that we have given it a name: the battle for structure.
When Carl asked the Brices to bring their whole family to therapy, everyone in the family knew intuitively what that meant. Their whole world would be exposed: all its caring, its history, its anger, its anxiety. All in one place at one time, subject to the scrutiny and invasion of a stranger.. And that was too much vulnerability. With its own unconscious wisdom, the family elected Dori to stay home and test the therapists. Did we really mean everybody? Would we weaken and capitulate if they didn't bring Don?
They had something to gain by the strategy. If we were hesitant and unconfident in our approach to their defiance, they would know that they could not trust us with the boiling caldron feeling which their family contained. If we were decisive and firm, they would guess that maybe we could handle the stresses which they intuitively knew had to be brought- out into the open. One way or another, they had to find out how much power we had. In the meantime, they postponed facing that mysterious electricity, that critical mass, the whole family. Perhaps they thought they could be spared what Zorba called the full catastrophe.
Don, of course, had his own questions to pose. "How much do I -matter?' their middle child was asking. "Will you undertake changing the whole family without me?" Every, member is important. I remember one mother who said in a session, just don't understand it. When one member of the family is missing, we get -along fine. But let the missing one just walk in the house, and all hell breaks loose. I just don't understand it."
It has been a long road for us as family therapists to reach an understanding of just this phenomenon—the sense of the whole, the family system. While we could have -explained the theory of meeting with the whole family to the Brices, at that anxious moment it would not have touched them. There are situations where, in the words of Franz Alexander, the voice of the intellect is too soft. The family needed to test us. They needed the experience of our being firm. As unpleasant as it was, our response must have reassured them. They knew, and we sensed, how difficult and desperate their situation was and how tumultuous it could become. They simply had to know that we could withstand the stress if they dared open it up.
The individual psychotherapy patient comes to the therapist with an almost automatic deference, a sense of dependence and compliance. The role pattern is old and established: the dependent child seeking guidance from a parent figure. There is no such traditional image for the family, no established pattern in which an entire family submits to the guidance of an individual. And the family structure is simply too powerful and too crucial for the members to go trustingly into an experience that threatens to change the entire matrix of their relationships. If the family therapist is to acquire that initial "authority figure" or "parent" role that is •so necessary if therapy is to be more powerful than an ordinary social experience, he has to earn it.
Families come into therapy with their own structure, and tone, and rules. Their organization, their pattern, has been established over years of living, and it is extremely meaningful and very painful for them. They would not be in therapy if they were happy with it. But however faulty, the family counts on the familiarity and predictability of their world, If they are going to turn loose this painful predictability and attempt to reorganize themselves, they need firm external support. The family crucible must have a shape, a form, discipline of sorts, and the therapist has to provide it." The family has '10 know whether we can provide it, and so they test us.
Chapter II- A Beginning
The next morning Don entered the room first. He had the practiced sloppy walk of the young adolescent who is in the process of becoming a picaresque character. Unlike the rest of the family, his hair was long and straight and blond, and he wore the current adolescent uniform—body shirt, jeans, and sandals. He walked across to shake hands with Carl right away, saying with apparent confidence, "So you're Whitaker."
Carl smiled. "Dr. Whitaker, if you don't mind."
Don: "I don't mind, Dr. Whitaker." Carl wasn't overly serious, of course, but he was slipping almost instantly into a posture with Don, at once teasing and challenging, which was to continue for most of the therapy.
Don, a little flustered, turned tome. "And who are you. I decided to play it straight. "I'm Dr. Napier."
Don extended his hand, and suddenly he was straight; too, the ironic tone dropping from his voice. "How do you do?' He looked like an interesting person, alternatingly serious and skeptical, brash and hesitant, wavering between boyhood and adolescence.
The family seated themselves, Claudia and her father in the center chairs, facing Carl and me, and the mother and Laura on the couch to the left. Don sat alone on the other couch. For a while we were social, that process of reassuring ourselves that we could be casual with one another, a ritual protection from the intensity that was to follow and perhaps a necessary prelude to it. How could we risk getting involved if we didn't know we could be superficial and distant, if we didn't know we could escape if we all wanted to? We complained together about the parking lot attendants at the hospital.- We remarked how wonderful and clear and cool the weather had been. We talked about the crazy painting propped up against the rear wall of the office, a group project done at the end of a workshop Carl had conducted with the staff of a mental health center. It was certainly abstract, and it was certainly expressive, and. it was so awful that it was interesting. Obviously any single person who had done it would have been crazy. Then a silence, marking the border between our being social and our getting to work.
I spoke to the mother. I was smiling, but the content of my question was dearly leading us toward the task at hand. "I see that you found him."
She managed, just barely, a smile in return. "Yes. He was. walking home from the art class, apparently very slowly." She sounded as if she were blaming Don for not coming to the previous session.
I spoke to Don. "Do you have any sense of how you got chosen by the family to be the one who was absent last time?"
He answered as if he understood the language I was speaking. "I don't know—just my lucky day. Maybe_ so they could yell at me."
"Don't sell yourself short," I said. "I think you were up to more than that. You were helping the family make up its mind about whether or not it wanted to be here. And now that everybody has decided it's worth trying, we're ready to get moving." His earlier bravura was gone now, and he looked scared; I wanted to say at least a few supportive words to him before we got embroiled with the family.
David sounded irritated. "So could we begin?"
Carl jumped in quickly. "Sure. Could you start us?"
The father: "I think I would rather my wife start. I think she's really closer to the situation."
Carl: "All the more reason for you to start. We fathers are often on the outside in families today, and I'd like to hear how the family looks to you. Maybe you have an overview.' Carl was doing something interesting: he was directing the interview, in effect pushing the father around, at the same time that he was complimenting him, attending to him, and in the process making it hard for him to resist.
Fathers usually are the outsiders in the modern family, and often they find coming into family therapy very uncomfortable. This father was typical in attempting to shift the focus away from himself. It would have been a mistake for us to let it happen, because although he was eager to defer to his wife, he would probably have resented it if we had allowed this. Most of the time, the mother is the psychological center of the family, and our moving quickly to her would- have given the father an excuse to feel himself more and more removed, until he had become as isolated and alone in the therapy as he felt in the family. If anyone were lively to pull the family out of treatment, it was the father, and by bringing him in early, we were deliberately attempting to bias the start slightly in his favor. Women are more sophisticated about the interpersonal world, the world of feeling, and we were trying to compensate for this kind of cultural inadequacy in men. We were also making it clear that we were assuming responsibility for leading the meeting, and that included who spoke when and to whom. Again, the uncomfortable—but necessary—quality of abrasiveness, of struggle over power.
The father hesitated. "Well, all right." A pause while he thought His shoulders sagged under the burden, his brow furrowed, his face pale with tension. "Claudia," he said, pausing again, looking for words, "has been in trouble, and I mean psychological trouble, for some time. I don't know quite when it began or how it began, but for the last year, it has been getting worse and worse. Lately it has just been impossible."
I had expected him to talk about Claudia, but I was glad to hear a glimmer of something else. "You said it' had been impossible. That sounds like something more than just Claudia. Can you say what the it' is?' The father looked a little disconcerted at finding himself being interviewed by two people working in close coordination. But since Carl and I were sitting together, he had only to turn his head a degree or two to look at me.
He sighed. "The it is constant conflict. Usually the fights are between Claudia and her mother, and they seem to be about just everything—Claudia's room, her schoolwork, her friends, her dating, the way she dresses. Claudia does exactly the opposite from what her mother wants."
"And how are you involved in this?" Carl asked.
The father was troubled by the question. "I'm not sure. Often I find myself thinking Carolyn is too hard on her, and sometimes I defend Claudia. And, of course, that makes Carolyn furious. Then sometimes I get very angry at Claudia, particularly lately, and I join in with Carolyn, and that seems to be just devastating for Claudia. Sometimes I try to stay out of it, but that doesn't work either. Things have gotten too desperate for that."
"Desperate how?" I asked.
"Well, Claudia came home last night at two-thirty. And it was the first time in a week she had been home. We don't know where she sleeps, or with whom for that matter. And when she's home, she locks herself in her very disorganized room and turns up her radio. A month ago she took off hitchhiking across the country with her boyfriend." The father looked pale, scared. He glanced furtively at his daughter.
Claudia sat stiff and silent beside him, her eyes cast down. She wore a short-sleeved faded denim shirt and dirty faded jeans. She had tied her long hair behind her head with a handmade silver clasp. A piece of abstract jewelry hung from a thin silver chain around her neck. How different the mother and daughter looked: the mother as beautifully dressed as before, the daughter following almost as carefully the casual style of her peers. Yet both wore the same unusual silver jewelry. I wondered about the parallel.
The father continued, his voice now stronger, almost aggressive. "But if it were just a fight, just Claudia's lashing out and running away, I wouldn't be so. worried. It's more than that. Claudia has been talking for some time about her philosophy of life, and it sounds to me, while very complex, also very troubling. She talks about five levels of reality, and the deepest levels seem to be pretty despairing ones, bleak. Claudia is a poet, as well as a talented musician, and recently most of her poetry has been about death." What had sounded almost like anger in his voice was, in fact, anguish, a pushing toward his daughter in order to reach her. And he seemed to be doing so, for as he talked, tears began to stream down her face. As she cried silently, the tears collecting around the bottom of her chin, I saw that her eyes were puffy because she had already been crying that day.
The father was ready to continue, as if once started on his disclosure, he had to proceed to an end. "And there's more. Claudia has a lot of physical problems. Mysterious aches and pains, a ringing in her ears that doesn't seem to have any physical cause." As the testimony about her accumulated, the girl grew visibly more depressed and confused. She had stopped crying and sat there glassy-eyed and vacant. I found myself wondering: is she schizophrenic? Or is she just very depressed and anxious? The aches and pains could be depression, and the ringing in her ears could be anxiety. But the five levels of reality sounded ominous.
We had focused quickly on Claudia, the "patient," and the interview seemed to be moving inevitably toward questioning her next—about herself; her symptoms, her view of the problems.
Because the family's attention was so structured around Claudia, Cares next move surprised the father and the family. I expected it, though, and would have done it myself if he hadn't. "I'm pretty clear about what's going oh with Claudia," Carl said, a thin, tough edge to his voice, "and I'd like to get away from her for a while. Can you talk about the family as a whole? How do you see it?"
Our asking about Claudia had produced, you see, the same kind of pressure on her that she sensed in the family at home. She felt scrutinized, blamed, on the spot. And Carl was trying to give her some relief, not by accepting her status as "patient" but by dodging her, passing her by for the time being. He would get to her later.
The father was confused by the question. "What do you mean?"
Carl, rapidly: "What is the family like? Quiet or noisy? Organized or confused? Angry or loving? How is it structured? What are the teams, the coalitions? What are the various roles?"
The father still looked confused. "Which of those questions would you like me to try to answer?"
Carl's voice relaxed a bit. "Any one you like. I'd just like to get a sense of how you see the whole team."
The father was trying hard, thinking now about Carl's questions. "I guess we're a pretty quiet family generally and fairly traditional. I'm a lawyer, and busy, and I suppose I expect things to run smoothly at home. Usually they have, very smoothly." He seemed to be musing, almost to himself, as he wondered about the family. "My wife and I have gotten along well, agree on most things except, I guess, Claudia." Then he stopped and couldn't seem to go any further. Clearly he had come to talk about Claudia—everybody had—and it was strange to think about this other subject, the family as a whole. He wasn't prepared.
Don was fidgeting with the strap on his sandal. I spoke to him. "Can you help him? How do you see the family?"
He looked up. "It's OK. Only moderately lousy, I guess.'
"How is it lousy?" I asked. So much of what we do is prod people to talk. Don complained about the fights. They just went in circles. Did he have any idea who started them, or did everyone do his or her part? His cynicism was very helpful; he agreed that everyone did his or her part. We asked him if he could identify the different steps in the family's dance. How did it begin?
Don seemed to know what we were asking for. "Well, Claudia will do something, like leave her room an 'extra-special mess, or leave her books at school, or stay out too late—this was in the days before it got this terrible—and Mom will yell at her. And Claudia will sulk off to her room. Then Dad will come home, and Claudia will be up in her room, and Dad will try to go find out what is wrong with her. Then Mom will say something to me about Dad taking Claudia's side, or she will just get real quiet. Dad will come downstairs, and then in about a half an hour Claudia will come down looking weepy, and nobody is speaking to anybody for quite a while. It makes for a wonderful dinner.' An eleven-year-old who really knew what was going on.
We asked about how things had changed in recent months, and he knew about that, too. "Nowadays Claudia doesn't hang around. When she gets mad, she may yell about two words to Mother; then she's off. She goes out the door and slams it and may not come back for two days. It almost always happens when Dad is home, and before Claudia is gone ten minutes, Mom and Dad are in a fight Well, I wouldn't really say a fight. A sort of medium-warm argument Mom wants to call the police or some such thing, and Dad says let her go, she'll come back." We asked hind what he did to help the fight along, and he said there wasn't much he could do at times like that except .pick on his little sister. "Sometimes if she starts crying, they'll stop arguing."
Carl and I glanced at each other briefly, smiling faintly at a pattern we both recognized. Then Carl said, "Sounds like Claudia is in charge of getting Mom and Dad to start fighting, and you and Laura are in charge of helping them stop." Don tilted his head and smirked as though he were thinking it wasn't a half-bad idea.
We asked Don if Claudia was the only thing his parents fought about, and he said yes. How long had they been fighting? Six months. Before that he saw no fights? No, none. And what were the fights like that he saw now? How noisy did they get? Don: "Not very noisy. Like I said, medium-warm. Mom grumbles loud, and Dad just grumbles."
Then we asked him if there were other things besides Claudia that his parents were mad at each other about but didn't fight about. Don thought that question was interesting, and he took a minute to think about it. Finally: "Yes, I think so. Mom doesn't like it a bit that Dad works so much. He's always working. And when he comes home, he goes up to his study and shuts himself in and works some more. He sure does love to work. But Mom doesn't complain to him about it. She tells me."
Suddenly, I saw a parallel. "So that's one reason Mom gets so mad when Claudia goes and hides in her room—she's being like her dad." Don said, "Huh," in a sort of studious way, and it was evident that both the parents and Claudia had heard me. I looked at the parents, and they had a look of retreat, scared, as though they had suddenly stumbled over a snake and weren't sure whether it was poisonous. Carl and I were the snake, grilling their son about their relationship. It must indeed have been disconcerting, and Don's willingness to talk must have been one of the unconscious reasons they hadn't wanted to bring him to the first session. He was just old enough and observant enough and uninvolved enough to be a terrific asset to our probe into the family.
"And what," Carl asked Don, "is your dad mad about that he doesn't confront Mom with?"
Again, Don thought. Then he seemed to have it. "Her mom. A pause. "You see, Mom's mom is a really old lady, but she's pretty hard to please and pretty nosy. She calls Mom a lot, and Mom has to go see her a lot. Dad gets mad that Grandmother can tell Mom what to do, and he gets mad about the telephone bills and the airplane bills."
"How did you find that out?" Carl asked.
"I overheard Dad talking to Claudia."
Carl: "So Dad complains to Claudia, and Mom complains to you. Is that the way the teams go in the family? Claudia is on Dad's team and you're on Mom's?"
Don: "I guess so, but I try not to be on anybody's team, really. I want to stay out of it." He looked worried at the mention of teams, sensing as he did the deep divisions within the family.
"I know," Carl said, with a curious mixture of empathy and teasing. He understood, but clearly he wasn't the captive of his empathy. At this point, he was keeping his distance, and the distance, like the occasional abrasiveness, was necessary. Without the perspective that allowed Carl to pull back and shift emphasis, we might still be breathing dawn Claudia's neck, trying to find out what was wrong with her. Instead, we were exploring the family, trying to uncover the structure, the tone, the patterns in the family that were deeper and more significant than Claudia's problems, serious as those were. This was exploratory surgery, and for the family, especially the parents, it was no fun.
But for Claudia the experience was different. Since we had moved away from her and her problems, she looked different: more alert, more curious, and relieved. She was quietly composing herself and hearing every word.
Laura had found the rocking chair again. Carl had quietly handed her a tablet and pencil, and she was rocking very slightly as she drew. She looked completely oblivious to the discussion.
The next question was an obvious one, and Carl asked it, his voice warming as he turned toward Laura, smiling. "Whose team are you on?"
Laura had apparently been waiting. She answered with a little girl pout. "Nobody's."
Carl, still smiling: "What's the matter? Can't you get somebody on your team? How are you going to stand up to your brother if you don't get some help? He's bigger than you are."
"Mom will help me," Laura said, smiling a little herself. "And sometimes Daddy."
Carl, a blatant flirt: "Ohl That's not fair! Mom and Dad on your team. No wonder your brother gets upset." Then be continued, more serious now. "Say, how do you see the family? What do you think of these disagreements between Mom and Dad and Claudia?"
Laura's face clouded, and her voice retreated into quiet apprehension. "They worry me."
Carl spoke almost as softly as Laura,' his words quite warm. "Who do you worry the most about?"
Laura thought for a while; then: "Claudia."
Carl, concerned: "What do you worry will happen?"
Laura, even quieter: "That she'll be gone, won't come back."
Carl: "And then what?"
Laura, beginning to cry a little, a few tears, her voice strained under the intensity of her feeling: "Mommy and Daddy will be so mad at each other they'll divorce.'
I had heard her talk about Claudia's "leaving," and I wondered if it was related to still another fantasy. I asked Laura, the concern clear in my voice, too, "Do you worry that Claudia will kill herself?" And with that Laura burst into tears. She had moved quickly from an entertaining petulance to quiet seriousness to open grief. I was amazed. I hadn't guessed that the apparently happy little girl was hiding such deep and painful fantasies. Divorce, suicide—what else was she worried about?
Finally, she calmed down and said, again quietly, "Yes. I worry about that, too. I heard my mommy and daddy talking about it, and I keep thinking about it"
Carl reassured her. "Well, I guess that's why we're here—so she won't need to kill herself to change the family."
Laura seemed to accept what Carl said, settling into the rocker with a look of relief, snuffling softly still. The feeling in the room had changed: gentler, less suspicion and tension in everyone. We all shared a tenderness for Laura. Some therapists might say that a child the age and status of Laura
in this family could well stay home. She wasn't the "problem" after all, and she might be hurt by what she heard. Yet in the space of a few minutes she had changed the entire emotional atmosphere of the interview, had, in fact, helped all of us feel warmer. The inflection in Carl's voice as he spoke to Laura was what allowed her to cry, and it was not lost on the family. Here was a warm "parent," as well as a tough one. It was also important for Laura that she was able to expose her painful fantasies and cry about them. She probably hadn't shared those thoughts with anyone.
We all were silent for a moment, and in the silence I thought about the secretive quality in families. This family appeared no different from several hundred others I had seen. They worked hard at maintaining certain secrets, but apparently everybody knew everything anyway. Even Laura knew about the suicidal poems. What they were able to hide, and thus avoid sharing, was their pain. In their isolation, they all were very lonely.
The silence was a watershed moment in the interview. We had drifted from exploration toward an attempt to define the problem for the family—perhaps in a way they hadn't seen before. Now we were ready for the mother. Because she was such a crucial person in the family and was bound to have so much feeling about everything, we had postponed her comments. It was her turn now.
Carolyn Brice was angry. Sitting in attempted composure on the edge of the sofa, her legs crossed, she nevertheless betrayed both physical and emotional discomfort. While the
father seemed weighed down by some invisible burden, the mother appeared to be pushed from all sides, her dark eyes flashing a warning that she felt both trapped and resentful.
Carl began: "Mom, could you tell about your view of the family?"
She bit her lip just slightly and turned toward Carl. guess I find it hard to talk about the family, I'm so upset about Claudia and so angry at her."
"Wish you'd try," Carl said.
The mother sighed, a long, deep sigh that spoke of her discouragement.
Carl: "You could start with your sigh. Say what it was about."
Carolyn: "Oh, I just thought about the family, and suddenly I felt depressed. It's a mess. It's so complicated that I don't even know where to begin."
Carl: "What's the worst part for you?"
"The struggle with Claudia."
"What else?" I asked. She shifted her eyes slightly to look at me.
"The thing with David, my husband. I knew that would come out—it had to."
I was surprised she was talking so easily about it, and I followed her lead. "What's wrong with the marriage?"
A thin rim of tears formed in her eyes. "Oh, nothing," she said. 'lust that sometimes I wonder if it's ever really existed. I thought it was fine until the last year—he'd go to work, I would take care of the children and the house, and everything seemed to go smoothly." Then her voice dropped, and
she was musing. "Maybe too smoothly."
"And then?" I asked.
She looked up, resuming her normal tone. 'Then everything fell apart. This thing with Claudia, it has just ruined everything we had. We fight about it all the time now. We blame each other; we don't know what to do."
Carl seemed curious about something. "How about the time before it blew up? You didn't see anything wrong with the marriage then?"
"No," she said.
Carl: "How about right now, when you look back at it? See anything now? How about the stuff Don was talking about?"
"You mean about his working too hard and my problems with my mother?"
"That's right," Carl said. He smiled. 'Because, if I could use the language of therapy, it sounds as if he were having an affair with his work and you were carrying on with your mother."
Carolyn frowned, confused, trying to see what Carl was getting at: "I suppose its true that I resented the work. I still do. And he has always resented my mother."
I saw where Carl was going, and it was important. One of the joys of our working so much together is that we know each other so well. We can function as if we were one interviewer. I jumped in again. "Do you have a sense of how separated you were even before Claudia's troubles came up?" She said yes, she guessed she could see it. She certainly felt unhappy with how much she was alone with the children. I wanted to know when this emotional divorce between them began. Was it there from the start? No, she didn't think so. They were very close and very happy in the early years of their marriage. When did it change? When the children came along, she guessed, and when his work load got so heavy. And when was that? She .thought it was when they had been -married eight years or so. Did she think it was just the demands of a job and children that had caused them to drift apart? She did.
I wasn't satisfied, though I was amazed at how easily she continued to talk about the marriage. This would never have happened if we had begun the interview with her. She would have insisted on fighting with Claudia. I made a guess in my next question to her. "How about the dependency between you and your husband in the early days? Were you aware of that?"
She seemed surprised that I should know about it. "Yes, I think we were very dependent on each other. In a strange sort of way we still are."
"I agree," I said, not offering any explanation. "Maybe that's what made you two get so separate, made him get so overinvolved in his work, and you get so overinvolved with the kids and with your mother. The dependency in the marriage scared you. It may have felt as if it were going to gobble you both up." I said this with a special tone. In my voice, as if I were speaking not directly to her, but to some sensitive and elusive part within her that could hear it, somewhere behind the usual rational level of understanding. And hear it she did, though she clearly didn't like hearing it. I saw her wince at my words. This kind of invasion of someone's life is very threatening. The fact that we were being relatively gentle at the same time that we were forceful made us seem doubly dangerous. Our intrusion was difficult to fight.
Carolyn may have thought that I had some kind of special power that let me guess correctly that she and David had been very dependent on each other early their marriage, but not so. You don't have to see even as many as a hundred families to realize that the dilemma is predictable. Most of us—and psychotherapists are included—get married to the great American marital dream. Marriage is going -to be that happy state in which we get all the nurturance and care and love and empathy and even the good advice that we didn't receive in our families. Marriage is; going to help us feel better about ourselves; it is going to make life easier and more secure. And behold, usually it does—for a while. We form a very tight, dependent unit, and we help each other In all sorts of ways: advice, sympathy, mothering, teaching. We have a lot to give each other.
But sooner or later this psychotherapy project, this at first delicious mothering, fails. It fails for a complex set of reasons, most of which we will deal with later, but the major reason is that the protagonists get very scared that they are each going to lose their individual identities in the dependency, in the same way they lost them in the families in which they grew up. The marriage begins to feel like a trap, a replication of the old family of origin. So the couple begins to back away from each other, mistrusting. They are right to mistrust. How can you safely depend on someone with whom you're struggling for dominance in the relationship?
If the partners could stick with the backing away and endure the aloneness for a while, the problem might be solved. They would get over being so dependent, and marriage wouldn't feel so threatening. But it rarely happens that way. Instead, they usually find a substitute for the dependency.
Carolyn nodded her head very slightly, her eyes fixed on the complex tangles of color in the Oriental rug. Then she looked up, puzzled. "So what happened?"
I smiled at the dimensions of her question and at her naive assumption that I somehow understood it all. But if I couldn't answer the question, at least I could relate to it. "I really ddn't know what happened, but I could make a guess. I imagine that both of you got scared by the closeness, backed away from each other, and found a substitute closeness. He got overinvolved with the work world. You 'got overinvolved with the children and maybe reinvolved with your mother. But the dependency and all the other problems didn't change. They were just submerged, waiting to catch up with you."
I was beginning to sound theoretical, something I dislike in myself. One of my weaknesses as a therapist is that I intellectualize, and I was at it again. There would be plenty of time to explain the dynamics of marriage. There was a pause while Carolyn was thinking about what I said or waiting for another question to occur to her. Carl saw the opening as a way to move us on. He turned toward Claudia. 'You look sort of bored," he said. "Can you say how you fit into this? How do you see the family and your part in it?"
Claudia blanched. She had become comfortable with not talking. Her eyes flared wide in fear; then she calmed a bit. She began to talk quietly, obviously trying to contain her feeling. "I don't think I have a place in this family, or at least I can't find it." I asked what she meant, and she continued. "Well, I can't seem to please anyone, at least not my parents, especially my mother." An edge of anger had come into her voice, and she glanced quickly at Carolyn. The mother shifted her posture ever so slightly, toward her daughter and toward the argument which she sensed was coming. It was as if they had been waiting for this moment, for a word that would give them permission to fight
But Carl was not interested in their having a fight, nor was I. Not that we are against fighting—far from it—but it simply isn't productive for the family to come into a first interview of therapy and have their usual fight. They leave the interview with the feeling "What's new?" We wanted them to hold off on the fight so we could worm our way into the family's analysis of its problems. Maybe the family could come away with at least one new idea, as well as some impression of who we were and what we were up to.
Carl: "Can you talk about this other thing that's so hard to get a handle on—the whole family? How do you see it?"
Claudia faltered, as puzzled as everyone else had been by the question. "I don't know what you mean. What do you want to know?" She sounded irritated at being deterred from attacking her mother.
Carl had apparently heard something in her initial words. "You said something about not having a place in the family. Did you mean that literally? Do you have no territory in the family that feels lace your own? Not even your room?"
Claudia glowered at her mother. "Especially not my room." She sounded very bitter. "My mother owns my room. Nothing in it is mine. She is constantly on my back about it and the way I keep it." Then she added as an afterthought, "And she is an incredible snoop."
This time the mother couldn't resist. She leaned toward Claudia, her gaze locking into her daughter's, that strange anger magnet pulling the two toward each other. "Claudia, that's simply not true. I only complain about your room when it gets, absolutely, intolerably messy. And I resent your comment about my snooping. I have not done that. I have just cleaned your room up occasionally, when I couldn't stand it any longer."
Claudia, beginning to flush with anger: "And you had to read my letters from John while you were cleaning!"
The mother sounded defensive. "Well, I was concerned about you. You never tell me anything about your life, and as a mother I have a right to be concerned!"
Claudia: "But not a snoop!"
Mother: "Call it what you will. I call it, concern."
I moved my hand to attract their attention, reaching toward the mother as if to grasp her wrist "Mom, can I stop you? We'll get back to you in a minute. Right now we need to hear some of Claudia's story about this thing."
Carolyn was still angry at her daughter, but she was beginning to focus the anger on me. "But she misrepresents it."
I: "I know. Each of you knows quite well how to get the other's goat and how to get into a fight. But we're trying to find out what's going on, and we can't do it if you insist on fighting."
The mother settled against the couch, looking depressed. "Well, all right."
Carl had apparently been thinking over the situation while I was breaking up the fight. He emerged from his thought and smiled at Claudia. "Maybe that's an example of what you were talking about."
Claudia looked puzzled again. Carl does this often, saying something enigmatic to get people's attention, then explaining himself. He continued, still half-musingly: "Well, we asked you to talk about yourself, to define your view of the family. Which is sort of like giving you some time and space in this interview. And you seemed almost eager to turn it over to Mother or to this fight the two of you have.'
Claudia: "I don't understand. You mean I gave up my chance to talk.
Carl: "Of course. All I could hear was the fight. I couldn't hear you at all after the first few sentences."
Claudia struggled with what Carl was saying. "What do you mean, you couldn't hear me?"
Carl: "You as separate, as a separate person. You seemed lost in the fight."
Again, her eyes withdrawn as if she were looking inward, Claudia grappled with this strange idea.
Carl: "Did you feel that way? Caught up in it?"
Claudia, very quietly: "Yes, I guess I did."
I had become interested in the idea too, and I ventured in, addressing myself to Carl, "You know, it seemed to me that Mother was just as caught up in it as Claudia."
Carl nodded, continuing with Claudia. "How about that? You think Mother is as intimidated by the fight as you are?"
Carl: "By the need to fight with you, assuming she can't help it either. Or do you think she goes through this agony because she wants to?"
Claudia: "I think she wants to. She provokes me all the time."
I: "And you don't think you provoke her? You don't have a sense of the things you do that make her mad? Your step in the family dance, as it were?" Claudia didn't see it that way. She saw herself, and I think she really felt it, as the victim, the helpless one, her mother as the one with free will. She said that her mother chose to persecute her.
Working in close synchrony now, Carl and I explored Claudia's view of the family. It looked to us as if both mother and daughter were thoroughly helpless in the face of this ,fight. They were itching to get at each other at the same time that they abhorred the process of fighting. Each of them was focused on the other as the source of the trouble, and it was difficult for either to look at her own feelings and actions. We had taken Claudia's initial words about a lack of personal space in the family, had seen an example of it in the power of the fight itself, its power to "take her over," and we were using this fight as a metaphor for defining the family problem. What we wanted to do was get away from the simplistic notion that Claudia was the problem. At the least, the family should come away from the interview with a little more complicated view than that. We were working to show them that the real problem was family-wide and that it involved their helplessness to avoid a complex and thoroughly painful pattern or, as we phrased it to them, "a family dance." They winced when we said they were doing a "dance" because it felt to them as if they all were wearing steel shoes and dancing mostly on one another's toes.
We asked Claudia what she thought was behind the fight, something more significant than her messy room. And on that question she drew a complete blank. It had never occurred to her that there might be anything beyond the issues themselves, unless it was simply her mother's ill will toward her. Claudia was working hard to answer our questions, but as gentle as we tried to be, she still must have felt a bit accused, much as she felt at home. While she talked, she kept shifting in her chair, looking nervously at her mother and her father. She sat between them, and it was not easy for her to keep monitoring the way each responded to what she was saying. I had the sense that she was not talking to us at, all, but that everything she said was directed at her parents. It is a feeling I get frequently in the beginning stages of family therapy: though the family wants to talk to an outsider, they are so caught up in their war with one another that they can't manage it. Every word is subtly targeted at someone in the family. You can't always tell who the intended recipient is, but you get to feeling used after a while, since the words are being bounced off you toward someone else.
I had that feeling as I asked Claudia about her mother's resentment "What do you think is behind it, Claudia?" I watched Claudia's face, angry and sullen as she thought about her mother, and I realized that in spite of our civility, the interview was just barely under control. The fight between mother and daughter hung over us like a threatening cloud.
Claudia looked angry. "I don't know. I wish I did." "What would you guess?" I asked.
As hard as she tried, Claudia could not simply discuss the issue. She had to hurl herself into it. Her voice gathered fury as she turned toward her mother. "I think she's jealous! She's afraid I'll do something, meet somebody, have a little fun. Because she certainly never does anything that I can see except ride me and ride me and ride me!" The words sprang out of her him a hand flung wildly, and they had the immediate effect on her mother of a slap in the face.
Carolyn flushed and snapped her gaze toward Claudia. "No! That is not so! But you want to know what it is? Do you want to know? It's your defiance of me. Every action you take, every look- you give me is defiant! You act as if you were the parent, the one in control, instead of me. Well, I'm tired of it! Tired of it, do you hear!"
Her daughter yelled back at her. "And I'm tired of you! You think you are the only one who can get fed up! I'm fed up, tool" The two of them sat on the edges of their seats, straining toward each other, all the while looking frightened.
The father had been silent for a long while, but just as Carl and I began to try to get the two women to calm down, he spoke. "Now, Claudia, 'I can't tolerate your talking to your mother like that. You know you defy her, and she has a right to resent it." It was a pathetically weak statement, pale by contrast with the fury of the women. But it had a peculiar effect on Claudia. She had turned and bent all her anger on her mother, so the words from her father came from behind her. She tried to turn to face her father, and just as she did so, her mother said something else angry to her. For a moment Claudia wavered between her two parents, trying to decide whom to face.
Then inside her something happened; some tolerance reached its end. She turned cold white and stood up. Moving quickly, she said in real panic as she strode rapidly across the roam toward the door, "I can't stand this. I have to get out of here." She slammed the door hard as she left.
The family was stunned, and Carl and I were surprised and unhappy. But we had dealt with the same situation many times before and had a sense of what to do. Our "battle for structure" would be lost if we continued without Claudia, and the interview would certainly feel weak and chaotic to the family if we stopped. We suggested gently that they go get Claudia so that we could continue. The father realized that he was the only one who could do this, and he shrugged and left. The rest of us sat there, still feeling the shock, waiting. David returned, Claudia walking in behind him, her eyes bleary and red with crying. She collapsed a bit theatrically into her chair, avoiding her mother.
Everyone looked dreadful. Claudia was limp and exhausted and still weeping a little. The father sat upset and tense on the edge of his chair, and the mother leaned against the back of the sofa, confused and still angry. Don and Laura were silent and somber. After Claudia and her father sat down, there was a very difficult silence.
Carl broke it, and as he spoke, he looked at Claudia and smiled very slightly. "Could I guess?"
Claudia managed a weak smile and a nod.
Carl turned to the father, apparently not wanting to put any more pressure on Claudia. "She was doing all right with Mother alone, but when you got into the fight, it was too much. She was caught between you and Carolyn, in the cross fire as it were. Did you see it?"
The father looked embarrassed. "I didn't then; I guess I do now."
Now I interrupted. "May I make a suggestion? Why don't you trade places with your mother, Claudia?" Mother and daughter looked at each other, both puzzled, and then did as I asked. Now the parents were sitting together in the chairs, facing us. The children were on the couches. As soon as they were in their places someone, I think it was Claudia, sighed. I added, without explanation, "That feels better to me, too."
It wasn't an ordinary seating change, just as the family's' original seating position wasn't ordinary. They had unconciously portrayed the structure of their family in the way they sat, and in changing it, I was making a symbolic shift in the family structure. Both Carl and I realized that part of Claudia's dilemma lay in her being caught between her parents, and we were working, on different levels, to help the family deal with the pattern. I was asking them to make the shift physically, while Carl was beginning to define the need for it verbally. I didn't interpret my effort to get the parents together because I wanted, to leave it implicit, a sort of preconscious suggestion.
Carl went back to the father. "Could you try again? We really didn't give you much chance before to talk about your view. How do you see this situation, this conflict?"
The father didn't like this process at all. "As I said before, I have felt torn between the two sides. For a long time I felt that Claudia was the underdog in the fights, and I suppose I have defended her. I've tried to get Carolyn to ease up on her, and sometimes I've given Claudia permission to do things that her mother denied her. And I think that has created a lot of conflict."
The mother, very quietly and angrily: "It certainly has." The father continued. "But lately I have tried, I have really tried to support Carolyn."
I remembered then the timid way he had scolded Claudia just before she left the room, and I turned to him. "I guess I heard, you 'trying' in the way you spoke to Claudia just before she ran out. You sounded hesitant, as if you were making an effort to scold her but didn't have your heart in
The father looked chagrined. "I guess that's right. I see my wife's point, but I also feel sorry for Claudia."
I looked at Claudia. She was listening again, reflective, appearing much calmer. I didn't want to make her say anything, so I just spoke my thought aloud to her. "Maybe that's why you panicked the way you did. You were still caught between Mom and Dad, but Dad seemed to be betraying you, going over to Mom's side."
Carl, to the father: "How about that? You think Claudia feels that you've betrayed her? That she's lost her ally?" Father: "It's possible.'
Carl, to Claudia: "How about that? Have you lost your ally?"
Claudia looked sad, drained of feeling. She nodded. "Yes. I thought I could count on Dad."
Almost simultaneously, Carl and I looked at the clock and realized that our time was almost up. First interviews are so difficult. We were trying to control things, or at least keep them from getting out of control, and trying to learn something about what was happening in the family, and trying to communicate some of our ideas to the family, trying in fact to invade the family with our "reinterpretation" of their dilemma—and all within an hour. As usual, we didn't have enough time.
Carl, at ease and putting away his pipe which had long ago gone out: "Hey, we've got to get to work. We're almost out of time. Let's see if we can sum up." The family was sflent, waiting. Then Carl turned to me. "You want to, or shall I?"
"Co ahead," I said. "I'll sum up your summary."
Carl smiled back at me. "The younger generation always gets the last word."
He paused then, reached for his pipe, tamped some fresh tobacco in, and lit it. The smoke curled upward and out into the room like a weed drifting in a lazy stream. Though Carl may have been in a hurry to finish, he certainly didn't show it. Actually, I think this kind of ritual is very important I'm convinced that psychotherapists are basically people engaged in the art of making suggestions; they just use fairly subtle ways of making them. Carl wasn't consciously practicing hypnosis as he lit his pipe, but the rhythmical way in which he did it had the effect of gathering everyone's attention and of calming and focusing all of us on what he was about to say. When he finally spoke, the family was sitting in a churchlike silence.
"Well, it feels like a pretty standard family triangle, and a very tight one at that." A pause while he took another puff on the pipe. "It sounds in a way as if the family has been working for a long time on a fairly serious problem, and I don't mean Claudia." Another pause. "The most serious problem seems to have been the slow, quiet drifting away of the parents from each other and the gradual cooling of the marriage. In a way, Claudia's crisis may be a way the family has evolved of trying to deal with this bigger problem of the coolness." Pause. I knew Carl was choosing his words very carefully. He could have said "deadness" instead of "coolness," but he didn't dare.
Now the father took the lead in questioning Carl. "What do you mean, Claudia's crisis is a way of dealing, with our coolness? She has made things worse between us."
Carl: "Yes, I know. Let me finish." The father shifted in his chair, and Carl went on. "It sounds as if the basic thing that has happened is that the two of you, the parents, agreed to get Claudia between you as a way of helping you heat up the marriage. Dad could team up with Claudia, and Mom would get jealous and very angry. Then Mom and Claudia agreed to heat up their fight as a way of finding out what it was like to really fight things out." Carl glanced gently at Claudia. "And maybe you were just trying to teach Mom how to fight!" Claudia smiled weakly back, looking embarrassed.
I was impatient with listening, and I wanted to add something. I spoke to Claudia. "I think the really painful part, though, is that the family intuitively agreed to escalate things to the point where Mom and Dad had to get together if they were to cope with you. Dad even said it was happening —he was beginning to support his wife against you.
Carl replied in a single syllable, but it had an emphasis to it; he really meant it. "Yep." He glanced at me. "Claudia sure is the family Christ, fighting to get her parents together and to get them all to a therapist. And it's a big job."
I realized that we were elevating Claudia to the status of family saint and making her parents sound like villains. I spoke to the father. "Of course, the real accomplishment may be that the family as a whole agreed to create a situation desperate enough so that something had to change. Agreeing to push things that far takes real guts."
Carl: "That's right Most families let things rock along unhappily forever. They never see the possibilities of escaping what Thoreau called quiet desperation."
The family looked a little puzzled that we were praising them for being desperate, but we were serious. Their unconscious decision to escalate their conflict is probably one that is made in the context of the availability of outside help. They tried to resolve their problems within the family, using the resources they had. When this attempt failed, rather than settle into the resigned hopelessness that many families feel, the Brices began an escalation process that was' intuitively calculated to bring in someone from the outside world. Trite as this sounds, the conflict was a call for help from the entire family.
Because a family comes into the therapy with such a sense of failure, it is important to show them that they are unconsciously "up to something" that is basically constructive. Their method of trying to grow has its obvious faults, but the will to live is intact. It is, in fact, the driving force behind their crisis.
We were winding up. Carl had taken his appointment book out, and I reached for my briefcase to get mine. Don had sat quietly through the storm of the last half of the interview and now came out of his reverie. He spoke to Carl. "Wow. Do you do this all day?"
Carl, smiling: "Yep."
Don: "How do you stand it? Don't you get tired of all this fighting?'
Carl: "Nope. I like it. I find it very exciting to be in the midst of people's trying to grow. And you know why?'
Don: "No, why?'
Carl: "Because it pushes me to grow. I'm here for me, not for you guys. This is just part of my plot to try to be a more alive person. You 'didn't think it was for charity, did you.
Don, a slight smile crossing his face: "I thought it was for money."
Carl: "Touché. But only partly true. I would have made more money if I had stuck to being a real doctor, delivering babies and stuff. Hey! We've got to quit."
The family looked relieved, and you could see them warming visibly to Carl's banter with Don. Now we were being social again, leaving the symbolic and intense inner-family world, returning to our ordinary roles.
Carl turned cheerfully to the father. "Well, do you want to meet again?" He spoke with apparent confidence and with complete neutrality, as if he really didn't care whether or not they came back. Some therapists would either simply assume that the family wanted to return or even try to persuade them to continue, becoming in effect salespeople for their own work. But if the family senses the therapist is trying to rope them into therapy, they immediately become suspicious: "Why does he need us? Doesn't he have enough patients? Is he overinvolved? Has he some personal need that only we can satisfy?" And they back away. Carl and I try to be as effective as we can in each hour, and when that's over, we leave the question of continuing completely up to the family. Otherwise, the parents begin to wonder if we are just like their parents—possessive. If people are really going to get deeply into therapy, they need to know that they can escape easily. So at the end of every hour we implicitly give the family the option of not making another appointment. David and Carolyn Brice looked at each other askance, not knowing what the other thought about continuing. He took the step. "I would say yes." His wife nodded, relieved. She was right to be relieved, since fathers are so often afraid of the process of psychotherapy and are reluctant to continue.
We found a time for the next appointment, but not without some fumbling with schedules and contingencies, the inevitable hassle of trying to assemble seven people, any seven people, in a world of complicated commitments.
The family was collecting their paraphernalia when I interrupted. "Could I caution you about something?" They looked startled. "Try not to carry this fight on at home. Save it for in here, so we can help you with it, and so we can get to be a part of it." I smiled broadly. "Don't fight!"
The father smiled, too. "Do you hear that, girls?" He glanced fondly at his daughter. Claudia, after hesitating for a moment, grimaced and stuck her tongue out at him. The mother saw it, and she too managed a smile.
I turned to Carl, smiling, "And that, Dr. Whitaker, is my last word."
And then they left, the father shaking hands with both of us, Laura handing over her pencils, waving as she backed out of the door.
Cautioning them not to fight at home was important, because often families will take home from the first interview a sort of vague message: "Be more open with each other." Then they get into a really bad, destructive fight and come in black and blue to the next interview, saying, "See, it doesn't work." If we could get them to do their fighting in the interview, we could help make it a more constructive process. We would also get involved much more quickly than if we had to sit and listen to a blow-by-blow retelling of last week's altercation.
I t is an anxious step, inviting a family to bring all their long-accumulated tension into your office. But then, where else can they take it?