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A Review of The Family Crucible

The Family Crucible, by Napier and Whitaker (1978), reads like a novel while at the same
time laying down some of the fundamental concepts of family systems therapy. It is a case
study of one family's experience in family therapy. While the therapy shifts from daughter to
son and then to parent interaction to daughters and son, it is finally the couple's marriage
that must be treated if issues are to be resolved. Even the grandparents are brought into
therapy to get at the family of origin issues.

The book opens with a quote from James Agee and Walker Evans: "The family must take
care of itself; it has no mother or father; there is no shelter, nor resource, nor any love,
interest, sustaining strength or comfort, so near, nor can anything happy or sorrowful that
comes to anyone in this family possibly mean to those outside it what it means to those
within it; but it is, as I have told, inconceivably lonely, drawn upon itself as tramps are
drawn round a fire in the cruelest weather; and thus and in such loneliness it exists among
other families, each of which is no less lonely, nor any less without help or comfort, and is
likewise drawn in upon itself."

Through the telling of the Brice family's story, Napier and Whitaker illustrate underlying
dynamics such as structural imbalances in the system and how child focus is a typical
method used by unhappy couples to avoid dealing with their own marital and family of
origin issues. Fusion, triangles, individual and family life cycle stages, family-of-origin
themes, polarization, reciprocity, blaming, and the hierarchy and characteristics of living
systems are among the concepts that are explained and illustrated through this family's
therapy experience. David and Carolyn, an unhappily married couple, are the parents of
Claudia (the IP), Laura, and Don. The book is well written and hard to put down once you
start reading it.

Whitaker has been criticized in the field, because many people believe that he does not
really have a theory. It is believed that it is only his charismatic personality that drives his
treatment. I disagree. I believe that one has only to read his chapter in The Handbook of
Family Therapy (1981) and see these concepts illustrated in The Family Crucible to realize
the depth and breadth of his theory.

In the service of reviewing the book, it is useful to consider Whitaker's background and key
theoretical concepts. He began as an OB/GYN and had no formal psychiatric training. He
became involved in treating schizophrenics after World War II. Whitaker was interested in
understanding disturbed relationships in a familial context and in determining whether
serious symptoms such as those in psychotics might be reinforced by dysfunctional family
patterns and beliefs.

From 1946 to 1955, Whitaker (1981) became involved in treating schizophrenia with a type
of aggressive play therapy. In fact, Whitaker's most formative training was in a child
guidance clinic where he learned play therapy (Whitaker, 1981). Whitaker used some
outrageous methods, including learning to talk "crazy," arm wrestling, use of a baby bottle,
and rocking, all of which were rooted in his training experience.

At the same time that he developed these techniques, he developed a kind of pyknolepsy,
wherein he would fall asleep in the middle of a session. He would dream about his
relationship with the patient being treated, and then make his associations to the dream a
part of the therapy session (Whitaker, 1981). In justifying his unique techniques, Whitaker
emphasized that "Each technique is a process whereby the therapist is developing himself
and using the patient as an intermediary, that is the therapist is interacting in a primary
process model" (p. 188).

In 1946, Whitaker (1981) moved to Emory, where he became chair of the Department of
Psychiatry. It was here that he developed dual co-therapy with Dr. Thomas Malone. In
1964, Whitaker worked with David Keith to develop a postgraduate specialty in MFT at the
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. The development of symbolic-experiential
methodology required students to ". . . take everything said by the patient as symbolically
important as well as realistically factual" (Whitaker, 1981, p. 189).

Whitaker (1981) defined health as ". . . a process of perpetual becoming" (p. 190). He
emphasized that what is most important in a healthy family is ". . . the sense of an
integrated whole. . . The healthy family is not a fragmented group nor a congealed group. . .
The healthy family will utilize constructive input and handle negative feedback with power
and comfort. The group is also therapist to the individuals" (p. 190). Whitaker also defines
the healthy family as ". . . a three to four generational whole that is longitudinally integrated.
. . maintaining a separation of the generations. Mother and father are not children and the
children are not parents" (p. 190). Whitaker also looked at the degree of volitional access
parents and children have to outside support and interests. The families of origin in healthy
families are on friendly terms.

Importantly, Whitaker looked to spontaneity as a marker of healthy communication in


families. The healthy family allows each member to admit to problems and to identify
competencies. Thus, it is emphasized that healthy families allow great freedom for the
individual to be himself. Whitaker (1981) states that ". . . normal families do no reify stress"
(p. 190).

Whitaker (1981) emphasized that a basic characteristic of all healthy families is the
availability of an "as if" structure, which permits different family members to take on
different roles at different times. Roles result from interaction instead of being rigidly
defined. They are defined by various conditions, including the past, present, future, culture,
and demands of the family at a given time. On the other hand, Whitaker defined the
dysfunctional family as ". . . characterized by a very limited sense of the whole" (p. 194).
Lack of flexibility at times of change, covert communication, intolerance of conflict, lack of
spontaneity, lack of empathy, blaming and scapegoating, a lack of playfulness, and little
sense of humor are all markers of unhealthy families from Whitaker's perspective.

Whitaker placed heavy emphasis on the technique of co-therapy. In The Family Crucible,
for example, the reader constantly witnesses Whitaker and Napier turn up the power.
Whitaker and Napier's process techniques illustrated in the book are designed to
disorganize rigid patterns of behavior directly in session. The exposure of covert behaviors
is considered to be the family's misguided effort to stay in tact by submerging real feelings.
There is a decisive here-and-now quality to symbolic-experiential interventions used in The
Family Crucible, with a focus upon creating and then addressing en vivo emotional
dynamics in therapy session.

Napier and Whitaker insisted that the entire Brice family be present in therapy. Indeed,
Whitaker's symbolic-experiential treatment model considered it crucial to begin the
treatment process with the entire family (Napier and Whitaker, 1978). Whitaker (1981) has
emphasized that "Our demand to have the whole family in is the beginning of our 'battle for
structure.' It begins with the first phone call" (p. 204). He asserts that it is ". . . difficult to do
process-focused family therapy without the children" and the ". . . experiential quality of
family therapy requires the children's presence" (p. 205). In the book, Napier and Whitaker
(1978) frequently attempt change through playing and teasing, especially with Laura, Don,
and Claudia. Members from David and Carolyn's families of origin are invited to session.
Whitaker (1981) states that in arranging for four generations to come to interviews as
consultants that he is ". . . helping to evolve a large system anxiety" (p. 204). Experience is
privileged over cognitive engagement throughout the treatment with the Brice family, as it is
conceptualized that experience trumps cognitive growth in this theory.

Napier and Whitaker (1978) describe their co-therapy as symbolic of a professional


marriage. Early treatment of the Brice family involved the co-therapists making decisions.
Symbolically, they viewed the family as a baby taking its first steps. As such, the family
required structure, so it follows that the therapists made unilateral decisions. Once Napier
and Whitaker had won the battle for control, the therapists, like parents raising children,
soften considerably. In the middle phase of the Brice family's treatment, decisions about
treatment were made more collaboratively. Again, the model for this process is increasing
differentiation of the family. As therapy proceeded, the therapists took increasingly smaller
roles, watching like proud parents as the Brice family became more integrated into
changing themselves independent of the therapists. Whitaker (1981) clarifies that the
therapy process ". . . begins with infancy and goes to late adolescence, where the initiative
is with the kids, who then bear responsibility for their own living" (p. 107).

Throughout the book, it is implicitly and explicitly emphasized that the self-development of
the therapists is the most important variable in the success of therapy. Napier and Whitaker
(1978) acted as coaches or surrogate grandparents to the Brice family as therapy
progressed. They were active and considered themselves to be the forces for change.
Rather than a blank screen, they acted as allies of the family system. Especially in the
beginning, Napier and Whitaker were directive. They used silence, confrontation and other
anxiety-building techniques to unbalance the system. They acted as catalysts, who picked
up on the unspoken and discovered the undercurrents represented by the family's symbolic
communication patterns. The co-therapists privileged their subjective impressions.

More than anything else, Napier and Whitaker (1978) had the courage to be themselves.
They knew how to meet the absurdities of life and how to bring out people's primary
impulses. They believed strongly in the healing power of the human being, and, even more,
of the family. They insisted that the family be in contact with its own craziness, play, and
honor the spontaneous through their own modeling and directing.

The reader could observe how this symbolic-experiential therapy team moved through
several stages. In the early part of treatment, the co-therapists battle for structure and they
are all-powerful. In the mid-phase, the parental team functioned as stress activators, growth
expanders, and creativity stimulators. Late in treatment, the co-therapists sat back and
watched, respecting the independent functioning of the family. Whitaker (1981) holds that
the "The sequence of joining and distancing is important. It is a lot like being with children.
A father can get furious with his kids one minute, then be loving the next. We take the same
stance with families" (p. 205). Thus, the role of the co-therapists was dynamic over the
course of treatment with the Brice family.

Whether as a training therapist or a lay reader, it is inspirational to study the therapy offered
by Napier and Whitaker (1978) in The Family Crucible. Self-disclosure, creative play,
teaching stories, spontaneous interpersonal messages, the use of metaphor, and the
sharing of parts of the therapists' lives that reflect a working through in their own living are
used generously. Process techniques intended to activate confusion around Claudia, the
identified patient, unbalance the system, and open up authentic dialogue between marital
partners and between the generations of extended families are used. It is emphasized,
however, that it is not technique, but personal involvement that enabled Whitaker and
Napier (1978) to do their best. It is continually illustrated how symbolic (emotional)
experiences are fundamentally formative in the treatment of families, illustrated poignantly
with the Brice family. Therefore, such experience should be created in session. To expose
the covert world beneath the surface world is the most curative factor for the Brice family, is
it is for all families. By getting inside the Brice family's unique language and symbolic
system, the therapists were able to move the family's awareness from the content level to
the symbolic level.

In THE FAMILY CRUCIBLE, Napier (1978) describes the curative process of Whitaker's
family therapy from the perspective of the co-therapist. The courage to embrace life's
absurdities involves the courage to be oneself, to the point of even sharing your free
associations and thoughts with families. Daring to participate in the lives of the families, or
even inviting them to share in your own life in order to get them in contact with submerged
associations, helps families to get to the primary process level. In fact, the book underlines
that the force of the therapist is central to treatment, so that the family's encounter with the
therapists is the primary curative agent. The goal of psychotherapy with the Brice family, as
with all families, is to provide therapeutic experiences, and questions should be fired off in
ways to unbalance the family. When Whitaker asks Carolyn, "When did you divorce your
husband and marry the children?" he acts as an agent of change. He does not care
whether the client likes him. And it is here that one realizes that the success of the
psychotherapy depends on the emotional maturity of the therapist. The person of the
therapist is at the heart of what good psychotherapy is all about. Since Whitaker states that
therapy for the therapist is crucial, experiential training is essential for the therapist who
would provide his/her clients with experiential treatment. In conclusion, this highly readable,
inspirational, and useful book deserves a central place on every therapist's bookshelf.