Dear Michael

Michael White taught us how to retell our life stories

Magazine Issue
July/August 2008
Dear Michael

You’re the one who trained me to write letters to clients to underline what you called their “know-how’s”—their usually taken-for-granted ability to survive all manner of abuse, ridicule, and trauma, and display remarkable qualities of heroism and capability. Since 1990, I’ve probably written thousands of ­post-session letters to people, celebrating their unnoticed strengths and overlooked accomplishments. So I’ve had lots of practice at trying to say things that usually remain unsaid. But writing this—now that you’re gone from us with such shocking suddenness—is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken.

When I received the phone call saying that you’d had a heart attack in San Diego and died a few days later, I was at first almost breathless with surprise and grief, like so many others who knew you, whose lives had been changed by you and your work. It was April 5, 2008, and you were 59 years old.

As serendipity would have it, when I got the news that you’d died, I’d just finished giving a narrative therapy workshop in Dublin, Ireland, and was having a pint of Guinness with our good pal Ian Law. After hearing the sad news, the two of us recounted our first meetings with you and remembered how your wild and brilliant therapeutic skills inspired so many of us to remain in the field. Later on, our colleague Richard Boyle sang the beautiful Irish song “Carrickfergus” and dedicated it to you. We cried and ordered a few more pints of Guinness in your honor.

Over the next few days, I received hundreds of e-mails about your death. Thousands of people from around the world were in mourning and planning memorials for you in cities like Moscow, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Gothenburg, São Paulo, Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver.

I was told you were in great form before you died, and that, as usual, the first day of your San Diego narrative therapy workshop had met with overwhelming participant enthusiasm and wonder. I believe the key to your success on the workshop circuit was your uncanny ability to connect fully with everyone in the room. For all the hoopla that surrounded your appearances, you never delivered a dog-and-pony show. There was nothing fake or even particularly showy about your painstaking work, your down-to-earth honesty.

When you entered the scene, most therapists (and certainly psychodynamic ones) still sought out the underlying pathology of a client or family—as if this “illness,” this “problem,” were the most important truth about a person. But you always sought out the untapped inner possibilities, the alternative histories and “unique outcomes” in people’s lives, and then used these “counterplots” that went against the presumed diagnostic categories to countermand the dominant story of sickness and abnormality. You always looked for the tiny, hidden spark of resistance trapped in a socially sanctioned psychiatric diagnosis—”anorexia nervosa,” “schizophrenia,” “manic depression,” “conduct disorder”—that tended to consume all other claims to identity.

“There’s always a history of struggle and protest—always,” you said. And you made it your goal to liberate those pockets of noncooperation within the impoverished story of pathology; to help people find the kernels of personal courage, self-respect, and emotional vitality that would help them create a different story about themselves.

Your practice of therapy was the first to focus on the insidious and pervasive role that social ideology and dominant belief systems about gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture play in creating and defining psychopathology. How could people not understand, you wondered, that anorexia must be seen in terms of widespread social and cultural ideas and practices: the tyranny of thinness and constant requirement for self-surveillance, the gender training that inculcates hatred of one’s own body and impossible self-demands for perfection. Why would we think that the “hallucinations” of schizophrenia—the horrible voices telling people they’re terrible, evil, worthless—didn’t reflect the real cultural stereotypes that such people are exposed to all the time. “Although it seems relatively easy for us to entertain the idea that much of what we think and believe, and much of what we do, is informed by culture,” you once said, “for some reason, it seems rather more difficult for us to entertain the idea that psychotic phenomena are similarly informed.”

Your study and understanding of the “rules and practices” that made up “problem lifestyles” is what fueled your highly original therapeutic questions, like “What rules of anorexia did you have to break in order to come to the session today?” “Would you see this as a step towards or away from anorexia”? “If you were to continue to take steps in this direction, do think you’ll be stepping more towards perfection or away?” “Do you have a sense that other girls your age get recruited into anorexia through the back door of perfection?”

Your questions subtly helped people not only step aside from the problem, but begin to link it to a social and cultural context that was destructive to them personally. By “communalizing” problems in this way for those with whom you worked, even people considered “hopeless” by many other professionals would realize that there was something healthy and strong within them that could resist this social indoctrination and begin to live differently.

Unfortunately, many therapists mistook your therapeutic conversations as merely attending to the “positive in people,” but it wasn’t so simple. Your approach was different from solution-focused therapy, although many aligned you with it, and it definitely wasn’t CBT! Therapies like these are informed by humanistic accounts of behavior, and don’t seem at all concerned with the impact that people’s places in the social order have on “their” problems. What set you most apart was the fact that your therapeutic practice wasn’t informed by psychological theory.

I’m fond of telling beginning therapists that the furthest you went in your university career was a B.S.W, a fact that seems to both bewilder and inspire them. I’m often asked to make sense of your improbable rise from being an incredibly shy, working-class social worker living in the middle of Australia, who’d much rather be surfing large waves, flying planes, and cycling up tall mountains, to a kind of celebrity in the international world of therapy. Part of it was that you were the first to translate postmodern ideas drawn from the anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Barbara Myerhoff, philosopher–historian Michel Foucault, and others into concrete therapeutic practices.

The first talk of yours I witnessed took place at Karl Tomm’s clinic in Calgary, Canada, on October 7–8, 1986. It was your second presentation in North America. At the time, I was completely broke and doing my M.S.W., but somehow I scratched together the cash and plane fare to see you. I wanted to go mainly because Karl had such a terrific nose for great new ideas and therapists, like the Milan Team, and because those were the halcyon days when the field seemed full of exciting intellectual risk and therapeutic innovation.

That morning, you stood up there in front of the crowd in this big lecture hall, looking so nervous and shy, and your microphone didn’t work at first. You stammered and repeated yourself, and the thick Australian accent didn’t help the situation either. You might have seemed nervous and timid during your presentation that day, but your message was a lion’s roar. You said that the privileged of the world, including the family therapy field, often denied that power existed, but that the poor and disenfranchised knew differently. Whatever we might have been taught, you told us, there was no such thing as therapeutic neutrality. Nor were problems something that could be “privatized” within people’s minds and bodies. By the end of the day, you’d completely rearranged the theoretical and practice boundaries of family therapy.

At the first morning break, I was standing by myself, doing my best wallflower imitation. You approached me and said, “Hi, I’m Michael White.” Right off the bat I was struck by the fact that you approached me—I was the youngest person in attendance and probably the only person in the room standing by himself. We immediately got into a heady conversation about “dormative principles,” logical types, and all things Gregory Bateson. I liked you straightaway.

I recall watching you do therapy later that night with a young boy of 10 who was struggling with soiling problems. There were eight of us seated behind the one-way mirror; Karl, you, and the family were in the therapy room. Right from the start, you blew me away with your unconventional approach of separating the person from the problem. In this case, I was astonished by the attention you gave to the extraordinary life of poo—that unpleasant smelly subject ruining this young boy’s life. You talked in a way I’d never heard before, about avalanches of poo, and victories over poo, and sneaky poo, and where to place that poo. I must admit, I thought you were quite mad, but I couldn’t help being drawn to the silly, brilliant way you managed to find a more affective approach to the problem, while always showing the utmost respect and care for the child.

It’s unusual to fall in love with a set of ideas, but by the time I got back home to Vancouver, I couldn’t get the sneaky poo session or your ideas out of my head. Somehow, your insights stuck to me, and I set out on the arduous task of reading everything you’d written and every author you’d listed in your reference section. The ideas resonated and kept on resonating—to this day.

It wasn’t until Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, by you and David Epston, appeared in 1990 that your ideas began to get traction on the other side of the planet from Australia and New Zealand. The book was thick with poststructural theory, and people had difficulty understanding the ideas. Even so, what you were saying caught on. In 1994, through published descriptions of your methods in the Networker, your Dulwich Centre writings, continuing workshop presentations, and coverage in Newsweek, your influence in the field rose to another level, and therapists around the world began to listen more closely to your ideas.

You were always an unlikely therapy celebrity. I remember watching you enter an evening reception filled with 500 therapists, at an international narrative therapy conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2004. I knew that each and every person in the crowd wanted to spend time with you. But instead of talking with the members of your large professional following, you made a beeline for my daughters Hannah and Tessa, who were 8 years old at the time. The three of you laughed and giggled and joked all night long. I understood from the beginning of our friendship that you were usually much more comfortable and self-assured in the company of children. You trusted them completely.

Dammit, Michael, I’ve lost such a dear friend in you, and the world has lost a gorgeous theoretical thinker and therapist. Thanks so much for the generosity of your ideas and love. You’ll be missed, and I’m so proud to have known you. I guess it’s now up to each and every one of us within narrative therapy circles and beyond to carry your ideas forward. My presumption is that’s the way you’d want it.

I never imagined writing this letter to you. Thanks again, Mikey, and happy trails.



Stephen Madigan

Stephen Madigan, MSW, PhD, opened the first Narrative Therapy training clinic in the Northern Hemisphere. He is the author of Chitter-Chatter: The Eight Conversational Habits of Highly Effective Problems.