I spent this weekend in Wakefield, Rhode Island, co-teaching a workshop with my friend Peter Blum, a hypnotherapist from Woodstock, NY. Peter and I have co-taught previously in Woodstock, and once in Malibu, California, and even once at the annual meeting of the National Guild of Hypnotists in Massachusetts. We were at the largest non-residential yoga center in the Northeast, All That Matters. We had the pleasure of staying with Joan and David Dwyer (who started All That Matters) in their lovely three story house, nestled deeply in the Rhode Island woods. They have five children, one of whom we met, Greg, who was home for the weekend.
Peter and I combine his Ericksonian approach with my narrative foundation to produce a hypnosis of changing stories to change lives. I had the opportunity to demonstrate a narrative interview with a man who didn't believe in stories, only in the truth. My challenge was to show him (and the participants in the workshop) how a narrative approach could be relevant even to him. Our new friend whom we'll call Mark, had a large story of people who did him wrong, from doctors who failed to diagnose his rheumatoid arthritis to investigators who failed to investigate his wife's murder which had happened twelve years earlier. Mark was a challenge because he wanted to tell all the details of the conspiracy that led to his wife's murder and the cover up of that murder.
"Let's get "just the facts'," I said to Mark. I decided to focus on his son with whom he was currently estranged. "Let's focus on what your son would see as the facts." Mark agreed with that. Through great effort at stopping Mark every time he wandered into his conspiracy story, I was finally able to arrive at his view of his son's view of the facts. Mark agreed that his son would have said that he was born in Rhode Island, an only child. His father had been ill and unable to work for as long as he could remember. His father suffered from a mystery illness which no doctor had diagnosed that included migratory joint pain. Tests had been run and never showed anything. His mother supported the family, working as an investigator for the Rhode Island State Police. Finally when Mark's son left for college, a rheumatoid arthritis titer was positive and a rheumatologist finally diagnosed his father with that condition, started him on the appropriate medication, and his father improved dramatically. Things were looking up until his mother died in a car accident on an isolated highway at 4 in the morning near the time of his graduation from college. For the first year, he did his best to comfort his father who was distraught, but he tired of his father's unfolding conspiracy theories about how the accident being a murder covered up by politicians. Mark's son proceeded to find a good job, get engaged, get married, have a child, get divorced when his wife found someone else, find a new relationship, get remarried, and have two more children. His youngest was 3 months old at the time of my interview of Mark. That had kept him busy and removed from his father's struggles to expose government corruption.
Now I was ready for Mark's story, which involved incompetent doctors who failed to diagnose his obvious problem for over twenty years followed by corrupt lawyers, police, and politicians who covered up his wife's death because she was investigating them. Mark had spent the past twelve years trying to find someone to declare his wife's death a murder and to expose the government corruption she had been investigating. The story was convoluted and difficult to understand, and in so many ways, never-ending. Mark was angry with his son for not believing the conspiracies (the truth, as he said) and for not picking up the torch to expose corruption. I had found a potential place for intervention. "Do you see how there could be two stories here, both of which use the same facts?" I asked. "The facts are that you were sick for a long time, finally someone made a diagnosis and treated you in a way that helped you, and then your wife tragically died. In your story, a conspiracy murdered her. Your son, on the other hand, accepts the official story, that she died in a car accident.
Of course, Mark quickly interjected, "The truth was that she was murdered."
"Of course," I answered, "but that story doesn't work for your son who's at a different stage of life than you and is preoccupied with relationships and having children and getting divorced and finding new love and getting remarried and having more children. His concerns are more immediate and different from yours,"
"He just doesn't want to see the truth," Mark said.
"That may be," I asked, "but are you interested in being close to your son?"
"Yes," he said, but not if I can't speak my mind. That reminded me of a movie which I described to Mark. In this movie, which several people in the workshop had seen, a man invents the variable speed windshield wiper and takes it to a big car manufacturer who steals his idea and pays him nothing. He spends the next 15 or more years of his life fighting for justice, even learning how to function as his own attorney, when he runs out of funds to pay legal fees. Eventually he wins his lawsuit but at the cost of his marriage and his relationships with his children and all of his money. Mark became really animated at hearing about this man. "That's great," he said. "He finally found justice."
"But at what cost?" I countered.
"The cost doesn't matter," Mark said. "Justice is worth it."
"That's where you and your son disagree," I said. "The two of you have different stories about what justice is worth." Mark then argued that his story was the correct one. "If you want a better relationship with your son," I said, "you might have to respect his story as valid for him even though you wouldn't choose it. My reaction to that movie was the same as your son's might have been. Justice wasn't worth the price the man paid,"
"That's just wrong," Mark said. "We all have to fight for justice."
"And that's where we disagree," I said. "So, if I was going to work with you, I probably couldn't help you find justice, because that's not my specialty. I know lots of situations in which injustices occur. I'm aware that governments are often corrupt and that bad things happen to good people. Just yesterday I saw a documentary about three men convicted of a murder in 1993 on flimsy circumstantial evidence who were finally exonerated with DNA. For every case that ends well, there are probably five that don't. I could help you find a way to respect your son's story and act around him in such a way that you get to see your grandchildren more often."
Mark's other complaint was that people didn't want to be around him. They got tired of hearing his story and avoided him. So I added, "I could also help you learn better storytelling skills so you know when to tell the really short version of your story, like, I was sick for a long time and then my wife, and to hold the long version for those less common situations when your with people who actually want to hear about conspiracies and corruptions." That approach didn't really appeal to him either, but the demonstration was concluded. The moral of the story is that we can't help everyone, and we can be clear about what we can do and what we can't do. I asked Mark to agree not to talk about conspiracies or corruption for the rest of the day and then talked about my approach to people who have too big a story, which is to encourage them to write their book as therapeutic activity. I have two clients who are doing that to good results. Another client got amazing benefit out of writing a "zine" about her life. (Zines are short novellas written almost like comic books.)
We can also sometimes enter into the story and work from within the story. I told a story about a young woman whom Barbara, my co-therapist, see. This young woman believes that aliens are broadcasting thoughts into her mind and trying to control it. Many had tried to dissuade her from that conviction to no avail. We enthusiastically entered into the story to help her to find ways to protect herself from the aliens. This approach is working because we are strengthening characters within her mind that can protect her from the aliens. We suggested that dogs are impervious to alien invasion because they lack a pre-frontal cortex. Therefore, the aliens can't control them and she could draw strength and comfort from her dog, which she is doing. We began studying movies with her, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and collected strategies that have been used in the past to protect minds from alien takeover. In the midst of this, our client has started exercising, eats better, has made new friends, and is doing things to get healthier. We were able to form a coalition with her. The key was her willingness to work with us.