White and Epston”s Narrative Therapy: “Storying” and “Re-Storying” Lives
Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation
Unlike McAdams and Hermans, for whom the point of departure is an elaboration of a model of self, for White and Epston the issue of change and time is of primary concern in itself. Reflecting on the early stages of his career, White highlights the importance of anthropologist Gregory Bateson”s work for him by claiming that Bateson demonstrated “how the mapping of events through time is essential for the perception of difference, for the detection of change” (White and Epston 1990: 2). For White, this was a catalyst that drew his attention to a much neglected temporal direction in therapy. From there, White came to adopt the notion of narrative, since it requires “the location of events in cross-time patterns” (White and Epston 1990: 3). Generally, White and Epston are guided by an analogy between the unfolding of human life and narrative, or rather the role that narrative can play in this unfolding. In their “inaugural” therapeutic book Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends of 1990, they wrote:
Social scientists became interested in the text analogy following observations that, although a piece of behavior occurs in time in such a way that it no longer exists in the present by the time it is attended to, the meaning that is ascribed to the behavior survives across time. It was this ascription of meaning that drew their attention, and in their attempts to understand this they began to invoke the text analogy. This enabled the interaction of persons to be considered as the interaction of readers around particular texts. This analogy also made it possible to conceive of the evolution of lives and relationships in terms of the reading and writing of texts, insofar as every new reading of a text is a new interpretation of it, and thus a different writing of it. (White and Epston 1990: 9)
Expanding this analogy into the domain of therapy, White and Epston suggest that persons experience problems when there is a discrepancy between their lived experience and the narratives that describe this experience, and moreover there will be significant aspects of their lived experience that cannot be accounted for within these dominant narratives. Therefore, when people seek therapy the process should be aimed at the identification and formulation of alternative stories. These stories should enable the person to generate new meanings that they “will experience as more helpful, satisfying, and open-ended” (White and Epston 1990: 15).
Significantly, if for McAdams the therapeutic potential of a new story lies in its restored coherence, for White and Epston it is new narrative”s open-endedness that makes it helpful. Drawing on Barthes”s ideas on textual analysis and authorship, White and Epston note that stories as textual assemblages of facts, feelings and hypotheses are unstable and are reorganized with every retelling. Furthermore, the vector of such assemblages is aimed at the future. In their words:
Stories are full of gaps which persons must fill in order for the story to be performed. These gaps recruit the lived experience and the imagination of persons. With every performance, persons are reauthoring their lives. The evolution of lives is akin to the process of reauthoring, the process of persons” entering into stories, taking them over and making them their own.
Thus, in two senses, the text analogy introduces us to an intertextual world. In the first sense, it proposes that persons” lives are situated in texts within texts. In the second sense, every telling or retelling of a story, through its performance, is a new telling that encapsulates, and expands upon, the previous telling. (White and Epston 1990: 13)
White and Epston see the primary role of therapeutic engagement in assisting in such performative transformations. Their specific therapeutic techniques were inspired by Geertz”s notion of “thick description”. This notion implies the description of an event towards a broader, more meaningful account than an isolated observation would suggest. Similarly, the task of narrative therapists is to assist in generating a “thick description” of human experience without however seeking or providing an interpretation.
From there, therapy proceeds towards the identification of alternative stories or unique outcomes. White borrowed the term “unique outcome” from Erving Goffman, who suggested that “in structuring experience into any social strand of any person”s course through life […] unique outcomes are neglected in favor of such changes over time that are basic and common to members of a social category, although occurring independently to each of them” (Goffman quoted in White 2007: 232). Unique outcomes therefore belong to the lived experiences that are not registered or given meaning, experiences that are not part of dominant stories of people”s lives. These out-of-phase experiences can reveal an individual”s ability to cope differently, unexpectedly or better with regard to their predicaments. For White, unique outcomes represent a major resource of narrative therapy as they can provide a point of entry for alternative storylines of people”s lives. Through “unique outcomes” White and Epston aim to tap into “those aspects of lived experience that fall outside of the dominant story and provide a rich and fertile source for generation, or re-generation, of alternative stories” (White and Epston 1990: 15).
David Epston connects the notion of unique outcomes with the notion of sideshadowing proposed by literary scholar Gary Saul Morson. By doing so Epston seeks to enrich the resource pool of alternatives available for people to construct their life stories. Morson introduces the notion of sideshadowing in his monograph Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, and argues that sideshadowing, a device overlooked by Bakhtin in his analysis, is the most important device developed by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to represent temporal openness. Morson suggests that, in contrast to foreshadowing, which projects onto the present a shadow of the future, sideshadowing projects—from the “side”—the shadow of an alternative present. It allows us to see what might have been and therefore changes our view of what is:
In an open universe, the illusion is inevitability itself. Alternatives always abound, and, more often than not, what exists need not have existed. Something else was possible, and sideshadowing is used to create a sense of that “something else”. Instead of casting a foreshadow from the future, it casts a shadow “from the side”, that is, from the other possibilities. […] Side shadows conjure the ghostly presence of might-have-beens or might-bes. While we see what did happen, we also see the image of what else could have happened. In this way, the hypothetical shows through the actual and so achieves its own shadowy kind of existence in the text. (Morson 1994: 118)
Sideshadowing therefore defies the concept of inevitability and “restores the possibility of possibility” (Morson 1994: 119). It demonstrates the excess of potentialities over actualities, and it relies on a “concept of time as a field of possibilities” (Morson 1994: 199). Morson explores related notions of temporality such as past sideshadowing, pseudo-foreshadowing and processual intentionality, as well as actual narrative techniques that embody these markers of temporality in the text that work towards destabilizing the linear meaning or teleology of the text: gaps in the text or, the opposite device, “the extraordinary number of facts”, both of which aim at destabilizing consistency; the role of gossips; conditional tense; and “rumor as hero”.
Morson considers the greatest achievement of Tolstoy”s novels their resistance to any form of completeness, of a very possibility of a point at which all preceding elements could be grasped as part of a completed design, a point at which continuation would be superfluous:
Above all, Tolstoy wanted to change our habit of viewing our lives as if they resembled conventional narratives. Our lives have not been authored in advance, but are lived as we go along. They are process, not product, and every moment could have been different, for contingency always reigns. Time exits not under the foreshadow but accompanied by an ever-changing kaleidoscope of sideshadows. (Morson 1994: 172)
The appropriation of such a multifaceted understanding of narrative time by Epston contributes to the development of a more nuanced perspective on temporality and its critical use in narrative practice.
Another significant extension of narrative therapy with regards to the process of change is offered in White”s (2007) final book Maps of Narrative Practice. While the main direction of therapy remains the same—from “thick description” to the identification of “unique outcomes”—at this later stage White found in Vygotsky”s cultural-historical theory a useful resource for facilitating change. In doing so White picks up the thread of theorizing initiated by Jerome Bruner some 50 years ago. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Jerome Bruner acknowledges that Vygotsky”s cultural-historical theory became a powerful source of inspiration for him in forging a new paradigm in psychology, orientated around language and meaning. Commenting on a range of important concepts elaborated by Vygotsky—the paramount role of language in the development of consciousness, the notion of the zone of proximal development, the mediating role of signs and the instrumental role of thought and language—Bruner highlights that it was the last, Vygotsky”s instrumentalism, that struck him first and foremost. Quoting Vygotsky”s epigraph to Thought and Language drawn from Francis Bacon, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multant valent; instrumentis et auxilibus res perfictur” [“Left to themselves, neither hand nor mind alone amounts to much; they are perfected by the instruments and aids that they employ”], Bruner positions “instrumentis et auxilibus” at the centre of the problematics of self-reflection, self-control and agency: “They provide a means for turning around upon one”s thoughts, for seeing them in a new light. This is, of course, mind reflecting on itself. […] Consciousness plays an enormous role, consciousness armed with concepts and the language for forming and transforming them” (Bruner 1986c: 73).
While Hermans makes some references to Vygotksy”s ideas about agency and self-regulation, he does not fully unpack the scope of Vygotskian concepts, nor does he address their implications for adult development in a way that White does. White places great emphasis on Vygotsky”s exploration of concepts as tools of mental activity. He highlights that language occupies a central place for Vygotsky because it is understood as a principal means of integration and reorganization of mental life and the very basis of thought. For Vygotsky, as Bruner and Rieber note, “language is both a result of historical forces that have given it shape and a tool of thought that shapes thought itself” (Bruner and Rieber 2004: 10). As with other cultural tools, its use starts in a social context of interaction between a child and an adult, and then it gradually “grows” inward, creating a plane of inner speech that is used by an individual to regulate his or her own behaviour. What is achieved through the use of language goes beyond coordination and reorganization of lower mental functioning, and is posited by Vygotsky as a means of “freeing” a man from biological and historical constraints. He says, “We could not describe the new significance of the whole operation any better than to say that it represents a mastery of behavioural process itself” (Vygotsky 2004: 362). For Vygotsky such mastery of one”s own behaviour provides a solution to the problem of agency and volition, as by using signs to regulate his own behaviour “man himself creates the connection and ways for his reacting; he reconstructs the natural structure; with the help of signs, he subordinates to his will processes of his own behaviour” (Vygotsky 2004: 362). As Wertsch (1985) demonstrates, this achievement is predicated on the inherent potential in the acquisition of language for the concepts to become decontextualized. This allows for their self-reflexive use and the distributed and sign-mediated character of regulation of behaviour.
These ideas exert a powerful influence on White, who writes: “By this account, personal agency is not the simple outcome of human nature and its liberation or the product of developmental imperative. Rather, it is social collaboration in the development of word meaning that is essential to the attainment of personal agency and responsible action” (White 2007: 280). In concluding thus White also highlights the significant role that Vygotsky attributes to the social context of development. The regulative function of signs is for Vygotsky inextricably linked with social life and its demands and constraints. It is within this social context, and the context of interacting with close adults who regulate a child”s behaviour by giving him/her instructions that later become re-directed by the child onto himself/herself, that the road to self-regulated behaviour emerges.
Interaction with more knowledgeable others is crucial for this process, as surmised in the Vygotskian notion of the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). This zone is characterized by the distance between what the child can learn and achieve independently and what is possible for the child to learn and achieve in collaboration with others. Vygotsky defines the ZPD as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1986: 86). Traversing this zone is a challenge for a child and is predicated on the child”s ability to distance himself or herself from the immediacy of his or her experience. According to Vygotsky this process needs to be mediated by a caretaker who will break the task into manageable operations and “scaffold” the journey for the child.
Drawing on Vygotsky”s ideas about the mediating role of concepts and the notion of the ZPD, White in his last work defines the essence of the therapeutic process as “scaffolding”, in which the therapist”s role is precisely that: constructing a scaffold for a therapeutic conversation to take place. An important aspect of such an intervention is to introduce the idea that concepts (such as self-determination, self-esteem, freedom) do not represent essences but rather should be understood as cultural tools, which can be used to organize behaviour. White characterizes such procedures as “distancing” and postulates several potential levels of distancing—from low to very high—within therapeutic conversation. Furthermore, drawing on Vygotsky”s notion of the ZPD, and the fact that foray into this zone is only possible in collaboration with a significant other, White conceptualizes the therapeutic progress and process as a traversing of such a zone. The therapist occupies a role similar to the role of the significant other who provides “the sort of conversational partnership that supports people in proceeding in manageable steps” (White 2007: 275). The therapeutic aim is now defined as a rich story development, which mirrors in a way “thick description” of the initial stage, but is decisively future orientated and open-ended:
The distance that can be travelled in one therapeutic conversation from the starting point of a unique outcome to destinations in new territories of life and identity is often truly remarkable. Furthermore, it is entirely impossible to predict this destination at the outset. In my experience with these conversations, the only thing that can safely be predicted is that the outcome will defy any prediction. This is one of the enthralling aspects of engaging with these narrative practices. In the context of these conversations we remain “in suspense” with regard to the outcome, knowing only that at the end of the conversation we will be standing in territories of life and identity that we couldn”t have imagined at the outset. (White 2007: 251)
Overall, White and Epston”s understanding of change is in accord with the Vygotskian approach to human development, which insists on the necessity of focusing on processes rather than outcomes, understands development as a multi-trajectory, non-linear process, and emphasizes its autopoietic, e.g. self-making, aspect.2 Moreover, their ideas about therapeutic change resonate powerfully with Vygotsky”s most radical view, which suggests that development should be understood not as a process of incremental quantitative gains along the lines of growth and maturation, but in terms of revolutionary qualitative shifts. Such understanding of development highlights the human potential for transformation. As such, the narrative practice advocated by White and Epston is not only the most sensitive to the contingency and incalculability of life, it is the one that is most attuned to freedom.